Thicker Than Water (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,863


 

 

Adam stepped from the stagecoach and leaned down to dust the trail dirt from his black trousers.  Lifting his hat from his head, he wiped the sweat from his brow and returned the Stetson to his head.  There was no one present to meet him, but then he hadn’t expected anyone; he hadn’t even wired his father that he was returning.  His family believed him to be in San Francisco, now supposedly happily married.  Wrong, he hadn’t been able to go through with the ceremony, not after what she had finally admitted too.  The memory of her laughter as he had stood in shock at her confession tore at his heart and he shook his head to remove it from his mind.

Slowly Adam made his way to the livery stable to rent a horse for the long ride home. He dreaded facing his family, especially his younger brother.  It wasn’t a task he looked forward to, but it was one that he knew he could not avoid.  Little Joe had been right, Sara had been no good, Joe had tried to tell him and what had he done?  Beat his brother within an inch of his young life.  Adam cursed himself as he pictured Little Joe lying in a heap on the floor of the barn that night over two months ago.  His pounding fists had bloodied Joe’s face, the gash over Joe’s left eye seeping the blood down his tear stained face as the boy had begged him to stop.  He had grabbed his brother roughly by the shirt collar and slung him across the barn and into the hard wooden half wall that divided the stalls.  Hearing the cries of pain that had erupted from his brother again sounding in his mind, Adam sighed deeply and wiped his dark eyes to keep the tears from rolling down his cheeks and glanced around to be sure that no one had observed him.  He had to get home and make things right with his younger brother; he had to tell Joe that he was sorry for the things that he had said and done to him but could only pray that he would be forgiven.

Adam paid the stable boy the rental for the horse and promised to have the mare returned the next time he came into town.  Adam let his mind wander back to the night when he had stepped into the barn and found his fiancée locked in a warm embrace with his brother.  The couple’s lips were pressed firmly together and Joe’s hands were devouring the beautiful woman’s body.  As the memory flooded his thoughts, Adam could now admit to himself that it had in fact been Sara’s hands that had been pawing the young man’s body and Joe’s hands were only trying to stop her assault of him.

Adam cursed himself again for not having seen it in the making.  The signs were everywhere, the way she had smiled at the hired help, her flirting openly when the two of them were together, just to watch his face and see his jealousy, her laughing and saying it was only a joke.   Even the way he had seen her eyeball his father when she had thought no one had been watching.  To think that he could have been so blinded by her beauty, her sweet words, even the smell of her perfume had sent his head to spinning.  Then seeing her in Joe’s arms, he had lost all sense of reality and had turned on the boy with the wrath of a wounded grizzly.

Adam felt himself cringe when he recalled the words he had screamed at his brother as Joe laid in the ground at his feet.  Bastard, liar, cheat and that had only been the beginning of his verbal assault, he had screamed how much that he had hated his brother, had wished the boy had never been born.  Adam was seeing the look of total dejection that adorned the young face and Adam heard again his own laughter when he realized that he had succeeded in hurting his little brother in much the same way as he, himself had been hurt.  He had turned and left the heartbroken boy crying in the dirt with the promise that he would never forgive him, never call him brother ever again and had shoved the barn door shut, leaving the lad to fend for himself.

Adam stopped as he neared the rise where he could look down and see the familiar homestead.  It had always been one of his favorite spots; anytime of the year one could stop and take in the tranquil scene below.  Usually you could see one or more of his family out and about the yard, going about their various chores and this afternoon was no different.  Adam watched as his pa and Hoss carried something heavy into the barn.  Seconds later they emerged, Hoss was laughing and Pa looked as if he were scolding.  Adam stared on in amusement and briefly wondered where his youngest brother might be. Hoss stopped and said something to their father and Adam watched as the older man shook his head slowly and walked toward the house.  Adam noted the way his father’s shoulders appeared to slump and his laggard walk reminded him of that of an old man.  Adam feared that perhaps his father had been sick, but surely Hoss would have sent him a wire notifying him if that had been true. Unable to wait any longer, Adam spurred his mount forward and headed down the hill into the yard of his home.

Hoss strolled out into the sunshine just as Adam rounded the corner of the barn and stopped in his tracks at seeing his brother.  A wide gapped-toothed smile spread across his boyish face and the lights danced their merriment in his sparkling blue eyes.  Hoss closed the distance between himself and his older brother in two long strides.  As Adam slid from the saddle he found himself engulfed in a tight bear hug as Hoss held him up and spun him around in a circle.

“Adam, dadburnit Big Brother, I cain’t believe my eyes!  Dang, it’s good ta see ya!” laughed Hoss finally releasing his hold on his brother.

Adam laughed and straightened his hat on his head; “It’s good to see you too, brother.”

“Pa!  Pa!  Get out here quick,” yelled Hoss as he wrapped his large arm around Adam’s shoulder and pulled him to him for a second hug.  Adam wrapped his arm around Hoss’ neck and returned the hug, the sudden need to feel the larger boy’s closeness and love tugged at his troubled heart.

Ben ran into the yard and stopped, he was having trouble believing what he was seeing.  His first born had returned!  “Adam, son…” Ben grabbed the young man and pulled him to his chest and held him tightly, afraid that if he let go, the boy would suddenly vanish.

Adam felt himself go weak with relief the second his father touched him.  He had been afraid of what his father might say upon seeing him.  When he left, he had left in a hurry not taking time to make things right.  He knew his father had been mad, no, infuriated about what he had done to Little Joe, so he had chosen the easy way out.  He had left in the night leaving only a weak apology written in a short note telling his father he was sorry and that he would be in touch after he and Sara had gotten married.  The hug that he was now receiving told him that his father had forgiven his transgressions.

Ben at last pulled back and looked at his oldest.  “Adam, I am glad to see you son.”  Ben swallowed the lump that popped into his throat.  “I’m happy that you are home.  How long are you planning on staying?” Ben searched his son’s face and the fine little worry lines that creased Adam’s handsome face were easily seen as his son fought for control of the emotions that Ben could sense were struggling to burst forth.

Adam cleared his throat and glanced at Hoss who stood next to his father waiting for his answer.  Adam returned his eyes to his father’s face before speaking.  “As long as you will let me,” he replied quietly and hung his head, “that is, if you even want me to stay.”

Ben’s eyes opened wide in surprise, “Of course I want you to stay, this is still your home, and I want you to stay for as long as you choose, but what about…what about…Sara?”  Ben saw the sadness that suddenly filled Adam’s eyes.

“That didn’t work out, Pa.  Joe was right…he hmm…was telling me the truth about what happened that night in the barn.  She finally admitted it right before the wedding, when I caught her with her former lover, in my bed.”  Adam hung his head and turned away from his father’s sympathetic eyes as the old hurt crept into his already wounded heart, crowding it with painful memories.

Ben placed both hands on Adam’s shoulders and turned him around to face him as he gathered Adam into his arms; one hand held the back of the boy’s neck as he rubbed away the tension that had gathered.  Ben gently pulled Adam’s head down on his shoulder as he held him.  Adam who had never been as open about showing his affection as his brothers were, allowed his head to remain for several seconds before withdrawing.  He made no effort to hide his tears from his father nor his middle brother, his heart craving their forgiveness.  When Adam looked again into the two pair of eyes that watched him he found what he had prayed he would find upon his arrival home, unconditional love and complete forgiveness.

“Pa?  Where’s Little Joe?  I have to make things right between us.”  Adam asked and watched as his father exchanged worried looks with Hoss.

“Joe’s not here, son.”  Ben began.  “He…went away shortly after you left.”

“Went away?  To where?” asked Adam, disappointment showing on his handsome face.

“We don’t rightly know, Adam.  We ain’t heard from him since he left.”  Hoss informed his brother sadly.

“Nothing?”  Adam saw the worry lines on his father’s face and knew now that his leaving, the argument between himself and Joe and then Joe’s leaving had left his father growing old too quickly.

“Let’s go into the house son.  We’ll tell you all about it.”  The three Cartwrights walked toward the house, Adam in the middle, a brother on one side of him, his father on the other.

It was two hours later before Ben and Hoss had finished telling Adam everything that had transpired concerning his youngest brother after he had left.  Joe’s injuries were not as bad as first anticipated and though the doctor had ordered him to remain in bed for several days, Joe had refused.  No amount of begging, pleading or ordering from his father could change the stubborn boy’s mind.  Shortly after that, Joe’s attitude took a turn for the worse; he started staying out later and later.  His drinking began to interfere with his work and before long, his work stopped altogether.  He began staying away for days, often ending up in a drunken brawl and having to spend the night sobering up in Roy Coffee’s jail.

Adam hung his head as his father and brother continued to tell their story.  Late one night Joe arrived home so drunk that he had almost struck his father as Ben tried to reason with him.  Joe had become violent, accusing his father of blaming him for Adam’s leaving, and when Ben had adamantly denied the fact, Joe had struck out at his father, missing and falling to a heap in the middle of the floor.  Little Joe’s reserve had broken then as he lay crying in the floor.  Ben had gathered his young son into his arms and held him has he wept.  When his tears were finally spent, Ben had gathered the boy into his arms and carried him to his bed where he spent the next several hours in a drunken sleep.

For two days Joe mopped about the house, sullen and withdrawn, not speaking to anyone unless absolutely necessary.  On the third day, Ben had found Joe packing his belongings with the declamation that he was going away.  Though Ben stressed to his son that he wanted him to stay, Joe was determined to go, so Ben had relented only after Joe promised to keep in touch with his family, which now, a month later left them waiting for the first word as to his whereabouts.

“Pa, why didn’t you go after him?” asked Adam as he stood and walked to the fireplace, his back to his father and brother.  Guilt had suddenly jumped into his heart at hearing of the bleak days his brother had suffered through, and now not knowing where the boy was or what he might be having to endure pulled Adam’s spirits downward into the depths of his own living hell.

Ben stood from his chair coming to stand behind Adam.  “What good would it have done?  He wouldn’t have come home; he would have only resented the intrusion.”

Adam turned suddenly and faced his father.  “You could have forced him to come back with you.  My God, he’s only a boy.”  Adam’s sudden anger surprised his father and Ben took a step back though not out of fear.  He had seen the dark look cloud Adam’s face and realized that Adam blamed himself for the things that had turned his younger brother’s world upside down.

“Adam, did you think of him as a boy that night in the barn, when you found him in Sara’s arms? Or when you were fighting with him?”  Ben didn’t give his son a chance to answer but his reply was etched into his face as he turned to face his father.  “I didn’t think so.”

“I have to be honest with you son, I won’t try to sugar coat what I am going to say to you.  I didn’t do it with Joseph and I won’t with you.”  Ben held his son’s stance as he continued.

