Word Count: 13,019
Joe stomped from the barn; anger glowed in his emerald eyes as he made his way to the house. In the barn, an equally angered Adam, slung the bucket he held in his hand across to the other side, hitting the wall with a loud bang and making a clanging sound when it hit the hard packed earth. Adam gritted his teeth; his jaw was clenched tightly and his fists were rolled into tight balls. He’d had about all he could stand of the younger man who had just stomped out of the barn.
For days, weeks it seemed he and Joe had been at loggerheads with one another. They had argued endlessly about one thing or another. Each and every time the kid opened his mouth it was to make some nasty remark about what or why he was supposed to be doing something. Couldn’t he just do his work without complaining, Adam thought? Why did the boy always want to put up a fight…always rub him the wrong way…couldn’t Joe ever do anything right? Was it too much to ask…after all he was a man…or so his younger brother kept claiming he was, but Adam had other thoughts on the matter.
Joe opened and slammed the door shut. Ben, who had been sitting at his desk, jumped to his feet to see who had entered the house in such a manner. He wasn’t surprised one bit to see that it was his youngest son. It had happened before, many times, almost daily for what appeared to be forever and the loud banging was exhausting his waning nerves.
“WHAT?” Joe shouted.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘WHAT’?” Ben roared.
Joe stopped in his tracks; he had been on his way to his room, but at the sound of his father’s odd question, Joe halted any further advance toward the staircase. Ben stepped into the center of the room. His hands were on his hips and right away Joe noted the angry glow in the dark eyes.
“I would advise you to change the tone of your voice, young man, when you’re speaking to me,” Ben said in a calmer voice. “Now would you mind explaining why you burst in here like you did and slamming the door? How many times have I told you that is no way to enter my house?”
Joe took a deep breath to regain a measure of calm for himself. Seemed as if today was his day for making everyone mad at him.
“I’m sorry, sir…for both offenses,” Joe said quietly.
“Alright then,” Ben answered. He could see that his son was upset. By the look on the young man’s face, Ben could only suspect that the boy and Adam had been going at it once again. He was growing weary of the constant arguing between his two sons. So many times over the last few weeks he had tried to bring peace between the two, tried to find some common ground, but everything he attempted to do, failed and it looked as if he’d failed miserably. What would it take to bring the two back together…where was he ever going to find the solution to bring a halt or at least a truce to all the bickering?
“What is it this time?” Ben asked in a less than enthusiastic tone.
Joe, who had lowered his head, looked up into his father’s eyes. He puckered up his lips.
“Him…who else?” he said with disgust.
Ben sighed deeply, shaking his head slowly from side to side. He rubbed his temples for he had the makings of a headache. “What now?” he asked finally.
“Everything!” Joe groaned.
Joe moved from in front of the stairs where he’d been standing to the fireplace. His back was to his father.
“Everything? What things, Joseph? Be a little more specific if you don’t mind,” his father insisted.
“Damnit, Pa…ere…sorry, sir…I didn’t mean to swear,” Joe apologized in a trembling voice. He glanced sideways to find his father’s angry eyes boring into him. Joe turned around and moved closer to his father, stopping in front of Ben.
“It isn’t any one thing, Pa…it’s everything. According to Adam, I can’t do anything right, proper or correctly…and I’m using his words, not mine. I can’t even clean the barn or the tack room to his specifications. I don’t know the proper way to organize the tack, I can’t mend a harness correctly, or repair a wagon wheel or mend a fence, or herd cattle, or break a wild horse…Mr. Smarty Pants says I’m lazy, that I chew with my mouth open, I put my feet on the furniture, I slurp, I burp, I far…well…you know what I mean, but it ain’t so. I don’t do all those horrible things…at least not in public or in mixed company. And I do know how to repair a wheel, and a harness and a fence and I can herd cattle, hell fire…oops…sorry, Pa…but Adam’s the one that taught me how to herd and rope and brand and ride. So why’s he now making an issue of it all? Why can’t I please him? I’m tired, Pa…I’m just plain ol’ tired of trying to please him…”
Ben’s eyes opened wide as he inhaled deeply. He had known of the on-going arguments between his two boys but until that moment, he had no idea that things had gotten so out of hand. His anger abated some and as he looked at the forlorn expression on Little Joe’s face, he felt a measure of sorrow for the lad, for Ben knew that Joe did work hard and he tried hard to please his brother. Adam was almost as hard a taskmaster as he, himself, but with much less patience. Ben sighed again and placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder, affectionately pulling the younger man into a hug.
At that moment, the front door opened and Adam walked in, halted by the scene between his father and younger brother. “Well…isn’t this cozy,” he jeered.
Ben turned, seeing the anger that lingered in his oldest son’s dark eyes. Joe immediately pulled away from his father, frowning, and sat down on the hearth.
“And what is that suppose to mean?” Ben asked.
“Nothing, really,” Adam stated as he took off his gun belt, folded it and placed it on the credenza. He glanced across the room at his brother. “I figured you’d go running to Pa; that’s what most boys would do…so…what have you been telling him? How you’ve slacked off all day…or refused to do as you were asked…or maybe you’ve told him how you left the fence in the north pasture untended…which resulted in me having to ride down there and round up those 20 odd steers that managed to stray? Which was it, little brother?”
“Go to hell, Adam!” snapped Joe, standing to his feet and advancing on his brother.
“JOSEPH!” bellowed Ben.
Angry with both boys, Ben stepped between the two. Adam’s chest had swelled when Joe had gotten up and immediately Ben sensed that an actual, physical fight might erupt in the middle of his living room. “That will be enough!” he demanded, looking first to one and then the other. “I will not have my sons going head to head with one another in my house…or anywhere else! Is that understood? I want this constant bickering and arguing stopped once and for all…or else!” shouted Ben.
Joe stood with his head lowered but raised it slightly to look over at Adam. Adam was standing ramrod stiff and refused to say a word. Joe straightened up, if Adam could be stubborn, then so could he.
“I said, do you two understand me?” Ben repeated in a demanding tone that left no doubt that he meant business.
The angry father watched first one son and then another. But neither one volunteered to say anything.
“Why do I have to be the one to concede?” stormed Joe, “Why can’t he say something? He hasn’t had a problem running his mouth up until this moment!”
“Well God knows, I’ve had good reason to ‘run my mouth’ as you so eloquently put it!” shouted Adam. “If you’d grow up and act your age then perhaps I wouldn’t have to ‘run my mouth’…you know, little brother, if you were nothing more than hired helped, I would have fired you long ago…”
Joe’s fist had long since been doubled up and he took advantage of the fact. Practically shoving his father aside, he swung at Adam, hitting him directly on his chin and sending his sibling tumbling backwards.
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben as he grabbed for Joe to restrain him and to prevent him from hitting his brother a second time.
Joe fought his father’s restraining arms, but Adam, fired with anger and resentment at finding himself at the end of his younger brother’s fist, took advantage of the fact that Joe was being confined. He belted his brother in his mid-section, doubling Joe in two. Ben released his hold that in turn allowed Joe to drop to his knees, moaning.
Ben’s eyes were red balls of fire, anger burned deep in his soul. He glared at his oldest son as he leaned down to help Joe to stand.
“How dare you!” Ben snarled to Adam.
“How dare I?” Adam retorted, “How dare him! He hit me first!” he shouted, pointing at his younger brother.
“How dare both of you! This is the last straw!” shouted Ben.
Hoss entered the house at that moment, pausing at the scene being played out in front of him, confused by what he saw.
