Word Count: 11,800
“Stop it, Joe. Animals, people—everything living eventually dies. That’s the way nature meant it.” Adam Cartwright was trying to make the statement sound as a matter of fact as he could. His youngest brother was already tied up in emotional knots and he didn’t want to push him any further.
“I always thought you kept alot inside Adam,” Joe seethed, “but I was wrong. There isn’t anything inside, is there? Just a cold, empty space.” The fury in Joe’s green eyes made them burn bright. “I don’t know how you could ever be a part of this family.” The youngest Cartwright stared defiantly at his oldest brother for a moment, turned and walked out of the barn.
Joe’s words made Adam cringe. It wouldn’t do any good to pretend to himself that they didn’t hurt. That’s what he really thinks of me. I never wanted it to be this way….
Joe had worked long and hard with the new breeding stallion. He had bought the magnificent creature on a ranch just outside of Sacramento. The animal embodied all of his hopes and dreams for the breeding program at the Ponderosa. It wasn’t only the horse but Joe’s chance to show that he was just as important to the running and prosperity of the ranch as his older brothers. So when the animal suddenly became ill, it was a double blow to the young man. Everyone in the family had done everything they could to save the stallion’s life but in the end, it had not changed the outcome.
Joe was devastated by the untimely death of the horse. Neither his father nor his brothers could console him or convince him that he could pick up the pieces and move ahead with another stallion. As the days passed, Ben became concerned by Joe’s emotional swings between sadness and anger. Even Hoss, who was always close to his younger brother, couldn’t seem to get though to him. And so Adam, as the oldest, felt it was his responsibility to make the situation right.
Joe had always been emotional and truth be told, Adam had found that to be a part of his little brother’s charm. When this boy was happy everyone about him couldn’t help but be happy also. And even when he was angry, they all knew it would blow through as quickly as it came. But this time he was hurting himself with his emotions and more importantly, their father. He had approached Joe in the barn, trying one more time to reason with him. Adam kept his tone neutral, hoping not to set his brother off. But as the conversation continued, Adam met with little success and finally in his own frustration, he had managed to lose his temper.
Joe stormed into the house, slamming the door after him. He was hoping that his older brother had followed him. Hoss was coming in from the kitchen when Joe entered. “What’s wrong with you boy? Slamming the door like that. You better be glad Pa ain’t home.” The noise had caught Hoss by surprise.
“How the hell did he get into this family anyway? I don’t believe he’s a Cartwright. Maybe he’s just some bastard child Pa felt sorry for.” Joe’s temper had not diminished.
“Joe, you better not be talking about Adam. Have you lost your mind?” Hoss stormed. He started toward his brother with a menacing look on his face.
“Yeah, well I am, and I told him the same thing.” Joe stood as tall as he could. He wanted Hoss to know that for all his strength and power, he wasn’t afraid of him.
Hoss stopped short. “You said those things to Adam?” Incredulous, he hesitated. He couldn’t believe his younger brother would do that, even in a fit of temper. “I don’t know who you’re trying to hurt Joe but I do know you’ll rip this family apart with talk like that.” Hoss walked out the door, leaving Joe standing alone in the middle of the room.
Hoss took a deep breath before he entered the barn. He had no idea what to say or how to approach his older brother. He heard Adam murmuring soft, gentle words in a rhythmic cadence. When he looked over, Hoss saw that he was speaking to his horse as he brushed him with long, light strokes. It was as if he were comforting himself with the soothing words.
Hoss approached quietly. Before he could speak, Adam said, “There’s nothing to say. Don’t try.” His voice held no anger. He just seemed to be resigned to the fact that he had somehow failed to help Joe and in doing so, unleashed the younger man’s real feelings.
“He had no right to say them things to you Adam. I don’t care how upset he is. How can he forget everything you’ve been to him—and all over a horse.”
Hoss was becoming mad all over again.
“You know it’s more than the death of that horse. This program means everything to him. He’s got it all wrapped up in his need to prove himself–to Pa, to you and especially to me. Joe’s always felt he needed to earn his place on the ranch and this was his way to do that.” Adam stopped and turned back to Sport. He picked up the brush and started working again.
Hoss’ voice was quiet. “That don’t make it right, Adam.”
“I know Hoss but it does make it a little easier to understand.” They both turned toward the door when they heard a horse enter the yard. “Hoss—promise me you won’t say anything about this to Pa. He’s upset enough. Promise me.” Adam wanted an answer before his father walked in. “Please.”
“Ok Adam, but I plan on having a few words with Joe,” Hoss said. He was not about to give in on that.
“Hello boys. You two look pretty serious. Everything alright?” Ben led Buck to his stall.
“Everything’s fine Pa,” Adam answered, a little too quickly. “How was your trip to town?”
If Ben noticed, he gave no indication. “Oh meetings, you know. Some people just talk to hear themselves. To tell you the truth, I almost fell asleep once.” Ben smiled. After looking around, he said “So where’s that brother of yours?”
“He’s in the house.” Hoss’ tone was sharp and his words short. Adam gave him a warning look.
“He still upset because of the horse, son?” Ben had been hoping to see some improvement in Joe’s moods.
“Yeah—I guess he is Pa. Think I’ll go have a little talk with him.” Hoss looked at Adam, trying to read his face but whatever Adam was thinking remained within him.
Hoss entered the house and went straight up the stairs. He walked into Joe’s room without knocking.
“Hey Hoss—didn’t hear you come in.” Joe’s temper had cooled but he didn’t bargain on his middle brother losing his.
“Joe, I’ve watched you and Adam butt heads for years but I never heard either one of you say something hateful to the other. That is until today. Do you have any idea how much you hurt him?” Hoss stopped but only for a moment. “And he’s out there defending you to me and asking me not to tell Pa.”
“Don’t ask me to feel bad, Hoss—I don’t. The man’s ice inside. I don’t know why he’s like that but he is and I’m the only one who’ll say it.” Joe got up and walked across the room. He put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I’m sorry you got into the middle of this.”
Hoss moved away, shrugging off his brother’s hand. “Yeah, me too, Joe. But you couldn’t be more wrong. You just tore the heart out of someone who would do anything for you. Maybe someday you’ll see that.” Hoss left Joe’s room and quietly closed the door.
Dinner that night was a quiet affair even though all three boys made a valiant attempt at keeping the conversation going. The sounds of dishes bumping against each other and the scraping of plates were more prevalent than words. Ben eyed all of his sons in turn. There is something definitely going on with these three, he thought, but they aren’t about to tell me.
The quiet was interrupted by a harsh, congested sounding cough from Ben. Three faces turned his way, all with concerned looks. “Now boys, it’s nothing. Just a little cold.” Hop Sing had heard Ben’s cough and set out to prepare the herbs that he knew would be needed later.
Glancing sideways, Adam studies his father, looking for any other signs that he might be ill. His face was a little pale. Maybe his eyes seemed tired. Adam turned his attention back to his dinner. I don’t need to look for what’s not there he thought. But he stole a second look anyway.