“You said some pretty nasty things to your brother.  Things that I know deep down, you didn’t really mean.  That didn’t stop the effects your words had on Joseph, however.  They still cut him deeply.  You know how Joe always carried his feelings on his shoulders, especially where you are concerned, he is always trying to prove himself to you. He always felt as if you looked down on him, I know you didn’t, not really, but now that idea has been seared into his mind by what happened.  You accused him of things he was not responsible for.  You took the word of someone who you knew deep down was unworthy of your trust over the one person other than Hoss or myself that loved you more than life itself.  Just think about how that made your brother feel.”  Ben paused and watched Adam’s reactions to his statement.

“I don’t tell you all of this to make you feel guilty, I believe you felt that before you even got home, am I right son?” Ben asked softly.

Adam shook his head, indicating that his father’s suspicion was correct.  “I am guilty Pa; don’t you think I know that?”  Adam’s voice cracked.  “Don’t you know that everyday I think about what I did to him, said to him, that every night when I shut my eyes, I see his face in my dreams, hear his cries begging me to believe him?  Don’t you know how much I hate myself right now?”

Adam returned to his chair falling into the cushion and leaning his head back.  Adam took a deep breath and sighed.  “In the morning, I’m leaving.”

Hoss jerked his head up, surprised at his older sibling’s statement.  Ben hurried to stand in front of Adam, an angry look across his face.

“What do you mean, you are leaving?  Just where do you think you are going this time?” demanded Ben placing both hands on his hips and glaring down into his son’s face.

Adam saw the dark look that had crossed his father’s face and realized that the older man thought he was running out on him for the second time.  Slowly he stood and placed a hand on each of Ben’s shoulders and smiled slightly.

“You want your baby back don’t you?  Well, I intend to bring him home, one way or the other.  Somehow, some way, I have to find him and get it through his thick head that I am sorry for what I did to him, convince him that I love him and that all of us want, no, need for him to come home.”

Ben’s anger disappeared quickly and he smiled, “Thank you son.  Would you like Hoss and me to go along?”

“Yeah Adam,” jumped in Hoss, anxious to offer his assistance, “with the three of us, we’d stand a better chance to find him.”

“Thanks Hoss, Pa.  But I think this is something I have to do on my own.  I think if all three of us showed up, Joe would feel as if he had no say in the matter.  I want him to want to come home, not come home because he is being forced into it.  I want him to understand that I was wrong and that,” Adam tapped his chest with his index finger, “I want him to come home.”

For two hot weeks Adam rode from town to town, always just days behind Joe and when it seemed as if he had finally found what he had been searching for, the boy would suddenly vanish.  Tired and discouraged, Adam drudged on, often going in circles following Joe’s trail.  Every town and saloon he entered, Joe had left destruction in his wake, drunken fights and brawls often as not spending nights in jail or worse in some back ally battered and bruised, unconscious.  Adam’s concern heightened each time another story was passed on to him in regards to his brother’s action.  Joe was drunk, and had stayed drunk for weeks, the knowledge scared Adam, and he feared not only for the boy’s health but state of mind as well.  Adam forced himself to push on, his single goal, to find his brother and bring him home.

Adam rode into town, hot, dry and thirsty, his eyes searching the streets for a saloon.  The sun was high in the sky and beat down its hot rays upon his head as he removed his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow.  Halfway down the street his eyes caught the letters on the lopsided sign that hung precariously on the broken chain.  The letters were faded from too many hours of being exposed to the arid weather but the word saloon was still barely readable.

Adam stopped his horse in front of the building and could hear the loud laughing that rang from inside the bar.  Tying Sport to the hitching post and casting a backward glance at his surroundings, Adam entered the establishment.  There were several cowpokes at the bar, all with tall glasses of foamy beer in their hands.  Several ladies dressed in scanty costumes mulled around a small group of men who were sitting to the side, a game of poker being played at the table.  In the far dark corner four men were laughing loudly and seemingly to be poking at something or someone in the floor.  Adam ordered a beer and watched the proceedings from the large gilded mirror that faced him.  The four men in the corner began cursing and shouting obscenities at the man who Adam had at last seen cringing in the back corner.  The young man was very obviously drunk beyond standing though he struggled putting forth an effort.  The men continued to harass the drunk as he stumbled to his feet and staggered toward the door.

Adam had only caught a brief glimpse of the sot as he worked his way to the door.  The man sported clothes that were tattered and torn; dirt covered his face so thick that it was hard to tell just how old he might be.  His hair was matted and uncombed, his short wiry chin growth was stringy and dripped of booze from where he had spilled his last drink.  Adam felt a pang of sympathy for the intoxicated man as the four men who had been his tormentors finally pushed him out the door.  Loud boisterous laughter filled the air as the bullies re-entered the saloon without their friend and ordered more beer.

Adam felt the presence of a soft hand touch him and he turned his attention to the lovely barmaid who toyed with the sleeve of his shirt, the inebriated man all but forgotten.  Adam smiled, the young woman was beautiful and he briefly wondered what had led her to be working in such a run down dump as this bar.

“You’re new in town aren’t ya?” cooed the barmaid, glad to have the handsome man’s attention.

Adam dipped his hat, “Yes ma’am, but I’m not staying, just passing through.”

“Perhaps, you’d buy a lady a drink?”  She batted her blue eyes at him and rubbed her hand up and down his arm.

Adam was amused, ‘she even smells good,’ he told himself.  “Sure, bar keeper, a drink for the lady please,” Adam called out as he returned the young woman’s smile.

“My name’s Tina, what’s yours?” asked Tina sipping her drink.

Adam quickly scanned Tina’s face, she was different from most of the barmaids he had encountered; she was younger too and thoughts of joining her upstairs was quickly dismissed from his mind.  It had been a long time since having spent a night in the arms of a beautiful woman.  Sara had almost become fastidious as their relationship was nearing the end and he would have welcomed some change of scenery from his troubles; but this gal was more the age of his youngest brother, Joe, and was definitely off limits in his way of thinking.

“Adam…Adam Cartwright,” smiled Adam and removed her hand from the back of his neck where she had begun to tickle him and gently tug at his dark hair.  “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but you will have to excuse me, I have business to tend too.”  Again Adam tipped his hat and began moving away from the petite little lady.

Tina followed Adam to the door, her hips swaying from side to side.  “Maybe later, cowboy,” she called out as Adam slipped between the swinging doors.  Tina watched the dark handsome man gather his horse’s reins and move to the direction of the livery stable, thinking how much she would have liked to spend a night with the charming stranger.

Sport’s shoe had worked itself loose until it had finally come off and Adam went in search of a blacksmith.  Stopping briefly to inquire of a passerby if one worked in town, he was directed to the livery where there was a full time blacksmith available.

Zeb greeted Adam the minute the young man stepped into view of the blacksmith.  “Howdy, stranger,” called Zeb putting down his tools and moving to shake Adam’s hand.  “What’cha be needin’?”

“My horse threw a shoe, think you take care of that for me?” asked Adam as he wrapped Sport’s reins around the hitching post.

“Sure, no problem, be right with ya, Mr. hmm…sorry, didn’t catch ya name.”  Zeb sauntered over to Sport and lifted his hoof to check the shoe.

“Cartwright, Adam Cartwright.”  Adam offered his hand as Zeb wiped his dirty hand on his apron and reached for Adam’s and giving the younger man a toothless grin.

“Pleased ta meet ya,” replied Zeb as he began preparing the hot fire to pound the new shoe that Sport would need.

Adam held Sports halter while Zeb began working on the lost shoe.  A loud whinny filled the air from the barn, causing Sport to toss his head up and down and returned the whiny.

“Easy boy,” Adam tried to calm the horse as he held the stallion’s halter but the horse continued to toss his head.  A second whinny from the unseen horse stabled in the livery caused Adam to turn toward the barn.  Giving his horse a pat on the neck, Adam stepped into the dim light of the barn and waited as his eyes adjusted to the light.  From the far corner of the stable came a soft nicker.  Adam’s eyes followed the sound and when he saw the pinto stretching out her neck toward him, Adam’s mouth opened in shock.

“Cochise?  Is that really you?”  Adam moved to the horse’s stall and rubbed the soft nose that nuzzled him.  Carefully, Adam ran his hands along the horse’s flanks checking for the pinetree brand. Finding it, Adam allowed the breath he had been holding to pass through his partly opened lips.

Zeb returned and watched as Adam reacquainted himself with his brother’s horse.  “Nice lookin’ pinto.  Ya interested?  I’ll make ya a good deal?” asked Zeb coming to stand behind Adam.

Adam’s heart was in his throat as he turned to face the blacksmith.  Adam grabbed the man by the front of his shirt bringing the scared little man to his toes.

“Where did you get this horse?  Where is the boy who owns her?” demanded Adam, his dark eyes filling with anger.

“Take it easy Mr. Cartwright,” squeaked Zeb trying to free himself from Adam’s grasp.

Adam fought to bring himself under control.  He had been searching weeks for Joe and now he was so close to finding the boy that his excitement had caused him to react harshly.

“Sorry, old timer,” apologized Adam releasing the blacksmith’s shirt.  “It’s just that his horse belongs to my kid brother and I’ve been trying to catch up with him for quite awhile,” explained Adam.

“Your brother, ya say?  Hmm…the kid that sold her to me said his name was Carter, not Cartwright.”  Zeb scratched his head.

“What do you mean, he sold her to you?  There’s no way Joe would have sold this horse.  It was his prized possession.”  Adam was stunned at the news and turned to face Zeb, waiting for his answer.

“The kid came in here about ten days ago and said he was in dire need of money and offered to sale me his horse and saddle.  I made a deal with him, paid him and he left,” explained Zeb, backing up a step from Adam when he saw the young man’s eyes turn black.

Adam grew worried; he found it hard to believe that his brother would part with his beloved horse, a birthday gift from their father, unless he was not in his right frame of mind.  Adam reasoned that considering the amount of drinking his father had informed him that Joe had been doing, it was very likely that the boy had been unaware of his actions.

“Do you have a bill of sale?” asked Adam.

“Sure do Mr. Cartwright, right here.”  Zeb went to his desk and rummaged through some papers until he found what he was looking for.  Turning, he handed the receipt to Adam.

Adam quickly scanned the paper and recognized the backward slant of Little Joe’s handwriting.  Joe had signed his name as Jay Carter, probably in the hopes of hiding his true identity.

Adam folded the paper and handed it back to Zeb.  “Has the boy been back here since selling the horse?” asked Adam hopeful that he might be able to catch up to his brother.

“I see’d him once, caught him in here late one night talking to her.  Then once I found him passed out over yonder in the hay.  He was wasted, I let’em sleep it off but by mornin’ he was gone.  Ain’t laid eyes on’em since.”  Zeb told Adam and returned to working on Sport’s shoe.

Adam followed the blacksmith out into the bright sun.  “Do you have any idea where I might find him?”