“You bet it is!” Adam returned just as loudly. He marched across the room and picked up his belongings and started out the door.
“Just where do you think you’re going, young man…I haven’t finished this yet!”
“Well I have, Pa…goodbye!” Adam said as he pushed passed his middle brother. The door slammed behind him.
Hoss swallowed deeply as he moved to his father’s side. He could easily see the pain in his younger brother’s eyes and the disappointment in his father’s. “What happened?” he asked softly.
Ben, his lips pressed tightly glanced first at Joe and then Hoss, and then moved away from both to stand in front of the fire. He said nothing.
Joe looked up at Hoss. His expression showed his own grief. “I’m sorry, Pa…I shouldn’t have hit him…”
“No…you shouldn’t have…but you did!”
“I said I was sorry…what more do you want me to say?” Joe asked.
“Don’t you think it’s just a little too late to say anything more? Seems to me that too much has been said as it is!” grumbled Ben.
“And I suppose you’re meaning that all of this is my fault?” barked Joe.
“I didn’t say that…”
“No…but that’s what you meant!” shouted Joe.
He had stomped over to the steps heading for his room, but he stopped and turned around once more to face his father.
“You don’t have to worry…it won’t happen again…I can promise you that!”
Joe was halfway to the landing but his father’s next words forced him to stop dead in his tracks.
“I’ve heard that promise before…Hoss, pack your things…”
Joe turned slowly, hurt by the defeat he’d just heard in his father’s words and confused by his last statement.
“Pack my things, Pa…” Hoss gave Joe a quick, worried look, “How’s come?”
“We’re leaving…” Ben said, standing up to his full height. “I’ve heard all I want to of this bickering and name calling…and fighting; you and I are going on a holiday,” he explained.
Joe still had not moved, nor had he said anything. Ben approached the stairs and glared up at his youngest son. “And you, young man…and your older brother, will remain here, alone…together until the two of you can work out your differences.”
Ben began climbing the stairs. At the landing, he stopped and looked down at the frightened face of his youngest son. “I shall be in touch…so that you will know where we are. Hoss and I will be gone for about a month…perhaps longer…I suggest that you and Adam mend whatever bridges you two have managed to tear apart. I will not remain in a house divided, even if it is my own home, do you understand?”
Unable to say a word, stunned into silence to think that his actions had actually gone so far as to drive his father from his own home, Joe fought against the despairing tears that threatened to spill forth. He nodded his head in reply.
Hoss walked slowly up the stairs, stopping only long enough to press his hand down on Joe’s shoulder. Joe watched, broken-heartedly as his father and brother disappeared around the corner of the hall. Slowly, he walked back down stairs and over to the fire. He had no idea that he had stood in the same spot for as long as he had, but eventually, at the sound of footsteps on the stairs, he looked up.
Ben and Hoss were descending, each with a carpetbag in their hands. Ben looked at the boy but said nothing, only moved to the credenza to gather his hat and gun belt. Hoss did the same, silent as he strapped on his own gun belt, ever aware of the sadness that shown on his younger sibling’s face.
When Ben was finished, he looked up at Joe, well aware of the same expression that Hoss had seen. His anger abated somewhat for the boy looked positively heartsick. “We’re going first to San Francisco, Joseph…I’m not sure yet where we’ll go from there. You take care of yourself, son…and see if you can’t get your life back on track.”
Ben said nothing more, nor did he give Joe time to respond, instead he picked up his bag and walked out the door. Hoss lingered behind. “See ya, Joe,” he said softly.
And then…he was alone.
When Adam pushed opened the front door and entered the house, Joe, who had been sitting on the settee staring at the fire, sprang to his feet and spun around, hoping that his father had changed his mind and returned home. He was disappointed to see that instead it was Adam.
Adam instantly noted the sour expression on his brother’s face as he removed his hat and gun belt. Joe said nothing but returned to his seat. Adam was very much aware of the uncommon silence within the house and the way in which Joe appeared to be ignoring him. Slowly he moved into the main room and took a seat in his father’s leather chair. He leaned back and rested his head against the back of the chair, watching his brother. “I ran into Pa and Hoss in town,” he said after several long moments of silence.
Joe raised his eyes and looked at Adam. If Adam thought that his brother would respond to his statement, he was wrong. Another lull in the conversation only added to the prolonged silence.
“He told me that he and Hoss were going away,” Adam said.
Once again, Joe studied his brother’s face. He thought perhaps the way that Adam had made his statement showed his older brother’s resentment toward him. The idea made Joe bristle.
“And I suppose you blame me for that as well?” Joe said angrily. He stood up, shoving his hands into his pockets to keep himself from striking out once again at the man who had also stood and was now facing him.
“I didn’t say that, Joe…”
“No…but you’re thinking it…”
“I did no such thing…you’re imagining it…”
“Oh…is that so?”
“Well, you’re wrong!” blared Adam.
“Of course I am,” shouted Joe, “aren’t I always?”
“Oh for God’s sake, Joe, grow up!” stormed Adam as he dashed up the stairs without so much as a backward glance at Joe.
Joe was left to turn down the lamps and bed down the fire. He did so with a heavy heart and great overwhelming feeling of having been abandoned.
For the first few mornings after Ben and Hoss’ departure, Joe found himself alone at the breakfast table. After a week of solitude, he was more than just a little lonely and despaired over the fact that Adam had said next to nothing to him since their other family members had taken leave. And Joe was consumed with guilt so much so that he had hardly slept at all and eaten next to nothing for days now. Joe had paced the floor until the wee hours of the morning trying to decide the best way to go about mending those fences that his father had advised him to mend. He reasoned it was time if ever his father and middle brother were to come home again, and that’s what Joe wanted most right then, that and to restore the bond between himself and Adam that had somehow become severed.
By the time that Joe sat down to breakfast on this particular morning, he found that Adam had already eaten and gone about his chores, which had become the norm of late. Not really hungry, Joe sipped at his coffee and then pushed back his chair. After grabbing his hat, he hurried to the barn only to find that his brother was hitching up the wagon about ready to leave.
Adam barely looked up when Joe entered the barn. It wasn’t because he was still angry with the boy, but because he was as much consumed with guilt over what had transpired as his younger brother. Adam was keenly aware of the sideways glances in his direction as Joe moved about the barn but had yet to speak.
Deciding it was well past time to put an end to the silence that hung heavy between them and to once and for all mend the breech in their relationship, Adam was the first to speak.
“I’m going down to the south forks. One of the men said the fences down there needed some repairing,” Adam said as he continued to load supplies into the back of the wagon.
Joe felt as if his tongue was too thick to speak. His emotions were raw as he turned to his brother. “Want me to help you?” he asked, almost afraid that if his brother refused his offer, he’d not be able to face the rejection. He stood on the opposite side of his horse, watching Adam and waiting for his brother to refuse him, as he was sure that Adam would do.
But he was surprised when Adam turned around and gave him what Joe might consider a tiny smile.
“Sure…I could use some company,” Adam said and then returned to doing what he’d started.
He had seen the startled expression on the younger man’s face and suddenly regretted all that had happened to put them so far apart. Perhaps there was hope yet that today would begin the long road back to where they had fallen away, thought Adam with high hopes.
Stunned almost beyond words, Joe smiled to himself and hurried to Adam‘s side to help with the loading of the wagon. Together the brothers finished with putting the things in the back. Both said nothing but Joe sensed that the silence this time was less threatening.
When Adam was ready, Joe led the team from the barn and waited on the wagon seat for his brother to shut the barn door. As Adam was climbing into the seat, a stranger rode into the yard and right up to the wagon.
