Summary: Adam had been reluctant to take 16-year-old Little Joe on a hunting trip, but when he is incapacitated by a freak accident, only his baby brother stands between him and certain death.
Word Count: 16,800
Ignoring the glare from his hefty brother across the table, Little Joe added a second huge dollop of whipped cream atop his berry cobbler before passing the bowl to Adam. Not only was he feeling spiteful enough to hog the rich topping, but he needed the comfort of some extra sweetening. The suppertime conversation had revolved, as it generally did lately, around the upcoming hunting trip his two older brothers were planning. A ten-day excursion, just the two of them, no little brothers welcome. Oh, no one had told him he couldn’t go, but from the first mention it had been “Hoss and I” or “Adam and me,” so Little Joe had quickly gotten the message. He hadn’t even bothered to hint at tagging along because he knew that’s exactly what he’d be, an unwanted tagalong. In all his sixteen years he had never felt more left out.
“Thanks all to pieces, little brother,” Hoss grunted when he’d scraped every last bit of whipped cream onto his cobbler, an amount that didn’t approach half of what remained on Joe’s dessert.
“Did Adam take too much?” the youngest Cartwright asked with bold-faced innocence.
“You know doggone well who took too much!”
Little Joe sported an impish grin. “I’m a growing boy, Hoss, while you… well, you don’t need to do no more growin’, do you now?”
“Someone could certainly do with some growing up,” Adam suggested.
“Yeah, he could,” Little Joe said with a sagacious nod at Adam. “Why don’t you work on that while you’re away with him?”
Adam arched an eyebrow. “It’s not a working vacation, which is why…”
“That’s enough, boys,” their father put in quickly. Though nothing had been said, he’d suspected for days that Little Joe was nursing a sizeable bundle of hurt feelings, and they probably didn’t need much priming to come bursting out now. Adam and Hoss had earned the time off, and if they chose to spend it together, Ben wouldn’t deprive them of that pleasure. One-on-one time was always special, and he’d been making secret plans for a trip for just him and his youngest, to make up for Joe’s being left at home this time.
“Don’t rub it in,” Ben advised later, when Little Joe had excused himself for a final trip to the outhouse before bedtime. “You’ll enjoy your time away more if you don’t leave hard feelings at home.”
Adam, realizing that the admonition had been aimed more toward him than Hoss, nodded acquiescence, and when Little Joe returned to the house, both older brothers wished him a good night with an extra ration of kind congeniality.
“Can not hold suppah much longer, Mistah Ben,” Hop Sing declared, standing arms akimbo in the dining room.
“Yes, I know,” Ben sighed. “Fifteen minutes?”
“Mo’ better ten,” the cook insisted.
Bowing to the household tyrant’s authority, Ben nodded. Then he wandered over to the front window and gazed out with concern at the darkening sky.
“You’d think they’d want one more good meal before trusting themselves to whatever they can snare,” Little Joe observed, reaching for an apple to munch while he waited for that good meal.
Ben turned with a chuckle. “I doubt your brothers share your negative view of their hunting prowess, young man.” Lines again furrowed his forehead. “They should be back by now.”
Little Joe stretched out on the settee. “They’ll be back soon, Pa. Hoss wants that meal, if Adam don’t.”
“Feet on the floor, Joseph,” his father admonished.
With a sigh and a meek “Yes, sir,” the boy complied.
“And don’t spoil your appetite.”
“And don’t take out all your fatherly frettin’ on me,” Little Joe saucily returned. He bounced the gnawed apple in his hand. “This little ol’ thing is just an appetizer. Ain’t that what fancy folks call it?”
“Perhaps,” Ben conceded with a smile as he moved back toward the fire, “but don’t let Hop Sing hear you suggest that his meal needs an appetizer.”
Little Joe grinned. “I got sense, Pa.”
Ben finally laughed, for his youngest always seemed to shake him free from any somber mood. “Oh, I hope so, Joseph; I do sincerely hope so.” His head instinctively turned toward the door as he heard the sound of horses coming into the yard. “At last,” he breathed with relief, for he never felt settled until all his boys were beneath his roof each night.
Little Joe quickly finished his apple and tossed the core into the fire before Hop Sing could catch him nibbling before supper. It had just begun to sizzle and spread its fragrance through the room when the door opened and Adam entered, followed by four men, carrying Hoss on a blanket between them.
“What happened?” Ben asked.
Adam didn’t answer. “This way,” he directed the men transporting Hoss. He led them to the downstairs bedroom and opened the door.
Little Joe, who had leaped to his feet as soon as his brother was carried in, pushed into the bedroom at the heels of his father.
“What happened?” Ben demanded more firmly.
“Rattler spooked his horse,” Adam said as he threw back the covers on the bed, so the men could lay Hoss down.
“Knew I shoulda took Chubb,” Hoss grunted as the blanket was pulled from beneath him. “That dadblame bay’s plumb squirrelly.”
“The horse panicked,” Adam explained. “Threw younger brother here onto a pile of rocks. His right leg’s broken.”
“I’ll get the doc,” Little Joe offered, turning toward the door.
Ben caught his arm, while Adam said, “I’ve already sent someone.”
Looking disgruntled, Little Joe pulled out of his father’s grip and stood, arms folded, at the foot of Hoss’ bed.
Ben shook the hand of each man that had borne Hoss in; then he moved to his injured son’s side. “How do you feel, boy?”
“‘Bout like you’d figure, I reckon,” Hoss said with an expression that was more grimace than grin, though the latter was what he intended.
“You want some laudanum?” Adam asked. “Since you didn’t hit your head, I doubt Dr. Martin would object.”
“Nah, rather not get that fuzzy-headed just yet,” Hoss said. “Doggone, Adam, I sure am sorry to go ruinin’ your plans like this.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Adam assured him. “We can go once you’re on your feet again.”
Hoss shook his head. “I know I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed, Adam, but I ain’t stupid. Six, eight weeks from now, by the time this leg’s ready to even think about trekkin’ into the mountains, the weather won’t be favorable.”
Adam sighed as he pulled up a chair and straddled it. “Yeah, I know. Just wishful thinking on my part. I was really looking forward to that trip.”
“Me, too.” Hoss also sighed, more from regret at spoiling Adam’s good time than from disappointment for his own loss.
Little Joe grasped the footboard with white-knuckled fists. Much as he’d resented being left out of his brothers’ plans, he’d never wished anything like this on them, but he felt as guilty as if his ill feeling had brought on the bad luck.
Hoss noticed the boy’s slumped posture and asked, “You okay, Joe?”
Startled, Little Joe pulled upright. “Me? Sure. Anything I can get you, Hoss?”
“I reckon some extra pillows wouldn’t go amiss.”
“I’ll get ‘em!” the boy said and ran out, eager to help.
The other three Cartwrights exchanged a knowing look. “Maybe I should have let him ride for the doctor,” Adam chuckled. “Burn off some of that bottled-up energy.”
“I wouldn’t have let him go,” Ben said, “not after dark, not the way he tears down a road.”
“Aw, Pa, he’s got more sense than that,” Hoss argued.
Ben’s mouth twitched. “So he tells me, Hoss; so he tells me.”
Little Joe returned with a pile of pillows so high he couldn’t possibly have seen over it, and Ben dryly expressed gratitude that he didn’t have two little boys in need of Dr. Martin’s mending after what must have been a blind descent of the stairway. Once they had Hoss settled with pillows propping him on all sides, there was nothing to do but wait for the doctor.
Hop Sing came in, and Ben chased his two healthy sons out to silence the cook’s ranting about the cold meal on the table. “Bring me back somethin’ good,” Hoss called as they left.
“Hop Sing bring,” the cook declared. “Good meal make strong, for heal bones fast.”
“Make it a double helpin’, then, so I’ll heal double fast,” Hoss said, and the cook beamed and bowed as he backed out the door to meet the request.
The doctor had come and gone, leaving Hoss snoring under the effects of laudanum, and once assured that his older brother would be all right, Little Joe had gone to bed, as well. The older two Cartwrights, however, found it harder to relax and settled in before the fire, each lost in his own thoughts. Ben refilled his eldest son’s cup before setting the coffee pot down and picking up his own fresh cup of brew.
“Thanks, Pa,” Adam said almost in a monotone.
“You’re disappointed,” Ben said as he sank into his fireside chair.
Adam shrugged. “Yes, of course. We’ve been planning this trip for weeks. My disappointment scarcely compares with what Hoss is enduring, though.”
Ben smiled in commiseration. “One feeling doesn’t cancel out the other.”
“No,” Adam conceded as he turned to stare again into the flickering flames.
“You’re still due some time off,” his father suggested. “Maybe you’d enjoy a trip to San Francisco, a night or two at the opera?”
Adam laughed roughly. “I know I should jump at the chance for that,” he said, “but it doesn’t even sound appealing. I suppose it’s the stillness of the pines I’m craving right now, not the bustle and noise of a city full of people.”
“Then go to the pines.”
“Alone? Well, it had crossed my mind.”
Ben frowned. “I’d rather it weren’t alone, son. Skilled as you are at woodcraft, it’s still wiser to travel in pairs. Anything can happen.”
“Exactly why Hoss and I were going together, Pa.”
“Yes, I know, but you have other friends.”
Adam sighed heavily. “None that are available now. Responsibilities…wives. Harder for men to take off once those are involved.”
Ben arched an eyebrow, but said nothing. Tonight was obviously not the best time to suggest that his son consider similar involvement with a wife . . . and the provision of grandchildren for his aging father. “Well, there is one other alternative,” he said. When Adam looked up quizzically, he continued, “You do have another brother.”
Breath caught in Adam’s throat. “You’re not serious.”
“Actually, I was.”
Adam shook his head from side to side, his expression one of disbelief. “This was intended to be a pleasure trip,” he finally said, “not an opportunity to hone Little Joe’s hunting skills.”
Ben chuckled as he settled back in his chair. “Oh, I think his hunting skills might prove sufficient…for a pleasure trip.” Again he cocked a meaningful eyebrow at his son. “Or are you saying that you wouldn’t enjoy your young brother’s company?”
Adam opened his mouth and just as promptly clamped it shut.
“Spit it out, son.”
Adam exhaled slowly. “Well, all right. Since I know you value honesty, I’ll be blunt. No, I don’t think I would enjoy my young brother’s company.”
Ben’s intake of air was sudden and sharp. “That was blunt, all right.”
Adam bent forward, palms spread open before him. “Look, Pa, it’s not that I care any less for Joe than I do for Hoss. They’re both my brothers, both equal in my affections.”
