A Lesson in Courage (by BettyHT)

Summary:  The story starts as a prequel with Joe learning how a man can handle fear instead of letting fear rule him.  The story is focused mostly on the relationship between Adam and Joe.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,101


 

“Pa, Adam was scared of those men. I could see it in his eyes. And he blamed me. I could tell ’cause he kept looking at me with that look of his that said it was all my fault. Then when they said we could go if he would just say he loved me, he wouldn’t say it. Pa, even if it was a lie, he could have said it so we could go. But he just stood there with that look of his that doesn’t show anything and didn’t say a word. After a while, he couldn’t even stand to look at me and he closed his eyes. So they left us tied up there to die. They didn’t know that I could get my feet loose or they woulda tied them up tighter. We woulda died, Pa, if I didn’t get my feet free.”

“Joseph, I’m sure there is an explanation. Adam was badly injured, wasn’t he? I know you didn’t know it until much later, but that could have been why he didn’t talk. You need to come up and see him. He needs to see you.”

“No, I ain’t never gonna go see him again ever. He ain’t my brother no more.”

Ben had to hold his hand at that point. He was so angry at those words but knew that Joe was distraught. Hoss had come to the top of the stairs with all the noise they were making. He stared at Joe with an angry look. He walked slowly down the stairs to confront his brother.

“Pa, Doc wants to see ya upstairs again.”

Ben hurried up the stairs. Getting summoned by Paul was a bad sign. He worried that the prognosis had gotten worse, and it wasn’t good to begin with.

“Joe, I cain’t believe you said those things. Now none of that you said about Adam could be true. He loves you. He would do anything to protect you.”

“You weren’t there. You didn’t see what happened.”

“I didn’t have to be. I know him and what you’re sayin’ just cain’t be true.”

“So now I’m a liar. Just because he’s hurt, you’re going to think he couldn’t do those things. Well, he did, and I was there, so I’m the one who ought to know.”

Joe picked up his gunbelt, hat, and jacket.

“Where you going?”

“To town. I’ll find a friend who’ll let me stay the night at least. I cain’t stand to be here with him.”

“You’re gonna stay if I have to sit on ya to make ya stay. So put that stuff down.”

“He went to college and he ain’t the same since he got back. Now I know my brother is a coward and that he hates me. Fine. If I have to sleep here, fine, but I ain’t gonna go see him.”

Joe sat on the red leather chair and Hoss sat on the settee after adding more wood to the fire. It would probably be a very long night. Hoss hoped and then he prayed that there would be some good news.

Doctor Martin and Ben came walking down the steps talking quietly. Finally seeing Hoss and Joe sitting there, Paul asked a question after a preamble. “Adam was conscious or semi-conscious when I dressed his wounds. I used soapy water, carbolic acid, and some alcohol on raw flesh. I probed wounds and pulled debris out of them. I stitched up four puncture wounds. I set his broken arm and splinted it. He never made a sound. I had to give him a piece of cloth to bite on because I thought he was going to bite through his lip or his tongue if I didn’t. I have never seen anything like it. Do either of you have any idea why Adam is avoiding making a sound?”

“Maybe he’s afraid they’ll come back if they hear him cry.”

“Joseph! I know you have been through an ordeal, but denigrating your brother is not going to make you feel better.”

“I don’t know, Doc. Adam has always been pretty tough, but this is a lot for even him. How is he, Doc, really?”

“The blood loss, the injuries, the shock, the exposure, the fever, and whatever else is bedeviling his mind is a lot for one man. He’s young and strong, so we have to see what kind of determination he has to fight this.”

“You mean he could die?”

The lack of an answer from Doctor Martin was answer enough. Joe knew Adam was hurt but had not really thought of the possibility he might die. Joe reconsidered his earlier stand. “If you want, I could go see him?”

“He’s not conscious. Hop Sing is sitting with him for now.”

What was left unsaid was that Adam needed to see Joe earlier when he looked frantically at Hoss and Ben with a silent despair that was all too clear. But Joe had refused to go, and now he realized it might be too late. Ben walked up the stairs and turned at the landing. “If you want to see him, come up now.” Then he turned with weary steps to finish climbing the stairs. Hoss followed and then Joe stood to follow him.

When Joe got to Adam’s room, Hop Sing was sponging Adam’s face, neck, and chest to try to relieve the fever. Ben sat to one side and held his son’s hand. Even though Adam was not conscious, he was not in a restful state. He was grimacing and rolled his head from side to side, but there was no sound except for his labored breathing.

The three men stayed in the room after Hop Sing left. Ben and Hoss alternated on applying cool cloths to Adam’s brow. They sat on opposite sides of the bed. Joe finally talked when he acknowledged that if Adam did blame him, it was true.

“I was stupid. When he walked into the restaurant for breakfast, I asked him if he had the bank draft for the sale of the horses we brought in. He told me quickly not to say anything but I guess the damage was already done. Those men bushwhacked us only about five miles out of Carson. I’m fifteen years old. I shoulda known better.”

“Pa, look at Adam. Joe, keep talking.”

Adam had stopped his restless movements. There was no grimace. He couldn’t be understanding the words, but Joe talking had captured his attention.

“I was glad when Adam agreed to take me with him to help with the horses. I thought he finally was treating me like a man and trusting me. We got along great on the trip. We talked and even laughed some.”

The more Joe talked, the more restful Adam became.

“Then when those men came out with guns, Adam pulled his out of his holster and dropped it and told me to drop mine. They made us get off our horses, and asked Adam where the bank draft was. He said in his boot and they pulled both his boots off and then pulled off his jacket too. One guy said he was thinking those boots and the jacket would look good on him so he took them. They said they didn’t take mine ’cause my stuff wouldn’t fit anyone. Then they tied us up and started drinking. They got louder and louder. I heard one say that he learned a fun game the ‘injuns’ played some time. After a bit, they came and took Adam away to a tree and tied his arms to an overhanging branch. Then they tied my hands and my feet then ran a rope between the two. I couldn’t see what was happening. They took me over there by Adam after a couple of hours and asked Adam that question he wouldn’t answer.”

