Summary: After falling out, Adam and Joe discover what is worth fighting for.
Rated: T (6,865 words)
Worth Fighting For?
“Having a nice rest?” enquired Adam Cartwright, in a deceptively mild tone.
Looking up, Joe Cartwright glared at his oldest brother before gently placing his horse’s hoof on the ground. “Cochise was limping,” Joe replied, in a tight voice. “Do you want me to lame him for good?”
“Have you found the problem?” Adam asked, still in that mild tone.
A flush spread over the younger man’s face. His mouth tightened, and his eyes narrowed. With a visible effort, he kept his voice even. “Yes.” The single word was all he offered.
Turning his back on Adam, Joe took a drink from his canteen, then offered some to his pinto. He could feel Adam’s eyes boring into his back. Replacing the canteen, he leapt neatly into the saddle without touching the stirrup. Still ignoring Adam, he walked the pinto a few paces, checking that the stone Cochise had caught in his hoof hadn’t caused any long-term damage.
Satisfied, Joe finally looked at his brother. Adam, to Joe’s experienced eye, looked furious. They had been quarrelling for days now. Neither would apologise to the other. Ben, their father, had curtly ordered them to stop bickering, and so this frozen politeness had begun. Adam’s deep brown gaze locked with Joe’s green gaze, then Joe broke the contact and galloped off.
Angry all over again, Adam rode after Joe. He knew they would have to make peace with one another, or one of them would have to leave. Adam was often restless, but he didn’t want to go away. Joe loved the Ponderosa, and wouldn’t want to leave either. Adam had been counting on Joe getting over his anger first, and making the first move, but it hadn’t happened. Adam wasn’t sure quite how to resolve things.
Further down the valley, Joe had found a stray cow and her calf. Adam watched as he expertly herded the disgruntled cow over to the rest of the herd. Adam could hear his voice as he spoke to the hands, but couldn’t catch the words.
Reluctant to provoke Joe in front of the hands, Adam began combing the undergrowth for strays. Branding was a busy time for them and personal problems would have to wait.
A whiff of rotting meat pulled Adam out of his reverie. He reined in Sport, who sidled away nervously. Adam stroked his neck absently. He reached for his rifle, and rode on at a walk.
The remains of the calf had been there for several days. Adam dismounted, knowing by Sport’s behaviour that the animal that had done this was nowhere near. There were cougar tracks all round the corpse. Sorting them out, Adam decided it must be a female with 2 adolescent cubs.
Re-mounting, Adam cantered back to the fire where the branding continued apace. Both Joe and Hoss were there. “I’ve got to go back to the house,” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“What’s wrong, Adam?” Hoss asked, wiping his brow with the back of a huge, dirty hand.
“I just found the remains of a calf,” he explained. “Tracks of 3 cats around it.”
“Uh-oh,” Joe commented.
“Dadburnit,” Hoss cursed. “I thought we’d chased off them critters.”
“Well, they’re back. Pass the word around to the hands that no one is to go out alone. No point in taking chances.” Adam patted Sport. “I’m off to tell Pa.”
“Have a nice rest,” Joe said, caustically, walking away.
Adam’s face darkened, but he said nothing, merely sent Sport heading towards home. Hoss watched him for a moment, before shooting a glance at Joe and shaking his head. He had kept the peace between his brothers for years, but had failed this time. He didn’t even know what had started the argument.
After passing on the unwelcome news to the hands, Joe mounted up again, and rode out to resume his hunt for strays. It didn’t occur to him that he was alone.
When Adam returned a little over an hour later, the sun was beginning to dip in the sky. Hoss had finished for the day, and was having a well-deserved drink of water. The hands were scattered in a deceptively casual manner, watching the herd. “Hi, Adam,” Hoss grunted.
Sliding to the ground, Adam beckoned to Dave, who was currently in charge of the hands. Within moments, they were deep in discussions about keeping the herd as safe as possible.
“Where’s Joe?” Adam asked Hoss. They were about to mount and head for home.
Looking around, Hoss frowned. “I dunno,” he admitted. “I ain’t seen him since you left, now I come to think on it. Hey, Dave!” Hoss called. “Where’s Joe? Who’s out with him?”
The answer to that had crossed all their minds, but Dave still did a head count. “He must be alone,” Dave admitted.
