A Fistful of Regret (by DebbieB)

Summary:  When he accidentally punches Joe instead of Adam, Hoss is consumed with guilt.  Will Joe lose his hearing?  Will the youngest Cartwright ever forgive his gentle hearted brother for the injuries he sustained from the powerful blow to the side of his head?  Will Hoss forgive himself or will he forever carry, a fistful of regret?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  10,600


They stood nose to nose, glaring into one another’s eyes. The younger of the two had to look up slightly, but the added height of the other man did not intimidate the smaller man. Nostrils flared, chests rose and fell in tune to the heavy breathing that both men were undergoing. Lips pinched tight across both handsome faces and tiny drops of perspiration dotted both brows.

The older, taller young man pressed his finger deeply into the shoulder of the younger, shorter man and made a scowl across his face.

“Give it up, boy,” he said in a deep tone, uncoated with anger.

The other man pushed the finger away and took a tiny step closer. His jaw was clinched tightly and when he spoke, the anger was evident in his voice as well. He rose slightly up on his toes, making himself just a bit taller. His emerald eyes danced with fire.

“Not on your life, big brother. You started this, not me…you wanna give it up, go ahead,” he said, digging his finger into the taller man’s chest.

Adam Cartwright slapped the hand away from his chest and backed up slightly, glaring at his younger brother.

“I mean it Joe…I’m not going to fight you over this,” Adam snarled, trying hard not to lose his temper enough to make him strike out at the one he called boy, who was standing just inches from him.

Adam turned to walk away, willing himself to drop the matter, for regrettably, he had egged this argument on and now wished to hell he had kept his mouth shut. A showdown, with his brother, was the last thing he wanted right now.

“You yellow…Adam?”

The curt remark reached his ears and Adam spun around. His face was red and angry darts radiated from his hazel eyes. His mouth was tight, his hands balled into tighter fists. The words stung, sparking his anger to new heights.

“If you weren’t my brother, I’d kill you for that…”

“Don’t let that stop you, Adam…”

Before Joe could finish his statement, Adam’s strong fist sprang out from his side and plowed into the boy’s jaw, sending Joe sprawling backwards into the dirt. Instantly the boy sprung to his feet and made a dive straight into his brother’s mid-section.

“Whoa!” shouted Hoss, who had appeared out of the shadows just in time to intercept the dive.

His massive hands grabbed Joe about the shoulders, preventing his charge to be fulfilled. Joe struggled furiously, trying to free himself from the vise like grip that his middle brother had on him.

“Get your hands off me, you big ox!” grumbled Joe while twisting and jerking his body around in the strong arms of the much larger man.

“Not on your life…now stand still. Galldangit Joe, stop fightin’ me!” bellowed Hoss, giving Joe a hard shake.

“Let him go, Hoss. He’s been asking for a piece of me for days now, turn him loose,” Adam said from where he stood behind Hoss, his fingers still molded into fists.

Hoss roughly pushed Joe back several paces and wiggled his finger under Joe’s nose.

“Don’t ya move from that spot!” he ordered.

Joe, sweat dripping from his face, fists as tightly formed as Adam’s, was hard put to stand in one spot. He danced lightly on his feet, chomping at the bit to throw a punch into Adam’s smirking face.

Hoss whirled around, narrowing his eyes as he peered into his older brother’s face.

“What in blazes is wrong with ya Adam? Ya cain’t fight the boy…”

“I ain’t no boy!” shouted Joe as he grabbed Hoss’ arm and tried to spin him around.

Hoss slung his arm up, forcing Joe backwards. Joe’s anger deepened as he made a growling sound and leapt unto Hoss’ back.

“Get out of my way!” roared Joe.

Hoss turned, pulling Joe from his back. Holding Joe off the ground in a firm grip, he flung Joe off to the side, sending Joe rolling head over heels across the ground.

Adam laughed, which wasn’t the brightest thing to do. Hoss, angered by what he dubbed as Adam’s indifference, doubled up his massive fist and delivered a solid punch to his older brother’s jaw.

The laughter instantly vanished as Adam tumbled over backwards.

“There…that’ll teach ya!” snarled Hoss, turning his back to his older brother in order to face his younger brother.

He dusted his hands together and if the matter were settled.

Joe was brushing the dirt from the front of his trousers. He glanced up at Hoss, grinning from ear to ear.

“Thank you…now I can save myself the trouble,” giggled Joe as he pointed to Adam, who was just getting to his feet.

“Ya ain’t such a big man now, are ya?” he said in a condescending tone.

“Hush up Short Shanks,” snapped Hoss. “This dang arguin’ all the time ain’t funny no more!”

“Don’t blame me!” yelled Joe, pointing his finger in Adam’s direction. “Blame him…”

“Me?” shouted Adam. “You’re the one who’s always…”

Hoss spun around on his heels. “Shut up, Adam!”

“No…you listen…”

Hoss made a fist, “No…you listen.”

The fist came out of nowhere, but Adam had seen the movement and was quick to duck his head, avoiding the punch.

Neither had seen Joe move around to stand behind Adam. The massive fist intended for his older brother was headed directly toward him. Joe tried to avoid the blow, but only managed to turn his head to the side. Hoss’ folded hand that formed the rock hard fist, landed directly on his brother’s left ear.

Joe screamed in pain as he staggered backward, spinning on his heels and falling face down into the dust. His body automatically curled into a ball. His hands grabbed the side of his face where blood now oozed from his ear. Joe moaned loudly, recoiling as the pain in his ear became more intense.

Adam and Hoss froze, taken by surprise at the change of events. As if time had stopped, the pair stared in horror at the boy withering in agony just feet from where they stood.

“Oh Lordy…Little Joe,” Hoss practically shouted as he dropped to his knees at the boy’s side and carefully tried to turn his anguished brother onto his back.

Adam sank to the ground as well; all antagonism forgotten as he quickly placed his hands over Joe’s and pried the smaller, blood-coated fingers away from his head. Adam glanced with horror into Hoss’ blue, tear-filled eyes. Joe cried out as Hoss gently inspected the rapidly swelling flesh of his ear and cheek.

“Joe…I’m sorry little buddy…I didn’t mean to hit ya, honest,” stammered Hoss, stunned by what he had done to his little brother. “It was an accident…ya gotta believe me!” he sobbed.

“My head…my head…hurts,” moaned Joe through gritted teeth.

His body attempted to roll away from the hands that were caring for him. Adam held his neckerchief over the ear, slowing the flow of blood that seeped from the opening.

“Take it easy Joe,” Adam whispered in reassurance. His voice was calm, giving no man a clue to the inner most mixture of emotions that conjugated around the walls of his heart.

