Back to Reality (by DebbieB)

Summary:  When Adam takes Joe along on a business trip, things go from bad to worse.  After Joe gets bitten by a sidewinder, it is now up to Adam to save not only his baby brother’s life but his own life as well.

Rated: PG (8,800 words)

 

 

                                  Back to Reality

 

Adam laid his bundle gently on the ground, making sure that the old blankets were snugly tucked around the still form before he straightened himself to his full height and stretched the kinks from his weary body.

Adam pulled the cork from his canteen and took a long swallow of the water that had long since lost its coolness.  Wiping the sleeve of his soiled shirt across his parched lips, Adam squatted down and pulled the corner of the blanket back, revealing the ashen face of his twelve-year-old youngest brother.

Little Joe moaned softly, his eyelids fluttered slightly as he struggled to open his eyes.

“Joe, you want a drink, buddy?” Adam asked as he gently raised his brother’s head up so that Joe could place his lips against the rim of the canteen.

Adam held the water container to his brother’s mouth and gave the fevered boy time to drink his fill.  “You hurting Pal?” the older sibling asked.

Joe’s eyes had closed against the sun that shone brightly overhead.  “I’m cold, Adam…and my leg…it feels like it’s on fire,” moaned Little Joe.

“I know Joe, I know.  Here let me check the wound again.”  Adam pulled the blanket from about Joe’s lower body and removed the make shift bandaged from the festered area, cringing when he spied the reddened wound on Joe’s right leg.  “That bite doesn’t look too good Joe, we best be on our way.”

Adam applied some of the water to the snakebite and cleaned as well as he could around the area.  Joe moaned softly and Adam glanced back at his brother’s face, noting the painful expression etched onto the boy’s features.

“I’m sorry, buddy, I don’t mean to hurt you,” soothed Adam, being careful not to cause his younger brother any more pain than was necessary as he replaced the wrap about the bite, readjusted the tourniquet he had fashioned with his belt, and pulled the blankets back about Joe’s body.  Joe had begun to shiver, Adam knowing that the chills were caused by the snakebite and giving a swift glance at the faraway mountains, wondered if he would be able to get the boy the proper help needed in time to save his life.

Adam placed his arms under Joe’s body and scooped the smaller boy up, into his arms.  “I hate this happened to you Little Joe, but I’m just as glad that it wasn’t Hoss…I don’t think I could have carried him this far,” whispered the older brother.

From beneath the horse scented old blankets, Adam could hear the soft giggles that his brother had not been able to stop.  “Oh…please Adam, don’t make me laugh…it hurts,” complained Joe good-naturally.

“It wasn’t meant to be funny little brother, I’m serious,” replied Adam, though he could not help but smile at the thought.

Just as quickly, the smile faded and Adam turned serious again.  “We better try to get as close to those mountains as we can. Maybe by the time we manage to get that far, Pa and Hoss will have realized that we didn’t get home when we said we would and will be looking for us,” Adam told Joe, though he doubted that that would happen, but he didn’t want to scare the boy.

Adam knew that with having to walk, they were at least a good two, may be even three days from the hills that fronted the high peaks where the Ponderosa was nestled.  He was worried sick about the boy, fearful for his life even, and he wondered why he had not been more careful.

Adam had known that the snake was there, he just hadn’t had enough time to yell out to his brother to be careful, before the sidewinder struck.  Joe had pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. It appeared as if Joe’s horse had picked up a stone in his shoe, and when Joe had raised his mount’s leg to inspect the hoof, the snake seemed to come out of nowhere.  Joe’s horse had reared in fright, knocking the boy off his feet and thus angering the reptile even more as the boy tumbled into the snake’s path.  Joe saw the snake too late; the rattler had struck out, striking Joe on the calf of his right leg.  Adam had drawn his pistol and fired, killing the snake with the first shot, but during all the ruckus, Joe’s horse bolted passed Adam’s, and when the shot rang out, Adam’s horse had reared also, tossing Adam in the dirt, next to his younger brother.  Both horses took off at a run, slinging the sandy dirt all over the two brothers who were trying to scramble to their feet.  It was only after Joe tried to stand up that either Cartwright boy realized that Joe had been bitten.

Adam immediately, ripped Joe’s trousers and using his knife, lacerated the skin where the snake had sank his sharp fangs, in order to allow the bleeding to wash out what poison it could.  He gave a quick glance at Joe, who was fighting back tears in an attempt to be brave, and began sucking on the opened wound, hoping to pull more poison from his brother’s body.  After washing the gash with the water from his canteen that Adam had found along with his bedroll, Adam wrapped the incision with strips of cloth torn from his own shirt.  Both the canteen and bedroll had been knocked free from his saddle when he had grabbed for a handhold once his horse had reacted to the snake and the gunshot.

When Adam had finished cleaning the snake bite, he examined the snake its self and was relieved to find that the rattler was not the most deadly of its species, but only one in which the bite could make a man deathly ill.  Joe however, being as young as he was, Adam was well aware of the fact that the poisonous bite could wind up killing his brother if he did not get Joe to a doctor as soon as possible.  Now, with both horses on the loose, there was no other recourse than to carry the boy in his arms.

Joe moaned softly from beneath his blanket.  “Take it easy Joe, we’ll rest again in a little while,” Adam assured his brother.

