Follow the Stars (by Claire)

Summary:  Having a tag-a-long little brother is both a strain and joy.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,083


 Adam walked slowly back to the house, wishing the corral wasn’t quite so far away. Each step he took was pure and unalloyed agony, every muscle and bone in his body screamed in protest, while a dull headache pounded relentlessly behind his temples. It had been a long day, a very long day indeed and the chattering child at his side did not make things any easier.

“Does it hurt?” Joe asked curiously.

“Hurt? Of course it hurts!” Adam replied tersely. “I rode two broncs this afternoon and came off each one a half-dozen times. I’ll say it hurts!”

Joe gave him a look of complete and utter disgust. “Not you – the horses! Does it hurt the horses when you break them? They don’t look as if they’re enjoying too much, do they?” He pondered this for a moment and then smiled broadly. “Except when they buck you off, of course. They look quite pleased then, don’t they?”

It had been a trying afternoon and Adam was really in no mood to discuss this any further. “I don’t know, Joe. And I don’t really care. All I want to do right now is have a long, hot bath.” He opened the door to the wash-house and limped inside. Joe followed happily in his wake.

“What are you doing?” Adam demanded, unbuttoning his sticky shirt and noticing that Joe was sitting comfortably in an old wooden chair, watching him keenly.

“Nothing!” Joe protested, then leaned back and folded his arms, with every appearance of settling in for a cozy chat.

“Then go and do it somewhere else,” his brother advised.

“You often walk in when I’m having a bath,” Joe said, in a hurt tone of voice. “When you’re getting ready to go out with a girl.” He batted his long eyelashes winningly, but his brother was too busy struggling to pull off his boots to notice. “And then we have a talk. It’s nice.”

Adam finally succeeded in freeing his hot, sweaty feet from his boot, wincing as his back sent out a warning twinge. “That is completely different. Now scoot!”

Joe stubbornly remained seated. “I don’t see why it’s different.”

“Because I am a grown man and you are a little boy.” Adam pointed meaningfully. “And that is the door. Be sure to close it behind you.”

Heaving a long-suffering sigh, Joe stood up slowly and wandered over to the door, dragging his feet in a long-suffering manner. “You know, if you relaxed a bit and let your body move with the horse, you’d get on an awful lot better with those broncs,” he advised sagely, quickly pulling the door closed behind him. He grinned happily as Adam’s boot made contact with the wood and sauntered into the house, whistling a jaunty tune.

Finally alone, Adam sank into the tub with a groan of relief, savoring the peace and quiet. Joe has to be the most aggravating child I’ve ever come across! he thought.  Everywhere I go, there he is, right behind me, trotting along like a little puppy at my heels! It’s got to the stage where I can’t even have a bath in peace and I’m almost scared to go to the outhouse! Is just a few moments alone, once a week, too much to ask?

The warm water was soothing and relaxing, easing away some of his ache and pains. Part of Adam enjoyed the flattering hero-worship his little brother displayed, while the rest of his being longed for a brief respite from the child’s incessant chatter. He’s probably right about my riding and the horse breaking, though, he acknowledged ruefully, as he massaged his aching muscles.

It was galling to be given advice by a ten year-old, but from the moment he had returned home, Adam realized that Joe seemed to have a natural affinity with horses and rode far better than the eldest Cartwright son could ever dream of doing. The child rode with a natural grace and fluidity that spoke eloquently of his skill and ease with horses. Of course, Joe had ridden since he was a toddler, while Adam was almost eleven before Ben could afford anything more than the sturdy horses, which had pulled their wagon westwards. Their broad beams were far too wide for a young boy to straddle and while Adam had helped to tend to their need, he was not able to learn to ride.

By the time the family settled on the Ponderosa and were finally able to afford saddle horses, Adam he had lost the reckless, fearless approach of youth and was only too aware of how painful it would be if he came out of the saddle. Still, he had persevered and by the time he left for college, Adam was a solid, competent rider. But sometimes he felt a deep and resentful envy towards his younger brother’s expertise.

On his return home after four years back east, Adam had a painful re-acquaintance with several muscle groups he had almost forgotten he possessed. Still, he had persevered and now, eight months later, he felt confident enough to start helping with the horse breaking. Although, at first Adam was worried he would be the one who would be broken, rather than the horse! Matters were not made any easier by the fact that the Ponderosa’s resident horse-expert always seemed to be perched on the corral railings, calling out advice and encouragement.

“You’ve got him Adam!” Joe’s voice called out vividly in his mind. “Oh! Hard luck! Hold on tighter with your legs next time!”

Next time! Adam thought grimly, rubbing the soap frantically between his palms and producing a fine lather. Next time that child will be doing his chores, as far away from me as possible!

It was galling enough to have the ranch hands witness his trials, but to have Joe analyzing each fall and offering the benefit of his wisdom was more than Adam could bear. Especially as he knew the child was right…

When he had returned to the Ponderosa, Adam was distressed to discover his youngest brother had few memories of him and treated him with dispassionate disinterest. It had taken a long time and considerable effort to rebuild the relationship, but he had persevered until Joe finally responded with love. The only problem was that he now followed Adam around like a faithful shadow.

Oh, for just a little peace! Adam thought and then felt guilty.

Joe clearly adored him, that was plain for anyone to see and Adam loved his brother fiercely in return – he did not meant to push the child away. But there was such a large gulf between ten and twenty-three and Joe’s constant presence was enough to try the patience of a saint! Adam heaved a long sigh and ducked down into the water.

*****

“When will I be grown up?” Joe asked at dinner that evening.

“Not for a few years yet, son. You’ve got some growing to do first,” Ben replied automatically. He was an old hand at answering Joe’s never-ending questions.

Joe considered this for a moment. “How much growing? I mean, Hoss is bigger than Adam. Does that mean I’ll be bigger than Hoss?” The idea clearly pleased him.

“No, I don’t think so. Hoss has always been tall for his age.”

“Oh.” Joe looked slightly crestfallen, having rather liked the idea of being the tallest in the family. “Will I get a furry chest?” He unbuttoned his shirt and peered curiously at his thin chest, thrusting it forward expectantly, almost as if he might just discover hairs sprouting away already.

“Well, that depends. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Ben advised. Good heavens, the boy was asking some awkward questions! And at such a young age! Adam had been considerably older when he exhibited the same curiosity, as had Hoss.

“Now, button your shirt up and eat your dinner,” he said, in a firm voice that did not disclose his inner laughter. The thought of Little Joe with a “furry” chest! Why, it was beyond contemplation. Ben chewed solemnly on a mouthful of roast chicken and composed his features.

Joe did as he was asked. “I don’t really want a furry chest,” he announced happily, heaping his fork with mashed potatoes. “Though I suppose it keeps you nice and warm in winter. And I wouldn’t have to wear an undershirt, would I? Not with all that fur to keep me cozy.”

“Quite,” Ben said, and dabbed his mouth with his napkin to hide a broad smile. It seemed expedient to change the subject before either Adam or Hoss exploded with laughter at their little brother’s innocent remarks.

“Well, who wants to come on a trip to check the fence lines?” he asked, knowing exactly what reaction this would get, for his boys always leapt at the chance to spend a few days alone with their father and a relaxed ride around the vast Ponderosa, camping out underneath the stars was an enticing prospect and a welcome change. A chorus of eager cries echoed around the table, with Adam and Hoss being quick to prove how much help they could be for their father.

