Summary: What Happened Next for “My Brother’s Keeper”
Word Count: 10,090
“Adam!” Joe cried. “Adam, I’m shot, I’m shot!” He writhed on the bed, pain radiating from the wound in his shoulder. “Don’t let him get me.”
Sitting down wearily on the edge of the bed, Adam attempted to keep his younger brother from moving about too much. Adam was unshaven and exhausted after 2 days of looking after Joe. The younger man’s fever raged high, and Adam hoped Hoss, their other brother, would hurry back from Genoa, where he had gone to get medicine prescribed for Joe. “It’s all right, Joe,” he said, softly. “He won’t get you here.”
“Adam!” Joe sobbed, not hearing. “Adam!” He fell silent, panting for breath.
Behind Adam, Sheila Reardon looked distressed. “It’s not right!” she cried, passionately. “All this suffering. No doctor, no medicine. It’s not right.”
Saying nothing, Adam reached for the cloth and went to the basin to soak it in cold water once more. It had been a hard 2 days for Adam. He and Joe had been hunting a wolf, and had followed it for miles, up to the Montpelier Gorge area. There, they had stopped. Adam was ready to turn for home, knowing it would take them till the next afternoon to get back. When the wolf howled from close by, Joe had gone looking for it. Adam had decided not to bother. But when he heard two shots, he followed Joe. Galloping round a rock formation, he had seen movement in the rocks ahead and fired. The bullet hit Joe high in his left shoulder. The wolf had turned on Joe, savaging him before Adam could get there. A blow from his rifle and two shots had finished off the wolf, but Adam had been horrified that he had shot his younger brother.
The journey home had been a nightmare, for Joe’s horse, Cochise, had run off, and they had to ride double on Sport, Adam’s horse. Despite the need for speed, Adam had kept his horse to a walk. The last thing they needed was for the horse to founder. Joe had fallen into a kind of unconsciousness as they rode, and Adam was deeply concerned. He had cleaned up his brother’s injuries as best he could, but the bullet was still in Joe’s shoulder, and he had no way to remove it on the trail.
Fortune had smiled on them as they reached the Virginia City road the next afternoon, as Emmett Reardon and his daughter Sheila had been passing in their surrey, and Adam had hitched a lift. Unfortunately, that hadn’t been the end of it, for when they reached home, Ben was in Placerville, and the doctor was nowhere to be found. Adam didn’t like Doctor Hickman much. He was filling in for Paul Martin, the usual physician, who was having a well-earned break. Since they couldn’t find the doctor, Adam had been forced to remove the bullet from Joe’s shoulder himself.
The memory of that had prevented Adam sleeping ever since. He had given Joe a piece of cloth to bite on, and Joe had barely made a sound. But the whimpers that had escaped Joe’s control were enough to pierce Adam to the heart. Joe hadn’t succumbed to unconsciousness until it was all over. Adam had gently bound up the shoulder, but he could feel the heat in Joe’s body already, and knew that Joe faced a long fight to regain his health. The bullet had been in there too long, and had caused an infection.
Over the next few hours, Joe had deteriorated. Doc Hickman had arrived at last, and probed the bullet wound none too gently. Adam had been furious, and when he discovered that the doctor didn’t intend staying, he had been hard put to keep from hitting him. True, the doctor had an excellent reason for not staying, but Adam wasn’t feeling too rational by that point. Then Hoss had gone to get the medicine, and the storekeeper hadn’t had any left. Hoss was now on his way to Genoa for it. Twenty-one miles there, and twenty-one miles back. Hoss wouldn’t be back before dark, however fast he traveled.
Silently, Adam took a fresh, cool cloth from Sheila and laid it on Joe’s head. Joe mumbled and Adam thought about Dowd and his partners, roughly dressed men all three, and obviously out for trouble. Adam’s pleasure in the return of Cochise had been blunted by the men’s demands for $3000 for damages. Adam had seen them off for the moment, but he didn’t doubt that they would be back. He just hoped that Hoss would have returned by then, and Ben would be there to take charge.
“Pa?” Joe mumbled, his hand flailing the air, as though he had read Adam’s thoughts. Adam caught the hand, murmuring soothing words, wishing, like Joe, that Ben were there. Joe fought him off. “Adam! Get him off me! Get him off!”
“Easy, Joe, easy,” Adam said, holding Joe down. “The wolf’s dead, Joe. Take it easy.” The heat from Joe’s body burned his hands. It seemed to Adam that despite everything he did, Joe’s temperature continued to climb. For the first time, he thought that Joe might die.
“Adam.” It was Sheila. “You need to rest. Come downstairs for a while, please.”
“I can’t leave him,” Adam said. “I can’t rest, Sheila.”
“I’ll sit with him, then,” Sheila said, impatiently. She thought Adam was making himself sick over nothing. She hadn’t had any experience with gunshot wounds, and didn’t know how easily men could die from them. The operation to remove the bullet had sickened her, and she could barely bring herself to look at Joe. When she did, all she could see was the blood on Adam’s hands, and that frightened her, for she knew that Adam blamed himself for what had happened to Joe. If Joe died, how would Adam take it? But surely he would live? “Let me sit with him,” she said again, but Adam shook his head.
“Thank you, but no. You should rest. It’s been a long day for you, too.” Once more, Adam bathed Joe’s brow. Joe twisted restlessly and bit his lip. Adam wished the doctor had given him something for the pain he so obviously felt. Adam felt a flush of anger as he remembered Doc Hickman prodding Joe’s shoulder in that ham-fisted way he had. How he wished that Paul Martin wasn’t away.
The door closed, and Adam looked round. He hadn’t heard Sheila leave. He rather liked her, and he admired the way she was hiding her feelings from her mortally ill father. Adam shook his head. He was grateful to Emmett Reardon for everything he had done for them, but the man just seemed to rub Adam up the wrong way. Almost every time he opened his mouth, Adam had been irritated by the pat little homilies he trotted out. There was no doubt the man meant them quite sincerely, and he found the platitudes comforting. But they didn’t do anything for Adam. He thought briefly of the passage he’d read by Thoreau, and the bleakness of it fitted his thoughts.
“Adam,” Joe panted, and Adam returned his attention to Joe. The scratches on his brother’s face seemed to stand out more now that he was so pale. There was a sheen of sweat on Joe’s skin. Gently, Adam wiped it away.