Adam was now laying in the most peaceful state they had seen since his rescue. They encouraged Joe to keep talking.

“Well, after they left us there, I got my feet loose and then went to some rocks and rubbed until my wrists were free too. It was almost dark by then. They had left a campfire, so after I got Adam loose, I took him there and got more wood for the fire. We didn’t have any blankets cause they took the horses so I got some pine branches and such to cover us up for the night and I made sure we had a lot of wood. That’s how you found us the next morning. That’s the first I knew that Adam was hurt that bad. I couldn’t tell in the dark.”

Adam had slipped into a restful state and was unconscious or in a deep sleep. The men continued their vigil.

Hoss explained to Joe how they had found them. “When those yahoos brought your horses into Carson, the horses were recognized. ‘Cause you two weren’t with em, some men let the sheriff know. With one of em wearing Adam’s jacket, it wasn’t too hard to figure out what happened. They arrested them for horse theft and then found the bank draft on one of em. The sheriff in Carson wired Roy and he got us. We rode from here and the Carson sheriff rode from there. When we didn’t find you right away; we figured there had to be a camp or something they had made in the hills so we started searching. Pa spotted the smoke coming up and that’s when we found you. At first it looked like two piles of brush by a campfire until we saw your arm snaking outta one and adding some wood to the fire.”

Joe and his brother and father remembered then the frantic activity that had ensued. Joe was very cold, but when they pulled the brush from Adam, he looked dead. It was only his ragged shallow breathing that indicated he was alive. He was cold and both pants legs and both sleeves of his shirt were soggy with blood, and more had seeped into the ground beneath him. They bandaged his wounds and wrapped him in blankets as they tried to warm him. When they could, they got him to drink sips of hot coffee. Eventually, Hoss had held him in front of him on Chubb and brought him back to the house. Eerily, through all of it, Adam had remained silent. Doctor Martin had said there was no damage to stop him from speaking or even screaming as the situation warranted. Yet, for some reason, Adam was choosing silence.

*****

Adam had known as soon as Joe yelled about the bank draft that they might have trouble. He had thought about taking the stage instead, but decided it would likely be just as risky. He tried to be alert and had hidden the bank draft in his boot, but having to protect his fifteen-year-old brother weighed heavily on his mind. When the four outlaws came out with guns drawn, Adam knew it was an impossible situation. Fighting back would likely get Joe killed as he had only recently gotten the privilege of wearing a sidearm when traveling but wasn’t practiced with it yet. Giving up was likely not much better but gave him more time to think of something to do. So they took the bank draft and his jacket and boots. He and Joe were tied. He had expected them to take off then with their bounty, but instead, two of them pulled bottles out of their saddlebags and prepared to have lunch. They didn’t give their captives food or water. It was clear that they had no concern if they lived or died. It was likely they were going to be left to die. They kept him far enough away from Joe so they could not converse without being overheard. What that made clear was that these men had done this kind of thing before.

Sitting closer to the campfire and the four outlaws, Adam was able to overhear most of their conversation. It was chilling especially when they discussed the ‘game’ one of them had supposedly learned about;  Adam thought it sounded just as likely it was from someone’s imagination. When they stood, he knew that they were going to play their ‘game’ and he insulted them quietly but forcefully. “When are you going to let us go, you hump backed whoreson?”

Adam wanted them to focus on him and not look at Joe. It worked. He was untied and kicked and pummeled, and then just as quickly, his arms were tied to a branch up above. They pulled the ropes so taut that only his toes were on the ground. The pressure on his wrists and hands was intense. Without his coat and his boots, he was cold, and his muscles were tight.

“You make a sound before that sun goes down, and the little pretty one gets his throat slit. We’ll let him lie here in front of you and bleed out. It’s up to you. What do you say to that?”

Adam had remained silent, and the men had laughed uproariously. They were already enjoying their ‘game’ immensely. One walked up behind Adam and jabbed a knife into his thigh. He nearly bit through his lip with that but made not a sound. There were three more jabs before they tired of that and went back for a little more liquid refreshment. One of them walked over about an hour later. He had stared into Adam’s face and Adam had done his best not to show anything. He was already weakening from blood loss though and wasn’t sure if he could maintain his resolve until he looked over at his baby brother hog-tied. Then he knew he had to.

“You ain’t so tough.”

The man walked over to the tree and looked about for a while until he selected a stout piece of wood. He came back and held it in front of Adam’s face. Then laughing, he stepped back and swung at Adam’s arm. Luckily he was nearly drunk and the blow lacked the force it might have had if he had been sober, but even so the sound of a bone breaking was clear. Adam nearly fainted with that one but held on. He knew that if he did lose consciousness, his body might betray him and he might moan or scream.

It had seemed the outlaws tired of the game until Adam saw them walk over and untie Joe’s feet. They marched Joe over to stand in front of him.

“Now, mister tough guy. All we gotta hear is you say you love this pretty little one you got here, and we’ll let you go. Heck, we’ll even give your stuff back to you. Say it nice enough and you get it all.”

The men snickered as Adam stood silently. Joe had looked imploringly at Adam, but he couldn’t say a word. If he did, Joe would die. A man was standing directly behind Joe with a knife in his hand and smiling. Adam wanted to scream at them. He wanted to reassure his brother that he loved him and would do anything for him. The anguished look in Joe’s eyes was tearing him apart inside. All he could do was adopt that iron control he had been learning since he was a child. One of the men walked over and leaned in to Adam as he grasped his broken left forearm.

“C’mon now, just three little words and we let you both go. Say it! I love you. That’s all. Guess he don’t matter much to you if you can’t even say those words to save your life. You stubborn fool!”

The pain was overwhelming and Adam almost screamed. Instead he closed his eyes and tried to think of anything except the agony in his arm and the throbbing pain from both thighs and upper arms where he had been stabbed. He knew his wounds were not fatal. He thought if he could just bore them enough with their game, they might leave. His memory of what followed was hazy at best. He remembered unbelievable pain, but kept his resolve to remain silent. He would do nothing to endanger his little brother’s life.