“But Joe is a kid,” Adam said plainly. “Hoss is a man, and man-to-man makes for a more easy-going relationship.”
Ben’s pursed lips almost appeared to be chewing. “Have you and Joseph been quarrelling?”
“No,” Adam said, drawing out the word. Then, since they were supposed to be speaking honestly, he added, “Well, no more than is typical between a mature man and…” He stopped at sight of his father’s frown.
“His inferior?” Ben asked sharply.
Adam shook his head. “Not at all. Joe is a fine boy; he’ll make a fine man some day. But he’s not there yet, Pa. Sure, we see things differently at times, but we generally work through it. That’s just it, though. This trip was supposed to be a break from work, and with Hoss, it would have been; with Joe…” He raised his palms toward the ceiling as if to say, “Who knows?”
Ben eased back and nodded. “You and Hoss have something very special together, something I’d hoped all my sons would share, each with the others, and this might be an excellent opportunity to build that sort of closeness with Joseph. You may recall that as you boys were growing up, I tried to spend time alone with each of you for that very purpose.”
Seeing where his father was heading and not particularly wanting to go there, Adam concentrated on his cooling coffee.
Ben recognized the attempt to close conversation. “Will you, at least, think about it? I think you should get away, son, but I really don’t like to see any of you boys alone in the mountains.”
Adam set the empty cup down and stood. Seeing that his father was still waiting for an answer, he said, “Yes, Pa, I’ll think about it, but right now all I want to do is sleep.”
“Pleasant dreams, then, son,” Ben said softly. “I’ll bank the fire.”
“You’re not going to sit up all night with Hoss, are you?” Adam asked, his voice chiding.
Ben smiled. “Not all night,” he promised.
The night was less restful than Adam might have hoped. For at least an hour after he slipped between the sheets, he lay with arms folded beneath his head, eyes fixed on the ceiling, mind tossing between two alternatives. A week and a half in the mountains with Little Joe, with all the extra responsibility that entailed, at first seemed ridiculous. Then he began to wonder if Pa might be right. Maybe one reason he didn’t feel the same closeness with his youngest brother that he shared so easily with Hoss was simply that he didn’t know him as well, at least not one-on-one. He’d taken the boy hunting before, of course, but Hoss had always been with them—two men secretly snickering at the manlike posturing of the boy.
Little Joe was growing up, though, standing now on the brink of real manhood. While Adam had almost felt like a second father to his youngest brother when Joe was small, he realized that relationship no longer felt right. Joe was coming into his own, beginning to demand treatment as an equal. In worth, he was and always had been, but not in maturity and experience. Those were the changes that were happening almost before their eyes, and Adam felt a sudden nostalgia for the man-child relationship on the verge of extinction. It couldn’t last, though; it was time to let it develop into man-to-man brotherhood, the same as he shared with Hoss. And as warm remembrances of times he’d spent alone with his father and his middle brother washed over him, Adam knew what he had to do.
He broke the surprise at breakfast the next morning. Little Joe’s sausage-laden fork hung in mid-air as he stared, mouth gaping, at his brother. “Don’t josh me,” he finally said.
“I’m not,” Adam said. “Obviously, you weren’t my first choice; no point in pretending otherwise, but I’d like to have your company, share a little brother-to-brother time. What do you say?”
Little Joe slanted a suspicious glance at his oldest brother. “Pa’s idea?”
The kid was sharp; Adam had to hand him that. “Pa’s idea,” he admitted, “but my decision.” He chuckled. “Eat your eggs; they’re getting cold. Any further discussion can surely wait for that.”
Little Joe grinned and dug in with hearty appetite.
When Hoss was told that his little brother was taking his place, he practically beamed and promptly offered Little Joe use of the gear he’d already put together for the trip. “Reckon you best pack your own britches, though,” he said. “Mine might be a tad loose. Now, me personally, I like a little extra breathin’ room.”
“One can get too much of a good thing,” Adam observed, “even breathin’ room.”
“Better keep an eye on him, Joe,” Hoss cautioned. “There’s a powerful lot of breathin’ room up in the hills. Might be too much for him.”
Adam laughed. “I give up.” He lightly tapped Hoss’ splinted leg. “Hang in there, big guy. Next trip with you, for sure.”
“He wishes it were you this time,” Little Joe confided as soon as Adam had left to start his day’s work.
“Not for long,” Hoss assured his little brother. “You’ll show him. Just don’t go pushin’ too hard to prove yourself. Who you are is plenty good enough.”
Little Joe doubled his fist and gave Hoss a feather-light punch on the arm. “You’re the best, Hoss, you know that?”
“Matter of fact, I did,” Hoss said with a gap-toothed grin. “You reckon you could sneak a donut past Hop Sing for your best brother?”
“I’ll give it a try,” Joe said. He knew, as did Hoss, that no one would have to sneak food past their cook, once he knew who wanted it. The merest hint that an injured Cartwright needed nourishment would be enough to produce a banquet, much less one measly little donut.
For the next two days Little Joe’s ebullient enthusiasm spread its radiance all over the Ponderosa. Mealtime discussions of the upcoming trip, all but ignored before, were now of paramount interest to him. Adam’s patience with the seemingly unending questions began to feel strained, especially since most of them had been rehearsed in Joe’s hearing at previous meals. With what he considered remarkable restraint, he refrained from asking, “Why weren’t you listening before?” Or, perhaps, it was remarkable insight, for he had a feeling he already knew the answer, though he had been blind to the resentment before.
On the final night before the great adventure, the two hunters gathered in Hoss’ room, and both expressed how much they’d miss him and how much they wished he could come, too. “Well, now, I think I’m gettin’ the better vacation,” Hoss said. “All I got to do is lay around and chow down on good sick folks’ food.”
“Like pie, cake, donuts,” Adam said with a smirk.
Adam shook his head. “Why is it I always seem to get dosed with beef tea, gruel and stewed prunes?”
“‘Cause you’re a stewed prune kind of guy,” Little Joe snickered.
Adam arched an ominous eyebrow. “You can still be left at home, little boy.”
Hoss wagged his finger at his older brother. “Nope. You ain’t stickin’ me with a mess like that to clean up. I’m feelin’ puny, remember?”
Adam rolled his eyes. “And working it for all it’s worth, you poor, pale, frail thing.”
Little Joe stretched a plate, which still held a few sugar cookies, toward his bed-bound brother. “Here. This oughta put some color back in your cheeks.”
Having already eaten a good half dozen, Hoss started to decline, but then he decided he should probably snare a cookie or two, in case of later emergency. With brothers like his, there was no guarantee there’d be one left when he felt the need for sweetening.
Adam stood, stretching and yawning. “We’ll leave them in your good hands, brother. Since we’ll be riding out early tomorrow, we’d better get to bed.” He reached out to scrub Little Joe’s curly noggin with his knuckles. “And no argument from you, little buddy. If I have to drag you out of bed . . . well, I just might not.”
“I’m comin’,” Little Joe said. Tonight, at least, he didn’t feel like arguing with anyone about anything. Nothing, absolutely nothing, would be allowed to dim his bright hopes for tomorrow’s grand quest. “I’m gonna bring back the biggest ram in Nevada,” he promised Hoss.
“Or, at least, a fair-sized rabbit,” Adam teased, with a shove toward the door for Joe and a wink at Hoss.
The scenery through which the two Cartwright brothers rode the next morning was spectacular. Leaving behind the pine-rimmed sapphire majesty of Lake Tahoe, they climbed into the mountains, their tops still lightly dusted with last winter’s snow. They wound their way upward through natural passes too narrow for wheeled vehicles and sometimes barely passable for their horses and pack mule.
It was all Adam had hoped it would be…except for the incessant chatter of his companion. Did the boy never take a breath? Apparently, even in the thinner air of the mountaintops, his lungs held an infinite capacity, for if he wasn’t enthusing about the trip itself, he was asking questions about the best way to track a bighorn sheep. When he ran out of those, he had an endless supply of bad jokes to share, but when he began to sing off-key ditties to entertain the squirrels and chipmunks, Adam could take no more. “Could you shut up, just for a little while?” he groaned.
Seeing the hurt on his brother’s expressive face, he wished he could take back the words. Well, not the words themselves, for they needed saying, but he regretted the exasperation with which they’d come out. “Look, Joe,” he said. “Part of the attraction of the high country — at least, for me — is the serenity, the peace. Just listening to the wind in the pines, the twitter of the birds, the pure stillness of crisp mountain air.”
The pain faded from Little Joe’s eyes, and his lips curved pensively. “You sound like Hoss.”
“Perhaps,” Adam said softly. “And perhaps you might find a little Hoss in yourself — if you quiet down long enough to hear it.” He’d tried to say it lightly, as if teasing, but the sting of his brother’s reply told him it hadn’t been received that way.
“I know you wanted Hoss,” Little Joe sputtered, “but I ain’t him!”
“I’m not, either,” Adam said, keeping his voice calm. “I’m just suggesting you explore another side of your own inner being. You don’t always have to be the life of the party, you know.” Something in the way Joe looked at him made him ask, “Did you think you did?”
Little Joe looked away, as if fearful his traitorous face had given away too much. “Yeah, maybe. We each got our place, Adam. You’re the smart one; Hoss is the strong one, and I’m” — suddenly, a mask descended, and he said, “I’m the young, handsome, life-of-the-party one. Yup, that’s my role in life, keeping the rest of you sober sides entertained.”
“I see,” Adam said, and though he said no more, he felt that he had, indeed, been granted a brief glance inside his young brother’s soul. “Do you think you might be a shade less entertaining . . . just for a while?”
Little Joe tossed him a mischievous grin. “I’ll try to hold myself back, older brother; it’ll be hard, but for you I’ll try.”
“I shall be eternally grateful,” Adam said, and for the next thirty minutes or so the brothers rode together in absolute silence.
They camped in the open that night. When Adam divided the responsibilities, he was surprised that Little Joe merely nodded and began to carry out his assignments. He could remember a time—in fact, only last year, on a camping trip including Hoss—when his youngest brother had done nothing but argue about whatever he was told to do. Was it possible the kid was growing up? Or had older brother somehow been lucky enough to give younger the jobs the kid was most comfortable with?
When Adam returned from watering the animals, he saw that Joe had begun to lay the fire. “Be sure to clear the space around it of debris,” he cautioned. “Don’t leave anything that can catch a stray spark.”
A Paiute could have used the look Little Joe gave him to tip his arrows. “I know how to build a campfire, Adam,” the boy grunted.