Zeb squinted his eyes at Adam as the hot sun blocked his view and saw the concerned look in his face.  “Probably at one of the saloons.  From what I hear tell about’em, he likes his whiskey.”  Zeb watched as the handsome man fought with his emotions.  “I ain’t meanin’ no disrespect Mr. Cartwright, but ain’t that boy a mite young to be a drunk?”

Adam gave the old man a smile that was more of a grimace.  “I agree with you, and when I find the young scamp, I hope to change that.”  Turning, Adam called over his shoulder, “I will be back later for my horse.  Do me a favor, will you?”

Zeb straightened his back and stretched to loosen the tightness from his muscles from having been bent over for so long.  “Anything, just name it.  I sorta liked that boy, reminded me of my own son.”  Zeb’s eyes took on a far away look as he recalled his son, now passed.

“Don’t sale that pinto to anyone; I’ll pay you whatever you ask for her.”  Adam gathered his saddlebags and bedroll from his horse as Zeb pondered the offer.

“Ya got ya self a deal, Mr. Cartwright.  Ya just come back when ya ready and ya horses will be here waitin’ fur ya.”  Zeb stepped up to Adam and shook hands to seal the deal.

Adam’s thoughts were running amuck through his head.  He had to find Joe, and the first place he planned on looking was at the saloon, but first he had to get himself a room at the hotel and something to eat.  It was getting late in the day and his rumbling stomach told him that it was long passed eating time.

It didn’t take Adam long to acquire neither his room nor his meal and within an hour’s time he was back outside and on his way to the saloon.  Maybe the barmaid, Tina, had seen his brother in the saloon at some time and might be able to tell him where the boy had been staying.

As Adam worked his way down the boarded walkway, his eyes searched the faces of each man he encountered hoping to find his brother.  Suddenly he stopped in his tracks, his eyes catching a glimpse of the pearl handle pistol and leather holster displayed in the window of the shop that he stopped at.  Looking up at the name, Adam realized that he was standing in front of a gunsmith’s shop.  Promptly he pushed opened the door and stepped hastily to the counter.  A spry middle aged man wearing wire-framed glasses greeted him politely and asked to be of service.

“The pearl handle pistol in the window, might I see it?”  Adam fought to keep his voice from quivering.

The clerk stepped to the window and removed the required item returning and handing it to Adam.  Adam’s heart was beating rapidly as his fingers traced the lines of the handgun, stopping only when his finger traced the engraved J.C. that he had had engraved on the handle as a special birthday gift to his younger brother.

Adam held the gun up, “Where did you get this?” he asked softly, already knowing the answer in his heart.

“I bought it about a week ago from a young man who said he needed money.  I don’t usually buy articles that have been engraved like this, but this was such a fine looking piece, and the kid didn’t want much for it, so I took it.  I have to be honest with you, mister, the boy didn’t look like the type of kid to own something like this,” the clerk pointed to the pistol as Adam replaced it into the holster.  “I was half afraid that he might have stolen it from somebody,” he explained.

Adam shook his head afraid to find out the man’s reasoning, “Why not?  What was wrong with him?”

The clerk met the dark penetrating eyes and knew that he had to be truthful.  “The kid was drunk, drunker than most of the locals that hang around at the bar.  Dirty and smelly too, I just gave him the money, just to get him out of my shop, if you know what I mean.”

Adam’s face dropped in disappointment, he had little hope now of finding the boy sober.  Seems as if Joe was building a reputation as being the town drunk, and the thought ripped at Adam’s heart thinking about what the boy must be having to endure all alone. Guilt tugged at Adam’s heartstrings, as he recalled just why Joe had felt the need to leave his home and family behind.  The disturbing thoughts caused Adam to set his resolve firmly at finding his brother at any cost.

“I want to buy this gun and holster,” stated Adam firmly as he prepared to pay the man.  With his purchase safely tucked under his arm, Adam hurried to take his brother’s sidearm to his room at the hotel and set out again in search of Little Joe.

Adam spotted Tina as soon as he entered the saloon.  She was busy with several patrons and had little time for him.   He ordered a beer and moved to a table in the back corner where he would have a good view of the customers as they entered and left the establishment.  Time moved slowly for Adam, he had hoped that this evening would produce his brother and thus end his long search.  When he was finally able to have a word with Tina, she informed Adam that she did not know of a young man who fit his brother’s description but promised to send word to him should his younger brother come in.

Adam’s thoughts slipped backward through the years to Little Joe as a small boy.  Adam smiled to himself, his youngest brother had been the joy of all of their hearts, bringing into their home love and laughter that had never faltered when trying times had befallen the family unit.  Adam recalled his father saying that as a family they could overcome astronomical odds as long as they stuck together. Their father had lived by the words, ‘Blood Is Thicker Than Water’ and taught the same values to his sons.  Adam felt again the now too familiar feeling of guilt for having forgotten that priceless lesson of his youth having chosen instead to put his trust in an outsider who not only had deceived him but whom he blamed in part for his brother’s self-destruction.

The hour was late.  Adam pushed back his chair and stood, giving the room one last once over to be sure he had not missed seeing Joe come into the bar.  Once outside, Adam looked upward and voiced a silent prayer.

‘Please God, help me find my brother.  I need to make things right between us; I need to tell him I was wrong.  And God, I need him to know that I need, no, want him to come home, please God, let tonight be the night.”  By the time that Adam was finished he found himself standing in front of the livery stable.  A driving force to be near his brother lured him inside and to Cochise’s stall.  The pinto nickered softly in recognition as Adam gently rubbed her forehead.

“Got any idea where your boy is, huh?” whispered Adam remembering the times he had teased Joe about talking to his horse and sighed softly as Cochise bobbed her head up and down as if in response to his question.  “I wish you did ole’ girl, I’d give anything right now to find him.”

Adam was on his way out when he stopped at the sounds of voices and laughter that appeared to be coming from the back of the stable.  Making his way to the rear entrance, Adam gently pushed back the stable door and stopped short at the sight his eyes were suddenly witness too.  A small group of men that Adam remembered from the bar when he had first came into town were betting with a group of boys of various ages.  Adam watched as one boy pulled back his arm and threw a rotten tomato at his target.  Adam’s eyes followed the flying tomato and watched in horror as the fruit found its mark.

Tied securely to an old oxen yoke that lay across the shoulder and behind the neck was the young drunk from earlier in the day.  The man’s arms had been stretched around the thick wooden yoke and the wrists tied tightly to prevent him from escape.  They had positioned the bound man behind a hitching post where they had forced the boy’s legs apart, tying each ankle to a post.  Forcing his lower body downward, the stomach was lying across the bar and a rope tied to the yoke and over a low hanging branch of a nearby tree forced the boy into staying in the uncomfortable position.

The group of young boys were laughing and shouting obscenities as one of the older boys of the group picked up an old tin can and scooped up a can full of manure from the waste pile near by.  Laughing he threw the can at the bound drunk, striking the man in the small of the back causing him to cry out in pain.  This ignited the enthusiasm of the onlookers and caused the tormentors to burst into loud obnoxious gales of laughter as they slapped the pitcher on the back giving their approval for hitting his mark.

“Now ya really stink, you stupid drunk,” yelled the boy who had thrown the can.

Adam pulled his gun from his holster and fired a single shot into the air.  The laughing suddenly stopped as all eyes focused on the dark stranger that appeared to have hot sparks of fire radiating from his intense dark eyes.

“Let’s get outta here,” one boy screamed and suddenly legs carrying scared boys were running in all directions.  Adam turned to face the four bullies and without saying a word, they too left.

Adam ran to the bound man and with his knife, freed first the man’s legs.  Adam gagged slightly as the smell of body order, mixed with the odor of stale whiskey, vomit and now with the manure, filled his nostrils.  Turning his head and taking a deep breath to clear his head, Adam cut the ropes that held the sot’s hands to the yoke allowing the heavy burden to slip to the ground.  Gently Adam laid the young man on the ground as he took his scarf from around his neck and ran to the water trough to wet it.

“Pa?”  The slurred plea was so softly spoken, Adam wasn’t sure he had really heard and he continued to the trough.  “Pa.”

Adam stopped in his tracks, unable to move.  “Please…Papa.”  The two words were undeniable and Adam felt the tears burst forth from his eyes as he fell to his knees and gathered the boy into his arms no longer aware of the offending stench.

“Joe?”  Adam wiped with the dripping scarf what dirt and grim he could from the face of his brother, unable to fathom that his nasty offending creature had once been his handsome, giddy baby brother.

“Joe…buddy,” cried Adam, rocking back and forth with his bundle, shocked that he had not even recognized the boy.

The eyelids fluttered and batted until they opened slightly.  Joe’s eyes searched for the sound of the voice; but because of his besotted condition could not find who had spoken his name.  He cared only that the arms that cradled his aching body held him tenderly and that he could feel this person’s love flowing into his body.

Tears ran from the corners of his eyes leaving in their wake white tracks as they filtered through the dirt that remained covering his bruised face.  “Pa…I wanna go home.”  Joe’s eyes closed as the blackness engulfed him and Adam felt the boy go limp in his arms.

Adam held his precious brother several minutes; his heart crumbling away in tiny pieces at the vision of what his brother had once been in comparison to the frail excuse of what the boy had become.  Heavy sobs racked his body and he screamed out in self-proclaimed agony and hate of himself for being the reason behind such a disaster.

When Adam’s sobs had finely vented themselves, he rose, bringing in his arms the body of his brother.  Adam’s main goal now was to get Joe back to the hotel and clean him up.  Adam wondered briefly how long it had been since the boy had eaten for he seemed to weigh nothing as he moved along the ally avoiding the main streets and the stares of the late night passers.  Adam rounded the corner behind the saloon and bumped into Tina as she was leaving.

“Oh, my.  Mr. Cartwright,” said Tina, trying to step aside.

“I’m sorry Tina,” stated Adam, “I’m in a hurry and I didn’t see you.  Excuse me.”  Adam moved to allow the young woman to pass.  “I need to get my brother back to the hotel.”

“You found him?”  Tina raised up on her tiptoes and peeked at Adam’s bundle.  “Phew…Oh goodness, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.”  Tina covered her nose.  “I thought you said this was your brother.  This is Jay Carter, the town drunk.”

“This is my brother, Joe, the one I asked you about.” Adam glared at the lady.

“Mr. Cartwright, you gave a totally different description, you didn’t say he was a drunk.  But I will tell you this much, you can’t take Jay, ere, Joe to the hotel.”  Tina stood with her hands on her hips.

“Why not?” demanded Adam.

“Because, he stirred up quite a bit of trouble there the other day and they said if he ever came back, they would have him thrown in jail.  They are not very nice people, Mr. Cartwright, they would do it too.”

“What am I going to do now, I have to take him someplace where I can get him cleaned up and sober,” stated Adam looking about as if a place would suddenly appear.