Joe slumped back in his chair, aware that as the youngest of the family he would be judged to be more of a hindrance than a help.

“I ain’t never been nowhere,” he muttered in mournful tones.

“Oh, you’ve been as far as Sacramento, but you were too young to remember it,” Ben said comfortingly.

“We remember that trip though, don’t we Hoss?” Adam said smoothly, a smile twitching irresistibly at his lips.

Hoss nodded, smiling broadly. “Couldn’t ever forget it.”

“Boys!” Ben’s voice rang out in warning, but it was too late: Joe’s natural curiosity was aroused.

“What happened?” he asked, leaning forward eagerly, envisaging thrilling tales of Indian attacks, or hold-ups by masked men.

Adam settled back comfortably in his chair and sipped his coffee reflectively. “Well now, let me see if I can remember things correctly. You were just a tiny little boy, not even two years old, when one day Pa decided we should all take a little vacation to Sacramento. He had business to do and your Mama wanted to do some shopping.”

“You were really excited about it,” Hoss continued. “You’d never been on a stage before and you were all fired up. Well, we went into town and stood waiting at the depot, but when the stage pulled up, it was real full. Of course, you were such a little ‘un, you didn’t realize that lots of people were getting off in Virginia City.”

Starting to laugh at the memories, Adam took up the tale again. “So Hoss and I told you that there wasn’t any room inside for you, so we’d just pop you on the roof with all the bags and you would go to all the way to Sacramento that way! How you howled!” He let out a hearty roar of laugher, his shoulders shaking with mirth as he relived the moment, not noticing the disconsolate expression on Joe’s face.

“Cried your eyes out!” Hoss amplified, wiping his eyes and getting carried away with the story as well. “And then, when your Mama picked you up, why – you screamed in terror, thinking she was going to put you on the stage roof! Wet your diaper too, iffen I remember right!”

“I don’t think that’s funny,” Joe mumbled, feeling ridiculed. It often seemed that there were so many memories that Adam and Hoss shared, of times that he could not recall and Joe loved to hear their stories, especially when they involved his Mama. But instead of producing happy thoughts, this revelation had merely served to remind him of how little and silly they thought he was. It seemed as if no matter how much he grew, Joe would never catch up with his brothers. He would always be left behind. His heart thudding miserably and his eyes pricking with tears, Joe stumbled to his feet and dashed outside.

“Thank you very much!” Ben balled up his napkin and flung it onto the table. “I thought this trip would be something we could do together, as a family. However, you have successfully managed to turn what was supposed to be happy news into a humiliating experience for your brother.”

He fixed his elder sons with a steely glare. “Can’t you see how Joseph looks up to you both? How he wants to spend time with you? Is a little consideration and compassion too much to ask?”

Ben watched his sons squirm uncomfortably in their seats and then continued. “But you just have to constantly remind him that he is much younger than you are, don’t you? And in doing so, you are erecting barriers and deliberately excluding him from your lives. I am very disappointed in you both.” He walked out in search of his youngest child, leaving his two elder sons exchanging looks of dismay.

“Guess we’ve been a bit hard on the kid,” Hoss said, after a long pause. He hated to think he might have upset Joe, no matter how unwittingly.

Adam nodded in agreement. “I know. But it just gets a bit much some times, having Joe tagging along all the time. I mean, there are so many things he’s too young to do properly yet. Yet, everywhere I go, I turn around, and Joe’s right there. He even followed me into the wash-house today.”

Guilt was seeping into every pore of Hoss’ body and he hated to think of how miserable Joe was. “Come on, Adam – give him a chance. He just wants to be with us and I think that’s kind of cute.”

A loud snort greeted this. “So you’re happy to give up an evening in town to play checkers with your baby brother, are you?”

“I didn’t mean that, and you know it!” Hoss protested. He was a very tolerant person, but even he had his limits. “Just like we didn’t mean to hurt Joe, but we did, didn’t we? So now, I reckon we should try to make it up to him and include him in a few things. He got that new knife at Christmas and he’s been begging me to show him how to whittle, so I guess I’ll make the time to teach him.”

Adam could see the sense in this. He didn’t want to hurt Joe – that was the farthest thing on his mind – but he did long for a little peace. “And I’ll let him watch me break those horses.” Adam just hoped Joe would appreciate the sacrifice he was making.

“I suppose that trip with Pa is out of the question?” Hoss asked sadly.

Adam blinked hard in disbelief. “What do you think?” he said sarcastically.

Heaving a sigh, Hoss pulled over Joe’s plate and began to polish off the remains his brother’s meal. “Aint no sense in me being hungry and miserable,” he announced defensively.

*****

Ben was proud of the efforts his sons made over the next few days, striving to include Joe in as many things as possible. Still, he knew there were limits and it was unfair to expect Adam and Hoss to be totally selfless. Their needs also had to be considered. It was at times like these that juggling work schedules on the Ponderosa, ensuring that contracts were met on time and all the animals were tended to seemed to be remarkably simple, when compared to the many pitfalls that lay before a parent. The age gap between his eldest and youngest sons seemed to stretch out into infinity and Ben wondered if they would ever reach a common understanding and develop mutual respect.

“We’re well ahead on our work schedules, so why don’t you boys take today off and relax?” he suggested at breakfast, smiling at Hoss and Adam who sat opposite him. “Spend some time together, just the two of you,” he added, making his meaning clear to everyone but Joe.

“We could go fishing!” the boy piped up happily, impervious of the implications.

“Naw, I reckon we’ll just ride up to the north woods,” Hoss said slowly, carefully picking a spot that was well beyond Joe’s normal bounds. “There’s some hawks up there I’ve been keeping an eye on and I’ve a fancy to see how they’re doing.”

“And I’ve got a new book I’ll read while Hoss is communing with nature,” Adam contributed, knowing that both activities would represent utter boredom to the youngest Cartwright.

Joe wrinkled his nose in displeasure.

“Joseph – go and ask Hop Sing if he can make some sandwiches, will you?” When Joe was safely in the kitchen, Ben smiled proudly. “You boys enjoy yourselves – without a certain third party in attendance! But remember – Joe might be struggling to grow up, but he is still just a little boy. A little boy who needs to feel loved, and valued, and wanted. Underneath all that bounce and verve, he’s easily hurt. All I ask is that you include him when you can.”

His sons nodded in agreement and applied themselves wholeheartedly to demolishing the substantial breakfast Hop Sing always provided.

Joe seemed happy enough; waving goodbye to his brothers, but the house seemed awfully empty once they were gone. Pa was busy doing the account books, while Hop Sing was busy with housework and had no patience with a small boy getting underneath his feet. Banished to the front porch, Joe sat staring into the blue sky, concentrating hard.

Peeking out of the study window, Ben was bemused by the child’s actions. He watched for a few moments, but his son never moved, seemingly absorbed by the summer sky.

“Joe? Are you alright?”

The boy jumped and almost toppled off the porch. “I’m fine,” he said, in a low voice.

“Are you at a loose end?”

Joe gave a half-hearted smile. “Guess so, Pa.” His head drooped down again, with a woebegone air.

“You looked pretty busy to me.” Ben walked out onto the porch, sat down beside Joe and looked up at the sky. “What were you doing?”

“You’ll think I’m being silly.” Joe kept his head down and used the tip of his boot to draw a circle in the dirt.