Adam’s silence had been the only chance the two of them had, and it worked. The outlaws had retied Joe’s feet, and left the two of them there to die. Joe had looked up at his brother suspended from the branch and saw that his eyes were still closed. Whether it was voluntary or if he had passed out, he couldn’t tell. Once he freed himself, Joe managed to get Adam down and dragged him to the campfire. That night, he thought angrily that he would save his brother’s life, even if his brother had refused a chance to save his.

*****

As Joe took his turns sitting by Adam’s side for the next day, he kept coming back to that scene with Adam closing his eyes instead of declaring his love for his brother. Late the day after their rescue, Joe thought he saw some signs that Adam was waking or getting closer to waking. He didn’t want to be there when that happened.

“Adam, I just want you to know I forgive you for what you did. You’re my brother and I’m sorry you don’t love me. I guess I’m just that pesky little brother you have to put up with. I don’t understand why you did what you did. Don’t worry, though. You won’t have to talk to me or nothing. I’ll stay as far away from you as I can so you won’t have to be bothered with me. In a year or two, maybe I’ll be leaving here, and then you won’t have to look at me at all.”

Joe got up and left the room leaving the door ajar. He knocked on Hoss’ door because it was his turn next. Hoss opened the door almost immediately and asked if anything was wrong, but Joe just said it was Hoss’ turn, and he needed some sleep. As Hoss entered Adam’s room, he could see that Adam was stirring. As he got closer, Hoss saw the tracks of a few tears on his face.

“Adam, you gonna wake up for me? Adam, c’mon now, you scared us all enough. Just open them pretty eyes of yours, would you?”

Adam’s eyelids fluttered and then slowly opened. With a voice weak from his ordeal and strained with his dry throat, Adam managed to whisper ‘Hoss’ which got the big man to sport one of those room brightening smiles he had.

“Just don’t do anything now, you hear. Just keep those eyes open. I gotta get Pa and Joe. I’ll be right back.”

Hoss went to the hall and yelled for his father and brother and then quickly re-entered the room. Ben came rushing into the room wearing just his nightshirt. When he saw Adam’s eyes open, he grinned as widely as Hoss had. “Can we do anything for you, Adam?”

“Water.”

“Of course.”

Hoss slipped his arm carefully behind Adam’s right side and pulled him upright. Ben tipped a glass of water to his lips and let him sip slowly from it. When the glass was empty, Hoss lowered Adam back into the pillows.

From that point, Adam’s recovery proceeded well. Doctor Martin was pleased by his progress and glad to hear him speaking. It was an enigma to him why Adam had made no sound at first, but the young man was reserved as usual, with no comment to explain the situation. Now that he was talking again, no one seemed that interested in why he had not at first, just assuming it had to do with his traumatic injuries. Joe refused to visit Adam, and would only enter his room to bring him meals when ordered to do so.

Adam did his usual thing in reaction to Joe’s behavior:  he blamed himself. If he hadn’t asked Joe to come with him or if he had handled things differently, Joe would not have suffered through the ordeal. It took many days before Adam could walk down the stairs without help. At the dining table, someone had to cut his meat so that he could eat. After about two weeks, the wounds had healed sufficiently that he lost the stiff walk and was able to do more and more. Gradually, he began assisting with chores and helping with other tasks as he could. Riding was too painful so he stayed near the ranch house.

Joe volunteered for any task on the ranch that meant he didn’t have to work with Adam. Joe was struggling with a mixture of guilt, regret, and hurt. What he knew of his brother and what he had witnessed just didn’t seem to fit now that he was no longer angry and upset. But Adam’s refusal to say he loved him had hurt immensely and he had struck back, trying to give the same as he got. He didn’t know how to talk to anyone about it. He knew his father was disappointed in him, and he knew he was probably hurting his brother with his behavior, but he couldn’t face either one of them. His solution was avoiding Adam. Ben tried to interfere with that, but Adam told him not to try to change things, as Joe had a right to feel the way he did. Not wanting to add more to what Adam had already suffered, Ben let it ride. But he planned to do something soon if Joe didn’t come around.

Things remained tense, and then word arrived that the circuit court judge was due in Carson and the trial of the four outlaws would commence in two days. The trial had been postponed because the prosecutor wanted Adam’s testimony, and he had been too ill to travel before when the judge had been available. Now the four of them would go to Carson City for the trial. The trip there was as tense as anything had been at home. Adam spoke to Ben and Hoss. Joe spoke to Ben and Hoss. But Joe never spoke to Adam.

*****

In Carson City, the four Cartwrights were joined by Roy Coffee. He was to take the stand and testify about how Adam and Joe had been found, and what injuries they had sustained. The Carson City sheriff would testify to the stolen items found in possession of the four outlaws.

After the opening statements at the trial, Adam was called to the stand. He was asked about the chronology of events. The questions began with how they had been accosted by four armed men and then robbed, and Adam was asked to identify the men and he pointed to the four at the defense table. The questions proceeded with how they were tied, and then with how Adam had been wounded and injured. There were gasps from the gallery as the cold blooded nature of his torture was explained. Adam’s dispassionate tone made the testimony less effective, though, and the prosecutor looked at his family and Roy Coffee more than once in frustration. On cross examination, Adam was asked why he didn’t fight back, and he explained it was to protect his brother. But the defense lawyer responded and asked if it wasn’t just because he was afraid. It was clear he did what he could to discredit Adam as a witness. It didn’t work, but Joe cringed because he believed it might have been true, at least that one time.

Joe had to testify next, and most of his testimony was similar to Adam’s, but he could not testify to the wounds and injury to Adam. Joe was passionate in his testimony and had some in the gallery wiping tears from their eyes as he testified to what the outlaws had done. When he explained that they had no blankets and he had to get brush to cover them so they wouldn’t freeze, many turned their eyes toward the four defendants and wished them the worst. The prosecutor smiled at Joe’s family as he finished his examination, because Joe had done very well. The defense lawyer asked Joe only a few questions and they were primarily about Adam’s demeanor. Joe was excused, and when he sat by his father, Ben had to wrap an arm around his shoulders and whisper to him how well he had done. This had been a hard task for a teenager, and one that many adult men would have found difficult. Joe’s anger at the four outlaws had sustained him, but as he sat after testifying, he clenched his fists to control the shaking of his hands.