“You Adam Cartwright?” he asked.
“That’s right,” Adam responded.
“I got a letter for you,” the messenger answered and handed the envelope to Adam.
“Thanks,” Adam said as he took the envelope and dug into his pocket to pay the man for his trouble.
“Want me to wait to see if you need to send an answer?” the stranger asked.
“Sure, hold on a minute.”
Adam opened the folded paper, quickly scanned it, and then passed it to Joe. Joe read the note, which was dated nearly a week ago. A pleased expression washed over his face. He watched as Adam scribbled a quick response and then passed the note over to the messenger.
“Could you send this as a telegram, please?” Adam asked the messenger, who instantly responded that he would do so.
When the man had gone, Joe turned to Adam. His voice was low and thick when he spoke. “Sounds like they’re having a good time in San Francisco.”
“Yeah…wish we could have gone…”
Adam glanced over at his brother worried that Joe might have taken his statement the wrong way. “Joe…I didn’t mean…”
“It’s alright, Adam…I wish we could have gone too…maybe another time…just…you and I can go. That is…if you want to?”
Adam smiled at the boy, suddenly realizing that it was the first real smile he’d given to his brother in a mighty long time. “Sure, why not…we can go to the theater and see a play…or maybe I’ll take you to the museums and show you…”
Adam had already headed the wagon down the road. He pulled back on the reins, bringing the wagon to a halt. Something in Joe’s voice sounded strange.
“What is it, Joe?”
“I was thinking…instead of the theater or the museums…couldn’t we have some real fun…say like go down to the docks…”
“Forget it, kid; Pa’d have my hide if I allowed you to go down there and something happened to you!”
Joe giggled. “What did you write on that paper…for the messenger to send back to Pa?”
Adam kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead of him. “I just told Pa that you and I were on our way to mend some fences,” he said and then looked to see the startled look on Joe’s face. Joe returned the gesture and then leaned back against the seat, content for the first time in many weeks.
Unfortunately for both, the day did not go as well as each Cartwright had been hoping. Before they had even reached the downed fences, the harness that Joe was supposed to have fixed, broke. When it happened, Adam yanked back on the reins bringing the team to a sudden and unsteady stop. He jumped down from the wagon to inspect the damage.
“I thought you said you fixed this thing?” he said in a huff at Joe.
Joe was standing on the opposite side of the wagon looking with disgust at the broken harness. “I did fix it…”
“Obviously you didn’t do it right…”
“Wait a minute, Adam,” growled Joe. “This here is the old harness that I tried to tell you wasn’t worth fixing, but you insisted…I warned you this might happen, but oh no…you HAD to have it your way…well, big brother, look where it got us!” stormed Joe as he turned and walked off a bit.
Adam gritted his teeth but said nothing more on the matter. He set about fixing it as best he could, it would delay them all morning and he had hoped to have the fences mended and be home before dark. Now that looked as if it was not going to happen and they’d have to come back tomorrow to finish what should have been a one-day job. He was angry to say the least.
An hour later, the pair were on their way once again. Neither said anything to the other. Joe looked as if he was sulking and Adam was content to watch the scenery and brood in silence. Once they reached the break in the fence, both young men set about work, still without talking to one another. They were almost finished when Adam turned, fence railing in his arms, and accidentally bumped into Joe, sending the younger of the two, tumbling into the dirt.
For a moment, Adam almost laughed out right until Joe scrambled to his feet and Adam caught a glimpse of the angry expression on his younger brother’s face.
“Damn you, Adam!” snarled Joe. “What’d you go and do that for?”
“It was an accident…”
“Oh sure it was…not likely,” Joe retorted.
Adam set the log on the top to form the uppermost rail of the fence. “Think what you want; I really don’t care…I said it was an accident, and it was. If it makes you feel any better, then I apologize.”
“That would be nice if I thought you meant it, but I don’t,” Joe said firmly.
Adam sighed deeply, disgusted with the entire day. He bit his tongue to keep from making another sharp retort and thus adding fuel to an already hot fire. Turning his back to Joe, he wrapped some wire around the top rail to hold it in place, all the while trying to keep from fighting with the youngster.
“Look Joe,” Adam said as he tightened the wire, “I don’t want to argue with you again today…I’m tired, I’m dirty and I’m hungry. Let’s just get this done and get home…hey,” he said after catching a glimpse of the team moving away, “where do you think you’re going?” Adam called as he dropped the string of wire and started after the wagon. “JOE…YOU GET BACK HERE WITH THAT WAGON RIGHT NOW!” bellowed Adam, stunned to have turned around and seen his brother driving away.
He started to run after the wagon, but Joe was pushing the horses much too fast and he realized after running only a short ways, that there would be no way that he could catch the fleeing team. He’d just have to walk home…but, he promised himself, once he got there, he’d teach that younger brother of his a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget!
It was after dark by the time a weary and exhausted Adam walked into the yard. He noted that the lamp inside the house was not even burning and wondered only briefly as to why it might not be. Staggering, Adam went to the water trough and splashed water onto his face. He was hot, exhausted beyond going and extremely hungry, but not nearly as much as he was furious at his brother.
Adam made it to the door, surprised to find it standing slightly ajar. Thinking only that in his haste, Joe had forgotten to close it tightly, Adam pushed it opened and walked inside, quickly scanning the room. He was surprised to see Joe sitting across the room in the chair near the bottom of the stairs. The boy was leaning over; his hands covered his face, his elbows were propped on his knees.
Adam was just about to make some sharp remark when Joe looked up at him. Even in the dim lighting cast only by the glow of the fire in the fireplace, Adam could make out the grim expression on his brother’s face. He laid his gun belt on the credenza and crossed the room. Joe stood up.
“I’ve a good mind to beat the hell out of you for leaving me down in the pasture…”
Joe said nothing but Adam again noted the strange look on the boy’s face. He studied it intently. Something was dreadfully wrong, Adam sensed.
“What’s wrong, Joe? Did you wreck the wagon…you were certainly driving like a mad man…?”
Joe swallowed, straightening only slightly. Adam saw the boy’s chin begin to quiver. When Joe held out his hand, Adam took the paper that was offered him. Before unfolding it, he looked again at Joe’s face. The younger man’s eyes had glazed over with tears. Deep inside his gut, Adam suddenly felt sick with a rising fear that he couldn’t explain. His anger at his brother was quickly forgotten, replaced with what Adam sensed as pending doom.
Confused, Adam shrugged his shoulders. “What are you talking about…who’s dead?”
Joe pointed to the paper Adam now held in his hand. Joe’s motions were slow as if he were in shock; his voice was thick with passion and uncertainty. “Pa…and Hoss…here, a messenger brought this after I got home…” he said as a sob caught in his throat.
Adam’s face paled considerably as he slowly unfolded the paper and read the words. His knees suddenly felt weak as he quickly scanned the note and then glanced at his brother. The second time, Adam read more slowly, as the truth of the words sank in.
Virginia City, Nevada
We are sorry to inform you of the unexpected deaths of your father Ben Cartwright, and your brother Hoss Cartwright late yesterday afternoon. Both were among the victims of a fire that claimed the lives of 25 persons trapped in the Royal Regency Hotel, San Francisco, California.
Our deepest sympathy,
Chief of Police
San Francisco, California
Adam’s eyes could not stray from the words, they seemed glued to the paper. It was only when he heard Joe begin to weep that he was able to focus on his brother rather than the heart breaking message. Joe had turned away, standing before the fire with one foot propped on the hearth. His hand covered his face and eyes.
