Summary: A What Happened Next story for, The First Born.
Word Count: 2,200
Sleep wouldn’t come no matter how hard I tried. I just couldn’t get Pa’s words out of my head. Joe had followed Clay that evening and had been prepared to leave with him, to leave his family and the Ponderosa. How could he even consider doing such a thing? Clay was someone he had known but a few weeks, and, as it turned out, someone he hardly knew at all.
I tried to rationalize it in my head — after all Joe’s young, he was hurt and Clay was still his brother — but try as I might, I couldn’t come to terms with Joe’s decision or the sense of betrayal I felt because of it.
The hour’s ticked by but sleep still eluded me. Blast my little brother’s hide as I thought of the number of sleepless nights I’d spent because of him over the years. Well, there was nothing more for it; I decided to go downstairs and have a coffee. After all, the night was half gone when I had arrived home that evening and the little bit left wasn’t worth worrying about.
Dawn hadn’t quite arrived, but the pitch blackness of night had gone and I didn’t need a lamp to see my way to the kitchen; I knew I could find my way by instinct as I’ve made the trip so many times over the years.
As soon as I reached the top of the stairs, I knew instinctively that someone was sitting below. I knew without looking that it was Joe. How did I know? Maybe I heard his breathing, or possibly more likely, his conscience; my little brother may put up a façade of not caring about anything but horses and girls, but I knew differently.
I wasn’t sure whether to proceed; in many ways, it would have been easier to go back to bed. For there was no doubt Joe would be upset over losing Clay, but I couldn’t bring myself to sympathize, not after what Joe had been prepared to do. And would I be able to hold my tongue? That wasn’t an easy task for me; I’m opinionated and I know it, but it’s who I am. I didn’t want to argue with Joe; for one thing, he was injured, and for another, Pa would be furious if I made things worse than they already were.
Just then Joe raised his head and I was sure he saw me. This left me no choice; I had to join him.
I tried to act casual but this wasn’t an everyday situation.
“You okay, Joe?” What a stupid question, I inwardly groaned; after all, the kid looked positively awful! The beating he had taken the day before was really beginning to show. Even in the firelight I could see the bruising to his face; lord knows what the rest of his body looked like.
He didn’t answer me, just nodded his head and stared into the fire.
“Want a coffee?”
“Yes…thanks.” Joe whispered it so quietly I hardly heard him. Still it gave me something to do and prevented further conversation.
I returned from the kitchen and handed him his coffee, which he took without a word. I didn’t want to sit and make small talk, but at the same time, I couldn’t walk away from him; he was hurting and he was still my brother, after all. Again that thought brought bile to my throat; pity Joe hadn’t felt the same way about us.
We sat there for a long time not saying anything, just sipping at our coffee, each deep in his own thoughts. Eventually, I stood and threw a couple of logs onto the dying fire; Hop Sing would soon be rising to start breakfast and I would be glad of the distraction.
“Clay’s gone.” Joe’s voice was raw with pain, but instead of the usual protectiveness I felt towards him I had to swallow back the biting retort I instinctively wanted to make.
“I know,” I said simply, reining in my own emotions.
“H-he was just going to leave, not even say goodbye,” Joe blurted out. “How could he do that?”
“Well, you should know,” I shot back instantly, unable to withhold my anger any longer.
Joe’s mouth dropped open and he stared at me in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“From what I heard, you were prepared to go with Clay,” I retorted. Someone had to make him accountable for his actions; didn’t he realize the hurt he would have caused?
“B-b-but that was different,” he stuttered.
“Yes, you are right, it was different, Joe.” God protect me from myself; I was now on a roll and my tongue had a life of its own. “Clay had only been here a few weeks; he had the right to leave anytime he wanted. But you are part of this family, or so I thought. That’s meant to mean something. You have obligations, obligations to the people who have loved and protected you all your life. How do you think Pa would have felt had you never come back?”
Joe was stunned, it was obvious he just hadn’t thought of it from the other side, but it was time he did. The kid couldn’t go through life only thinking of himself; it was time he took responsibility for his actions.
“I-I would have come back,” Joe tried to say, but he didn’t sound convincing.
“Would you, Joe? When would that have been? Next week! Next month! Next year!”
“I just wanted Clay to stay,” he said lamely, like a small boy wanting his own way.
“Clay is a grown man and can make his own decisions as to where he lives,” I stated harshly. “You are also a grown man as well, Joe, and can live anywhere you want. But being grown up isn’t just about doing what we want; it’s about taking responsibility for your actions and thinking of others before you think of yourself. You should try doing that once in a while.”
Joe flinched and drew back as if he had been slapped, but I wanted my words to hit home. There was no doubt he had hurt Pa and Hoss by his thoughtless actions…and me.
“Did it never occur to you how worried Pa was when he found you gone? And if that wasn’t bad enough, your ribs are busted and you should have been in bed resting. That would only have added to Pa’s worries — afraid that by moving about you could be doing untold damage.”
