Summary: Lessons are learned about change and youth and how neither are necessarily a bad thing.
Word Count: 10,523
“Your references are very good,” Ben Cartwright said, glancing across his desk at the man sitting opposite him. His tone was quite neutral. “Can I ask why you left this job?”
“Well, to be truthful, Mr. Cartwright, I just got wanderlust,” Deke Sims replied, smiling. “I’d been there quite a spell and my wandering foot just got to itchin’.”
Smiling back, Ben continued to read Sims’ references, admitting to himself that this man seemed tailor made for the job, but not quite sure why he felt a little uneasy. He wasn’t completely happy with the story of wanderlust, but it might well be true and the man simply be embarrassed about it now, realizing he’d left a plum position. However, Ben needed a new assistant foreman urgently and Deke Sims fitted the bill perfectly.
“Well, Mr. Sims, I don’t need to consider any longer. I’d like to offer you the position, starting immediately.” Ben sketched in his wages and Sims nodded. “I share the running of the ranch with my three sons,” he added. “You can take your orders from them, as well as me, although I am in over-all charge.”
For an instant, he thought he saw anger showing on Sims’ face, but it was a fleeting instant and Ben wondered if he was imagining it. “That’s fine, sir,” Sims’ replied. “When do I meet them?”
“Well, you can meet Adam and Hoss right now,” Ben answered. “Joseph, my youngest son, isn’t expected back until late tonight, so you won’t meet him until tomorrow.”
“Well, I’ll look forward to that, I’m sure,” Sims assured him. Ben smiled at him.
Outside in the yard, Ben led him across to the barn where Adam and Hoss had been shoeing the horses. Adam cast an eye over the man as he shook hands with him, and liked what he saw. Sims was in his late forties, well built, but not fat. He was about the same height as Adam and had a level gaze out of grey eyes. Hoss took to him, too.
For his part, Sims felt a great relief. He’d left his last position when the boss’s son reached the age where he was starting to give orders, and Sims couldn’t accept orders from a boy. He’d struggled to keep his temper when the arrogant young man had contradicted his orders right in front of him, and had finally left after he’d lifted his hand to the boy. He was relieved to find that Ben’s sons were adults in their late 20’s or early 30’s.
“I’m sorry your brother isn’t here, too,” Sims commented as he exchanged a few words with the brothers.
“Ah, Joe’ll be back tomorrow,” Hoss told him. “He’s real easy to like.”
“I’ll show you the bunkhouse,” Ben said, and his sons took it as a hint to get back to work.
Yes, thought Sims, I’m going to like it here.
It was almost 10.30 when Joe arrived back home and he was exhausted. He dismounted in the yard as his father and brothers came to the door to greet him. Seeing how tired he was, Hoss immediately offered to put his horse away for him, an offer that Joe gratefully accepted, even though he usually preferred to tend to his pinto himself. Ben urged Joe into the house, where Hop Sing had some supper waiting for him.
“How’s Dave?” Ben asked, as Joe began to eat tiredly.
“Well, he’s going to live,” Joe replied. He lifted his head to meet his father’s eyes. “But he’s crippled, Pa.”
The news wasn’t a surprise, yet it had the power to shock even so. When Ben had seen Dave lying under that tree, he’d known at once that his assistant foreman was badly injured, but he had hoped against hope that he would be all right. Now, Joe had told him that his worst fears were realized.
When the tree had cracked and toppled away from its intended path, Dave had been unable to get out of the way in time. Paul Martin, the Virginia City doctor had done what he could for Dave, but had suggested that he be taken to a hospital in San Francisco for more tests. Joe had been elected to go with Dave, for he wasn’t currently supervising a task that couldn’t be left. Ben Cartwright had wired the hospital to guarantee the bills, and Joe had been there for almost three weeks.
“You know Dave,” Joe went on. “He’s being so brave about it all.” Joe’s voice cracked and he stopped. Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm comfortingly. Joe was young to have gone through this alone. He was barely over 21. And then Ben remembered that at a similar age, he’d been a single father to Adam, making his way across the country. There was no telling when sorrow would come to a person, and Joe was strong; if he hadn’t been, Ben would never have let him go.
“We’ll do everything we can for Dave,” Ben reminded him. “Eat your supper, Joe, then get to bed. You’re worn out.”
“I guess I am at that,” Joe agreed. He’d pushed himself coming home and had barely slept the night before so he could make a good start that morning so he was sure he’d get home. He ate a few more bites while Ben brought him up to date with the goings on at the ranch. He decided against mentioning the new assistant foreman that night. Joe was too tired to see why he was needed.
Within a short time, Joe was yawning convulsively and headed up to bed. Ben and his brothers followed shortly after. Ben looked in on Joe and found him sound asleep, sprawled across the covers. Gently, Ben tugged the covers from under him and tucked him in. Joe slept through the whole proceeding without noticing.
“I’m letting Joe sleep late this morning,” Ben told Adam and Hoss at the breakfast table next morning. “He could use the rest; he was tuckered out last night.”
“That’s a long tip home alone after all those weeks with Dave,” Adam agreed. “I’ll let the new man know Joe won’t be out till later. What’s his name again? Sims?”
Nodding, Ben applied himself to his plate. “I’ve got to go into town a little later,” he went on. “I want to talk to Paul Martin about Dave’s future. We’ve got to do something to help him.”
Both sons nodded. They knew what they had to do that day and after they had finished eating, they headed outside. Ben followed them and spoke briefly to Charlie the foreman and then to Sims. Adam, seeing Ben talking to the new man, knew that he didn’t have to and he waved to Ben as they left.
“Sure I’ll keep my eyes out for your son, sir,” Sims replied agreeably. “I’m looking forward to getting started.”
“Don’t let me keep you, then,” Ben laughed and headed back to the house.