“Are we almost there, Adam?” whispered Joe as he tried to free his face from the blanket that blocked his view of the mountains.

“No, we have a long ways to go yet,” explained Adam as he stopped to catch his breath and reposition his arms that had begun to grow numb from the weight he was carrying.

Not that Joe was all that heavy, it was just awkward carrying someone for such distance within the folds of your arms, regardless of how strong a man thought himself to be.  In the heat of the desert sun, a man constantly on the move could have his strength sapped from him in a very short time.  And Adam knew that his strength was fading fast.  Glancing over his shoulder from where they had just come, Adam could only speculate that he and Joe had traveled about five or six miles.  Looking into the horizon, Adam knew that they had far more miles to travel than what they had already put behind them.

Adam trudged onward, cursing himself with every step that he forced his weary body to take.  It had been his idea for his younger brother to accompany him to Angelus where his father had needed him to go to check on some minor complaints made by the miners there where Ben held interest in part of the mines.  The return trip through the desert flats had been Adam’s idea.  There, he had hoped to show young Joseph the fossils he had found the year before that were embedded in the rocks where once the river had flowed, thousands of years before.  It had taken some fast-talking on his part to persuade his father to allow the younger boy to go along, both from him and from Little Joe as well.  Finally, when Ben could take no more of their begging, pleading and reasoning, their father had at last relented, giving Joe the needed permission to tag along.  Thinking back, Adam wondered if it had been such a good idea in the first place.  Had he not been so intent on rebuilding his relationship with his younger brother, Joe might have been spared the agony and suffering he was now being made to endure; for that, Adam held him self totally responsible.

“Pa!” moaned the boy from beneath the blankets.

Adam stopped and lowered Joe to the ground, and pulled back the blanket.  “No, buddy, it’s just me,” Adam said and placed his hand to Joe’s brow.  The fever had not seemed to get any worse, and Adam sighed in relief.  Again, the older Cartwright brother checked the injury and groaned softly when he saw that the swelling had begun to creep higher up Joe’s leg.  When Adam’s fingers touched the tender areas, Joe nearly screamed out in agony.

“OH!!!  Please…don’t Adam…that hurts…it hurts really bad.  I wish Pa was here,” cried the frightened boy who could no longer hold back the tears that had been threatening to spill over.

“I wish he were here too Little Buddy,” Adam muttered to himself.  “Please Joe…I know it hurts, but try not to cry, it isn’t good for you to get so upset…it only pumps the venom through your system faster,” pleaded Adam as he wiped the tiny droplets of water from his brother’s face.

“Come on Pal, we have to get going,” said Adam as he started to rewrap the blanket about Joe’s body.

Joe forced his hand up and grabbed his brother’s arm.  “Adam,” cried Joe, “please, I want you to promise me something…”

“What is it Joe?” Adam asked as he bent down so that he might be better able to hear and understand his brother’s request.

“Ya gotta promise me that…that if I…die…you won’t leave me out here by myself,” groaned wept Joe, suddenly more frightened of being left alone in the middle of the desert by himself than of dying from the poisonous bite of the sidewinder.

“Joe, you’ve got to stop talking like that, you hear me boy?  First of all, you are not going to die, you got that?  You are not going to die, and second…I would never leave you alone, not out here, not anywhere, do you understand that?”  Adam’s voice had taken on a deeper tone, blood pumped faster through his veins, making his heart to start pounding within his chest cavity.  He knew Joe was terrified and he couldn’t blame the boy, so was he.

“Don’t be mad…I’m sorry Adam, really…it’s just that…I’m really scared Adam…bad,” whined Joe, the tears starting fresh.

Adam took in a deep breath of air to calm himself, letting it out slowly.  Turning, he smiled down at his brother, masking his own fear, “I’m sorry little buddy, I’m not mad at you, but you don’t really think I would leave you, do you?  Don’t you know that Pa would have my hide if I even so much as thought about doing such a fool thing?”

Joe forced himself to smile at his brother, “Yeah, I guess he would.  I don’t mean to be such a baby…you won’t tell anyone…will you?  I mean…about me crying…if my friends ever found…”

“Don’t worry Joe, I’m not going to tell anyone, anything.  I don’t think you’re acting like a baby at all…I mean, if it were me instead of you, I’d probably be doing the very same thing.  There’s nothing wrong with a man crying Joe, nothing at all,” Adam said.

“There’s not?”

“No, I’ve cried plenty of times…oh, not so anyone could see…but I have,” confessed Adam.

“No foolin’?  When?  Name one time,” asked Joe, his pain and fear momentarily forgotten as he held his breath in anticipation of his brother’s answer.

Joe had often wondered whether his oldest brother had always been immune to tears, or if his heart was just so empty that Adam held no tears in his soul for anything.  It had seemed so to the youngest member of the family on several occasions.  Joe was surprised to find out that Adam did cry, even in private when no one else was there to see or hear him.

Adam’s lips twisted into a hint of a smile as he gazed into his brother’s eyes and saw the curiosity shinning through the pain that had minutes ago brought forth an onslaught of tears.