Ben put his arm around Joe and drew the boy close. “No, I would never think that. Never.”

Reassured, Joe snuggled closer. “You see that little cloud over there, the one shaped like a bear? Well, I was just looking at it and thinking how funny it was, and it started to move! Do you think it was me that made it do that?” He looked up at Ben, his eyes full of wonder.

“Maybe it was, son, maybe. You never can tell.” How easy it was to forget the innocent joys of childhood, the awe and wonder in everything around you, the limitless possibilities that stretched before a young boy. He looked up at the sky and smiled as the bear-cloud moved a little further westwards. “Seems like a perfect day for fishing to me. Only problem is, I hate to fish alone. You wouldn’t fancy keeping your old Pa company, would you?”

He had not intended to take time off, for there was a pile of paperwork awaiting his attention. But, looking out of his study window, Ben had been struck by the lonely hunch of Joe’s small shoulders and realized how precious time with his sons was. The paperwork could wait; it would still be there tomorrow. But this particular opportunity to spend time with Joe had to be seized and treasured. His little boy was growing up, all too soon he would be a man and the happy, golden days of childhood would be in the past. Time and time again, Ben had discovered that spending time with his young sons helped to lighten his own heart, to catapult him back to the sweet memory of his own youth, when life was so much less complicated. Such moments had to be seized and cherished. All too soon they would vanish, as surely as the sun burnt away clouds on a summer’s day, leaving only faint memories.

The joyous smile on Joe’s face was all the reward he could have asked for. The boy bounced up eagerly and grabbed hold of his father’s hand, chatting animatedly as they walked across to the barn, trotting to keep up with his father’s long stride. The unselfconscious gesture touched Ben greatly, for he knew that, all too soon, Joe would declare himself too old for such things and the transitory nature of the contact made it all the more precious.

They rode down to the lake together, Buck plodding slowly along, as Ben kept pace with the shorter gait of Joe’s pony. All around them, spring was in evidence, with tender shoots thrusting through the rich brown earth. The air was heavy with the spicy scent of wild garlic, the musky scent of damp soil and cleansing overtones of pine, while the sun fell in down in bright bars, filtered by the overhanging boughs of the trees. On a day such as this, Ben felt very close to the elemental nature things and his deep attachment to the land renewed itself in harmony with the season.

There were many times when life had seemed interminably long and dreary, each day a dull existence he had to struggle through, fighting just to exist. But when he looked at the grandeur of God all around him and then talked to his young son, sitting at the cusp of youth, with childhood making a last, glorious flourish, Ben though how very short life actually was, and that made the moment all the sweeter, tinged as it was with an inevitable poignancy. The day was fast approaching when he would have to let this last child fly free and soar towards his own star, trusting that he had prepared him well, praying that no harm would befall his precious son.

“We’re nearly there, Pa!” Joe cried, his voice still a high, pure treble. At the sound, a bird chirruped in fear and flew out of the undergrowth just ahead of them. Placid Buck did not react: Adam had once joked that the animal was so sedate he was almost asleep! But Joe’s pony took fright, first shied nervously and then made a sudden bolt.

“Joe!” His heart in his mouth, Ben almost kicked Buck into action after the galloping pony, but relaxed as he saw Joe quickly regain control of the animal, slow it to a walk and then rein in and ride back to his father, talking soothingly to the animal in a quiet voice.

“Nicely done. You kept your head,” Ben praised, and noticed the flush of pleasure, the proud angle of his son’s head, saw how Joe sat up just a little straighter in the saddle. They continued onwards, glimpsing the brilliant waters of Lake Tahoe shimmering enticingly before them.

Tethering the horses to a bush, father and son wandered slowly towards the shore. Suddenly, without warning, Joe halted in his tracks. Putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders, Ben was shocked to feel how violently he was trembling.

“Look!” His arm shaking, Joe pointed towards two familiar figures, reclining on the grassy banks. “It’s Adam and Hoss! They did want to come fishing after all – they just didn’t want me with them.”

All his cocky self-confidence and exuberance vanished in a trice, dissipating as surely as dew evaporates in the morning sun and his voice rang hollow with disappointment. The clear tones carried across the water and, as Ben watched, Adam and Hoss gave a start and then stared in their direction. Even from a distance, their guilt and dismay was evident as they started to run along the shore towards Ben and Joe.

“I don’t want to see them!” Joe declared, his voice choked with misery and unhappy realization, as his hitherto secure and stable world collapsed in ruins. “Tell them to leave me alone. They don’t want me – and I don’t need them! I don’t ever want to see them.” He pulled away from his father’s grasp, unwilling to let the tears fall and yet knowing that he could not hold them back much longer. Joe ran pell-mell back into the woods, even as his brothers rushed forward.

“I am so sorry, boys.” Ben looked anxiously for Joe and spied his small, dignified figure riding in the direction of home. “I had no idea you would be here. It was just that Joe looked so unhappy and alone and I just wanted to cheer him up. A fishing trip seemed like a good idea. I never thought you would be here.”

All the pleasure was gone from the day, shattered into a thousand fragments, blown far away on the four winds. With one accord, they set off towards the Ponderosa, hoping they could restore the harmony and rhythm of their lives and in doing so, rebuild Joe’s confidence and his faith and trust in their love.

Life is fragile. One moment, you hold a delicate creature in the palm of your hand. A sudden movement, an inadvertent inward motion with your fingers and that life is extinguished. The veil between life and death is so fragile, so permeable that at times we can gaze clearly though it to the wonders beyond. But beware, for once breached, it is not always possible to mend the rift. The human soul can bear many disappointments and fight onwards, but it too has its limitations. To reach fruition, it must be gently nurtured and cherished, tended with love and care. The stars that burn so brightly in the night sky also burn with a fierce, cold heat. They are untouchable, inviolate and yet an integral part of our existence.

Something seemed to die within Joe, after that chance encounter. All the years of tender love and patient care from his brothers were obliterated in an instance, and he rode aimlessly through the woods, trying in vain to make sense of things. No matter which way he looked at things, he could come to only one conclusion: Adam and Hoss did not want to spend time with him. They did not want him to be with them. They did not want him. All the joy of the previous week withered into a faint pile of ashes, light and insubstantial, dancing tantalizingly out of his reach. He reached out a hand but could not grasp hold of reality.

“I don’t need them,” Joe muttered fiercely under his breath, and then wondered if he would ever believe it. He could not imagine life without his brothers, yet how could he continue, knowing how they felt about him, knowing he was not wanted?

“Joe? Your brothers didn’t mean to hurt you. In fact, they’re very sorry.” His father’s voice echoed in the space behind the boy. Joe stopped and turned slowly around, with an empty look in his eyes.

“Sure am, shortshanks,” Hoss called.

“We wouldn’t hurt you on purpose, you know that, don’t you Joe?” Adam pleaded.

“Sure. It’s all right – it doesn’t matter. I’m fine.” Joe spoke in a calm, flat monotone. It doesn’t matter, he told himself fiercely. It doesn’t matter. It can’t hurt me if it doesn’t matter.

Behind his back, the three men exchanged concerned looks. They were prepared for tearful recriminations, or a hurt outburst of anger, but not for this calm acceptance. Joe was notorious for his obstinacy, for stubbornly sticking to his beliefs with an unwavering certainty. They knew how to deal with that, but not with this rather frightening and sudden maturity and stoic calm acceptance.