Joe was up earlier than Ben expected and it was no later than 10 o’clock when he left the yard to catch up to Sims, who was moving a small herd of cattle that Ben had bought a few weeks previously to join the main herd, now that they were sure the new beasts weren’t carrying any disease.
But to Joe’s surprise, he didn’t find them where he expected to and back-tracked to the corral. There, he discovered the trail leading in totally the opposite direction. Shaking his head, and mentally laughing at the hazing the new man was receiving from the other hands, Joe set off along the trail and soon caught them up.
“Hey!” he shouted, as he came into sight. “You’re going the wrong way! Get these beasts turned round now!” He repeated this as he rode round the herd, so every hand there heard him. He was a little surprised by some of the looks he got, but thought nothing of it.
Until he reached the new man, Deke Sims that is. Sims looked furious and before Joe could say a single word, Sims started bellowing at him. “I’m running this show, cowboy! You turn up late and start ordering everyone about? I don’t think so!”
“Look, mister,” Joe began, but he got no further. Sims didn’t know who this jumped-up cowboy was, but whoever he was, Sims wasn’t going to allow him to undermine his authority on the first day. Reaching over, he grabbed Joe by the sleeve and dragged him off his horse.
Caught by surprise, Joe tumbled to the ground, but he jumped quickly to his feet as Sims dismounted. By now, the other cowboys were making noises, but Sims ignored them. All his attention was centered on the curly-haired boy in front of him. “I’ll teach you to show me up, boy!” he growled, so low Joe could barely hear him.
“Wait a minute!” Joe demanded. His temper was really up now, but he was hanging on to it as hard as he could. “I don’t know…” Joe got no further.
Goaded, Sims lashed out and punched Joe in the face. The younger man was caught by surprise and reeled backwards, crashing into a cow, which mooed in protest before moving off. Luckily, Joe had caught his balance by then.
However, before Joe could rally his defenses, or say anything else, Sims jumped him, determined to assert his authority right from the start. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to do it. He fended off the cowboy that jumped to Joe’s defense and continued pummeling the smaller man on the ground. Joe was still getting in an occasional blow, but Sims’ weight was going against him, especially as he was trapped.
There was no telling where it might have ended had Adam and Hoss not appeared. Having finished their morning chores, they were going over to see Joe when they happened on the fight. Jumping from their horses, they didn’t at first realize who Sims’ victim was.
Together, they dragged Sims upright, and only then did Adam glance at the man on the ground. “Joe!” he exclaimed and jumped to his brother’s side.
“Joe?” Sims echoed, still held in Hoss’ strong grip. “Joe Cartwright? Your brother? But…”
Seeing that Sims was calm again, Hoss let him go, joining Adam by Joe’s side. Their younger brother was conscious, but only just. His nose was bleeding, his lips were split and his left eye was swelling shut with a nasty cut just beneath it. He was groaning steadily.
“Take it easy, Joe,” Adam soothed. He gestured to one of the hands. “Give me a canteen.” Stripping off his bandanna, he soaked it and began to wipe the blood off Joe’s face.
“What was you thinkin’ of?” Hoss demanded, glaring at Sims.
Humiliated, Sims tried to sound as authoritative as he could. “He rode up and started giving orders. I’ve met his type before, and I thought I’d better show him who was boss!”
“That’s not how we show our authority round here,” Adam stated, coldly. “Take it easy, Joe,” he repeated.
“I’m all right, Adam,” Joe mumbled, which made his brothers smile. Joe could be replied upon to say that he was all right, even on his death bed they suspected.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Sims offered, although he was anything but sorry. He was furious and knew he would never forgive the youngest Cartwright for this embarrassment. “How was I to know who he was?”
“Pa tol’ you Joe was comin’ out ta help ya,” Hoss replied. “Didn’ he tell ya Joe rode a pinto?”
“No,” Sims responded, sulkily. He could feel all the hands looking at him and he was livid.
“It doesn’t matter,” Adam broke in. “You don’t treat the hands that way, is that clear?” Sims nodded. “Good. Right, get these beasts heading in the direction they should’ve gone and we’ll get Joe home.” Adam glanced at Hoss. “Get a wagon,” he requested.
“I can ride,” Joe protested. “Honest, Adam, I’m all right.” He struggled to sit up and allowed his brothers to assist him to the side of the track so he wouldn’t get stepped on as the cattle were turned and started on their journey to the right pasture. While they were waiting for this to be done, Adam took a closer look at Joe after wiping more blood off his face.
“You don’t look as bad as I thought,” Adam told him. Joe cracked a small grin. His nose and mouth had stopped bleeding, but the cut under his eye oozed persistently and his eye was now completely shut. “But you need to get that eye seen to, Joe. Are you sure you can ride?”
“I’m sure,” Joe replied. “I feel a bit better now.” Apart from a few bruises where he’d been pulled from his horse, only Joe’s face had really been touched. Sims’ weight had kept him pinned to the ground, but he hadn’t punched Joe in the stomach or anything.
“Come on then,” Adam said, and he and Hoss pulled Joe to his feet and supported him under the arms until he’d got his balance. Seeing that Joe was quite steady, they let him walk over to Cochise and mount under his own steam, although Hoss stayed close by until Joe was settled. Then they headed for home.
“I cain’t figger that feller,” Hoss commented as they rode home. “Why’d he think we’d let him treat anyone like that?”
“I don’t know,” Adam replied, shrugging. “Perhaps that’s how it was done on his last place; I don’t know. But at least now he knows that it’s not done here. What a pity that anyone had to suffer to show him that was wrong.”
“Well,” Hoss answered, after a glance at Joe, “at least it were Joe who suffered. He oughta be used to sufferin’.”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Joe retorted, but he did sound amused. “”Good thing it wasn’t one of you two, or we’d never hear the end of it!”