“Let’s get him inside and you ride for the doctor, Hoss,” Adam ordered, seeing how upset Hoss was, he thought it best to give the younger man something to do besides stand and stare in shock at what he had committed.

“HOSS! Did you hear me?” Adam said with a hint of authority while grabbing Hoss’ arm and pinching it with his fingers to attract the traumatized man’s attention.

Hoss moved his head ever so slightly, drawing his eyes from the boy’s face to the man’s face across from him.

“I heard ya,” Hoss said as if in a daze.

He looked down at the boy and brushed his large beefy fingers through the mass of thick curls with every ounce of benevolence that the gentle giant was known for.

Adam saw Hoss swallow the lump that he knew had sprouted in his brother’s throat and saw the fear in the blue eyes that had filled with tears.

Carefully, Hoss slipped his hands under Joe’s body and lifted the smaller boy into his arms, cradling him against his chest as he hurried to the house. Adam ran ahead and swung open the door, moving to the side to allow Hoss to enter.

“Take him to his room,” Adam said, slamming the door behind him as Hoss moved quickly up the stairs.

“PA!” shouted Adam, going to peek into the kitchen.

Ben almost collided with his oldest son as he rushed around the corner.

“What’s wrong?” he asked anxiously, noting the tone and Adam’s worried look.

“It’s Joe, Pa…he’s been hurt. Hoss took him to his room, come on,” Adam explained as he and Ben rushed to Joe’s room.

Hoss had Joe stretched out on the bed and was removing the boy’s boots. He glanced up at his father as Ben sat down on the edge of the bed and took Joe’s hands and pulled them down from his head where he had been holding the side of his face that had been hit.

“Awww…” Joe whimpered.

“Take it easy son, let me have a look,” Ben said softly. “What happened to him?” Ben asked as he inspected the side of Joe’s face.

As he waited for one of his sons to answer him, he grabbed the towel off the nightstand and dabbed at the blood that had begun to conceal on the outer edge of Joe’s ear.

Hoss and Adam stood silent, each waiting for the other to speak up. Ben gave a quick glance over his shoulder at both and then returned his attention to his youngest son.

“Will someone please explain this to me and then go for a doctor!” snapped Ben. “Easy Joe, I know it hurts son, you’ve taken a tremendous wallop to the side of your head.”

“It was my fault, Pa,” Hoss said in a reproachful voice.

Ben looked up at the strange quiver he heard in his middle son’s tone and saw that Hoss had lowered his head and refused to look at him. Ben also noted the anxious and dejected look on the gentle giant’s face.

“I hit’em…with my fist,” stammered Hoss, looking more remorseful than ever.

“It was an accident, Pa…and it wasn’t his fault, it was mine,” Adam hurried to say.

“No…no…” cried Joe, drawing his family’s attention to himself. “Me…mine…it was my fault,” he said weakly.

“Will someone…” began Ben.

Adam stepped over to Hoss and placed a hand on his brother’s arm.

“Hoss, why don’t you ride into town and fetch Doc Martin, I’ll help Pa get Joe settled and explain everything to him…go on,” he issued, pressing his fingers a little tighter and nodding his head toward the door.

“I’ll be back real soon…” Hoss said, taking the hint.

He glanced down at Joe who had closed his eyes against the constant throbbing.

Adam waited until Hoss had left the room and then turned back to the bed, and his brother. He leaned over Ben’s shoulder, watching as the expressions of pain made constant changes to the boy’s handsome features. Already Adam could see the swelling to the side of Joe’s cheek, and the ugly disfiguring bruise that would cover nearly half of that side of his face. Even the white of Joe’s left eye had streaks of red and the lower lid had quickly swelled, nearly closing the eye.

Ben continued to coo softly to his son, whispering gentle commands to lie still and try to rest. Adam could see the mixture of emotions on his father’s face that the senior Cartwright tried to hide from the wounded boy.

Hop Sing appeared with a basin of warm water and clean towels that he quietly laid on the table near the bed. He paused, looking down into the face of his favorite son. The kindly servant smiled when Joe’s eyes found his face.

“Little boy must luck to duck,” Hop Sing teased gently.

Joe turned up the corner of his mouth, attempting to return the smile.

“I tried,” he said, and then closed his eyes, scrunching up his face.

“Pa…” he stammered, “that ringing in my ears…make it stop,” he moaned, moving his hand up to hold that side of his head. “Hurts…oh God…my head…”muttered Joe.

“I know son, but try not to move around so much, the doctor will be here soon and I’m sure he will give you something for the pain,” Ben encouraged. Rising, he turned to Adam.

“Let’s get him undressed and more comfortable…and then you can explain to me how this little incident happened,” Ben said.

He had turned his back to the bed, disallowing Joe to see the angry glare that shone from his dark, expressive eyes.

Joe had opened his eyes. Though his vision in the left eye was somewhat blurred, he saw Adam quickly glance his way at the sound of heated words delivered to his older brother.

“Alright, Pa,” Adam said, his true feelings lay behind the mask that Adam Cartwright wore so well.

Soon after they had Joe’s clothes removed and dressed in a nightshirt, Ben took a seat close to the bed and motioned for Adam.

“Now, tell me what brought all of this about,” Ben demanded.

He kept his eyes fixed on Adam but occasionally glanced at Joe, watching the suffering that flickered occasionally on the young handsome face.

“It was just a stupid argument, between Joe and I. It really had nothing to do with Hoss; he just tried to stop a fight before it got out of hand. He was aiming for me; I ducked. Neither one of us knew that Joe was standing behind me. Unfortunately for Joe, he received what was intended for me. Hoss never intended to hit Joe. He’s always known he could hurt the boy, so he never has.”

“Until today,” Ben snapped.

“Sure…but he didn’t mean too. Pa, it was an accident! And besides, if Joe had just done what I asked him to do, instead of making a big deal out it, then this would never have happened!” Adam said with a touch of sarcasm.

He stomped across the room and pulled the curtain back to look down into the yard.

“So you’re saying, this was Joe’s fault?” Ben said in a loud voice as he followed Adam to the window. “Joe’s laying there hurt, with probably a busted ear drum, a black eye and with only God in heaven knows what other injuries, and you say this is his fault?”

Angered by the statement and the way that his father had twisted his words, Adam spun around on his heels and faced Ben. The mask was gone, and the anger was easy for Ben to see in the dark hazel eyes that had taken on an unapproachable glare.

“I meant no such thing. I told you it was just a stupid argument…”

“That Joe started…”

“NO!” shouted Adam.

He moved away from Ben’s side, back to the bed. Glancing down at Joe, he leaned over and felt the boy’s brow.

“Head…hurts,” Joe whimpered when he felt the loving touch of the warm hand.