“Lots of time Joe, like when Inger died, and then again when your mama died.  Those were the saddest times in my life; and I used to cried when Pa had to wallop me when I did something that he had told me not to do.  And I cried the day I left for college.  No one ever knew about that, I waited until the stage had pulled away from the station, I was alone, there wasn’t anyone else riding that day.  I could hear you screaming my name and begging me not to go, not to leave you.  It tore my heart right out of my chest, and believe it or not, I almost asked the driver to stop so that I could get off and come back.  But I knew I couldn’t, I promised your mama, our mama, that I would go and get an education.  She wanted it for me as badly as I had wanted it for myself and I knew if I had gotten off and came back, I would never have the courage to try again…so…”

“So you went, to make Mama proud, right?” smiled Little Joe.

“Yes, to make Mama proud, and Pa, and my little brothers.  Now enough, we need to get walking.”  Adam moved to pull the cover back over his brother but stopped when Joe placed his small hand on his arm.

“Thanks for tellin’ me Adam…I…I…well, you know what I mean, I love you,” smiled Joe and closed his eyes, embarrassed at his small confession.

“Yeah, I know Joe, and I feel the same way, I love you too, kid,” whispered Adam and ruffled the top of Joe’s head as he planted a kiss on top of Joe’s head.

Adam noted the brave little smile that caused his brother’s lips to twitch and then watched as the smiled turned into a frown when he raised Joe into his arms.

The miles seemed to drag by, Adam’s arms ached from the weight he carried and he wanted to scream out his own agony.  But he had no choice, Joe’s life lay in the balance and Adam had to make sure the scales remained in his favor.  If Joe died, how would he ever be able to break the heart wrenching news to his father?  Or how would he ever be able to live with himself?  Adam pressed his lips tightly together to keep his scream from spilling forth and pushed ahead.  Those were his steps, one at a time, slowly, ever so slowly until the sun had passed below the tips of the high mountains far on the horizon.  Adam all but staggered to a halt, nearly falling to his knees as he lowered Joe to the ground behind a large boulder where they would be protected from the dark desert night wind that blew constantly.

Joe moaned as he felt his pain ridden body placed on the solid ground, the blanket the only thing that separated him from the particles of dirt and sand that were tossed about by the breeze when his body made contact with the earth.

Adam quickly uncovered his brother’s face.  Joe’s eyes were closed and Adam gave a sigh of relief that at sometime during the course of the early evening, Joe had passed out.  Adam quickly pulled the cover back that had shielded Joe’s features from the sun’s hot rays, glad that Joe’s face had not been burnt, as his own face had been.  Pulling the bandage from his brother’s leg, Adam was appalled by the sight of Joe’s flesh where the sidewinder had sank his fangs.  When the older brother placed his opened hand to the tender area, he was shocked at the heat that radiated into his palm.  Quickly he grabbed the canteen, shaking it hard.  It was nearly emptied, and Adam frowned.  Without water, his baby brother would die, the inflamed and swollen flesh, and the raging fever would eventually pump the snake’s poison to all areas of the boy’s body that was slowly beginning to fail him even now.

Adam glanced around him in all directions as if hoping to see water, but there was none.  He turned back to the canteen and pulled the cork from the spout, pouring a small amount onto the strips of his shirt that he had used to bandage the opened wound, being careful not to waste a drop.  Joe groaned softly and began tossing his head from side to side.

“NO!” he cried out, shattering the stillness of the fading day.  “Please…don’t leave me…Adam, ADAM!” wailed Joe.

Adam punched the cork roughly into the spout and moved to gather the fraying child into his arms.

“Easy there little buddy,” muttered Adam as he lifted Joe’s head into his lap and grabbed the canteen again.  “Here, drink some water Joe,” urged Adam, pressing the spout to Joe’s lips.

Joe tossed his head, making Adam spill part of the water.  Adam quickly moved the canteen and watched in horror as the precious liquid dribbled down his brother’s chin.

“Never mind pal, I’ll have to think of something else.”

Adam poked the cork back into place and set it aside.  As he glanced down at his brother, Joe opened his eyes.  “Hey, Pal.”  Adam smiled down at Joe, and brushed back at the damp curls that blocked his brother’s view from seeing him.

Joe’s pain filled eyes sought his brother’s and he tried to smile when he at last found his brother’s face.  “How you are feeling, Joe?”

“I’m fine,” lied Joe.

Adam heard the catch in the boy’s voice as he rose and placed Joe’s head gently on the blanket covered ground.

“Yeah, I just bet you are,” Adam smirked, more to himself than to the boy.  “You lie still Joe, I’m going to see if I can find us something to eat, but first I’m going to get us a fire going.  No, on second thought, I think I’d better set us a snare, with any luck, we might catch us a Jackrabbit.”

“I’m only going to be gone for a few minutes Joe, do you understand?” Adam stooped down so that he could tell his brother that he was leaving him, just long enough to set a snare, in hopes of catching them something to eat.

Joe had closed his eyes and Adam was afraid that the boy had not heard him.  Gently he shook Joe’s shoulder, “Joe?”

“I heard,” whispered Joe softly, his eyes still closed.  “But hurry…please…Adam,” he added as Adam stood to his feet, pulling from the frayed end of his blanket, a long sting to use as his snare.

“I will Joe, I promise.  You just lie still and save your strength, I’ll be right back,” the older brother promised.

Joe’s only response was by nodding his head.