To their credit, both his brothers laughed.
Arriving back a couple of hours later, Ben was totally unprepared to find Joe sitting in the red leather chair by the fire with an ice-pack on his eye. Looking over as Ben came in, Joe mustered a smile, but it was a pretty woebegone effort. Joe’s eye had continued to swell, and was very sore. The cut had bled stubbornly for quite some time, and only the ice-pack had relieved his pain any. In consequence, Joe was feeling very sorry for himself.
“What happened?” Ben asked, hurrying over to his son’s side.
Sighing and making a rueful face, Joe filled his father in on the morning’s events. Ben listened in appalled silence, gently lifting Joe’s hand away from his face so he could view the damage for himself. “I’m sorry, son,” he said, quietly, when Joe had finished talking.
“It’s not your fault, Pa,” Joe assured him. “I guess I went about it the wrong way, and who can blame the guy for reacting badly? And although I know you don’t approve of his methods, I’ve had to resort to that myself at times.”
“I know,” Ben admitted. “I’ll have a word with Sims later. Meanwhile, let’s get that eye seen to.” Patting Joe on the knee, he went off to collect gauze and bandages, while Joe made a moue of disgust.
He was right to be disgusted, for Ben insisted that Joe’s eye be bandaged up, with a gauze pad over the cut to protect it. Not only did Joe feel that he looked ridiculous, but he found it very disconcerting to be minus his peripheral vision on that side. Until he got used to it, he found he bumped into furniture and walls, because he hadn’t allowed for them to be there.
When the day drew to a close, Ben went out to the bunkhouse to speak to Sims. He drew the man outside where they could talk privately, not wanting the rest of the hands to hear every word. Sims tried to hide his anger; he knew that the men were already talking about the roasting he’d received from Adam.
“I want to apologies for what happened this morning, Mr. Cartwright,” Sims said, before Ben could start talking, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to get that in first. “It was wrong of me.”
“Yes, it was,” Ben agreed. “But Joe knows that he was in the wrong, too, in not coming to you first and telling you who he was. However, we don’t condone beatings here. There are other ways to handle the men. But now that this misunderstanding has been cleared up, we’ll say no more about it.”
“I didn’t expect Joe to be so… young,” Sims ventured. If he’d had Joe there at that moment, he would probably have thumped him.
“I perhaps should have mentioned that,” Ben allowed, “but I assumed that the men would have told you about the boys. Well, Joe might be young, but he pulls his weight on the ranch. He runs the horse operation and he’s got a good head on his shoulders.” Ben smiled. “I’m sure there won’t be any more trouble.” He nodded pleasantly to Sims and went back into the house.
Standing at the corral, Sims gazed sightlessly into the night, seething with anger. First of all he had beaten up his boss’s son; then he had been called to task for it twice, and both times the men he was in charge of had been present. Sims cherished his dignity, and chalked a black mark against Joe’s name for those experiences.
For a moment, Sims wondered if it was worth staying at the Ponderosa, since he would have to work with Joe. But the wages were the best he’d had, and he decided to give it more time before he moved on. Who knew what could happen in the meantime.
Glancing at the house once more, Sims hoped that Joe’s eye was giving him a lot of grief!
For the new couple of days, Ben insisted that Joe stay close to the house and allow his eye time to heal. There wasn’t much Joe could object to in this statement, as his eye was very sore and still swollen shut the next morning. However, after a couple of days, his eye was open again, although still a rainbow of colors, and the cut was healing over nicely. By then, Ben was fed up of his son’s restless presence in the house and he was almost as glad as Joe when his son rode out, back to work.
During those few days, Sims had made an effort to get to know the men he was working with, something he didn’t usually do. The men had obligingly told Sims the story about Ben and his sons, and Sims now knew why the boys didn’t look alike. He respected Adam, tolerated Hoss and actively disliked Joe.
In Adam, Sims saw someone similar to himself, in that Adam kept his distance from those around him for the most part, although there were one or two of the men that he seemed to be friendly with. Adam was tough but fair and hard working. Sims respected those qualities.
The middle Cartwright son was difficult to dislike, because he was the nicest person Sims had ever met. Unfortunately for Hoss, ‘nice’ wasn’t a compliment as far as Sims was concerned. Hoss’ genuine efforts to befriend everyone were seen as signs of weakness to Sims, although Hoss’ sheer size demanded respect. The men assured him that, niceness not withstanding, Hoss could be a demon when protecting either of his brothers. Never having seen any evidence of this in his few days there, Sims couldn’t tell if the men were teasing him or not, so decided to reserve judgment on Hoss. So he tolerated him, not quite resenting being told what to do by Hoss, but not quite comfortable with it either.
But in Joe, Sims couldn’t find one thing to like. He thought the youngest Cartwright was spoiled and arrogant, playing at working on the ranch. Joe’s quicksilver moods and high spirits were repellent to Sims. He was scornful of the idea that Adam and Hoss should feel so protective towards Joe, not realizing that Hoss felt the same way about Adam, too, Adam felt that way about Hoss and Joe felt the same way about both his brothers. To Sims, this simply meant that Joe was a weakling, who should have no place in the running of the ranch.
Sims did like Ben Cartwright. He could see the man’s toughness and fairness and he liked the way the ranch worked, which was largely down to Ben, even though he tended to leave most of the harder physical work to his sons now. The only chink in Ben’s armor, as far as Sims was concerned, was Ben’s obvious protectiveness towards all his sons, but especially Joe. Sims’ own father had thrown him out of the house when he was just 13, and Sims had never looked back. He had no children of his own, but felt that children should be made to make their own way in the world from an early age and that too much schooling was bad for a person. Boys in particular should start earning their keep at an early age.