“Joe…” Adam said with deep empathy. His own heart was in his throat and he felt as if he was smothering; it was hard for him to speak, but he forced himself. “This can’t be right…it has to be a…mistake…we just got a letter this morning from Pa…”
Joe wiped his hand down the front of his face to wipe away the moisture. His expression when he turned looked hopeful.
“You think so, Adam…do you really…believe there’s been a mistake?”
Adam shook his head slowly. “I don’t know…but maybe…”
Again an array of expressions flashed across the young face. This time anger showed in his hazel eyes and resounded in his voice when Joe spoke.
“This is your fault; you know that, don’t you?” Joe said unexpectedly.
Bewildered, Adam was speechless.
“Pa and Hoss would never have gone away if you hadn’t started all that arguing and fighting all the time…you know that, don’t you?”
“Joe…you can’t be serious?”
Irrationality began to overpower the young man’s rational thinking. His insides hurt, his heart was crushed beyond repair…and he was beyond being angry…he was furious and he struck out at his brother, verbally.
“Of course I’m serious…think about the things Pa said before he left…he said he couldn’t stand it here anymore…that his home had become a house divided and he refused to live here…he couldn’t stand being around us anymore!”
Joe took a deep breath and held it a long moment before expelling it. He turned away from his brother, unable to tolerate looking at him. “If only you hadn’t been so bossy all the time and so damn arrogant…and because you were, my father and brother are dead!”
Infuriated himself, Adam grabbed Joe by the arm and spun him around to face him. “Now you wait just a darn minute…you aren’t laying this on my shoulders! If there’s blame to be had, you’d best carry your share…”
“What do you mean by that?” demanded Joe, wrenching his arm free from Adam’s vice like grip.
“If you had done what you were told to do and had done it right the first time…instead of…”
“Are you saying this is MY fault…that I am to blame for Pa leaving and getting…”
“I’m saying we’re both to blame…”
“But mostly me?” shouted Joe.
Exasperated, Adam groaned and lowered his body onto the settee. He shook his head no and then leaned over, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“No…I only meant that this was an accident…a horrible accident if this telegram is correct,” Adam explained in a softer, kinder tone. He stood back up. “Look Joe…you can’t blame me for this and we can’t blame ourselves…and we certainly can’t blame each other…”
“You’re wrong Adam…they left because of our bickering…and you caused that bickering!”
Joe turned and rushed up the stairs, leaving Adam standing alone in the great room with his own broken heart and tormented spirit. His brother’s cruel words burned in his ears. He thought hard on what Joe had said, was the boy right…was he to blame…had he purposely picked fights with his brother just to get a rile out of the boy…had he been the real reason why his father had taken his leave? Suddenly, Adam was overcome with grief as he sat down and melted into the soft folds of his father’s chair. Burying his face in his hands, Adam succumbed to the grief that had swallowed him up.
The next morning as Joe made his way down the stairs, the first thing he saw was Adam standing by the fireplace, poking at the embers. Joe paused briefly on the landing and then continued. Adam barely looked up.
Ignoring his brother, Adam turned and crossed the room, going to the credenza and began strapping on his gun belt. Unsure of what was going on, Joe hurried across the room. “Where are you going?” he asked, suddenly feeling a spark of fear that he was being abandoned, by his last surviving family member. His heart was suddenly in his throat.
Adam’s eyes quickly darted to Joe and then back to focus on what he was doing. “What does it look like I’m doing?” he said rather stiffly. “I’m leaving…”
“Leaving?” stammered Joe in a hoarse voice that trembled when he spoke. “Why? Where are you going?”
Adam put his hat on and reached for the door, pausing to look back at the boy who so obviously showed signs of great distress and sadness. “I thought a lot about what you said last night, Joe…and you were probably right. This is my fault…or at least Pa’s reasons for leaving were my fault…I suppose I was picking on you…oh…not on purpose, though to you it probably seemed that way. I’m sorry, Joe…I never meant to hurt you…or to drive our father and brother from our home…”
“Adam, look,” Joe said, in a near panic voice. “I was just…overcome…I don’t know…but I didn’t mean those things I said last night…honest…you don’t have to go…please?”
“Yes I do, Joe…”
“No…” Joe pleaded in a near shout. He was on the verge of another onslaught of tears. “Please, Adam…you can’t…I…I…don’t want you to go…” By now the tears had formed and Joe’s vision was blinded by the wetness. “I don’t wanna lose…you too, Adam…I couldn’t stand another…loss…”
“Joe…it’s something I have to do…”
“NO! I don’t want you to go…Adam for God’s sake, listen to me…please, I don’t blame you…honest I don’t…please…at least take me with you…I don’t want to stay here alone…I…I’ll die if you make me…”
Joe blinked and the tiny beads of water spilled forth. Adam watched as his younger brother struggled to control his floundering emotions and felt his heart begin to melt. They had both suffered an insurmountable loss; the boy’s outburst last night was justified. There were no further reasons for either of them to be at loggerheads with one another. As it stood at that moment, each other was all the other had left in the world.
“Joe…look at me,” Adam said for Joe had lowered his head to hide the tears from his brother.
“I wasn’t leaving you…but I was leaving…”
“But why, Adam…where were you going…and why can’t I come with you?”
Adam’s lips made a small, strained smile. “I didn’t say you couldn’t come with me…in fact, I was rather hoping that you would,” Adam explained.
“Where would we go?” Joe asked a bit confused.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to San Francisco.”
The doubt showed in Joe’s expression. “San Francisco?”
“Yep…I want to find out for myself whether or not this telegram is correct. I’m not going to be satisfied until I know for sure what really happened to our father and brother…one way or the other.” Adam started out the door. “You coming or not?”
“You bet I am…”
The boys chose to travel by horseback to save time rather than travel by stage to San Francisco. They arrived in town shortly after noon and went directly to the Chief of Police’s office in downtown. He greeted them in a friendly, yet somewhat reserved manner.
“I’m Chief Millsap…and you are?”
“Adam Cartwright, this is my brother, Joe…you wired us about our father and brother…”
The chief looked momentarily confused.
“Ben and Hoss Cartwright…your telegram said they perished in a fire…” Joe said.
“Oh yes…the Royal Regency Hotel…yes, that was tragic and I’m so sorry about your loss,” the Chief stated. “But…how can I help you?”
“We were hoping to get some facts…” Adam began.
“Facts…what kind of facts, Mr. Cartwright?” Millsap asked as he led the pair into a small room that was obviously his office.
“Facts about the fire, naturally, what caused it, how can you be so sure our father and brother were two among those trapped…”
“They were listed as being on the register of course…and it was in the middle of the night…have you received any word…perhaps from them assuring you that they were not in their rooms at the time that the fire broke out?”
“No…” Joe answered sadly. “I wish we had…”
The chief looked remorsefully at both young men. “So do I, son.” He motioned for them to take a seat.
“All I can tell you is that some time after midnight on the 22nd, we got word that the hotel was on fire. By the time my men got there, the fire department was already on the scene and the building was totally ablaze. We could hear people screaming for help but the fire was too hot to get to them. Part of the second floor had already collapsed and there just wasn’t any way up to the third floor…I’m sorry, really I am, but the fire department did all they could.”
Joe sat with his head bent low trying to push from his mind’s eyes the visions that kept appearing. It was difficult to will away the flashes of his father and Hoss’ faces, as they appeared…frightened and burnt beyond recognition. It sent a chill racing down his spine.
“I’m sure everyone there did their best, sir…but that still doesn’t prove to us that our father and brother were among the…victims…” Adam said hesitantly.