The cloth on Joe’s head was warm again, and Adam went to rinse it out in the cold water. As he looked down, he saw a speck of blood on his hand, and he shuddered. Cutting into Joe to remove the bullet had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. He’d been calm and unemotional about doing it, but the only people he’d fooled were the two strangers who’d given him the help he needed. Joe, ill or not, had not been fooled for an instant, and Adam was glad Hoss hadn’t been there at all.
“Why wasn’t I more careful?” he whispered, savagely. He squeezed the water from the cloth with more vigor than was required, and went back to Joe. “I didn’t mean to shoot you,” he said, although he doubted Joe was truly aware of him. “Please forgive me, Joe.”
With a convulsive movement, Joe flung off the covers. Adam moved swiftly to tuck them in again. That was another reason he didn’t want Sheila Reardon nursing Joe. He was naked under the blankets, as Adam hadn’t wanted to risk putting on a nightshirt, and hadn’t looked for underclothes that would spare Joe’s modesty, as well as the young lady’s. It was just one more thing to do; one more thing to sap his dwindling energy. Gently, he lifted Joe, and turned the pillow over. The cool cloth seemed to soothe Joe slightly, and Adam sighed. If only he could sleep. He lifted Joe carefully once more, and tucked the other pillow behind his back, making Joe more comfortable.
“Adam! Adam, come down!” It was Emmett Reardon again. He sounded panicky. With a sigh he couldn’t stifle, Adam rose to his feet and went downstairs.
The little Irishman was standing in the middle of the great room. Sheila was coming from the kitchen. Adam crossed to the door and it opened and Hoss all but fell into the room. He was clutching his head, and Adam felt a pang of alarm.
“Adam, they got Little Joe’s medicine,” Hoss gasped, and collapsed into the pink velvet chair by the clock. He kept rubbing at his head. “They say they want $3000 to give it back.”
“Are you hurt?” Adam asked, dispassionately, in a tone that suggested he didn’t care.
Hoss wasn’t fooled for an instant. He looked up and saw the fatigue etched on Adam’s face. He knew that Adam hadn’t closed his eyes since he had left earlier. “No, I’m not hurt,” he said, although he did have a headache.
“They’re holding the medicine for ransom?” said Sheila incredulously. “How could they?”
Wondering why he’d thought Sheila understood what he’d said to her earlier, Adam turned to look at her. His anger got the better of him. “You said it earlier,” he said. “Because this is a jungle. And when it’s all over, I’m going somewhere where a man can live like a decent human being!”
“Ease up, Adam,” Hoss said, uncomfortably.
“Ease up?” he repeated dangerously. He turned his angry glare on Hoss, who wasn’t cowed for an instant. Without another word, Adam crossed to the gun racks and took down 2 shotguns. “Are you with me?” he asked, and Hoss rose without another word.
A stone crashed in through the dining room window, and they all ducked instinctively. Adam ushered Sheila over to the dubious protection of the blue velvet chair, and crouched beside her. Hoss handed Reardon the rifle. “Cover that window over there,” he instructed, and went to get himself another rifle.
“You go up and stay with Joe,” Adam instructed Sheila, and told her when to go. Hoss knocked out the office window and began to shoot. As soon as he did, Adam told Sheila to run, and she scrambled away.
Crossing to the front door, Adam eased it open a fraction and fired out of it. He instantly shut the door and pulled back against the wall. It was none too soon, for three bullets ripped into the wood. Adam knew that it would be pointless to open the door and fire again. They would be watching for him. He could hear Reardon muttering something, and the vase of flowers on the table suddenly exploded.
“Adam!” Hoss called. “Adam!” In a crouch, Adam went to join his brother. “They ain’t gonna give up till they get that money.”
“I know,” Adam answered. “But there’s not nearly that much in the house. But they’d never believe me.” He glanced round. “I’m going out the side door, cover me.”
Outside, Dowd crept over to one of his partners. “Keep ‘em busy,” he growled. He sneaked over to where his other partner was. “I’m goin’ round the back,” he said. “You get up on the porch roof and get in through that window.”
Nodding, the partner swung himself onto the roof, and crept towards the window. Flattening himself against the wall, he peered through the drapes. The girl was standing by the bed, putting a cloth on a man’s head. The man grinned wolfishly. This had to be the sick man. Holding him to ransom was going to be much more effective than just holding the medicine to ransom!
Just then, he heard a voice from below, and turning, saw that Adam Cartwright had his gun on his partner. The man on the roof fired wildly, and Adam ducked before shooting back. The man on the roof fell to his death.
With one man as a captive, Adam went back inside. He fervently hoped that no bullets had gone into Joe’s room, but he hadn’t heard any screams from upstairs, so he assumed all was well. As it happened, a bullet had broken the window and knocked a picture off the wall. Shelia and Joe were both unharmed, although Sheila had been shaken by the incident. Joe had flinched, but not wakened.
“The other one’s dead,” Adam said, as he herded his prisoner inside. “Where’s the medicine?”
“Dowd’s got it,” the man replied, sullenly.
Suddenly, from behind Reardon, Dowd appeared. He had broken into the downstairs bedroom, and put his gun to Reardon’s head. “Drop your guns,” he ordered, and they obeyed. “Now, I want that $3000.”
“I’ll give you every penny we have in the house,” Adam said. “We have silver and other things.”
“Wait a minute, Adam,” Reardon began, and Adam hoped the man wasn’t about to trot out one of his trite homilies now. Reardon half turned towards Dowd.
“Turn around!” Dowd growled, and Reardon did begin to turn back, but he was faking, and swung round, thumping his fist solidly on Dowd’s arm. Dowd dropped his gun, Reardon kicked it away, and Adam stooped to retrieve his weapon.
“Hold it!” he ordered, and Dowd put his hands up. Behind Adam, Hoss snatched the rifle back from the other man and punched him solidly on the jaw. The man went down and out. “Where’s the medicine?” Adam asked.
“In my pocket,” Dowd responded, sullenly and Reardon retrieved it.
Taking the bottle, Adam gave Dowd a cold stare. “If this doesn’t save my brother’s life, I’m going to kill you,” he said, and the very lack of emotion made the threat all the more chilling. “Hoss, tie them up in the bunkhouse.” As Hoss shepherded the men out, Adam swallowed his pride, and turned to Emmett Reardon. “Mr. Reardon, I don’t know when I’ve seen such presence of mind and courage.”