“All right,” Adam said. “Just a reminder.”
“I don’t need a reminder.”
“Fine.” Adam’s tone was only a hint sharper than Joe’s own.
Hop Sing had packed enough sandwiches for two meals, so as soon as a fresh pot of coffee had brewed, the brothers settled down to polish them off, along with a couple of oatmeal cookies. “Better save a few back,” Adam suggested. “If we don’t come across any game tomorrow, we’ll want something better than just beans for supper.”
“I was just thinkin’ that.” Little Joe rewrapped the remaining cookies in brown paper and carried them to his saddlebag. Bringing back his bedroll, he untied it and spread it on the ground.
“Not there,” Adam said. “You’re too far from the fire. Nights get cold here in the mountains.”
“If I get cold, I’ll move closer,” Joe growled, tossing his brother an irritated look. “I don’t need you watchin’ every little thing I do, Adam.”
Adam pursed his lips. “I don’t intend to spend half this trip nursing you through a head cold.”
“Huh! As if I’d ever pick you as a nurse!”
Adam opted for a change of subject. “So, what pretty little petticoat are you chasing these days?”
“None of your dadgum business!”
Adam exhaled forcefully. Man, the kid was touchy tonight. “All right, all right. Forget I asked. I was only trying to make conversation. I’m turning in. I’d suggest you do the same, except I’d probably get my head bitten off.”
Little Joe nibbled his lower lip and wordlessly finished laying out his bed before crawling between the blankets. The camp was silent, but for the movement of some small animal in the brush, the trill of some bird calling to its mate. After perhaps five minutes Little Joe said softly, “Adam?” When his brother made no response, he called again, “Adam?”
“Yes, Joe,” the older brother drawled with strained patience.
“Um, well, uh — don’t you think the stars look serene tonight?”
Adam, whose lips had been tightly pursed during the stammering which preceded this remarkable speech, felt them start to twitch. This, he supposed, was his little brother’s idea of a face-saving apology. Gaining control of himself, he finally said, “Why, yes. Yes, they do.”
Little Joe sounded relieved as he said, “Good night, Adam.”
A tiny chuckle slipped out as Adam replied, “Good night, Joe. Serene dreams.”
The next morning they headed further into the hill country, and for much of the way Adam could drink his fill of the wind in the pines and the twitter of mountain bluebirds. In fact, he began to fear that he had thoroughly squelched his brother’s youthful enthusiasm and found that he missed it. Whenever Little Joe did venture a remark or question, however, he sounded pleasant enough, so the fear faded. Perhaps, Adam mused, his young brother had just needed to vent all that excess energy and excitement into the air and, having done so, was now ready to proceed on a more even keel. Maybe there was a center of calm — an inner Hoss, so to speak — somewhere inside all that natural exuberance. Maybe Little Joe was trying hard to let it through and maybe, just maybe, Adam was coming to appreciate both sides of his youngest brother’s makeup. Both were unexpected, but equally welcomed, developments.
The sun was still high in the sky when they came across a crudely crafted cabin, and Adam pulled up before it. “We’ll make this our base camp,” he said as he dismounted.
Still in the saddle, Little Joe looked puzzled. “I thought we were after bighorn sheep,” he said. “They usually range higher, don’t they?”
Adam loosened the cinch on his saddle. “That’s right, and that’s where we’ll hunt them. What Hoss and I had discussed was leaving our heavier gear and the pack mule here. Then we’d take only what we needed for one night in the open and go south first and hunt a couple of days; we’ll come back here for a night and do the same, heading west, instead. If we still haven’t found the game we want, we’ll decide what to do for the next couple of days, and then it’ll be time to head home. That sound all right to you?”
Little Joe swung down from his pinto. “Yeah, it’s a good plan. Just hadn’t heard it before.”
Adam shook his head. “You really weren’t paying much attention at the table, were you?”
Shrugging, Little Joe began to unsaddle the horse. “Didn’t have anything to do with me.”
“Sorry,” Adam said.
“For not inviting me?” Little Joe gave a skeptical snort.
“More for monopolizing the dinnertime conversation with a subject that must have been boring, even irritating, to you. That was thoughtless, and I’m sorry.” Adam shouldered his saddle and headed for the cabin.
Little Joe stared at his brother’s back. Adam apologizing? He figured he could count on one hand the times that had happened in his lifetime! “Hey, that’s all right,” he called and was rewarded with a grin tossed back over his brother’s shoulder. He followed Adam in and looked around the cabin, noting the single bunk, the rickety square table and scarcely more solid chair beside it. “Let me guess,” he groused, although he didn’t sound all that put out. “I’m sleeping on the floor.”
“Don’t you think your young bones can handle it better than my slightly older ones?” Adam chuckled.
“Your much older ones,” Joe jibed back, setting his saddle near the loosely mortared stone hearth. “Close enough,” he asked, “or are you still afraid I’ll take cold?”
“Just see to it you don’t.” Adam took his bedroll from his saddle and tossed it on the bunk, while sliding the saddle beneath it. “Best see to the stock,” he said. “Then one of us can gather firewood and try to chink some of the larger cracks in this place, while the other tries to scare up some small game for our supper. Which do you fancy?”
Joe stared at his older brother. “You’re giving me the choice? You’re not pulling rank?”
Adam worked his pursed lips from side to side, mostly to mask their telltale twitching. “I take that to mean you’d rather hunt?”
Adam laughed. “Maybe I think I’ll sleep warmer tonight if I ready the cabin. I am a trained architect, after all.”
Little Joe snickered. “Yeah, that’s what this place needs all right, but maybe we should’ve sent to San Francisco for a proper one.”
Adam arched an eyebrow. “Why not Boston? I can speak with certainty of the superiority of architects trained there.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, that’s right. We already have one.”
Little Joe shook his head in capitulation. “All right, architect. You chink and I’ll hunt.”
“Don’t bother with bighorns yet,” Adam teased. “A fair-sized rabbit will do.”
“Since you brought me, instead of Hoss…it just might.” Joe headed for the door.
“Joe?” When his brother turned, Adam said, “Don’t go far, and be back well before dark.”
Little Joe rolled his eyes. Sometimes older brother just couldn’t help being . . . well, an older brother, he supposed . . . and, maybe, all things considered, that wasn’t such a bad thing. “Back in plenty of time for you to skin and cook whatever I find,” he promised.
Adam nodded, but not until his little brother had left did he realize that he’d just accepted cooking duty from the kid. “You’ll do the cleanup!” he called, but Joe was too far away to hear him.
Adam led his chestnut gelding into a clearing late the next evening. “Let’s make camp here,” he suggested.
“Yeah, looks good,” Little Joe agreed.
Adam gave his younger brother, who looked irritatingly fresh, a weary smile. “After you finagled me into both cooking and clearing up last night, I should make you set up camp, but since you brought in not one, but two fat rabbits for our sustenance, I think I’ll let you water the horses, instead.” They’d cooked one rabbit in a savory stew for supper and had polished that off for breakfast this morning. The second rabbit had been fried and saved to eat along the trail today.
“That’s my aim, to keep us well fed,” Little Joe chirped as he began to unsaddle his pinto.
“Apparently not on mountain mutton,” Adam said dryly, removing the gear from his own mount.
Little Joe shook his head. “You’d think we’d have spotted at least one, with all the tracks we saw today.”
“It’s not easy game to bag.”
Little Joe grinned. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Adam laughed. “Even you should get your fill of fun before the week’s out, if you’re determined to track bighorns. I might be willing to settle for a deer if tomorrow proves as fruitless as today.”
“You’d settle for a fair-sized rabbit,” his younger brother snorted.
“We’ll both be settling for beans tonight,” Adam sighed, “unless you see something down by the creek.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.” Little Joe took Adam’s horse and led it south, alongside his own.
Adam gazed fondly at his brother’s departing back before propping his rifle against a pine at the edge of the clearing and leaving camp in search of dry wood. It had been a long day, with Little Joe uncharacteristically up at the crack of dawn and eager to hit the trail as soon as he’d gulped down a few bites of leftover stew. It had been an unrewarding day, as well, at least in terms of the hunt, but a strange aura of satisfaction hung over Adam.
He’d actually enjoyed Little Joe’s company, and over a lunch of cold rabbit, the boy had even opened up enough to describe that latest little petticoat in his life that he’d been so touchy about the first night. Belinda Montgomery: honey-blonde hair, creamed-coffee eyes, the cutest little spattering of tawny freckles across her nose and pert rosy lips that looked — and Joe assured him, were — tantalizingly kissable. Her family had only come to Virginia City two weeks ago, and how his brother had even discovered her, much less come to know her so well, was beyond Adam’s understanding. Just a gift, he supposed, as much as Hoss’ affinity with animals.
He was still mulling that over as he returned to their campsite for the night. Days later, when darkness began closing in, he would ask himself if he could have changed the course of the next few moments if he had kept his attention on his feet, instead of somewhere in the clouds, but the exercise was as pointless as most games of what-if. Almost simultaneously, he felt himself falling forward and heard a deafening explosion. Had he tripped on some dropped branch and somehow knocked over the rifle as he fell? Or was it the bullet ripping through his thigh that made him fall?
He cried out involuntarily as he hit the ground. He lay there, momentarily stunned, and then reached his left hand down his leg until he felt a ragged edge and explored the mysterious hole in his trousers. Raising his hand, he stared in disbelief as his thumb rubbed his sticky red fingertips. “I’m…shot,” he murmured. He reached back down and pressed his palm against the wound, but he could still feel the fluid seeping through his fingers.
“Adam! Adam!” A sharp cry and the sound of feet pounding toward him.
Joe? Joe was here? Yes, of course, he was; they’d come hunting together…bighorn sheep, wasn’t it?
Little Joe slid to his brother’s side. “Adam? Adam, what happened?”
Adam looked up into panicked green eyes. “Shot,” he gasped. “Help me.” In the same moment he felt his brother’s strong young hands push his own aside and press down firmly on the dripping tear in his leg.
“I don’t know what to do, Adam!” Joe cried. “I wish…” He sucked in his lips to hold the words back. What good would it do Adam to hear that wish? But, oh, how he did wish that Hoss had come on this trip, instead of him! Hoss was good at doctoring—well, critters, anyway—while Little Joe had generally looked away, feeling queasy, whenever Hoss had been working on some half-dead little stray.
“It’s all right,” Adam said. “You’re fine. I’ll tell you what to do.”
“Okay.” When Adam said nothing more, Little Joe cried, “What, Adam? Tell me what to do!”