Then Roy explained the condition of Adam and Joe when they were found. Finally, the Carson City sheriff testified to finding first the horses of the two men and Adam’s jacket in the possession of the four defendants and then finding the bank draft on them. The prosecutor wrapped up his case in late afternoon. He had a strong case but worried about what the defense would do the next day. From the questions asked so far, it seemed they might be targeting Adam somehow. Court was adjourned and would reconvene at nine the next morning. The prosecutor asked Ben and Roy to keep Adam out of the courtroom the next morning if they could. If they began to attack his character and he reacted violently, it could hurt his standing with the jury and weaken the case.

Adam reacted angrily to the suggestion but finally acquiesced. The next morning, Adam did not join his family and Roy for breakfast. The three Cartwrights and Roy headed to the courthouse just before nine. When they entered the courtroom, they were surprised to see a soldier with sergeant’s stripes sitting with the prosecutor. Also conversing with the prosecutor was the youngest of the defendants and a lawyer they did not recognize. When they entered, the prosecutor called them over to explain a new development. They agreed to it, although Joe didn’t like it.

The first order of business for the day was the prosecutor asking to reopen his case which the judge agreed he could do as the defense had not started yet. He called the youngest defendant, Josh, to the stand and explained he was testifying to plead for mercy from the court. Josh began by telling how they had overheard Joe in the restaurant talking about a bank draft. Seeing how the two men were dressed, his brother had assured them that this would be a lucrative job. He went with his brother because he had to. His parents had died and his brother had custody of him. He testified to the robbery and tying up Adam and Joe. Then he explained about the drinking his brother and the other two had done and the ‘game’ they decided to play. He said how Adam had insulted his brother which had drawn attention away from Joe, who had been the one they originally had planned to torture. As Adam had resisted them, he explained what they had done to try to break him until they tired of trying.

“They told him if he talked, they’d slit the younger one’s throat.  But, your honor, I didn’t do none of those things. I did hold a gun on those men and I helped tie them up, but I never hurt no man who was tied up. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop them. They would have soon as killed me as anybody. All I ever wanted to do was join the army, but as I’m just sixteen, my brother would have to sign for me, and he wouldn’t.”

With the damning testimony of one of their own added to the testimony of the day before, the defense had nothing to say. The jury never left the room. The men leaned in to the middle, and once they broke the huddle, they announced ‘guilty’ on all counts for all four when the judge asked. At that point, the attorney for Josh stood and asked for mercy from the court, and to please sentence Josh to twenty years in the Army instead of prison. The judge asked the sergeant to stand and asked if he would accept Josh under these circumstances.

“We’ll take him, your honor, and we’ll make a good man out of him.”

“So ruled!”

The other three defendants were sentenced to twenty years each in Nevada State Prison. It was finally over. Joe sat in shock. At fifteen, he had never experienced anything like this. The turmoil of his emotions had him frozen. There was self-recrimination and self-loathing for how he had underestimated his brother and then how he had treated him. What he had seen for cowardice and indifference was instead, he had learned, an amazing display of courage. He needed to see Adam and talk to him, but was ashamed and also afraid Adam might not want to talk with him after how he had acted. He talked to his Pa and Hoss as tears rolled down his face.

“Now, Joe, don’t go underestimating our brother again. He’s got a big heart. He’s been hurt, but he’s been hurt before, and he can handle it.”

“Son, we’ll be there with you. We’ll help you, both of you. Adam knows you’re fifteen and that explains a lot of your behavior, even if you don’t want to hear that.”

Both Ben and Hoss had been shocked to hear the details of Adam’s ordeal. Ben was furious that men could do that to another man as a ‘game’ and wished that their sentences had been much more harsh. Hoss was aghast as well, but he was hurting more inside for what his older brother had endured during the torture and then after. The three of them returned to the hotel to see Adam but he wasn’t there. They checked in the restaurant and nearby saloons but couldn’t find him. Finally Hoss took a look at the livery stable where their horses were, and returned quickly to say that Sport wasn’t there. Adam had ridden out at about nine that morning, according to the stable man. It was already afternoon, but Ben and his sons rode for home. They didn’t want to delay talking with Adam.

When they reached the Ponderosa, they found he wasn’t there and no one had seen him. All wondered where he could be and worried about him. Darkness had fallen and there was nothing they could think of doing until the next day.

*****

Early the next morning, before first light, each thinking he would be the first one up, Hoss, Joe, and Ben met downstairs. No one had slept well.

“Pa, I think I know where he would be. That line shack up in the northwest pastures is where he went to hunt alone or to meet Numaga when they would hunt and fish. Remember, he calls it Waha’yoo Nana. It is still something important to him. I bet he went there. I can be there by noon if I was to leave now.”

“Well, Hoss, that’s one place to check. But he could be in Virginia City too.”

“Pa, Adam, don’t go where there’s a lot of people when he’s troubled. He usually goes someplace alone.”

“Except what if he’s trying to forget? Then a saloon might be the place he seeks.”

“I cain’t see Adam drinking as a way out of this. He’s gonna ponder it some and get it all straight in his head. But it wouldn’t hurt to have someone there who cares and makes sure he’s all right.”

Joe had remained silent as he listened to their reasoning. He thought Hoss had it pegged.  “Pa, I can’t look in saloons or nothing, but I could ride to the line shack to see if Adam is there. You and Hoss could check the saloons and anywhere else you think he might have gone.”

Both Ben and Hoss weren’t sure that Joe was the right one to go. How would Adam receive him after all that had happened, or rather had not happened, over the past few weeks? Adam had to be suffering yet and neither man thought it prudent to create a situation in which he could be hurt more.

“Look, I think I know what you’re thinking. But I’m the one who made this worse for my brother. Let me go and see if I can make it better. The way I’ve been acting, you don’t really think I could make it worse, do you?”