“Damn him!” Adam swore. “Dave, you stay here, just like we agreed. Hoss, you come with me.”
It only took Hoss a few moments to pick up Joe’s trail. In silence, the brothers followed the tracks. They emerged from a small stand of trees to see Joe riding across the meadow beyond, towards them.
The youngest brother wasn’t looking at them, and obviously didn’t know they were there. His head was down, and he was staring at the ground as he rode at a walk.
“There he is,” Hoss commented, relief in his voice.
Drawing a deep breath to call to Joe, Adam was pre-empted by a growl. All three horses startled. The brothers all drew their handguns, trying to soothe their mounts, even while scanning the surrounding trees for the cougar.
“There!” exclaimed Hoss, and fired.
The adolescent cat was about 10 feet from Joe. But Joe was too busy to shoot at it. Cochise was rearing, startled by the cat. The shot was just the last straw. Joe was trying to get Cochise to run, but the pinto was too panicked to respond to his rider.
The cougar was startled by the shot, too. Forgetting about trying to catch the horse, the cat opted to leave, but instead of turning and running, it fled straight ahead, under the hooves of the rearing horse.
That was too much for Cochise. The pinto turned to flee, but was completely unbalanced, and his hooves slipped out from under him. Both horse and rider crashed to the ground. Joe was flung clear, and rolled over and over.
“Joe!” exclaimed Hoss and Adam in unison. They crossed the distance to Joe in an instant. Cochise was on his feet, head down, panting and shaken.
Sprawled on the ground, Joe was unconscious. Adam knelt by him, and gently touched his cheek. “Joe? Can you hear me?” There was no response. Adam continued to call Joe’s name, while Hoss checked Cochise over. The pinto wasn’t even lame.
“The horse is okay,” Hoss reported, coming to peer over Adam’s shoulder.
“What a pity we can’t say the same for the rider,” Adam noted.
But with that, Joe began to stir back to life, and regained consciousness within a short time. Apart from a bump on the head, Joe was uninjured. After a few minutes rest to regain his equilibrium, Joe remounted and they set off for home.
At first, Joe was obviously too dazed to take in much, but he began to look better after a while. “What were you thinking of, Joe?” Adam asked, suddenly. “Did you think you were excluded from the order not to go alone?”
“Now ain’t the time, Adam,” Hoss interjected, uneasily.
“I was only asking,” Adam retorted.
“Okay, perhaps I didn’t think,” Joe said, angrily. “But I sure didn’t notice you taking anyone with you.”
“The chances of meeting those cats were remote,” Adam pointed out, just as angry. “The tracks were on the other side of the pasture.”
“Oh, of course,” Joe responded, cuttingly. “So they wouldn’t have circled round.” He snorted. “Its always different for you, Adam.”
“Actually, I thought that was your line, Little Joe,” Adam shot back. “It often seems different for the baby of the family.”
“Really?” Joe said, his voice rising. “And we all know that, as the oldest son, you’re perfect, Adam!” Joe urged Cochise into a lope, but after only a few strides, the motion made him queasy, and he was forced to slow down. His already throbbing head pounded even harder, and for a moment, Joe thought he was going to be sick.
“You all right, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked, catching up.
“I’m fine,” Joe snapped, and instantly regretted his temper. He wasn’t angry with Hoss. “I’m sorry, Hoss.”
“You gotta sort out this thing with Adam,” Hoss ventured. “It ain’t good to live with.” A closer look at Joe showed that his face had a greenish tinge underneath his tan. “Think about it,” he concluded.
By the time they got back to the house, Joe had lost the battle with his stomach a couple of times. He dismounted with obvious relief and led Cochise slowly into the barn.
Working in silence, the brothers tended to their horses. Adam finished first, and left without a word. Hoss lingered, watching Joe. “I’m fine, Hoss, “Joe said, without looking round.
Caught, Hoss grinned apologetically, and left. Alone, Joe leant against Cochise’s neck. He felt exhausted and knew it was as much from the renewed quarrel as from the fall. He didn’t usually hold grudges, and hadn’t realised the effort needed to do so. Thinking back, Joe was no longer sure what he and Adam had argued about in the first place. He knew he would have to make peace with Adam, but for some reason the words stuck in his throat.
