Summary: Find out what happens weeks after Adam brings Joe home with life threatening wounds. Will the brothers be able to keep their secret made “Between Brothers” or will they bare their souls to their father…and each other?
Rated: PG (4,900 words)
Between Brothers Series:
Ben had watched for many weeks how his two sons, Adam his eldest and Little Joe, his youngest had been reacting to one another ever since their trying experience in the wilderness. At first it seemed to Ben, the devoted and concerned father, that everything between the two brothers were as it should be. But then, as the days slipped slowly into weeks, he’d begun to notice a change. Oh, it was slight at first, barely noticeable. As time crept slowly passed, things began to look differently. Attitudes changed, moods went from jovial to sour, and tempers began to flare until Ben could stand it no more. It was time to put a stop to the constant bickering and quarreling. It was time to get to the bottom of things and settle this once and for all. With a deep sigh, he rose from his comfortable chair, dropped his newspaper into the now vacant seat and walked slowly toward the door. Taking a moment to steady himself, he went first to the barn to face Adam, whom he knew had stomped off minutes ago after a brief encounter with his youngest brother.
The lamp had been lit within the barn and Ben, as he pushed the door open slightly, could see his son’s silhouette in the stall where he stood brushing vigorously, his horse’s thick coat.
“Adam,” he said softly as he approached the stall.
Adam turned his head only slightly, but enough so that he caught the anxious expression on his father’s face. He knew that his father would come searching for him. He was fully aware of why his father was there, what was troubling his father, yet Adam wasn’t sure he was up to the interrogation that he knew was forthcoming. Realizing all that, he placed the brush back on the shelf and stepped from the shadows.
“I’m here, Pa,” he said, acknowledging his father’s presence.
Ben smiled, though it wasn’t from the heart and could only hope that Adam did not realize how forced it was.
“I thought we might talk…”
“About what? Or…maybe I should say about…whom? Little Joe, I take it…you want to know what’s going on between the two of us, don’t you? Well, Pa, to be honest…I don’t know what’s going on…not with him least ways. Who would know…one minute the boy is fine, the next he’s jumping down my throat about something that I have absolutely no clue as to why…and then when I try to speak up for myself, he turns more defensive…and you want to know why! Well, I don’t know!” Adam practically shouted.
“Adam…don’t take that tone with me…”
Adam lowered his head, avoiding having to meet his father’s intense glare. It was all lies, all of it, and Adam knew it, he knew what was between Little Joe and himself.
“I’m sorry, Pa…it’s just that…” he turned and walked into the shadows.
Ben took a couple of steps to follow. He felt his son’s inter turmoil but could only wonder at it.
“It’s just what, son? What is troubling you?” he asked kindly and with new warmth in his tone.
Adam turned to face his father as emotion swelled in his chest. Suddenly it was hard to breathe. His hand swiped across his face, banishing his unseen tears from his eyes. He wanted nothing more than to pour his heart out to his father, emptying his soul of the torment he carried, but he hesitated. Wild, condemning thoughts raced through his mind…could he tell his father what he actually felt…more so, could he bring himself to confess the agonizing guilt that he’ been carrying around inside and why? Dear God, he thought…would his father ever be able to forgive him for his part in Joe’s misfortune…could he forgive himself?
After he and Joe had come home, things seemed to be fine between them. They had kept their secrets between themselves, just as they had promised each other. Yet, he watched how his youngest brother suffered daily with the pain and discomfort that was brought on by his injuries…injuries that he, Adam, blamed no one but himself for. Watching the boy learning to walk again and use his arms was nearly as painful for him to watch as it was to Little Joe who tried so hard to overcome his handicaps. And with each step that Joe struggled to take, his temper began to flare as the pain continued to spread throughout his body, dulling and stilling his efforts. Attitudes changed, words were exchanged and naturally tempers erupted, oft as not, violently.