“Stop the bleeding.”
“I’m trying!” The boy panted in an effort to control himself. “It just keeps comin’.”
“Tourniquet,” Adam said. “Saddlebag…clean bandana. Put a rock in it and tie it around my leg.” He slid his hands down to replace his brother’s. “Hurry.”
“Okay, okay.” Little Joe stumbled across the clearing to where Adam had dropped his saddlebags and hurriedly tossed out the contents until he came to the bandana. “How big a rock?” he called as he scoured the clearing.
“Egg-size, smooth as you can find,” Adam said through gritted teeth.
Little Joe spied one he thought would work and hastily wrapped it inside the bandana and ran back to Adam’s side. Grimacing, he laid the padded rock over the hole in his brother’s flesh; then he tied the bandana securely behind the leg.
“Not tight enough,” Adam grunted. “Get a stick…twist.”
“Yeah, okay; I can do that.” He pulled a sturdy stick from the load Adam had been carrying, which lay strewn all around them, slipped it into the knot at the back of his brother’s leg and twisted with all his might. “Sorry,” he whispered when he heard Adam moan.
“No, doing fine.” Adam raised his head slightly. “Is it stopping?”
“I don’t know.” Little Joe fought the urge to be sick and made himself look. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Bring my saddle over here…prop it up.” Adam lay back down.
Little Joe did as instructed, lifting his brother’s leg as gently as possible. “Better?”
“Fine,” Adam said, a report his younger brother, who also gave that as a standard answer to all medical questions, didn’t believe for a minute. “Joe?” Though Adam was trying to sound calm, his voice was shaking. “The horses…you didn’t just…”
Little Joe’s lips tightened into a frustrated frown. “No, I didn’t just! I tied ‘em to some mesquite down by the creek. I’m not some stupid kid, Adam!”
“Sorry,” Adam said, his eyes closing. They opened again as a slender hand came to rest on his shoulder.
“No, I’m sorry,” Joe said, his anger now directed inward. Who but a stupid kid would snap at a wounded man? he chastised himself. If you want people to think you’re a man, act like one! “Listen, if you’ll be okay for a couple of minutes, I probably ought to go fetch those horses.”
Adam smiled slightly. “Good thinking.”
“Okay.” Joe stood. “I’ll be right back.”
Adam’s nod was barely perceptible, and he again closed his eyes. He willed himself to take these few moments of rest, for he could foresee the ordeal that lay ahead — and not just for him. Perhaps, not even primarily for him. Despite his pretensions of manhood, Little Joe was only a boy, a frightened boy who obviously already felt as if he were treading in water as deep as Lake Tahoe. What would happen when he realized that water was not a lake, but an ocean of turbulent waves?
Leading the horses, Little Joe soon returned. When he had carefully picketed them for the night, he squatted beside his brother. “How you doin’, Adam?”
“Fine,” Adam said.
“Uh-huh,” Little Joe muttered doubtfully. Why did he bother asking? “Anything I can get you?”
Adam shook his head. “Just set up camp. Eat something.”
Joe scowled. “All we got’s beans. Think you can manage that?”
“Not hungry,” Adam said.
Little Joe’s mouth curled in distaste. “Me, neither.”
“Eat,” Adam ordered tersely. “I need you strong.”
The boy sobered in quick acknowledgement of that truth. “Okay,” he said. “Stay put.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. Was that supposed to be a joke? Apparently not, since Joe, who could never resist laughing at his own jokes, had not even cracked a grin. Probably just too edgy to put two and two together and come up with the obvious.
Little Joe moved about quietly, clearing the area around Adam and building a fire at the right distance to keep his brother warm. He brought their two bedrolls and, after covering Adam, spread his own blankets little more than an arms’ length away. “You want coffee?” he asked his brother when the fire was burning steadily.
“Just water for now,” Adam said.
“I filled our canteens from the creek,” Little Joe said, “so it’s nice and cold.” He raised his brother up and held the canteen to his mouth.
Knowing that he should replenish lost fluids, Adam drank deeply. “Thanks,” he said when he pulled away.
Little Joe stripped off his heavy plaid coat, rolled it tightly and placed it beneath his brother’s head.
“Joe, no,” Adam protested.
“Don’t worry, Adam,” Little Joe said with a cheeky smile. “There’s no way you can get stuck with nursing me through a head cold now.”
Adam uttered a short, gasping laugh. “I guess that shoe’s on the other foot,” he admitted.
“Yeah.” Joe looked nervous again. “Look, I got no experience as a nurse. Is there somethin’ I should be doin’ for you?”
Adam nodded, but said only, “Eat first.”
“Who’s takin’ care of who?” Joe grunted as he opened the beans.
“Whom,” Adam said.
“Preposition ‘of’ takes objective case…whom.”
Little Joe’s lips fluttered with exhaled frustration. “Maybe I don’t know much about nursin’, but I’m pretty doggone sure you shouldn’t be wastin’ your strength correctin’ my grammar.” He set the opened can near the fire. “So, you think you’re gonna be able to sit a horse, come morning?”
Adam shook his head. “No. You know how to build a travois?”
“I’ll figure it out.” After a few minutes Little Joe reached for the can of beans, which was warm, but not hot enough to burn his hand. Sitting on his bedroll, with his legs crossed Indian style, he forked the lukewarm beans into his mouth.
Adam watched until he saw his brother set the empty can aside. “Joe?”
“Probably should wash out the wound.”
Little Joe turned a sickly shade of green. “Wish you’d said that before I ate.”
“No, it’s okay. Gotta be done, I guess. You got another clean bandana?”
Little Joe laughed hoarsely as he loosened the neck scarf he’d worn the last three days. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Right.” Adam sighed. “Wash it out first.”
“Yeah. Yeah, right.” Joe sprang to his feet and hurried to the creek, where he doused the bandana a half dozen times and wrung it out before running back to Adam’s side.
“Take a breath,” Adam grunted with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.
“I’m tryin’ my best, Adam!”
“I know.” Adam’s hand closed over that of his young brother, and though his grasp was weak, Little Joe felt a fresh infusion of strength.
Steeling himself, the boy loosened the tourniquet and slid it down below the wound. Then he gingerly dabbed at the crusted blood that surrounded the ragged hole and finally began to cautiously clean the wound itself.
“Good hands,” Adam whispered.
“Yeah?” Little Joe almost visibly relaxed under his brother’s smile of approval.
“Did it go through?” Adam asked.
Little Joe licked his lips. “I don’t know.”
“Uh, okay. Can you roll onto your other side, just for a minute?”
“If you help.”
Little Joe slowly rolled his brother away from him until he could see the underside of the leg. His voice choked as he reported, “I don’t see anything. It’s still in there, Adam.”
“Just my luck,” Adam muttered as he rolled back again. He glanced down at his leg. “Bleeding?”
“Put the tourniquet back then . . . but looser.”
As he again tied the makeshift tourniquet around his brother’s thigh, Little Joe asked, “What we gonna do about that bullet?”
“Nothing here,” Adam said. “Just get me back to the cabin.”
“At first light,” Little Joe promised.
Neither brother slept much that night. Though Adam tried to keep his moaning subdued, the minute he drifted to sleep, pain pressed through his vocal cords. Then Little Joe would wake from his own restless slumber and rise to check on his brother. Within a few hours, he began to feel fever burning beneath his anxious hands. From then on he didn’t bother trying to sleep, but alternately paced the camp with nervous energy or hovered over his brother, frenetically bathing his face and neck with cool water from the nearby stream. When a faint rosy glow haloed the mountains to their east, he folded the well-soaked bandana into a compress and laid it on Adam’s forehead, while he put together a travois to transport him. By the time the sky was light enough for them to travel, he was finished.
After saddling both mounts, he tied the travois to Adam’s chestnut and then moved the rig beside his brother and helped him slide onto the travois. At Adam’s instruction, he elevated the leg with both bedrolls and looped a full canteen around his brother’s neck for easy access. “You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Adam panted, for the effort of moving onto the travois had left him breathless. “Joe? Go easy, okay?”
“I can figure that much on my own, brother,” Little Joe said, though without a trace of the irritation with which he customarily reminded any other Cartwright of how grown up and knowledgeable he was.
“Doin’ good, kid.” Adam wearily closed his eyes, willing himself to stay awake to avoid any outcry when the inevitable bumps of the trail jostled his throbbing thigh.
Dusk was descending when the Cartwright brothers arrived back at the old trapper’s cabin. Little Joe stepped wearily from the saddle. There’d be no jokes about old bones tonight; his muscular, young body ached as if it were as ancient as Pa’s…or, at least, Adam’s. He moved to the rear of the horse and crouched beside the travois. “Adam?”
There was no response.
“Adam!” Joe shook his brother’s shoulder.
With a groan Adam opened his eyes. “Wha…?”
“We’re home,” Little Joe said. “Well, not home…not really home…just…”
As Adam appeared to drift off again, Joe again shook his shoulder. “Adam! Not yet,” he urged. “You can sleep all you want once I get you inside, but you gotta help me. I can’t lift you if you’re dead weight; I just can’t!”
Glazed hazel eyes stared at the boy. “Okay.” He lifted his arm and stretched it toward his brother.
Little Joe quickly slid his arm behind Adam’s back and raised him to a sitting position. For a moment he didn’t think he’d be able to get his brother to his feet, but then the wounded man pushed himself up and stood, shakily leaning on the more slightly built youth.
“Don’t put weight on that bad leg,” Joe cautioned. “We’ll just take it slow and easy. Now we’re here, we got all the time in the world.” Of necessity, he’d walked the horses all the way from their mountain camp, and even though he’d stopped only to check on Adam and cool his flushed face from time to time, he’d been fearful they wouldn’t reach the cabin before dark. Now that they had, everything seemed possible again.
“Horses…fire,” Adam panted.
Little Joe’s gusty exhale was composed of two parts exhaustion and one of pure exasperation. He’d been handling things the best he knew. Would Adam never feel a lick of confidence in him? Still, Adam was hurt, so Joe deliberately kept his tone level as he said, “Yeah, I know. I’ll take care of all that, but you first, older brother.”
Joe smiled to himself. Adam going along with what he said this easy? Well, that was different. Probably only a sign of how weak his brother was, but it sounded good, anyway. One step at a time, with Adam leaning heavily on him, he entered the cabin and walked to the bunk in the corner, where he eased his brother onto the thin mattress. “Guess you get the soft bed again,” he said.
“Sorry.” Genuine regret coated the single word.