Sensing his rider’s distress, Cochise nudged Joe with his head. Joe fondled the silken ears, then abruptly turned away. The movement was too abrupt, and Joe’s head swam. He stumbled, fell against the stall partition, and slid to the floor.
Dimly, he heard someone call his name, but the world was tilting alarmingly, and he couldn’t respond. A strong arm was round his shoulders, supporting him. Joe concentrated on breathing, and gradually the world settled.
Raising his head, Joe looked into Ben’s concerned face. “Feel better, son?” he asked, gently. “Come on, let’s get you inside.” He helped Joe to his feet and supported him across to the house.
It wasn’t long before Joe was settled comfortably in bed, and Ben went down to join the others for supper. Adam’s mouth was noticeably tight, but he didn’t make any comment. Talk centred on planning the hunt for the cougars. They had lost a few calves already this season, and weren’t anxious to lose more.
“I think we should take all the men we can spare off the branding. If branding is slowed down, well, so be it,” Ben said. “We can always catch up later. But we must get those cats. Hoss, can you get messages sent to our neighbours, letting them know?”
“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss mumbled, his mouth full.
“Adam, you lead the search teams,” Ben directed.
“And what is Joe going to do?” Adam asked, caustically.
Frowning, Ben hooked Adam with a dark gaze. “He will help you on the search team,” Ben replied. “And I don’t care for your tone, young man. I thought you and Joe had sorted this out.”
There was a pause as Adam got his anger under control. “I just wondered if Joe was going to be well enough to help,” he said, as evenly as he could.
He didn’t fool Ben. “Really?” his father asked, sarcastically. “I had the impression that you meant something else. Joe does do his share round the ranch, Adam. You know that.”
“Yes, Sir,” Adam replied. “I’m sorry.”
Next morning, Joe was at the breakfast table almost on time. Ben brought him up-to-date with the plans. Adam glanced at him. “Are you well enough to join us?” he asked, his tone quite matter of fact.
“I’m fine,” Joe replied, which was his standard reply to any query about his health. “Truly I am, Pa,” he added, seeing the look his father gave him.
“Good,” Ben responded. “You looked pretty green last night in the barn, I have to say.”
“I felt pretty green,” Joe responded, wryly, provoking a laugh round the table. “But I’m okay now.” He proved it by eating enough breakfast to satisfy his father.
It wasn’t long before they were ready to leave. Joe and Adam had each packed enough supplies for a couple of days. The hands had been given their orders, and were already on the move. Adam had debated about pairing himself and Joe, but figured that they might have the chance to clear the air properly, if they were together.
Bidding Ben and Hoss farewell, they rode out. There was silence between them, and neither spoke until they were arriving at the area where they would set up their camp. There was a cave there that the boys had camped in for many years. It was too shallow to be used by cougars, but was deep enough to shelter from all but the worst rain. One year, Hoss had built a rough corral, and the boys planned to leave the horses behind and hunt on foot.
It was second nature for them to assume certain chores. Adam laid out the bedrolls while Joe turned out the horses. They both foraged for wood; enough for them to cook with, and to leave a couple of small fires burning near the corral. With that in mind, they collected a couple of large logs, which would burn slowly. By the time they had done all that, it was well into the afternoon.
Eating a brief late lunch, Adam eyed Joe for a moment before saying, “Let’s go, shall we?”
“I’m ready when you are,” Joe responded, coldly. He stood up and reached for his rifle, checking that he had extra shells. “Coming?”
Well, Adam reflected, you could hardly call it friendly, but at least they hadn’t fallen out yet. He pointed out the direction he thought they should take, and waited for the explosion. It didn’t come. Joe simply shrugged and walked that way.
As the afternoon wore on, they fought their way through undergrowth and over rocks, but found no trace of the cats. Dusk found both Cartwrights back at the camp, where again they assumed chores from habit. Adam began the evening meal, while Joe watered and fed the horses. The silence as they ate was almost deafening. Several times, Adam cleared his throat, but each time Joe gave him a blistering look, and he kept quiet. After banking the fires for the night, Joe wrapped himself in his bedroll and went straight to sleep.