“It was neither, Adam,” Reardon admitted. “I’m dieing, you see, so I had nothing to lose.”
Glancing towards the stairs, Adam saw Sheila standing there, and he didn’t know what to say. He crossed the room, gun still in hand, and went upstairs. Still, Sheila stood on the landing, and Adam hesitated only fractionally as he passed. He was never to know what passed between them, for his attention was fixed on his youngest brother.
Reading the instructions on the bottle, Adam spooned the liquid into Joe’s mouth, and was relieved when he swallowed it. “This will help you get well, Joe,” he said, with as much conviction as he could muster. He fetched another cold cloth for Joe’s head.
“Joseph!” came a call from downstairs, and Adam’s heart leapt, for it was the voice he’d been praying he’d hear now for two days. Pa!
“He’s up here, Pa!” he shouted, and heard the familiar steps mounting the stairs. He wondered briefly what Ben had thought on seeing the Reardons, but the thought didn’t linger. The bedroom door opened and Ben charged in, still wearing his coat and hat.
“Adam?” Ben said, seeing his son, unshaven, exhausted. After seeing the evidence of a gunfight downstairs, the body still lay in the yard, where it had fallen, Ben was concerned that Adam had been injured somehow. “How is Joe?” He stepped forward, and saw Joe lying on the bed. “What happened?”
As Ben stripped off his coat, and took the cloth from Adam’s hand, Adam felt an over whelming sense of relief. Ben was home, and he could take charge. Adam could just let go. But first, he had to tell Ben how his precious youngest son came to be lying there, desperately ill.
“We were hunting that wolf,” he said, his voice husky with fatigue. “We ended up at Montpelier Gorge, and decided to camp there for the night. We heard the wolf again and he was so close. Joe went off for a look, and after a bit, I joined him. I never thought Joe had got off Cochise, Pa. It didn’t occur to me. I galloped round the rocks, and there was the wolf. I fired, and missed, and Joe was hit. He was right there, Pa, and I never saw him.” Adam was looking anywhere but at Ben.
“Joe fell, but he wasn’t knocked out, thankfully, for the wolf turned on him, and Joe fought to keep it from his throat. I rode over, and clubbed the wolf and shot it. Joe was so still.” Adam risked making eye contact. Ben looked grave. “He never reproached me, Pa.” Looking away again, Adam continued with his tale of how he managed to get Joe home, despite having only the one horse. The Reardons, the operation to remove the bullet, the doctor, the medicine, the gunfight. All of it poured out. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he finished.
Silence fell. Ben changed the cloth on Joe’s head mechanically. He was taking in his son’s injuries, and allowing Adam’s story to sink in. It was an accident, that much was clear. But Ben was angry, too. Angry that his son should have been so careless, and angry that Dowd had held Joe’s medicine to ransom. However, anger wouldn’t help Adam. He was obviously suffering from guilt and remorse, and had had the worry of Joe’s illness to deal with too. Ben knew he had to forgive Adam, and he did so willingly.
“It was an accident, Adam,” he said. “And you’ve done everything you could for Joe since, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Adam said, angrily.
“Perhaps not,” Ben said. “But there’s no way to turn back the clock. Joe is young and strong. With this medicine, he should pull through. We’ve got to believe that, Adam.” Ben held Adam’s gaze until he was convinced that Adam believed him. “You go and rest,” he urged. “I’ll look after Joe.”
“Adam,” Joe murmured, tossing restlessly. “Adam.”
For an instant, Adam gazed at Joe, his dark eyes haunted and shadowed with fatigue. He turned abruptly and left the room. Ben sighed, then turned his attention to Joe. It didn’t matter what he said to Adam right now. The only person who could give Adam what he needed was Joe, and if Joe died, Adam would never be able to forgive himself.
It was a long night for Ben, sitting by Joe’s bedside, doing what he could to help his son fight the fever. Joe was often restless, thrashing and crying out. Ben kept wringing out cloths, and laying them on Joe’s head. He gave him the medicine as prescribed on the bottle, and he prayed. He hoped Adam had been able to sleep, and he thought about the story Adam had told him.
It was still early when the door opened, and Sheila Reardon came quietly in. She was fully dressed. “I’ll sit with him,” she whispered, for Joe appeared to be in a deep sleep. “Go and rest. I’ll call you if he needs you.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, and rose, stretching gratefully. He went quietly downstairs, and saw Adam dozing on the settee. Emmett Reardon was sitting at the table. Smiling at the little Irishman, Ben crossed to the front door, to check on Hoss. Reardon followed him outside.
“I must thank you,” Ben said. “And apologies for how I greeted you last night. But when I saw that body, and the bullet holes in the door, I didn’t know what to think.”
“To be sure, Mr. Cartwright, don’t be apologizing now,” Reardon insisted. “It’s been a real pleasure to meet your family. I just wish it were under better circumstances. Sheila is real taken with your Adam. Hoss is a fine fellow, and I’m so sorry about Joe. Is he any better?”
“He’s resting,” Ben said, not wanting to commit himself to saying more. “I hope that’s a good sign.”
“Such a handsome lad,” Reardon went on, “and Adam and Hoss are so devoted to him.”
“Yes,” Ben muttered. “The boys are all devoted to one another. I‘m very fortunate.” He was wondering how taken Adam was with Sheila. Surely they couldn’t have built up that much of a friendship in just 2 days? But then, when circumstances were as traumatic as they had been, emotions often flowered more quickly than in normal times.
Opening the bunkhouse door, Ben smiled at Hoss, who has turned his rifle on the newcomers. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Hoss assured him. “How’s Little Joe?”
“Resting,” Ben said. “Hoss, can you take these men into town? We’ll tie them up in the wagon. I’d feel better if they were in Roy’s custody.”
“Anything you say, Pa,” Hoss said, agreeably. He stretched.
It didn’t take them long to secure Dowd and his one remaining partner in the wagon. Dowd was sullenly silent, and Ben could barely hide his contempt for someone who had resorted to holding medicine for ransom. He had heard how his first demand for damages had been $1000, which had then risen to $3000 by the time he had ridden out to the ranch. Ben doubted if the damage amounted to more than $500.