Joe forced himself not to look back, to keep riding towards home. He knew that if he gave way now, he would lose all his precious self-control and fling himself into his father’s arms, sobbing out his misery and loneliness. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care and they can’t hurt me, he repeated and wondered when it would stop hurting so much.

Ben waited until Joe had settled his pony in the barn and trudged back into the house, still valiantly keeping hold of his precarious self-control. The small figure looked poignantly alone and Ben knew he had to act fast.

“Stay out here for a while, will you?” he asked Adam and Hoss. “I need to have a word with Joe, in private.”

They nodded, still shocked by the repercussions of their actions. They knew how to deal with tears and angry protests, but not with this terrible dignity and desperately wounded silence.

Joe sat on the fireplace, fiddling with a piece of kindling. Now that he was home, he realized that he did not what to do next. He looked up and saw his father walking towards him.

“How are you doing, son?”

“I’m fine,” Joe lied. “And it doesn’t matter, anyway.” He spoke quickly, the words tumbling out as he blinked the treacherous tears back.

“Joseph – it matters very much.” Ben’s voice was deep and soothing, lulling Joe’s troubled senses. “If it matters to you – then it matters to me. And it matters to Adam and Hoss as well. We are your family, and families care when one of them is hurting.”

Joe looked at his father, with a defiant tilt to his head. “They don’t care about me! And I don’t care about them either!” He placed his hands flat on the cold stone of the fireplace, gripping the sharp edge tightly, holding on to it so hard that his knuckles showed white through the tanned skin of his hands.

“I don’t think that is true for an instant,” Ben assured him. “Adam and Hoss care very much. They know how much they hurt you, and they are very sorry. And I know how much you love your brothers, Joe. You wouldn’t be so upset if you didn’t love them, would you?”

Joe had released his hold on the hearth and started fiddling with the kindling. At his father’s last words, he started and the flimsy piece of kindling snapped in half and fell to the floor.

“We all make mistakes, don’t we?” Ben sat down in his chair and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Every single one of us makes mistakes, every single day. And that’s natural. We don’t mean to hurt anyone, do we? What matters is that we learn from our mistakes and try not to make then again.”

“I know,” Joe admitted.

Ben leant forward and tilted his son’s face upwards, smiling lovingly into the vivid green eyes. “Joe, you’ve been deeply hurt, and I can understand why. But you must realize this – your brothers did not mean to hurt you. Not for one instant did they wish for this to happen.”

At last the tears began to fall. “But I just wanted to be with them, Pa! And I thought they liked doing things with me! It’s not fair.” He moved closed to his father and buried his head in Ben’s lap, sobbing out his misery.

How could he put things in words the boy would understand? Ben searched his soul desperately, as he stroked Joe’s curls in a soothing motion. “Families are funny things. They are made up of very distinct people, bound together by love. And when you really love someone, you accept them as they are, no matter how different their needs are from your own. You enjoy spending time alone with Adam, don’t you? And time alone with Hoss too? And sometimes, they want to be alone together as well. You can understand that, can’t you? It doesn’t mean they love you any less.”

“I guess,” Joe said reluctantly. “It kind of makes sense, when you put it like that.”

Ben pulled the boy into his lap and held him closely. “Good boy. But don’t ever think that just because Adam and Hoss do some things together, then that means they don’t want to be with you at other times, alright?”

“Alright,” Joe snuffled, sounding much happier. He wiped his shirtsleeve across his eyes and ventured a rather wobbly smile at his father.

Ben reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and held it to Joe’s nose. “Blow!” he instructed. “Now, run and tell your brothers that supper will be ready soon. And then go and wash your hands and face.”

Joe nodded and started to get up, but turned back and gave his father a fierce hug. “I’m glad you’re my Pa,” he whispered and kissed Ben on the cheek.

“And I’m glad you’re my son!” Ben returned the kiss, pulling Joe’s head close to his own. Fatherhood was not easy, but moments like this made all the trials and tribulations, the worry and the sleepless nights worthwhile. The simple love of a child was one of the most precious gifts a man could get. Life was not fair, he knew that only too well, but Ben hoped he could protect Joe from its crueler vagaries for a few years to come until the boy could harness his own star and work towards his own dreams.

*****

Joe sat in a corner of the barn, his tongue poking out between his teeth as he concentrated on the piece of wood he was attempting to fashion into a horse. It had looked so easy when Hoss showed him to whittle, but now… Holding his creation at arms length, Joe studied it critically and shook his head sadly. No, that wasn’t right, not right at all. The poor creature had a lump on its back, making it look more like a camel than a horse.

Closing his fingers around the animal’s neck, Joe attempted to reduce the protuberance. At first, he followed Hoss’ advice and used the knife blade to pare off thin shavings of wood. But this was a slow job and Joe wanted to show his father the horse that evening. Sighing loudly, he adjusted his grip and decided to hack off the lump and then whittle the wood to smoothness afterwards. It was hard work, and Joe grunted slightly with the effort. Finally, he succeeded in severing the lump, but the knife blade continued downwards, slashing a long, deep gash across the palm of his hand and then across the side of his thumb.

Joe looked at the wound in fascination, staring as the white edges of skin peeled apart and a few drops of crimson blood seeped out. There was no pain, absolutely none at all and at first he thought the knife had merely scored his flesh. Then the blood began to flow quickly, accompanied by a steady throb. In seconds, the palm of Joe’s hand was full of blood, glistening in the sunlight, pooling in a thick, viscous mass. Then the pain kicked it: hot, burning and insistent. Holding his arm out in front of him, Joe trotted over to the house.

“Adam? Can you help me?”

“I’m a bit busy at the moment,” Adam called, trying to make sense of a garbled notation Hoss had left in the account book. “Can it wait?”

“Not really,” Joe said, materializing at his elbow and waving his hand under Adam’s nose. He managed to subdue a whimper and looked trustingly up at his brother, certain he would be able to help. A large drop of blood fell onto the ledger.

Adam managed to choke back an exclamation of horror and whipped off his neckerchief to try to staunch the flow of blood. Ignoring Joe’s anguished protests, he pressed the folds of material firmly into the palm of his hand.

“That looks nasty, kid. I think we’re going to have to take a trip into town and get Doc Martin to look at it.” He pushed Joe into the chair, disturbed to see how pale the child was. Could he have lost that much blood in such a short space of time?

“I don’t need the Doc,” Joe protested feebly. “You can fix it, Adam! I know you can!” He tried to smile at his brother, but the world was swimming before his eyes and Joe found it difficult to focus. It was if he was walking down a long tunnel, and the world was receding away from him. In the distance, he could hear Adam’s voice, but the words were too indistinct for Joe to understand what he was saying. The darkness swooped forward suddenly and with a small sigh, Joe closed his eyes and fell forward onto the desk.

“Hop Sing!” Adam gathered Joe into arms and ran towards the kitchen. “Hop Sing! I need you right now!” He was starting to panic now. He placed Joe carefully in a kitchen chair and watched for as Hop Sing began to tend to the wound.

“You get horse ready – buggy too slow. Boy need doctor fast.” Hop Sing packed a large dressing into the wound, hoping this would help to staunch the bleeding and began to wrap bandages around the small hand. “Hurry now!”

Joe began to stir in the chair. “Pa? Where’s my Pa?”