Lying looking at the stars, Adam couldn’t drop off. He knew that tomorrow, he would have to talk to Joe, and sort this out. He wracked his brain to remember which particular thing had sparked the quarrel. Joe had been tossing hay down from the loft, and had nearly flattened Adam with one bale. Being Joe, he laughed. Adam had had a bad day, and had lost his temper, yelling about Joe’s careless attitude to work. Things had escalated from there, as Joe had yelled back, and then the first punch had been thrown – by Joe, of course. Adam had hit back, and Hoss had stepped in to stop them. By then, the damage was done.
It occurred to Adam that he was in the wrong. Joe hadn’t been careless throwing down the bale. He’d done what they had all been taught – shouted a warning, and then heaved. Adam had been so caught up in his own thoughts, he hadn’t heard Joe. He had been offended when Joe laughed, but he remembered now that Joe had checked first that he wasn’t hurt.
There was no doubt, he owed Joe an apology. Adam had little practice humbling his pride, especially to Joe, but he knew it had to be done. Sighing, he rolled over and sleep gradually overwhelmed him. It was the best sleep he’d had in days, for his conscience was finally at rest.
Sometime after midnight, Adam was dragged out of slumber by a horse neighing. Joe was stirring, too, reaching for his gun, and shoving aside the covers. “Cochise!” he exclaimed, although Adam couldn’t imagine how he knew which horse it was.
“Joe, wait!” he said, but Joe, impetuous as ever, took no heed and raced off into the darkness.
Slipping on his boots, Adam realised that Joe hadn’t even taken time to put his boots on! He snatched up his rifle, and followed Joe.
By the faint light of the fire, he saw Joe by the corral. The horses were milling about uneasily, but there was no immediate sign of any cougar. “Joe,” Adam hissed. “Can you see anything?”
“No,” Joe responded. Then his head went up, and he lifted his rifle, sighting along the barrel. Adam peered in the direction Joe was aiming, and saw a faint shadow moving along the tree line.
Without hesitating, Joe fired. The rifle report sounded sharply, and the shadow jerked, yowled, and fled. Joe fired again, but they both knew it was hopeless. “Missed,” Joe said, with disgust. “I winged it though. We can track it by the blood in the morning.”
“You took a chance,” said Adam, soberly. “They might have all been out here.”
If Joe had been feeling more receptive to Adam, he would have noticed the note of genuine concern in his brother’s voice. As it was, all he heard was the criticism. “As if you care,” he said, bitterly.
“Of course I care,” Adam protested. “But you didn’t think! You haven’t even put your boots on!”
“Well, don’t worry, Adam. I won’t complain about sore feet, believe me!” With that, Joe stalked back to the cave, and was feigning sleep by the time Adam came in a few moments later.
Breakfast was eaten in silence. Adam knew he would have to make the first move, but it was hard for him. Joe was soon ready to go, and so Adam put off saying anything. They scouted round, and soon picked up the trail of blood. It was clear and easy to follow, but after a while it became obvious that the cat wasn’t as badly hurt as they’d hoped.
Noon came and went, and still they seemed no nearer finding the elusive cougars. Stopping for some water, the brothers stood beneath the shade of a tree. The heat was intense, and they had been climbing steadily for the last few hours. The tension between them had lessened. “Isn’t there a cave just up there?” Joe asked, pointing.
“I think so,” Adam responded, wiping his brow.
“Let’s take a look,” Joe suggested. “We’ve lost the trail now, anyway. You go round that side, and I’ll go up here.” As he caught Adam’s look, he rolled his eyes. “Damn it, Adam, I know there’s safety in numbers, but its not as if I’m suggesting that we go alone! Give me credit for some sense!”
“All right, but be careful,” Adam said. He had been about to suggest the same course of action.
Joe muttered something under his breath that Adam didn’t catch, but he didn’t ask for it to be repeated. He set off to climb up to the cave, slightly to the left of Joe’s position.
It was a hot, hard climb. They moved slowly and carefully, placing each foot before putting their full weight on it, so as not to start any rock falls. Finally, Joe reached a place where he could see the cave clearly. There had been a landslip since Joe had last been up there, and there was a sort of wall of rocks and debris. Joe eased himself behind it, and looked around. Further along the same wall, he saw Adam.
Movement. Joe shifted position and watched as the cougar and her cubs came out of the cave to sun themselves on the rocks. One of the cubs had a bloody streak running along one side, but the injury clearly wasn’t giving him much trouble. Joe smiled. Between them, he and Adam could pick off the animals without any problem. He raised his rifle, and took aim.