The sun was up when Hoss drove out of the yard, and Ben thought that he fancied some coffee. He and Reardon went back into the house, and Adam startled awake, sitting up and swallowing a groan. “What time is it?” he asked, thickly.
“About six,” Ben answered. “Why don’t you go to bed?”
“No, I’ve got to relieve Hoss out in the bunkhouse guarding those men,” Adam said.
“I just sent Hoss into the sheriff’s office with them,” Ben told him.
“Alone?” Adam asked, sharply.
“They’re tied up in the wagon,” Ben said, half laughing. “Hoss will manage.” He knew how tired Adam was now, for that was indeed a silly question for him to ask. Did he really think Ben would have sent Hoss off to the sheriff with Dowd and his partner loose?
“Adam,” came Sheila Reardon’s voice. Adam and Ben both looked round. She was leaning over the banister at the top of the stairs. “Its Little Joe, he’s calling for you.”
Wordlessly, Adam leapt to his feet and raced up stairs two at a time. Ben, after a startled second, followed him.
In Joe’s room, Joe was awake. “Hey, brother,” he said, breathlessly. As Ben hove into view, Joe’s smile widened. “Hey, Pa.” He touched Ben’s arm. “You shoulda seen him, Pa. Adam really clobbered that wolf!”
Reaching down, Ben stroked Joe’s hair, and allowed his hand to linger on his son’s head. It seemed cooler, and Ben began to smile. “I think his fever’s broken,” he said.
“Is he going to be all right?” Adam asked. He still looked exhausted, but less tense. He sat on the edge of Joe’s bed, in almost the exact spot he had sat in to remove the bullet. He looked up at Ben.
“Well, I’m no doctor,” said Ben, “but I think he’s going to be all right.” He looked down at Joe and smiled. Joe grinned back, glancing first at Adam, who had closed his eyes in thankfulness, and then looking back up at Ben.
“Pa, when did you get back?” Joe asked. His voice was still light and breathless, and it was obvious that he had a long recovery in front of him.
“Last night,” Ben said. “You were sleeping.” He couldn’t stop stroking Joe’s hair, reveling in the coolness of his son’s skin, when just a short time ago, he had been burning up with fever. “You try and sleep, Joe. I’ll bring you up something to eat in a little while.”
“All right,” Joe said. “But Pa, you shoulda seen Adam clobber that wolf.”
Waving to the Reardons, the Cartwrights went back into the house. Adam was almost staggering with exhaustion. He had washed and shaved, but he still hadn’t been to bed. Ben rested his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Do you want to eat or sleep?” he asked.
“Sleep, I guess,” Adam said. “I am hungry, but I’m more tired than anything.” He made a slight face. “Sheila wasn’t much of a cook.”
“Did you eat anything she made?” Ben enquired, neutrally. He hadn’t taken to Miss Sheila Reardon all that much, even though he was grateful for the help she and her father had given his sons.
“No,” Adam admitted. “Not even the sandwiches. I don’t think Hoss even ate many of those. She made good coffee, though.”
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Ben laughed, for he didn’t make good coffee. “Sleep well, son.”
As Adam slept, Ben made Joe something light to eat, and went up to waken him. Joe’s face still bore a few scratches, and as Ben helped his son to sit up, the full extent of his injuries was revealed. Joe’s hands and arms were marred by punctures and scratches. His left shoulder was clearly still sore, and Ben moved the dressing to examine the injury for himself. It was still slightly red and swollen, and Ben could see that it hadn’t been the doctor who had performed the surgery, for the hole was ragged and the stitches crude. However, it was healing, and Ben just put a new dressing on.
After helping Joe to eat, Ben washed him, joking with Joe the whole time, helping alleviate any embarrassment his youngest son might be feeling. By then, Joe was tired, and Ben eased him down, and settled him off to sleep.
Sitting by Joe’s bedside, Ben heard hooves in the yard and went downstairs. Hoss was the first one in the door, swiftly followed by Doc Hickman. “I’ve come to see Joe. Is he still alive?” he asked, brutally, and Ben saw Hoss wince.
“Joe is fine,” Ben said, stiffly. “He’s asleep, and has eaten something this morning.”
“Well, I ought to see him anyway,” the doctor said, and started towards the stairs.
“No,” Ben said, moving into his path. Ben didn’t like Doc Hickman, and hadn’t since he first met him a year or so previously. They had met when Ben was hunting for Hoss, who had gone missing. Hoss had lost his memory, and was living with a Dutch couple. Hickman had treated him, but advised strongly against telling Hoss who he was. Fortunately, Hoss had regained his memory, but Ben had disliked Hickman for advising that it was best for Hoss to go off with strangers, rather than live with his family, even though he had been prepared to do just that.
Now, he disliked him even more for the way he had treated Joe. Adam had told his father of the way Hickman had probed the wound, uncaring if it caused Joe pain, and indifferent to Adam’s concern. Ben knew it was irrational to dislike the man because he wasn’t Paul Martin, but he did, and couldn’t help it.
“No, you are not going to disturb my son. You may look at him, but you are not going to waken him. Is that clear?”
Drawing himself up to his full height, Hickman tried to stare Ben down. He was used to dominating his patients, and was rather taken aback to discover that Ben refused to be dominated. “Very well,” he said, stiffly. He looked round. “I thought Adam might like to know that I saved Maggie Fleming, and her baby. And Joe has survived, too. It’s been a good night for doctoring.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” Ben said. He was, for he knew Maggie Fleming, but he hated to hear this man brag about his accomplishments. “I’m sure Adam will be pleased too. However, he’s a sleep right now.” Joe had survived mostly because of his own constitution, Ben thought. Undoubtedly the medicine had helped, but the doctor had done nothing, bar prescribe it. He turned and led the way upstairs.
Opening the door quietly Ben saw that Joe was deeply asleep. His right hand was flung out over the bed, and his left leg was drawn up slightly. Hickman crossed to the bed and stared down at him. Joe half turned away from him, and winced, even in his sleep. For a moment, Ben thought Hickman was going to ignore his stricture, and probe the wound, but he refrained.
Back downstairs, Hickman rummaged in his bag. “Give him this for pain, if he needs it,” he said, handing Ben some laudanum. “Call me if you need me. Doctor Martin should be back tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Ben said. “Safe journey home.” He showed the doctor out and shut the door firmly behind him. He looked up to meet Hoss’ amused grin.