“I know you’d like to believe that by some stroke of fate your family members miraculously escaped…but it isn’t likely, son. Come with me…” the chief said as he stood and led Adam and Joe from his office.
They walked silently down a long hallway before coming to another room. The door was closed tightly. Chief Millsap turned to face Adam and Joe.
“There were no bodies to speak of…everyone we found after the fire was extinguished was charred so badly that it was hard to say who was who. We had all the remains buried over at the main cemetery…though there are no headstones saying who was who…we just couldn’t tell…”
Horrified, Joe gulped hard. “You mean…if our pa and brother were caught in the fire…we don’t even have a body to claim?” Joe looked with troubled eyes up at Adam.
Adam was having a hard time masking his own repulsion at the thought. It left him with an empty, hollow feeling inside, like someone had reached deep down within his soul and stolen it away without his knowledge. The entire situation was like a nightmare in the middle of the afternoon. The grief he was feeling and the despondency that had become embedded into his brother’s face was a well of deep sorrow and it kept getting deeper as the minutes flew past.
“Again, gentlemen…I am sorry…but you are not the only ones…no one has a body to claim, only these,” he said as he opened the door and led the boys into the room. “Perhaps the truth you seek will be among the items we did manage to salvage once the fire was put out.” He pointed to a number of articles that had been spread out on a long table for easy examination. Together, Adam and Joe walked over to the items for a better look.
“There isn’t much here,” Adam said after a moment.
“As I’ve said, Mr. Cartwright…it was a very intense, hot, quick burning fire…it destroyed practically everything…”
“And everybody,” muttered Joe, feeling sick to his stomach for the hundredth time since learning of the tragedy.
“I’ll leave the two of you alone for a bit. Look everything over carefully; if you find something that might have belonged to either your father or your brother…feel free to claim it. I’ll be in my office when you’re finished; we’ll talk some more then,” the Chief said kindly and then quickly backed from the room, leaving Adam and Joe to themselves.
“Find anything?” Joe asked after looking at several of the charred items.
“Me either…maybe they weren’t here, Adam, like you said…” Joe said with a touch of hope.
“Or maybe all their things got burned…or maybe…hey, look at this!” Adam said suddenly.
Quickly Joe rounded the long table so that he could stand next to Adam to see what he held in his hand.
“What is it?” Joe asked, looking over Adam’s shoulder at the item so that he could examine it more closely.
“It’s Pa’s pipe…or what’s left of it,” Adam said as he turned the object over in his hand for a closer look.
“How can you be so sure it’s Pa’s?” Joe asked. Already a feeling of doom was settling in the pit of his stomach.
“Because it’s the pipe I gave him last Christmas; see this little nick in the chimney…well, Pa put it there himself…” Adam glanced at Joe and then handed the pipe to him. “Here, Joe, you keep it,” he said quietly as he returned his attention to the assortment on the table.
Joe held the pipe lovingly in his hands, toying with it as if the object stirred a memory. His throat was too thick to allow him to speak. A moment later he slipped the precious item into his pocket and with a heavy heart, joined Adam at the table.
“Adam?” Joe called. “Come here.”
Adam saw the look of defeat on Joe’s face and knew that his brother had found something else. When Adam stood at Joe’s side, he could almost feel the boy’s body trembling. Joe was unable to speak but he pointed to the table. There, as large as life, lay one of Hoss’ boots. The leather was burned, smudged with smoke, but there was no mistaking the fact that the boot had indeed belonged to their middle brother.
Joe heard Adam curse softly under his breath. He had to turn away to hide his disappointment and the quivering of his chin. It seemed as if Joe’s heart broke again, only this time into a hundred, trillion little pieces that could never be put back together.
Adam’s own heart was filled with sorrow and grief and within himself he felt a strange desperation fill him. He glanced at Joe, noted that the boy had finally reached the point that he knew that their loved ones had truly died in the horrendous fire along with several others. Adam wanted to go to his brother, to comfort Joe, but he could not find the strength nor did he have the words needed that might bring the boy a measure of relief from his inner torment, for he was feeling the same unbearable grief that he knew Joe was feeling, only his grief was undercoated with the guilt that ate away at his soul.
Adam picked up the boot and turned it over. On the underside was the unmistakable hole that Hoss had been complaining about hurting his foot. Adam sighed deeply and scanned the table for the boot’s mate, but it was not among the salvaged items. He needed no more proof to the question he had been asking, they had found what they had come to find.
“Joe…come on, let’s get out of here,” Adam said as he placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Joe glanced sideways at Adam and nodded his head. “Yeah…” It was all the younger Cartwright could get out.
Joe had no desire to speak again with the police chief, so he stood outside of the man’s office while Adam explained to the Chief about the pipe and the boot. Minutes later, both men emerged from the room.
“Mr. Cartwright…Adam, Joe…I’d like to say again how sorry I am about your father and brother and offer you my sincere condolences for your loss,” the Chief offered with sincerity.
“Thank you, sir…we…appreciate all you’ve done,” Adam said, shaking Millsap’s hand.
“So, will you be returning home?”
“Not just yet. I think Joe and I will be staying for a couple of nights…we have some other business to tend to. And I think we’ll stop by the cemetery. Could you recommend a good hotel…something nearby?” Adam asked.
“Of course, the Mid-Towne is rather nice and it’s only a couple of blocks from the cemetery. You just go down this way,” Millsap said as he pointed out the directions to Adam and Joe who walked to the door with the chief. “Turn right, it’s about a block up the street, you can’t miss it.”
Adam shook the man’s hand. “Thank you again.” He waited for Joe to finish shaking hands with Millsap.
“Thank you, sir,” Joe said.
“Best of luck to you both. Remember, if I can be of service to you, just let me know,” the police chief said as he watched the brothers mount up and head up the street. “What a shame,” he muttered to himself. “And such nice young men, too.”
“Is there something wrong with your steak, sir?” the waitress asked.
Adam and Joe sat alone at a table in the dining room of their hotel where they had acquired a room for the night. Supper had been ordered and though Adam had eaten only a portion of his, Joe had not taken the first bite but had instead sat lost in thought, toying with his meal. He looked up at the young woman, startled to find her standing over him. “Excuse me?”
“I asked it there was something wrong with your meal, sir?”
“My meal…oh…no, it’s fine,” Joe said apologetically. “I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought.”
“Would you like me to take your plate?”
“Sure…I’m sorry,” Joe said again.
The waitress removed both plates, leaving the pair of brothers alone once more.
“You sure didn’t eat much, Joe.”
“I wasn’t hungry,” Joe responded. He leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily and looked about the room as if bored. Adam knew better. His brother was fighting the depression what had begun to settle over him after finding the pipe and the boot that had belonged to their father and brother. Joe looked as if he were about to cry and Adam thought it best for them to leave.
“Let’s get some rest, Joe. I don’t know about you, but I’m worn out and could do with a good night’s sleep,” Adam suggested as he pushed back his chair and stood up.
“Sure, why not…” answered Joe in a strained tone. He too pushed back his chair and stood up.
Adam tossed some coins onto the table and followed Joe from the dining room and up the stairs where Joe stopped short outside of their room. “Are we going home tomorrow, Adam?” he asked unexpectedly.
Adam unlocked the door to their room and went inside. Joe followed.
“Do you want to?”