“Hop Sing send man for Mistah Ben. He meet you in town,” Hop Sing soothed. Adam ran back in and bent over the chair.

“How are you doing Joe? Ready for a ride into town?”

“I want my Pa.” Joe’s voice sounded very young and scared.

“Well, he’s not here right now, so you’ll have to make do with me.” Adam tried his best to sound jolly and unconcerned, but his words had a hollow ring to them and sounded unconvincing, even to his own ears. “You know I’ll look after you, don’t you?” That was what big brothers did, after all. They looked after their younger siblings, no matter what.

“Please Adam, I want my Pa,” Joe pleaded sadly, as a tear trickled down his cheek.

“We’ll meet Pa in town, I promise.” Adam swung Joe up into his arms and strode out of the house. He rode towards Virginia City as fast as he dared, Sport’s hooves thundering along the tracks. For once, there were no exclamations of delight from Joe at the speed. He sat quietly in front of his brother, his damaged hand secured in a sling, the dressings already stained with blood.

“Are you alright, Joe?” Adam asked. It was not like his little brother to be so quiet.

“My hand hurts some,” Joe admitted. “And I’m cold.”

I should have thought of that! Adam cursed his mad rush from the house. Still, there was one thing he could do. Unbuttoning his coat, he eased his brother a little closer to him on the saddle and enveloped him in the pale suede material.

“That better?”

Joe nodded. “Thanks, Adam. Will Pa be in town when we get there?”

“Joe, you know he and Hoss were checking the herd over on the southern grazings. It’ll take him a bit longer than us to get into town, won’t it?”

“I guess so.” Joe was quiet for a moment. “I still wish Pa was here, though.”

“I’ll look after you, don’t worry. I’m not going to leave you for a moment, alright?”

“Okay. Thanks Adam.”

Joe was quiet after that, only giving the occasional gasp of pain when Sport changed gait suddenly, or Adam reined him back hard. The silence was so unlike his normally chatty little brother that it started to unnerve Adam. After a while, he began to recite familiar lines of poetry out loud, in an effort to keep his mind from imaging all sorts of dire happenings. It was only a cut hand, after all. Nothing more. Sure, it was a deep cut, but Joe wasn’t about to bleed to death, was he? Surreptitiously, Adam craned his neck forward to check the dressing – the bandages around Joe’s hand were now stained with blood, the discoloration seeping right down to his wrist. Adam urged Sport on just a little faster.

Paul Martin stifled a sigh when he looked out of his window to see the familiar figures of Adam and Joe Cartwright walking towards his surgery: the older brother with his arm around the younger, half-carrying him along. He had never seen such an accident-prone child as Joe in all his years of medical practice.

“Been in the wars again?” he asked cheerily, reasoning that if Joe was walking, he could not be too badly hurt.

Joe raised a pale face and nodded, then looked around. “Where’s my Pa?”

“He’ll be here soon,” Adam soothed. “And I’ll stay with you.” He looked up at Paul, his brown eyes full of concern. “Joe’s cut his hand quite badly,” he whispered and nodded to the bloodstained bandages the boy clutched protectively to his chest.

“Well, I’d better take a look at it,” Paul gestured to a chair and Adam sat down, pulling Joe onto his lap and holding him tight.

“It hurts! I want my Pa!” Joe protested, as Paul carefully unwound the dressings. Despite his best efforts to be brave, tears welled in Joe’s eyes and Adam could feel the small body tremble and shiver. Wrapping his arms around the thin torso, Adam pulled Joe a little closer to him.

Studying the wound carefully, Paul gently moved each of Joe’s fingers and nodded in satisfaction. “It’s a nasty cut, but no major damage done. I’ll have to stitch it.”

Joe bit his lip and then squared his chin. “Can you wait until my Pa gets here?” he pleaded.

“Sorry son, that’s not possible. The wound needs to be closed now, or it could get infected. You don’t want to be ill, do you?”

Feeling the sigh that traveled through Joe’s body, Adam gave him a reassuring hug. “Don’t worry, buddy. I’ll be here with you.”

Joe choked back a sob; he knew Adam was doing his best but it wasn’t the same as having Pa. He meekly swallowed the sedative Paul gave him, and laid passively as the doctor painstakingly sutured the wound together.

*****

“Go and get yourself a cup of coffee, Adam,” Paul said firmly. “You look completely exhausted and I don’t need two Cartwrights lying side-by-side in my consulting rooms.”

Adam took a last look at Joe, who was sleeping soundly, his injured hand lying on top of the bedclothes. “He looks so little,” he said and turned to Paul. “He is so little and today I wanted to help him – and I couldn’t.” The words burst out of him, full of bitter recrimination.

“Adam – you did everything you could have done! You got the wound dressed and then rode here as quickly as possible. You did exactly the right things and no-one – not even your father -could have done any more.”

Adam sat down in the armchair and buried his face in his hands. “But it wasn’t enough – was it? I wasn’t Pa and I couldn’t comfort him like Pa could. Joe’s only a little boy and he wanted his Pa – he needed his Pa. And all he had was me!” His shoulders shook as a sob tore its way out of his throat.

“I’m here now.” Ben’s deep voice was full of love and compassion. He laid a warm, comforting hand briefly on Adam’s neck and then walked across to the bed.

“Is he alright?” Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Ben tenderly stroked Joe’s cheek. “He looks very pale.”

“Joe will be just fine,” Paul reassured him. “It was just an unfortunate accident and I had to put nearly twenty stitches into his hand, but he’ll be as right as rain in a couple of weeks.”

“He really wanted you, Pa,” Adam said in a low, broken voice. “I did my best, but it was you he wanted.” No matter how had he tried, he could not shake the feeling of helplessness, tinged with rejection.

Ben held out a hand to his eldest son. “I’ve always known I could rely on you, Adam. And that is a great comfort to me. Joseph – well, I feel dreadful that I wasn’t able to be with him, when he needed me. But I am very glad that you were, and I sure Joe is too. That’s when I know I’ve done my job as a father – when my boys look after one another.” His eyes were drawn back to the little pale face, lying so quietly on the pillows. He watched anxiously as the thin chest rose and fell with slow regularity.

Adam managed a shaky smile. “He can be an annoying little cuss, can’t he? But I sure do miss him bouncing around.” He looked anxiously at Paul. “He will be alright, won’t he?” There was something disconcerting about the way Joe lay so still and quiet in that big bed.

“Joe will be just fine – sleep is the best medicine for him right now. But I won’t be able to say the same thing about you, Adam, unless you go get yourself some strong coffee! And maybe a sandwich too – all right?”

Grinning sheepishly, Adam walked slowly across the room, as his father bent his head close to that of his sleeping child and whispered gentle words of reassurance. No matter how old they grew, Adam knew that Ben would always be there for all his sons, loving them, supporting them and preparing them to enter the wider world as strong, self-sufficient men, with the incomparable background of a united family. He was their constant, the pole star in their lives – strong, sure and wholly reliable.

Later that day, Joe’s long eyelashes flickered briefly, and then opened. He looked groggily around, breaking into a smile as he saw his father’s face.

“Hi Pa,” he breathed. “I knew you’d come.”

“Of course I’m here Joseph. I will always be here for you. You lie still now, and get some sleep.” Ben ran his hand anxiously over the boy’s forehead and was relieved to find it was cool and dry. “You be a good boy and get some sleep. I’ll be right here when you wake up again.”