“You sure don’t like him much, do ya, Pa?” Hoss commented.
“Whatever gives you that idea?” Ben returned, dryly, and they grinned at each other. “Why don’t you get some sleep, Hoss?” he went on. “You must be exhausted.”
“I am plumb tuckered out,” Hoss admitted, and rubbed his eyes. An enormous yawn shook him, and he staggered to his feet. “Guess I gotta leave you to hold the fort.”
“I think I might just manage,” laughed Ben. He went upstairs with Hoss, and went back into Joe’s room.
His youngest son was still asleep, and Ben placed a hand on Joe’s head, which was still a little warm. He adjusted the covers, more for something to do than because they needed it, and sat down beside the bed. He was asleep in seconds.
“Pa,” whispered a voice. “Pa.”
Slowly, Ben opened his eyes. He saw, to his surprise, that it was dusk. Adam was shaking his shoulder gently. Shrugging off sleep, Ben glanced first at the bed. Joe was still sleeping. “What is it, Adam?” he asked.
“Supper is ready,” Adam whispered. “Come down and get something to eat before Joe wakens.”
Stiffly, Ben got to his feet. Before he followed Adam from the room, he had to check Joe once more, but the boy’s fever was still down. Adam had lit a lamp, and it burned low on Joe’s dresser, casting a warm glow through the room. Still tired, Ben went downstairs to eat.
Both Adam and Hoss looked more rested. Hoss had done the cooking, and although his culinary skills were basic compared to Hop Sing, the food was tasty and plentiful. They all ate ravenously, and Ben realized that it had been almost 24 hours since he’d eaten anything! On questioning his sons, he discovered that it was the same for them.
“I’ll take something up for Joe,” Ben said, as he laid down his knife and fork. “The sooner he starts eating again, the better.”
“I done left a plate warming,” Hoss said, and Ben found it on the stove. He quickly found a tray and went upstairs. Hoss had mashed potatoes, and put gravy made from the meat juices over it. Joe would get the goodness of the meat without the effort of having to chew it.
Opening the door, Ben saw at once that Joe was awake. He smiled. “Well, sleeping beauty! So you’ve decided to wake up. Did you smell your meal?”
“I’m not very hungry,” Joe said, but Ben brushed his protest aside.
“You never are when you’re not feeling well, but this won’t take any eating at all.” He set the tray down and helped Joe to sit up. Slowly, bite by bite, he coaxed Joe into eating everything on the plate. He set the tray aside, and gave Joe a drink. “How do you feel?” he asked. “Are you in a lot of pain?”
“Some,” Joe admitted, reluctantly. “I’m all right.” He smiled briefly, but brilliantly. “You shoulda seen Adam, Pa. He sure got that wolf.”
“It seems he got you, too,” Ben said, seriously. He watched Joe’s face fall.
“We were pretty careless,” he admitted. “I tethered Coochie, but he must have broken free. I didn’t realize until Adam told me he was gone. I didn’t expect Adam to be there, Pa. When I’d left him, he was further up the gorge, by our campfire. He’d lost interest in the wolf, and I didn’t expect him to appear. I’m sorry.”
A sound at the door made Ben turn, and he saw Adam. He hadn’t really intended to start this lecture until Joe was well, but since he had both sons present, he decided that this was as good a time as any. “You were both careless,” Ben said. “I thought I had taught you better. This was an accident, I can see that, but we all know how close it came to being a real tragedy. I hope you’ve both learned from this, but I have to say how disappointed I am in you both.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe whispered. Tears stood on his lashes.
“I can’t thank you enough, Adam, for what you did for your brother,” Ben went on in a softer tone. “If you hadn’t been able to bring yourself to operate, Joe might have died.” He swallowed. Just the thought brought tears to his eyes. “Please, both of you, learn from this.”
Standing silently by the door, Adam looked as remote and detached as Ben had ever seen him. “Adam,” Joe said, and reached out his hand to his brother. “Thank you, Adam. I couldn’t tell you, but I am grateful to you for taking the bullet out.”
“I’m sorry I shot you, Joe,” Adam said, quietly. “I didn’t mean to.” He stayed where he was resisting going to Joe.
“I know that,” Joe said, not lowering his hand. Ben silently willed Adam to come over and take it. “It was as much my fault as yours.” Ben could see Joe’s arm trembling, and realized it was his left arm, the injured one. “We should’ve stayed together, you tried to tell me that.”
Abruptly, Adam moved to Joe’s side and took his hand. He felt the tremble in the muscle, and held tightly, lending strength. He had been feeling guilty, but Joe had just taken the blame, giving Adam absolution. Even though Adam knew that he had been at fault as well, he began to feel the burden of guilt lifting slightly. “It’s over, Joe,” he said, quietly. “Let’s forget about it.”
“Done,” Joe said, squeezing Adam’s hand, and grinning at him. From somewhere, Adam found a smile, and everything was all right again.
Except it wasn’t that easy to forget. Joe was laid up in bed for more than a week, and his shoulder was tender and stiff for longer than that. When he did finally get out of bed, Joe was incredibly weak, and could barely manage to dress himself. His first trip downstairs drained him completely, and he ended up being helped back to bed by Ben and Hoss. Adam became more and more withdrawn each time he saw Joe wince as he moved, or when the fork clattered from his brother’s sometimes nerveless fingers.
So when the telegram arrived, it seemed fortuitous to Adam. Joe had been up for two weeks, and had been given a series of exercises by Paul Martin to help his shoulder. Paul looked much better for his holiday, and wasn’t surprised the find that his favorite patient had been in the wars once more. On this particular day, Hoss had been in town to collect the mail, and there was a telegram for Adam.
Wondering who on earth it could be from, Adam opened it. He gazed at the paper expressionlessly for several long moments. Ben watched him. “Adam? Are you all right?” he asked, finally.
Lifting his head, Adam gazed at Ben. “It’s from Sheila Reardon,” he answered. “Her father is dead.”
“Good Lord! I’m so sorry,” Ben said. He was sorry, for he had much to be grateful to the Reardons for. “That’s very sudden.”
“He was sick,” Adam said, still in that expressionless voice that told Ben so much about his son’s distress. “And I was rude to him, Pa.”