Joe could no longer look at me as my words hit home; he sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and his chin began to quiver, a sure sign of his distress. But there was no way I was letting him off this easy.
“But what if Clay had said ‘Yes, come ride with me little brother’ and you had gone with him? How do you think Pa would have felt then? Sitting up all night waiting for you to come home, never knowing what had happened. You could have caught up with Clay and gone with him, but on the other hand, you could have fallen from your horse in your present state and lay dying out on the range. We would never have known.”
My voice had risen a few octaves as the terrible scenarios came to mind and it wasn’t just Pa I was thinking about. How would Hoss have come to terms with losing his little brother…how would I?
Joe’s eyes were now closed and his chin rested on his chest as each of my words hit home.
“I-I-I’m so s-s-sorry,” he eventually stuttered, his voice hardly audible.
When I didn’t answer, he looked up and our eyes locked, mine hard and still dark with anger; his awash with unshed tears and filled with the pain he was feeling.
“I-I-I just d-d-didn’t want to lose him; he’s my brother,” Joe said simply.
I was about to retort that Joe had only known Clay a few weeks, but something in his words hit home… ‘He’s my brother’. Clay had come into our family unannounced and I hadn’t been altogether comfortable with his presence, but it was different for Joe. They always say ‘blood is thicker than water’ and in many ways that is true. Whether Clay was a stranger or not, to Joe, he was blood -– a brother — and I knew better than anyone how special than bond could be.
Joe was speaking again. “I wasn’t really thinking about leaving home, I just wanted Clay to return with me and I suppose I thought if I went with him I could persuade him to come back. I just couldn’t let him go like that.”
This time when I looked at his face, so desperate for me to understand, all the anger seeped out of me. My baby brother was hurting in a way far worse than any bullet could do.
“I don’t know if I can explain,” Joe continued. “But having Clay here was like having part of my mother with me once more….a-a-and when he was leaving, it felt as if I was losing my m-m-mother all over again.”
The last statement was too much for my little brother, and putting into words how he felt was the final straw that broke him. Joe had always been an emotional child but as he grew into a young man he had managed to keep his tears in check until he reached the sanctity of his own room. On this occasion, however, it may have been the extent of his distress or it could have been the fact that he was also physically hurting, but sobs now racked his body and he buried his head in his hands.
Now it was my time to feel bad. Was this what I had wanted? I had known in my heart that Joe would never have acted the way he did because he didn’t care; he acted that way because he cared too much.
Crossing to the table, I poured two large glasses of brandy; it may still be early morning but I thought of them as medicinal.
“Here drink this,” I said wrapping my brother’s hand around the glass.
Joe took it from me and gulped down a large mouthful, which unfortunately sent him into a coughing fit, which in turn had him moaning in pain as he wrapped his free arm round his sore ribs.
“Oohh,” he moaned out loud. “I think I’m going to need a couple more of these to dull the pain.”
Then, to my disgust, he brought back memories of a ‘small’ Little Joe as he proceeded without thinking to wipe his running nose and eyes on the sleeve of his nightshirt.
Reaching into my pocked I pulled out my handkerchief and handed it to him. “Blow,” I instructed.
Just as in days gone by, Joe instinctively took the handkerchief and blew his nose loudly into it. He made to hand it back to me and as was the usual format, I declined. “Some things never change,” I commented, my voice now softer, more compassionate.
The memory brought a welcome smile to my little brother’s face and I couldn’t believe how much that meant to me. Joe could bring me to anger like no one else alive; he had the power to make the hairs on my neck stand on end with just a single word. But the thought of never seeing that smile gain brought a lump to my throat and I silently thanked Clay for giving him back to us.
I knew Pa might not approve, but I took Joe’s glass and refilled it to the brim. “Just sip it this time,” I warned.
Thinking now of what Pa had told me about the nature of Clay’s departure, I informed my little brother, “You know, Joe, Clay must have really thought an awful lot of you.”
“Hmm,” Joe responded, not convinced. “He had a funny way of showing it.”
“Oh, he cared,” I repeated. “He thought enough of you to send you home. I’m quite sure he would have loved to have his brother along for the ride, but he knew it wasn’t right for you and so he sacrificed his happiness for yours. That is the sign of a true brother’s love and he made it for you.”
Joe thought on my words and his eyes clouded over once more. I was worried I had said the wrong thing; I didn’t want him upset again. But just then a heavy tread on the stair above drew our attention to the staircase.
“What’s going on down there? How come I don’t smell breakfast? You better watch out, little brother, ‘cause if Hop Sing don’t get cracking soon I may have to eat you!”
I was quite sure Hoss had heard part of our conversation and, in true Hoss fashion, he knew just what to do to make Joe smile away his unhappiness…and he did. Just as brothers do.