Adam was back in minutes; in his arms he carried pieces of sagebrush for his fire along with two pieces of thicker branches of the tumbleweed that he planned on using to start his flame.  Adam worked for several minutes, becoming annoyed when his attempts at rubbing the two sticks together failed repeatedly to start his fire.  Tossing the sticks aside in a moment of anger, he briefly wondered if he and his brother would be able to eat the hare raw, rather than cooked, if he should even be lucky enough to catch one.

Adam shook his head in frustration and picked up the two sticks once again, his last thought, appalling.  This time he placed his body closer to the small pile of twigs that he was working slowly into a smoking stage.  This time, Lady Luck seemed to smile down on the weary man and with a gentle puff to the small embers, a bright flame burst forth.  Adam quickly protected his small blaze from the wind that had suddenly whipped around the boulder and threatened to dose his fire.  By adding more and more of the sagebrush and tumbleweeds, Adam’s fire was soon stronger than the wind that endangered his efforts.

Checking on Joe and finding the boy sleeping, however fitful, Adam slipped once again from the light that illuminated his campsite, to check on his snare.  Much to his pleasure, a fat squirming jackrabbit was caught tightly in his trap.

Adam removed the hare from the trap and while holding the rabbit in one hand, used his free hand to reset the snare.  With any luck, he and Joe could have another rabbit for breakfast, before being on their way.

“Sorry Jack,” whispered Adam, “but my kid brother needs what you can give him tonight.”

Once the rabbit was skinned, Adam soon had the rabbit roasting over his fire and with the scent that emitted from the roasting meat, Adam could hear the lone whining sounds of distant coyotes.  The howling sound made him shiver and he could not help but to glance over his shoulder in Joe’s direction.

Joe had pushed back the blanket that had covered him the entire day and raised himself up on one elbow.  “What’s that?” he muttered in a strained voice.

Adam noticed how wide his brother’s eyes had become and the frightened look on his young face.  Adam’s heart lurched in pity for his young brother.  Getting to his feet and moving next to Joe, Adam stooped down beside of his brother and placed his hand on the trembling shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“It’s just the coyotes, Little Joe, guess we aren’t the only ones hungry tonight,” he explained.

“Oh…” muttered Joe, casting his eyes up to look into Adam’s face.  “Ya reckon they’ll try to come closer?” he asked worriedly.

“Naw, don’t worry Joe, they’re more afraid of us than we are of them.”  Adam tried to make his voice sound convincing, but in his heart, he wasn’t sure of much of anything right now.  Wanting to change the subject to take Joe’s mind off of the advancing coyotes, Adam returned to the fire and pulled a leg from the rabbit that still hung over the fire.

“Think you could eat a little of this?” he asked as he blew on the hot meat trying to cool it before handing it to the boy.

“I’ll try,” said Joe weakly as he accepted the piece of rabbit from his brother’s extended hand.

Adam helped Joe into a sitting position, noting the look of pain that filtered across the pale face and again, Adam’s heart picked up tempo, for he could only image the acute aching that must be gnawing at his brother’s leg.

“Try to eat what you can, Joe.  You need all of the strength you can muster.  Tomorrow is going to be a hard day.  But from what I could see before it got too dark, we should be able to make it to the base of the mountains by tomorrow evening,” Adam explained to his brother, in hopes that the boy would eat enough.

That was just in case he failed in catching a second rabbit for their breakfast, thought Adam.  The older brother waited until he was sure that Joe had eaten his fill before he pulled a small portion off for himself.  Adam, though hungry, would save the remainder of the hare for Joe to have to eat for the next day.  Pushing his own hunger aside, Adam slipped his neck scarf from his neck and wrapped the rabbit into the folds, saving the rest until the next day, assuring himself that at least his sick brother would have food to fill his belly.

Joe lay among the folds of Adam’s body as together the two brothers huddled close to the dying fire.  Adam had had to get up several times during the night and add fuel to the dying embers in order to keep the blaze roaring.  Several times he had spotted the red eyes of the coyotes as they sat just outside of the rim of light provided by his fire.  Adam knew that they posed no real threat, they were just scouting the area for a free meal and once they found nothing there to fill their hungry bellies, they had moved on.

Adam shivered for he was cold.  When the horses had bolted and run off, they had taken with them what supplies remained, plus both his and Little Joe’s jackets.  They sure could have used them about now, along with Joe’s bedroll and the extra blankets that he had thought to bring with them.  Though it was mid-June, the nights were always cold on the desert, but before, Adam had always liked camping out in the wide-opened spaces and had Joe not been so sick, he would have enjoyed the time spent with his younger brother.

Joe moaned and Adam could hear the agony that seemed to drip from the boy’s voice.

‘Damn,’ he cursed himself as he rearranged the blanket to fit more snugly around Joe’s slight form.  ‘Why?  Why?’ His heart scream, ‘had he been so insistent that he be allowed to bring Joe along.’