At their nods, Joe continued. “I have a lot to say to Adam, and I’ll take whatever he has to say to me. No matter how bad it is, I deserve it. Heck, if I was him, I’d want to tan me good for the way I acted. Not that I want him to do that, but I would understand.”

Ben was proud of his sensitive, impulsive young son at that point. “Joe, you are really starting to grow up. Yes, I think you can go. If it is too much, though, you have to leave and come back here to get Hoss or me, is that understood?”

“Yes, sir. Ahh, Pa, how do I know if it’s too much?”

“You know your brother well enough to know if you’re getting through to him or making it worse.”

“Yes, yes, I think I do. All right, Pa. I can do that.”

Hop Sing prepared a large sack of food and some basic items they might need, Ben added a couple of books he thought Adam might want, and Hoss handed Joe a harmonica. Joe took a feed bag with grain and added it to the load. Then Joe mounted up on Cochise, who didn’t seem happy with all the extra weight. With a wave to his family, he headed out to find his brother.

Ben and Hoss mounted their horses for a ride to town that was likely to be fruitless but had to be done to be sure. It didn’t take long to find that Adam had not been in Virginia City at all. Once they realized that, they began hoping that Joe was up to the task he had chosen.

Joe found success at least in finding Adam. As soon as he neared the line shack, he smelled wood smoke and just knew he would be there. As he rode closer, Joe saw Sport in the small corral. There was fresh grass there for him and a bucket of water. When Joe knocked on the door of the line shack, though, there was no answer. Now he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know if entering without being asked was going to make things worse or if leaving without even talking with Adam would be worse than that. As he stood there thinking about what he should do next, he was frightened into dropping what he was carrying by the voice behind him.

“Going to just stand there?”

“Damn, Adam, Hoss always says you’re part Paiute the way you can sneak up on a man, and I think he’s right.”

“Why don’t you open the door and go in.”

Adam followed Joe into the shack. It was in good condition, and nice and warm with a fire going in the fireplace. Adam had a stringer of two large fish that already been gutted. He hung them on metal hooks in front of the fire after adding some wood to the blaze there. Joe set the bag of food, some seasonings, the books, and the harmonica on the table. Adam looked over the items there and nodded. “Thanks. Those items will come in handy.”

“How did you catch those fish? You don’t have a pole.”

“I’ll show you tomorrow. There’s enough for two for today, unless Hoss is on his way too.”

“Nah, just me. Hey, how come you’re not surprised I’m talking with you?”

“You wouldn’t have come if you weren’t ready to talk. After you get yourself settled and you get Cochise in the corral, we can have lunch and talk if you want.”

Joe got his saddlebag and rifle and put them on the second bunk. He put his saddle next to Adam’s behind the door. Then he went outside and settled Cochise in the corral with Sport. He walked to the meadow and gathered up some grass for him to eat. He filled the bucket with water from the nearby stream and set it between the two. Then he walked back inside. Adam had some potatoes, onions, and bacon simmering on the stove and the fish were baking by the fire. The aroma was enticing. “Hey, I didn’t know you could cook.”

“As far as anyone knows, I can’t. Remember that. I don’t want to get stuck cooking every time Hop Sing is gone.”

“So that’s why when you cook at home, it’s always eggs, bacon, and beans.”

Adam smiled that crooked smile of his. Joe got two plates and forks and put them on the table. Soon he would have to start talking, and it was making him nervous.

“You’re jumpier than the bacon in that pan. Just sit. I won’t bite, no matter what you have to say. Here, you can serve the potatoes. It’s hard to do that with one arm in a splint. I’ll get the fish. Pour some water too if you would.”

Soon they were eating fish and potatoes. Adam looked over at Joe and nodded. “You can start anytime you want. You might want to tell me what changed.”

So Joe told him about Josh and his testimony, and how he went into the Army instead of to prison. He told him that the jury took no time at all in making its decision and that the other three got the maximum sentence.

“So everyone knows now?”

“Well, yes, of course they do. Is there something wrong with that?”

“I just wish I had done things differently. If we had taken the stage, maybe nothing would have happened.”

“And maybe more people would have been hurt or even killed. You can’t do a what-if here. You did your best. We’re both still alive, and I wanted to thank you for what you did. I need to tell you too how sorry I am for what I said and how I treated you. I was being a real jackass and I’ve got no excuse.”

“Sure you do. You’re fifteen.”

“That’s no excuse and you know it.”

“It is and it isn’t. Thank you for your apology. But you need to remember that you have a lot to learn yet. I do too, and I’m twelve years older than you. We can’t help who we are, but we can alter the way we act toward others. You’re learning that.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.

At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.

And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth.

And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part.”

“Shakespeare?”

Adam nodded as he cleared the table of the plates and forks. The he refilled their cups with cool water he had carried in from the mountain stream.

“Yes, I think I understood that one, though. We grow up in stages and each time, we have to learn how to act to fit in and be that person, but then we have to learn again for the next stage. So you’re saying that what happened to us was a learning thing, especially for me.”

Adam nodded impressed that Joe had understood. “C’mon, let’s go outside and enjoy the sun while it lasts. It gets cold here by late afternoon as soon as the sun dips behind those mountains.”

Adam picked up one of the books as he was leaving and asked Joe if he wanted the other. Joe said no, and then opened his saddlebag to get the dime novel he had brought along. Adam shook his head and headed outside.

*****

The next morning, Adam tried to teach Joe how to catch fish by hand. The lesson didn’t go well. Adam laid on the bank with his sleeve rolled up to his bicep and his arm submerged in the stream. He was absolutely still and said nothing, even as Joe asked him some questions. He laid there for perhaps twenty minutes and suddenly grabbed for a fish, rolled back, and tossed the fish toward Joe. “Now that is how you do it. You can’t move, you can’t talk until the fish almost swims into your hand and then you grab and throw.”

“Adam, I think if I had to do that, I would starve to death. How can you not move for that long?”

“It’s true then, I suppose.”

“What’s true?”