“Sorry,” Joe mumbled, and reached out with both arms. “I didn’t mean to do it.” He gave a subdued snuffle and then he could not hold back his tears any longer and started sobbing desperately, his chest heaving with misery and distress.

Wordlessly, Ben picked up the child and cradled him on his lap, holding him close and rocking slowly back and forward, just as he had done so many times when Joe was just a baby, enveloping him in love and security. When he finally spoke, his voice was choked. “There’s my good boy.”

“Adam was real good to me,” Joe confided sleepily, as his sobs grew less frequent. “But I missed you Pa. I missed you so much.” His voice tailed off and his eyes grew heavy. Ben could feel the little body start to relax and drift towards sleep as he rocked gently back and forwards, in a motion as old and elemental as time itself.

“I know, son. But you remember – whenever you need us, we’ll be here,” Ben promised. Above Joe’s head, his eyes met Adam’s and father and son exchanged a look of understanding.

*****

“Hey! Guess what?” Joe bounded happily into the house, clutching a bedraggled piece of paper.

Adam looked up from his book. “You’ve just disproved Pythagoras’ theorem?” he speculated, in a languid, teasing voice. “Don’t tell me that the square of the hypotenuse does not really equal the square root of…”

Joe had no qualms in interrupting his brother: he was perfectly used to Adam’s learned discourses, which he normally ignored and simply let wash over him. “No, something much more important than all that boring old stuff.”

Wincing slightly at Joe’s wholesale dismissal of a vital piece of geometry, Adam looked more closely at the paper his little brother was holding. The writing looked horribly familiar. “Is that a letter from Miss Jones?” he asked, crossing the fingers on both hands. If his boots weren’t so tight, he would have tried to cross his toes as well.

“Sure is!” Joe smiled happily. “Do you want to know what it says?”

Fear clutched Adam’s heart. The spinster schoolteacher cherished a passion from him and pursued her prey with the delicacy of a cat stalking an unwary fledgling. Her tenacity was truly terrifying and Adam sometimes wondered if it just wouldn’t be easier to give in. Or emigrate to Australia. “Go ahead,” he muttered, steeling himself for the worst.

“School’s shut! Ain’t that the best news ever?”

Cockahoop with joy, Joe hopped onto the fireplace and walked along the edge, his arms spread wide for balance. Reaching the end, he swiveled around, wobbled violently and tumbled off into his brother’s lap. “No school, Adam! Just think of it – no school!” He lolled back happily and grinned up at his brother.

“Joseph!” Ben’s voice thundered. “What have you done now?”

Scrambling to his feet, Joe gave his father a sunny smile. “Nothing to with me, Pa – honest! Here – read what Miss Jones says.”

Dear Parents

Due to an outbreak of chickenpox, I am closing the Virginia City School on the advice of Doctor Paul Martin. This quarantine will last for three weeks and is necessary to avoid any further outbreaks of this infectious disease.

I apologize for any inconvenience.

Yours sincerely

Abigail Jones (Miss)

“Told you I wasn’t in trouble!” Joe said contently and then hugged his father round the waist.

“For once!” Ben laughed. It seemed that scarcely a week went by without Miss Jones reporting some new prank or misdemeanor.

“It’s great – I was sitting right next to Tommy Hughes and now he’s covered from head to foot in spots and I’m fine!” Joe was beside himself with glee at the thought of this unscheduled time off school.

“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” Adam warned. “You could still come down with chicken-pox yourself, and I’ve heard it can be pretty nasty.”

“Oh, Joe and Hoss have both had chicken-pox,” Ben said confidently. “It would have been during your first term at college. Don’t you remember? I wrote to you all about it – several letters, in fact. Joe caught pneumonia on top of the chicken pox and was very ill? In fact, we nearly lost him.” His tone grew somber as he thought of those dark days, so soon after Marie’s death, when he feared Joe would die too. Reaching down, he ruffled his son’s curls affectionately and drew him close for a hug. Then a thought struck Ben. “I don’t think you ever had chickenpox, Adam,” he said, brow furrowing as he tried to recall.

For a moment, Adam looked concerned. “Oh well, I’m too old to get it now, aren’t I?” he asked, a worried note creeping into his voice.

“You don’t go anywhere near the chickens,” Joe said confidently. “So you can’t catch it, can you?” His face fell at the laughter that greeted this ingenuous remark.

“Son, you don’t get chicken pox from chickens,” Ben explained. “You catch from being in contact with someone who is already ill.”

“Like Tommy?” Joe asked.

His father nodded. “Only you are fine, because you had chickenpox when you were little.”

“I didn’t.” Adam’s voice sounded rather strangulated. He thought back to Joe sprawling across his lap just moments earlier and gulped convulsively. “I’m too old to get a childhood illness!” he protested feebly, “Far too old!”

*****

“Illness doesn’t respect age,” Paul Martin remarked.

“It’s embarrassing,” Adam grumped. “A grown man getting chickenpox! Totally humiliating!” He scratched irritably at the scabs.

Ben gave his hand a hard swat. “What will be embarrassing is if you end up covered in scars because you won’t do as you’re told. No scratching – understand? Honestly, you are ten times worse than Hoss was and Joe was a positive angel compared to you.”

“But they itch!” Adam whined and then winced at the peevish note in his voice. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I just feel so ill – my body aches and itches and my head thumps.”

“Stay in bed, drink plenty of water and sleep as much as you can,” Paul advised. “You can try some calamine lotion to relieve the worst of the itching – oh, and no reading! That will only make your head ache even more.”

Adam rolled over in bed and thumped his pillow hard. It was the only way he could vent his anger and frustration.

Suppressing a smile, Ben pulled the window shade down halfway and made sure the water jug and chamber pot were in easy reach. “You get some rest, son. I’ll be up to check on you later.”

“To think that I thought Joe was a bad patient,” Paul marveled, as they stood in the hallway. “You’ve got your hands full there, Ben, and I don’t envy you for one moment.”

“Oh, I think I can safely say that I have a willing helper,” Ben chuckled. “There’s more than one way to pluck a chicken, you know!”

Paul looked at him curiously and then realization dawned. “Killing two birds with one stone?” he said slowly and began to laugh. “Ben, you are a genius – but an evil genius! Is that really fair on Adam?”

“Oh, he’ll survive,” Ben assured his friend. “And it might just open his eyes a little bit. He may have a college degree, but there are still some important things Adam needs to learn and this just might be the ideal opportunity.”

*****

“Adam? Are you awake?”

Aroused from an uneasy slumber, Adam rolled over onto his back and opened his eyes to see Joe’s anxious face peering down at him.

“I am now,” he said testily.

Joe beamed happily at him. “What’cha doing?” he enquired cheerily and plonked himself down on the end of the bed.

“I was trying to die – quietly and in peace!” Adam retorted. He was still feeling sick and sore and it was impossible to read while his head thumped so incessantly.

Joe crossed his legs to sit Indian-style and propped his elbows on his knees. “Do you still itch?” he asked sympathetically.

Until that moment, Adam had managed to push the itching to the back of his mind, but now that Joe mentioned it… “Not too badly,” he lied. It took all his self-control not to scratch a particularly nasty itch on his stomach.

“Why don’t you try…”? Joe stopped mid-sentence and shook his head. “No, that wouldn’t work.”

“What wouldn’t work?” Adam’s curiosity was roused.