Adam sat down on the edge of the bed, next to his brother, ignoring his father who had moved to his side.

“I know it does, buddy. Just take it easy, Hoss will be back with the doctor soon, I promise,” Adam said softly.

Adam stood to his feet, glanced at his father and walked back to the window, where he stood motionless for several long minutes without saying a word. When he turned, Ben had resumed his vigil, sitting in the over-stuffed chair he had dragged along side of the bed.

Adam walked softly over to where Ben had his back to him and, taking a deep breath, placed his hand down over his father’s shoulder. Ben glanced over his shoulder, surprised to see Adam standing there. The anger that had been present minutes before was gone now. In its wake was a look of repentance and remorse, so rarely seen by outsiders, but Ben saw the transformation that had taken place. He waited while Adam collected his thoughts and finally spoke.

“I’m sorry, Pa…I shouldn’t have snapped at you the way I did. I apologize.”

Ben’s lips were pressed tightly together, but his anger had vanished from his face as he nodded his head.

“I’m sorry too, son. I shouldn’t have accused you. It’s just that…well…I suppose I’ll never be able to figure the three of you out. One minute you’re like three pups fighting over a bone, and then in the next instant, you’re all three fighting for each other, instead of against.” Ben smiled warmly at his eldest. “Whatever happened, I know Joe’s getting hurt was an accident…I hope Hoss knows that as well.”

Joe continued to moan, and toss his head. He complained about the loud ringing in his ears and constantly placed his hands over that side of his face in an attempt to drowned out the unpleasant sound coming from within his head.

“Joe, please son, try not to move around so much,” Ben said as he sat on the edge of the bed and placed his hands over Joe’s, removing them from the side of his face.

Ben could see that blood still oozed from the ear and he glanced anxiously up at Adam who stood beside him.

“Sorry…Pa, I’m tryin’…but it hurts so darn bad…aw…God…” Joe said.

He turned his head away from Ben’s hands and groaned softly.

“I wonder what’s keeping the doctor!” Ben muttered.

“I’m right here,” Paul Martin said from the doorway as he moved into the room.

Ben turned and quickly rose from the bed, giving the physician room to examine his patient.

“It’s the side of his head…his ear; the blood won’t stop oozing,” Ben said, peering over the doctor’s shoulder. “I don’t know what’s causing it.”

The family physician looked up at Ben. “Hoss told me that he hit him,” he explained. “Hoss was pretty upset about what happened,” Paul added.

“It was an accident,” Ben said, “Or at least that’s what these two claim,” Ben stated, giving Adam a critical look.

“I’m sure whether it was or not, Ben, Hoss never meant to hurt Joe,” the doctor smiled at Ben. “He knows his own strengths, and he’d never intentionally use it against his brother.”

“Now, let’s see what’s going on,” Paul muttered. “Ben, if you and Adam will excuse me…I’ll make my examination and join you both downstairs when I’ve finished.” he said over his shoulders.

Adam and Ben took the hint. Ben led the way as far as the door, letting Adam pass before him.

“Doc…Is Hoss downstairs?” Ben asked, standing in the doorway.

Paul Martin looked back at his friend; he shook his head no.

“He wanted to stay in town for awhile. He said he needed a drink, but don’t worry, Ben, he’ll be fine, just give him a little time, as I said, he was pretty upset about this.”

“I can imagine,” Ben said softly and closed the door.

“Hoss…I need to…talk to him…” Joe said, trying to focus on the doctor rather than the throbbing pain in his ear.

“Don’t worry about him, right now, young man. You have other things more important to worry about. Tell me, does this hurt?” Paul said as he probed gently at the inside of Joe’s ear.

“Aww…yes…” Joe said, making a face. “The ringing, Doc…can ya make it stop?”

“Hold on, son…”

Paul peered into the injured ear, frowning. Carefully he wiped away the oozing blood. With fingers as gentle as any loving parent, Paul pressed along the edge of Joe’s jaw line, and looked into the swollen eye, noting the tiny red lines that streaked the white.

“Besides the ringing in your ear Joe, does your head hurt?” Paul asked, sitting back watching the manifestations on the young face.

“Yeah…it fills like it’s gonna explode,” Joe said with gritted teeth.

“What about here?”

“Oh…yes…”

“And this?”

“My entire face hurts…and inside my head…what’s wrong with me doc…I mean…besides the obvious,” Joe asked, trying to form a smile.

“I’m not sure at this point, Joe. But don’t you worry, I’m going to give you something to curb the pain and help you to sleep,” Paul said.

He moved to his black satchel and rummaged around inside until he found what he was looking for. The white powdery substance, he stirred up in a glass of water and waited until he was sure that Joe had downed the entire contents of the glass.

“You lie still…perfectly still young man, and close your eyes. I want you to rest while I go downstairs and have a word with your father, understand?”

Paul began packing up his instruments.

“Yessir,” Joe muttered. His left eye had closed entirely and Joe tried to focus his right eye on the door and the doctor. “Doc…would ya mind telling Hoss I’d like to see him?”

Paul stopped at the door and turned back to his patient. He forced a smile, “If he’s home, I’ll be sure to give him the message. You rest young man…and whatever you do…stay in that bed! Or I’ll give you something to make sure you do,” Paul laughed lightly.

“I will…I don’t feel much like moving around anyway,” Joe muttered, giving in to the rapidly working medication that the physician had administered.

“I’ll ride into town and look for him if you want me too,” Adam told Ben.

He needed to get some air, and riding into town to look for Hoss might be what he needed to clear his head, thought Adam.

“Don’t you want to wait and hear what the doctor has to say?”

Ben’s tone was gruff; he was still a little more than perturbed about how Joe had been hurt and the why to his question had not been answered to his satisfaction. Now, with one son injured, one son missing and his oldest son seeming to want to run out on him, Ben was hard pressed to keep his anger from overflowing.

“Of course I do…I meant I’d go after the doctor speaks to us. For heaven’s sake Pa, you don’t think I’m that cold and callus, do you?”

Adam’s voice had risen slightly and he turned from Ben, not wanting to let his father see how the sharp words had affected him. Of course he was worried about his kid brother, wasn’t he to blame for Joe getting injured in the first place? Naturally, he hadn’t thrown the punch, Hoss had done that, and sure Joe had put up an argument about his duties for the day, but hadn’t he, Mister Big Man, issued the orders to start with? Didn’t it all boil down to the fact that had he not been pushing his younger brother just a bit too hard, none of this would have happened? He wasn’t even sure at the moment that the means justified his motives.

He turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Doc Martin was descending slowly, a frown furrowed deeply into his brow as he raised his head slightly and looked from Ben to Adam who had both met him at the base of the wooden staircase.

“Well?” Ben asked. “How badly is he hurt?”