“I don’t know…”
“I thought in the morning we might ride out to the cemetery…just to…have a look…pay our respects…”
Without saying a word, Joe sat down on the bed, his back to Adam, and pulled his father’s pipe from his pocket. “Joe…”
“Sure we’ll go…but there’s not much use…the chief said they buried everyone in unmarked graves…” Adam heard the catch in Joe’s voice and watched as his brother lowered his head.
“I know, but…”
“We don’t even know where to put up a marker…”
Adam moved to Joe’s side and sat down next to him. “I know, buddy. That’s why I thought we’d wait until we got home and then put a couple of markers up at the lake, next to Marie,” Adam said, casting a sideways glance at his brother.
“What’s the point?” Joe asked after a moment. “They won’t really be there.”
“True enough…maybe not their bodies, but in spirit they’ll be there…I think it would be only proper…don’t you?”
“I…don’t care…do what you think is best.”
Joe moved from the bed to the window where he pulled back the drapes and stared out to the street below. “Adam, tell me something…”
“What kind of a God would allow something like this to happen?” Joe asked, never turning from the window.
“What do you mean, Joe?”
“I mean…how could God let good, decent people like Pa and Hoss die such horrible deaths?”
Adam was silent too for a long moment before speaking. He rose and moved to stand behind his brother. “I’m not sure I can answer that, Little Joe. But I remember Pa always telling us that everything that happens, happens for a purpose, so…”
Joe spun around. Angry tears burned his eyes. “PURPOSE!” he shouted. “What could possibly be the purpose in God letting my father and brother burn to death? What kind of God is He…”
“Don’t tell me to calm down, Adam…it isn’t fair…it isn’t right…God made a mistake…He should have let someone else die instead of Pa and Hoss…someone who was no good…or a…tramp or…a vagrant…not MY father and brother!” shouted Joe.
“Stop it, Joe, right now…Pa wouldn’t want you to talk like that…and you know better! Regardless of what you’re thinking and feeling right now…God is in control…always…just like Pa taught us…”
Joe swiped his hand across the front of his face and plopped down on the bed. “I used to believe that, Adam…but not anymore. Pa was wrong telling us that…just like God was wrong in letting Pa and Hoss die like He did…I can’t believe in a God that lets bad things happen to good people, Adam…so just drop it, will you?”
Joe turned over on his side, the pipe grasped tightly in his hand. Within minutes he was sleeping. Adam sat for the next hour watching his brother sleep and trying to come to terms with the tragedy that had forever changed their lives. He knew from experience that only time would lessen the pain of their broken hearts but as he rose and stood over his sleeping brother, he could only wonder what time would bring to his father’s youngest son. Picking up the blanket, Adam laid it across Joe’s body and turned back to his chair, sure that it would be another long night.
The next morning found Joe and Adam standing amid the newly dug graves, all lined up in a neat row. Tiny white crosses had been placed at the head of each one to mark that individual’s final resting place though they were void of any names. It was a solemn sight, another heartbreak for the two Cartwrights as they walked down the line, pausing and inspecting each grave. When they reached the last one, Joe turned to his brother. Anger and grief clouded his eyes.
“We don’t even know which one belongs to Pa or Hoss,” he grumbled.
Adam was at a loss for words as he watched his brother. A deep angry fire of hate and resentment lay brewing beneath the boy’s exterior causing Adam to fear for the boy and the days that lay ahead for him. “Let’s go home, Joe…”
Adam saw the movement of Joe’s hand and watched as the boy ran his hand across his mouth. Joe held his head low, never bothering to look up when he turned and walked back to his horse. There, Joe stopped, resting his forehead against the cool leather of his saddle. Adam could hear Joe crying softly. The sounds tore at his heart as he put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Joe turned, unable to say a word. Adam, his own throat thick with emotion, placed his hand behind Joe’s neck, bending Joe’s head downward just a bit. He leaned his own head down and pressed his forehead against that of his brother’s. Joe’s hand clasped around Adam’s arm and for several long moments both boys stood as such, seeking and giving to the other what little comfort could be afforded.
“We should be home tomorrow, late,” Adam informed his brother.
They had stopped for the night and were preparing to set up camp.
“I’ll be glad to sleep in my own bed,” Adam said.
Joe had been uncommonly quiet the entire day. Adam knew the boy was brewing and that he best beware for a complete breakdown was likely and he wanted to be ready to handle it when it happened.
The fact that Joe had started having nightmares only made the boy’s brewing thoughts that much more invasive. Lack of sleep for the last couple of weeks and the fact that Joe had not been eating properly, all led Adam to fear not only for the boy’s physical health but for his emotional health as well. It seemed to Adam that the entire weight of the world was resting on his shoulders now…and he felt alone and somewhat overwhelmed, something that he had never had to fear before now.
The first and foremost to tend to was his brother. Adam glanced at the boy, noting the change that had transformed the young handsome face into one that looked pale and drawn…then there was the running of the ranch. The mines and timber contracts…the bookwork…all the responsibilities that had been shared with his father on equal parts. It all rested on his shoulders now. Adding to the weight he carried, were his own private tormented thoughts. Thoughts that convinced him that he was guilty and liable for his own father and brother’s deaths. Images of his father’s face accusing him and Hoss pointing a finger at him, Joe’s words burning in his ears and searing it into his heart as if they had been a branding iron, left him with an inner torment of his own that others had no knowledge of, not even Little Joe. Adam felt the burning anguish of the hot iron on his heart and wondered how in heaven could he go on? And then he looked at the boy whom his father had loved more than life and instantly Adam knew that he had to carry on…determined to be not only a brother but father if need be to his youngest sibling. He owed the boy that much and he owed it more so to his father. The heartache would go on hurting no doubt for years to come, but he’d not shuck his duties, the damage to their lives rested beneath the weight of the other responsibilities on his shoulders, pressing down hard…and Adam knew it would never go away.
That night, Adam sat by the fire, alone with his thoughts while Joe slept. Several times his attention had been pulled from those troubling thoughts by his brother’s jumbled mutterings and soft whimpers. Once he had gone to the boy. Joe had a nightmare and cried out for their father. It was he, Adam, who had comforted his brother…from then on, it would be his job. Could he handle it…or would Joe finally admit what was really in his heart…that he blamed his older brother for the deaths that took his father and brother from them? Joe had said it once…and then claimed he hadn’t meant it, but the words had stuck and Adam’s greatest fear was that the cold, harsh words were spoken in a moment of anguished truth rather than in a moment of devastating grief.
Just before dawn, Joe had awakened again, this time his sorrow was too much and when it spewed forth, Adam held the boy in his arms and let Joe cry out his sorrow and loss until his tears were at last spent and there was nothing left but the soft whimpering that lingered long after Joe had fallen back to sleep.
When Joe awoke he fully expected to see his brother standing over the fire preparing breakfast, but Adam was nowhere to be seen. The scent of coffee and bacon had yet to fill the crisp morning air.
Joe tossed his blanket down on his bedroll and moved to add small pieces of wood to the dying fire. Adam’s bedroll was still as it was the night before when his brother had spread it out on the ground. Once the fire was rekindled, Joe picked up the coffee pot and walked slowly to the creek, assuming that Adam was tending to business in the woods. He was caught off guard, stopping suddenly when he saw his brother squatting down next to the creek. Adam had his hand over his face and failed to see his younger brother approach; he made low murmuring sounds that at first alarmed Joe, but as he moved closer, he realized that Adam was crying. Fear flushed reasoning from his heart. It had been years since he’d seen his brother cry…so long so, that Joe could not really recall neither the day, nor the reason.
He walked quietly down to the creek; standing behind his brother, Joe placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. Adam showed no signs of knowing that he was no longer alone.