The wind shifted suddenly, and blew Joe’s hot scent towards the cougars. The mother lifted her head, lips drawn back in a growl. Joe knew he had no time to waste. He fired, hitting the already injured cub, and killing it cleanly. From his left, Adam fired, too, but the cats were already on the move.
Protecting her cubs, the mother cougar bounded towards Joe. The other cub, confused, fled towards Adam. Joe desperately fired again, but missed completely. He tried to slide down behind the rocks and debris, but the cat was too quick for him. She hit him square in the chest, and Joe felt the claws rake into him as he fought to get clear.
The cat had over shot the mark, and hadn’t got her claws properly into Joe. She skidded on the loose footing, and let go. Joe had dropped his rifle, and instinctively drew his handgun and fired from point blank range, again and again. Only when his gun was empty did he realise that the cat was dead.
For several moments, Joe was frozen in place, sick and shaken. Then the pain from the claws hit him, and he groaned. Glancing down, he saw that his chest and arms were covered in deep scratches, which were bleeding quite freely. Joe felt sick.
“Adam!” Joe called, and his voice echoed back from the hills around. “Adam!”
Silence. Terror gripped Joe. Gathering his strength, he crawled to his feet, and looked around. There was no sign of Adam. Joe picked up his rifle, checked there was a shell in it, and began to edge his way carefully round to Adam’s position.
The dangerous footing and Joe’s own weakness made the journey seem endless to him. When he finally saw Adam, his heart almost stopped. Adam had nailed the other cub – it lay dead beside him. But he had paid a price. His leg was slashed open to the bone, and pumped blood slowly but steadily onto the dusty earth, where it was quickly absorbed by the dry ground.
Throwing himself down beside his unconscious brother, Joe feared he was dead for a moment. He searched frantically for a pulse, and found it, but it was weak and thready. Joe knew he had to stop the bleeding. Ripping what was left of his shirt from his back, he tore off a sleeve, and made a tourniquet, watching with relief when the bleeding slowed, and finally came to a stop.
Many years ago, Joe had watched Doc Martin working with a tourniquet, and had asked several interested questions. Amused, Paul had given Joe a lesson he had never forgotten. Blessing Paul in absentia, Joe worked the tourniquet, and gradually loosened it, until the bleeding had stopped even without the pressure. Then he wrapped Adam’s leg in his shirt as tightly as he could. He left the tourniquet in place, just in case he needed it again.
Checking Adam’s pulse again, Joe was relieved to find it a bit stronger. He found Adam’s canteen – his was long gone – and had a small drink before lifting Adam’s head and pouring some water into his brother’s mouth. After a little while, Adam groaned. “Adam? Can you hear me?”
There was no response. Joe slumped back on his heels, closing his eyes despairingly. Adam was unconscious, and looked like staying that way for a while. He needed a doctor as soon as possible, and that meant that Joe had to get him down off this hill, and home, somehow.
He had no choice. Joe stood up, and somehow manoeuvred Adam to his feet, then slung his brother over his shoulder. It was going to a long hard journey back, but Joe vowed he had to make it. Using the rifles to steady himself, Joe began to edge his way carefully down the hill.
The first part of the descent was the worst. Joe eventually set Adam down, and, holding brother and rifles across his lap, slid down as carefully as he could on his backside, not counting the cost in ragged pants and torn flesh. Once back on the trail, Joe rested, exhausted already. He checked Adam’s leg again, and noted the growing warmth in his body. Resolutely, Joe forced himself to his feet and staggered on.
A kind of rhythm developed, with Joe going as far as he could before setting Adam down, so he could rest. The task of carrying Adam drained Joe, and he had to rest for longer each time. The sun sank with amazing rapidity, and Joe began to fear they would be forced to spend the night in the open. Goaded by the thought, Joe forced himself to his feet, and marched on. He soon was in a kind of reverie, moving his feet, but barely aware of what he was doing. The claw marks on his chest and arms burned painfully, and he was relieved that Adam was spared the pain of his injuries, plus the uncomfortable bumping on Joe’s shoulder.
Dusk had fallen, and the first stars were becoming visible against the pale blue velvet sky when Joe finally reached the cave. He was at the end of his endurance, and could barely control his muscles. He laid Adam down with the last of his strength, and slumped to the ground.