“I wish Ben that there were some way that I could see beyond flesh and bone, to the inside of a man. But there’s not, unfortunately, so, as in this case, I can only tell you what I believe might be wrong.”

Paul saw Ben take a deep breath and ready himself for the worst.

“It is possible, and highly likely that Joe has suffered a skull fracture. It could be that his eardrum is shattered, and his jaw is cracked…and…”

“Dear God…there’s more?” stammered Ben.

He put his hand to the banister to steady himself.

“Ben…I can’t be sure about the skull fracture, or the eardrum, or the jaw for that matter. It might only be one injury…maybe two, but without being able to see inside his head, I can only give you the worse case scenario.”

“You said there was more,” Adam interrupted to head the doctor back to the prognosis.

“His hearing…I’m worried about it.”

Ben sat down on the arm of the settee, a look of dismay flashed across his face. “What do you mean?”

“It could be that he might lose his hearing in that ear, if his eardrum is shattered. I won’t be able to know for sure until the ringing stops.”

Paul saw the horror in his friend’s eyes and he could sense the helplessness the concerned father was feeling.

“We won’t know until later…so please, don’t bargain for trouble, let’s wait and see. Ben…his hearing might be just fine…once the ringing stops. Think positive…for Joe.” Paul placed a hand on Ben’s arm, squeezing gently.

“Ben, I want someone to sit with Joe around the clock. If he has a skull fracture, the best thing for him is to stay in bed, rest and lie as completely still as possible. I know that for Joe, it won’t be easy, so I’m leaving you some powders to help with the pain and to keep him mildly sedated, so he’ll sleep. I’m going back up to bandage his ear, hopefully to squelch the blood…”

“What about the blood…what’s causing it?” Ben asked.

“Well, a skull fracture…that could be the cause. The blood isn’t bad, so hopefully it will stop soon. Ben, I’m sorry I can’t tell you more…or give you better news, but…”

“No, that’s enough, Paul. You can only do what you can…I’ve never complained about the care you give us, never.” Ben rose, smiling at the doctor. “And you’ve had plenty of practice, on my boys!”

“Indeed I have, Ben, indeed I have. Look, try not to worry. Joe just needs to rest and remain quiet. One thing though Ben, and Adam, you might watch for this as well, but if Joe does have a head injury, he might become somewhat combative when he wakes. It’s natural due to the swelling inside his head, but once that starts to decrease, he should be fine. Just don’t let him hurt himself again if he does get that way. When he wakes, let him eat something light and give him another powder. That should keep him sleeping for several hours, so perhaps we can avoid anything nasty.”

Paul started toward the door to get his hat and coat.

“I’ll be out in the morning to check on him. I’m not expecting anything to happen, but if you need me, just send someone and I’ll come straight out.”

“Thank you Paul,” Ben shook hands with the physician and then turned to Adam.

“I’ll sit with Joe…are you going to ride into town with Paul?”

“I think I should find Hoss…and tell him what Doc said, don’t you?”

“Knowing Hoss, he’s beside himself with worry…and too ashamed of himself to come home. Yes, please Adam, see if you can find him, and when you do, tell him to get himself back here, pronto. I have a feeling that Joe’s going to wake up and expect to see Hoss…and if he’s not here…well, I don’t want anything upsetting that boy right now. He’s too sick…”

“Alright Pa…don’t you worry,” Adam said in a strong voice. “I’ll find him, and I’ll bring him home even if I have to tie him across his saddle to do it.” Adam smiled slightly. “I’ll be back to take my turn sitting with Joe…don’t worry Pa…the boy will be fine…and so will Hoss.”

Ben returned the smile and held the door while Adam turned to leave. “Thank you Adam, and son…I’m sorry for…”

“Forget it, Pa…I didn’t mean to make it sound as if I was laying all the blame on Joe…it wasn’t just him, it was all three of us…but mostly me. I wasn’t happy about the way that the silent bidding on that stallion went, and I suppose I took it out on Joe, and I shouldn’t have.” Adam grinned.

“Why did you then?”

“I don’t know…I suppose when I found out that it was Joe bidding against me and he won…” Adam lowered his head slightly and looked from beneath lowered lashes at his father. “Jealous maybe…the kid out smarted me this time…and I suppose it didn’t set too well. Wounded pride, maybe?”

“Maybe,” Ben said softly. “So you gave him the worst jobs…to get even? Rather childish, wouldn’t you think, Adam?”

“When you say it like that…I guess it does. I’m sorry…and I’ll apologize to Joe when he’s better. Guess I’d best be going…no telling how much Hoss has had to drink by now.”

Adam donned his hat and turning on his heels, left his father standing in the door watching him. Ben pressed his lips together, shaking his head from side to side as he closed the door. He briefly wondered if he would ever be able to figure out his sons.

“He’s over in the corner, Adam. He’s been drinking all night,” the barkeeper said, pointing to the back corner where Hoss sat alone. Several empty beer glasses sat scattered about the table in front of the big man.

Hoss glanced up as Adam pulled out a chair across from his brother and sat down.

“Mind if I join you?” he said casually, removing his hat and placing it on the table in front of him.

“Naw…want a beer?” Hoss mumbled; his speech was just slightly slurred.

“From the looks of all this,” Adam waved his hand over the top of the empty mugs, “I’d guess that you’ve drank enough for both of us.”

Hoss looked up, eyeing his brother. “I ain’t drunk…leastways, not yet, I ain’t.”

“Joe’s been asking for you Hoss.” Adam saw no point in beating around the bush. He pressed on. “I think you should come home, he needs you.”

“He needs me?” laughed Hoss, though there was no humor in his laughter. “That ain’t likely and ya know it. I plum near kilt’em…he don’t got no need for the likes of me!”

Hoss grabbed his mug and downed the remainder of the brew. “BARKEEP!” he shouted, holding up his empty glass and motioning for another beer. He plunked the mug down on the table and looked across at Adam.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough…”

Hoss’ eyes turned dark and he twisted up his face in anger.

“Don’t ya tell me when I’ve had enough to drink…I ain’t Little Joe…ya cain’t be tellin’ me what to do all the time like ya do him!” Hoss said in a loud voice. “Ya ain’t my keeper either, now go away and leave me alone!”

Adam sat in stunned silence for a moment, studying his brother’s face. Hoss was well on his way to being drunk and Adam knew that if it went that far, it would take half the night just to get the big man home.

“That’s what ya always doin’…bossin’ everyone around like ya always adoin’ Little Joe. Ya act like ya the only one what knows anythin’ about cattle ranchin’, and minin’, and lumber…ya a big mouth…” Hoss hiccupped and swallowed, swaying slightly in his chair.