Little Joe patted his shoulder. “Don’t matter none, older brother.” He said it to make Adam feel better, but then realized that if tonight in any way resembled the one they’d passed last night, the lack of a bed truly wouldn’t matter a smidgen.
Closing the door softly behind him, Little Joe stepped into the pale moonlight and drank deeply of the crisp, pine-scented air. The deeper shadows of the trees stretching into the clearing beckoned to him. To some, the shadowy pines might have seemed eerie, but the youngest Cartwright had always found them comforting. When he was a little boy, prone to nightmares, sometimes he’d lean out his window and imagine they were tall soldiers standing guard over the Ponderosa and he’d feel safe. He hoped these pines were part of the same squadron, a whole troop of special guardian angels in uniforms of spiny green, protectively circling this cabin, because never had he felt less safe, more in need of protection—and not only for himself, not even primarily for himself.
With a concerned glance back at the cabin, he walked toward the trees. He couldn’t go far, of course. In fact, he felt guilty for leaving Adam at all, although his brother seemed to be sleeping easier now. He’d had to, though. He couldn’t stay in that stifling cabin one more minute. As Adam’s fever had risen, he’d taken to such violent shaking that Little Joe had stoked the fire so hot that he’d begun to sweat, even after donating his own blanket to his still shivering brother. I’d have a better chance of sleeping out here, he mused as he pulled a pine branch toward him and inhaled the fragrance of the needles. Releasing it, he shook his head. He couldn’t leave Adam alone that long. He’d have to go back inside soon, but he’d give himself a few more minutes out here in the cool comfort of the pines. He had some thinking to do, and this was surely a better place to do it than the airless interior of that cabin.
He scooped a pinecone from the ground and began to peel off the scales as his mind ruminated. Adam wasn’t getting any better. He didn’t want to face that fact, but the fever told him that much. Probably, that bullet was causing infection. It needed to come out, so if he could possibly leave Adam alone, he’d need to ride for help. While he’d hunted with his brothers before, they’d never come to this area when he was along, and he wasn’t sure which way to go. Maybe Adam could tell him. Maybe he knew the closest town with a decent doc. He’d ask as soon as his brother woke. The sooner he left, the sooner he could bring back the help Adam needed.
Not right away, though. He couldn’t leave his brother with nothing but cold beans and jerky to eat, could he? Well, maybe he could, the way Adam’s appetite had deserted him, but he’d feel better if he could, at least, find another rabbit, start some stew simmering. Fever notwithstanding, Adam was still lucid, so hopefully he’d be able to dish himself up a tin cup of stew. Satisfied with his plan, Little Joe sighed in resignation and headed back to the sweltering cabin.
“Huh?” Incredulous that he’d actually fallen asleep, Little Joe rolled over to face his brother through bleary eyes.
“Too far.” Adam seemed to be pushing the words out through sheer determination.
Little Joe yawned widely. Too far? What did Adam mean? Too far from home? Yeah, they were that, for sure, but guessing what thoughts might run through a fevered brain was plumb foolish. Finally, he just asked.
“From fire,” Adam said. “Take cold.”
Little Joe laughed as he sat up. “Older brother, I promise you I ain’t in no danger of gettin’ too cold unless I sleep outside. Quit your frettin’.” He got up and moved to sit at Adam’s side. “You feelin’ any better this morning?” he asked as he laid his hand across his brother’s forehead. Hot — far, far too hot — and dry as tinder. One touch answered his question without a word from Adam. “How about I try to make some broth out of beef jerky?”
Adam shook his head.
“Adam, you need to eat,” Little Joe said firmly. “If you think you can manage alone for a while, I’ll try to get a rabbit, make some proper stew, but…”
“No,” Adam said. He sounded almost angry. “I need…bullet out.”
Little Joe nodded glumly. “Yeah, I figured that. I ain’t real familiar with these parts, so I was gonna ask where you thought I should go to fetch a doctor, but I wanted to leave you something to eat first. Adam, you gotta get somethin’ inside you.”
Adam stared, wide-eyed, at him. “Joe…sorry. No doctor…too far. You take out…bullet.”
Little Joe jumped up and backed away from his brother. “I can’t, Adam; I just can’t.”
“Have to,” Adam insisted. “No one else.”
“No!” the sixteen-year-old cried, and he turned and fled from the cabin, running toward the shelter of the surrounding pines. He latched onto the first one he encountered and wrapped an arm around its thick trunk. “I can’t,” he whispered, pressing his cheek into the rough bark. “I can’t cut into my own brother; I just can’t!”
Inside, Adam raised up and reached a shaking hand toward the just-slammed door. “Joe,” he called weakly. Then he fell back onto the thin mattress. Stupid! Stupid, he chided himself. Just a kid…just a kid…too much to ask. He closed his eyes, trying to figure some way out of this predicament, but his mind was too filled with concern for his young brother. How far had he gone? He wasn’t even wearing a coat. Come back for that, Joe, just for that. I promise I won’t ask…anything more.
The cinnamon scent of the stalwart Ponderosa bark wafted into Little Joe’s nostrils, and with it seemed to come a measure of the pine’s strength. In that moment he knew: the evergreens weren’t standing sentinel over his brother’s life; he was. Adam had always stood sentinel over him, but this time he had to do it for Adam. “I can’t,” he whispered one more time; then he forcefully shoved the craven thought aside. “But I have to.” Pushing away from the pine, he stood as tall as a tree — well, more likely a sapling — and headed back toward the cabin.
He took a deep, stomach-stilling breath and opened the door. Walking directly to his brother, he said, “All right. Tell me what to do.”
Face flooded with gratitude and admiration, Adam patted the edge of his mattress, and when Little Joe sat beside him, he said, “Listen close first time. Can’t promise to stay with you.”
Little Joe squeezed his hand to signify that he understood. Not sure I can, either, brother. Only his heart rumbled those words, however. He silenced their roar and listened carefully as Adam haltingly told him, step by step, what he needed to do.
Adam’s fingers closed over his brother’s trembling left hand, the one holding a knife poised for the first cut into his leg. “Yeah. You can do this.”
“‘Course, I can.” The bravado might have sounded less forced had Little Joe’s traitorous voice not broken mid-sentence.
Adam gave his brother a final, encouraging smile, knowing full well that the next sounds issuing from his mouth would probably be anything but encouraging.
Little Joe raised his eyes in fleeting petition to God. Then he sliced the knife into his brother’s flesh. Blood streamed down the leg, and he quickly stanched it with the folded cloth he had at hand. He choked down the stomach acid burning his mouth and used his fingers to probe the opening in search of the bullet. Shaking his head in frustration when he found nothing, he again picked up the knife. “Sorry,” he whispered.
Adam wanted to tell him it was okay, but he didn’t dare speak unless he had to. He’d managed to restrain all but a single grunt when the knife cut him, but holding back the groans growling up his throat had taken iron will as Joe’s fingers dug deeper into tender flesh. Thinking he might need to give further instruction during the procedure, Adam had refused the offer of a cloth bit in his mouth. With the second, deeper cut of the knife, he reconsidered that decision, but it was too late. The groans slid past his gritted teeth, and the last thing Adam remembered seeing was the tears swimming in his brother’s eyes.
A single drop escaped, but Little Joe dashed it away with the back of an angry, blood-smeared hand. He’d hurt his brother, and it was killing him inside, but he couldn’t give way now, not to regret and certainly not to the childish fear that surged through him when he saw Adam go limp. Being unconscious was better for Adam, but Joe realized afresh how much he’d been relying on his brother’s being there, telling him what to do if anything went wrong. And he still couldn’t find that dang bullet!
Pursing his lips, he cut again and then followed the path of the knife with probing fingers. There! At last! His fingers closed around the metal, and he slowly drew it out, fearful each moment that his slick fingers might lose their hold. Nothing left to do now but clean the wound and bandage it. Thankfully, Adam had packed a roll of gauze in his saddlebags, although he hadn’t mentioned it until just before this operation. Saving it for when he’d need it most, he’d said, and considering there wasn’t that much, Joe thought that was probably good thinking. Adam was good at thinking ahead like that. Too bad he was the one shot, leaving the one who never thought more than a minute ahead to take charge of him. Little Joe had never dreamed he’d welcome taking a bullet, but right now it seemed like the better alternative. Should’ve thought that one out ahead, Adam!
Air — he needed air. His thinking had gone plumb squirrelly without it. Little Joe lurched to his feet and stumbled toward the door. He almost fell through it into the frosty air. Pines — he needed pines. No — dumb thought — he couldn’t go that far, not when Adam might come around at any minute. He had to stay…had to make himself go back inside…but not just yet. Air — he needed air — and he took it in with deep, chest-heaving gulps. Then, with one final, silent appeal to the sheltering evergreens to stand watch, he turned toward the cabin and walked through the door he hadn’t even thought to close.
With his cheek, Little Joe dreamily caressed the downy pillow, but it scratched more than he thought it should. Slowly a puzzled frown replaced the smile on his face. Why did his neck feel stiff and his entire body ache like he supposed an old man’s must? As his eyes reluctantly opened, reality slammed into him, and he realized he wasn’t home in his own bed, dreaming of pretty girls in evergreen dresses, holding hands and dancing in a circle around him. He was sitting on the slapped-together chair in the old trapper’s cabin, his cheek pressed into the lumpy mattress of Adam’s cot. He tried to raise his head, but something seemed to be weighing it down.
Then his senses cleared and he understood what that weight was. “Adam?” he whispered. When he heard no answer, he maneuvered his head from beneath his brother’s instinctively protective hand and unwound his twisted body, not certain how he’d gotten into that position in the first place. He had determined to keep watch over his brother, despite the heaviness of his eyelids after the loss of two nights’ sleep. That much he remembered, but evidently his tired body had overcome his will, and his head had fallen to the mattress.
Standing, he worked his kinked muscles by bending this way and that before checking on Adam. There were a few spots of blood on the bandage, but nothing that looked fresh. He felt his brother’s forehead and found it still warm. Less than before? Joe wasn’t sure, but he thought it was possible, and that possibility raised his hopes. Suddenly, he was hungry for the first time since that fool rifle had gone off, hungry enough to eat Hoss’ proverbial half a cow. Since he didn’t have any meat, he decided to stir up a batch of flapjacks. Coffee first, though. Even Adam might be up to a cup of that, when he woke.
It was the aroma of that coffee that finally pulled Adam from his heavy slumber. “Got enough for me?” he said.