Both Hoss and Joe were finished and excused themselves. Hoss left for the barn and Joe went to his room. Ben leaned back in his chair and said, “Anything you want to tell me, Adam?” His voice was quiet and invited a response.
“No—no, nothing really interesting. You know…” How did this man succeed in making him feel like a bumbling schoolboy?
Ben gave his oldest a half smile and said, “No, not really. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Joe and I had a small argument this afternoon but it isn’t anything to worry about.” He returned his father’s smile and stood up. “You always said we were both too stubborn for our own good.”
“You sure there isn’t more to it, son? It’s not often I see Hoss and Joe split up after dinner.” Ben stood and walked to his favorite red chair. He sat down heavily.
“Nothing that won’t pass.” Adam lost his smile and looked straight at his father. “You need to let this one go, Pa.” He crossed the room and sat on the hearth.
Ben wanted to question him further but pushing Adam was impossible. If he refused to say anymore there was no way Ben could change his mind. “Ok son, I trust you. I know you can take care of yourself and your brothers.”
Adam wanted desperately to tell his father that he wasn’t doing a very good job with the “brother part” of that statement but his thoughts were interrupted by another long, harsh fit of coughing from Ben. Adam stood and went to his father’s side. “Anything you want to tell me, Pa?” His face couldn’t hide the mischief there.
The coughing ended and Ben gave Adam an exasperated look. “Why don’t you get your tired, old father a glass of brandy? And stop being a smart aleck!” He reached out to cuff his oldest but missed his target. Adam returned with two glasses. He handed one to his father and slowly sipped the other.
“Pa, you do look a bit drained. Why not make it an early night. I’ll make sure everything is taken care of down here.” Adam placed his hand on his father’s shoulder.
Ben put his hand over his son’s. “I think I’ll take you up on that. Guess I’m a little more weary than I thought. Good night, son.” He smiled and headed for the stairs. Adam watched his father as he climbed to the second floor. There was something different about his gait. He walked as if every step caused him pain. His eyes were still focused on the stairs when Hoss came in.
“What’cha look’in at?” asked Hoss. Adam had not heard him come in and jumped at the sound of his voice.
“I’m not sure. I don’t like the way Pa looks and he acts as if he hurts all over. Hop Sing will take a look at him if he isn’t feeling better in the morning.” Adam had wandered back to the hearth and his unfinished glass of brandy.
“You seen Joe since supper?” Hoss asked. He joined Adam by the fireplace.
Adam swirled the golden brown liquid around the sides of the glass and replied quietly, “No.” He took a drink and repeated, “No, he never came back down. Probably fell asleep.”
Hoss looked his at brother and shook his head. He could see the sadness in his eyes. “Well, guess I’ll go up too. See ya in the morning.”
“Hoss—check on Joe, will you? See that he’s ok?” asked Adam.
Hoss started to protest but saw the appeal in his older brother’s eyes. “Ok Adam, I’ll see that he’s alright.”
Something had brought Adam out of a deep sleep but until his mind cleared, he had no idea what. There it is again, he thought. Sounds like somebody coughing, can’t catch their breath——Pa! The realization hit hard. He was up and out the door before his robe completely covered him. He ran down the hall to his father’s room. Seeing a light coming from beneath the closed door, he did not stop to knock.
What Adam saw when he entered frightened the normally unflappable young man. Ben was sitting on the side of the bed with a pillow clutched to his chest. His cough was even more congested and harsh than earlier in the evening. And he was having trouble catching his breath. His face was red and his eyes watered. Finally, the coughing subsided and his breathing became more regular. Adam moved to his side.
Ben tried to smile away the worry on his eldest son’s face but had little success. “I’m going to get Hop Sing, Pa, then I’m going for the doctor.” He handed his father a glass of water than turned toward the door. As he reached for the knob, the door opened and Hop Sing walked in. He carried with him a hot brick for Ben’s feet and a steaming cup of herbal tea to sooth his cough.
Hop Sing busied himself getting Ben settled in. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Adam said. He started to walk out.
“Adam—-wait, son,” Ben called. “I’m alright, really. There’s no need to ride off in the middle of the night to get the doctor. I promise, if I don’t feel better in the morning, you can go get Paul.”
Adam was skeptical but his father insisted. He went back to his room to get dressed, thinking he would sit up with Ben for awhile, just to make sure he was ok. Both Hoss and Joe were with their father when he returned. “Yes boys, I’ll be fine” he heard his father say. “Now go back to bed.”
Joe walked past his oldest brother without looking at him. Adam sighed and shook his head. He didn’t have time to think about Joe right now. He was concentrating on his father. Hoss stopped him. You think he’s ok, Adam?”
“I don’t really know,” Adam replied, “but I’ll sit with him for the rest of the night.” Adam put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I’ll call you if I need you, promise.” He smiled.
Hoss left and Adam pulled a chair up next to his father’s bed. Ben opened his eyes. “I thought you went back to bed. You don’t have to sit with me.” His voice seemed strained and weak.
“Pa, where would you be if I were sick?” Adam asked.
Ben smiled. “Same place as you; different room.” He closed his eyes once again and fell asleep.
Adam dozed off and on for the rest of the night. He remembered Hop Sing coming to check on his father several times. He was grateful for the housekeeper’s watchful eye. He was awakened fully by another series of barking coughs. He rose and went to his father’s side. Ben’ face was flushed and his brow was covered with sweat. Adam placed the back of his hand on his father’s cheek. The fever was evident.
Once again, Hop Sing appeared. He brought with him fresh, cold water, cloth and a newly warmed brick. He looked at Ben and than at Adam. “You get Doctor Paul now—fatha worse.” Adam knew that this was a statement, not a question and he went to do as he was told.
After he sent one of the hands for Dr. Martin, he made his way back upstairs and into the hall outside his father’s room. Joe was just opening his door. “I just sent Charlie for the doctor,” Adam said to him.
“Why didn’t you do that last night?” Joe’s reply was filled with hostility. Adam could hear the fear through the anger in his younger brother’s voice.
“Joe, he’ll be alright,” Adam said gently, trying to reassure him.
“You don’t know that. You just think you know everything.” Joe’s voice started to rise and he balled his hands into two fists.
“Look Joe, now’s not the time for this. Just keep a rein on that temper of yours.” Adam felt his own anger coming to the top.
“What wrong with boys? Fight outside sick fatha’s door? Shame on both sons.” Hop Sing had come into the hall to chastise both combatants. “If you fight, go away.” He returned to Ben’s room and shut the door.
Both of them hung their heads. Hoss was just coming out of his room and he joined his siblings. They looked at each other and with no words, started toward their father’s bedroom.
It had been a long wait filled with quiet whispers between bouts of harsh, barking coughs. The boys took turns trying to cool down their fever-ravaged father. Ben had opened his eyes and when offered, had taken some water. Dr. Martin had finally arrived and asked all but Hop Sing to leave while he examined his patient. Now all three of the Cartwright sons descended to the great room, waiting again.