It wasn’t something he wanted. He’d meant the boy no harm, certainly would have never wished the kind of suffering that Joe was enduring, on the boy or anyone else. And if he could have borne the suffering for his brother, Adam would have most assuredly done so. Seeing the discouraged expressions in the soft emerald eyes, tore at his heart, fueling the guilt even deeper into his heart and soul. He’d told Joe over and over how sorry he was for having been a party to his anguish, and over and over Joe had told him to forget it, that he held no resentment…yet it seemed to Adam that ‘it’ lay between them, like a hot poker having rested too long in the flames of a roaring fire. And then each sentence, every statement appeared to be wrong, taken in a way in which it was not meant. Their relationship suffered, adding more stress, worry and grief to the already persecuted young man; and more shame and guilt to the older brother.
“Adam?” Ben said, breaking the long silence. He’d seen, even in the faint light, the faraway look that had suddenly come over his eldest son, and Ben had chosen to remain silent, long enough for his son to recover from the torment that he so obviously was enduring.
“I’m sorry, Pa…my mind was elsewhere,” explained Adam, as he lowered himself onto a bale of hay. “Sit down…I suppose it’s time you knew what’s really going on…I don’t think you’re going to be happy with…me…nor with Joe…you may never forgive me for what I’ve done…not this time, not like all the other times I’ve messed up…”
Ben felt a sudden thickness in his chest as he lowered himself down next to Adam on the bale of hay. He’d waited weeks to learn the truth…was he ready to face it now…now that it was time for the silence to be broken. Oh, he knew that Adam and Joe had something going on between the two of them, something that both boys were reluctant to speak about. But Ben knew his boys well enough to know that, that ‘something’ was tearing each one of them apart…and that the secret they shared was like a wedge between them. A promise had been made, that Ben was sure of, but even a promise made between brothers could sometimes warrant breaking. Age and wisdom had taught Ben Cartwright that, years ago. His sons each needed help in coming to terms with whatever it was that had sliced through a loving and brotherly kinship, seeking to destroy it. If things were not brought out into the open and set straight, the break could be permanent and last a life time, something that Ben did not want to see happen to his family, especially between his boys.
“Adam, I hardly think there would ever be anything that you could do that I couldn’t forgive,” Ben said as he placed his hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
Adam had leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees with his face in his hands. He slowly raised his head and turned toward his father. Ben could plainly see the deep emotion on Adam’s face, for the mask that his eldest son usually wore to hide his innermost feelings was gone. The pain in the hazel eyes that reflected through the deep intensity of his son’s eyes startled him. Whatever Adam was suffering, it was deep and cutting into the boy’s very soul.
“Answer me this Pa,” Adam said in a strained voice, “if I were to be the cause of killing…say Little Joe…could you…deep down in your heart, ever…forgive me such a horrific act?”
Shaken by the question, Ben could only momentarily stare at his son in disbelief. Swallowing, he at last found his voice.
“Well…first off…that hasn’t happened…”
“But what if?” demanded Adam, his tone deepening. “Say I did something…stupid and the end result of my stupidly was Joe’s death…a death that was brought on by agony and suffering? Could you forgive me then?”
Worried, Ben took another deep breath. “Perhaps whatever…stupid act you might have done…was not on purpose…”
“Oh course not, Pa!” Adam growled as he rose and walked a step or two away from his father. He turned, looking down at the man he loved and respected, noting a tinge of anxiety in his father’s deep-set brown eyes.
“I’d never intentionally do anything to get the boy hurt…let alone get him killed!”
“Then why would you worry that I would withhold my forgiveness?”
“But would you…I have to know, Pa…please,” Adam said as he sat back down next to his father.
“Adam…you’re my son…my first born…I love you…now and for always. I know that you’d never do harm to either Little Joe or Hoss…but…if that we to ever happen, then I’d know in my heart…deep down inside, that it was not on purpose, no matter what the circumstance might be. Yes, son…I could…and would forgive you. Now would you please explain to me, what is this all about?”