“Adam, Mr. Cartwright, I have a small cabin right down this lane,” she pointed in the direction of her home, “you can take him there.  Here’s the key,” she said as she reached into the front of her dress and produced the key.  “There is food and fresh water, a spare room with a cot off the kitchen; make yourself at home.  I won’t be there until morning, but you are welcomed to anything I have.”

Tina stuck the key into the front pocket of Adam’s shirt and smiled.  “Consider it a pay back, Jay, I mean Joe, did me a favor a couple of weeks back, I owe him.  And I might add, I sorta like you.”  Tina winked at Adam and returned to her job leaving Adam to carry Joe down the lane to her home.

Adam managed to unlock the door and carry Joe inside.  Tina had left the lamp burning low, giving him just enough light to find his way to the kitchen where he located the spare room that she had informed him of.  Carefully Adam placed Joe on the cot, first removing the offending remnants of the shirt he wore.  Laying Joe down, he pulled the crusted boots and wet socks from his feet and added them to the growing pile of rags.  The trousers were easy to remove.  Joe had lost so much weight that the pants slid from his waist over his hips without being unfastened.  When Joe was totally undressed, he moved him further onto the cot and covered him.  Adam could not help but notice the many bruises and small cuts and scrapes that covered not only Joe’s arms and legs, but his chest and stomach area as well.  Joe’s body looked as if it had been used as a punching bag and he could only speculate as to who might have inflected the damage.

Adam built the fire in the stove and began heating water to bathe Joe.  On the side porch he found much to his delight, the large round bathing tub and dragged it into the kitchen where he would not have to carry the water so far and where he could bathe his brother in the warmth of the heat produced by the stove.  It took several minutes for the water to become warm enough and when he had filled the tub to the desire depth, he carried Joe into the kitchen and eased his still form into the soothing water.  In minutes the water had turned from clear to cloudy as Adam washed away what appeared to be weeks of dirt and grime.  Joe moaned from time to time but never opened his eyes to the happenings around him.  When Adam was finished, he grabbed a soft fluffy towel from the wooden peg next to the door and wrapping it about Joe, carried the boy into the room, laid him on the bed and dried his body.

Searching in his saddlebag for his shaving utensils, Adam managed to shave what appeared to be a month’s worth of growth from his brother’s face.  Adam smiled in satisfaction; he had somehow succeeded in completing the task without nicking the tender skin.

When he was sure that Joe was comfortable, he covered him with a clean quilt that Tina had folded at the end of the small bed.  Fluffing the pillows, Adam raised Joe’s head and positioned them beneath.  As Joe’s head sank into the comforts of the down pillows his eyes suddenly opened and he screamed out as if in terror.

Joe began flinging his arms about, his legs kicking at unseen objects until Adam had to physically force the boy into submission.  The outburst lasted only a couple of minutes but left Adam with the feeling that he had been in full-blown combat.  Joe at last closed his eyes and Adam hurried to find medical supplies to disinfect the various places on Joe’s body that required the attention.  When Adam finished with the minor wounds, he rummaged through the cabinets until he found Tina’s coffee tin and filled the pot with water in order to make himself enough coffee to carry him through what he supposed to be, a long night.

Several times throughout the night, Joe fought his unseen demons and each time Adam held him in his arms and whispered words of encouragement into his ear.  Many times, Adam felt his own cheeks damp from tears as Joe cried out for their father.  Adam worried that he had made a mistake in not wanting his father to accompany him on the search to find Joe, for it surely appeared as if the boy wanted more than anything, his father.

Tina arrived home just before sunrise and found Adam sleeping in the nearby chair and Joe tossing restlessly on the cot.  The room looked to be in shambles and Tina knew instantly that it had been a long hard night for both of the brothers.  Tina had seen enough drunks in her short time as barmaid to know the signs of withdrawal and she knew that the young boy had a hard road ahead of him if he were to overcome his drinking problem.  Silently she offered up a prayer on his behalf and one for Adam who seemed to be in dire need of her prayers as well.

Tina moved quietly about the kitchen preparing breakfast for both her self and Adam.  She knew that Joe would sleep most of the day and when he did wake enough to be able to eat, food would be the furthermost thing from his mind.  When breakfast was placed on the table she gently tapped Adam on the shoulder and when his eyes met her eyes, she motioned for him to join her at the table.  Giving a quick glance in Joe’s direction to ensure himself that he remained sleeping, he rose quietly and joined his new friend for breakfast.

When Adam had finished his breakfast and Tina cleaned her kitchen, Adam went to send a telegram to his father to let him know that he had found Joe.  Knowing the condition that his brother was in but not wanting to elaborate in the message, he informed his father that it would be several days before Joe would be well enough to travel.  He also promised his father that he would keep him posted on Joe’s recovery and would inform him of their departure date just before they left for home.  Adam’s next stop was at the hotel to collect his belongings and settle his account.  Tina had opened her home to both Joe and himself and Adam felt that he could best care for Joe in the privacy of Tina’s small cabin than in a public building.  Adam knew that his brother had many hard days ahead of him and keeping him in a quiet setting would make matters more comfortable for the boy.

Adam’s last stop was at the doctor’s office where he talked at length about Joe’s excessive drinking over the last several weeks.  He had even found himself speaking freely of his role that had led Joe to throw himself into such a dilemma as a drinking binge.   The doctor sat patiently and listened as Adam told of his love of the beautiful woman and his rage directed against his young brother at finding the two together.  The doctor showed no emotion other than compassion as Adam told him of his attack on his brother. The doctor’s expression never changed when Adam explained the whys of his leaving without bothering to explaining to his father his sudden departure.  Doctor Scott sensed in Adam the need to unburden himself of his guilt and that Adam was a man who rarely opened his heart in such a manner as to reveal himself so publicly.  The doctor immediately picked up on the quantity of love that Adam felt toward his younger brother.  The look that filled the dark eyes and the small smile that tugged at the corners of Adam’s mouth as he spoke his brother’s name told the doctor all he needed to know of the sincerity of the man’s heart in wanting to help his brother.

Doctor Scott promised to drop by after lunch to examine Little Joe and to discuss in detail Joe’s recovery.  Adam thanked him for his kindness, found himself apologizing for rambling but left with the feeling that some of the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders.

When Adam opened the door to the small house, Joe’s screams tore at his heart.  Tina was fighting with Joe who was trying desperately to get out of bed.  Joe had managed to shove Tina against the wall and was attempting to free his legs from the confines of the blankets.

“Let me go!” yelled Joe, his words slurred as he fought with the covers.  “Leave me alone!”  Joe managed to fling the blankets to the floor and was trying to stand by the time Adam had reached his side.  As Adam reached out to grab for Joe’s arm, Joe swung his fist out in an attempt to strike Adam which only caused him to stagger forward and fall into Adam’s outstretched arms where he crumbled to the floor.

“Please, help me,” Joe managed to cry as his eyes pooled with tears.  Adam gently lifted the boy into his arms and placed him back on the bed, covering him.  Joe’s eyes were unfocused as his tears make their escape down his cheeks and he grabbed at the air attempting to reach for some unseen object.  Adam clasped Joe’s outstretched hand with his own and held it tightly.

“Joe, it’s okay, buddy.  Settle down, you’re going to be okay.”  Adam watched Joe’s face as the dulled eyes searched his face and when the hazel eyes met his, Adam realized that Joe had no idea that he was in the care of his brother.  Portions of the alcohol still remained in Joe’s system, causing the boy to be confused and unaware of what was going on around him.

Joe suddenly pushed Adam away taking the older boy by surprise.  “Go away, just leave me alone.”  Joe turned his head away from Adam and buried his face into the soft pillow so that Adam could no longer see his face and where his sobs were muffled.

“Okay, Joe.  You just try to rest; I’ll fix you something to eat when you feel like eating.”  Adam stood, adjusted the blankets and slowly walked from the room, leaving Joe to sleep off the remaining effects of the whiskey.

“He’ll be all right Adam.  It will take several days, several hard days.  My father was an alcoholic; I have seen first hand what the withdrawals can do to a man.  You just have to give him time, and lots of patience.”  Tina smiled at Adam and rested her hand on his shoulder offering what comfort she could.  “Don’t look so beaten, it will get worse before it gets better, but I promise Adam, it will get better and so will your brother, my father did,” she added with pride showing in her eyes.

Adam stood from the chair he had collapsed into and gathered the young girl into his arms placing a kiss on top of her golden curls.  “Thank you Tina, you are an angel, and a very pretty one I might add,” smiled Adam.

Tina giggled, “Well, I’ve been called a lot of things, but never an angel.”

“I don’t see why not.  You definitely were present in my time of need.  I thank you for that,” Adam said with all the sincerity he felt in his heart for this young girl’s help.

Tina pulled from Adam’s embrace and smiled shyly, “I should be thanking you, or at least Joe.  He helped me out one night in the saloon.”  Tina hung her head briefly and then faced Adam, “I was being insulated by this cowpoke and when he grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back, Joe kicked his butt.  Whoops, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that, Joe tossed him out of the bar and the guy never did bother me anymore after that.”

Adam couldn’t help but laugh, “Joe kicked butt; that sounds like my little brother, coming to the aide of a damsel in distress.”  Adam’s eyes sought his brother’s face as he lay sleeping on the cot.  “Damn, what I wouldn’t give to see him like that again.”

“Adam, you will, I just know you will.  Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get to bed.  I have to work tonight.  Good night Adam.”  Tina smiled and blew a kiss to Adam as she disappeared into her room.  Adam filled his coffee cup and pulled the chair up to the table while he read the paper he had picked up while in town.  The kitchen chair was placed in such a manner as to allow Adam to keep a close watch on Joe who slept just a few feet away.

True to his word, Doctor Scott arrived a short time after lunch.  Adam showed him in and together they entered Joe’s room where Joe slept peacefully.  Joe opened his eyes briefly when he felt the doctor’s hand resting on his brow but just as quickly closed them, unaware that he was being examined.

“He sure has been sleeping a lot, Doc.,” commented Adam as he sat in the chair and watched as the doctor pulled the covers from Joe’s body to study the various bruises.

“That’s normal Mr. Cartwright.  Your brother will be doing a lot of that over the next several days.  In fact, he will be doing a variety of things, disturbing things mostly.  He will go through several different phases before the alcohol is completely out of his system.”  Doctor Scott pulled the blankets up around Joe and sat on the bed facing Adam.

“You need to be aware of those things, Mr. Cartwright in order to give this boy the very best care you can,” Scott informed Adam.  Adam stretched his back and pinched the bridge of his nose before meeting the doctor’s eyes, dreading to hear the details of Joe’s suffering.

“Let’s have it, I know it’s going to be a hard road back.”  Adam gave the doctor a weak smile.

Doctor Scott patted Adam’s shoulder giving his support.  “Mr. Cartwright, Adam, I will help you all I can.  I know you love this boy that is very clear to me.  You won’t have to do this on your own.”