“No, Adam,” denied Ben.
“I was,” Adam insisted. “He kept trying to offer me comfort, but I kept being rude to him. He just took it, too. When Dowd broke in, and Reardon faced him down, I thanked him, but that wasn’t enough to make up for how I’d spoken to him before.” Adam shook his head. “And now he’s dead, and Sheila wants me to go to Placerville to help her.”
A pang of fear shot through Ben’s gut. He had often wondered if the lure of the east would reassert itself in Adam, and now this young woman appeared to be helping it along. Ben didn’t want Adam to leave. He wouldn’t keep his son, if he really wanted to go, but every instinct told Ben that this was the wrong time. Adam still hadn’t reconciled himself to the accident, and he certainly wouldn’t manage to do that if he left. They needed him at home. “Are you going to go?” he asked, schooling his voice to neutrality.
“Its not too far away,” Adam said. “I could be there and back in two days. You could manage without me for that length of time.”
“Yes, we could,” Ben allowed. “But what if Sheila wants your help getting back to Philadelphia? Would you go?”
“Perhaps,” Adam replied. “I don’t know. Why would she want me to?”
“I don’t know,” Ben said, carefully. “But she seemed to think that you were better suited to a life in the east than to your life here.”
Against his will, Adam remembered Sheila’s coy voice telling him of the dreams she’d had, of him in Philadelphia, dancing at cotillions. The unspoken thought was that he would have been her husband. Adam had asked if she thought he wouldn’t measure up, and the look in her eyes told him that she thought he would measure up to anything. For a time, during those 2 days, Adam had fancied himself in love with Sheila, but now, in the cold light of day, he knew that he didn’t love her. But she was alone, and needed him, and he desperately wanted to get away to somewhere where he wouldn’t have to watch Joe struggle to do everyday tasks. To somewhere that he wasn’t being constantly reminded of the accident. And Adam knew that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to come home again.
“I’m going to Placerville,” he said, ignoring Ben’s question. “I’ll let you know what’s happening.”
There was nothing Ben could say.
“I don’t understand, Adam,” Joe said. “Why are you going?”
“I told you,” snapped Adam in response. “Sheila is alone out here and need a friend to help her. It’s a difficult time.”
“I know that, but why is she calling on you?” Joe persisted. “You don’t know her that well.”
Throwing another shirt into the bag on the bed, Adam wished Joe would go away and leave him alone. “She doesn’t know anyone else out here,” Adam said. “I liked her, and she liked me.”
Leaning against the doorjamb, Joe looked disgruntled. “I don’t remember her or her father,” he said. “Is she pretty?”
“Yes,” Adam responded. “But Joe, you saw them when I … after the accident.”
Once more, Joe winced, as Adam couldn’t mention the operation he’d had to perform. “I don’t remember much about that,” he admitted. “I sort of remember you giving me some cloth to bite on, but that’s about all. I don’t remember seeing either of their faces.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter, anyway,” Adam replied. “I’m going and that’s an end to it.” He snapped his bag shut, and looked Joe in the eye for the first time. “I already sent her a wire.”
“Don’t go,” Joe said, urgently. “We’re never going to get this sorted out if you leave, Adam!”
“There’s nothing to sort out,” Adam said, curtly. He picked up the bag and tried to walk out. Joe didn’t budge. “Get out of the way, Joe.”
“Not this time, Adam,” his brother said. “You’re still feeling guilty about shooting me, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” snapped Adam. “I feel fine about it.”
“No you don’t,” persisted Joe. “You won’t talk about it. You can hardly bear to look at me. Every time I move, you look away. Don’t you realize, my shoulder is practically better? Look.” Joe rotated his arm, a maneuver that still hurt, but had been impossible only a few short days ago. Adam looked away.
“There isn’t a problem here,” Adam insisted. “I’m leaving.”
“If you go now, you won’t come back,” Joe said, and tears were suddenly welling in his eyes. “Adam, don’t leave, please!”
“Joe, I’m going! Now get out of my way!” Angry now, Adam thrust out his arm and gave Joe a shove. He caught Joe just as his brother moved slightly, and Joe reeled back across the hallway. He crashed off the wall opposite, and winced in pain. For an instant, Adam looked at him, appalled at the new hurt he had caused his brother. “Now do you see why I must go?” he demanded. Without looking back, he ran downstairs and outside.
Within a few moments, he had Sport saddled, and was riding away. He hadn’t said goodbye to either Ben or Hoss, but he couldn’t stay an instant longer. In his guilt, he had caused Joe more hurt, and he didn’t think his younger brother would ever want to look at him again.
Almost an hour later, Ben arrived home. He gave his horse to one of the hands, and went wearily inside. Joe was sitting on the hearth, and when he looked up his face was a picture of such misery, that Ben’s heart twisted. “What’s wrong, Joe?” he asked, concerned.
“It’s Adam, Pa,” Joe said. “He was packing to leave, and I asked him why he was going. I begged him not to go, until we had this accident sorted out, but he lost his temper, and pushed me. Then he left.” Joe looked on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry, Pa, I tried to get him to stay.”
Glancing at the door, Ben wondered for a second if it would be worth setting out after Adam. But his son was a man grown, and Ben wouldn’t keep him against his will. “Are you hurt?” he asked Joe, then spotted the small bloodstain on his son’s shirt. “Joe, you’re bleeding.”
“I know,” Joe admitted, miserably. “I was showing Adam that I could rotate my arm, and I think that, combined with the bump, burst the stitches.” He sat still while Ben opened his shirt, and examined the damage.
It wasn’t very extensive but all the scar tissue had split, and it had obviously been bleeding. Ben went to get bandages, and when he took Joe’s shirt off, he discovered a huge bruise spreading down his son’s shoulder. There was also a fair amount of swelling and Ben began to fear that Joe had broken something. However, after a bit of painful probing, he decided that it was just the abused shoulder protesting against this new abuse.
Shortly after, Hoss arrived home, and he was told about Adam’s departure. Like his father and brother, Hoss wanted to mount up and ride after Adam, but Ben dissuaded him. “He’s got to make this decision for himself,” Ben insisted.