Ben heard Adam’s wind rush from his chest, unaware that the young man had been holding his breath. He watched as his son ran his hand over his face to wipe away the unseen traces of tears that had welled in his eyes.
“Thanks, Pa. I…I needed to hear that,” he said lowly.
Ben placed his hand once more on Adam’s broad shoulder, feeling beneath his fingers, the tremors that coursed through his son’s body.
“Go on…get it off your chest, Adam.”
After a brief silence, Adam cleared his throat. “We argued…or I should say, I argued. He just stood there and took it…everything I said to him………..”
“He…meaning Little Joe?” Ben interrupted.
“Yes…Little Joe.” Adam made a smirking sound and shook his head gently from side to side. “He never said a word back to me…he just turned and walked away. At first I didn’t realize he was saddling up, but when I did, I knew he was leaving. I couldn’t let him go, so…I tried to stop him.”
“And…that didn’t work?”
“Of course not. By then the kid was as mad as a charging bull. When I put my hand on his arm to keep him from mounting up, he swung around and…hit me.” Again Adam made a smirking sound, this time rubbing his chin as if he were once again feeling the sting of his brother’s punch. “I didn’t know the boy could hit so hard,” he said, glancing sideways at his father.
“We got into a scuffle. He hit me, I slugged him…he went down and when I grabbed for him, intending to haul his butt up from the ground, he…used his legs and slung me over his shoulders. I’ll admit I landed with a thud on my backside…almost knocking the wind from my lungs. I had to take a minute to pull air into my chest, but it was just the time he needed. Before I could stop him, he was mounted and riding off…”Adam swallowed hard.
“What happened after that? Did you go after him?”
Ben watched as the expressions hardened on his son’s face and as Adam shook his head.
“No…and that was where stupidity set in. I knew he was riding off into Indian country, yet I didn’t even call out to him to come back…or…or…to say that I was sorry. I just stood there like an idiot and let my kid brother ride off…knowing what danger lay ahead.”
Adam had gotten up and moved away from his father. His back was to Ben as he leaned on the half wall where his horse was bedded down in the stall.
“I can’t even recall what sparked the argument.” He turned, looking directly into Ben’s dark eyes. “Whatever it was…it wasn’t so important that I should have let the kid ride away like that. But…hey,” he said sarcastically, “I was right…beyond a doubt…or at least in my mind I was right and Joe was wrong, so I stood there like I was…God…and let my own flesh and blood ride right into the middle of an Indian raid and…right to his death.”
Unable to control the pent up emotion, Adam groaned and then slammed his balled up fist into the side railing of the stall. “Dam! Dam, Dam, Dam!” he shouted.
Quickly, Ben stood to his feet and moved closer to his son. He placed his hand on Adam’s back and gently squeezed. Adam cradled his throbbing hand in his other hand.
“But Little Joe didn’t die, son…obviously, you saved his life.”
Adam spun around. “Sure I did…but his life wouldn’t have been in danger had I just kept my mouth shut and not taunted the boy, now would it?” he growled with so much venom in his tone that Ben recoiled his arm slightly.
“There’s no one to blame Pa, but me for all the suffering, all the agony, for all the anguish, the misery and all the sleepless nights and pain ridden days that Little Joe has had to endure, but myself. I cannot…cannot forgive myself for doing that to him.”
He stomped away and turned around. “I wish to God it had been me instead of him…if I could have traded places with him, I would have, in a heartbeat. But I can’t…his suffering is on my account…therefore I cannot forget it nor forgive my mistake!”
Adam started to walk away but Ben reached out and grabbed his arm, halting Adam’s steps.
“Now you wait just a minute young man…you’re right about one thing…you aren’t God! And another thing you’re right about…you made a mistake…yes, a mistake,” Ben repeated before Adam could interrupt. “And yes, perhaps it was a foolish mistake, a stupid argument that meant nothing…perhaps, Adam, you were a bit prideful…but never, never for a moment will I allow you or anyone else to think that you intentionally let your brother ride to his death…or would be death. Joseph has to take some of the responsibility in this. He made the decision to ride away…he chose to leave, he picked his path…and he knew Adam, that he was in dangerous territory…in Indian country. And furthermore, he knew what could happen if he encountered those very Indians. So don’t let yourself believe that you are solely the one at fault. Don’t give yourself so much credit!”