“Adam?” Joe said in a quiet voice.
Adam swiped his hand across the front of his face to hide his tears, slightly angry at having been caught in such a vulnerable moment.
“What!” Adam demanded in a voice that sounded gruff yet his brother knew that Adam meant nothing by his harsh tone.
“Are you alright?” Joe asked, fighting back his own tears.
“No…I…wish it were me…that was dead, instead of them…”
For a moment both were quiet until Joe squatted down next to his brother, his face pale and drawn with emotion.
“Me too,” Joe said as tears began to form in his eyes.
Adam turned suddenly to study Joe’s face, over come by the great sadness he found in the depths of the hazel eyes so clouded with tears. “No, Joe…you don’t deserve to die any more than they did…”
“Neither do you, Adam,” stammered Joe.
“Joe…you don’t understand…”
“Understand what, Adam?”
“You…and Pa…you and Hoss…you’ve always had something with each of them, Joe…that I’ve never had. I’ve always been…well…I don’t know how to explain it…but I’ve never really needed them…not like you do…”
“Adam, you’re not making sense, of course you needed them…and they needed you…and…and, I need you!” Joe said with sincerity.
Adam looked at his brother and gently shook his head. “Not really, Joe…not in a long time. Oh, Pa and I have a special relationship…and Hoss is about as good a friend as a man could ever want…but…”
“Adam…I thought you…loved them!”
Adam stood to his feet, glancing away, unable to meet the agony he saw in Joe’s eyes. “I do love them…just as I…” Adam turned slightly in order to glance at his brother. “Just as I love you, Joe…I know it’s been a long time since I’ve told you that, or I’ve acted like it…I’m sorry, Joe…”
“Adam,” murmured the grieving young man. “Promise me something…” Joe asked as he stood.
“Promise me…you…won’t leave me too…” Joe swallowed the lump that had sprouted in the back of his throat. Fear that he might end up losing his entire family washed over him, forcing him to feel as if he were drowning. “I…couldn’t bear to lose you too!”
“Aw Joe, you aren’t going to lose me…I promise, buddy.” Adam said as he wiped away the remnants of tears that lingered.
“Adam…there’s something else I want you to know,” Joe said.
He and Adam walked together back toward their camp.
“What’s that, kid?”
“I had a dream last night…about Pa…” Joe paused to collect his thoughts.
“And in my dream, he told me that everything would be alright…and he told me to…keep on trusting in God…that God was still in control…”
They walked a bit further, neither saying anything, each lost in their own thoughts. Joe broke the silence first. “I don’t blame you for any of this, Adam…I want you to believe me…and I’m sorry for the way I acted…for doing things to make you mad…and I’m sorry for yelling at you and saying that you were responsible…you know I’ve always been bad about running my mouth and blurting things out without thinking first, Adam…”
Adam snickered softly and slipped his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Joe…it’s like I said a few days ago…I don’t blame you…and I don’t blame us…and I’m glad you don’t blame me, but what’s happened, happened…I don’t like it, it cuts deep into my heart and soul. I know we’ll miss them terribly…but we’ll get through this…together, Little Buddy. It isn’t too deep a well that we can’t get out of, if we stick together…I say we just try to make them proud…how about you?”
Joe, his lips pinched tightly, nodded in agreement.
They had reached the camp and stood looking into one another’s eyes, seeing the truth. No matter what happened, they’d still be family…still be brothers…and would always stick by one another.
“I’ll get the biscuits…” Joe said feeling a bit better. “You can make the coffee…mine is like…” he paused, swallowing before he smiled, “mine is just like Pa’s…always too strong…”
The yard was empty when the boys arrived home. It was a strange sort of feeling, knowing that they’d been gone for several days and that now there was no one to welcome them back. Always before, Pa was there…now the place stood empty, a stark reminder of all they’d lost.
“I’ll bed down the horses, why don’t you go see if you can talk Hop Sing into fixing us something decent to eat…I’m tired of beef jerky and stale biscuits,” Adam stated.
“You aren’t by yourself,” Joe agreed willingly.
He almost smiled, but not quite, his heart wasn’t into it. He was tired and in the pit of his stomach was an ache that he thought would never go away…even with Hop Sing’s good cooking, if he could even eat.
Joe had Hop Sing talked into fixing them a good supper and by the time that Adam had entered the house, an assortment of aromas were coming from the kitchen. Joe was sitting in his father’s chair and looked up when Adam entered.
“Smells good in here,” Adam said, joining his brother in the great room.
“Yeah, it does…Hop Sing was so glad to see me, he agreed without making a fuss…guess he was lonesome,” Joe said with a touch of remorse.
“Did you tell him…about…Pa and Hoss, I mean?” Adam wanted to know.
“Of course…he asked. He started to cry, Adam…it was all I could do to keep from joining him. It was a lot harder…coming inside the house than what I thought it would be…I mean…I almost expected Pa to meet me at the door…and Hoss to come running from the kitchen…”
“I know, so did I. Sort of left a hollow aching in my gut…”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to them not being here,” Joe muttered softly.
“Joe…it takes time…lots of time in this case, but one day…the hurt won’t hurt so much and…well, you know Pa and Hoss would want us to carry on…to live our lives the best we can and not look back…”
“Not look back? That’s impossible…it’s because of them that I can’t even see beyond tomorrow, Adam…it’s like I’m stuck in time. I swear, I can close my eyes and still see their faces and hear their voices. It sounds so real…almost as if they’re really here,” stammered Joe.
Adam turned his head slightly, listening he closed his own eyes and muttered softly. “I know what you mean, Joe…I can hear them too…Hoss is laughing, and Pa’s…”
“I hear Hoss laughing, too!”
Joe opened his eyes at the same time Adam opened his and they found themselves staring in awe at one another.
“How could you possibly hear the same thing I’m hearing?” Joe asked, astonished that Adam could hear their brother’s laughter going on in his head.
“I’m not sure, Joe…but…listen…I honestly hear Hoss…and there’s Pa telling Hoss to wipe his feet…”
Stunned when the front door burst opened, both young men jumped to their feet and faced the two entering the house.
At the door, Pa and Hoss stopped dead in their tracks, taken totally off guard by the horrified looks on his two sons’ faces.
“What on earth are you two staring at? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost!” Ben said and then glancing at Hoss, laughed lightly. “Or maybe two ghosts?” Ben said lightheartedly.
“Yeah…ain’t ya even glad to see us?” Hoss said as he tossed his big hat on the credenza.
Ben and Hoss walked slowly towards the back of the credenza where they stopped, studying Joe and Adam’s faces.
“Adam?” Joe said, his voice trembling.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Little Joe wanted to know.
“Depends…are you looking at…Pa and Hoss…’cause I am…I think…”
“Me too…but…are they…really here…or are we imagining they’re here?” Joe muttered.
“What on earth is wrong with you two?” Ben asked, coming around the settee, stopping in front of his youngest son. “Joseph?”
Ben was getting worried; both boys looked as if they were stricken with something…but what? They looked sickly and their faces where pale. Ben heard a sob catch in Joe’s throat and then was nearly knocked to the floor when his youngest son practically fell into his arms weeping. “Dear God…what on earth is going on here? Adam, what’s happened to this boy…”
“Pa…Hoss,” Adam said in a thick voice. Suddenly, he burst into a loud laughter, silencing the other three. Even Joe stopped crying to turn to stare at his brother. Had Adam completely lost his mind…were they only imagining that their father and brother were here, in the very room with them, or were they so deep into the well of grief that it only seemed real? Pa’s arms felt real; the scent of Bay Rum lingered in his nostrils…
Adam grabbed Hoss’ hand and pumped it up and down and then grabbed the big man into a hug. Hoss grinned from ear to ear at first one and then the other as Joe and Adam traded places. Adam stood before his father, tears shining in his dark eyes.