Though the words had been soft, Little Joe’s attentive ear caught every syllable. “Sure thing, brother,” he almost burbled. He filled a tin cup and brought it to Adam, raising him to lean against the wall behind him. “Take it easy,” he advised. “It’s hot.”
Adam nodded and took a tentative sip. “But potable.”
Little Joe brightened still more. “You are feeling better!”
Adam wasn’t alert enough to grasp his brother’s theory that the use of twenty-dollar vocabulary indicated returning health, so he responded literally. “Some.”
Little Joe sat beside him. “I’m sorry for hurting you, Adam, but that bullet was in deep. Almost would’ve been easier cuttin’ in from the backside, if I’d knowed exactly where.”
Adam grimaced, but he tapped his brother’s arm with the back of his hand. “You did fine, kid.”
Joe’s nose wrinkled disdainfully. “Don’t see how you could know that, passin’ clean out like you did.”
“I think you mean desperation,” Little Joe chuckled.
“No other choice,” the younger boy said, as if he were the one now defining a twenty-dollar word.
Adam handed back the empty cup. “Tired.”
“Yeah. You sleep, then,” Joe said as he eased his brother down and covered him. “I’m gonna fry up some flapjacks.”
“Enjoy,” Adam said, and then his eyes closed.
Little Joe stayed close to the cabin that day and the next. Since Adam seemed to be sleeping restfully on the third day, however, he did range far enough to set a couple of rabbit snares. Toward suppertime, he checked them and found one empty, but the other one held a bunny in its noose. He frowned at the tiny thing. Barely more than a baby. He regretted taking its life; still, it would make a broth for his brother. He could make out on beans and jerky, if he had to, but Adam needed better nourishment. He reset the snares and hurried back to the cabin.
That night Adam was able to sit up and eat the broth, and the next day he even appeared to relish the gravy Joe made from the meager bits of rabbit meat and served over hot flapjacks. Disturbingly, however, the fever that had seemed to abate with the removal of the bullet was rising again, and by the fourth day after the extraction Little Joe could no longer withstand the evidence he felt each time he touched his brother’s ever-warmer flesh. Adam wasn’t getting better, and he didn’t know what to do.
“Pa’ll be expectin’ us about now, won’t he?” he asked tentatively as he offered his brother broth from another rabbit the snare had finally produced.
“Not due home ‘til tomorrow,” Adam said, “and he won’t worry too much if we’re a day or two late.”
“Yeah. Hope not.” Little Joe was happy to keep up the façade that he was only concerned about worrying their father. Contrary to his usual attitude, this time he actually hoped Pa would fret up a storm once they were a minute overdue; then, maybe, he’d come looking for his tardy little boys. Pa’ll know how to help Adam, and even if he don’t, at least he can stay here while I ride for a doc. None of that, however, was anything to worry Adam with, so Joe kept it to himself.
He needn’t have bothered. Weak as he was, Adam was still up to hiding behind a façade of his own. He could feel fever burning behind his closed eyelids, and the leg was on fire. Try as he might, that night he could no longer control his chilled shaking, and though he protested when Little Joe sacrificed his own blanket, he welcomed the extra cover. By morning he knew that he was in bad shape, and what was worse, he knew that his young brother knew, too. Joe’s open face had always read like a book, and that morning, the tale plainly written across it was fear.
Adam waited until his brother had finished his breakfast of flapjacks and then called him over. “I think you’d better have a look under those bandages,” he said.
“Yeah…okay.” Little Joe slowly and carefully unwound the bandage, wincing at the sickly yellow stain on the final layer.
Little Joe bit his lower lip. “It ain’t pretty.”
“Just tell me what you see!”
“Sorry. It’s — uh — kind of swollen, red around the edges, but they’re sort of — well, dark. I guess that means infection?”
Regretting the impatience of his last words, Adam regulated the tone of his voice. “Bound to be some. Anything else?”
Little Joe nodded. “It’s seepin’ some kind of thick, yellowish stuff.”
Adam forced himself to smile. “Laudable pus.”
The words produced a blank stare on his brother’s face. “What kind of pus?”
Adam swallowed hard. “Laudable…a good thing.”
Little Joe cocked his head quizzically. “It is? But I thought…”
“Ask any doctor,” Adam replied with a stage-worthy air of confidence. It wasn’t a complete lie. Many doctors, perhaps even the majority, still thought pus was a necessary stage in the healing of a wound, that it indicated the poison was being pushed out of the body. As he knew from private conversation, however, Dr. Paul Martin, their family physician, wasn’t among them. “Just wash it out and bandage again, okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Little Joe fetched some clean water and did as his brother had asked. “So, you’re doin’ better, in spite of the fever and all?”
“Right.” Lest evidence of the bald-faced lie show on his face, he quickly asked, “You checked the rabbit snare yet?”
“No, but if you’re okay for now, I’ll go ahead and do that. Maybe we’ll get a fat one today!”
“Hope so. Stew sounds good.” As soon as Joe left, Adam covered his face with a shaking hand. The optimistic picture he’d painted for his brother was far from an accurate one, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep up the fantasy that, contrary to all external evidence, he was actually improving. Joe might be young and inexperienced, but he was no fool. If the fever kept rising, if the leg kept swelling, if more of that so-called “laudable pus” kept oozing from the putrefying wound — all highly likely — the kid would eventually figure it out. Worse, if the fever made him delirious, he might well babble it out himself. He’s too young to face — Adam laughed harshly — for that matter, I’m too young. I may have to grow up fast, but Joe? Not if I can help it!
By the next afternoon Adam knew the worst. He’d convinced Little Joe to go out in search of real game. “A more substantial meal,” he’d said, hoping the boy would take that as sign of a healthier appetite. In truth, he was more interested in getting a substantial meal into his brother, who had been subsisting mainly on flapjacks while saving the occasional rabbit for broth.
Adam took advantage of the time alone to explore his own wound. He didn’t dare unwrap the bindings. Joe would notice. Instead, he trusted his sense of touch. His thigh felt enormous, compared to the other, and when his fingers explored the bandage, he found it damp and sticky. Bringing his fingers to his nostrils, he gagged at the putrid odor. He didn’t need to actually see the gunshot wound. What he’d felt and what he’d smelled was enough to tell him gangrene was present, and in this isolated setting, far from medical help, there was no doubt how that would end. He was going to die, and hard as it would be to die alone, there was no way he would allow his baby brother to watch it happen. He had to get the kid out of here, but what ruse would possibly work?
A couple of hours later Little Joe burst through the cabin door with none of the caution he’d been using since his brother’s accident. “Guess what, Adam?” He was almost babbling with excitement.
“Three fat rabbits?” Adam teased, pouring energy into his voice.
“Better than that! I bagged a deer!” the boy crowed. “How’s that for substantial?”
“Perfect. Good job, oh mighty hunter.”
“Yeah, well, I gotta get it cleaned and skinned,” Joe said, “but I wanted to check on you first.”
“Good kid.” Adam’s voice was warm with appreciation for all his little brother had done to deal with this catastrophe. “I’m doin’ fine, thanks.”
Little Joe eyed him somewhat dubiously. “You sure? Reckon I ought to check that wound before I get my hands all bloody?”
“I already did. It’s fine. And — and I’m hungry for venison.”
Little Joe shrugged. “Well, okay, then. I’ll be just outside, so give a holler if you need anything.”
Adam exhaled slowly as the boy left. He’d pulled it off, but he’d sapped his strength. If this scheme were to work, he’d have to tap into some hidden reserve by the time his little brother had cleaned that deer.
Later that evening, when by strength of will he’d managed to choke down his “more substantial” meal, Adam called his brother over. “Really glad you found that deer, Joe.”
“It’s what I was hoping for,” Joe said with a saucy grin as he sat at his brother’s side. “Gettin’ kind of tired of rabbit myself, and I know sick folks can get even finickier.”
“Maybe.” Adam passed over a point he might otherwise have contested. “Not what I meant, though. Having that much meat means I can spare you a few days.”
“Spare me?” Thinking that this, too, was a sick man’s notion, Little Joe patted his brother’s arm. “I’m not going anywhere, Adam.”
“Yes, Joe, you are,” Adam said with older-brother-authority. “Just listen. You said it before, but I wasn’t thinking clearly: we’re overdue now, and Pa’s bound to worry.”
Little Joe nodded soberly. “By now, yeah.” Then he brightened. “But that’s a good thing, Adam. Probably already packing up to head this way.” The thought of pending rescue pierced through the night of his ordeal like a shining star.
“It would be,” Adam drawled, giving himself time to think, “except he doesn’t know where we are.”
Little Joe stared at him. “Sure, he does. You talked about your plans.” He rolled his eyes. “‘Til I got dizzy with it.”
Adam smiled. Odd, how endearing his baby brother’s dinnertime disgust with him could seem now, when he’d probably never see it again. “Only the general direction.”
The boy’s brow furrowed. “You said the other day that you’d talked about this cabin at dinner.”
Of all the times for the kid to start paying attention! Adam quickly reframed the truth. “I mentioned a cabin, yes, but not its exact location.”
“But Hoss must’ve known.”
Adam could hear the pleading in his brother’s voice. “No, we never discussed it that specifically.” Another bald-faced lie. Hoss knew exactly where this cabin was; in fact, he’d been the one to suggest it. “Pa won’t be able to find us on his own, Joe; that’s why you have to find him.”
Little Joe bolted to his feet. “I ain’t leavin’ you alone, Adam!”
“No! Yeah, we got food enough now, but you ain’t able to fend for yourself.”
Adam reached toward him. “I can, Joe. I’m better now.”
“Not that much! Fact is, I’m startin’ to think you’re plumb delirious with fever.”
Adam moistened his dry lips. “Joe, you’re not thinking.”
“I’m not thinking!” The boy sounded indignant.
“No, you’re not,” Adam answered with controlled calm. “You can’t get me home by yourself. We need Pa. Once you’ve told him how to get here, you can go on and find a wagon to” — his voice caught, and then he pushed on –“to bring me home. Pa needs you, Joe. He could wander around these hills for months without finding this place.”
“I…don’t know.” Joe still sounded reluctant, but clearly the picture of his father searching aimlessly through the mountains was making inroads into his resolve.
Adam was quick to play on it. “You know Pa. He won’t stop ‘til he finds us, but he’ll be searching blind …and it could snow any time.”
Little Joe’s open face revealed the deeper cut into his resolve. “And we need to get you out of here before that,” he said slowly. “A wagon would sure help.”
“Exactly,” Adam said with relief. It was working!
Little Joe still looked troubled. “Yeah, but how you gonna keep the fire going, Adam? You ain’t even been out of your bed yet.”
