Summary: A chance meeting bodes well for Joe.
Word Count: 1423
The young man at the bar turned at the sound of his name. “Adam!”
The man in black walked toward him. Clay Stafford motioned toward a table in the back, and Adam Cartwright joined him there. Clay called for a bottle and another glass. The two men eyed each other warily. Clay could tell from Adam’s appearance that he had just come in from a long ride. “Passing through?” Clay inquired.
“Returning home from delivering some horses and decide to stop for the night,” Adam replied and took a sip of his whiskey. “I needed to clear my throat, so I stepped in for a beer, and there you were.”
“Been here a couple of weeks. How’s Joe?”
Adam looked at his half-brother’s half brother assessing the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice the way he would have a poker opponent. “Two weeks ago, when I last saw him, he was just fine, but with my irresponsible little brother a lot of trouble could have found him in that time.” Adam was aware that he had used the pronoun my and not our.
“Now, I always saw a real responsible streak in my little brother. Fact is, I only got him to break loose just that one time,” Clay let the memories of that night drinking pulque with Joe flit through his mind. He glanced at Adam. Clay knew that his getting Joe drunk had not set well with Joe’s eldest brother.
“You almost had him breaking loose for good.” The edge to Adam’s voice was unmistakable.
Clay leaned forward, “You think that? Joe only came after me because he thought we might have a little adventure while he convinced me to return to the Ponderosa.”
Adam considered Clay’s observation. He had worried about Clay’s influence on Little Joe from the time of Clay’s arrival until his long after his departure. “I’m not sure it was that simple. Joe misses you.”
“Does he really? I was part of his life for a very short time.”
“You’re his brother. That didn’t change when you left. It never will, not for Joe anyway.”
Clay swirled the whiskey in his glass and stared at the amber liquid. Looking up into the face of the man before him, he made a decision. “He’s our brother, Adam; that will never change.”
Adam made his own decision. “There are some things I was never very good at sharing.”
“That’s right, Adam. You had them first. My brother, my mother, why you even knew my father. I didn’t!” Needing to stop the words pouring out with his anger, Clay put the glass to his lips and drank the rest of the whiskey in one gulp.
Adam reacted to the words as if he had been slapped. He recognized the jealousy flashing in Clay’s eyes; it matched the feeling he veiled each time he looked at Clay. When Clay had arrived in Virginia City, Joe had accepted him immediately, even eagerly, and Adam had felt the first pangs of jealously. The easy nature of the relationship between the newfound brothers had set that jealousy growing. When Joe had followed Clay intending to go away with him, that jealousy had seared Adam’s heart. He took a deep breath and tried to absorb the realization that Clay was jealous of him.
Finally he spoke, “I know what it’s like not to know your own mother.” Adam’s mother had died on the day of his birth, and Clay had been taken from his mother the day he was born. Perhaps he shared more than a brother with the man sitting across the table from him.
Adam’s declaration surprised Clay. He leaned back in his chair. “I only wanted to know him, Adam. I never wanted to take him away.”
“You could have stayed.”
“I think about it sometimes. I think about what it would have been like if I stayed.” Clay gave Adam a shallow smile. “When I was little, I would imagine what things would have been like if my mother and father had lived. Then I found out they had. When I found out my mother’s story, when I found Joe, I wondered what it would have been like if they hadn’t taken me from my mother. I always figure her having a son wouldn’t have stopped your father from marrying my mother.”
“There’s no way it would have. Pa would have accepted you just as Marie accepted Hoss and me.”
“Hoss said once you had a hard time accepting my mother.”
“It wasn’t anything about Marie that kept me from accepting her. It was…it was my own demons, I suppose you might say.”
“We all have our own demons,” Clay thought. “Would you have accepted me then, Adam? Would you have been willing to share?”
Adam had thought of what it might have been like if his stepmother had been able to know her son and bring him with her to the Ponderosa. He raised his right eyebrow and gave Clay a wry smile. “Pa always insisted we learn to share, and Pa was very thorough at teaching some lessons.”
“Your pa…” Clay stopped to find the words he wanted.
“Would be a father to you now if you wanted that.”
“Your pa, Adam, would be a father to anyone who needed him and asked.”
A real smile deepened the dimple on Adam’s face. “Pa’s paternal streak is as wide as they come. All-encompassing is the word that comes to mind.”
“I think I could have loved him if he’d been my stepfather,” Clay admitted sheepishly. Then his eyes darkened. “My grandparents took two fathers from me, it seems.”
“There are two sides to having Pa as a father,” Adam stated sardonically.
“I saw your Pa’s temper. I even received a lecture or two.”
“You did miss out on the tannings. You wouldn’t have if you’d been younger.”
Clay’s laughter was light, quick, and high. It reminded Adam of Little Joe’s. “Perhaps I wasn’t as unlucky as I thought.”
Clay reached for the bottle and poured each of them another whiskey. Both men pondered what it would have been like for four boys growing up on the Ponderosa. Clay shook his head chasing away the ghosts of what might have been.
Adam broke the silence, “You can always come back to the Ponderosa, Clay, always.”
“Nice thing to know,” Clay replied thinking that the actually of that happening was as remote as the peaks of the high Sierras. “Adam, don’t tell Joe you saw me.”
“I won’t, if you will do one thing.”
“Write Joe and tell him you are fine. Post the letter tomorrow, and I won’t tell Joe that I saw you.”
“You’ll want to watch me post it, I suppose.”
“Joe taught me the need to verify things at times.”
“I’ll meet you at the post office in the morning.”
Clay carried the letter he had written Joe. The letter was simple and short. It made no promises and offered no hopes, but it would let his brother know he was healthy and thought of him. He had even allowed himself to sign it, “With love, Your big brother Clay.”
Spotting Adam, Clay walked over and handed him the letter.
“Post it in some town you pass through going home.” Clay sighed. “I met someone from Virginia City a few months ago. I managed to get him talking and find out that the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa were all fit and fine. I wish…”
“Each time you write Joe, I’ll write you.”
“You won’t know where to write.”
“Pick a place you pass through from time to time. I’ll mail it general delivery. There’s not a time limit on how long they hold the mail.”
“Denver,” Clay replied holding out his hand. The two men shook hands on the deal.
“Clay, I don’t know if I understand all the reasons, but I know you won’t ask Pa or Joe for help.”
“I can take care of myself, Adam.”
He sounds so much like Joe. Adam placed his hand on Clay’s shoulder. “If you ever need help, any kind of help, wire me, Clay.” Adam used the same voice he used when he needed Joe to obey him.
Clay smiled. It was his mother’s smile. It was his brother’s smile. Somebody’s fraternal streak is a mile wide. “Is that an order?”
Adam’s heart recognized that smile. “That’s an order!”