Stunned by the words, Adam stared at his father.
“That’s right…credit, blame…call it what you please. But it took two to argue, two to fight and two to make choices, one to ride away, the other to let that person ride away. Oh…you could have ridden after him, but knowing Joe as we do, we both know that would only result in more ill feelings, perhaps more fighting…no, you probably did right in letting him ride away…”
“What! Dear God, Pa…you didn’t see what they did to him…you didn’t hear his cries; you didn’t have to perform four crude operations…with nothing but a hunting knife! He begged me not to hurt him anymore…yet he pleaded with me to help him…”
“And you did…don’t you see Adam…you saved his life. Joe would have died had you not been there…had you not gone searching for him. Joe knows that…I know he does and nothing you can say to me will convince me that he feels any animosity toward you for what happened,” Ben said softly. “He probably blames no one but himself…in fact, I can almost guarantee that he does. And I’ll prove it to you…………”
Before Adam could stop him, Ben marched straight toward the house. Adam watched as his father disappeared inside, closing the door. He knew what his father was doing…and why…yet he wondered if it were the right thing. How would Joe react once he found out that his older brother had betrayed him by breaking a promise to keep their secret just that, a secret.
In spite of himself, Adam felt somewhat better after talking to his father. He felt as if some of the weight he’d been carrying around on his shoulders had been lifted. Maybe his father was right…maybe as bad as things had been for Joe and he, they could have been much worse. What if he hadn’t found Joe in time…he could have been dead…forgiveness had been forthcoming from the kid, right from the start, Adam recollected. He almost smiled. Joe was like that…angry as a bull one minute and mild as a kitten the next. Hot and cold…water and oil…sweet and sour…hmmm.
Walking back to the stall, Adam picked up the currying brush and began to groom his horse. In his heart he knew that Joe was in for the same discussion that he and their father had just had. He could only wonder what the boy’s reaction would be like. Would Joe be open and honest as he had been, with their father? Would he bare his soul, as his older brother had done? Only time would tell.
Ben caught a glimpse of Little Joe as the youngest member of the family turned the corner at the top of the steps. Tossing his hat on the credenza, he started to call out but decided instead to follow Joe to his room, where they could talk in private, as he and Adam had just done.
“Whew…” he sighed as he lumbered up the steps. “Why couldn’t I have had three girls instead?” he mumbled to himself.
Knocking softly on the door, he called his son’s name? “Joseph?”
“It’s open. Come on in.”
Ben pushed the door opened, just in time to see Joe lowered himself onto the bed. He also noted the pained expression on the boy’s face.
“Legs hurting tonight?” Ben said as he closed the door behind him and crept to the bed.
“Yeah…just a bit. Guess it’s the cold,” Joe said as he settled himself against the stack of pillows.
Ben reached down to the foot of the bed and pulled the coverlet up, spreading it evenly over Joe’s lower body. “It’s been a long couple of months, hasn’t it son?”
“Yeah…painful too,” Joe announced, pausing slightly. “But…no one to blame but myself,” he said, giving his father a tiny grin. “Something on your mind, Pa?”
Ben smiled warmly, taking a seat in the chair nearest the bed. He heard the added statement and knew that his beliefs had been correct. “You know me so well, don’t you son?”
Joe returned the smile with the same warmth. “I’d like to think I did…but in honesty, I barely know you at all,” he said in a light tone. “Like right now…I know you’ve something on your mine…but I can’t figure out what…”
“I’ll give you a hint, son.”
“Okay…I’ll play along.”
“You…you’ve been on my mind a lot lately…you and…Adam that is…”
Joe looked away, the smile suddenly gone. “Oh…I should have guessed.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Honestly…he’s been on my mind too,” Joe explained.