It was full dark when Joe woke up. He still felt desperately tired, and his muscles were stiff from the unaccustomed exercise. He wondered what had roused him, then heard Adam’s voice. “Joe? Joe? Where are you?”
“Here,” Joe croaked, groaning as he sat up. He slithered over the ground, and touched Adam’s arm. “I’m here, Adam. Don’t move.” With one hand, Joe threw some more wood on the fire, and it flared up brightly.
“Joe,” Adam gasped. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Joe replied. “Just rest, Adam. We’ll go home in the morning. Try and sleep. Would you like a drink?”
He helped Adam to drink, and realised that the canteen was empty. Adam was burning up, and Joe knew he needed water. After settling his older brother into an uneasy sleep, Joe got stiffly to his feet, and tottered to the stream. He drank his fill, and then filled up the canteen. He wished he hadn’t lost his one. With a sigh, he headed back to camp.
Dawn broke cool and cloudy. Joe, looking tiredly at the signs, saw rain coming. He had been awake a lot of the night with Adam, who was running a fever. Joe didn’t feel so great himself, but he had to look after Adam. While his brother slept, Joe made himself eat, then began to make a travois. It was something he had done often, but today he could hardly manage the knots that were necessary. It took some time before he realised that it was due to the injuries he’d received the previous day.
Finally, it was done, but the morning was wasting away, and the clouds were getting darker by the minute. Joe packed the last of their gear, and moved Adam onto the travois. His brother stirred as Joe gratefully let his weight down. “Joe?” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
Tiredly, Joe pushed his hair away from his sweaty face. “Sorry for what?” he asked.
“Quarrel,” Adam breathed. “My fault. Sorry.”
All at once, Joe wanted to cry. “No, Adam, it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, too, for not letting it go. I was a baby.”
The deep brown eyes, glazed with fever, opened a little wider. For the first time since being mauled, Adam looked at Joe. Joe had been unable to bear the weight of a shirt and so hadn’t put one on. The scratches stood out in vivid red lines. Adam gasped. “Joe, you’re hurt.”
“Its nothing,” Joe lied. “Just rest, big brother. I’m gonna get you home.”
The clouds overhead darkened, and the wind picked up. Joe shivered, and pulled his shirt from the back of the saddle where he’d bundled it. Trusting to Cochise to continue going, he slid it on, and winced as the light fabric rubbed the festering scratches. The rain had held off, but Joe was sure that situation was about to change. He wondered if he should try and find some shelter, or if he should carry on towards home. Adam was burning with fever, and Joe was little better, but he didn’t dare admit, even to himself, how ill he really was. Joe couldn’t decide what to do, so did nothing, and they carried on plodding towards home, one step at a time.
The first drops of rain fell, and Joe thought that perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad storm. But he was wrong. Within minutes, thunder was crashing in the hills behind them, and lightning flashed intermittently. Joe ducked his head, and simply endured the rain. He heard Adam call out, but didn’t stop. Deep down, Joe knew that if he got down from his horse, he might not get back on again.
Finally, the weather relented, and the rain stopped. The wind still blew in fitful gusts, and Joe shivered. He was soaked to the skin. He had put the oilskins on Adam before they had left. “Walk on, Coochie,” Joe muttered, every now and then. He looked at his surroundings with very little idea of where they actually were. Some instinct kept him headed in the right direction.
Waking from a momentary doze, Joe noticed the sky getting darker again. Forcing his eyes to focus, he realised that night was falling. Had they been travelling all day? He tried to remember, but could only dredge up snatches of the journey. Cochise seemed to be walking more quickly, and his ears were pricked. Even through his stupor, Joe recognised the signs that they were nearing home. Joe swayed in the saddle, and shook his head, trying to clear it. It didn’t help.
Suddenly, the ranch house was in front of them, and the tired horses were stopping in the yard. Joe simply sat in the saddle. He couldn’t move. He didn’t even know if Adam was still alive, but he hadn’t enough energy to check.
The door to the house opened, and Ben came out. He hesitated as he saw the travois, and then ran towards Joe, shouting for Hoss to come. Joe watched, with the same curious disinterest he had felt all day. Ben paused by Joe, and looked anxiously into his face. “Joe! What happened?”