Hoss joined Adam on the hearth while Joe paced the floor. “Just how long does it take to figure out what’s wrong with a man?’ Joe asked no one inparticular. When he received no answer from either brother, he resumed his pacing.
Dr. Martin came down the stairs and stood in front of Adam and Hoss. Joe watched from across the room. “Your father has influenza, boys. This isn’t the first case I’ve seen. It’s spreading rapidly throughout Virginia City.”
In a quiet, steady voice, Adam asked, “What can we expect, Paul?”
The doctor’s face was lined with the fatigue that came with his profession. He ran his hand through his hair before he answered. “Well, this disease preys on the young, the old and those who are already sick. Your father doesn’t really fit into any of those categories. The disease itself is self-limiting and not dangerous as long as he’s kept warm and dry. And he rests. It’s the secondary infection that’s the killer, pneumonia.” The doctor sat down in Ben’s red chair. “He will need constant care for the next few days.
The thing with influenza is that we know it is highly contagious. Who has spent the most time with him?” Paul asked.
“I guess that would be Adam and Hop Sing,” Hoss answered. “Joe and I was in there with him but not near as much as those two.”
The doctor looked at Adam. “By rights, it should be you and Hop Sing who look after him then. If you’re already exposed, then you might as well keep doing what you’ve been doing. Hoss, Joe— you two need stay away until your father starts to feel better.”
“Alright Paul–we’ll do as you ask,” Adam said. “Can we get you some coffee or breakfast before you go?”
“I can’t, Adam, but thanks. I need to get back to town.” Paul picked up his bag and started for the door. “Send somebody if you need me but I think he’ll be fine.”
Hoss said, “You go ahead and do what you got to, Adam. Me and Joe will take care of the ranch.” His tone was strong and reassuring.
“Thanks, brother. Hop Sing and I will take care of Pa. Come get me if you need anything.” Adam started up the stairs.
“We can run this ranch without you Adam. Just take care of Pa,” Joe said in a hard, cold voice. He picked up his gear and left.
Adam halted, halfway up the stairs. His hand gripped the banister. He turned around and looked at his middle brother. “He’s all yours,” Adam said. His voice was weary and no smile crossed his lips.
For the next several days, Adam and Hop Sing took turns seeing to Ben’s needs. It had been hard for him to rest with the almost ceaseless coughing and shaking chills from the fever. But by the end of that time, Ben started to recover. “Why don’t you go get some sleep, Hop Sing. You look worse than Pa does,” Adam said.
“Oldest son need sleep too. Worry about fatha, worry about ranch and brothers—too much worry.” Hop Sing tucked the new bedding in tight around his patient.
“I’ll rest. I promise. Hoss and Joe will be home soon and Dr. Martin said they could come in to visit now.” Adam looked at his sleeping father. Hop Sing finally gave in and retired to his room.
Adam leaned back in his chair, sighing deeply. The past week had been a nightmare. The worry and tension of his father’s illness was catching up with him, along with his concern over the welfare of the ranch. He and Joe had called an uneasy truce, helped by the fact that they didn’t see much of each other. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute he thought.
Sometime later, Ben awoke. “Adam—-son, can you hear me?” Ben’s voice was stronger now. He looked at his sleeping son and smiled. They’d been taking care for each other for along time now. Traveling together across the country had made them close. And why not, he thought, they only had each other until Hoss’ mother came along and changed both their lives.
Adam stirred and opened his eyes. “Hi, Pa. Sorry I fell asleep. I’m not doing my job very well, am I?” He stretched his long frame and yawned.
“What you need, young man, is some sleep. I’m much better now. Why don’t you go take a nap?” Ben said.
“I will, Pa–just as soon as Hoss and Joe get home. Paul says they can come and visit now.” No sooner than the words had left his mouth, his younger “big” brother walked in.
“Hi Pa—how ya feeling? You sure do look better.” Hoss’ smile lit up the room.
“Did I look that bad, son?” Ben’s lips curved into a teasing smile.
Hoss’ smile disappeared. “I didn’t mean you looked really bad before Pa.
“It’s ok, son. I’m just teasing you.” Ben sat up further in bed. Adam got up and placed another pillow behind his back. “Hoss—tell your big brother to go lie down before he falls down.”
“Yeah Adam, go ahead. I’ll stay with Pa,” Hoss said.
“No argument from me. My bed should feel really good about now. I’ll be back later Pa.” He left his father’s room and headed down the hall to his. Joe was just coming up the stairs.
“Pa’s a lot better, Joe. Hoss is with him.” Adam kept his tone even. He hoped the trouble between them was over now.
“Well, that’s good, Adam.” Joe’s tone was sarcastic. “Looks like nature will just have to wait for Pa.”
The week of sleepless nights and worry had finally caught up with the eldest Cartwright son. He just didn’t want to fight anymore. He reached out to put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, hoping all this nonsense between them would stop. “Oh, Joe…”
Joe’s reaction was quick and decisive. He had seen his brother’s movement as a threat and retaliated. The punch that connected with Adam’s mouth sent him staggering back against the wall.
Adam had been completely surprised by his younger brother’s reaction. He wiped the back of his hand across his lip and it came away stained with blood. He pushed himself away from the wall and without saying anything went into his room and quietly shut the door.
Joe stood staring after his brother. I was sure he was gonna hit me he thought. Why didn’t he stick up for himself? He frowned and headed in to see his father.
Joe mood immediately softened when he saw his beloved father. “Hi Pa, you better?” he asked. “I’ve missed you.”
“Me too son, but I’m on the mend and I’ll be up and around before you know it.” Ben motioned his son to come and sit beside him.
Hoss said, “Think I’ll go check on Hop Sing. See that he’s ok.”
“Thank you, Hoss. That would be very nice. Between he and your older brother, they’ve had very little rest the past week.” Joe frowned at the mention of his brother, a look that was not lost on his father.
Hoss left on his errand and Joe sat next to his father. “Something happen between you and Adam, son?” Ben asked.
“Nothing for you to worry about Pa,” Joe said with a lightness in his voice he did not feel. He looked away from his father’s steady gaze.
“I always worry when my sons aren’t happy. Why don’t you tell me what happened, Joe? You might feel better talking.” Ben put an encouraging hand on Joe’s arm.
“It all started after the stallion died. I tried so hard, Pa, to make things work out. I wanted our horses to be the best in the territory and I thought this stud would be our beginning.” Joe hesitated and looked sadly at his father. “I thought it was my beginning too.” His voice trailed off.
“Your beginning, son?’ Ben asked.
“Yeah Pa—something new that would be mine. Like Hoss oversees the cattle and Adam has the mines and the timber. This would have been my way of contributing to the ranch. You know—as an equal with Adam and Hoss.” Joe looked out the window for a moment, watching the sun set as a brilliant orange-red ball. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet. “I was so angry and disappointed when the horse died. And even though you and Hoss and Adam tried to make me understand that I could start again, well, it was just easier to stay hurt and angry.”
