Price of Friendship (by Debbie B.)

Summary:  A what happened next  for the episode “Between Heaven and Earth”

Rated:  PG
Word Count: 3566


Both Ben and Hoss looked up from their supper when they heard the clicking of heels on the staircase.  Hoss took a quick glance at his younger brother and then went back to his eating.  He’d about had is fill of Joe’s bad moods and sharp tongue, and besides, reckoned Hoss, his head was still reeling from the last tongue lashing he’d received out at the corral.  Hoss didn’t want to admit it, but his feelings were hurt too.

Ben offered Joe a small smile as he watched his son walk slowly through the great room on his way to the table.  He causally looked over at Hoss but it was evident that Hoss was trying to ignore his sibling, and Ben couldn’t fault him, not really, not after the way Joe had been acting lately.

Joe inhaled deeply; Hoss raised only his eyes to glance up at his brother and then looked down at his plate.  Ben noticed that Hoss hadn’t actually been eating, just toying with his food.  Joe nodded his head at his father.  He remained standing behind his chair, his knuckles white from gripping the back of his seat so tightly.  It had been a trying day, what with the stress of failing to get his rifle from Eagle’s Nest and then getting it only because his father had connived a way into forcing him to face his fears.  Now he stood before his brother, sick to his stomach at the way he’d been treating the big man, and wishing to God he had words to tell his brother how terribly sorry he was for acting like such a fool.

Clearing his throat, Joe tried to speak, but it seemed that his words were lodged in the back of his throat and the words, when he managed to say them, were on a higher pitch than normal. “Hoss?”

Ben saw Hoss scrunch up his face and then suddenly stand and push back his chair, taking no notice of his younger brother.

“I got chores to do,” Hoss said as he wiped his mouth and looked over at his father. He turned to go without so much as a glance in his brother’s direction.  Joe felt like he’d been slapped in the face, but he could not blame his brother for how he felt, after all, hadn’t he, Joe Cartwright, been acting like a Jackass for the last week?

Joe started after his brother, his tone now pleading. “Hoss…wait a minute,” he said, taking hold of the powerful arm of his brother and stopping Hoss from going out the door.

Hoss turned and glared at his brother.  His look was dark and angry, so unlike his normal cheery countenance.

Joe swallowed hard; he could see the hurt in Hoss’ enormous blue eyes and he hated himself for being responsible for putting it there.

When Hoss looked down at Joe’s hand and knocked it away, Joe felt a rush of nausea wash over him. “I’m sorry, Hoss…I know I’ve been acting like a…Jackass…and I’m sorry…”

Hoss twisted up his lips and shook his head in disgust. “That’s right, little brother, ya have…and now ya think just sayin’ I’m sorry, fixes everythin’, don’t’cha?  Well, it don’t…ya’ve said things that hurt people…oh, not just me, but to Pa…and don’t forget your best friend…I mean, your former best friend, Mitch Devlin.  Ya think sayin’ ya sorry is goin’ to make him feel any better…after what ya’ve done to’em?  Well, Joseph, I doubt it…and it won’t work with me either…not this time.”

Hoss stormed from the house, leaving Joe standing alone and staring at the door that slammed in his face.  The nausea rumbled in his gut and for a moment Joe thought he might get sick, but he swallowed it down.  His brother’s words stung, and hurt…but then he glanced up at his father who had come to stand beside him and suddenly something from his past, that his father had once told him, came back to haunt him.

“The truth always hurt, Little Joe,” Ben had said.

Something else rang the bells in Joe’s head and jarred another memory.

“Words can hurt, Joseph.  Once they flow from your mouth, it’s too late to take them back.  Be ever mindful of what you say to people, for you can destroy a man’s dignity in himself,  and respect for you, with just a handful of harsh words that you don’t really mean.”

Wasn’t that what Mitch had told him?  That he had destroyed the dignity his friend had held and the respect he’d had, for so many years, in regard to his best friend?

A sob caught in Joe’s throat as he turned to his father.  His emerald eyes flooded with tears, his throat swelled with emotion as Joe fell into his father’s arms. “Oh Pa! What have I done?” he cried.

“There, there, son…it will all work out, in time.  Hoss won’t stay mad at you for long, he never does, and as for Mitch…well…time heals all wounds,” Ben said as he comforted his son.