“Numaga told me that we are like animals. I am the cougar, Hoss is the wolf, and you are the coyote. I wanted to be the wolf but he said the wolf enjoys the company of others always and is fierce as part of the group. You always know the wolves are around because they howl, and they eat a lot. The cougar likes to spend time alone and hunts alone, moving quietly through his area, always watching, always learning. Did you know that the cougar’s territory can be many hundreds of miles?”

“Why am I the coyote?”

“The coyote is the trickster which ought to be explanation enough, but the coyote is always moving, never stopping and standing.”

“Yeah but you live here and you don’t go traveling all over the place.”

“But I want to, and I mean to someday.”

“Adam, what do you mean? You’ll leave?”

“Someday, I want to travel. I came back after college because Pa needed me, because I wanted to be with my brothers as they grew up. Well, you are almost a man already, and soon you and Hoss will be all the help that Pa needs.”

“What about the Ponderosa? How could you ever leave it? It’s home.”

“Joe, it’s only one of the homes I’ve had. For a long time, I had no home. I lived out of a wagon for months at a time until I was nearly seven. There were many towns we lived in briefly. Then we built the first cabin here before we built the house we have now. You were born here, raised here, you have boxes of toys and childhood possessions in the attic to save for your children, your mother is buried here. None of that is true for me.”

“Hey, don’t you have toys and stuff up there too?”

“No, Joe, I never had any toys. There wasn’t money for things like that and not much room in a wagon for frivolous things.”

Joe was amazed by that. He had never known. “Don’t you want to stay here, get married, have children, and pass on the Ponderosa to them?”

“Maybe, someday, but I’m not married yet. Soon, the only ones for me will be widows and spinsters unless I marry someone much younger, and she would have to be very special for me to do that.”

“But where would you go?”

“Europe, maybe, but I have always been intrigued by Australia so maybe there.”

“You’ve been thinking about this for a while then?”

“Yes, and I don’t plan to leave soon, but someday, I think I will. It will be hard to leave, so I can’t be certain I can make that break.”

“Adam, I’ve got one last question and if you don’t want to answer, it’s all right. How did you do it? I would have been so afraid if I was the one who had to stay silent or watch them slit your throat. How do you stop fear?”

Adam hesitated. It was hard to bare your soul to another, especially one like Joe, who was so impressionable. He wanted to say it right. “I was afraid, very afraid.”

Joe was very surprised. “I didn’t think you were ever afraid. I thought you were a brave man. Then when this happened, it seemed you were afraid and I was as upset by that as anything.

“I was afraid. I am often afraid. Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. You don’t control fear and you can’t make it go away. You just don’t let your fear control you. You make up your mind to do what you have to do, and then you do it, and the fear is part of what pushes you to do it right. Fear can be a great motivator. You just have to keep it in its place.”

Joe sat for a time lost in thought. Adam leaned down to catch another fish now that his arm and hand had warmed some. The water was frigid. He wanted to bathe too but it was too cold. They would head home today after lunch. It was time. He and Joe had more healing to do, but much had been accomplished in a short time. They knew they loved each other and wouldn’t question that again. Joe asked him again about those lines from Shakespeare and he repeated them.

Joe and Adam had lunch, packed up, and began riding home. Joe turned in the saddle to point down the slope. Heading slowly in their direction were Pa and Hoss. Staying at home worrying had gotten to them and they were headed out to see if they were needed. The four joined up and rode home. Ben asked how things had gone, and Joe said he learned something.

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. “

Ben and Hoss decided it must have gone very well if Adam had gotten Joe to learn a little Shakespeare. Once at home, Joe volunteered to draw a bath for Adam, and Adam graciously accepted. Hop Sing outdid himself with dinner, and the four men had much to discuss.

*****

The work at the Ponderosa had to switch into high gear during Thanksgiving week as the weather was unseasonably cold and wet. Hoss and Adam were riding daily with crews of men to move cattle into lower pastures and then having to move them again sometimes as pastures flooded or became too soggy to support the size of herds there. As Christmas approached, the weather turned even colder, and the work wasn’t finished yet. Instead of cold and wet, they returned to the house just very cold.

With travel becoming hazardous with icy roads, the Christmas break from school started early. Joe was thrilled about that but not so thrilled to have to go to work each day in the unpleasant weather. He was even less thrilled when Adam reminded him to wear two pair of long underwear, two shirts under his jacket, and to remember his scarf and gloves and bring his slicker.

“Yes, sir, mister bossy pants, granite-headed brother.”

“Joseph!”

“Pa, he knows I love him, but that doesn’t mean I have to like taking orders from him.”

Adam just shook his head as he and Hoss left the house. Ben looked sternly at Joe, but he too had to shake his head and grin once the boy was out of the house. That son of his had an irrepressible spirit.

Out in the pasture, the three brothers soon found a major problem. Three heifers were mired in a muddy pond of runoff. The looked at each other, hoping someone would volunteer to go in and push while the others used rope to pull. Hoss finally did, but Adam objected.

“If you get hurt or too cold to ride, we’ll never get you on horse to ride back home. One of us should do it.”

“All right, pick a number from one to three.”

“Two.”

“You’re it.”

Adam groaned and started to get out of the saddle. Joe remembered that only two weeks earlier Adam had been in bed for a few days fighting a nasty cold. This could cause a relapse. “No, Adam. I’ll do it. It’s my first day out, and you two have been doing this stuff for weeks. Guess it really should be my turn.”

“Thank you, brother, and that is an offer I will not turn down.”

Hoss and Adam pulled their lariats free and lassoed two of the heifers as Joe stripped down for the dirty work. After they finished, and Joe dressed, he was shivering almost uncontrollably. They rode back to the house with him and asked Hop Sing to draw a warm bath for him. After lunch, Adam and Hoss went back outside to head out again. Suddenly they heard the door bang shut behind them.

“Can you picture Pa’s face right now?”

Adam and Hoss had to laugh. Joe came running up.

“Hey, why are you two laughing? You weren’t going to leave without me, were you? I’m all warmed up now.”