Joe dropped his head and looked away from his father. “I’m sorry, Pa.”
“Joseph—look at me, son. Don’t you think we knew how you were feeling?
For some reason, you have always felt you had to prove yourself to your brothers and me. I guess that comes from being the youngest but it’s not necessary. It never was—you just thought so.” Ben stopped for a minute to catch his breath. “You are just as much a part of this ranch as your older brothers. You all work hard and you all contribute to the running of the Ponderosa. And someday, it will belong to the three of you.” Ben added with a wink, “But not quite yet, young man.”
Joe dropped his head and covered his face with his hands. With a sob, he said, “oh, Pa—please don’t say that.”
Confused by Joe’s response, Ben asked, “What is it, son?”
“I said some things to Adam that… “He lifted his head and faced his father. “If I were Adam, I would never forgive what I said.”
“Now Joe,” Ben said, “I can’t imagine you would say anything that bad.” He tried to smile.
“Probably worse than you can imagine. I don’t know what to do or say to him,” Joe said. “Pa, I’m sorry, I —-I hit him and he didn’t even try to defend himself. He just looked at me and walked away.”
Not quite able to believe what his son had just told him, Ben asked, “You hit your brother?” His heart would not believe what his ears had heard.
Once again, Joe dropped his head and answered, “Yes Pa—I thought he was going to hit me after something I said. I would have,” he added bitterly. “But when I think about it, he was just reaching out to me.”
Although Ben wanted to know what Joe had said, he thought it better not to ask. The boy was upset enough. “Joe, I’m at a loss for what to say. Obviously, I don’t know the whole story but I can’t fathom a reason that would call for violence between brothers. Hoss and I have always acted as a buffer between you two, but this time you’ll have to figure out the solution yourselves. I know you love each other; you’ll just have to find a way to like each other.” Ben was beginning to tire.
“Pa, I’m sorry to dump all this on you when you’re just getting better. I’ll find a way to apologize to Adam.” Joe got up and tucked the covers in around his father.
“It sounds as if it needs to be more than an apology, son.” Ben’s eyes closed and he turned his body over to sleep.
“Now that Pa’s better, I’m going up to the timber camp to see how the cuttings coming along.” Adam was talking to his brother Hoss as he saddled Sport. “I’m sure Hop Sing can handle things from here.”
“You haven’t had much rest, Adam. Sure you don’t want to wait a couple days before you ride up there?” Hoss had a concerned look on his face.
“I’m ok, Hoss, and I’ve been away from things too long as it is. Besides, you know how important that contract is to the ranch.” Adam was touched by his brother’s concern. “What’s got you playing mother hen anyway?”
“Maybe you need somebody to look after you every once in a while instead of the other way around.” Hoss’ face was serious. “Don’t you ever get tired of it, Adam?” He faltered for a moment. “You know what I mean— worrying about the ranch, helpin’ Pa make decisions, worryin’ about Joe and me. Don’t it get to be too much sometimes?”
Adam knew Hoss’ concern was genuine and refused to brush it aside. He turned to face his beloved middle brother. “Yes, sometimes it does feel like too much. And yes, sometimes it would seem nice to have no responsibilities.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “But nobody makes me this way, Hoss, I just am. Just like you and Joe and Pa are what you are.” He put his hand on Hoss’ arm. “I love my family and I love this ranch. And at this particular time in my life, they are the two most important things to me. I’ll do what ever needs to be done to keep those things intact.” He paused for a moment and removed his hand from Hoss’ arm. “Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I think I do, Adam. But that doesn’t mean you can’t lean a bit on somebody else every once in a while.” He smiled at Adam. “Might be good for yer insides.”
“I’ll keep that in mind”, Adam said. “Take care of things here. I’ll be back tomorrow.” With that, he mounted and rode toward the timber camp.
Joe walked toward Hoss. “Hey, where’s Adam going?” he asked.
“Up to the timber camp. He wants to make sure the cuttin’s going all right,” said Hoss as he watched the cloud of dust, kicked up by Sport, fade away.
“Shouldn’t he get more rest before he goes up there?” Joe asked.
Hoss turned to his brother. “Thought you didn’t care what happened to Adam?” He continued on to the house leaving Joe to think about what he said.
The sun was still high as Adam rode closer to the camp but for some reason, he was feeling chilled. He gently urged Sport to a stop and untied his jacket. After putting it on and after quenching his thirst, he started up again. Not much further now, he thought.
The sky was beginning to darken when Adam arrived at the lumber camp. Not from the time but rather from the gray clouds that covered the sun and promised rain. He dismounted and joined the crew. “Hello Charlie,” Adam greeted the foreman. “Came to see how things were coming along. Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. Pa’s been sick.”
“Lord a’mighty, Adam, Mr. Cartwright is sick?” Charlie and Ben Cartwright had been together for years and both had a respect for the others talents.
“Was sick, Charlie. He’s much better now.” Adam unconsciously started rubbing his right shoulder and rotating the joint. He grimaced with the movement.
“Everything’s right on schedule, Adam. Don’t see any problems at this end. We got a good crew this time.” Charlie was relieved to be able to tell Adam that all was going well. The boy looked exhausted and he was glad he didn’t have to add to his burden. “Why don’t you come on inside and have some coffee, then we’ll go look at the lumber.”
“That sounds wonderful.” Adam was glad for the chance to sit down before they went out to inspect the timber.
The rain started in earnest while they sat quietly inside and drank their coffee. “Awful day to be out look’in at lumber, Adam. Why don’t you stay the night and look at it tomorrow?”
“I’d normally do that, but I don’t want to be away from home for too long right now. The crew’s out in this; guess I can be too. This way I can get an early start in the morning.” Adam rose and went to put on his jacket. I must be getting old quick, he said to himself. My hips hurt like hell in this rain.
Adam was satisfied with what he saw and praised the crew for a job well done. He promised them each a bonus when the contract was filled. The rain had not diminished and both he and Charlie felt the working conditions were now unsafe. The operation was halted for the rest of the day and the men were given hot food and coffee. They were grateful for the warmth of the fire. The cold seemed to penetrate deep into the marrow of their bones.
“I’ll bunk down here Charlie and start back early in the morning,” Adam said. He grabbed a couple of blankets and headed for an empty bunk in the corner. He lay down and turned toward the wall. The lack of sleep finally caught up with him.
“Yeah Pa, I’d say it’s the same thing you had. Hop Sing has a fever and a cough. Says he hurts all over.” Hoss had just left the diminutive housekeeper’s room. “I sent one of the hands for Dr. Martin. It’s raining pretty hard so it may take awhile for them to get back”
Ben was sitting in his favorite chair by the fire with his feet up and a hot drink by his side. He frowned at the news, the worry lines deepening. “Thank you, son. I had hoped he’d escaped it. Think you and Joe can manage alright?”