“Mitch!  Pa…he’ll never speak to me again. Don’t you understand?  I hurt him…in the worst possible way. I took away his dignity, I lost his respect, I belittled him…not just in words, but in actions, in front of a whole room full of our friends…and I…destroyed our friendship,” Joe wept.

Joe pulled away from his father’s embrace and swiped his hand over his damp face.  Ben saw the desperate look in the hollows of his son’s eyes; the trodden expression broke his heart for he knew that what Joe said was nothing short of the truth.  He had heard what had happened the afternoon before in the saloon and he knew that it would take a mighty big man to forgive a friend, even a best friend, for the things Joe had done. Ben knew that in time, Hoss would forgive his brother; it was Hoss’ nature to be kind to everyone and forgive them their misdeeds, especially when he loved someone as much as Hoss loved his youngest brother.

“Then I would suggest that you go see him.  And try talking to your brother again, son.  Sometimes, repentance comes hard,” Ben suggested. He had his hand on Joe’s shoulder and with Joe’s head bent so low, Ben was forced to bend his even lower in order to look his son in the face.  Slowly, Joe raised his head.  The tears were gone but the sadness still remained in the lost expression that showed on the handsome face.

“I suppose I should, though it won’t do much good…he made that plain enough yesterday,” Joe said sadly. He reached for his hat behind the door and plopped it down on his head.  As he strapped on his sidearm, he looked over at his father. “I lost my best friend over a rifle and a $2 bet.  Not much for the price of friendship, is it?”

Joe turned and walked out the door, leaving his father to watch as he walked across the yard to the barn.  A mental picture of a man making the last journey of his life flashed before Ben’s eyes and he quickly brushed it away whispering a soft prayer that God would walk along side his son and give to Joe, the words needed to mend the broken relationships caused by his own weaknesses and lack of faith in himself.

*****

Hoss was raking out the stall when Joe entered the barn.  He knew without looking up that it was his brother, for the step was slow and cumbersome, as a man who carried the weight of a heavy burden on the girth of his shoulders.

Hoss set his jaw.  He could sense the boy standing behind him; he picked up the smell of light sweat that seeped from the pores of a man’s skin when the man was nervous, or…afraid.  Funny, thought Hoss, he’d never thought of his little brother as being afraid.

The two words troubled him, and when Joe called his name, he forgot about himself and his hurt feelings.

“Hoss?”

Hoss raised his head slightly and turned to look Joe’s way.

“I’m sorry,” Joe muttered, “honest…I…”  Joe lowered his head, unable to say another word, for they were lodged in the back of his throat and he feared if he tried, he might break down and cry.

Hoss immediately saw that Joe’s chin quivered and when he looked his brother right in the eye, he instantly saw the telltale signs that the boy was about to lose what composure he had left.  Simultaneously, his heart melted.

Hoss set the rake against the wall of the stall and grinned in his boyish manner at his brother. “Aw…shucks, Shortshanks…I know ya didn’t mean those things ya said.  Ya was just…”

“Afraid,” Joe said. “I was just plain afraid and I guess…ashamed of being so.  I…didn’t want anyone to know, and I reckon I thought everyone did…”  Joe moved closer to his brother and offered his hand.  “I apologize, Hoss…please…will ya…forgive me?”

“Forget it, kid,” laughed Hoss as he took Joe’s hand into his and pulled his brother into a bear hug.  Joe slung his arm about his brother’s massive shoulders.  His laughter was a mixture of all the emotions that had built up inside of him over the last week, but the one he was most thankful for was his brother’s forgiveness, for it was hard earned.

*****

Joe let a long breath of air swish from his lungs as he dismounted and tied the reins around the hitching post outside of the Devlin home.  Never before had he felt the way he did now coming to this place that was as familiar to him as his own home.  He and Mitch had been childhood friends for as long as he could remember.  Only once or twice in their long-term relationship had the boys been at odds; and always before they had managed to work through their problems and remain friends.  But this time, Joe feared he had over-stepped the boundaries that had fashioned he and Mitch into such a solid comradeship.  He feared that just mere words could not repair the damage that had been done.  And it had all been his own fault, deemed Joe.

Before Joe could place one foot on the porch, Mitch appeared at the door.  He stepped out on the porch and quickly closed the door behind him, as if he wanted no one to know who had come calling.

Joe swallowed the bile that soured his mouth. “Hey, Mitch.”