He knew the reason…he had been home for almost two years now since coming back from college where he had spent four years of his life.  He had been surprised when he had returned and found that his little brother was not much of a kid anymore.  Oh, he realized that Joe would have naturally grown up some, but Adam had not been prepared for the headstrong, impulsive and somewhat standoffish near preteen that had greeted him at the station when he had stepped down from the stage.  His youngest brother’s greeting had been less than warm and Joe had seemed almost angry with him from the first moment he had disembarked.  It had taken months for the young boy to begin to warm to him, though they had often argued and butted heads, Adam had never stopped loving the boy who had always meant so very much to him.  And, reasoned Adam, he knew that beneath that tough-boy exterior that Joe tried to maintain in his oldest brother’s presence, Adam knew the boy loved him as well, though he rarely showed it.

As time passed, the two brothers both seemed to come to terms with the hurt that had resulted with Adam’s going away and over time, the relationship had begun to change and with that change a bond had formed.  And it was for those reasons that the oldest Cartwright brother strove daily, to be to the youngest Cartwright, someone to whom Joe could respect and look up to, and whom, when in times of need, could come to him with his problems or worries.

“Adam?” the weak plea was sounding from beneath the warm blanket.

“Yeah Joe, what’s wrong buddy, are you hunting?” asked Adam as he brushed back Joe’s thick hair from his brother’s brow.

“Water…please,” begged Joe, “I’m thirsty,” He said, his voice sounded raspy to his older brother.

Adam groaned softly to himself as he reached for the canteen and gently shook it.  He could tell by the way that the water sloshed noisily around in the bottom of the container that it was near empty.

“Okay, but just a sip or two, and try to hold the last bit in your mouth for a few seconds,” instructed Adam, pulling the worn cork from the spout and raising Joe’s head carefully placed the opening against Joe’s lips.

Joe placed his hand over Adam’s and pushed the canteen upward, getting his mouth full of the tepid water.  Swallowing, he dropped his hand to his side and allowed his brother to hold the receptacle in his larger hand until he swallowed the mouth full.

“It’s not very good,” complained Joe, looking into his brother’s face.

Adam could not help the smile that tugged at his lips.  “I know buddy, but it’s all we have, therefore, it is better than nothing.”  ‘Which nothing is what we will have, soon enough,’ his mind told him.

“Sorry…I ain’t meanin’ to be such a pain in the neck for you, Adam, honest,” whispered Joe, his eyes filling with tears.  “You think we will make it?  I mean, honestly Adam, do you?” he asked weakly.

Adam was aware of his brother’s tears and fighting his own, he smiled down at the boy.  “Didn’t I tell you before that I’d get you home?  Don’t you trust me anymore Joe?” Adam teased gently.

Joe’s face suddenly lost that painful expression that seemed to always be present and he tried smiling up at Adam.  “Course I trust ya, big brother.  Far as I know, ya ain’t never lied to me.”

Adam pursed his lips together, his mind racing, ‘well little buddy, this may be a first, then,’ his thoughts whispered to his heart.

“No, I’ve never lied to you Little Joe.  I’ll get you home, I promise or we’ll both die trying,” he muttered to the boy, realizing too late that he had just voiced his own fears.

“Die?  We ain’t gonna die, are we Adam?” asked Joe in a more worried voice than before.

“Not if I have anything to say about it, we aren’t,” said Adam, deciding to be honest with his brother.  “But Joe, you need to understand that things don’t look too good right now.  That leg of yours is in bad shape; and we’re almost out of water, not to mention the fact that we have about ten miles to walk tomorrow,” explained Adam.  He needed Joe to understand that what they had to face, was a real challenge for a healthy man, much less a bone weary man toting a wounded boy in his arms.

“I know Adam…and I’m sorry for being so much trouble, you wouldn’t have been in this mess if I hadn’t of hounded you about taking me with you,” said Joe, wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Joe, listen to me, it’s not your fault, and I’m certainly not mad at you for this.  My God kid, I wanted you to come with me as much, maybe even more, than you did.  It was my idea in the first place, to bring you with me, I mean,” Adam confessed to his brother.

“You really wanted me to come with you?” Joe asked, surprised that Adam had felt that way.

“Sure,” smiled Adam, “you’re great company, when you want to be,” he added with a laugh.  “And, I like spending time alone with you, don’t you enjoy it?” he taunted gently.

“You know I do Adam.  I’ve always like being with you.  I…I missed all the things we used to do, after you went away.  And then when you came back…well, you were always too busy to have time with me, or so it seemed then.  I was mad at you, did you know that?” Joe asked almost shyly.

“Mad at me?  Why Joe, why were you mad?” questioned the older brother.

Joe, who had raised up, with Adam’s help, into a sitting position, glanced sideways at Adam and swallowed, “I thought you didn’t love me anymore…I thought you didn’t want me…I know now that wasn’t the reason you left.  But…Mama went away, and then you left me too.  I was confused, I didn’t understand why mama had to go, and she didn’t come back, and then you left and then only you came back.  I suppose I thought that when you came back, you’d bring Mama back with you.  I guess I just acted like a baby…I didn’t want either of you to leave me and when you both did, I wanted both of you to come back and be with me.  Guess you think that’s silly don’t you?” sniffed Joe.

Adam slipped his arm about Joe’s trembling shoulders.  “No Joe, I don’t think it’s silly at all.  I know how much losing your mama hurt you, but that was something that couldn’t be helped, she didn’t leave you because she wanted too, you know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, of course I do, now that I’m not a kid anymore,” replied Joe.