It completely escaped his notice that the Cartwright boys worked just as hard as the other hands did, and doing the same jobs.
Summer was always the busiest season of the year for the Cartwrights. Once the spring calving was finished, they had branding to do, then shortly after that came the haying. During all that, they had to supervise timber cutting and planting, keep an eye on the herd, break any horses that needed it, plus keep the fence lines intact, as well as dealing with the day-to-day chores that sprang up.
After his initial contact with Joe, Sims tried to make sure that he and Joe weren’t working together, and when they were, he was unfailingly pleasant to the youth. What he didn’t know was that Joe was incredibly sensitive to atmosphere, and Joe had already guessed that the assistant foreman didn’t like him.
Aware that his own dislike for the man stemmed from their unfortunate first encounter and his unreasonable resentment that Sims had Dave’s job, Joe worked hard to hide his feelings for Sims, and as far as he could tell, it worked. Sims came into contact with Adam and Hoss more than with Joe, but that was purely down to the way the jobs were distributed that summer. Joe was breaking a string of horses for a friend of the family, who had been taken ill, and was unable to do the job himself.
“How is Sims settling in?” Ben asked Adam, as they rode round the herd, checking them over for barren animals, and making sure that there was adequate grass.
“He knows his job,” Adam replied, “and he’s good at giving orders. The men grumble a bit, but nobody is complaining. He’s not Dave, but then, Dave had been here for a long time.”
“Good,” Ben commented. “Any more trouble with Joe?”
“Well, they’ve been kept apart, pretty much,” replied Adam. “But I get the impression that he doesn’t like Joe all that much.”
“Really?” Ben queried, looking at Adam, who was wearing his blandest face. “Why do you think that is?”
“I’m not sure,” Adam responded. “I always get the impression that he’s humoring Joe when they’re together. Almost like he doesn’t really think Joe is up to his job.” Adam quirked an eyebrow. “He’s probably still embarrassed about their first meeting. Beating up the boss’s son on your first day isn’t something you live down easily.”
“I guess not,” Ben agreed. “Well, he’s working out fine so far, so we’ll leave things alone. How does the herd look to you?”
“Looks good,” Adam replied.
“Joe, you can take that stallion across to Jeff Burrow’s in the morning,” Ben said over supper a week or two later.
“All right, Pa,” Joe mumbled agreeably. “We’ll need to move those other young stallions soon, too. I’ve had to separate them already and we don’t want any accidents. Those are valuable animals.”
“Yes, I agree,” Ben nodded. “Old man Peterson said he would take one when I met him in town a week or so back, so why don’t you take one of the others with you when you go? Peterson’s place isn’t that far from Burrow’s.”
“I’ll need another man to go with me, then,” Joe remarked. “I wouldn’t want to try and lead two of them and keep them from fighting.”
“Besides,” Adam put in, “you wouldn’t want to ride home alone with all that money in your saddlebags.”
“I wouldn’t be carrying that much money,” Joe objected.
Shooting a glance at Ben, Adam asked, “Did you get that money from Burrow’s, Pa?”
“What money?” Joe asked, looking confused. Hoss shrugged. This was the first he’d heard of it too.
“You know I had that deal with Burrow to provide some dressed timber for his new barn?” Ben asked. Reminded, Joe and Hoss both nodded, wondering what this had to do with the stallion. “Well, Jeff didn’t have the money to hand at the time. Someone owed him money, and we all know how that is.” There were nods from round the table. “So I told Jeff he could pay me when he got the money. He sent word last week that he had the money and wanted the stallion, too.”
“So you want me to collect the money, too,” Joe stated, agreeably. He pushed his empty plate away and leaned back in his chair, feeling well fed and replete. “Sure thing, Pa. How much is it?”
“$3000,” Ben replied and Joe sat up again.
“All right,” Joe said, slowly. “I can see I’d better take someone with me, just because of that, if nothing else. Who can go?”
“Let’s worry about that in the morning,” Ben told him, smiling. “Let’s just enjoy our meal tonight.”
Shrugging, Joe nodded as Hop Sing brought some peach pie to the table. He wasn’t bothered who went with him. “Hey, Hoss let me get a piece of pie!” he objected. “We’re meant to share it, you know!”
“Aw, dadburnit, Joe,” Hoss grumbled good-naturedly. “I thought ya’d want me t’ have your share. We all know how generous ya are!”
“Aren’t you the one who’s always telling me I’m too skinny?” Joe protested, his green eyes sparkling with laughter.
“But ya don’t want ta git too fat, now do ya, Joe?” Hoss countered. “Them pants of yours fit real tight around the butt as it is!”
At this point, Adam and Ben lost the battle they had been waging against their laughter and let loose. Joe couldn’t resist any more than Hoss could and they both began to laugh as well. “Do have some pie, little brother,” Hoss offered, with a courtly bow.
“Why thank you, big brother,” Joe responded.
“And don’t forget us!” Ben interjected, still laughing. “I know you two are quite capable of eating the whole pie between you!”
Adam choked on his piece at the looks of wide-eyed innocence Joe and Hoss sent to their father.
The morning dawned grey and misty. Joe shivered slightly as he made his way down to breakfast. “Morning, Pa, brothers,” he greeted them as he slumped into his seat.
“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben replied. “How nice to see you looking so bright and breezy this morning.”
Grinning, Joe helped himself from the heaped platter on the table. “I didn’t want to come down shining too brightly in case I over shadowed these fellows,” Joe murmured, indicating his brothers. “You know what a bear Adam is in the morning.”
“I’m so glad you’re going to be away all day, younger brother,” Adam retorted. “Or I might have been tempted to drop you in the horse trough for that little remark!”