Adam held his tongue, letting Hoss’ heated words go unheeded. They stung a bit, Adam thinking that perhaps with the amount that Hoss had had to drink, he might be expressing what he really felt in his heart. Adam knew that with Hoss’ tender heart, no matter what animosity he might feel when sober, he’d never express himself as he had just done.

“Come on Hoss…let’s go home…”

“NO! There ya go again, tryin’ to tell me what to do!”

Hoss took a long drink from the fresh mug that the barkeep had placed in front of him. Drops of the frothy ale dripped from the sides of his mouth and rolled off the end of his chin to drip onto the front of his shirt.

Adam glanced around at the patrons in the saloon, some of which were taking their pleasure, watching the two of them. He sighed deeply.

“It’s always been like that,” Hoss muttered.

“Like what, Hoss?” Adam said, leaning back in his chair thinking to let his brother get whatever he was feeling, off his chest.

Hoss swallowed the beer in his mouth and leaned forward, slamming his glass onto the table. A tiny bit of froth splashed over the top and left a puddle on the table.

“Ya…always bossin’ the boy…tellin’ ‘em what to do, when to do it, how to do it, why to do it…never givin’ ‘em credit when he deserves it…always makin’ ‘em feelin’ like he ain’t good ‘nough…”

“That’s enough, Hoss.” Adam stood to his feet. “Let’s go, it’s time to get home.”

Adam moved around the table and placed his hand on Hoss’ arm. Even in his besotted state, Hoss was able to fling Adam’s hand away.

“I don’t need ya…I can get up by myself,” stammered Hoss, pushing back his chair and rising, just to prove his point. “See, I ain’t so drunk I cain’t stand up,” he growled.

Adam stepped aside, giving the over-enthusiastic man space to move. Hoss took two steps and began to sway. Adam quickly grabbed his brother’s arm and allowed Hoss to lean against him.

“Come on big brother, you need some fresh air,” Adam said as he led Hoss toward the door.

Once outside in the cool night air, Adam led Hoss to the nearest water trough and turned him around so that Hoss could sit on the narrow end. Once sure that his brother was safely perched, Adam surprised Hoss by gently pushing him backwards. Hoss slipped into the trough, startled by the cold water.

For several moments he splashed and sputtered beneath the surface. Adam was forced to reach his hand down into the trough and yank Hoss’ head to the surface. Hoss, holding onto the sides, spewed water in a stream, from his mouth. He glared up at Adam with an exasperated look.

“Why’d ya go and do that?” he snapped.

“You need sobering, quick like…feel better?” Adam asked, helping his brother from the water.

Hoss stepped out of the trough and pulled away from Adam’s helping hand. He balled up his fingers, making a fist as he drew back his arm.

Adam watched, waiting for the powerful punch that he knew he deserved to hit his face. For a fraction of a second, he wondered if it would make him feel any better about himself, or if it would serve Hoss to feel the same. It was obvious that both he and Hoss felt the blame for what had happened to Little Joe.

Hoss paused, his fist held high in mid-air; he glanced across the top of his shoulder at the hand that made a tight fist, and gulped, swallowing hard. Slowly, with a vanquished look on his face, Hoss lowered his arm. With eyes that suddenly showed his remorse he looked up at Adam.

“I nearly kilt’em, didn’t I?” he stammered, pulling his fist up in front of himself and Adam. He brought his other hand up as well.

“Lookit these hands, Adam…they can lift a heifer plum off of the ground and I can lick most any man alive…with just these hands…but I cain’t undo what I dun to my little brother!” sobbed Hoss.

Hoss lowered his arms to his sides and bowed his head. His sorrow was evident in his tear filled eyes. He sniffled his nose, wiping the dampness with the sleeve of his shirt. He raised his head slightly, looking sadly into Adam’s dark eyes.

“I’d cut my arm off, if’n I could take back that punch,” he murmured softly. “I’d willingly die for that boy, if’n I had too…”

“Hoss, Joe knows that…we all would die for him, if we had too. He also knows that what happened was an accident. That punch was meant for me, not him; and I deserved it…I was taunting Joe. I didn’t realize it until a little while ago, when Pa pointed it out to me. I’m sorry Hoss…it was childish of me, and I deserved that punch, not Joe…”

Hoss startled Adam by suddenly laughing.

“What’s so funny?” Adam questioned, staring at the odd expression on his brother’s face.

“We are,” Hoss said, sobering.

“You aren’t making any sense, brother,” Adam said.

“Look at us…we’re both standing here trying to take the blame for what happened. Not more’n a few hours ago, you and Joe were about to pound each other, I was gonna pound you, but ended up pounding the scamp instead…ain’t none of it makes any sense.”

Hoss emptied his ten-gallon hat of the water that collected inside and plopped it down on his head. He turned to Adam, grinning slightly.

“I didn’t mean those nasty things I said back there…I…”

“Yes you did.” Adam held up his hand. “But it’s alright Hoss, you didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. I am a son-of-a-gun…at times,” he said, slipping his arm about the broad shoulders and giving his brother a dimpled grin.

“Most of the time,” Hoss whispered, allowing his brother to lead him toward the waiting horses.

“No…I think I can be somewhat understanding…most of the time.”

They had reached their mounts and Hoss paused before mounting and gave Adam a doubtful look.

“It takes ya awhile…but ya usually end up gettin’ there,” he said, smiling at last. “Let’s go home, I wanna see my kid brother.”

Hoss groaned as he pulled his heavy frame up, into the saddle and waited for Adam to mount up. Without any further conversation, the brothers turned toward home and rode out of town.

It was late when the duo rode into the yard. Both glanced at the upstairs window and saw the dim light that glowed softly through the thin shears covering the window from inside.

Together the brothers marched into the house. Hoss pulled his hat off and hung it on the peg, and then removed his gun belt as well. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair and turned to ascend the stairs.

Ben stood on the landing, a worried look furrowed into his brow as he watched his middle son cross the room.

“Welcome home, son,” he smiled at last. “Joe’s been asking for you.”

“Howdy, Pa,” Hoss stammered.

He slowly looked up into this father’s face, pinching his thin lips tightly to form a straight line across his mouth.

“I’m sorry about not comin’ back with the doc…and I’m sorry for hurtin’ Joe…”

Ben came down two steps and placed his hand gently on Hoss’ shoulder. He was not the least surprised to feel the slight tremors that surged through his middle son’s body, for he had known that Hoss would suffer emotionally from his self imposed guilt.

“Your clothes are wet…what happened?” Ben said, purposely leading the conversation in another direction.

“I…um…I…well, I sorta fell into the watering trough,” Hoss said meekly.

Ben snickered softly. He glanced at Adam who was standing directly behind his brother and saw how Adam raised his brows. Ben had an idea that his oldest son had something to do with how wet his middle son’s clothing was, but he let that conversation drop as well.