“No, not at all. Hoss and I were hoping you would join us in case there’s another mud hole with some of our stock in it.”

“Hey, Adam, next one is yours.”

The three brothers rode out and continued to work hard all week. By Friday, the weather was starting to break and there was a lot of thawing. Joe asked them if they planned to go to the holiday barn dance in town and was faced with incredulous looks by his two older brothers.

“What, you don’t want to go?”

“Not at all, little brother, Hoss and I were just wondering if the cold had frozen your brain. A chance to get away from all these cattle and be in a nice warm barn dancing with some pretty gals…”

“Yeah, and eating some of them fine vittles and drinking some of that special punch Pa always provides.”

So that evening, the three brothers and their father dressed in their best and then wrapped themselves inside their heavy winter coats and set off for Virginia City. The dance was very well attended. There were many who wanted to celebrate a little, especially because the weather had kept them home for so long already. With winter looming, they needed one last fling before the winter doldrums.

As the four Cartwrights walked to the dance from the livery where they had stabled their horses because of the cold, Hoss poked Adam in the shoulder. “Hey ain’t that pretty little Mary Ann who dumped you so she could be with Slim Harkness? They do make a fine looking couple don’t you think?”

All that got was a scowl from Adam, but laughter from the others.

“That woman has very poor taste. I’m lucky to be rid of her.”

That only brought more laughter, and the attention of the aforementioned couple. Mary Ann sent an inviting smile Adam’s way, and as Slim noticed, he grimaced. Once inside, Adam forgot all about Mary Ann as there were many lovely ladies with whom to dance. Joe managed to get quite a few dances, although Ben frowned a bit as most were older than his son. Hoss started spending most of his time with a tall, full figured woman as they moved between dance floor and refreshment table with some regularity.

Adam was standing next to them when he was approached by Mary Ann.

“Well, Adam, are you avoiding me?”

“Not at all, but I believe you were escorted here tonight by another, and I wouldn’t want to make trouble.”

“Well, one little dance can’t cause any trouble now, could it?”

Unfortunately for Adam and happily for Mary Ann, the next dance was a slow one. Adam tried to maintain a formal position with her, but she kept pressing closer to him. He was glad when the dance was over, but Mary Ann wanted to continue.

“Adam, I never should have turned you out. I was upset at how little time we got to spend together, and Slim lives here in town and wanted to be with me all the time. What I didn’t realize because I was such a fool is that he just isn’t that much fun to be with. The few times we could be together were so much better.”

“I’m sorry, Mary Ann, but you made your choice. Now if you will excuse me.”

Adam took her hand to kiss her goodbye, but he got spun around by Slim who demanded he draw.

“Slim, I don’t have a gun. Why don’t we just forget about it? It was just a dance.”

“Oh yeah, I saw you too dancing all close and such. Then you were gonna kiss her hand. Well I have heard enough about you to last me a bunch of lifetimes. ‘Oh Adam, would do this or that’. I’m sick of it and sick of you. Now meet me outside like a man or you gonna stay in here like a coward and hide behind her skirts?”

Well, there was no way Adam could ignore that. It was an insult to suggest he had no courage. He had to answer the charge. “I’ll meet you outside but no guns.  We can settle this without guns.”

The whole crowd had become silent witnesses to the confrontation.  The only one smiling was Mary Ann, who just loved the thought that two men were going to fight over her.  The idea that one might die if they did have a gunfight didn’t seem to matter to her.  Adam noted her smile and again was grateful he was no longer seeing her.  Slim stormed off outside and Adam slowly followed with Hoss right behind him.  They didn’t want to be surprised by what the angry man had in mind.

Joe wanted to go too, but Ben stayed him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Pa, is Adam afraid?”

“Yes, I think he is.”

“But why?  He’s so fast with a gun, he could take Slim with no problem.”

“That’s what he’s probably afraid of. He doesn’t want to kill him, especially over something so trivial.”

Soon there were sounds of a fight outside. After it went on for quite a while, Ben pushed his way outside to see what was happening. Joe followed in his wake. What they saw was that Adam and Slim had bloodied and bruised each other. They were standing, though, just trying to catch their breath by the time Ben and Joe arrived.

“You know, Slim, the only one enjoying this fight is Mary Ann.”

“I know. I saw her grinning when you said you wanted to fight me, and now she’s standing off to the side there smiling like this is the greatest thing ever.”

“How about if the two of us go over to the Silver Dollar and get a drink?”

“Sounds good to me. You buying?”

“Why should I buy?”

“Well, you was the first with Mary Ann so I think we could say you started it.”

Adam started laughing, even if it did hurt a bit. Slim followed with loud guffaws. Soon a lot of the crowd was laughing too except for Mary Ann, who walked off in a huff. That made the two former antagonists laugh so hard they had to hang on to each other so they wouldn’t fall down. Ben shook his head and walked back inside. Joe tried to understand what had happened, but for the life of him, it didn’t make sense. He asked Hoss, but Hoss said he’d understand someday and let it go at that.

Joe was trying to understand this thing about being a man, being mature, and being brave by conquering your fear but there seemed to be so many contradictory messages, it was all very confusing. So he was left indefinitely with the question why two men would fight, but instead of one winning, they started laughing and then went to have a drink together. He was learning about the stages of life but the one his oldest brother was in was sure complicated.

*****

When Christmas Eve morning rolled around, Adam still had those rainbow colors on his face, although the swelling had gone. Ben still looked at him with a hint of disapproval every time he sat at the dining table, so Adam was hoping the rest would fade away soon. The day before, the three brothers had gotten a tree and boughs to decorate the house. On Christmas Eve day, there was a flurry of activity as they decorated the tree and the house. That evening, they would visit the orphanage with presents and would sing songs with the children. Once they returned home, they would share in Christmas season treats and beverages. Christmas morning was the time to share gifts from under the tree before close friends would be there to celebrate the day.