“I appreciate that.”  Adam watched as Joe began moaning and thrashing on the bed.  “Can you give him anything to make this easier for him?”  Adam searched the doctor’s face hopefully.

“I think it would be best if we didn’t do that.  He needs to fight off the effects on his own; to sedate him would only prolong the inevitable. He will be restless such as he is now.  Later as the withdrawals become worse, he will have mood swings, one minute he will want to fight you, the next he might become withdrawn.  He will become emotional, maybe even start crying becoming confused.  He won’t be able to walk without staggering, he’ll become dizzy.”  Doctor Scott watched Adam’s reaction to be sure that the young man was absorbing all the information before continuing.

“After two or three days of that, he will begin to lapse in and out of consciousness, barely moving at all.  He’ll be unable to respond to stimuli.  You will need to keep a close eye on him then; we don’t him hurting himself.  He will not be able to keep anything down; he will vomit often.  But that’s okay; it’s just purging his system.”  The doctor rested his hand on Adam’s knee as Adam raised his head to meet the doctor’s kind eyes.  Adam’s tears were not lost on the compassionate physician.

“Once your brother gets passed the third stage of withdrawal, he must face the final, and probably the most difficult challenge of all.  The last stage Adam, could take as little as two days and in some cases, as long as four months,” explained the doctor.

Adam’s shook his head in disbelief, “four months?  Doc, do you think he can…”

“Adam, I think with your help and that of his family, he can overcome this.  Like I said, it isn’t going to be easy, but it can be done.  Just knowing you for such a short time I have no doubt that you will not allow this boy to settle for anything less than a full recovery.  Now, about this last stage, Joseph will experience aching muscles, he will become sweaty and flushed, he will continue to vomit.  Adam, he might suffer from convulsions and have hallucinations, he could become anxious, depressed and worst of all, could become suicidal.”

Adam jerked his head up and stared at the physician in shock.  “Doctor, you don’t think he would…” Adam rose from his seat and stood at the head of Joe’s bed and rested his hand on his brother’s brow.  Adam felt his knees go weak at the thought that his youngest brother might go so far as to end his own life.

“Adam, let’s give it time and see how he does.  It is just something that we have to watch for, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will do it or even consider it.  Right now, we need to be concerned with keeping him quiet and as comfortable as possible.  I will leave you these,” the doctor pulled four lengths of binding from his medical bag.  “I want to you use these to restrain the boy should he become violent and too much for you to handle alone.”

“Tie him up?”  The surprise was still on Adam’s face and showing in his dark eyes.  “Joe would go out of his mind, he hates being confined.  It has always been something that has terrified him, even as a child.  I don’t think I could…”

The doctor placed both of his hands on Adam’s shoulders silencing him, “Son, you do what you think is best for the boy, I am only telling you should he become too much to handle, he could possibly hurt himself and you, or the young girl.  I would not want to see that happen, you understand, surely.”

Adam nodded his head, “Yes sir, but only if all else fails.”  Adam took the bindings from the doctor and sat them on the table next to Joe’s bed, out of sight.  “One last thing Doctor Scott, he doesn’t know me.”

“I’m not surprised, Adam.  That will come in time.  Has he asked for anyone, his mother or father perhaps?” asked Scott.

“His mother passed away when he was a boy, but he did ask for our father.  Do you think I should send for him?”  Adam had hoped to spare his father the news as to how far his youngest son had slipped into the world of oblivion but reasoned that if it would help with a quicker recovery for his brother, then he would send word that their father was needed.

“I would wait for now, son, at least until he becomes more coherent, then I would consider it if you feel it would help him.  He needs the support of all of his family, not just his brother, and I mean that in the nicest way of course.”  The physician gathered his belongs and moved toward the door.  “I’ll be back in the morning to check on him, if you need me before then you know where to find me.”  Doctor Scott placed his hat on his head and smiled at Adam, “Good luck, son.  Try not worry too much.”

Adam and Joe’s days and nights began running together.  It was as the doctor had predicted; Joe went from bad to worse and back to bad time after time.  One minute Joe was sleeping as peacefully as a baby the next he was all over the bed, taking from Adam all the strength the older brother could muster to keep the younger brother in bed and out of harms way.

Late one evening as Adam returned to Joe’s room, he was surprised to find his brother awake and watching him.  Moving closer to the bed he was taken off guard as Joe suddenly drew himself into a ball and scooted to the far corner of the bed covering his head with his arms.

“Joe, hey buddy what’s wrong?”  Adam moved swiftly to Joe’s bedside and sat down.  As Adam attempted to reassure the boy, Joe began fighting against the hands that reached for him, all the while trying to back further into his corner.

“NO!  Don’t touch me, Adam, please…don’t hit me again,” screamed the frightened boy. “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…” he wailed.

Adam withdrew his hands but continued to comfort his brother.  “Joe…I’m not going to hit you, pal.  Calm down, please,” said Adam softly.  “Come here, little buddy.”  Adam rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder in hopes of drawing the boy closer and felt the tremors that ran through the body as soon as he touched him.  The boy was shaking with fear, his eyes wide in fright, causing Adam to swallow the lump that had suddenly grown in his throat.

Joe raised his head and searched his brother’s face.  “I didn’t do anything…It was her…Adam…honest…she…” cried Joe, the tears forming in his eyes.

“I know that Joe, she told me buddy.  I’m the one who’s sorry.  Joe I never meant those things I said to you, honest.  I was hurt, I was mad…and I wanted you to feel the same hurt I was feeling.  It was wrong of me Joe; I don’t know what got into me.  I don’t blame you for anything.  Please Joe, you have to believe me.”  Adam gently pulled Joe closer to him and watched as the boy struggled with his emotions and tears.  The look in the hazel eyes that watched his face tore at his heart.

“You were right, little buddy; I should have listened to you. Sara was no good.  I was wrong Joe, and I want you to know that I’m sorry for doing this to you.”  Adam hung his head, allowing his own tears to drip from his eyes.  “I need you to forgive me, Joe.”

Neither young man spoke for several minutes.  Adam looked up when he felt Joe’s hand brush his cheek.  “Promise me Adam, you won’t leave me again.”  Joe’s eyes filled with tears and his voice was pleading as he searched for reassurance from his brother.

Adam gathered Joe into a warm embrace, “I promise Joe, when I leave here, you will be riding out with me.”

As much as Adam had fought against having to resort to the restraints, after four days of constant battle, with regret, Adam tied the soft bindings around each wrist and ankle, securing Joe and preventing his moving from the bed.

Joe’s screams of hatred ripped at the core of Adam’s heart and soul and he had to leave his brother’s bedside until the ranting subsided.  Joe’s curses rang in Adam’s ears as the boy struggled against his restraints and the sight of his brother in such a tortured state nearly drove the usually composed Adam to the end of his own rope.  Joe struggled for hours, his screams became raspy as his voice lost some of its intensity, his cries and pleadings for release finally stopped altogether as exhaustion claimed the weary body and Joe closed his eyes in sleep.

Adam was well passed the point of going, so fatigued and worn was his own body that he was on the verge of giving up when something his father had said played into his memory.   ‘When you stand alone each one of us can easily be broken, but together as a family, we cannot easily break.’

Adam checked on Joe and seeing that he slept soundly, grabbed his hat, and hurried to the telegraph office at the far end of town.  It was now time to send for his father; he needed Pa’s help and Joe needed their father’s strength, love and reassurance that the older man’s presence held.  The telegraph was sent quickly with the instructions that the reply be brought promptly to the little house.  Adam hoped that with the news of Pa’s impending arrival it would help to lift Joe’s spirits.

Adam’s reply came late that afternoon with a promise from Ben that he would leave immediately and hopefully arrive within a three days ride.  Adam knew that for Ben to cover that much territory is such a short time his father would have to ride long and hard.  However, Adam had no doubt that his father could accomplish the impossible when it came to the needs of one of his sons and the thought caused a small smile to transform Adam’s tired face into one which held hope.

Joe continued to sleep far into the night waking just before dawn and finding himself still strapped to the bed.  It was soft whimpers that woke Adam from a sound sleep.  As soon as Adam heard Joe moving about on the bed Adam hurried to his bedside.  Joe’s eyes looked up pleadingly into his older brother’s and Adam could read the misery hidden within the hazel depths.

Adam sat on the side of the bed brushing back a long curl that had fallen into the boy’s face.  “You need a haircut, buddy,” smiled Adam swallowing the lump that had worked its way from his stomach into his throat.

“You sound like Pa.”  Joe’s face failed to smile; instead, Joe cast worried glances over his head at his bounds and tugged gently at the soft cloths while making soft gulping sounds forcing air into his lungs.  “Untie me Adam.  You know I hate this.”  Joe tugged once again, harder with his arms, struggling to remain calm though his fear was slowly beginning to overwhelm him.

“Joe, you know I can’t.  Not yet, buddy.  I know you don’t like it Joe, but it’s for your own good.   I don’t want to see you hurt yourself,” Adam tried to explain but saw by the look on the young face that his words of caution fell on deaf ears.

Joe fought the panic he felt rising to the surface and swallowed the acid that rose in his mouth.  “I won’t hurt myself, I promise.  Adam, come on, untie me.”

“I can’t…” began Adam.

Joe’s panic hit the button, “WHY??   Damnit?  You wanna hear me beg, okay…fine, I’ll beg.   Please Adam, untie me,” screamed Joe, giving in to his fears and battling at the straps that held him securely in place.  “Please!”  Joe forced his tears to stay away but the look in his eyes told Adam that they were nearing the battlefield once again.

Adam stroked his brother’s face in an attempt to calm the hysterical boy.  “Joe, calm down.  I promise you, I will untie you as soon as I can.”  Adam watched as Joe continued to pull on the restraints and tried to twist his body off the bed.

“I hate you Adam, do you hear me?”  Joe succumbed to his frustrations.  “I hate you for doing this to me,” Joe’s sobs racked his body and he gave into his tears.  “I hate you,” wept Joe softly turning his face away from Adam to avoid making eye contact.  In a matter of minutes, Joe’s cries ceased and he slipped into the uncaring world of blessed slumber.

Adam returned to the room and sat beside his brother as he slept the weight of the world resting on his shoulders.  ‘Hurry Pa, he needs you, so do I,’ prayed Adam to himself as he buried his face in his hands and cried not just for himself but for this boy whom he adored but who now hated him.

Adam knew that Joe’s proclamations of hatred were caused from the withdrawal symptoms but had not realized how much his brother’s words could hurt.  The truth was, in Adam’s mind, that what he was now feeling must have been the same as Joe felt when he had uttered the same words to him.  Adam glanced up at Joe’s face, sweaty and flushed now from the after affects and silently vowed to make things up to him.  “I’m sorry, little buddy,” whispered Adam to the sleeping boy, “I’m so sorry.”