Unable to find his voice, Joe simply looked at his father. He managed a glance over his shoulder, and Ben hurried back to look at the man on the travois. “Oh my God! Adam!” The horror in his father’s tone convinced Joe that Adam had died. A feeling of defeat crushed him, and he slid, unconscious, from the saddle.
For a paralysing moment, Ben didn’t know what to do. Then his brain cleared, and he sent someone to town for the doctor, urgently. Other hands were enlisted to help carry the injured brothers into the house. Hop Sing started water boiling, and Ben and Hoss gently undressed Adam and Joe.
It was difficult to say who was worst off. Adam’s leg looked dreadful, and he burned with fever, but he was at least dry. Joe’s chest and arms were red and sore looking, showing signs of infection. He, too, burned with fever, and had been soaked to the skin. Ben had realised at once that it was hopeless trying to tend to his sons in different rooms, so had the hands bring Joe’s bed into Adam’s room.
Bathing Adam’s head with cool water, Ben suddenly realised that Adam was awake and looking at him. He quickly gave his son a drink of water, which Adam sipped gratefully. “Pa,” he whispered. “Joe?”
“He’s right here, son,” Ben replied, tears in his eyes. “He brought you home.”
“Sorry,” breathed Adam.
“What are you sorry for, son?” questioned Ben, puzzled.
The ghost of a smile chased across Adam’s face. “Lots of things,” he muttered. “Everything. The fight. Joe.” He sighed. “Everything.”
“Don’t worry about it, son,” Ben advised. “Just rest and get better.” He smiled at Adam, and soon his oldest son drifted back to sleep.
Crossing to look at Joe, Ben saw that he hadn’t regained consciousness. There were circles under Joe’s eyes. He was flushed with fever. Hoss was gently cleaning the gashes on his torso. Ben touched the sweat-dampened curls, and then rested his hand on Hoss’ broad shoulder. Hoss raised worried blue eyes. “Are they gonna be all right, Pa?” he asked, in a low voice.
“I hope so, son,” Ben answered. “I hope so.”
The house was soon bustling with activity as Paul Martin arrived. Hop Sing dashed up and down stairs, fetching and carrying, helping Paul to treat both sons. Ben and Hoss were banished to the sitting room. Ben slumped in his favourite chair, and Hoss perched on the edge of the massive stone fireplace.
“Looks like the cats got them,” Hoss muttered. “But did they git the cats?”
They both leapt to their feet as Paul came down the stairs. “Well?” Ben said.
“Sit down, Ben,” Paul said, and Ben did so, his heart in his mouth. “The are both quite ill, as I’m sure you are aware. Injuries from cat’s claws are notorious for carrying infection. From what I could piece together from Joe, this happened yesterday afternoon. Joe was too ill to think of washing their injuries. But I have to say, Ben, I admire that boy of yours. Not many men could have survived an attack by a cougar, and then saved his brother’s life, too! He deserves a medal! I’ve stitched up Adam’s leg, and he should be fine, once we break his fever. None of Joe’s injuries needed stitches. I’ve bound them up, and I think, like Adam he should be fine. Keep them cool, and give them plenty of clear fluids. I’ll look back in the morning. But if you need me, don’t hesitate to send for me.”
“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said. He shook the doctor’s hand as he left, then went upstairs to nurse his sons.
The next few days proved long and tiring, as Ben and Hoss nursed Adam and Joe, and tried to keep the ranch running smoothly, too. Paul was a regular visitor to the ranch, helping Ben to fight the infections, which raged through each of his sons’ bodies. Hop Sing was invaluable, and not just for the endless supply of food and drink with which he plied his family. His salves aided the healing process.
After two days, Joe was moved back to his own room. His fever had broken, and he was beginning to be awake for longer periods. Adam fought on for another day before he, too beat the infection. That night, everyone in the house slept soundly.
It was a rather pensive Joe that Ben found that morning. He greeted his father with less than his usual enthusiasm. Adam was still asleep, so Ben decided to give Joe his breakfast first, and let Adam sleep on. Helping to Joe to sit up, for he was still weak and sore, Ben wondered what was wrong. “Do you feel all right, Joe?” he asked, placing the tray on his son’s lap.