“Yeah Pa, we can manage but…” Hoss stopped.
“But what?” Ben asked.
“Well, it’s just that Adam is out in this and he was with you more than Hop Sing.” The fears Hoss had been harboring were finally out in the open.
“What do you mean, your brother’s out in this? Where is he?” Ben voice was becoming louder as his fear escalated.
Just then, Joe walked in. “Boy, it’s not fit for man nor beast out there. Wet and cold.” He shivered at his own description.
Hoss threw him a look that plainly held the phrase “shut up”. Joe looked back, angry and confused.
“Hoss, I asked you a question. Where is Adam?” Ben rose from his seat.
“He went rode out early this morning to check on the timber camp. He was worried about that lumber contract. He seemed fine, Pa. Said he’d be back tomorrow.” Hoss decided the best explanation was as short as possible.
“And he didn’t see fit to tell me!” Ben’s voice grew in volume until he started to cough again. He sat back down in his chair, suddenly very tired once again. He took a sip of his drink.
“He thought it was important to go and see how things were com’in along. I figure he didn’t tell you because he didn’t want you to worry about ranch business yet.” Hoss felt he had to defend his brother’s actions.
Ben rubbed his hand across his face. “Of course, son. I’m sure he’s fine. He’s so rarely ever sick.” Joe and Hoss exchanged glances.
The intensity of the rain increased, driving it against the windowpanes.
Adam woke himself up coughing. Most of the men were still asleep. He got up and added wood to the fire, putting the coffeepot on. He thought he’d have a quick cup and be on his way. The rain seemed to have let up for the moment and he just wanted to go.
Charlie came up behind him as he sipped the hot morning brew. “Gettin’ ready to ride?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be glad to get home and see how Pa is doing.” Adam finished his coffee and started to put on his gun belt and coat. “You’ve done a great job Charlie. Thanks–and I know Pa will be pleased.”
The older man smiled at him. “You tell your Pa not to worry, Adam. Everything will be fine. And you need to take care of yourself. I heard the coughing this morning.”
Adam put on his hat and said, “Yes sir, I will.” He walked out into a cold drizzle that seemed to attack his bones immediately.
He knew for sure he was sick this morning when he got up and it didn’t take him long to figure out what it was. Damn, I had hoped but I guess not, he thought. I just need to get home and everything will be ok.
The fever started to soar about halfway between the camp and the Ponderosa. Adam was shaking and racked by the harsh cough. Sport walked on steadily. He didn’t seem pleased to be out in the miserable weather either.
Adam huddled down into his coat and pulled his hat down further. His eyes burned and watered from his increasing temperature. He began to sway in the saddle and for the first time he wondered if he would be able to get back to the Ponderosa. He leaned forward and rested against Sport’s neck. “Take us home, boy,” he whispered.
The three Cartwright men sat at the breakfast table. None seemed very hungry. Paul Martin had arrived late. He confirmed what they had already surmised. Hop Sing had the same illness that had afflicted Ben. Hoss and Joe took turns with the sick housekeeper while Ben tried to rest. He kept thinking of Adam and hoping that his boy was tucked in safe and warm at the timber camp. The boys finished breakfast and left to do the barn chores.
“I’m going after him as soon as these chores are done and I speak to Pa. You’ll just have to stay here and take care of things.” Hoss was not in the mood to argue with his little brother. He was worried about Hop Sing and he needed to know if Adam was all right.
“Why should it be you? I can look for him as well as you can.” Joe was becoming defensive.
“Because I need to know if he’s ok, that’s why; and I care about…” Hoss stopped. He rarely lost his temper but he was losing the battle this time.
Joe’s voice was soft now. “And I don’t care. Is that it?” He didn’t speak for a moment. “Well you’re wrong, Hoss; I do care.” He started to walk away.
“Joe, wait. Ok, you go after him. But Joe, just bring him home as fast as you can. I got an uneasy feelin’, is all.” They both walked toward the house.
Ben heard Joe and Hoss arguing but he couldn’t make out the words. As they came closer, he heard “go after Adam” and ‘why should it be you”. He wanted to go himself but he knew that would be foolish and if, God forbid, Adam was in trouble, he probably wouldn’t be much help.
Joe explained where he was going to his father. It was clear that he was not asking permission. “Be careful, son,” was all Ben said.
Joe saw the pleading look in his father’s eyes. “I’ll find him, Pa, I promise.” He smiled at Hoss and was gone.
Sport had to follow his instincts. He no longer had any direction from his rider. The rain that had only been a drizzle now came down harder. Adam tired to lift his head from his mount’s neck but it was just too difficult.
Joe rode as fast as he dared. The rain had made the trail thick and slippery with mud and it wouldn’t help anyone if he had an accident. It was hard to see very far ahead. Cochise suddenly snorted and stopped. He was looking straight ahead, up the trail. There, out of the mist, came the familiar mount that was his brother’s. Joe was about to shout at Adam until he saw that his brother was leaning forward across Sport’s neck.
Joe dismounted and ran to his brother’s side. He put his hand on Adam’s arm. His coat was soaked through and the rain funneled down off his hat. “Adam, can you hear me? It’s Joe.”
Adam opened his eyes but did not move. His breathing was labored. He stared at his brother and finally the light of recognition ignited. “Joe, you came? I didn’t think….” He was unable to finish his thought before he passed out.
“I know, you don’t think I care…” Joe knew his brother couldn’t hear his words but he needed to say them anyway.
Joe decided to leave Adam just as he was. He rode beside him, ready to mount behind if he should start to fall. Halfway home, Adam started to slip from the saddle. In one graceful movement, Joe vaulted behind his brother and brought him back upright. He pulled his brother backward until Adam was leaning against his chest, his head resting against Joe’s neck. He could hear the fluids in his brother’s lungs rattle with each breath. Adam moaned and opened his eyes. “Joe” he whispered and tried to smile.
With his left hand holding his brother close, Joe pushed Adam’s hair off his forehead with his right. “Yeah, it’s me, big brother,” he said. “Let’s go home.” He urged Sport forward.
It seemed forever before the lights of the house shown in the distance. Finally, they were in the yard. One of the hands had been coming out of the barn when Joe arrived. “Go get Hoss!” Joe shouted above the rain. The cowhand ran to the front door and pounded.
Hoss came to the door and spotted his brothers immediately. Joe dismounted and waited. Between the two of them, they were able to get the unconscious man off his horse and into the house. The hand took the tired horses into the barn.
They carried Adam to the settee and carefully laid him down. Ben had heard their arrival and came down the stairs. He stopped abruptly when he saw his boy. Adam was shaking uncontrollably. His face was pale and his breathing was noisy and labored. Ben’s fears had come true.
Hoss and Joe were taking the wet, cold clothes and boots from their brother’s body. They wiped the rivulets of water from his hair and face. Finally, they wrapped the stripped form in a warm blanket. Hoss picked Adam up, held him close and took him upstairs to his room. Ben walked slowly behind them.