“See what I mean?” Joe demanded, giggling. He ducked a mock punch from his ‘irate’ oldest brother. “So who’s going to be coming with me this morning?” he asked.
Reluctantly, Ben told him. “It’ll have to be Sims,” he offered. The other hands knew the ranch better than Sims and he didn’t want the new man getting lost while hunting for strays. Ben explained this to Joe. “It’ll give him a break from routine, too,” he concluded.
Joe said nothing, just glanced down at his plate for a moment. Then his head came back up. The grin was gone, but Ben couldn’t read anything else from his son’s face. “That’s fine, Sims it is,” he agreed, his tone neutral. “We should be back by supper,” he went on. “Don’t let Hoss eat it all.” Joe shot a grin at Hoss, who grinned back.
“Jist don’ be late,” he warned. “Or I ain’t promisin’ ta leave ya any!”
Mounting Cochise, Joe wrapped an extra turn of rope around his hand. At the other end of the rope, a handsome dapple grey stallion moved restlessly, sensing that something was up. Joe muttered soothing words to the animal before glancing over at Sims. He was already mounted, and had a bay on the end of a lead rein. “Ready?” Joe asked.
At the answering nod, Joe led the way out of the corrals and down the road. The sun was burning the mist away, although there were still patches of it lingering here and there where the sun hadn’t reached. Joe kept Cochise to a jog. He certainly didn’t want to arrive at either ranch with the horses sweated up. They were valuable animals and Joe wanted to deliver them safe and sound.
Following along, Sims glared at the back of Joe’s head. He understood quite well why he’d been selected for this job and he wasn’t happy. He hadn’t signed on at the Ponderosa to nursemaid the youngest son. He didn’t see why he should act as though Joe was in charge when quite clearly he was being sent along to make sure everything went smoothly.
The first stop of the day was at Jeff Burrow’s place and they didn’t reach there until late morning. As they rode into the yard, Jeff came out of the barn to greet them. “Hi, Little Joe,” he called.
“Mornin’, Jeff,” Joe called back. He pulled Cochise to a stop and dismounted. “I’ve got a delivery for you.”
“Mighty fine lookin’ horse,” Jeff commented, walking all around the stallion before going closer to look at its teeth. “He broke, Joe?”
“Green broke,” Joe confirmed. “I worked him myself.”
“All right,” Jeff replied, taking the rope from Joe. “I’ll put him in the barn. Why don’t you and your man stay for lunch? There’s plenty.” Jeff glanced at Sims and Joe belatedly introduced him.
“Jeff, this is our new assistant foreman, Deke Sims. Deke, this is Jeff Burrow.”
“Howdy,” Sims nodded, annoyed that Joe hadn’t introduced him at once.
“Hi,” Jeff responded. “Put that other horse in the corral and go on into the house, Joe. I’ll be in in a moment.” Leading his new horse, Jeff vanished into the barn.
Looping Cochise’s rein around the hitching post, Joe loosened his cinch before taking the bay stallion from Sims and turning him into the corral Jeff had indicated. Sims hitched his horse beside Joe’s and then walked over to the house with him. They had exchanged not a single word all morning.
Inside the house, Jeff’s pretty wife, Anne, was just putting their new baby down in the cot. Their two year old son, Jeff junior, was playing on the rug in front of the fire. Anne looked up as they came in and gave Joe a brilliant smile. The little boy shrieked, “Joe!” and dashed across the room to throw himself into Joe’s arms.
“Hi, Junior!” Joe chuckled, throwing the child into the air and catching him again. “Hi, Anne.” Tucking the little boy onto his hip, Joe went over and kissed her cheek. “You look lovely. And how’s Elizabeth?” He peered at the baby in the cradle. “She’s grown!”
“Babies do that,” Anne giggled.
“Anne, this is Deke Sims, our new assistant foreman. Deke, this is Anne Burrow.”
Mumbling his greetings, Sims was surprised at Joe’s casual way of making himself at home, not realizing that these people were close friends of the family. He saw it simply as another example of Joe’s arrogance. He overlooked the warmth with which Joe had been greeted.
“Sit down at the table, both of you,” Anne invited after saying hello to Sims. “Dinner won’t be a minute.”
“Take a seat,” Joe prompted, as Sims hesitated. He wasn’t used to eating his meals with his employers. Joe popped the little boy into his high chair and sat down.
Over the course of the meal, Sims said very little. The Burrows made every effort to bring him into the conversation, but he found he knew very few of the people they were discussing, so had little contribution to make. He was very annoyed when they asked about Dave, his predecessor, and Joe told them about Dave’s condition, with poorly concealed emotion. Sims didn’t realize that Joe wasn’t trying to conceal his emotion. Sims hated any reminder of Dave.
“Thanks for the meal, Anne, it was lovely,” Joe said, as they finished eating. “Jeff, I hate to eat and run, but we’ve got to get that other stallion to Peterson’s place this afternoon and be back by supper.”
“I’ve got the money all here, Joe,” Jeff assured him and rose to get it. Clearing a space on the table, he began to count out the bills. “$3,200, Joe, as arranged.”
“Thanks, Jeff,” Joe replied, sliding the money into his wallet, which he then stuffed inside his shirt. He rose and kissed Anne’s cheek again, before tickling the little boy, who was nodding in his seat. “See you soon.”
“You be careful with all that money, Joe,” Anne warned him as Joe opened the door.
“I will, ma’am,” Joe assured her and popped his hat on. “Ready?” he asked Sims.
“Ready,” Sims answered. He gave his thanks for the meal and followed Joe in stony silence. He couldn’t think why Burrow had given the money to Joe, and not to him. Anyone with half a brain could see that he was the more responsible of the two!
Collecting the bay stallion from the corral, Joe mounted Cochise and waved goodbye to his friend. He led the way out onto the road, then slowed to allow Sims to catch up to him. “What’s on your mind, Sims?” he asked.