“Oh…and why is that?”
Joe’s lips tightened, pressing together. He shook his head gently. “I don’t know…but I get the feeling that he’s…mad at me about something. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out why or what I’ve done…”
“You haven’t done anything, son.”
Joe studied his father. Ben knew something that he didn’t; it was plain to see by the look in the dark eyes that watched him.
“How do you know that?” he asked, curious.
“Because…he told me so…”
Joe’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh…he did, did he…and…what else did he tell you?”
Ben was silent for a moment. Not sure just how Joe would take the knowledge that Adam had shared with him, their secret, he decided to go slowly.
“Well…he was out in the barn a little while ago, grooming Sport. And I’ve been watching him the last few days and I’ve seen that your brother’s had something on his mind. So…”
“You asked him what it was?”
Ben smiled. “See…I told you, you know me pretty well.”
“You asked him didn’t you? And he told you…he told you the whole dang story…didn’t he?” Joe, his eyes growing dark, glared at his father. Yet, somehow he knew that Adam had spilled his guts about what had happened all those weeks ago when they had been out on the trail together.
“Does it bother you son, that your brother confided in me?”
Swallowing, Joe shook his head. “I suppose not…it’s just that…we sort of promised each other…”
“Yes, he told me that as well. But Joseph, haven’t you noticed how frazzled your brother has been…how…pre-occupied he’s become. And irritable…cross…almost angry?”
“Yes sir, I’ve noticed. And I’ve noticed that most of it is directed at me…”
Ben leaned closer and put his hand over Joe’s.
“But it wasn’t, son.”
“Then why does he always act like he’s mad at me when I’m anywhere near him. I mean, I said good morning to him…and he snapped back, ‘what’s so good about it’.”
“Joe…listen to me just a minute. I don’t care what they two of you argued about when you were out there…I don’t care whether Adam thought he was right and you were wrong or vice-versa. All I care about is that I’ve got my sons back…alive. Adam told me all about what happened, how he taunted you, how the two of you fought…how you rode off and how he let you go…knowing full well that you might be riding directly into trouble. But I also know the guilt and self-hatred he’s suffered because he blames himself for what happened to you…”
“That’s ridiculous…I told him it wasn’t his fault. I chose to go…and he couldn’t have stopped me if he tried. I was determined to go…”
Ben smiled and leaned back in his chair. “That’s exactly what I told him.”
“I don’t blame him. Honest…I thought he believed that.”
“Well, he probably knows…deep down in his heart, but seeing you the way you were, knowing how much pain you were in and how you struggled to come back to us…surely it wore on him, Joe. And regardless of what you might have said to him about how you chose to ride off…he’s a sensitive man who values and treasures those whom he loves and cares for. A deep feeling of guilt has been eating away at him, making him into someone that none of us recognize…”
“Where you able to convince him then…”
“I don’t know son, I’m not sure really. I certainly hope I have. I suppose only time will tell.”
“He saved my life.”
“Yes, I know and for that I am most thankful. But Joe, tell me something…how on earth did you end up in the middle of an Indian raid?”
He watched as Joe leaned back deeper into the pillows and closed his eyes. His son had paled slightly and when he opened his eyes, they had taken on a haunted, disturbed look about them.
“It was awful, Pa,” he said softly. “I just knew I was fixing to die…I was…scared. I knew, too late, how foolish I’d been, riding off and leaving Adam alone. I wasn’t so much afraid for myself, but for him…because I knew, once that first arrow pierced my leg, that Adam would blame himself for what was happening.”
He glanced over at his father. “I was right too, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. But you still haven’t told me how you came to be in the middle of that raid.”
“I was riding around…not really going any where, just stewing about what Adam had said to me…funny, I can’t even remember what it was now. But anyway, I saw the smoke coming from the way station…at first I thought it was just chimney smoke. Unfortunately, I found out too late that it was more than that. When I saw the burning building, I could hear screams coming from inside, so I raced toward it. I almost made it inside when the Indians got me. I fought, but it was useless against so many. The next thing I knew, I was tied to the porch and they were shooting arrows at me.”