“Joseph, please get one of the hands to go for the doctor. Then get yourself warmed up and changed.” Ben started up the stairs than stopped. He turned and caught Joe’s attention as he started to speak. “Thank you for bringing him home.” Ben continued up the stairs.
Joe slumped down on the fireplace hearth. He covered his face with his hands. “Oh God, he thought, they all think I don’t care. I never wanted it to be this way…
Joe stared into the fire for what seemed like forever. He had asked one of the hands to ride into Virginia City for Doctor Martin then returned to the house. He knew he needed to get cleaned up and changed but if he waited awhile, he wouldn’t have to join his father and brothers. It’s not that he didn’t want to know how Adam was; he was afraid to find out. Things had been strained between them for so long and now Adam was really sick. What if Adam didn’t want to see him? What if he never got the chance to clear things up with his oldest brother?
Joe shook himself out of his reverie and decided to check on Hop Sing before he changed. The person who always seemed to know what each of the Cartwrights needed now needed them. He lay quietly in the middle of his bed. Joe thought that he looked even smaller and noticed how the illness had made him seem frail. He dropped his head on his chest and took a shuddering breath.
Hop Sing opened his eyes. “Lit’l Joe not feeling well?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Hop Sing, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Joe said. “No, I’m feeling fine.”
“Why boy all wet?” Even through his fever, he could tell something was wrong with this youngest son.
“I went out to get Adam. We figured if you were sick then probably he was too and he had ridden out to the timber camp.” Joe sat next to Hop Sing’s bed. “He’s really sick. Pa and Hoss are with him now. They’re waiting for the doctor.” Joe ran a hand through his still wet hair. “I’m sorry— you don’t need to hear all of this now. Can I get you something?”
Hop Sing shook his head and looked closely at Joe “Why Lit’l Joe not upstairs with oldest brother?”
The intuitive housekeeper would know if he were not telling the truth so Joe looked away. “I’m not sure he wants me there,” he whispered.
“Youngest son very wrong. Mr. Adam love and protect you since you come into world. That cannot change. Some links cannot be broken.” Hop Sing was stopped by a harsh, drawn out cough. “Mr. Adam and Mr. Joe two different people—not right, not wrong—just different.” His eyelids began to flutter closed. “Same coin—two different sides, but same coin.”
Joe waited a few minutes to make sure Hop Sing was sleeping peacefully, then left to get cleaned up. Eventually, he headed for Adam’s room. There was a part of him who was afraid to enter. He chastised himself for being weak and walked into the room with a bravado he knew wasn’t real.
He heard before he saw—the harsh, rasping he recognized to be his brother’s breathing. The same sounds he had heard on the trail had now intensified. Hoss stood at the foot of Adam’s bed, alternately staring at his older brother and looking away. His father sat on the bed, close to his son. They had put several pillows behind Adam’s back, hoping a more upright position would ease his struggle. Ben held his firstborn’s hand and whispered words no one else could hear. He wiped Adam’s fevered face with cool water and pushed back the dampened, black hair.
Joe walked to Hoss’ side. “Has he said anything?” he asked quietly, not wanting to disturb his father.
“No, noth’in, Joe. Seems like it’s takin’ all his strength just to breath. Every once in awhile he moans like he’s in pain but that’s all.” Hoss’ fists clenched and unclenched around the bed rail.
“Where’s Doc Martin anyhow?” Hoss asked with the impatience more characteristic of his younger brother.
“The roads are a mess. More mud than anything else. It may take him awhile.” Joe looked over at his father than at his oldest brother. Please hurry, he thought.
Ben had not moved from his seat on the bed. He hoped Adam could hear his words and find some kind of comfort in them. His thoughts jumped from memories of the baby to the boy to the man. “Don’t leave me now, son. We need you; I need you more than ever.” He held his boy’s hand to his cheek.
Hoss had gone down stairs to check on Hop Sing. He was just coming out of his room when a banging came at the front door. He opened it to find a damp Paul Martin. “Hello, Hoss. Maybe I should rent a room out here.” He removed his wet coat and hat. “Your rider said it’s Adam this time.” He followed an anxious Hoss up the stairs.
“Yes sir, it is. And he seems worse than Pa and Hop Sing,” Hoss said.
Paul heard the worry in Hoss’ voice. He reached out and placed a reassuring hand on Hoss’ arm. “Let’s go have a look at him.”
Doctor Martin took charge immediately, sending both the Cartwright brothers downstairs. He would have sent Ben too had it been possible but the apprehensive father was not about to leave his child.
“Ben—Ben, has he been conscious at all?” the doctor asked. He uncovered his patient’s chest.
“No, Paul, he hasn’t said a word.” Ben’s voice became softer. “He only whimpers as if he’s in pain. It’s just so hard for him to breathe.”
“Ok, Ben. Let me have a look at him and than we’ll talk.” Dr. Martin found his patient fevered and covered in sweat. He knew Adam’s body must be craving water but they couldn’t risk giving him any while he was still unconscious. His lungs fought against the fluids that were trying to choke him. The muscles between his ribs pulled hard to bring in air. Paul drew the covers back up. “Ben, let’s go out in the hall for a minute.” Ben hesitated. “He’ll be all right. Why don’t you call the boys up.” When he was alone with his patient, Paul put his hand on Adam’s heaving chest and said, “How did you get so sick? I just don’t understand it.”
The three men stood together in the hall with the doctor. “Adam has the same sickness as you and Hop Sing. But I have to admit I’m puzzled. He’s young and strong and he’s not sick otherwise. I can’t figure out why he’s so much worse.” Paul stopped for a moment. “I have to be honest, Ben; this could turn into pneumonia.”
Hoss looked at his stricken father and he moved closer. “Doc, Adam rode out of here yesterday morning. I tried to get him to rest for at least a day before he went up to the timber camp but he wouldn’t. He must have been caught in the rain going up there and we know he rode back in it,” Hoss said.
“Wait a minute. Are you telling me he’s been out working in this weather?” Paul asked angrily. “He was exposed to influenza, didn’t get the proper rest and decided to go out in the cold rain. Well, that answers my question about why he’s so much worse.” Paul lowered his voice. “Ben, you know I’ll do everything in my power to help him but what he did was reckless. I just hope he doesn’t pay the price.” The doctor turned and walked back into Adam’s room.
Ben looked at his two youngest. The strain of his own illness was etched on his face and the growing fear for his eldest pushed his endurance. “I’m going back in with Adam, boys. Please look after Hop Sing.” With a distracted look, he added, “I’ll call you if I need you.” He shut the door quietly behind him.
They had tried to cool Adam’s fevered body with cold water and ease his breathing with steaming kettles. When he finally came around, he couldn’t spare the air needed to speak so he held tightly to his father’s hand. Ben spoke soft words of encouragement to his frightened son.