“Why did he give the money to you?” Sims asked, unable to hold his tongue. “Isn’t that why I’m here? So your Pa knows the money will be safe?”
Raising an eyebrow, Joe shook his head. “I’m afraid not,” he replied. “You’re here to make sure I’m safe, because I’m carrying all this money and my brother once got robbed when he was alone. And then, it’s difficult to control two horses on leads.”
“I’m sure that’s what your father led you to believe,” Sims snarled, “but I don’t think that’s so. I think I should be in charge of the money, because you’re just a kid.”
His eyes narrowing, Joe fought down his temper. “I may be young, but I’m not a kid,” he stated, quietly. “You came along because Pa wanted someone with me. After Adam was bushwhacked, Pa hasn’t been happy when one of us was alone and carrying a lot of money. You were elected to come because you still don’t know the ranch that well – and that’s not a criticism. The ranch is big and it takes time to learn the whole lay-out. Today, the men are out scouring the pastures for strays, because we’ll be moving the herd to fresh grazing soon. Pa thought that since you aren’t desperately needed to oversee this, you might enjoy a break from routine and sent you with me.”
“Of course, that’s the story he gave you,” sneered Sims. “I’m sure the truth is somewhat different.”
“What did Pa tell you?” Joe asked, still holding on tight to his temper.
“Just that I was to come with you to deliver these horses.”
“I guess he didn’t mention the money,” Joe commented. “Look, Sims, its no secret that you like me about as much as I like you, but we’re stuck with each other for the day, and regardless of what you think, I’m in charge. However, if you want to high tail it back to the ranch and explain to my father why you’re back and I’m not, feel free!” Sims looked at him wordlessly. “I see you don’t want to do that. All right, let’s get on.” He touched his heel to his horse and rode off.
“I really hate you, Cartwright!” Sims muttered.
Trouble found them when they were half way to Peterson’s place. A shot pinged off the ground in front of Cochise, who reared slightly. Joe suddenly had his hands full, as the other horse began to mill about at the end of the lead rope. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the three men riding towards them. “Come on!” he shouted and spurred Cochise into a run.
Sims fired a couple of shots over his shoulder as they raced to find cover. Up ahead, a small pile of rocks offered the only suitable cover around. Joe disentangled his hand from the rope, wrapped it round Cochise’s saddle horn once, then let the horses go. They disappeared round the corner. Sims’ horse followed them a moment later.
“Who are those guys?” Sims gasped, as he threw himself down behind the meager rock pile.
“I didn’t stop to ask,” Joe retorted, sarcastically. He had grabbed his rifle from its scabbard on his saddle and reared up to fire at their pursuers, who had taken shelter in some trees. A bullet came singing back and kicked rock dust in his face.
“What are we going to do?” Sims asked, shooting.
“Hope we drive them off or kill them before they kill us,” Joe answered. “Is there a way out of here?”
“No,” Sims responded after a quick look round. “The only way out is round the corner where the horses went.”
A sudden movement from the trees sharpened Joe’s attention and he fired at a figure that ran from one piece of shelter to another. His shot was good as the man went down and stayed down. “That’s one,” Joe commented. Sims gave him a hard, but admiring, look.
“You’re a good shot,” he commented. “But I still don’t like you.”
“Thanks,” Joe replied, lightly. “But there are still two others out there.” Next moment, a volley of shots forced them to keep their heads down.
The sporadic firing continued, until finally Joe threw down his rifle and drew his hand gun. “I’m out of bullets,” he told Sims, who was looking at him askance. “I just have these left.”
“Give them the money,” Sims urged. “It’s not worth your life.”
“They’re not getting the money!” Joe declared, his jaw jutting stubbornly. “We give them the money and they’re still going to kill us! I might not like you, but I don’t want to see you dead! How many bullets do you have?”
“A couple,” Sims admitted. He was shaken by Joe’s declaration that he would fight to save Sims’ life. “I don’t want to see you dead, either,” he added, reluctantly.
“Thanks for that,” Joe replied. Biting his lip, Joe thought frantically. They couldn’t escape and they weren’t going to get far rushing the men. There wasn’t any other cover around. They weren’t going to be suddenly rescued by a passer-by. The situation looked hopeless.
“Cartwright, look out!” Sims suddenly shouted and gave Joe a shove that sent him sprawling. Moments later, a bullet creased Sims’ head and he collapsed in a heap at Joe’s feet.
Shaking off his shock, Joe looked round and saw that the man he had shot had not been killed and had crawled through the undergrowth until he had a perfect shot at Joe. By luck, Sims had seen the glint of the sun on the blueing of the pistol and reacted. Joe reacted, too, firing off two shots into his assailant. This time, there was no doubt he was dead.
However, the other two men used the distraction provided by their colleague to rush at Joe, who fired at them furiously. Bullets sang past his ear. Then, as Joe’s gun clicked on an empty chamber, a bullet bit into the back of his hand and his gun dropped from nerveless fingers.
Dropping to the ground, Joe snatched up Sims’ rifle in his right hand and jumped to his feet once more. His aim was erratic to say the least, but he saw one of the men go down. The other was now so close that Joe was surprised that he’d only been hit once. He fired off once more, and saw the red blossom on the man’s stomach. In that very instant, the man shot back, his finger convulsing on the trigger. There was a burst of pain in Joe’s side and head, and then the world went dark.
Opening his eyes, Sims winced at the searing pain in his head. For a moment, he couldn’t remember where he was, or how he came to be there. Then, as he rolled over, he saw Joe lying beside him and memory returned with a rush.