Joe started to step up onto the porch, but Mitch blocked his path, halting Joe’s attempt.  He looked up into his friend’s face and saw something there that he had never seen before.  Mitch stared back at him with such hurt and disgust that Joe cringed inwardly.

“What do you want, Joe?” Mitch growled.

Joe heard the catch in the other young man’s voice and though his friend tried to hide it, Joe could hear the inner pain behind the harshly spoken words.

“I wanted to come over and talk to you,” Joe explained.  “I wanted to tell you how…”

Mitch slammed his fist into the post and moved down onto the next step. “Don’t even say it, Joe!  It means nothing, coming from you, just like our friendship meant nothing…”

“You’re wrong, Mitch…our friendship means everything to me…”

“Liar!  That’s what you are, Little Joe…a lair.  I, just yesterday, realized what a true liar you really are.  You’ve lied about being my friend…my very best friend all these years, haven’t you?  I’ve never meant anything to you, have I?  Oh, wait…how much was it?  Two dollars, isn’t that all my friendship was worth to you…a measly two dollars?”

“No…” stammered Joe.

“You have everything; you always have.  All you ever had to do was ask, and it was yours…but I never let it bother me…wanna know why, Joe?” Mitch asked.

Joe felt about two feet tall and he wished the ground would open up and swallow him down.  He clenched his jaw against the pain he felt breaking his heart as he looked into the agonizingly despondent eyes of his friend. “Why?” he said in a whispered voice.

Mitch almost laughed…almost, but it didn’t come out just right. “Because I liked you,” he said in a thick, strained voice.  “Damn…” he said, moving into the yard and turning so that Joe had to turn as well just to be able to face him. “I must be the biggest fool that ever set foot in Virginia City,” he declared in a loud voice.  “Not to mention the laughing stock of the county!”

Mitch’s eyes filled with tears and he gritted his teeth.  Joe stood silent, unable to speak, for his friend’s words sliced through his heart like a knife into soft butter.

“Damn you, Joe Cartwright…damn you to hell!” shouted Mitch as he swung back his fist and smashed it into the face of his former friend.

Blood spurted from Joe’s nose as he was sent reeling backward, landing against his horse.  Joe pushed himself upright, just as another fist slammed into his stomach.

“Oh…” groaned Joe as he doubled up in pain; his arms folded across his middle.

Mitch, driven by the hurt he’d felt, grabbed Joe’s hair and yanked Joe’s head upright.  With his other fist doubled up into a tight knot, he hit Joe again.  This time Joe staggered backward and fell to the ground, where he remained.

“Get up!” snarled Mitch, “and fight me!” he screamed.  Mitch kicked Joe in his side with the toe of his boot and yelled again at the man on the ground. “I said, get up, damn you!”

Joe, his hand covering his bleeding nose, shook his head. “No.”

“Why not?” demanded Mitch.

Mitch wiped his sleeve across his eyes to dry the beads of sweat that had filled his eyes.

“I don’t want to fight you, that’s why…”

“I’ll grind you into the dirt, Cartwright, if you don’t get up and fight me!” Mitch promised.

“Do what you have to do, Mitch…I don’t care what happens to me…”

Joe slowly rose up until he was on his knees. There was a cut above his left eye and he swayed slightly due to the soreness in his body. “I’m no good with out you, Mitch.  Any battles we’ve had, we’ve fought together, not against one another.  If I have to let you ‘grind me into the dirt’ in order to win back your friendship, then let’s get to it,” Joe said as he forced himself to stand up and face the man opposite him.

“What are you talking about?  You’re no friend of mine…not after what you did,” Mitch shouted angrily.

“I’m talking about you and me and…friendship.  I’m talking about…paying the price…I’ll take whatever you feel I have too, if you’ll just be my friend again, Mitch.  I know what I did was wrong, I was selfish, self-centered and I…I was the loser…not you.  I lost something that no amount of money can ever buy back…your friendship, Mitch…you and me, pals till the end.  Remember…we made that promise way back in the first grade…”

Joe’s tone had taken on a rasping sound as he fought to control the surge of emotion that consumed him. “Don’t you understand anything?” he screamed at Mitch.  “I’m the damn fool, not you…I’m the Jackass…not you…I’m nothing anymore, Mitch…I’m cow dung on the bottom of your boot.  What more do you want me to say?  I’m not worthy to be your friend…I don’t deserve your friendship…but I want to be…please…”

 Joe’s head lowered and even from the distance that separated them, Mitch could hear the soft murmurs of sorrow and remorse that Joe made.  He was stunned by the words Joe had slung at him, he was taken back by the show of emotions that Joe displayed.  His own actions were stilled by the defeated and heart-wrenching sounds that his former friend was making.