Leaning back comfortably against the bedpost, Joe surveyed his brother closely. “Well, when I had chickenpox, Pa gave me a bath in bicarbonate of soda – but you’re so much bigger than me, I don’t think Hop Sing would be able to spare that much and still do the backing.” He thought for a moment, undisturbed by the furious looks his brother was shooting in his direction. “And then Pa put calamine lotion on me – but that wouldn’t work either, would it?”

“I don’t see why not!” Adam exploded. “I hope you’re not implying that I’m so large that one bottle of calamine lotion won’t be sufficient, are you?”

“Course not!” Joe looked outraged. “But it would be awfully messy, wouldn’t it? What with you having such a furry chest, and all. All those hairs would just get in the way, wouldn’t they?” He hopped off the bed as Adam threw first one pillow and then another after him.

“How is your brother feeling?” Ben asked as Joe skipped merrily downstairs.

“He seems a whole lot livelier, Pa!” Joe answered truthfully. “He seemed kind of lonely, but I think I cheered him up.” The boy started rifling through the bookshelf, scanning each volume carefully before finally selecting one book and running back upstairs.

“What are you doing?” Hoss asked.

Joe halted on the landing. “Adam used to read to me when I was sick and I thought it would be nice if I did the same for him.” Suddenly, he wasn’t so sure this was a good idea after all. “You see, I thought that as his head was sore, he wouldn’t want to read, so I could do it for him.” He looked expectantly at his father.

“That sounds like an excellent idea, son. And it’s very considerate of you. But just don’t tire your brother out now. Remember, he needs to rest.”

“Ain’t that just the cutest thing?” Hoss remarked fondly, as Joe bounded up the rest of the stairs.

Ben just hoped Adam would not find Joe’s particular brand of kindness too taxing.

“Hi Adam!” Joe announced brightly. “I’m back!”

“So soon?” Adam said, wondering if he would ever get a little peace. He watched in amazement as Joe dragged an armchair over to the window and settled himself comfortably. “What are you doing? Apart from rearranging my furniture?”

“I’m gonna read to you.” Before any protests could be made, Joe launched into his recital.

“I jumped to the stirrup, and Joris and he and I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three!”

How typical of the kid to choose a poem to do with horses! Adam thought, fighting back a smile. Still, Joe read remarkably well, for one so young. He relaxed and let the poetry wash over him.

“Did you like that?”

Adam nodded wearily.

“I thought you would – I liked it when you said it that time after I cut my hand and you took care of me. It’s a real good poem, ain’t it?”

It must be the illness, Adam thought, for the world seemed suddenly out of focus and seemed to shimmer before his burning eyes.

“Pa said to let you get some rest now, but I could read some more to you tomorrow – if you’d like?” Joe hesitated, not sure why Adam lay with one hand shielding his eyes.

“I’d like that very much, Joe.”

Closing the book with a flourish, Joe slid off the chair and carefully pulled the bedclothes up around Adam’s shoulders, before tiptoeing out with heavy –footed consideration and pulling the door closed behind him.

*****

“Your face is getting awfully bristly,” Joe commented, lurching across the room, and slopping water everywhere in the process. “So I thought you might like a nice wash.” He dumped the basin on Adam’s lap, and stood with his hands on his hips. “Take your nightshirt off!” he commanded, sounding remarkably like his father.

“What?” Adam gasped, jerking upright, then grabbed the bowl, not having any great desire to have several pints of piping hot water cascade all over his legs.

Joe favored him with a patient smile, leant forward and started undoing the buttons of the offending garment. “You must be all hot and sticky, so I thought I’d give you a nice wash. That’s what Pa does when I’m sick.” He dunked a washcloth in the water and rubbed it with soap. “And then I thought I could give you a shave?” His voice was full of hope and expectation.

“It’s very kind of you, but I can manage,” Adam protested, grabbing the neck of his nightshirt and frantically battling Joe’s efforts to forcibly disrobe him. “Besides which, you don’t know how to use a razor, do you?”

“No, but I have to learn one day, don’t I? And I thought this would be a good chance to practice.” Joe reached into his pocket, withdrew a cutthroat razor, which he opened with a flourish before admiring his reflection in the highly polished blade.

“You’re not practicing on my face!” Adam said sharply, having visions of Joe inadvertently slicing into his flesh.

“Maybe I could practice on your chest? If it wasn’t so furry, we could put calamine lotion on it, couldn’t we?” Joe suggested helpfully.

Adam crossed his arms protectively across his torso. “No way. No way at all. And just where did you get that razor from anyway?”

A sheepish look slid across Joe’s face. “I sort of borrowed it from Pa,” he confessed.

“Then I suggest you ‘sort of’ put it back before he notices it’s missing, or Pa will find a different use for his razor strop when he warms your butt.”

That made sense, so Joe scurried off, holding his treasure carefully. When he returned, Adam had almost finished washing.

“That was quick! You needn’t have hurried, you know – I would have helped you. I don’t mind.” Joe rifled through the dresser in search of a clean nightshirt, turning the neatly folded clothes into complete and utter chaos within a matter of seconds. “Hold your arms up!”

Adam decided that further protests would merely prolong the ordeal, so he did as he was bade. “Owww!!” He suddenly realized just why Hop Sing was forever sewing buttons onto Joe’s clothing, as the child tried to force the nightshirt over his head. “Undo the buttons first, you idiot! Ewww!” He was sure a large chunk of his hair had been pulled out by the roots.

“How are you boys managing?” Ben enquired, peeking round the edge of the door.

“Joe has been a great help, but I think I’m going to rest now.” There was a certain tremulous quality to Adam’s voice, he looked slightly flushed and his usually neat hair was awry.

His father gave him a sympathetic smile. “Probably the best thing. We’ll leave you in peace, shall we?” He shepherded Joe out of the room, stifling a laugh as Adam gave a heartfelt sigh of relief.

*****

“Only one more week and then school starts again!” Joe mourned. “You don’t know how lucky you are, Hoss!”

“Course I do! It ain’t that long ago that I was stuck in a classroom with Miss Abigail Jones –that’s not an experience I’m about to forget in a hurry. It took me a full year of pleading before Pa would let me leave school, so I reckon you’ll have to stick it out for a while yet.”

Joe mumbled something which was largely incoherent, but sounded suspiciously uncomplimentary towards his teacher, which Hoss wisely decided to ignore. “Stop grousing and come give me a hand,” he said, striding out across the yard so that Joe had to trot briskly at his side in order to keep up.

“Where are we going?” he asked, slightly breathlessly, as he struggled to keep up with the fast pace his brother was setting as they started to climb a small hill behind the house.

“I need to check on the spring-house,” Hoss replied, as the structure came into sight. “With the warmer weather coming, we’ll be using it a lot. There’s no telling what state it’s in after the winter.”

Joe gave a small hop of excitement. “What – like a family of skunks could have moved in, you mean?”

Hoss gave him a long-suffering look. “No – I meant that the walls could need recaulking, or the spring might have got clogged up and over-flowed onto the floor.”

Joe looked disappointed at mundane nature of the task ahead, but he reasoned that doing something, even checking on a boring old building, was better than hanging around the yard doing nothing.

The springhouse was a low building, constructed out of stout timbers, and looked like a miniature version of the ranch house. Hoss had to push hard against the heavy wooden door, which had swollen with damp and creaked a loud protest as it finally opened when he put his shoulder to it.