Paul walked from his place by the window to Adam’s side. “Ben, I want to try something different. I can’t guarantee it will work but we’ve got to do something that will relieve his breathing.” Ben started to rise. “No Ben– I want you to stay still. You’re not completely well yourself. I’ll get the boys to help me.” The doctor went to the head of the stairs and called to Hoss and Joe.
When the boys arrived, the doctor gave his instructions. “I want to take all the pillows out from behind him so he’s flat again then turn him over on his stomach.” They did as the doctor asked, not understanding what was about to happen. “Hoss, you sit on the side of the bed next to him,” the doctor said.
Once Adam was flat in bed, he started to struggle. It was hard enough to breathe sitting up. Watching his son’s feeble attempts to fight was too much for Ben. With tears tracking down his face, he started to rise. Joe stood behind him and placed his hands on father’s shoulders. Ben sagged back in his chair, feeling helpless. Hoss spoke soothing words to his restless and frightened brother. Adam looked wide-eyed at his trusted middle brother and began to calm.
“Now lower his head and chest off the side of the bed. Hoss, you steady him so he doesn’t fall. Joe, put that basin near his head.” Doctor Martin stood at his patient’s side and began to rhythmically strike the area over Adam’s congested lungs. With the secretions loosened and with the help of gravity, Adam began to cough out the thick fluids that threatened to end his life. Within a few minutes, he was exhausted. Hoss gently pulled his now limp brother to his chest while the others stacked pillows behind him. He laid him back down and rose so his father could take his place.
For the first time since Joe brought him home, Adam felt as if he could think of something other than his next breath. He knew when he opened his eyes that his father would be near. What he saw frightened him almost as much as not being able to breathe. His father seemed to have aged greatly just in the time he was away. “Oh Pa,” he said, “I’m sorry I left. I shouldn’t have worried you so.” He reached out and brushed a tear from his father’s cheek. Haltingly, he said, “I’ll be alright. I promise.”
“Yes son, of course you will,” Ben said. “We all will.”
Adam fought hard against the illness that had struck him. With the help of his brothers, Dr. Martin performed the same procedure several times over the next few days. Each time he rallied and fought harder. Finally, he was strong enough to clear his lungs on his own. To everyone’s great relief, he began to sleep for longer intervals. And so did they.
A warm breeze floated in and wrapped itself around a beautiful morning. It was the first time Adam was allowed out of the house. Hop Sing was well long before he was and had made sure he ate a decent breakfast. He walked slowly toward the lower corral. His face was still a little pale but the warm sun would soon fix that. Ben watched from a window as his now recovering son moved with a steady gait toward his destination. He smiled and closed his eyes, thanking a merciful God.
Joe sat on the top rail of the corral fence watching a new herd of riding stock they had just bought. He appraised each animal for conformation and what limited movement he could see as they milled around in their new surroundings. He did not hear his oldest brother approach and was surprised when Adam mounted the fence next to him. “Hi Adam,” he said quietly, turning his attention back to the horses. “Doc Martin finally let you loose?”
“Yeah—it was either that or I was going to climb out the window,” he said.
The memory of Adam climbing out the window and down the tall pine outside his room made Joe smile. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
The memory made Adam smile too. “Haven’t seen much of you, Joe. Guess you and Hoss have been busy with everyone else sick. I don’t know how you two escaped it but I’m glad you did.” He coughed from the dust being raised by the horses.
Joe’s face wore a look of concern when he said, “You alright, Adam?”
“I’m ok—really Joe; it’s just the dust.” They both studied the animals again. “Which one do you like?” Adam asked, his tone subdued.
“Oh, it’s kinda hard to tell yet, but I think that little bay with the four white socks and the star. He moves well, has lots of spunk and he’s pretty to boot.
Which one would you choose?” Joe’s curiosity was raised now.
“The black standing off to the side. He’s big and powerful. Looks like a lot of staying power. He seems to be watching what’s going on. Maybe a sign of intelligence.” Adam’s eyes were on the horse but his thoughts were on his younger brother.
A strained quiet stood between them. Both had things to say but neither one knew how to start. Adam started to climb down. “Guess I not quite so ready to stay out. Good luck with the horses, Joe.” He started toward the house.
“Adam—wait! Joe walked to his brother’s side. “I’m sorry—sorry for all the things I said and for hitting you. I had no right. Not over a horse.” Joe looked away. He was having a hard time looking his brother in the eye.
“We both know it wasn’t the horse, Joe. It’s us—you and me,” Adam said softly. They started walking together. “You don’t need to prove your place in this family, Joe. You were born to it.” He saw Joe stiffen at his words. “Listen to me, Joe. The oldest in the family gets to do things first; gets more privileges. But with the privileges comes responsibility and we all know I take that too seriously.” His laughter was empty. “I never needed you to prove anything to me—-it was your need.” They stopped walking and Adam placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “You have been loved and cherished from the moment of your birth. And it’s never been any other way.”
Adam started again for the house. Joe stood still, a tear sliding down his face. As he watched his brother reach the porch he whispered, “I do care, Adam.”
“Is this trip really necessary, Adam? I’m not convinced you’re fully recovered.” Ben’s brows were drawn together in a disapproving manner.
“Stop worrying, Pa. You heard Dr. Martin; he said I was fine now. Besides, there’s something I have to do.” Adam’s tone was respectful but firm.
Ben would not be deterred from his argument. “Well, Dr. Martin is not your father and I worry about you going off on your own so soon.”
“Pa, no disrespect, but if I waited for you to stop worrying, I’d never leave the ranch. What’s got you spooked?” His smile faded when he saw that his father still looked concerned.
“Oh, son, I’m not sure I know what it is.” He reached for Adam’s arm. “Forgive me. I can still see you so sick and I couldn’t help.” He stopped to gather his thoughts. “A father’s worst nightmare.”
“I’ll be careful. I promise–and I’ll be home in a week.” He mounted and held his hand out.
Ben took it between his own and held it for a moment. “Be careful son and come home safely,” he said.
Adam tipped his hat and was gone.
Hoss and Joe did their best to either stay away from their father or at least, try not to provoke him. Ben’s moods shifted from apprehension to anger and back again with little provocation. As the week went on, he became more withdrawn and distracted.
It was Friday night and Joe had left for town. Hoss had decided to stay home. He was becoming worried about his father and had decided to confront him that evening. Ben sat in his familiar red chair in front of the fire. He was trying to concentrate on reading, with little success.
“Pa, tell me what’s bothering you. You haven’t been yourself since Adam left.” Hoss waited for his father’s reply.
Ben let at a long breath and said, “It’s your brothers, son. I’m afraid the rift between he and Joe may be too big to mend this time.” He looked into the flames. “I don’t want him to leave.”
Hoss was shocked by his father’s statement. “Did Adam say he was thinking of leaving Pa?”
Ben turned back toward his son. “No— no he didn’t actually say so but I think he feels Joe would be better off if he weren’t around.” Hoss looked at his father for more. “When Adam was recovering, he told me more about what happened between them. And I know there was some of it he wouldn’t share with me.” Hoss looked away with guilt on his face. Ben smiled. “Don’t worry, son; I won’t ask you.