Adam smiled to himself at his brother’s statement.  “Well, Joe, I didn’t leave you because I wanted to either.  Going to college was something that I had always dreamed about being able to do.  I wanted to learn more than what I was learning here.  Oh, Pa taught me everything there was to know about ranching and running a big operation such as the Ponderosa, but I knew there was far more to be learned, and I wanted to learn as much as of it as I could.  To make it better and even easier for Pa, for all of us.  But that didn’t mean that I had stopped loving you or Pa and Hoss or the Ponderosa even, all of you are and will always be the most important things in my life.  I knew that someday Joe, I would be coming home.  I’m sorry if you ever thought that I wouldn’t, and I’m sorry for hurting you by leaving, but it was something that as a man, I needed to do.  Don’t you understand that?”

Joe smiled again, “Course I understand that, took me a long time too though.  And Adam, don’t worry, I ain’t mad at you about it, not anymore at least.”

Adam ruffled the top of Joe’s head.  “It’s nearly daybreak, let’s get going, we have a long way to go, and I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Me either, but we’ll make it.  I just know we will,” Joe smiled weakly.

Adam kicked sand and dirt over the fire, which had nearly died out on its own and made sure that the embers were completely smothered before being on their way.  He sure did not want to risk the chance of a brush fire sweeping out across the desert and burning everything in its path as it did so.

Carefully he wrapped the blanket about Joe, giving his brother an encouraging smile before covering the boy’s face from the sun that seemed to be getting an early start at heating up the land.

When Adam raised Joe into his arms, the boy groaned loudly and Adam felt his brother’s body stiffen slightly.  “Sorry Joe.”

“My leg…oh God Adam, it hurts worse today.  And my stomach…uhmm…” moaned Joe.

“Just try to relax Joe, I’ll try to take it easy,” Adam assured his brother as they set out across the arid land.

Adam walked and walked, his arms aching, his legs barely able to force his feet into taking another step.  His mouth was dry from lack of water; he had given the last of the precious liquid to his brother who had begun to wither in acute pain, making it nearly impossible to hold the boy securely in his arms.  Adam’s lips were parched, the dryness had cracked them and they had begun to bleed, Adam staggered several times nearly dropping his bundle as he forced himself to remain upright.

‘Dear God, Pa…I need you…’ cried Adam silently, though his mouth was unable to allow the prayer to slip passed his swollen lips.

The brothers had stopped several times to rest.  Joe had fallen into a tormented type of unconsciousness and when Adam had inspected the bite area, he had been horrified to see the alarming amount of swelling and the fiery redness of Joe’s flesh, the decaying skin around the snake bite.  He glanced up, looking toward the mountains, ‘just a little more to go,’ he thought and picked Joe up again.

He heard himself groan as he strained to get up, ‘please God,’ he moaned as he began stumbling forward.  His mind wandered, he knew that he should have left Joe where they had spent the night, he knew that he could have made better time to reach help without lugging the boy every step of the way.  He had almost done it too, left Joe, just for the time it would have taken him to get help, but he couldn’t, his conscience would not permit him too.  He had promised his brother that no matter what, he would not leave him alone, so he had gathered the sick boy into his arms and forced himself to trudge forward.

He prayed every step of the way that he would not be too late in getting help for the boy.  He prayed that by now, his father and Hoss would have found the horses that had bolted and run away.  Adam prayed that this dear boy now knew just how much he had always meant to him and that should either of them not make it back, they would die together, Joe held firmly in his arms.  Adam fought to control his fears, his mind as well as his body was being sapped of its strength, his determination was fading quickly, too quickly and it scared him, the battle that waged war on his heart and soul pushed him forward until at last, he stumbled and fell.

Joe’s body thumped to the ground, and Adam heard the boy cry out in anguish as he hit the hard clay surface beneath him, rolling out of reach of Adam’s arms that pawed the earth in a futile attempt to break his fall.

Adam’s face hit the dirt, his lips bleeding even more, and his nose which had scraped the hard packed earth had also started to seep bright red droplets.  As hard as he tried, Adam could not force his eyes to open or his body to respond to his unspoken commands to get up.

He was unaware of the length of time that he lay prone to the spot in which he had fallen.  Much later he was able to force his eyes opened and he slowly and painfully raised his head, searching his surroundings.  His befuddled mind could not remember where he was, or what he was doing here, nor could it recall the young boy who lay just feet away, out of his reach and his sight.  The only thing that registered in his troubled thoughts was that his arms seemed empty, as if he had forgotten something, and the strange feeling left him frightened and unsure of what was happening to him.  He stretched out his arms in front of his eyes, as if hoping to see what he felt sure should have been there, but there was nothing, not a single thing to jar his memory.

Adam stumbled to his feet and staggered forward several more yards before falling again to his knees.  In the far reaches of his disconcerted mind he could hear his name being called repeatedly, but in his confusion, Adam gave it no further thought as he once again slid to the ground and allowed the welcoming darkness to claim him yet again.

“ADAM!”

“A…DAM!”

“Looky Pa, down there!” Hoss pointed toward the lone figure of a man who lay crumbled in a heap at the foot of the slope.

“Come on, hurry,” shouted Ben, kicking Buck hard in the sides.