“I’ll manage, so long as you bring in plenty of firewood.” Adam deftly turned his brother’s attention from his concern about leaving to what he needed to do if he did.
Little Joe nodded. “I guess I need to do that, either way.” He pulled on his coat and headed back into the cold night air.
Normally, Adam would have told him it could wait for daybreak, but his full focus now was on getting Joe away from the cabin as early as possible tomorrow. Joe was moving in the right direction for that, and Adam would do absolutely nothing to delay his progress toward that desired end. If it required a performance to rival that of the Booth brothers — Junius, Edwin and John Wilkes, combined — then, so be it. He could — and probably would — collapse later.
Morning came, and with it less-than-subtle hints that Little Joe should get an early start. “I still don’t like this much,” the boy responded.
“It’s what you need to do.” Adam hoped the slight pause between virtually every word would come across as emphasis.
“Yeah, I guess. I should probably redress that wound before I go.”
Mercy, was there no getting this kid out the door? “Leave it until Pa comes,” Adam said. “We probably only have enough material to do it once; best to save it for the journey home, I think.”
Little Joe frowned. “Don’t you think Pa’ll pack some bandages, just in case?”
The kid was getting entirely too sharp! “Can’t count on it,” Adam said. “Get goin’, Joe. Sooner you leave, sooner Pa can get back here — and you with that wagon.”
“Okay.” Little Joe gathered up his supplies, but hesitated at the door. “Don’t let that fire go out,” he ordered.
“Right. And take Sport with you, okay? It’ll slow you down some, but I can’t take care of him now.”
Little Joe rolled his eyes. “I already figured that one out on my own, Adam.”
“Good; that’s good, kid.” Should have trusted him for that. He’s heard Pa’s adage about putting livestock first all his life. “Take care, Joe; I’ll miss you.” He almost choked on those final words, but he had to say them. He didn’t dare try to express what he was really feeling, but he wanted the last words his brother ever heard from him to carry some note of love and brotherhood.
Then Joe was gone, and with him all life seemed to leave the cabin. Instead, Death draped its shadowy shroud across the room. It wouldn’t be a quick and easy one, though. Adam would have all too much time to think, time to lament all he would leave behind. Oh, how he would miss his baby brother! He’d gotten a glimpse this week of the man the boy would become, but how he wished he could stay and see Little Joe come to full maturity. And Hoss, the brother who had been his closest friend since his own boyhood –he’d never see that cherub face again, never feel his exuberant bear hug. Pa. Pa would surely be leaving home tomorrow, the next day at the latest. Another couple of days for the trip. Gangrene killed, but not quickly, so he hoped he could hold on long enough to see Pa once more. He desperately wanted a chance to say good-bye, an opportunity to tell him directly what it had meant to have Ben Cartwright as a father and to convey messages to both his brothers. He couldn’t possibly have shared those with Little Joe without discarding the mask that all was well, but he could be honest with Pa. And Pa could help him make the difficult passage from Earth to — well, he hoped it would be Heaven. He had a few fresh lies to repent of before approaching the Pearly Gates, but he thought God would understand. He closed his eyes, and damp eyelashes touched his cheeks as he whispered, “To sleep, perchance to dream.”
Little Joe blazed another tree and sheathed his hunting knife. That should be enough. He was back on the main trail now, and he’d carefully marked the place Pa would need to diverge from that to reach the cabin, as well as blazing a number of trees along the route back to Adam. All that had taken extra time, of course, so he wasn’t as far down the trail as he’d expected by midday.
He squinted at the sun directly above his head. Eat now or try to make more ground? The question was hardly worth asking, since he hadn’t had any appetite all morning. Mounting his pinto, he gathered up Sport’s reins and the lead rope on the mule and moved at a steady pace. He tried to keep his mind fixed ahead, on meeting up with Pa and working together to get Adam home, but his thoughts continually drifted back to the brother he’d left behind. He kept fretting about whether Adam really was strong enough yet to feed himself, much less the fire. And how would he keep his fever down with no little brother there to lay cold compresses on his burning head?
It was more than that, though. Valid as those concerns were, beneath them crouched a nameless fear that kept niggling away at the deepest recesses of his mind. Some instinct told him that he shouldn’t have left…and not for any of the reasons he’d worried over. Something was wrong, more wrong than any of those things. He sensed it, but he couldn’t pin it down. Something Adam had said… something not right; yet every time he tried to grasp it, it skittered away.
Adam had sounded so sure about everything he’d said, and after all, Adam was the smart one, not the good-for-nothing-special, life-of-the-party one. Even that morning he’d explained the widening yellow-green stains on his bandage by saying that it showed most of the poison had been pushed out. The ongoing fever only meant that his body was fighting hard to expel what still remained. It had all sounded reasonable while Adam was talking. Now, with only the voice of his own nagging doubt, instead of Adam’s smooth-as-silk logic, it didn’t sound reasonable at all. It sounded…like a lie.
Would Adam lie to him? All the Cartwright boys had been trained in honesty, but not one of them was above stretching the truth in a good cause. Did Adam have good cause now? A shiver went down Joe’s spine, and the nameless fear began creeping up it. Why? Why would Adam lie? To get him out of the cabin? He shook his head. That didn’t make sense. He’d done a good job of caring for his brother, and there wasn’t anyone else. Sure, Pa would do better. Maybe that’s what Adam was thinking, that sending his brother after Pa would get him here faster. That made sense, but it didn’t have the ring of truth. The nameless fear began to nibble at the back of his brain. He tried to push it down, but it only screeched louder. Finally, it screamed out its ugly name: Death.
No! Little Joe pressed his hands to his ears, to shut out the soundless shriek, but unlike all Adam’s smooth words, which had sounded so right, but felt wrong, this sounded wrong, but felt miserably true. Pulling his hands away from his ears, he faced the truth with lips grim and taut: Adam was dying; he knew it, and he’d sent his little brother away so he wouldn’t have to watch. Joe wheeled his horse around and headed back the way he’d come.
The shadows inside the cabin were deepening as the firelight dwindled. Ought to get up and stoke it, Adam thought. But it scarcely seemed worth the bother. Death from cold was said to be as easy a way to go as a man could find. Just go to sleep and never wake. No pain, no rehearsing of regrets, just peaceful oblivion. So, what was the point of prolonging the matter? Pa, he reminded himself. Pa was the point, and for Pa he’d get up and stoke the fire…soon.
The door flew open with a mighty bang, and framed in the opening stood a glowering figure. “Joe?” Adam croaked. Joe wasn’t supposed to be here; he was supposed to be far away by now, safe from . . .
“What kind of fool kid did you take me for?” Little Joe demanded hotly as he stormed across the room to stir up the dying embers of the fire. “Well, the kind I am, I guess, since I fell for that playacting of yours!”
“What are you doing here?” Adam groaned.
“Instead of chasin’ that wild goose you sent me after?”
“No… Pa. You find Pa?”
Little Joe’s face hardened as he strode to his brother’s side. “It wasn’t about finding Pa, and you and I both know it. Stop lying, Adam!”
“Joe…please.” Adam’s voice broke on a sob.
That was all it took to quench the fire blazing in Little Joe’s eyes. What was he doing, yelling at a sick, maybe even dying, man? Mortified, he fell to his knees beside the bed. “I’m sorry, Adam,” he murmured, repentant hands touching the fevered face, “but no more lies, okay? I got to know the truth.”
Little Joe sighed in exasperation with what he took for more prevaricating. “Yeah, Adam, truth. What’s the truth about — oh, say, laudable pus, for instance. Is there any such thing?”
Adam stared into his brother’s eyes and wilted under their withering gaze. “Debatable.”
“Adam, so help me!” Joe regained control of himself. “No twenty-dollar words, brother. Just answer me plain: is there such a thing or not?”
“And some docs say no? Well, just what side of this here debate does good ole Doc Martin come down on, hmm? Or can I guess?”
Adam withered still further into the mattress. “You can guess,” he said slowly.
“Yeah, figures. Gotta protect the little kid from the truth, right?” Joe shook his head from side to side. “No more, Adam. Tell me how things really stand and give it to me straight.”
Adam closed his eyes. “Bad…they stand bad.”
Little Joe took his hand. “How bad?” he asked softly. “Are you…are you…” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the question, especially as he saw tears brim his brother’s eyes.
“Think so,” Adam whispered. “Gangrene…no doctor.”
Gangrene. Only a ten-dollar word at best, but it sent frissons of horror racing through every vein and artery in Joe’s body. He wasn’t as educated as Adam, but he knew that word. You didn’t live near the Sierras without hearing tales of men with gangrene, either dying alone or, if they were brave enough, sawing off parts of their own bodies so they could survive. “Isn’t there something we can do?” he asked, dreading whichever answer he’d receive.
“Nothing you could do.”
Little Joe heard the emphasis on the word and understood at once what his brother meant. “Oh, yes, I could,” he said, giving Adam’s hand a firm squeeze. “Rather than watch you die, I could do anything. Anything, Adam! Is it…is it…am-ampu…”
Adam uttered a short, rough laugh. The idea of his baby brother performing a procedure he couldn’t even bring himself to name seemed suddenly hilarious, but he had neither the strength nor the heart to continue laughing. “No, Joe.” Moistening his dry lips, he explained, “Wound that high, have to take off…at hip. Don’t even know how…tell you…what to do. Need real doc…for that.”
No one needed to tell Little Joe that a real doctor was impossible. The nearest one was too far away, had been too far away from the moment that rifle went off. “There has to be something we can try.” His voice was pleading, desperate. “Isn’t there something, Adam?”
Adam pursed his lips thoughtfully and finally said, “Maybe…one chance…hard on you.”
Sitting back, Little Joe squared his shoulders. “I can do it. Gotta be easier than, than…the other.”
Adam gave him a weak, lopsided grin. “Not much. Still gotta cut…putrid stuff.”
Little Joe exhaled slowly, hoping he’d expelled all his fear along with the air. “Well, let’s get at it, then.”
Adam’s eyebrow arched quizzically. “Horses?”
Little Joe slumped. “I forgot,” he admitted.
His younger brother wagged his head from side to side. “Yes, Pa,” he drawled and hurried out the door.
“Are you?” Having seen his little brother rush from the cabin to vomit out the meager contents of his stomach at first sight of the rotting flesh, Adam could scarcely be blamed for the ironic tone with which he asked the question.