“Sure,” Joe replied. “Just a bit tired, I guess.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Ben teased, gently. The previous day, Joe had told them the story of the cougar hunt. Ben, like Paul, had been impressed by Joe’s courage and determination.
A fleeting smile crossed Joe’s lips and was gone. He picked listlessly at his food, chewing with obvious disinterest. Ben watched, all too familiar with his son’s moods. When Joe had finally finished eating, Ben removed the tray and said, casually, “What’s on your mind, Little Joe?”
The nickname made Joe smile slightly. “Me and Adam,” Joe replied.
Stifling an urge to correct Joe’s grammar, Ben simply nodded. You couldn’t push Joe into confidences. He had to volunteer them himself.
“I was thinking about us,” continued Joe. “We get on real well for a while, then we don’t get on at all. I was trying to figure out why.”
“I see,” Ben ventured. “Have you figured out why?”
“No,” Joe admitted. “Not really. I mean, I could say its because Adam is bossy. But he’s always been like that. I could say its because he went away to college, and left me behind. But it isn’t that any more. I could say he doesn’t like me, but I know that’s not true. I just don’t understand.” He sighed, frowning.
Recognising the cue for fatherly wisdom, Ben sighed. “I can’t say I understand either, Joe,” he admitted. “I just know that sometimes, no matter how much you love someone, they can annoy you. You and Adam are such opposites, that it’s difficult for you to agree on many things. You act first and think after. Adam does the opposite. No wonder it brings you into conflict. I hate it when you argue. But, Joe, there is one thing more important than your arguing. Do you know what that is?”
Frowning, Joe shook his head. “No. What?”
“You know, both of you, what’s worth fighting for.” Ben patted Joe’s hand. “You think about it, and I’ll be back later.”
Lying back on his pillows, Joe puzzled over his father’s meaning. He was still wrestling with it when Ben looked in later to say that Adam was awake. A few minutes after that, Joe was easing himself from under the covers, and walking unsteadily across the hall to Adam’s room.
It was the first time they had seen each other in a couple of days. “What are you doing here?” Adam asked. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“Don’t you start,” Joe sighed, for he had been trying to get out of bed for days. “I didn’t come here to fight.”
“Good,” Adam said, but Joe caught the glimpse of laughter in the brown eyes. “Its not worth it. Here, sit beside me and share the blanket. I’ll never hear the end of it if you catch cold!”
Doing as he was told, Adam’s words struck Joe. “Worth fighting for,” he said. “So that’s what Pa meant.”
“Pa said that he hates it when we fight. He doesn’t understand why we do it. But he says we always know what’s worth fighting for. Its not worth our fighting over this. It won’t change what I’ve done. Maybe I understand.”
“I don’t think that is quite what Pa meant,” Adam commented. “Joe, I haven’t had the chance to thank you for saving my life. I would have died without you there. You carried me down from the hills, and got me home, despite what had happened to you.”
“Well, I couldn’t leave you,” Joe protested, taken aback by the seeming change of subject.
“You fought to save me,” Adam pointed out. “You fought your own injuries and weakness to save us both. I think that’s what Pa meant. Despite all our fighting, I love you, Joe. I can’t say it, or show it too often, but its true. When you need help, I’ll be there for you, if I can. And I can’t tell you how proud I am that you were there for me the other day.” Embarrassed, for he didn’t share his deepest thoughts easily, Adam looked away, blinking back tears.
His face burning from the unaccustomed praise, Joe didn’t try to hide his tears. “Gosh, Adam, I’ve always loved you. Is that what Pa meant? That we’ll always fight for each other?” His eyes widened as Adam nodded, and he absorbed the meaning. “Sure, I guess I understand. We’ve always fought for each other, so the bickering doesn’t really matter, if it doesn’t get out of hand. I’m sorry about that last fight, Adam.”
“Hush, Joe, forget it. I was in the wrong, not you. Its over.” The brothers sat in silence for a while, Joe leaning on Adam’s shoulder. He yawned. A moment later, Adam copied him. They laughed. “Fancy a nap?” Adam asked.
When Ben looked in an hour later, he found Adam and Joe sleeping peacefully in the same bed. He smiled, and beckoned to Hoss to see. “I’m so glad you boys know what’s worth fighting for,” he whispered, and gently closed the door, leaving his two sons to sleep.