Both Ben and Hoss carefully guided their horses down the rocky slope, being careful to pick and choose their way, lest the horses begin to slip on the loose gravel and rocks that threatened to unbalance them.

Ben all but jumped from his horse and ran to Adam’s side, being careful to turn the younger man over on his back.  “Bring the canteen Hoss, hurry,” his father called out to him.

“Adam, Adam,” Ben called, gently patting his son’s sun blistered cheeks; “can you hear me son?  Please, Adam, open your eyes,” encouraged Ben, when Adam began to moan softly.

“Here Pa, try giving him a drink,” suggested Hoss who had joined his father at his brother’s side and handed the canteen to his parent.

Hoss pulled the cork free of the spout and helped Ben to hold Adam’s head upward.  At first the cool refreshing liquid dripped from Adam’s chin, his lips still too dry to allow him to take in the water.  Hoss gently rubbed at the parched mouth giving Adam soft words, encouraging him to try to open his mouth.

The words must have gotten through the fog that still clouded the older brother’s mind for Adam’s lips parted and Ben raised the canteen a second time.  Adam swallowed a small amount and then seemed to snap from his dark corner and grabbed the canteen, nearly spilling the contents in his haste to quench his thirst.

“Easy son, easy,” Ben instructed and removed his son’s hand from the water receptacle.

Adam’s face had fixed on the sound of his father’s voice and he batted his eyes several times, attempting to see the man that cradled him so lovingly and tenderly in his arms.  His eyes at last found his father’s and Adam could no longer contain the emotions that had been so long hidden within his heart.

“OH PA…PA!” wailed Adam, burying his face into his father’s vest and making a sound so piteous that it brought tears to the eyes of both his brother and father.

Ben glanced up at Hoss, “Dear God,” he whispered, and looked back down at his sobbing son.

“Adam, son, shh…it’s okay now, you’re safe, Hoss and I are here with you.  Please son, don’t,” whispered Ben, clinging tightly to his oldest child.

Adam forced himself to take a deep breath and looked up into his father’s face.

“Adam…” began Ben slowly, glancing at Hoss and then back at Adam.  “Where’s Joe?”

Adam’s expression suddenly changed and turned to a look of horror.

“Joe?” he whispered.  “JOE!  OH GOD, JOE!” screamed the man, frightened beyond reason.  “I LEFT HIM…OH GOD! NO!” he bellowed as he fought against his father’s embrace trying to rise to his feet.  “I PROMISED HIM I WOULDN’T,” sobbed out Adam, once again burying his face in his father’s leather vest.

Hoss got quickly to his feet and began retracing his brother’s steps where Hoss could see Adam’s heavy footprints embedded in the sand.  It was only minutes before Hoss spotted the familiar brown blanket that was always used as their bedrolls.

As the large man dropped to his knees, he could hear soft moaning and whining sounds from beneath the cover that was draped over Joe’s head.  When Hoss raised the blanket, his heart skipped a beat, for there lay Joe, covered in sweat and dirt, tears streaming down from his closed eyes and leaving little white tracks through the dirt on his cheeks.

“Joe,” cooed Hoss, brushing back the wayward curls from his little brother’s brow.  “Hey punkin,” he whispered, unwrapping the blanket.  He eyes immediately spied the infectious flesh of the snakebite and quickly scooped the boy into his arms.

“Here Pa, I’ve found him, but he’s hurt badly, looks like he’s been snake bit,” shouted Hoss as he rushed back to his father’s side.

Hoss lowered Joe’s body down beside of Adam’s so that his father could inspect the wound.  “Dear God,” voiced Ben, shaking his head in wonder that he had even found his two sons alive after seeing the hell that they had both been through.

“JOE!” screamed Adam.

“Adam, it’s okay son, you didn’t leave him, he’s right here. See?” Ben helped Adam turn so that he could see his brother and be assured that Joe was now safe.  “It’s okay son, you didn’t lie to him, you got him back safely.  Adam,” said Ben, seeing the faraway look that had suddenly glazed his oldest son’s eyes, “do you understand?  Adam…Adam…”

“JOE! JOE! I DIDN’T MEAN TO LEAVE YOU!” Adam bellowed at the top of his lungs.

Ben placed both hands on his son’s shoulders and shook.  “Adam…Adam…Son!”

Adam’s eyes began to open slowly as he searched for the sound of his father’s voice.

“Huh?  What?  Pa, what’s wrong?” asked Adam, startled to be jarred awake.  “Oh,” he moaned and grabbed his head, “I…I…”

“Must have been dreaming,” supplied Ben.  “That must have been a heck of a nightmare,” smiled Ben as he sat down on the edge of Adam’s bed.

Adam’s expression still bore the fear he must have been feeling during the course of his nightmare.  “It was Pa…the worst ever.  I think I know now why Little Joe always wakes up screaming like he does,” said Adam weakly giving his father a small smile.

“Want to tell me about it?” asked Ben.

Adam shook his head to clear the cobwebs.  “It was about Joe, we were in the desert and he had been bitten by a sidewinder…I thought he was going to die…”

“Who’s dying?  Who got bit by a rattler?” the excited voice called out from the doorway.

Both Ben and Adam’s attention darted to the barefooted twelve-year old that stood in the doorway, clad only in his striped nightshirt, a crooked little grin on his otherwise handsome young face.  Joe rushed around the corner of the bed and plopped himself down next to Adam, his hazel eyes dancing with excitement.