“You best get out of those wet clothes before you catch a cold,” Ben ordered, stepping aside to allow Hoss to pass.

“Yessir…how’s Joe, Pa?” Hoss said, pausing on the step above his father.

“He’s resting. Paul said he could have skull fracture, or a ruptured eardrum, maybe both…it’s too early to say for sure. But he’s going to be fine, Hoss…in a few days and with plenty of rest,” Ben rushed to assure his son.

He had seen the disheartened look that came into Hoss’ expression and chose not to mention the fact that Joe might lose his hearing in his left ear as well. Later, when Hoss had rested and sobered up, for his father could see and smell the beer that Hoss had consumed and knew that his gentlest of sons, was suffering himself.

“Go ahead, get changed into something warm, and then go to bed…”

“But I wanna see Joe…I need to tell him…”

“Hoss, Joe’s sleeping. He’s not likely to wake up before morning, if then. The doctor wants him to rest and not to get himself worked up. There will be plenty of time for you to…have a talk with your brother, tomorrow,” Ben ordered gently.

Hoss scrunched up his face and nodded his head. “Yessir…but…cain’t I just go in and take a quick peek at’em afore I turn in…please?”

“Alright Hoss…after…you have changed,” smiled Ben.

“Thanks Pa…I think I’ll rest better, once I seen’em.”

Hoss hurried on to his room to change, anxious to go see his brother.

“Looks like he’s had way too much to drink,” Ben said as he joined Adam in the great room.

“Let’s say he was pretty much past his limit. How’s Joe, really?” Adam asked.

“Like I said, he’s resting. Hop Sing is sitting with him. I wanted to talk to you…about Hoss. How’s he doing, besides having a hangover, I mean. Did he say anything?” Ben said.

He poured himself and Adam a brandy and turned, handing the tiny goblet to his son. Ben sat down on the edge of his seat and waited for his son’s answer.

Adam tossed the drink down his throat and gave a little snort.

“Oh…he said plenty,” he snickered, remembering how his brother had accused him of being overly bossy and practically calling him a tyrant. Adam snickered again.

“He showed me a side of myself I hadn’t seen before.” Adam gave his father a cheeky grin. “Wasn’t the most pleasant revelation I’ve ever had, I might add. But he was right…I am all those things he called me…and more,” Adam stated solemnly.

“I guess I shouldn’t ask then, about…those things?”

“I’d rather not get into them, if you don’t mind,” Adam declared. “They’re things I need to think about…and change. I owe Hoss and Joe much more than I give to them, Hoss made me see that tonight.”

Ben watched as the mask fell slowly away from his eldest son’s outer shell and revealed the true man behind the mask.

“I realized tonight, how much my brothers mean to me…how much I regret…not being more of a source of inspiration to them, instead of…such a…dictator.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “Hoss called you a dictator?” he asked.

“Not in so many words, he didn’t…but I got the idea that he and Joe both think of me as such. I suppose they’ve a right too, I mean…I’m not the easiest person to please…”

“Adam,” said Ben, rising and moving to sit on the table, facing his son. “Whatever you believe yourself to be…you have always had your brothers’ best interests at heart. Never think otherwise.”

“Thanks Pa…I know I have…I guess it’s just the methods I use to get that point across to them. I suppose I’ll have to rethink my tactics,” he smiled.

The mask was replaced as if pulled into position by a mystical cord. Adam stood to his feet, grinning down at his father.

“Let’s go check on the little scamp, shall we?” he invited his father.

Hop Sing looked up as his employer entered the room. He had been sitting next to the bed, keeping a close eye on his favorite number three son. The faithful little servant rose to relinquish his seat to the boy’s father.

“Mister Hoss come in, tell sleeping boy that he sorry for hurting him. Boy no need to hear, he know in heart that big brother no mean to harm him,” smiled Hop Sing.

“Number two son, he need to know that boy forgive him, though. Mister Hoss…he have tender heart, much like small child. He need hear from boy’s own mouth before big man able to forgive self. He carry much fistful of regret.”

Hop Sing bowed to Ben and Adam and padded softly from the room. Ben looked at Adam with a worried expression on his face.

“I hope Joe can say the right thing to Hoss, once he wakes up. And, I certainly hope that his hearing isn’t impaired, Hoss would never forgive himself if he thought he was responsible for permanently harming the boy,” Ben said, turning back to Joe who had begun to moan softly.

Ben went straight to the bed and sat down. “Joe?” he called softly.

“Pa?”

“I’m here son. How does your head feel…does it still hurt?” Ben asked.

“The ringing has stopped,” Joe said, forcing his one good eye opened. “My head still hurts some, but not like it did. What time is it?”

“Why…you going somewhere?” asked Adam, smiling.

He stood next to his father, watching Joe try to focus the clear eye on his face.

“Work…you said it was my turn to muck out the barn…and clean the chicken coop. Don’t you remember?” Joe asked, somewhat puzzled by the strange look that suddenly washed over his older brother’s face.

“I remember Joe…but I was mistaken,” he paused, glancing down at his father. “It was my turn…and it’s already been taken care of…so you just rest and don’t worry about anything. I’ll tend to your chores for the next few days.”

Adam gave his brother a one-sided smile. “I’ll see you in the morning, sport. Rest easy. Good night Pa, wake me if you need me,” Adam said, moving toward the door.

Ben waited until he heard the sound of the door closing before smiling down at Joe.

“What’s with him?” Joe asked, glancing at the closed door. “Why’s he suddenly being so nice to me? It wasn’t his turn to muck out the barn, nor the chicken coop, and he knows it. It was mine.”

“Perhaps his doing it…was his way of telling you that he was sorry…for the nasty things he’s said and done to you the last couple of days,” Ben hinted.

Joe’s mind called to memory the last few days and he was tempted to agree with his father. His older brother had been riding him pretty hard, talking strong to him, and issuing him the most unpleasant tasks needing to be tended to.

But just as quickly, his mind brought forth his own actions and the ways that he had purposely been making little curt remarks behind Adam’s back and trying the man’s patience. His most vivid memory was the way he felt when he found out that Adam was going to bid on the Arabian stallion coming up for auction. Joe had been hording his money, for the purpose of having enough to out bid his older brother, and win for himself, what Adam had most desired.

Suddenly the pain in his head compared nothing to the pain in his heart. Joe felt like a heel, unworthy of his brother’s respect…or trust, though he knew the why of his motive, and the ultimate outcome of his purchase, but seeing Adam’s face when his brother found out who it was that had outbid him, caused Joe to grieve slightly for Adam who had been the loser.