Joe slept off and on for several hours as the long day worn on.  Once Adam had convinced the boy to sip some broth but that had only resulted with Joe being sick and when he had vomited, Adam had the grueling task of cleaning not only Joe but his bed as well. Joe had slipped into unconsciousness immediately after being sick, which aided Adam in cleaning up the mess.  Carefully Adam wrapped Joe’s wrists and ankles with soft cloths before retying his restraints in an effort to stop the chafing that had begun to mar the skin as Joe struggled and would hopefully make his brother more comfortable.

“Adam…Adam.”  The older boy was awakened by the sound of his name being called.  Quickly he moved nearer to Joe and sat down next to the bed rubbing Joe’s arm as the boy tossed his head back and forth.

“I’m here Joe.  What’s wrong pal?” asked Adam as he continued his soothing rub.

“Pa…” Joe opened his eyes, “I want Pa…please Adam…take me home,” cried Joe.

“Shh…Joe, Pa is coming.  He should be here in the next couple of days.”  It had started raining and Adam had lost all hope that his father would make the long journey in the three days that Ben had estimated.  From the sounds of the thunder and the pounding force for the rain, Adam could only hope that now his father might arrive within the week.

“Adam, untie me…” started Joe.

“Joe, we’ve already discussed this, you…”

“I gotta go, please Adam, I can’t wait much longer,” Joe’s eyes were pleading and Adam could no longer refuse his brother.

“Okay, Joe, just long enough for you to go, but I’ll have to help you, I doubt you can even stand.”  Adam quickly untied both wrists and as he turned to undo the ankles, Joe struggled to stand.  Pushing away Adam’s offer of help, Joe staggered toward the kitchen, falling into the furniture as he pulled himself along.

“Joe, let me help you,” started Adam as he reached for Joe’s arm.  Adam was caught unaware as Joe brought his fist around and punched Adam on the jaw, causing the larger boy to fall backward.  Catching hold of the table to break his fall, he grabbed at Joe again, this time taking hold of the boy’s shoulder and spun him around.  Joe nearly fell from the spinning action, but he fought at the arm that continued to hold him.

“Leave me alone,” yelled Joe, his mood suddenly turning ugly and fighting desperately to free himself.  “I need a drink.”  Joe yanked free from Adam’s restraining hand and stumbled backward into the wall.  Joe’s weakened condition would not allow his legs to hold his weight and the sudden movements caused his knees to buckle as he slid along the wall to the floor.

Adam was beside his brother in an instant; gathering the near unconscious bundle into his arms and carrying him back to the bed.  Once again, the restraints were put in place, this time without a fuss.  Adam leaned heavily into the comforts of the chair and silently cursed himself for his stupidity for having Joe con him into releasing him.  It only served to prove to him how easily that Joe might have gotten hurt.  Adam wondered at the strength that the boy had possessed even in his altered condition and vowed to himself not to allow the same thing to happen a second time.

Two days of constant battling, two long days of waiting had not yet produced their father.  The rain had finally stopped but the mud was knee deep in places and word around town told of washed out roads, flooding areas that had not flooded in many years.  It had been four days since Ben had sent word that he would be leaving home and four days that the brothers had prayed, now Adam was growing concerned for the safety of their father.  It wouldn’t do to have to leave Joe and go searching for the elder Cartwright, nor was Joe in any condition to go along.  Adam vowed to give his father another day, perhaps two before forming a search party on his behalf.

Joe stirred and opened his eyes.  Joe’s eyes search the room for his brother and when he found what he was looking for, the first smile in many days lit his face.  Adam noticed that the eyes appeared more clear, more focused and returned the smile.

“How you feeling this morning, Little Buddy?” asked Adam as he sat on the edge of the bed, his arm resting gently on his brother’s chest.

“Adam, when will Pa be here?” asked Joe, the smile suddenly leaving his face.

“Soon, I hope.  Why?”

“I…miss him, that’s all…and I want to go home.”  Joe turned his head and fought to control the tears that had suddenly and unexpectedly pooled in his eyes.  “Adam…do you hate me?”  Joe turned tear filled eyes up at Adam; but Adam saw not the twenty-year-old young man. But instead he recalled the boy from long ago, the same boy who had asked that very question the first time Adam had had to put the boy across his lap; Adam felt his heart skip a beat.

“Of course not Joe, why would you think that?”  Adam was puzzled by the question.

“Then untie me…please Adam…please…” Joe’s voice cracked and dropped in volume.  “I promise…I’ll be good.  I won’t fight with you…I’ll stay in bed…but I…need…please Adam,” Joe sniffed his nose as his chin began to quiver and he could no longer contain his tears.

Adam leaned his head down until it rested next to Joe’s and placed a kiss on the boy’s damp cheek.  “Joe…”

“Please…Adam…I need ya to…hold me…please, please…” Joe’s broken hearted cries removed the resolve from Adam’s heart and quickly the restraints were removed and Joe was gathered into the loving arms of his brother, each brother clinging to the other.

“Joe, it’s going to be okay,” soothed Adam, holding Joe to where the boy’s face fit into the curve of his neck.  Adam could feel the tears soak into the collar of his shirt as he held his brother and rubbed Joe’s back.

“I’m so scared Adam, I don’t know what’s happening to me,” sobbed Joe as he clung to Adam.  “I feel like I’m dying, I hurt all over, and I can’t stop this damn shaking.”  Joe pulled back just enough to find his brother’s eyes; “Am I going to die, Adam?” cried Joe watching the expression on the older boy’s face and searching for any signs that his assumption was correct.

Adam placed the palm of his hand against Joe’s head and gently pushed it back against his chest.  “No buddy, it only feels like it.”

“I don’t feel so good Adam, my stomach hurts something awful.  When’s Pa gonna be here?  What’s keeping him?”  Joe’s body began to tremble and his words had become slightly slurred.

Adam leaned Joe back into the bed and quickly covered him.  Sweat had begun to pop out on his brow and Adam noted the anxious look that had suddenly clouded the hazel eyes.  Adam wet a cloth in the fresh water he had poured earlier and wiped away the droplets of sweat that had begun to roll down each side of Joe’s face that had suddenly become flushed.  Joe began to moan loudly and tried to roll his body into a ball as the pain that had struck his belly intensified.  Minutes later the stomach muscles lurched and Joe spewed vomit about the bed, covering both himself and Adam.

Joe’s eyes found his brother’s eyes amid the sudden chaos as both struggled to separate themselves from the soiled linens and clothing.  “I’m sorry,” whispered Joe in a choked voice when Adam said nothing.

“It’s all right buddy.  Let’s just get us and this mess cleaned up.”  Adam gave his brother a comforting smile to assure the boy that he was not mad at him.  When Joe saw his brother’s grin, and knew that Adam was not going to be angry with him, Joe returned the smile with one of his own.  Adam ruffled Joe’s soft curls while wiping the boy’s face with a wet cloth.

“You haven’t done this to me since you were…hmm…about six,” laughed Adam pleased to hear that a small giggle escaped from his brother.

“Yeah, but at least this is all I did this time.  If I remember right, I think I peed on you then too,” giggled Little Joe.

A short time later, Adam had Joe and himself cleaned up, the bed linens changed and Joe sleeping soundly.  With a heavy sigh, Adam leaned back into the chair and closed his eyes.  A soft rapping at the door drew Adam from his dreams.  As he rose from the chair and stretched he wondered briefly why Tina would be knocking at her own door, and thought that perhaps she had forgotten to take her key.  Glancing back to ensure that Joe still slept, Adam opened the door allowing the soft light to cast its warm glow on the travel weary face of his father.

“Hello son,” greeted Ben stepping into the cabin.  Ben let his belongings fall to the floor and gathered his surprised son into his arms.  Ben felt the tenseness in his son’s shoulders as he held him and was surprised when Adam allowed his head to drop onto his father’s shoulders.

“Thank God, you’re here,” whispered Adam looking into his father’s dark worried eyes.

Ben could see the weariness etched into his son’s face and the dark circles that traced the outline of his brown eyes.  “Has it been bad, son?  How’s Joseph?”

Adam picked up Ben’s bedroll and saddlebags and led him into the kitchen.  “He’s in there, he’s sleeping.”  Adam pointed to the small room where he and Joe had spent the last ten days chasing away Joe’s demons.

Ben looked toward the room that Adam had indicated and moved slowly forward.  Adam stopped him just before entering by putting his hand on his father’s shoulder.  “Pa, there are a few things you should know before you talk to him.  Maybe we should talk first.”

Ben turned to face his oldest son, “Whatever you think best son, but I just need to see him, I won’t wake him.”

Ben tiptoed into the room and stood at Joe’s bedside.  There had been no way that Ben, though imagining the worst had prepared himself for the sight his son represented.  Ben searched the boy’s face for signs of the old Joe, but Joe had lost so much weight that Ben hardly recognized his own son.  Joe’s face was thin the lips drawn into a fine tight line, dark shadows circled the sleeping eyes, the fingers that held tightly to the blanket were clinching and releasing the soft material.  The boy moaned softly in his troubled sleep and when Ben pulled back the covers Adam heard his sudden intake of breath as he gazed at the bruises that still blackened the boy’s chest and stomach.  But what stilled the father’s heart was the amount of weight that his already too slim son had lost.  Ben lightly traced his fingers down the ribcage, his finger bumping up and down as he crossed over rib after protruding rib.  Adam watched his father’s face and knew the minute that the burning tears stung the senior Cartwright’s chocolate colored eyes.  Ben gently replaced the blankets making sure that his son was carefully tucked in before leaning down and placing a kiss on Joe’s forehead.  His eyes fell on the cloth restraints that remained tied to the corners of the bed and Ben glanced briefly into the concerned eyes of his oldest knowing just how bad things must have been if Adam had had to resort to tying his brother to the bed.  Ben sadly shook his head and joined Adam in the kitchen.

“We obviously have a lot to talk about,” said Ben as he lowered his body into the chair and took the cup of hot coffee from Adam.

Adam pulled out his chair and joined his father at the table to begin the dubious task of explaining all he could about Joe’s condition.  Ben sat silently as his oldest son went into detail about how he had found Joe and what had been happening to him at the time.  Ben felt his heart break at the picture Adam painted of Joe being tied to the heavy oxen yoke and being made to stand while other young men, some near Joe’s own age, used his son as a target.  Adam told of seeing Joe earlier that day in the saloon being tormented by the four bullies and having not recognized his own brother had failed to come to his defense.  Ben noted the catch in Adam’s voice as he struggled with his words.

Adam stopped briefly and refilled their coffee cups before continuing the discussion with his father.  Adam showed Ben Little Joe’s gun and explained where he had found it and then went on to tell of Sport throwing a shoe and how, just by chance, he had found Cochise at the livery.  Adam could see the surprise in his father’s expression when he learned that Joe had sold his pinto to the blacksmith just to have money to waste on drinking.  Adam swore to himself as he watched the aging process take ten years from his father’s face.