Mouth clamped shut, perhaps to hold back more bile rising up his throat, Little Joe nodded curtly and cut into the leg. Blood mingled with jaundiced pea ooze as he sliced away the blackness that edged the wound. Dead flesh, Adam had called it, saying it all had to go, because that’s what was poisoning his body, inside and out. Again and again Joe cut away the gangrenous tissue, closing his ears to the outcries his brother could not silence this time. It had to be done, so it would be done—not as well as Doc Martin, but with equal, if not greater, determination to do it thoroughly.
Stabbing pain continually pulled Adam back to consciousness whenever he started to drift away, but only by sheer grit did he stay with his brother as Joe wrapped their last fresh gauze around the leg. “Thanks, ki…” He chopped the word off, but not from weakness, as Joe presumed. It simply felt wrong on his tongue. No kid could have done what his baby brother had just done. Adam wanted to explain, but his strength was fading fast. “Sleep,” he whispered.
“That’s right,” Little Joe soothed, as he drew the blankets over his brother.
A half-smile twisted Adam’s mouth. “Meant…you.”
Little Joe grinned. Trust big brother to worry about him to the very end. He turned quickly away, lest Adam see the tears in his eyes. Dear God, don’t let it be the end!
As the sun descended, sending amber strings of light through the chinks in the cabin that Adam hadn’t filled that first day, Little Joe prowled the four corners of the room like a caged cougar. Though exhausted, he couldn’t rest, and except for periodically trying to cool his brother’s fever, he kept moving, trying, perhaps, to outpace the fear that stalked each step he took.
He knew that the desperate carving he’d done on Adam’s thigh was his brother’s last chance. What if it wasn’t enough? What if, despite everything, he had to watch his brother die? It wasn’t the watching that bothered him, he realized as he paced the cabin; if Adam really were dying, he wanted to be here for him. No one should have to face that alone. He stopped still and stared at the bed as a hard truth hit him. There was another thing no one should have to face alone: the loss of a big brother with whom one had shared a lifetime of memories.
His steps slowed as his mind drifted back to the scene of a tiny boy dandled on his brother’s knee, his first recollection of Adam as Adam, separate from all the other big people in the house. Supple hands supported his back as he looked up, up, up at the face so far above him. So tall his brother was, though he didn’t yet know to call him that. So strong. He’d felt secure in those hands, as safe there as in the arms of his father or mother. Though he hadn’t yet formed a single word, he thought his eyes must have shone with trust. A fanciful thought, maybe, but how could he have felt something that deeply without its showing?
Trust. That word seemed to sum up his deepest feelings toward Adam as he grew from babe to toddler to little boy. Adam — always there to run to if something scared him, whether it was a tumble down the stairs or a howling noise outside his window. He’d run to Pa or to Mama quicker, of course, and for lesser frights, to Hoss, but especially when nighttime fears were chasing him, Adam, just across the hall, was closer than Pa and bigger than Hoss, at least early on. In the dark days after his mother’s death, when Pa had all but disappeared from his life, Adam had been there, holding him while he grieved and providing all those lesser needs like food and clothing, as well.
And then he was gone. Barely months after losing his mother, the big brother who had become his rock just vanished, ripped away by a stagecoach headed east and held captive in some dark dungeon called college. Surely, it had to be something as gruesome as that to keep Adam away from him!
By the time his brother returned, Little Joe had understood that no fairy-tale ogre had forced Adam into that dungeon; he’d walked in of his own free will. Joe’d had a hard time forgiving his brother for that. He’d held back at first, not willing to risk rejection again, but gradually he’d come to realize that Adam was still Adam underneath a thick-padded coat of book-learning. He could be downright aggravating with that padding…or he could use it to rescue a kid brother who’d worked himself out onto a limb. Little Joe smiled wistfully as he recalled the innumerable times Adam had pulled him out of some conflagration of his own kindling. Trust. It had taken time, but the trust he’d felt as a baby on his brother’s knee had returned and deepened.
That trust had almost been his downfall, too. Without it, Adam would never have been able to pull the wool over his eyes the way he had. Adam’s word had always been something he could count on, so he’d accepted the story his brother had woven out of whole cloth. Probably because I wanted it to be true, he admitted now. Can’t make that mistake again…but how can I not want him to be better? How can I stop trusting after a lifetime like we’ve shared? Just let me see things as they are, he finally prayed as he sat down again to bathe Adam’s burning face with cool water.
Adam slept soundly, not waking until early the next morning. “I feel better, Joe,” he said.
Little Joe shook his head. “I’ve heard that before, brother, so I ain’t real inclined to take it on your say-so.” He laid his hand across Adam’s forehead and frowned. “Still feels mighty warm.”
“Better, though,” Adam insisted. “I can tell. My eyes don’t burn as much.”
“Well, if you’re right, fever’ll keep on goin’ down, won’t it?”
“It should,” Adam answered cautiously.
“I’m gonna check the wound now,” Joe announced with such no-nonsense authority that Adam acquiesced without another word. He examined the bandage carefully and then covered his brother again.
“No worries…yet.” Standing, he tucked the blanket under Adam’s chin. “Get some more rest.”
Little Joe pointed an index finger. “For now, older brother, I give the orders. Sleep!”
Joe had no intention of following his brother’s dictates, but after eating a couple of flapjacks, his eyes grew heavy, so he pushed the plate away and laid his head on the table to rest them for a few minutes. He was still there, head cushioned on his folded arms, hours later when the door to the cabin creaked open. Whether it was the sound or the shaft of light that streamed across his face, something made him open his eyes. There, in the doorway, stood the most welcome sight a weary boy had ever seen. “Pa!” he cried as he lurched to his feet and, still groggy, stumbled across the room.
Ben caught his son in his arms. “Joe? What on earth?”
“You did know where the cabin was!”
“Well, no, not exactly,” Ben said, “but Hoss did, and someone had marked the way.”
Standing upright, Little Joe shook his head in disgust. “Well, that figures. He lied about that, too!” With a pointed look toward the cot, he said, “You need to have a serious discussion with that oldest boy of yours about truth-telling, Pa.”
Ben took the boy’s face in his hands and pulled it back toward him. “Perhaps, but what I want now is a serious discussion with my youngest son. What’s happened here, Joe? What’s wrong with your brother?”
It was the cry of a boy who had reached the end of his stamina, so Ben quickly pulled him over to the splintery chair and then knelt in front of him. “Tell me all about it, son,” he said, taking the boy’s hands.
Between hitched breaths and stammering lips, Little Joe somehow rehearsed the events of the last few days, his father’s eyes growing wider and more sober with each new development. “He says he’s better,” Joe finally finished, “but I don’t trust him anymore, Pa, and I don’t trust my own fingers, either, ‘cause they’re tellin’ me he’s cooler, but they told me that before and they was wrong. They was so wrong and…”
Ben laid a finger across his son’s lips. “That’s enough, son. I’m gonna check on your brother now, and I want you to sit here…quietly. Understood?”
Little Joe started to speak, but his father pressed the finger down more firmly. “No. Just sit…quietly. Understood?” He nodded his own head to demonstrate the sort of answer he wanted. When he got it, he stood and walked briskly across the room.
His hand trembled as it reached for his son’s face. If even half of what Joe had babbled was true, he’d nearly lost his oldest son — might lose him even yet, for that matter. He was relieved by what he felt. Adam was warm, clearly feverish, but not nearly as burning hot as Joe’s story had made him fear. Small beads of sweat were forming on the brow, too, perhaps an indication that the fever was breaking. Moving to the leg itself, he checked the bandage wrapped thickly around his son’s thigh. Some drops of blood stained the white surface, but not more than he would have expected after the surgery Little Joe had described, and he saw no sign of discoloration to indicate anything worse. Though he had more gauze in his saddlebags, the current bandage looked so clean he elected to leave it in place.
Ben stood and walked back to his youngest son. “He may not have been lying this time,” he said.
Little Joe looked up hopefully. “He really is better?”
“Time will tell,” his father said, “but I think there’s a good chance, son.” He laid a strengthening hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Help me unsaddle my horse and bring in my gear.” He didn’t need the help, but he instinctively sensed that some good, clean, fresh air was exactly what this son needed.
As he stood, Joe looked anxiously across the room. “Adam?”
Gently, but steadily, Ben pulled him toward the door. “Sound asleep, and we won’t be gone long.”
When Adam next opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was his father’s face. “Pa,” he whispered, and as he recalled the reason he had so yearned to see that face one more time, uncharacteristic tears trickled down his cheeks.
“Adam?” Concerned, Ben leaned closer. “What’s wrong, son?”
“Nothing, Pa,” Adam said. “Nothing. Everything is…as it should be.”
Instinctively understanding what his son was saying, Ben raised Adam’s hand to his own damp cheek. “Yes, it is…now.”
“He’s okay?” Little Joe peeked over his father’s shoulder.
“See for yourself.”
Joe came forward then to lay his own hand against his brother’s forehead, and brightness spread across his countenance. “Welcome back, brother,” he said.
“Thank you, brother,” Adam returned warmly.
Ben chuckled. “So, ‘the kid’ did all right by you?” he teased in reference to the conversation he and Adam had shared before the trip.
Ben looked surprised and Joe devastated. In what way did Adam think he’d let him down?
Seeing their reaction, Adam quickly added, “Not a kid; that’s a man standing there.”
“Yes, that he is,” Ben agreed, proud gaze turning first to Joe and then back to Adam. “I’m a blessed man to have three fine men for sons.” And though he didn’t say it, he felt particularly blessed that the number still stood at three.
Adam’s eyelids were drooping. “Take care of Joe,” he whispered just before he drifted again to sleep, reassured by his father’s nod.
Little Joe tossed his hands at the rafters. “He never quits, does he?”
Ben turned and placed both hands on his youngest son’s shoulders. “No, never will, but you do look like you could use some tending, young man.”
“I could use some sleep,” Joe admitted.
Ben chuckled in acknowledgement of the obvious. “Well, I don’t have a feather bed to offer you, but I’ll gladly tuck you into a cozy bedroll.”
“Pa!” Little Joe hissed, so his remonstration wouldn’t wake his brother. “I don’t need tucking! You heard Adam: I’m a man now.”
Ben’s lips twitched as he said, “A man, yes…but a young man, a very young man. Go to bed, Little Joe.” And I’ll keep watch over both my little boys.
Getting Adam home was a time-consuming struggle, and his full recovery an even slower process. However, the day finally came, many weeks later, when all three Cartwright sons were again able to ride out together. Not one of them minded that all that lay before them was a day of rounding up strays. They were brothers and they were together. What more could a man ask?