Word Count: 1170
Leaning against the rake he had been using to gather soiled straw, Little Joe Cartwright paused to study his elder brother as he curried Sport. Joe’ eyes drifted to their brother Hoss who was also currying his horse and then back to Adam. The words that Joe had heard pass between his brothers came to his mind as they had repeatedly over the past two days. His teeth sunk into his lower lip while his mind turned the words Adam had said into a chant, “I have regrets, I have regrets, I have regrets...” Joe shook his head, but failed to drive the thought from his mind.
Hoss noticed his little brother’s lack of motion and said softly, “Better get busy, Short Shanks, iffen you want to get done and to the table on time.”
“Mind your own business, Hoss; I’m nearly done!” Little Joe snapped, but he began pulling the rake through the straw once more. “Besides, I ain’t as worried about my belly as you.”
Adam cleared his throat but did not speak.
Little Joe recognized the admonition in the sound and retorted, “Well, I ain’t!”
“Joseph, you had better watch that tone of yours. Pa is in no mood for it and neither am I.”
“So.” The syllable held both a whine and a challenge.
“So, if you continue, I assure you that you will regret it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be the only one regretting things!”
Adam turned to stare at his younger brother and then looked up to wordlessly inquire of their middle brother the cause of Joe’s comment and its vehemence.
Hoss shrugged his own lack of knowledge. “Little Joe, I don’t know what burr you have under your saddle, but it’s about time you spit it out of your craw.”
Shifting nervously, Little Joe swallowed, and his anger melted into hesitancy. When he spoke his voice was soft and pleading, “Adam, do you…do you regret coming back home?”
Adam settled an unreadable gaze on the thirteen-year-old. “Why would you ask me that, Joe?”
A glare suffused the boy’s face. “You do that…you always do that when you don’t want to answer a question. Well, don’t bother! I know the answer already!’
“You do, do you?” Adam raised his right eyebrow and set down the curry comb in his hand.
“Yes, I do! You regret coming back home. You wish you’d stayed in Boston or at least in some big city back East.” Joe spat each word at his brother’s feet and then stood as if challenging Adam to deny the statement.
“How can you be so sure?” Adam’s eyes darkened and his hands planted themselves on his hips.
“I heard you. I heard you tell Hoss that you had regrets, so don’t bother to lie about it anymore.” There it was out in the open. Joe had had his suspicions over the four years since Adam had returned from college, but it was not until two days before that he had heard confirmation of that fear.
Adam’s eyes flashed. “You could only have heard that if you’d been eavesdropping, little boy,” he snapped.
“So I was eavesdropping. So blister me for that, but whose gonna punish you for lying for four years, big brother. Who’s gonna punish you?” Little Joe’s own eyes blazed.
“I haven’t been lying, Joseph!”
“Haven’t you? You said you were glad you came home. You said it more than once, and all the while you’ve been regretting it. How’s that not a lie?” Little Joe’s breathing had become shallow, and his tensed muscles had begun to tremble.
Adam saw a shudder run through Joe’s body and tears fill his eyes. “Joe, calm down.” Adam’s voice became soothing, “Calm down and listen.”
“Listen to some more lies? No!” Little Joe spun on his heel and started to stomp away. Adam’s long arm reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Joe shrugged it off and took another step. This time Adam’s arm wrapped around his brother’s waist. He pulled the boy to him and pinned Joe’s body against his own.
“You will listen, boy! Now settle down!” Adam’s voice was deep and sharp. Joe struggled for a few minutes and then capitulated. Adam turned him around, so they could speak face-to-face.
“Obviously you only listened to part of what I said and didn’t understand what you did hear. Maybe you’re too young to understand….”
“I AM NOT!” Joe tried again to pull away from Adam’s grasp. The attempt proved futile.
Adam fought his temper for control. Through gritted teeth, he warned, “I told you to be still, and you better think twice before you shout at me again, or, baby brother, you’ll be having a lesson in regret.”
Joe gave no answer but stood absolutely still. “You can make me stay, but you can’t make me listen!” The thought lifted his chin in defiance.
Adam took a deep breath. “Yes, I told Hoss that I had regrets. That’s true. But I also told him they were nowhere near the regrets I would have had if I had not come home. Joe, someday you’ll learn that few decisions as major as that don’t hold some regret, no matter which choice you make. I regret not being able to be with my grandfather. I regret he died without his only living relative by his side. I regret no grand building in any city has a corner stone saying I designed it. I regret the friendships I had to leave behind. But whatever I do regret, I do not – let me repeat that – I do not now, nor have I ever, regretted my decision to spend the last four years with you and Hoss and Pa. I could never regret choosing to be with you all.” When Joe did not speak, Adam said more vehemently, “Hear me, little brother, I do not regret coming home!”
Little Joe looked deep into his brother’s eyes. “He’s not lying. He’s never lied to me, not like that”. He forced the words from his lips, “You don’t?” It was a small utterance filled with pleading.
“I don’t!” Adam pulled his brother into his arms and nearly squeezed the breath from Joe’s body. Then his embrace loosened.
“OWW!” Little Joe had been caught by surprise, and his cry echoed through the air.
“That, little boy, is for eavesdropping, and this is for calling me a liar.” A second swat landed on the same spot as the first. “Do either again, and I shall blister your behind; be sure of that.”
Little Joe stepped back, rubbed his backside, and looked up at his brother from under his lashes. “I love ya too, big brother,” he said and ducked his head. Adam threw his arm around Joe’s shoulders and motioned to Hoss with his other hand. Hoss walked over and threw his arm around Adam’s shoulders. Together the three brothers strolled back to the house.