Mitch took a cautious step forward. “Joe?”

Slowly, Joe raised his head and looked at Mitch.  His face was a wretched show of dejection and it did not go unnoticed by the other young man.  Never before had Mitch seen Joe so down trodden.

“Go on, hit me,” Joe offered, removing his hands so that Mitch could have clear access to his already battered face.

“Did you mean those things, what you just said?” Mitch asked in a calmer voice.

Joe looked up at his friend.

“Are you suggesting I lied?” Joe said with a smirk.

“No…I ain’t never known you to lie…well, not since we were boys,” Mitch said with a twinge of a smile.

“But you just called me a lair…you change your mind already?”

Mitch stood with his hands on his hips, not really knowing what he was feeling right at present, only that he didn’t want to hit this man again who had once been his best friend. “Maybe,” he said.  “Well?”

Joe wiped his sleeve across the front of his nose where the blood still dripped. “Well, what?”

“Did you mean them things?” Mitch asked again.

Joe’s lips made a tight, straight line across his face. “I meant them,” he answered, turning to look off, not really caring to see his friend gloating at him.  “Well?”

“Well what?” Mitch asked.

“What are you waiting for?  Hit me!”

It was Mitch’s turn to lower his head.  He shook it back and forth as he did so. “I don’t wanna hit you…not anymore.”

Joe’s head snapped up and stared in surprise at the other man. “But you said…”

“Forget what I said,” Mitch growled.

“But…”

“But nothing…aw, galldangit, Joe, you’re bleeding all over the place.”  Mitch stepped over to help Joe steady himself. “Come on in the house and let me help you get cleaned up.  If Ma sees your face, she’ll probably try to tan my hide for hitting you.  You know she always thought you had the face of an angel,” Mitch snarled as he led the way into the house.

Joe snickered, not quite sure how things had gotten turned around as they had. “I didn’t know you could hit so hard,” he said with a slight giggle.

“Sit down,” Mitch said pointing to a chair in the kitchen. He busied himself with getting fresh water from the pump at the sink and a clean rag from the drawer so that Joe could wash the blood off his face and hands.

“That’s cause you and me ain’t never been in a fight before…leastways…against each other,” Mitch informed Joe.

Joe wet the rag and moving to stand before the mirror, washed away the blood and dirt. “From the way my face feels, I’m glad we’re friends and not enemies,” he laughed and then as fast as the laughter came, it ended.

Joe turned slowly around to face Mitch, who was standing behind him, watching in the mirror.

“Are we…friends, I mean?” Joe asked in a voice that sounded so boyish.

Mitch hung his head.  His own throat had swelled and his words were hard to say. “I reckon so…if ya wanna be,” he said, raising his eyes and looking into Joe’s.  “I guess I’d rather have our friendship than to be the champion arm wrestler, anyway.”

Joe smiled, the light in his eyes returned as he tossed the cloth over onto the table and offered his hand to his…friend. “I wanna be,” he said, smiling.

“Me too,” Mitch said, grinning and taking the offered hand.

Both young men pulled the other into their arms and hugged each other. “I’m really sorry, Mitch…for hurting you.  I swear, I’ll never do anything like that again,” Joe promised.

“I’m sorry too, Joe…for hitting you…but I’ll have to be honest…” Mitch said meekly as he rubbed his fist with this opened hand.

Joe looked confused.  “Honest about what?”

Mitch smiled broadly and his eyes danced with amusement. “Hitting you…man, it sure did feel good,” he laughed.

“HA…I can’t believe you said that!” shouted Joe, though he laughed.

Again, the laughter disappeared and Joe turned serious. “I have to admit something too, Mitch.”

“Oh yeah, what?”

Joe stepped up to his friend…his best friend…and slipped his arm about Mitch’s shoulder. “It was a small price to pay…for friendship.  And even though my face is throbbing, my lips are swollen, my eye is black, there’s a two inch cut on my forehead…not to mention that my shirt is ruined…I’m glad I paid it…friend.”

A bear hug signaled an end to the dispute and marked a new beginning for the two young men who had once again found their way back from the bitter ache that had separated them and into the everlasting bonds of friendship.

***End***

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