Over the course of the evening, Joe’s arm became stiffer and stiffer, until Ben insisted that he should get up to bed. Joe was soon settled, but it was clear that he wasn’t happy about Adam’s departure. Lying alone in the moonlit dark, Joe couldn’t take his mind off his brother. He didn’t think leaving was the right thing for Adam to do at all. They would never get this sorted out if they couldn’t talk about it properly. Shortly before dawn, Joe rose from his bed, having never closed his eyes at all, and dressed.
Carrying his boots, Joe headed off downstairs. He was determined to find Adam, and bring him home, or at least force him to listen. If Adam went east with Sheila Reardon, he would never come back, of that Joe was certain. He was just trying to ease his jacket on over his sore shoulder when a voice spoke from behind him. “And where do you think you’re going, young man?”
Turning slowly, Joe looked at Ben in the pre-dawn grayness. “I’m going to get Adam,” he responded. “Don’t try to stop me, Pa.”
Heaving a deep sigh, Ben frowned. “It seems great minds think alike,” he answered, and gestured. Hoss stepped round from the dining room area. “It looks like we’re all going to get Adam.”
Since they were all awake, they had breakfast first, and then Ben strapped up Joe’s arm, so he couldn’t use it. “How were you going to get to Placerville one handed?” he asked Joe sarcastically, and Joe shrugged.
“I’d have managed somehow,” he responded, seriously. And Ben didn’t doubt him for an instant.
Exhaustion was written clear on Joe’s face when they arrived in Placerville. Ben hoped that Adam hadn’t left already, for the journey had cost Joe a lot in pain. He hadn’t complained, but his lips were set in a thin line, and he was pinched and white around the nose.
Checking into the hotel, they were relieved to discover that Adam and Sheila were still there. It was too late at night for them to hunt Adam up, and Joe needed to rest. They went up to their rooms, and Ben helped Joe get ready for bed. He was practically asleep on his feet, and Ben thought that Joe would have found it a very difficult journey alone.
As dawn broke, Joe woke, and got up. He was still bone tired, but he was terrified that Adam would leave before he had the chance to speak to him. It was a struggle getting into his clothes, but he managed in the end, and even put the sling on, for his shoulder was still giving him grief. Downstairs, he asked the desk clerk if Adam was up, got a nod and was directed to the dining room.
The only person there was a young woman with strawberry blonde hair. She had a rather petted mouth, Joe thought and she was dressed in black. After a second, she looked up and saw him, and her face registered shock. Joe belatedly recognized her as Sheila Reardon. He went across and tipped his hat. “Miss Reardon,” he said, politely. “I was looking for Adam.”
“He went out a few minutes ago,” Sheila said, looking at Joe with undisguised hatred. “I suppose you’ve come to take him back.”
It wasn’t a question. Joe sat down, uninvited, and looked at her. “I’ve come to talk to him,” he said, slowly. “And to ask him to come home.”
“He’d have come east with me, but for you,” she said, spitefully. “If you hadn’t woken when you did, and called for him, he’d be safely back in Philadelphia with me.”
She was jealous, Joe realized. “Adam wouldn’t have left before I woke up,” he said. “He couldn’t have left while I was sick. Not Adam.”
“Oh, is that right?” she hissed. “You don’t know him as well as you think!”
“I need to talk to Adam,” he said, rising. ”Do you know where he went?”
“To the livery stables,” she said, grudgingly. “He went to make arrangements to get his horse home, before he purchased our rail tickets.”
“Thank you,” Joe said, and walked slowly from the dining room. He didn’t like Sheila Reardon, he decided, and he couldn’t think what Adam saw in her. Even allowing for her emotionally overwrought state, she had been unpleasant. Joe was glad he couldn’t remember her taking care of him. He didn’t know that she had hated doing so, and had grudged every moment Adam spent with Joe.
The livery stable wasn’t far away, for which Joe was very glad. He was running a slight temperature again, a result of over doing things in the last day or so. But only death would have stopped Joe from talking to Adam. Nothing was more important to him.
His brother’s familiar figure was in the stall with Sport. Cochise was in a stall across the stable, and Joe knew that Adam would have recognized his gelding. The little snippet of white on the right side of his neck was a dead giveaway, even if Adam had only known the horse slightly.
“Adam,” he said, and his brother turned.
“Why are you here, Joe?” he asked. His eye fell on the sling. “Is your arm worse?”
“A bit,” Joe said. It seemed to be stuffy in the livery. He walked across and sat on a bale of hay, trying not to feel relieved to be off his feet. “It’ll be all right. We need to talk, Adam.”
“Joe, just drop it,” Adam said, sharply. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Yes there is,” insisted Joe. “Why are you thinking of going to Philadelphia with that woman? You don’t love her!”
“How do you know?” flared Adam.
“You want to go away across the country with her, knowing that she doesn’t like me?” Joe asked. He knew it sounded conceited, but he knew that family was important to Adam, too.
“She does like you,” Adam asserted, but he didn’t sound convincing, even to his own ears. Sheila had been giving him a hard time about Joe ever since he’d arrived. He had put it down to the strain of her father’s death, but he remembered the vicious little speech about how much she hated the west and it barbarities, and wasn’t sure it was just grief. Over the last day or so, Sheila had shown him a side of her that he didn’t like. No, he didn’t like it at all. The worst part had been her unremitting dislike of Joe, and the time Adam had spent nursing him. “Go away.”
“I’m going anywhere until we get this sorted out,” Joe said. “Adam, you shot me. It was an accident. Why can’t you get that into your head? I’m an adult, even if you do sometimes forget. I should have been more careful up there and so should you! But the fact of the matter remains it was an accident!” He eyed Adam, seeing the tension in his brother’s rigid neck muscles. “Did you shoot me on purpose?” he asked, and Adam swung round to glare at Joe.
“You know I didn’t!” he declared, vehemently. “How can you ask that?”
“Because that’s how you’re acting, Adam,” Joe responded. “You act as though you were caught out doing something wrong! If it wasn’t on purpose, why are you beating yourself up like this?”
“I was stupid,” Adam said. “I didn’t think.”
“Well, guess what, brother?” Joe said. “That just makes you a human being, like all the rest of us. We all make mistakes, and there are times when we don’t think. Welcome to the human race!” He shook his head. “How does it feel not to be perfect any more, Adam?”