Joe closed his eye, unable to meet his father’s dark, probing eyes. He could not tell his father what had possessed him to purposely outbid his brother, or to bid on the second horse. If his father knew he’d plan to do so all along, Joe wasn’t sure that his father would understand, without revealing everything about why he chose to do so. He’d have to wait, until the time was right, to justify himself and then hope that his entire family would understand, and forgive him.

He felt his father rise from the bed and heard when Ben moved to the chair and sat down.

Hoss tossed and turned, unable to sleep. His nightmare continued to haunt his dreams each time that he closed his weary eyes. It was always the same, his fist folded into a tight wad of hard knuckles and always flying out before his eyes. His ears recounted more times than he, himself could keep track of, the screams that emitted passed his younger brother’s lips as Joe rolled on the ground before him, withering in agony.

Sweat beads boiled up from beneath the skin of his brow. Hoss shivered, but not from cold, but from the fear of what that one blow to the side of Joe’s head might cost him…and the boy. What if Joe lost his hearing, as the doctor had suggested, and what if, because of his own foolishness, Joe would never forgive him for that loss? Could he live with it, could he ever be able to look his kid brother in the eye again and know that beneath Joe’s cool exterior, he actually hated him? The thoughts caused Hoss to push back the blankets and crawl from his warm bed. His own head pounded from the affects of the alcohol he’d consumed, and he pressed his thick hand to his own brow, wondering how, with this much pain in his own head, Little Joe could bare the pounding going on in his head. Both pains, his own and his brother’s, was his fault, Hoss concluded. He had even hurt Adam. Not physically, but emotionally, by the nasty things he had flung at him while in a drunken state of mind.

“Dadburnitall,” muttered Hoss, slipping on his night shoes and staggering to the door.

He had promised to wait until morning to have a word with Joe, but now, after loosing hours of sleep, he could wait no longer. It was still nearly three hours before sunrise, what would it matter if he faced the boy now, or later? What he had to say, had to be said, and Hoss reckoned, the soon, the better.

Quietly he slipped from his room and down the hall, easing silently into Joe’s room. His father was sleeping in the chair, his silver head resting against the back. Someone, most likely Hop Sing, had covered Ben with a lightweight blanket. His father snored softly.

Hoss tip-toped past, to sit carefully on the side of the bed.

“Joe,” he whispered softly, expectantly.

“Psst, short shanks,” he whispered again, this time gently nudging the boy’s shoulder.

Hoss glance over at his father, but Ben was still sleeping.

“Joe, wake up…please.”

Joe moaned softly and then Hoss saw the one good eye open and look at him.

“Hoss?” Joe muttered.

“Shh…Pa’s sleepin’. I don’t wanna wake’em. How ya feelin’, Punkin?”

“I’m alright…what’s wrong…why’d ya wake me?” Joe said, straightening himself somewhat in the bed.

“I…I…just…needed to talk…to ya…that’s all,” Hoss said, suddenly unsure how to say the things he was feeling.

“Couldn’t it wait until morning?” Joe asked. “This medicine sure does make me sleepy.”

Hoss lowered his head to hide his disappointment. “I…suppose it could,” he whispered softly, rising and turning to go.

Joe’s hand suddenly reached out and grabbed Hoss’.

“Wait…don’t go…please?” Joe said in a pleading voice. “I need to tell you something too,” he confessed.

“You do?” Hoss asked, surprised. He sat back down on the bed, waiting.

“I just want you to know Hoss…I don’t blame you for any of this. I know you didn’t hit me on purpose…honest.”

Hoss’ expression showed his relief and he smiled at his little brother.

“Ya don’t? Well, that’s a relief, cause that’s what I was gonna tell ya…that I’m sorry for hittin’ ya, and that I wasn’t aimin’ at ya, I was intendin’ that fist for Adam…”

“I should have moved quicker when I saw Adam duck,” Joe snickered softly.

Hoss giggled too.

“Oh…don’t make me laugh, big brother…it hurts too much,” Joe said, clutching his forehead. He looked Ben’s way to see that his father was still sleeping.

“Sorry,” grinned Hoss.

“Hoss,” Joe said seriously, “I know you’d never hurt me on purpose, so please, don’t fret yourself about this. I’m going to be fine, I promise,” Joe smiled.

The love he felt in his heart for the big man sitting on the bed with him, shone in his one eye.

“Besides…now I don’t have to go up to the north pasture in the morning and clean out that old pond Adam ordered me to clean,” he said with a cheeky grin. “Maybe I should be thanking you…reckon?”

“I reckon not…” a deep whispered voice broke through the darkness. “It’ll keep until you’re well enough. Now go to sleep.”

Hoss and Joe turned to the doorway, seeing Adam standing in the glow of the hallway lamplight.

“Hey, Big Brother, come on in,” Joe whispered.

Adam, a cup of coffee in one hand and book in the other, eased quietly into the room and over to the bed.

“You’re suppose to be resting, young man,” Adam scolded gently.

“I know…and I will…I promise. But I wanted to tell you something,” Joe said.

“Make it fast, before Pa wakes up and decides to tan all our hides,” Adam cautioned.

He moved to the other side of the bed and sat down. “What is it you wanted to tell me, kid?”

“I ain’t no…”

“I know, I know…we’ve been over that before…what Joe…what is it that’s so important that it can’t wait?” Adam said, trying not to let the humor he felt, show in his eyes.

The mask was so damn hard to wear at times, especially at times like this, when he wanted nothing more than to pull the obnoxious boy into his arms and just hold him.

“It’s about that Arabian stallion I out bid you on…I…I…I knew you wanted him, in the worst way…I mean…before I started to bid…I knew,” Joe said, glancing at his brother to check his reaction.

“I figured as much…but why? Why did you want to outbid me…you had to have a reason…you usually do,” Adam tried not to let his disappointment be seen and hoped that he sat deep enough into the shadows to hide the expression.

“I had my reasons,” Joe said softly. “I wanted him…for a gift. I’m was aiming to give him to someone who means a lot to me, as soon as I’m well enough. You see, Adam, sometimes I have a hard time letting…certain people…know how I feel about them. Like now…I don’t know how to tell you…why I purposely out bid you. I seem to only know how to anger you, how to make you yell at me and then complain when you accuse me still being a kid.”

Joe swallowed. Joe glanced up into his brother’s dark eyes and made a smidgeon of a smile.

“Next month is someone’s special day…someone’s birthday…but now that I’m laid up…I won’t be able to break that stallion like I wanted too. I know it’s asking a lot, but do you reckon you could do it for me? I mean, after all, I out bid you cause I wanted to be the one to give him to you as a birthday present and all, but since…”

“WHAT!” Adam shouted in a whisper.