“I’m sorry Pa.  I know this hurts; it hurt me also.  It tore me up inside, not knowing my own brother, seeing him treated worst than a dog and then having to watch him suffer like he has.  I’ll never forgive myself for doing this to him, never.”  Adam stood and walked to the doorway of the tiny bedroom where Joe slept and stopped.  Glancing over his shoulder at his father he spoke softly.  “Can you ever forgive me, Pa?”

Ben rose from his chair, moved to stand behind his oldest son, and placed both hands on each of Adam’s broad shoulders giving both a tight squeeze.  “I never blamed you in the first place, son.  You said Joe forgave you.  Therefore you have to forgive yourself.  Look at me Adam,” Ben turned Adam around so that they were facing each other, “sometimes we say and do things that we really don’t mean.  Often times the ones we hurt the most are the very ones we love the most.  Adam, with that special kind of love, we find it in our hearts to be more forgiving, thank God for that.  It would only cause more misery for your brother if he thinks that you feel responsible.  You hurt Joe, by your words and by your actions, that’s true, but what Joe is going through right now, this very minute, he did to himself.”  Ben pointed to the sleeping form on the cot.  “You did not make him take that first drink, you did not hold a gun to his head and say, ‘drink this or I’ll kill you,’ now did you?” Adam shook his head slowly in response to his father’s question.

“Joseph chose, for what ever reasoning he had going on in his head at the time, to pick that bottle up himself.  He is responsible for his actions and you are responsible for yours; nothing more, nothing less.  Now, if you choose to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life for what you ‘think’ you have done, that will be your own doings,” finished Ben returning to the table.

Ben watched Adam’s face as he considered his father’s words.  Adam’s eyes searched his brother’s face and slowly he entered the room pulling the chair close to the bed and sat down.  Adam took Little Joe’s hand in his larger ones and held it to his cheek gently rubbing the back of it across the dark shadow that had sprouted on his chin and jaw line.  Ben could tell that Adam was softly talking to the sleeping boy but could not make out what he had said and considering it none of his business, turned his head and allowed the boy his private time with his brother.

Joe struggled to open his eyes.  It felt like something heavy had been placed over his closed eyelids as he rolled his hands into fists and rubbed away the sleep.  His head was pounding as if someone were hammering on it with a sledgehammer.  Too add to his misery, his stomach hurt like hell and he felt as if he might vomit at any minute.  Never in his life thought Joe, had he felt so miserable.

Joe slowly raised his head and peeked through partially opened eyes searching for his brother.  “ADAM!” yelled Joe as he leaned back into the pillow and watched the butterflies that fluttered overhead.  Joe reached out and caught the largest one between his fingers bringing it close to better view the color.  Joe could see the tiny eyes staring back at him and suddenly feeling remorseful for having captured it waved his arm in the air releasing the beautiful monarch.  Joe giggled as the butterfly joined its companions.

Joe closed his eyes and begged his head to stop pounding; he was hungry and wanted breakfast now.  “ADAM! WHERE ARE YOU?” shouted Joe opening his eyes.

“Adam has gone into town son. Calm down, what’s wrong?” asked Ben as he leaned over his son.

“Pa?  Is that you?”  Joe reached his arm out to touch his father and smiled as his hand made contact with Ben’s arm.

Ben pulled the chair close to the bed as Joe raised himself up into a sitting position and gathered his son into his arms.  Ben felt Joe’s body begin to tremble as Joe’s sobs grew in volume.  “Yes Joseph, your Pa’s here now.  Don’t cry son, its going to be all right.”

“Pa…I wanna go home…please,” cried Joe, clinging to Ben’s shirt.  “Get me outta here, Pa…please.”  Joe continued with his pleas until Ben was forced to lower the weeping boy back down on the bed.

“Joe, you have to calm down son.  Listen to me, I promise, just as soon as the doctor says you are well enough to travel, Adam and I both will take you home.”  Ben pulled the blankets up around Joe’s shoulder and remained seated on the side of the bed.

“Promise Pa?  Promise?”  Joe’s tear filled eyes searched his father’s for reassurance.

“Joe, have I ever broken my promise to you?” asked Ben.  Joe shook his head no.  “Then you believe me, don’t you?”  Joe shook his head yes.  “Then you need to calm down.”

Joe started giggling, “Okay Pa,” laughed Joe.

Ben smiled at the sound of his son’s giggles.  “What may I ask is so funny?”

Joe suddenly stopped laughing, his face quickly growing serious, “You’re mad at me ain’t ya, Pa?”

“No son, I’m not mad at you.”  Ben realized that Joe was not quite himself, that his moods were beginning to bounce around and suddenly wished that Adam would hurry back from his errand.  “Joe, are you hungry son?  Want your ole Pa to fix you something to eat?”

“Sure Pa.  Could I have some coffee?  My head is killing me,” asked Little Joe, all smiles again.

Ben started toward the kitchen when he felt himself being struck from behind as he was suddenly knocked to the floor.  Twisting around, he found Joe behind him and was startled at the boy’s actions.  Joe was fighting with an imaginary assailant.  Joe bounced off the wall where he appeared to have been thrown and quickly grabbed the unseen victim and tossed him to the floor.  Ben pulled himself to his knees trying to stop Joe’s fists from pounding the floor where he held his attacker down.

“Joseph, stop,” Ben struggled with Joe’s hands.  “Son, listen to me, you have to stop!”

Joe’s knuckles were bleeding where they had made contact with the hard wooden floor.  Ben stood all the while holding onto Joe’s arms, raising them above the boy’s head as he fought to control his son.

“Pa, Stop, he’s getting away,” yelled Joe trying to twist free of the strong grasp that he was being held in.

“Listen to me Joe, there is no one here except you and me.  Now stop, do you hear me?” Ben shouted trying to be heard above Joe’s own exclamations of anger.

The front door opened and Adam stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of his father and brother struggling in the floor.  Ben caught the movement in the doorway and yelled for Adam to help him.  Adam dropped his packages on the table and hurried to assist his father in subduing the fighting boy.  It took both men to finally calm Joe enough that he allowed his father to gather him into his arms and cradle him in a tight embrace.  Ben sat in the floor rocking the weeping boy until he became so drowsy that Ben felt confident enough to release his hold in order to put Joe in the bed.

Adam pulled back the covers as Ben laid Joe onto the bed and tucked the covers around his body.  “What happened, Pa?” asked Adam watching his father’s face.  “Are you okay?  You don’t look very well,” commented Adam, concern for his father evident in his voice.

Ben gave Adam a small smile and shook his head.  “I’m fine son, really.  Joe must be having those hallucinations you were telling me about.  One minute he was laughing at something, then the next he was knocking me to the floor thinking that someone was trying to hurt me.”

“Pa, I know you aren’t going to like this, but the doctor said these could get really bad and if they did we should use the restraints to prevent him from hurting himself,” said Adam and watched as the color drained from his father’s face.

“Adam…” started Ben.

“Pa, I don’t like it any more than you do, but you know as well…” Adam stopped when Ben held up his hand signaling silence.

“I know you are right son.  But for now he is sleeping.  Let’s allow him that, then, when he wakes up, if things haven’t changed, well…I suppose we will just have to use them.”

Ben asked Adam to get Tina’s first aide supplies so that he could clean and bandage Joe’s split knuckles from where he had pounded the hard floor.  Joe stirred slightly as the stinging sensation from the alcohol touched the tender flesh and tried to withdraw his hand from his father’s grasp.  Ben worked quickly, not wanting to wake the boy and face another repeat performance of the last several minutes.

Ben sat at Joe’s bedside and watched the variety of emotions and expressions that played across the young boy’s face.  Ben found himself wondering at each and at the intensity in which they seemed to appear and disappear.  It was the soft whimpering sounds that Joe made in his sleep that tugged the hardest on Ben’s heartstrings, not knowing the cause and having to watch the silent tears as they eased their way down the boyish cheeks.  More than once his son called out for him and each time Ben had responded with words of love and encouragement that seemed to calm the boy only to start the process over again within minutes.

It was late evening when Joe finally woke from his deep sleep.  He smiled when his eyes found his father’s face in the dim glow of the lamp.  Ben watched carefully for any signs that Joe’s moods might be anything but normal and was relieved when Joe pulled himself into a sitting position and asked for something to eat.

“I kept something warm for you.  Do you think you could sit at the table with your brother and I?” asked Ben.

Joe nodded his head yes and pushed back the covers.  Adam laughed, stopping Joe in his efforts to rise from the bed.  Joe cast wary eyes at his older brother.  “I hope you aren’t planning to come to the table dressed like that,” teased Adam pointing at his brother’s nude body.

Joe looked down at himself, felt his face turn crimson and grabbed a blanket to cover himself.  “I…I don’t know where my clothes are,” he stammered and looked beseechingly at his father.  Adam had gotten up from his chair and handed Joe a small brown package.

“Try these, I picked them up for you in town earlier,” smiled Adam and watched as Joe struggled with the string holding the folded paper in place.  “Let me help you little buddy,” laughed Adam and gently forced Joe to sit back down on the bed, “you just hold on to that blanket.”

Joe’s laughter was soft but it was enough to make his father smile.  “Thanks, Adam…for everything.”  Joe grinned at his brother as he accepted the long john bottoms that Adam held out to him.  Briefly their hands touched and as if time had momentarily froze, neither brother moved, their eyes meeting in admiration of one another.

Joe quickly slipped on the bottoms and allowed Adam to help him to the table where he waited for his first real meal in many days.  Tina had managed to prepare the vegetable stew and cornbread before leaving for work earlier and Joe was anxious to sample the meal.  Joe stuffed several bites into his mouth relishing each when he suddenly stopped and squinted his eyes.  Reaching halfway across the table, Joe used his thumb and pressed into the table, twisting the finger slightly then with his thumb and pointer finger, removed the squished bug from the table.  Ben and Adam exchanged glances, Adam’s eyebrows rising ever so slightly.

Joe was reaching for his glass when he spotted the second bug scurrying across the flowered tablecloth that Tina used to adorn her little table.  Making a fist, Joe pounded the bug and flicked it to the floor.  Feeling two pairs of eyes on him, Joe smiled at his father and brother before quickly pounding the next bug making both Ben and Adam jump at the sudden movement.  Father and older brother sat silently, not quite sure what was going on in the mind of the youngest Cartwright.  Suddenly and with no forewarning, Joe slammed his hand down on the end of the spoon as it rested in the bowl of stew.  The spoon flew from the half empty bowl sending warm stew flying into the air and splattering on the two surprised men who sat across from him.

“Got’em!” squealed Little Joe, giving both men a big smile.

“Joseph, what are you doing son?” inquired Ben nervously.

“Pa, look at all of these bugs!  They’re crawling everywhere. LOOK OUT!  Got it,” Joe held it up for Adam to inspect before throwing it over his shoulder.