All went well on Christmas Eve and everyone settled in for a good night’s sleep, except of course for Joe. Even at fifteen, his enthusiasm for Christmas had failed to diminish and perhaps was even more pronounced this year. He and Hoss and their father had chipped in to buy a special present for Adam, and Joe couldn’t sleep as he anticipated the look on his brother’s face when he got it. As soon as there was a hint of dawn in the sky, Joe was dressed and heading to the stable to do chores. These were probably the only days of the year when he got up this early on his own and then did his chores willingly. He got up so early, he decided to do Adam’s and Hoss’ as well so nothing could delay the morning’s proceedings — breakfast and then presents. In the house, Adam and Hoss were sipping cups of coffee in front of the warm fire.

“Do you suppose he’s got our chores done yet?”

“If not, soon so we should probably grab our jackets and look like we’re heading in that direction.”

“Adam, do you ever feel guilty about letting him do our chores for us every Christmas Eve and Christmas morning? Nah, forget I asked, ’cause we done his enough on a lot of other days of the year.”

Adam shrugged into his jacket and leaned on the credenza to finish his cup of coffee. He was counting on Joe making enough noise coming that they could be ready for him; he was, so they were.

Joe had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face as he entered. “My Christmas present to you two. I finished the chores.”

“Well, thank you, brother. That was a nice gift.”

“I hope that isn’t all of it. I did see all those boxes under the tree.”

“Course not, Adam; that was just a little extra for you guys. You help me out a lot so I’m repaying the favor.”

As they turned the corner to the dining table, Ben sat with a small grin on his face and nodded at his sons as they sat. He wondered how many years it would take for Joe to know what his brothers did to him every Christmas Eve morning and every Christmas morning. Well, there was no harm in it, so he would let the tradition continue. After breakfast, the four headed to the tree. Adam would announce the recipient for the gifts he pulled from under the tree, and Joe would hand the gifts out. Ben got pipe tobacco and a new pipe, and Hoss was thrilled with a collection of carving tools he got. The first box Joe opened was from Hoss and was filled with ammunition for his pistol. The second was a gift from Adam and was a large packet of paper targets. Joe was having a hard time not expressing his disappointment with his gifts until he opened the last one. Inside the box was another box and a ‘surprise’ message signed by his father and his two brothers. Joe opened the box to find a new pistol with ivory grips. His father and brothers were chuckling at his surprise.

“If you’re going to be carrying one, it ought to be something you’re going to keep for a long time and not that old one of mine. You’ll get used to the weight and the feel of it and you’ll be more accurate that way.”

“Thanks, Adam. You can have your old one back now, if you like. Thanks, Pa. Thanks, Hoss. This is what I was dreaming of getting but I didn’t really think it would happen.”

“Just remember to follow those lessons Adam taught you. I taught him so I know he taught you as I would have. And practice, but safely. You can wear it when you leave the house, but put it in your saddlebags when you’re at school. It is not a toy to show off to your friends.”

“I will, Pa, I will, and I won’t.”

Adam had convinced his father, after the ordeal that he and Joe had faced, that they might have had a chance to get out of it if Joe had been properly armed and schooled in shooting. Ben didn’t want to do it, but Adam reminded him that he had been shooting since he was twelve. At fifteen, Hoss wore one regularly and not just on trips. It was time, and Ben finally admitted it and shopped for the gift.

Then it was time for Adam’s gift but there were no more boxes under the tree. Adam knew something was up but had no idea what it was. Ben told Joe it was time and he almost ran over behind his father’s desk. Then he stood there as his father talked.

“The one you have is old and it was used when you got it. It has been an important part of every celebration here on the Ponderosa for over fifteen years. I know you have talked of getting yourself one from New York, but until that happens, we have a new one for you.”

And Joe carefully picked up a brand new guitar and carried it to Adam who was speechless. He had endured snide remarks about his love of music frequently and was used to them. He had never realized that his family cared about his music, and would get him such a gift. He took the guitar and lightly strummed and tuned it. His perfect pitch worked well. Then he looked at his family and his smile was all the thanks they could ever hope for. It was seldom that anyone got to see Adam smile that way without holding anything back.

Everything would probably have been so much better except for Joe’s next innocent comment.

“Yeah, when you leave and go to Australia, you can take one with you and leave one here for when you come back.”

Joe had no idea how much it would upset Hoss and their Pa to have this subject broached. Both of them hoped that Adam would just forget all about it, find someone to marry, and stay on the Ponderosa forever. When questioned, Adam was honest and said he still dreamed of travel and hoped to leave one day to see the world. Hoss eventually got so upset he retreated to his room. He was up there for so long, Joe decided to go talk with him.

“Joe, I don’t wanna talk about him leaving.”

“Hoss, I got a story for you that helped me understand better when Adam talked to me about it. Adam told me the animals that Numaga compared us to. He said you were the wolf. A wolf lives in its pack and defends its territory. He said I was a coyote. Now a coyote will have its territory in the same area as the wolf. The coyote is the trickster but still takes care of its family. But he said Adam was a cougar. They’re real smart but they travel alone and a lot. Their territory is wherever they are. Don’t that just sound like us?”

“I just cain’t think on him leaving. I just don’t know how he could think of leaving all this.”

“Hoss, I was born here and you were so little when you got here, this is the only home you remember too. But Adam’s lived a lot of places and then he went to college and saw more. He’s got a curiosity about all those places out there that we don’t have. My ma is buried here and she’s the only ma, you remember so she’s yours too. He knows his ma is buried in Boston and he’s visited her grave but not lately. If you knew where Inger, your ma, was buried exactly, wouldn’t you want to go there too?”

“Yeah, but he’s talking about those other places like Australia too.”

“If he goes, maybe he’ll be happier. And if he’s happier, maybe he’ll come back.”

They heard the sound of the new guitar then from downstairs and Adam’s voice raised in singing. They went to join him. Who knew how many Christmases like this they would have together? Each year, they would remember this Christmas, and Adam continued to live with them on the Ponderosa. Then, there was that terrible time with Laura and Will, and then when Adam was healed — physically at least — there was that fateful confrontation with his father that severed the last tie, and Adam was gone. There was no guitar music and no singing together in the ranch house for many long years after that day.

***End***

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