Adam looked to be sure he had not disturbed his father, but he failed to note the tiny smile that played across his father’s face as Ben continued his charade.

“Joe…are you trying to tell me…that after all I’ve…said and done to you…you’re…giving me that stallion as a gift? I don’t understand, Joe…I…don’t deserve something than fine…I…”

“Adam, you deserve much more…and so do you Hoss…that’s why I bought that little sorrel filly you had your eye on. I overheard the two of you the other day in the barn talking about how you’d like to breed the stallion and the sorrel…so…she’s yours,” Joe said with a twinkle in his one opened eye.

“But…but…Joe…I don’t know what to say…” stammered Hoss, giving a look over Adam’s way and seeing that he was grinning.

“You don’t have to say anything, Hoss…neither do you Adam. It’s my way of telling both of you what’s really in my heart…it’s the only way I know to show you that…that…I care about both of you,” Joe said.

He smiled at both, pleased to see the wide grins on both the rotund face and the dimpled face of his brothers.

“And to think I thought you weren’t anything but a…well, on second thought…never mind what I thought, obviously, I was wrong…again. You know Little Joe, I’ll never be able to figure you out,” snickered Adam.

He wanted to hug the kid, but, having the feeling that right at this moment of his life, Joe must surely have been feeling quite ‘the man’, Adam offered his hand instead.

“Thank you, ki…Joe…I’ll make sure that stallion is broken properly,” promised Adam.

“Yeah thanks, Short Shanks…and when that little sorrel has her first colt, he’s yours…just ‘cause…well…’cause up ‘til a few minutes ago, I sure ‘nough had me what ole Hop Sing called ‘a fistful of regret’. But thanks to ya…I don’t feel so bad any more,” Hoss snickered.

“Ya somethin’ special Little Joe, somethin’ real special, ya know that?” Hoss stammered. “Ain’t he, Adam?”

“Yeah Hoss…he’s a special young man…but remember this kid…when you’re on your feet again, it’s your turn to clean out that pond…and I won’t hear no back talk about it either.”

Adam stood to his feet, smiling as he turned to go. “Go back to sleep…you need your beauty rest, you look a mess,” he said good-naturedly.

Hoss and Adam stopped in the doorway to look back at their brother and both smiled. Joe had fallen to sleep in an instant. Quietly they shut the door, unaware that behind them, Ben had opened his eyes and was smiling with pride at his three sons.

“He amazes me,” Paul Martin told Joe’s father and brothers, several days later.

Joe was sitting on the settee, enjoying being downstairs with his family. Paul had made a quick examination of his patient and turned to Ben, smiling.

“He seems fine. I cannot find anything wrong with him…his hearing is fine, the blood has completely stopped oozing, which is a great relief, and the swelling is going down. The only thing left is the bruising, but that will fade in time,” grinned the doctor.

“I’m still not able to work though, right Doc?” Joe called from his seat on the couch where his family had gathered to hear the doctor’s report. He cast his eyes in the general direction of his brothers, avoiding looking directly at Adam.

“No…I don’t want you doing anything of the such, not for at least a couple more weeks. Then there will still be limits, just in case. I’ll tell you when it’s safe for you to resume your regular work habits,” Paul informed Joe and the others.

“What regular work habits?” Adam whispered in a low mumble.

“I heard that,” Joe said, giving Adam a sad, puppy-dog look.

“So did I…which reminds me Adam…that pond in the north pasture needs cleaning soon… like this afternoon? The men are driving those new steers up there first thing in the morning. Now you best get going,” Ben ordered and then turned to see what had caused the high-pitched giggles from his youngest and middle sons.

Adam gave each a dark glare.

“Hoss,” said his father, “you go with him, Adam’s going to need some help.”

Hoss’ laughter died instantly and he puckered up his face in disgust. “Aw dadburnit,” he grumbled.

Joe continued to giggle, making no attempt to hide his amusement at the faces his two older brothers were making. Suddenly he hushed, seeing his father glaring at him.

“And you…you little scamp…be assured that if you were well enough, you’d be going along. As it is, I have other plans for you…like honing your math skills…on my ledgers!”

Adam and Hoss burst into laughter. They both knew what a chore it was to straighten out their father’s mistakes, for they both had been subjected to the task.

“But Pa…” stammered Joe.

“No butts, young man! Just because you are twenty-years old, is not reason enough to discontinue improving your mathematical skills.” Ben slipped his arm about the slender shoulders as Joe rose from the settee.

“Why just look at all the education your brother Adam has gotten for himself. And he’s turned out very well…don’t you think?”

“Sure, just look at him…four years at Harvard and he’s cleaning out murky mud holes. If it’s all the same to you Pa…I think I’ll…”

Joe paused, seeing what he hoped were mock frowns on the faces of each man in the room, including the doctor.

“I think I’ll go back to bed. Can we start on those ledgers, first thing in the morning…please?” Joe said in a tiny voice.

Ben laughed. “Go to bed young man…you shouldn’t have gotten up anyway.” Ben turned to the physician. “I tried to tell him…but does he ever listen…NO!” laughed Ben.

“Adam, Hoss…did you want something?” Ben asked, surprised to see them still standing around.

“No Pa,” Adam grinned, glancing up at his kid brother who waved at them from the top step. “I think I have everything I need.”

Hoss followed his brother’s line of vision. “Yeah, me too.”

“Good-bye, then.”

Ben waited until the pair had left before turning to his friend and laughing merrily.

“There’s never a dull minute around here with those three,” he commented.

“You’re a lucky man, Ben. I don’t know any other men who care as much for one another as those three boys care about each other…and you. What more could a man ask for, but to have the love and respect of his children?”

“Nothing…there’s absolutely nothing, that compares to it. But what makes me most proud, is the fact that Adam, Hoss and Joe…though they often go at it amongst themselves, each one would willing lay down their own lives to save the others, without question. And no matter what happens between them, they still manage to find their way back to one another.”

Ben moved to stand before the massive fireplace. For a moment he was silent and then turned back to his friend.

“I’ve spent my life, Paul, trying to instill in each one of them, the advantages they have of being brothers. I wanted them to know that when everyone else around them, turned their backs on them…they’d always have each other to rely on. I tried to teach them the importance of being family. It’s my legacy to them…not this house, nor this land, not all the money I’ve managed to tuck away, but the love, and the honor, and the respect, of being a part of one another, and of knowing that no matter what happens between them, they don’t have to carry around a fistful of regret, for the other two are always there for the one,” concluded Ben.

Paul’s face had taken on a serious expression as he nodded his head in agreement. He smiled at his friend, feeling a little of what Ben was trying to express.

“Well said, friend, well said…and done,” acknowledged the doctor.

***The End***

Return to DebbieB’s homepage

February 2004

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