It was cool and dark inside, with a flight of stone steps leading down to a small stream traveling though a stone-lined channel and a flagstone floor. At the base of each wall, the remnants of ice-blocks, covered in canvas and packed in straw were slowly melting into oblivion.

Hoss ushered Joe down in front of him, having learned long ago that it was wise always to keep an eye on his little brother.

“Quite shoving!” Joe said resentfully, feeling his Hoss’ well-meaning hand in the small of his back. “I’m going as fast as I can, only I can’t see too good in here.” He jabbed his elbow back into Hoss’ stomach, causing his brother to exhale rapidly and take a couple of steps backward, crashing into the door.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Hoss exclaimed angrily.

Joe opened his eyes as wide as they would go, not realizing his brother could not see him through the darkness that enfolded them. “I didn’t do nothing!” he protested.

Hoss tugged frantically at the door, but there was no handle on the inside. He started to thump the wood with his fists, yelling frantically.

“Ain’t no use,” Joe said philosophically, sitting down and making himself as comfortable as possible. “There’s nobody around to hear us. But Pa will come looking when we don’t turn up for lunch.” His voice rang with certainty.

“I’ve gotta get out of here!” Hoss bellowed.

“Well, we can’t!” Joe said, with aggravating poise. “It’s not so bad. Just calm down.”

“I-am-perfectly-calm!” Hoss retorted.

“You don’t sound it. Are you hungry or something?”

Hoss felt the remnants of his patience rip beyond all repair. “I don’t like the dark! I’m scared of the dark! There – a big man like me, frightened of the dark! Are you happy now? It’s all your fault, Joe. You’ve got us stuck in here.”

The only sound that could be heard was the ragged noise of Hoss’ breathing and the steady gurgle of water trickling through the channel. A new panic seized Hoss – the only thing worse than being in the dark was being alone in the dark!

“Joe? Joe! Where are you?”

A small, scared voice answered. “I’m here. I’m sorry Hoss. I didn’t mean to make you mad.” Joe could not remember his placid brother ever being in such a state before and it had frightened him badly, so much that he had retreated to the farthest corner of the springhouse and curled up in a tight ball.

“I ain’t mad, Punkin. Just frightened. An’ I didn’t mean to upset you.” Guilt washed over Hoss, almost driving away his fear.

There was a scurrying sound and Joe scrambled up the steps, tumbling over the top one and falling into his brother’s grateful embrace. Hoss grabbed the little boy into a fierce hug.

“You okay, Joe? You didn’t hurt yourself?”

“A bit,” Joe admitted, feeling much happier now. “Reckon I bashed my knee.” He poked the joint carefully and let out a yelp of pain. “I don’t mind, though,” he assured his brother and squirmed around to give Hoss a hug. “You don’t need to be scared, Hoss. I won’t let anything bad happen to you – I promise.”

Under any other circumstances, Hoss would have found his scrawny little brother’s declaration hilarious. But in the terrifying darkness, the warmth of Joe’s body cuddling into his and the certainty of his statement made things seem just a little better and slightly more bearable.

“I learned a bit of poetry,” Joe announced after a while. “Out of one of Adam’s books. It’s real good – do you want to hear it?” Not waiting for a response, he launched into a spirited rendition.

“Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in their cradles,

And ate the cheese out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s’ Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats,

By drowning their speaking,

With shrieking and squeaking,

In fifty different sharps and flats.”

Joe’s voice echoed horribly around the stone-lined chamber as he finished his recitation with ghoulish glee. Hoss felt a shiver run down his spine and he hoped no rats could find their way inside the springhouse. Imagine if nobody came for days on end, and then died of hunger. Then, when Adam and Pa finally arrived, they would find two dead bodies, with their fingers and toes nibbled away by rats… He clutched Joe closer, causing a sharp yelp.

“I can’t breathe!” Joe was protesting, wriggling wildly and giving little squeaks of pain as he jarred his sore knee, when a bright shaft of light flooded the room.

“Pa!” Hoss leapt to his feet, letting Joe tumble painfully onto the floor. He rushed forward and hugged his father. “Pa! Thanks heavens you found us! We’ve been trapped for ages and I thought we’d never get out!”

“It’s less than an hour since you left the house,” Adam said, pushing past his father. “And where’s Joe?”

“Here. I hurt my knee and then I banged my nose when Hoss pushed me,” Joe whimpered. “It’s bleeding,” he added unnecessarily, as Adam knelt down and held a handkerchief to try to staunch the flow of blood.

Hoss hung his head in shame. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he mumbled. “And after you were so good to me…” He caught the quizzical tilt of Ben’s eyebrow and explained what had happened.

“You learned the Pied Piper of Hamelin?” Adam said in amazement.

“A bit. I liked it, so I borrowed your book,” Joe confessed, hoping he wasn’t going to get into more trouble.

“Ask next time, don’t just borrow.” Adam tried very hard to speak in a stern voice but could not keep his pride and joy from shining through. He pulled up the leg of Joe’s pants and surveyed the huge bruise blackening his knee. “You’ve given yourself a fair old bang there, kiddo.”

“I fell,” Joe informed him unnecessarily. “It hurts.” He cast a pleading look at his father, quite happy to forgo being grownup and self-reliant for just a little while.

Ben smiled fondly, knowing what was wanted, what was needed. There was no necessity for any further words, not when his boy looked at him like that. He took a step forward and lifted Joe up, so that the boy straddled his hip. Putting his other arm around Hoss’ shoulders, he looked back at Adam and gave him a broad grin.

“Let’s go home, boys.” The familiar words rang out clearly in the stone-lined springhouse and echoed with equal clarity in their hearts.

*****

His knee swathed in bandages and propped on a cushion, a quilt around his shoulders, Joe sat like a miniature pharoah on the porch, sipping cocoa and staring up at the stars.

“Aren’t they amazing?” Adam hunkered down beside him. “So peaceful and permanent.”

As they watched, a shooting star soared across the darkness, setting a thrill in their hearts.

“I always want to start running, to see if could catch a falling star,” Joe whispered. “My own little bit of heaven.”

“Make a wish!” Ben said softly and watched as his boys all closed their eyes. He had no need to wish for anything, except that his sons would always be happy and safe. Nothing else mattered.

That evening, Adam stayed by Joe’s side for a long time, pointing out constellations and relating tales about the stars, while his little brother hung onto every word with rapt adoration.

“You sure do know a lot,” Joe breathed in admiration.

“I know a bit,” Adam acknowledged. “But do you know the most important thing about the stars?”

Joe shook his head and stared at his brother intently.

“No matter where you go, wherever you are in the world, you can always find your way home, using the stars. Just follow the stars and they will bring you home.”

“Will you show me?” Joe pleaded. “I don’t ever want to leave home.”

“I’ll show you,” Adam promised. “Pa taught me years ago, so that I would never be lost, so that I would always be able to come home.”

It was growing cold and Joe looked very sleepy, so Adam picked him up and went softly upstairs. He placed the boy in his bed and watched as he fell quickly into the deep, sweet sleep of untroubled childhood. Turning to draw the curtains, he gazed out intently at the stars, picking out one that shone particularly brightly.

“One day, I will follow my own star,” Adam vowed. “But then I’ll let the other stars bring me home, where I belong.” It was a promise that was enshrined in his heart.

***End***

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