That last jibe suddenly got through to Adam. Yes, he had been acting as though he alone knew the rights and wrongs of the situation, and neither Joe nor anyone else had the right to challenge his perceptions. As though nobody’s judgment was any good, except his. He had been acting as though his perfection had been spoiled. Joe had forgiven him, freely and lovingly, so why couldn’t he forgive himself? What had happened had been terrible, but they had both learned from it. There was no need to act as though he had been caught committing a crime, and then been let off from his punishment. His punishment had been tending to Joe. And in a sense, it hadn’t all been terrible. He had known, when he went to remove the bullet, that Joe trusted him with his life. How much more forgiveness did he need?
“Oh, Joe,” he said, and took a step out of the stall. “Thank you.”
“I love you, Adam,” Joe said. “Now, are you coming back, or going to Philadelphia?”
“I’m coming home,” he said, and Joe let a brilliant smile of relief light his face.
“Then let’s go tell Pa,” he proposed, and stood up.
“I don’t want to you do that, Adam,” said a light female voice. Sheila stood there in the doorway and she held a small silver derringer in her hand. It was pointed at Joe. “You said you’d come with me. Why is it he calls to you and you run to him? Don’t you think that’s unnatural?”
“Sheila, don’t do this,” Adam said. “We’d have been unhappy, you and I. You said as much when you left the Ponderosa.”
“But I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. You will come with me, Adam,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
There was no warning, no time for Adam to throw himself between Joe and the gun. The bullet caught Joe high in the left arm, as he twisted desperately out of the way. He fell back, and tumbled over the hay bale just behind him. Adam threw himself at Sheila, knocking her down, and wresting for the gun in her grasp. She scratched at his face with her free hand, screaming at him. The gun went off again, and Sheila slumped in Adam’s arms. The liveryman came running, took in the scene with a glance and sped off for the sheriff and doctor. Adam stood up slowly, knowing that Sheila was dead.
There were more running steps, and Adam looked up to see Ben and Hoss appear. They had tracked Adam and Joe from the hotel. “Adam! Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Adam gasped. “But Joe was hit.”
In seconds, Ben was kneeling beside Joe, who gave him a weak smile. “Pa, Adam’s coming home,” he whispered, then fainted.
For several days, Joe wasn’t well enough to travel. Adam was very shaken by how close he had come to losing his younger brother for a second time, and even more so by the irrationality shown by Sheila. Adam had arranged for both she and Emmett to be buried there in Placerville. He was glad Emmett had not been around to see his daughter descend into madness.
While Joe was so ill the first couple of days, Adam spent as much time with him as he could. He felt guilty for Joe’s shooting, but Joe and Ben soon convinced him that it wasn’t his fault. Ben now admitted that he hadn’t liked Sheila, and in return, Adam admitted that she had begun to make him extremely uncomfortable, always harping on about Joe.
“She said I took the accident too much to heart,” Adam said, that first evening. Joe lay on a pile of pillows, his left arm strapped firmly across his chest. “I was fussing over Joe too much, and she had always said he would be all right.”
“She did, too,” Hoss recalled. “When I got back that first time I went looking for the doctor, she seemed put out that I wanted to see Joe, not eat.”
“Maybe she thought you were ill, too,” Joe interjected. “I sure would have, if I’d heard you say that!”
They all laughed. “But I thought you said she’d sat with me a couple of times,” Joe went on.
“Yes,” Adam answered, “but not very willingly. She only did it to give us a break, and I think Emmett might have expected her to offer. But she tried very hard to persuade me to go back east with her, even when you were so ill. And she said to me here, that she thought that if you died, I’d leave at once, and forget about the Ponderosa.”
“Did she really think that you’d go with her if she’d killed me?” Joe asked, soberly.
“Who knows what she thought,” Adam answered.
“I think that’s enough for tonight,” Ben said, seeing Joe’s eyelids droop. He ushered his older sons out of the room, and settled Joe for the night.
They took Joe home in a wagon. He protested the whole way that he was fit enough to ride, but nobody paid him any heed. Once back home, Adam helped him from the wagon, and Ben took him up to bed. “No arguments,” he said sternly. “You’ve had a traumatic few days.”
It didn’t take long to get Joe settled, and Ben sat down on the edge of the bed. “What’s on your mind, son?” he asked, for Joe was thoughtful.
“I was thinking about Sheila,” he admitted. “I just can’t work her out. I never said two words to her, yet she hated me enough to kill me. Why, Pa?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “I didn’t really know her either. But I think that she was quite a spoiled young lady, from what Adam says. Emmett had dragged himself up by the bootlaces, and made a good life for Sheila here. Her mother had died, I don’t know when, and Emmett had raised her alone. When Sheila discovered that her father was dying, it must have been very frightening for her. She would have been all alone in the world. Meeting Adam when she did must have seemed like the answer to her. A ready-made protector. She could see he was strong and responsible, and there is clearly money here. But then Adam showed that he loved you a great deal, and was willing to do whatever he had to save your life. She was jealous of that love, Joe. But it still doesn’t explain why she wanted to kill you.”
“I guess we’ll never know,” Joe said, and sighed. “It’s so good to have Adam back, isn’t it, Pa?”
“Yes, it is, son,” Ben agreed. “I still think you were mad setting off alone to look for him.”
“What was that?” said a deep voice from the doorway, and they looked round to see Adam coming in.
“Your younger brother, despite having only one arm working properly, and that not his gun arm, decided to set out for Placerville alone to find you,” explained Ben, in amusement. “Luckily for him, your other brother and I had had the same idea, and were already downstairs.”
“Really?” Adam asked. He looked at Joe. “You felt that strongly about it?”
“I couldn’t let you leave without clearing the air between us,” Joe said. “We’d never have spoken again if I’d done that.”
Reflecting on that, Adam realized Joe was right. If he had gone, he would’ve allowed his guilt to fester, until he would have been unable to contact Joe ever again. He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t seen that earlier. He made a wry face. “Guess you were right, back in that stable, Joe,” he allowed.
“How’d you mean?” Joe asked.
“I guess I’m not perfect after all,” he admitted.
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Hoss, coming in. “Its plumb hard goin’ dealin’ with a saint all the time, ain’t it, Joe?”
Grinning, Joe agreed. “Sure is, and I’m mighty glad St. Adam doesn’t live here!”
They all laughed, Adam the longest. It was a relief to be back, where love came from the heart.
Grateful thanks and much love to my sister Claire for the title idea! Thanks sis!