Joe took a deep breath and shut his eyes tightly, remembering in his mind the pain of those arrows as they pierced his body.
“They left me there to die,” he said softly, his voice trembling. When he opened his eyes, and looked over at his father, Ben noted that they had filled with tears. “I could feel the heat from the fire on my back…I could feel my flesh begin to burn…” he gulped. “The screaming inside had stopped. I knew whomever was there had died.”
Pausing, Joe looked up and saw Adam standing in the doorway, listening. Their eyes met and locked.
“And then Adam appeared, seemingly out of nowhere…and cut me down. You saved my life, brother,” he said firmly, never taking his eyes off his brother. “I would have surely died that day…had you not come looking for me…and found me.”
Adam stepped to the foot of the bed. His hands trembled slightly as he gripped the footboard.
“That was a foolish thing you did, riding off into Indian country,” he said in a low tone.
Ben had pushed himself back into the comforts of the chair, giving his two sons time to talk between themselves for it was obvious that once Joe had spotted Adam in the doorway that the conversation had switched from father and son to brother and brother.
“I know that…and I know that I did it because I chose to do it…”
“Why Joe…why ride straight into trouble?”
“I’m not sure, Adam…maybe I, in some sick manner of thinking, wanted you to worry…wanted you to…come looking for me. Maybe I wanted to force you to admit that you were wrong. I don’t know, maybe I wanted to hear you say you were sorry. I don’t know…” he said, looking into the eyes and seeing the unspoken pain his brother tried so hard to hide.
“I guess you didn’t hear me say that I was sorry…you were sort of ‘out of it’ most of the time,” Adam confessed.
“I heard…” Joe answered, lowering his head in shame. When he raised his head again, a lone tear rolled down the front of his face. “I heard you say it…over and over and over. I…wanted to tell you that I was sorry too, but…I guess you didn’t hear me either…”
“I heard…but deep down I guess I didn’t really believe you. Mostly because I blamed myself for what happened to you.”
Joe swallowed. “Do you…believe me now? And do you know that it wasn’t your fault, but mine?”
Adam relaxed a bit and offered his brother a smile. “Did you mean it, about being sorry…and for taking the blame?”
Ben heard Joe chuckle softly.
“Of course…have I ever lied to you?” Adam said, smiling so that the dimples in his cheeks deepened.
“I don’t know…well, yes, I know…no, you’ve never lied to me Adam. And…yes, I believe you…but only if you believe me,” Joe said returning the smile.
“Well then,” Ben said, standing.
Both boys looked over at their father, remembering for the first time that he had been sitting there listening, silent as they talked openly to one another.
“Well what?” Adam said.
“Well then,” Ben repeated. “I guess it’s settled…it’s over, finished…let’s leave it in the past from here on out and please…let’s get things back to normal!”
Adam and Joe swapped glances and then both, at the same time, laughed.
“Gee Pa, Adam and I thought this was normal!”
“Fights, arguments, raids, burning buildings, Indians…WRONG!!”
“How about brothers baring souls and not with holding secrets, but talking openly and honestly…is that what you’d call normal, Pa?” Adam wanted to know.
Ben’s thick brows rose slightly. “That’s what I’d call perfect!” he chanted as he excused himself from the room, leaving Adam and Little Joe to themselves. Down the hall, he paused, hearing the merry laughter that had once again returned to his happy home. As he started down the stairs, he heard Adam and Joe say.
“I love ya, kid…”
“I love you too, big brother…just don’t use that against me!”
Then, more laughter. Ben was content, things had been settled; normalcy had replaced the turmoil that had clouded all their lives over the last several weeks. Relief was immediate.
“Thank you, God,” he muttered as he headed for the kitchen in search of the perfect cup of coffee.