Without knowing what was happening, Joe suddenly started slamming both hands all around the table killing the unseen bugs that he claimed had taken siege of his dinner.  Joe had quickly become so distraught that it took both Adam and his father to pull the frightened boy from the table where he was trying to climb.  Ben and Adam each had an arm fighting to pull Joe from the kitchen and back into the bedroom where they could get him in the bed and restrained.  Joe’s screams seemed to rattle the windows as he struggled against his family trying desperately to free himself.

“Joe, settle down.”  Ben tried to remain calm but found it difficult to watch his son kicking about his legs, throwing his head back and forth, all the while crying for release.

As soon as they neared the bed, Joe freed his arm from Adam’s hold and swung out striking Adam on the shoulder.  His older brother momentarily stunned, Joe used both hands to pull free from Ben’s hold and ran for the door.  Luckily, Ben had locked it earlier and Joe’s escape was forced into a halt as he battled with opening the door.

Ben and Adam reached him before he managed to turn the lock and with a man on each side pinning his arms behind him, they forced the mindless boy toward the bed. Screaming now that snakes were everywhere on his bed, he bellowed loudly not to be made to lie down.  Tears stained the frightened and confused boy’s face and sweat glistened on his bare chest as he braced himself from being lowered onto the snake filled cot.

Adam forced Joe to look down at the bed as he swiped his free hand across the mattress and calmly reassured the shaking boy.  “Look Joe, they’re gone, I’ve taken care of that for you.”

“PLEASE! PLEASE!  I hate snakes…NO! Pa I’m scared…please!” screamed Joe at the top of his voice as his brother and father lowered him onto the bed and bound his ankles and wrists.  Ben leaned down and cupped his son’s face with both his hands as he tried to reach into the befuddled mind of his precious son.

“Joe, sweetheart, listen to me son.  There are no snakes, I promise.”  Ben kissed the boy’s brow several times moving to plant kisses onto the wet cheeks.  “Precious…shh…it’s okay, they’re all gone,” comforted Ben speaking more calmly than he was really feeling.

“I wouldn’t let them hurt you baby, you believe Papa don’t you?” Ben whispered into Joe’s ear as the tormented boy struggled to free himself of his restraints.

From somewhere deep within the depths of Joe’s living hell, his father’s voice was reaching out to him.  Joe ceased his struggles and listened to the reassuring sounds that echoed in his ear. Joe’s screams slowly turned to soft whimpers as he turned his head toward the warmth he felt near his face and when he finally opened his eyes, his father’s cheek was pressed next to his and he listened to the words his father prayed.

‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

Ben kissed the soft spot right next to Joe’s earlobe and raised his head just enough to see his son’s face.  Joe’s breathing had become normal and Ben listened to the steady beat of the heart and breathed a sigh of relief that Joe had fallen asleep with a peaceful countenance that graced his young face.  Turning to face Adam, Ben’s eyes noted the pained expression that had etched its self into the deep furrows across the older boy’s brow.

“Are you okay, son?” asked Ben moving to rest his hands on the slumped shoulders.

“Whew… I think so,” answered Adam watching his father’s face and seeing the worry still evident added with a small smile, “until the next time.”

“Pa, as sick as that boy has been, I had no idea he was as strong as he is.  Do you realize that he almost whipped both of us?” smiled Adam.

“Let’s not tell him, it will be our little secret, agreed?” laughed Ben leaning down and whispering into his son’s ear.

“Agreed.”  Adam crossed his heart with his fingers and joined his father in the kitchen for coffee while Joe slept.

Joe slept through the night and well into the next day with no further incidents much to the relief of both his father and brother.  When he at last woke, it was to find his father with his head propped on the side of the chair sleeping.  Joe watched his father for several minutes finding comfort in the older man’s presence.  Joe smiled slightly as he watched his father slap at a housefly that buzzed around his head causing Ben to strike himself on the nose.  Joe could not stop the giggle that escaped which brought his father fully awake and staring into the shining face of his youngest son.

“Well, welcome back,” smiled Ben as he bent down and brushed back the wayward curls from his son’s brow.

“Have I been gone along time, Pa?” asked Joe, his eyes never leaving his father’s face.

“I’m afraid so son, too long,” Ben replied softly.

Ben watched as the smile faded from Joe’s face and Joe became serious.  Ben was half expecting the boy to start hallucinating again and watched carefully for any signs.  Adam joined his father and brother and stood quietly on the opposite side of the bed ready to give his father the help he knew would be forth coming should Joe relapse.

“Pa,” whispered Joe softly, “I’m sorry about last night, I don’t know what happened to me.”  Tears began pooling in the hazel eyes and Ben moved to sit next to his son on the small bed caressing the boy’s bound arm.

“I know that son, don’t worry about it.  Adam and I know that you couldn’t help it,” soothed Ben.

Adam knelt down next to Joe and patted his arm, “Joe, I know you’re scared, but Pa and I are here for you.  And when we get home, you know you can depend on that big ox of brother of ours too.   We didn’t want to see you hurt yourself that’s why we had to put the restraints back on you.  We aren’t punishing you for what you did.”

Joe gave his brother a weak smile, “You should have seen the size of those bugs big brother,” giggled Joe, “they were big enough to carry off Hoss.”

Adam exchanged glances with his father and then turned his eyes back to his brother.

“Don’t look so worried, Adam, I’m only teasing,” smiled Joe.  Joe giggled again when his brother let out the long breath he had been holding.

“Pa,” Joe turned his attention to his father who had not moved from his spot on the bed.  “When can we go home?” asked Joe softly.

Ben watched as the smile disappeared once again from his son’s face.  Joe cast worried eyes over his head at the restraints that still held his arms securely in place and tugged gently at them.

“Please Pa…untie me.”  Joe willed his tears to stay put but once he blinked, a lone tear rolled from his eye and down the side of his face only to land on the white pillowcase and leaving a tiny round circle next to Joe’s head.

Ben swallowed the lump that had suddenly risen in his throat and glanced at Adam.  With a nod of his head, both father and son began untying the bounds from around Joe’s wrists and ankles.  As soon as Joe felt himself freed he rose up, slipped both arms around his father’s neck, and buried his face in the curve of Ben’s shoulder.  For several minutes Ben held his son in his arm’s savoring the closeness and thanking God for his son’s improvement.

“Joe, I’ll have the doctor come check you out later today.  As soon as he says you are strong enough to travel, Adam and I will take you home.”  Ben placed his hand around Joe’s head and gently forced the boy to look at him.  “Will you agree to what the doctor says without putting up an argument?”

“I promise,” Joe nuzzled his head back down on Ben’s shoulder and closed his eyes, becoming very quiet.

“Son, what’s wrong?” asked Ben turning Joe to face him.

“Pa…I sold Cochise,” Joe’s voice cracked as he kept his eyes focused on his father’s face.

“I don’t think you need to worry, little buddy,” spoke up Adam.  “The day I found her at the livery, I bought her back for you.  I figured you might want to ride her home one day,” smiled Adam.  “That’s not all; I found your gun too.  You can have it after we get home.”

“Honest Adam?  Golly thanks, I owe you one,” laughed Joe, his mood suddenly improving.

“Just one?” teased Adam. “I had planned on making you pay me back!”  Joe frowned briefly and then started laughing when he saw that Adam had winked at his father who had also joined in the laughter.

“Well, Mr. Cartwright, I’d give the boy another two days to rest up before starting home.  I think that by the end of the week he should be able to travel; just don’t push him too hard.  Take it slow and easy, if he starts to tire out stop over for the night and by all means, make him eat.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as skinny as he is.”  Doctor Scott rose and shook hands with Ben and Adam before turning to Joe.

“Joseph, I have to give you a lot of credit.  You have worked hard at your recovery.  I truly did not think you could come so far so fast.  I hope you realize what a lucky young man you are to have a father and brother who care so much about you.  It seems to be a rarity among men these days, to be so open with their love I mean.”  Doctor Scott shook Joe’s hand, “I wish you all the luck in the world Joseph; you’ve earned it.”

Tina stood in the doorway of her small cabin home and watched the three men saddle their horses.  She was going to miss the Cartwrights, she had grown very fond of Adam and his father and Joe would always hold a special place in her heart.  She had watched him struggle to regain control of his life, watched as he fought his demons and had been present to celebrate with him, his victory.  Though she was happy that he had recovered enough to start home, the thoughts of once again living alone with no one to talk to saddened her otherwise joyful heart.

With tears in her eyes, she had bid Joe and Mr. Cartwright a fond farewell and waited for Adam to finish saddling his horse before saying her good-byes to him.  Joe slowly mounted Cochise and waited with Ben as Adam turned to his father.

“Pa, I’ll be right back, I have something to take care of.”  Adam took Tina’s arm and led her into the house out of view of his family shutting the door behind them.

“Tina, I want you to have this,” Adam pulled a small leather pouch filled with money from his coat pocket and placed it into Tina’s opened palm folding her slim fingers over the pouch.

“Adam…” began Tina.

Adam silenced her by placing his lips over her lips in a kiss, drawing her warm body into a tight embrace.  Holding her closely he whispered into her ear, “I want you to go home, you have no business working in a saloon.  Go back to your family, tell them you are sorry for running away and tell them how you really feel before it is too late.  Take the money, sell this house and buy a ticket home.”

“Oh Adam, what if they won’t forgive me?” cried Tina as she rested her head against Adam’s chest.

“Blood is thicker than water, they have to forgive you.”  Adam pulled Tina back from their embrace, “Thank you Angel, for all you have done for me and my kid brother. I’ll never forget you.”  Adam placed a kiss on top of Tina’s golden curls and walked out the door.

The Cartwright’s had ridden for most of the afternoon when they stopped to eat lunch.  Tina had packed sandwiches, fruit and fried apple fritters for the threesome to enjoy.  As the family sat beneath the shade of an old oak tree, Ben watched as Joe devoured his meal.

“Son,” began Ben coming to stand in front of Little Joe, blocking the sun from shining in the boy’s hazel eyes.  “I want you to make me a promise,” smiled Ben.

Joe looked up as he stuffed the last of his fritter into his mouth and wiped his shirtsleeve across his lips removing the crumbs.  “Sure Pa, just name it.”

Little Joe missed the wink that passed from his father to his oldest brother.  Rising to face his father Joe dusted the dirt from the seat of his pants.

“Joseph, promise?” smiled Ben.

Joe glanced at Adam then back to his father, “I have a feeling I’m gonna regret this, but a promise is a promise.”

Ben laughed, “The first town we come to, you’re getting a haircut.  No son of mine is going to ride into Virginia City looking like a riverboat gambler!”

“PA!” started Joe.

“A promise is a promise, little buddy,” laughed Adam loudly as he ruffled his little brother’s long curly hair.

Ben joined in the laughter and hugged his son’s, “Come on boys, let’s ride.”

***END***

Ben’s quote taken in part from ‘The Quest’.  No infringement intended.

 

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