Cautiously getting to his knees, Sims looked round. All three of their attackers were lying there dead. Putting a hand to his head, Sims felt the blood there. “Joe?” he croaked. “Joe?” Crawling over, for getting to his feet seemed to be a bad idea, Sims took a closer look at Joe.
There was blood on Joe’s head, but if was difficult for Sims to decide if he’d hit it when he fell, or if he’d been shot. However, there was no doubt that he’d been shot in the side, for both the entrance and exit wounds were bleeding profusely. There was a bullet in Joe’s hand, but there was nothing Sims could do about that. Ripping off his bandanna, Sims wadded it against Joe’s side.
The pain brought Joe to consciousness, and he looked blearily at Sims. “You’re bleeding,” he whispered and groaned.
“Not as much as you,” Sims responded. He felt intense relief that Joe was able to talk, but he had no idea how they were going to get home. “Lie still.” He glanced round, hoping that some solution would present itself, but nothing did. “You kill all these guys?” he asked, more for something to say than because he didn’t know the answer. Who else would have killed them?
“Hmm,” Joe agreed. He was fighting to stop the pain from overwhelming him.
“Look, Cartwright, I think I’m going to have to leave you here while I get help,” Sims said.
“Call… the horses,” Joe suggested. When Sims looked at him blankly, Joe drew in a cautious breath and whistled piercingly.
“The horses will be long gone,” Sims commented, scathingly.
“We’ll see,” Joe responded. He felt very odd, as if he were weightless and floating. After a moment, he whistled again, and then they clearly heard the sound of hooves approaching.
“I hope this isn’t someone else out gunning for us, Cartwright,” Sims hissed, but he was proved wrong when Cochise appeared round the corner a moment later, followed by the bay stallion and Sims’ horse.
“Cochise… isn’t a… very good shot,” Joe whispered, breathlessly. “Get me on.”
“You can’t ride!” Sims objected. “You’re bleeding.”
“And if you… leave me here, I’ll… die,” Joe responded. “Sims, I don’t like… you much and I… know you don’t like me… but you can’t… leave me here… any more than… I could leave… you. Help me on!”
Hesitating, Sims only moved to help Joe when Joe began to sit up under his own steam. By the time Sims had Joe on his feet, the young man was so pale that he was almost see-through. Despite this, and the way his head swam, Joe insisted on being helped onto his horse.
“You’ll never get home,” Sims told him.
“Thanks…for…the vote…of…confidence,” Joe panted, but he couldn’t help but wonder if Sims was right. The pain in his side was intense, and at that moment, Joe didn’t know about his head injury, and had forgotten about his hand, because he couldn’t feel them. “There’s…a…short cut,” he finished and headed Cochise in that direction.
The journey took them four hours; four hours in which Joe refused to stop for fear that if he got off his horse, he would never get back on. Four hours of intense pain and suffering for Joe. Four hours in which Sims came to feel a grudging respect for his young boss, for Joe uttered not one word of complaint, although he couldn’t prevent groans of pain escaping. By the time they arrived at the ranch, he was burning with fever and shaking with exhaustion.
“Mr. Cartwright!” Sims shouted, as they rode in. He had been holding Joe onto his horse for a long time, and was almost as exhausted as Joe. “Mr. Cartwright! Quick!”
After a pause, the door opened and Ben hurried out, followed closely by Adam and Hoss. They stopped, horrified by what they saw; then, the spell broken, hurried across the yard to the two men. “What happened?” Ben gasped, as he saw the blood on Joe’s head.
“Someone tried to bushwhack us,” Sims explained, thankfully relinquishing his burden. “Joe killed them, but he’s been shot in the side and the hand. I’m not sure about his head.”
Lifting his head, Joe saw that he was home. With an audible sigh of relief, he let go of his tenuous hold on consciousness and slumped even lower on Cochise’s neck.
“Adam, help Sims into the bunkhouse and get the doctor. Hoss, help me with Joe.” Gently, Ben eased Joe off his horse and between them, he and Hoss carried the unconscious young man indoors. Adam helped Sims down and into the bunkhouse, organizing men to look after him and go for the doctor. Once that was done, and he was sure Sims was comfortable, Adam hurried back to the house.
“How is he?” Adam asked, crowding in beside the bed to look at his brother.
“Alive,” Joe whispered, his voice barely more than a breath. His fever-bright eyes gazed back at Adam. “Hi.”
“Save your breath,” Ben advised him, wiping his head with a cool cloth. “We’re going to take off your clothes, Joe and make you more comfortable. It’ll hurt, but we’ll be as gentle as we can.”
Unbuttoning Joe’s blood-stained shirt, Adam let out an exclamation when Joe’s wallet, complete with money, fell onto the bed with a small thud. “Here’s the money, Pa,” he cried, snatching it up.
Glancing from the wallet to Joe, Ben saw a tiny smile on his son’s face. “Joe, how did you do it?” he asked.
“Kept them away,” Joe told him. “Killed them all, Pa.” His eyelids dipped shut for a moment, before he looked Ben in the face. “No choice,” he concluded.
“Shh, it’s all right, Joe,” Ben soothed, stroking the damp hair back from his face. “You rest now.” Joe’s eyes shut once more.
It was an anxious wait for the doctor, as Paul Martin wasn’t in his office. However, about two hours after Joe arrived home, Paul appeared and hurried up to Joe’s room. His examination didn’t take long, and he was soon extracting the bullet from Joe’s left hand, while the patient lay in a drugged sleep.
It seemed an eternity to Ben before he was allowed back into the room. “I’ve removed the bullet from his hand, Ben,” Paul told him. “His hand is broken. And you won’t believe it, but I found the bullet that creased his head tangled in his hair!”
“What?” Ben exclaimed, and Paul showed him the bullet, undamaged, that he had found in Joe’s curls.