“Did ya have a night mare?” he asked his older brother.  “Who got bit by a snake and who nearly died?  Was it someone I know, who Adam, who?” interrogated the excited boy.

Adam laughed, “Calm down Joe, I’ll tell you all about it some other time.”

Adam suddenly became serious and looked at his father.  “Pa, since Joe’s awake, do you mind if I have a few minutes alone with him?  I have a couple of things I’d like to say to him, that is if you don’t mind his staying up for a little while.”

Ben knew that whatever it was that Adam had to get off his chest, it needed to be said now, and obviously it needed to be said to his younger brother and in private.

“Sure son, just try not to make it too long.  You both have a long ride tomorrow, Angelus is quite a ways,” smiled Ben.

“I won’t, and thanks Pa.”  Adam waited until Ben had left them alone and being sure that the door was securely closed, turned to face his little brother.

“What’s up big brother, am I in trouble again, Adam?” questioned Little Joe, watching his brother’s face for any signs that might confirm his fear.

Adam laughed and then patted the space on the bed next to him, indicating that Joe sit on the bed beside of him.  “No sport, not this time.  I just have some things I want to say to you, that’s all.”

“Things, what kind of things? Bad things?” worried Joe, giving a sideways glance at his brother’s face, still unsure of his brother’s reasons for wanting to speak privately to him at this odd hour of the night.

“No, just things that I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.  Things that I should have said to you a very long time ago, when your mama first died.  I should have made a point then to say them, but I just couldn’t find the right words, Joe.  And then when I went away to college, I tried then to tell you what I really felt, but for whatever reason, I didn’t.  But I promised myself that once I got home, I would tell you then.  But that didn’t work out either, cause you had changed, and I had changed and it seemed as if we had grown so far apart by then that the right time had never seemed to come up.  So, I just continue to let it go…”

“Adam…” interrupted Joe.

Adam cut his eyes down to see Joe’s face.  “Yeah?”

“Are these things that you couldn’t tell me, cause you thought I was always mad at you?” asked Little Joe, his eyes suddenly filling with tears.  “Cause if they are, I guess I should tell you now, that I really wasn’t mad at you, just hurt cause you left me when I didn’t want you to go.  I was scared, that’s all, just scared that you wouldn’t come back to me, like Mama.”

Adam felt his own eyes fill with water and quickly slipped his arms about his brother’s shoulder pulling him in close enough that Joe was able to rest his head against Adam’s chest.  Giving himself time to get his emotions under control before continuing, Adam took a deep breath at last and proceeded.

“Seems like we both had our signals crossed, didn’t it?” smiled Adam as he leaned down and placed a kiss on top of Joe’s head.  Adam could feel Joe nod his head yes in response to his question.

“Joe, I first want you to know that I think you’re a super kid.  No man could ask for a better kid brother than what you are.  I’m proud of you…and Joe…I know that we lock horns a lot, and that we rarely agree on anything, but I want you to know…that has never made a difference in how much you mean to me.  I love you, Joe.  I love you as much as if you were my own son.  I think that’s probably why I’m so hard on you all the time, I just want the best for you little brother, I hope you realize that.”

Joe turned so that he could face Adam and smiled.  “I know I can be a real pain in the butt most of the time, but I really don’t mean to be.  I…I…love you too, Adam.”

Joe raised up enough to slip his arms about his brother’s neck and buried his face in the curve, resting his head on Adam’s shoulder.  Adam’s own arms embraced the boy tightly and held him for a long time within the folds of his arms.

So he had, had a terrible nightmare.  Some good had come from it, he had realized just how much he loved the boy he held so close to his heart and he saw the lengths that he would go to, to keep the boy safe.  Adam had no doubt that he would give up his life to protect Joe from all evil that threatened to take the boy from him and he hugged Joe tighter, making the smaller boy groan softly.

“Hey, you trying to squish me or what?” giggled Joe, wrenching free of the arms that held him.

Adam laughed, “Sorry.  Now sit back, I have things on my heart I need to tell you.”

Joe nestled into the folds of his big brother’s arms, resting his head back against Adam’s chest. Here, he knew that he was safe and he raised his head slightly, smiling up at the man who held him.  No words were needed, for each could feel the love that flowed from their own hearts into the heart of the other.

It was nearly dawn when Ben passed by the door to Adam’s room.  He knocked softly, but received no invitation to enter.  Ben, being unable to squelch his curiosity, gently forced the door opened just a smidgen and peeked inside.  He could do nothing to stop the smile that creased his face.  Curled into a huge ball, legs and arms intertwined as one lay his eldest son and his youngest.

Ben laughed softly and as he turned, saw the twitching lips of his youngest and watched as they formed a smile and then heard the tiny giggle that passed from deep within the smaller boy.  Whatever had been funny, must have somehow reached out to Adam, for Adam’s own soft laugher could be heard in return.

Ben would never know what had just then transpired between his two sons, only that whatever had been spoken in private had closed the gap that time had eroded in the relationship between the two.  Ben stepped into the hallway and closed the door softly, smiling at God’s sweet intervention as he went in search of Hop Sing’s morning coffee.

THE END
November 2002

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