Hoss was grateful that his father had not asked him to repeat some of the heated words Joe had directed toward his oldest brother. Ben would have been stunned and deeply hurt.
“Pa, if Adam said he’ll be back, than he will. He’d never lie about a thing like that. You have to trust him, Pa. You always have—don’t stop now.
Hoss’ sincerity touched Ben and he said, “You’re right Hoss. He’ll be back.”
But the look on Ben’s face betrayed what he was really feeling.
It was getting late when Adam rode into Virginia City. He was tired and so was Sport. He made the decision to stay overnight and head home early in the morning. He moved toward the livery stable with his surprise in tow.
“Hello Dave, you in here?” Adam called. He led both horses through the double doors.
“Hello Adam. What brings you in so late?” the stable owner asked.
“Thought I’d spend the night in town. Can you give these two a bed?” Adam asked.
Dave walked around Sport to take a look at the other horse. The animal stood a good 16-2 hands high. He was a black-bay with three white socks and a small star on his forehead. “He’s a beauty, Adam—what’s his breeding?”
“Thoroughbred-Arab cross. Rare outside the East. I heard about him last time I talked to a friend of mine in Sacramento. I found out I could buy him for the right price and here he is.” Adam stroked the horse affectionately.
“You taking over the breeding end of things at the ranch, Adam? Dave started to untack Sport.
Adam smiled. “Not me. Joe would have my head.” Adam held a hand up in surrender. “No, the horse is a present for Joe. To replace the one he lost.”
He walked over to Sport and affectionately scratched his ears.
“I’ll be in early, Dave. Thanks for taking care of these two. I think they’re as tired as I am. Good night,” Adam said.
Adam made his way down the street toward the hotel. He heard the music coming from the Silver Dollar and all of a sudden the thought of a beer was very tempting. He walked to the saloon and through the bat-wing doors. He went straight to the bar and ordered a drink. A slow smile spread across his face as he looked into the mirror over the bar. I should have known, he said to himself. He saw the reflected image of his brother Joe having what appeared to be an intimate conversation with a very pretty blonde. “Hey Sam, who’s the new girl Joe’s so interested in?” Adam asked.
“Oh, she just started a few nights ago. Leave it to your brother to find all the pretty, new girls,” Sam replied, a smile lighting his face.
“Yes, he certainly has a talent for that,” Adam smiled back but what he saw next caused the smile to disappear. “The man at the next table. He keeps staring at Joe and the young lady.” All of a sudden, Adam stopped being tired and become alert. “What’s that all about?”
Sam was annoyed by the stranger’s behavior. “I already spoke to him once. Just because she had a drink with him the other night, he seems to think she shouldn’t talk to anyone else.”
Joe still had not spotted his brother and Adam left it that way. The younger man was too busy dazzling the girl to notice anything around him. Turning back to the bar, Adam glanced in the mirror once more. What he saw made him freeze his beer was in midair. The man, who had been watching the pair in the corner, slowly slipped a knife from under his coat.
Adam put his beer down and turned in one movement. He saw instantly that he couldn’t use his gun without the possibility of someone innocent getting hurt. He threw himself forward, shouting a warning to Joe at the same time.
Joe was so startled at hearing his brother’s voice, he couldn’t move.
The stranger was on his feet and moving toward the couple. Adam placed himself in the man’s path. He grabbed at the knife and twisted the attacker’s wrist. Both men battled for the weapon. The knife swung wildly between them, slashing its way through the air.
Adam wrenched the man’s wrist once again and the knife fell to the floor. With his hands now free, he was able to place a well-aimed fist to the man’s jaw and send him staggering across the room and into the wall. The attacker
Joe ran to his brother’s side. “Adam, are you alright? Who is that guy? When did you get back?”
“Whoa, hold on Joe—one question at a time. I’m fine. I don’t know. And just tonight.” He was beginning to catch his breath again. “Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?” Adam’s smile was quick and his eyes sparkled. It felt comfortable teasing his brother again, like all the animosity and confusion had finally dissipated. His body physically sagged from the release of the long held tension. Or at least, he thought that’s what it was from.
All of a sudden, Adam’s knees buckled and he started to fall. Joe caught him. He couldn’t understand what was happening. He felt a stinging pain across the ribs on his left side and he reached down to see what might be causing it. His brother lowered him gently to the floor.
Adam felt as if he were floating. People and voices seemed to recede. He could hear Joe calling his name but he was having trouble forming the words to answer. He pulled his hand away from his side and saw that it was covered in blood. His vision dimmed from the outside, inward. That was the last thing he remembered.
The first of Adam’s senses to return was his hearing. Although he couldn’t quite understand what was being said, he could make out the soft rumble of voices somewhere in the room. As he became more aware, he could feel a burning pain in his side and he instinctively reached for it. Someone took his hand and stopped him from touching the wound. He opened his eyes slowly and the sight that greeted him was his brother Joe, looking apprehensive and still holding his hand.
“Now look Adam, this has got to stop. You’re trying to make me old before my time. First you nearly die from pneumonia than you decide to get yourself cut up in a bar room brawl. How’s a man suppose to cope with all this anyhow?” Joe’s tone was light but his grip on Adam’s hand remained firm.
“Sorry, little brother. You know how much I hate to upset you.” His voice was weak but Joe was glad Adam’s sense of humor was still intact.
“Well I’m afraid I’m not the only one who’s gonna be upset. Doc sent for Pa.” He grinned at his big brother.
“Oh God, please tell me I’m dying. That way Pa can’t be angry.” Adam was only half kidding.
“Nope—you’re gonna be just fine. You’ve got quite a few stitches in your side and you’ve lost some blood but doc says you’ll be just fine,” said Joe.
Adam just groaned and closed his eyes.
“By the way,” Joe continued, “thanks for what you did. I never even saw the guy.” Joe’s face had lost its smile. “He could have killed me.” He stopped for a moment, thinking about what he wanted to say. “I guess Hoss was right; you would do anything for the family—for me.”
Adam looked at his brother and smiled, squeezing the hand that still held his.
“Yeah, I guess I would.” He started to get up. “Come on Joe let’s get out of here. If we meet Pa on the way home, he’ll see that I’m alright.” But a wave of dizziness forced him back down.
“Now stay down,” Joe said.
Adam closed his eyes and rested. Joe thought he had drifted off to sleep. He was startled when he heard his brother’s deep voice. “Joe, I almost forgot. At the livery, a present for you. Go ahead and get it. I’ll just sleep until Pa comes.”
“You sure, Adam?” Joe asked. It was hard for him to contain his growing excitement.
“Yeah—go ahead, Joe. I’ll be fine.” Adam drifted off toward sleep.
Joe waited a few minutes until he was sure his brother was comfortable. He walked quietly from the room.
Adam opened his eyes and smiled at the memory of his younger brother’s excitement. It felt good between them again. He sighed and closed his eyes to rest.