“We got a wire a couple of weeks ago saying that you and Hoss had died in a fire at the hotel you were staying at…”
“My God!” muttered Ben dumbfounded.
“And we went to San Francisco to…see for ourselves…and it was true…” Joe explained.
“True?” Hoss practically shouted. “Do I look…dead to you?” he laughed lightly, though he knew by the looks on his brothers’ faces that the pair had been suffering something fierce.
“No, you big ox…you look beautiful to me!” shouted Joe as he flung himself into the gentle giant’s arms.
“No wonder you two looked so stricken when we came in…dear God…what must you boys have suffered?” Ben said shocked at all that had taken place.
“I sent you a wire that we were leaving San Francisco and going to Sacrament to visit my old friend, Walter Gates…you remember him, Adam?” Ben stated.
“We didn’t get a wire,” Joe said, looking to Adam for confirmation.
Adam shook his head no. “Only word we received after your letter was a telegram informing us of the fire…and your deaths,” Adam explained.
“Dang,” muttered Hoss as he lowered his body onto the settee. “You two must have been in shock…”
“Worse…” Joe stated. “Much worse…”
Ben slipped his arm about his youngest son’s neck and pulled the boy into a hug. He could tell by the expression on the boy’s face that Joe had being grieving in the worst of ways. He glanced at Adam; his eldest son wore the same haunted expression. Ben’s heart broke at the sight of his two boys.
“I’m sorry, Joseph…Adam…if I had known…we would have come straight home…” Ben said.
“It’s alright, Pa…you had no idea,” Joe said.
When Hop Sing rounded the corner from the kitchen into the dining room and spotted his boss, he dropped what he held in his hand and ran hell-bent toward Ben.
“Boss not dead…Mis’ter Cart’light…Mis’ter Hoss…you home…Hop Sing cry for nothing…you alive, you alive!” shouted the happy servant as he pumped Ben’s hand up and down in glee.
Ben laughed. “Yes, Hop Sing…I’m very much alive! And thankful for it!”
“You come eat…Hop Sing cook feast for homecoming…first clean spuds from floor…you Cart’light’s come to table…honor Hop Sing by eating…please, Mr. Boss…and welcome back!” cried Hop Sing as he bowed graciously in front of Ben.
“Thank you, Hop Sing…come on boys, let’s enjoy this homecoming feast and while we eat, you can tell me all about this…fire and our…demise!” Ben said in a serious voice.
After supper, Ben, still in awe of all that he’d been told, sat quietly in his comfortable chair. Adam and Hoss had retired for the night, both exhausted. Joe had gone up to his room earlier but now appeared on the landing. “Pa?” he said softly.
“Joseph,” smiled Ben, still shaken by his youngest son’s almost frail form. “Come on down…did you need something?”
It was hard for Joe to speak, just seeing his father, alive and well sitting in the great room, was like a miracle to him. There were no words to express his relief at having his father and his brother back. “Could I talk to you…?”
“Of course,” Ben said, getting up and meeting Joe at the bottom of the stairs. He slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulders and led him over to the hearth where they both sat down.
“What’s on your mind son?” Ben asked.
Joe pulled the burnt pipe from his pocket and handed it to Ben.
“Where on earth did you get this?” Ben questioned, surprised to have his pipe returned to him.
“It was among the things found after the fire. That’s why we believed that you…died there…” Joe said in a thick voice.
His head was bent low. “We found one of Hoss’ boots too…”
Ben expelled a rush of air from his lungs and looked at his son.
“Joe…I forgot the pipe when Hoss and I left for Sacramento…I thought I’d lost it when I looked for it later…” Ben explained.
Joe looked up at his father; tears stung his eyes. “I didn’t know,” he muttered softly.
“You had no way of knowing…”
“We thought because we found your pipe and the boot…that you and Hoss had been trapped and…burned to death,” Joe swallowed hard.
“Hoss…left his old boots, Joe. He had bought new ones and since the old ones were so worn out, he decided to leave them, he tossed them in the trash the night we left.”
“No wonder we found them, then.”
Ben lovingly patted Joe’s knee. “I’m so sorry, son…”
“You didn’t know, Pa…but…” Joe hesitated.
“But what, son?”
“I was…afraid…I was so scared…I didn’t even really want to come home…and Adam…he was scared too. Oh, he didn’t say as much…he was trying to put on a brave front, for me…but I knew better.”
Joe glanced over at his father. “We both felt guilty…for…driving you and Hoss away…”
“We even blamed each other…in the beginning…”
“And later?” Ben asked listening intently to the miseries his son had suffered through.
“We blamed ourselves…I even blamed God…I wanted to stop believing in Him…” Joe moaned softly and covered his face with his hands as if to hide his shame at turning away from God. “But…I guess all the years you taught me to trust in Him, no matter what…I tried, but just couldn’t. And then I had that dream…”
“Dream…what dream, son?”
“The dream where you came to me and told me to keep trusting in God and everything would be alright. I told Adam about it the morning I found him down at the creek crying…”
Ben’s eyes widened somewhat at Joe’s statement.
“He was blaming himself and saying that he wished he had been the one who had died and not you and Hoss cause he felt so…guilty. I was scared that I might lose him as well …I told him about the dream…know what he said to me?”
“No, what did he say?”
“He apologized to me for always being on me for things and said that he…loved me…that if we’d stick together, we could overcome our sorrow cause that’s what he knew in his heart you’d want us to do…”
“Your brother was right, Joe…that’s exactly what I would expect of you…and Adam…”
“I know…I realized that Adam was all I have left in the world…I love him, Pa…more than he’ll ever know. I swore to him that I’d never doubt him again…that I’d be the brother to him I was supposed to be…and he promised to always be here for me…” Joe sniffed his nose and wiped away the traces of moisture that threatened to run down his chin.
“I take it then that the bickering between the two of you has ended?” Ben asked expectantly.
“Yeah, Pa…it’s ended,” smiled Joe. He pointed to the pipe that Ben still held. “He told me he gave that to you…but when I found it…he said I could keep it…guess he knew that it was like having a part of you with me…”
Ben returned the smile and held the pipe out to his son.
“Then by all means, you should have this…here…take it,” Ben insisted.
Joe took the pipe from his father and held it tightly in the palm of his hand. Both father and son were quiet for several long moments.
“Adam said that there was never too deep a well that together we couldn’t climb out of, if we stuck together…guess he was right, heh?”
“I reckon so,” smiled Ben, happy to see the sparkle return to his son’s eyes. “You will learn that your oldest brother is a rather wise man for his years…listen to him, son…learn to heed his words, he will never steer you wrong.”
“I know that now, Pa…’cause I know he had a good teacher…the best in fact!” grinned Joe.
“I’m glad you realize that…”
“Oh, I’ve known it for some time, Pa…but you have to admit…Adam still has a ways to go before he knows as much as you do…” giggled Little Joe.
“Oh…for heaven’s sake!” sighed Ben. “Must you always have the last word?” he laughed.
“Always!” chuckled Joe as he leaned over and gave his father a hug.
Ben rolled his dark eyes; it was wonderful to be home again; more so, he was happy to be alive for…he had missed his boys terribly! Though Adam and Joe had suffered a hard lesson, they had found their way back to each other and for that, Ben was most grateful.