“His side’s a bit of a mess, but I’ve stitched him up. He’s torn some muscles in there, and I’ve repaired them as best I can. He should make a full recovery. He’ll sleep for quite a while now, and I expect his fever to drop by morning. There was no sign of infection in any of the wounds. Keep him quiet and feed him when he wakes. I’ll look back tomorrow. Now, the message I got said one of the hands was hit too?”
“Yes,” Ben replied. “Adam will take you to him. Thank you, Paul.”
Patting Ben on the back, Paul went out to see to Sims.
“That’s a tough kid,” Sims commented to Paul as the doctor bandaged his head. “I thought sure he wouldn’t make it back here.”
“You wouldn’t credit what I’ve seen Joe do,” Paul told him wryly. “He’s got more lives than a cat, that one!”
“I thought I was along to keep him under control and take charge,” Sims mentioned. “Seems it was the other way round. When those guys came along, I didn’t know what to do. Joe just took charge and even after he was hit, he was still in control.” Sims started to shake his head, then remembered it was sore and stopped. “He’s just a kid!”
“Well, if that’s how you see Joe, you have a lot to learn,” Paul remarked, putting away his things. “Yes, he’s young, but he’s had a lot to contend with through his life. First off his mother dying when he was so young, but he’s had every illness and injury going! He’s been beaten up, shot, hit on the head, kidnapped; you name it, its happened to Joe. And every time, he’s bounced back. Sometimes it’s taken him longer than others, but he’s always come back. Don’t let the others’ concern for him lead you into thinking he’s weak. He isn’t. But so many things happen to Joe that it’s second nature to look out for him.”
“I guess he’s not a bad kid,” Sims allowed. “He seemed to know what he was doing out there.”
“He definitely would have known what he was doing out there,” Paul replied, with a touch of asperity. “Joe has singled-handedly run this ranch, and looked after his family while doing it. Believe me, Ben wouldn’t have put him in charge of the horses if Joe wasn’t up to it. People will pay good money to get a horse broken and trained by Joe. Don’t sell him short.”
Shame-faced, Sims said, “I guess I couldn’t see past his youth. I hate kids! Half of them don’t know what they’re doing and the other half are worse. I thought he was arrogant.”
“He certainly can be!” Paul laughed. “But he’s absolutely charming and hard working, too. He’s also not afraid to admit he was wrong.” He cocked an eye at the other man and saw his words sink home. He ended the discussion there and went off home.
Lying on his bunk, Sims thought about what Paul had said, and how Joe had acted and realized he needed to change his thinking.
Morning saw Joe awake and in pain. He lay quietly in bed, for every movement felt as though it was tearing apart his side and when every breath hurt, too, it was enough to keep Joe quiescent. He accepted help from Ben to sit up slightly to eat his breakfast, but he only managed half the amount of eggs Ben thought he should have. “Please, Pa, no more,” he whispered. “I feel sick.”
Putting the plate aside, Ben offered Joe some water, which he gulped thirstily before resting his head wearily on the headboard. “Thanks, Pa,” he said, in a stronger voice. His eyes narrowed as a spasm of pain shot through him. He couldn’t bite back a wince.
“Do you want to lie down again?” Ben asked, and Joe nodded. When he sat up, his head whirled violently, both from the injury and the blood loss the day before. Ben eased Joe back down and made sure he was comfortable. “Better?” he asked.
“Much,” Joe replied and tried for a smile. It wasn’t overly convincing, but it was a smile. Joe was still very pale and Ben hoped Paul would be out to look at him soon. The fever had gone, but Joe was so weak that Ben was worried. “Pa, how’s Sims?”
“I haven’t seen him this morning,” Ben replied, “but apart from a minor head wound, he was fine last night. Adam said he was mostly tired.”
“That’s good,” Joe answered. “When I saw him fall, I thought sure he was dead.” He yawned widely and Ben decided to leave any questions until later, after his son had slept again.
Once Joe was soundly asleep, Ben rose wearily and went downstairs. Adam and Hoss were out working, although he knew they would be back at lunchtime to see how Joe was doing. He had still been asleep when his brothers left that morning. Hop Sing silently handed Ben a cup of steaming coffee. Ben sipped it gratefully, wondering, as he always did, how Hop Sing knew when he needed coffee the most.
The lure of sleep was almost too strong for Ben to resist when he sat in his favorite chair in front of the fire. Although Joe had had a relatively peaceful night, Ben had been awake for most of it, keeping watch over his son until the fever had broken. Jerking awake as his head nodded down to his chin, Ben rubbed his face and rose to his feet. “I’m just going to the bunkhouse, Hop Sing,” he told the retainer as he left.
As was to be expected, the bunkhouse was quiet. Ben let himself in and looked around. Sims wasn’t in his bunk and Ben was suddenly concerned. “Sims?” he called.
There was a sound from the furthest corner, and Ben stepped forward to see. Sims had been leaning on the windowsill, gazing out to the mountains beyond. He looked tired, but his color was good. “Mr. Cartwright!” he exclaimed. “Is Joe all right?”
“Joe’s going to be just fine, thanks to you,” Ben told him, warmly. “I came to thank you for what you did yesterday. I’m just sorry I didn’t do it when you brought Joe in.”
“I didn’t do much,” Sims admitted. “I would’ve left Joe there to fetch help. He insisted that he could ride. I just helped him a little.”
“Still, I must thank you,” Ben insisted. “Joe wouldn’t have made it home without you.”
“Can I see Joe?” Sims asked, after a moment.
“He’s asleep right now,” Ben replied. “And not until after the doctor has seen him, if you don’t mind. He’s not very well.”
“I understand that, sir, and I didn’t mean today,” Sims agreed. “But I have something I must say to Joe. I have an apology to make to him.” He saw the look on Ben’s face. “I want to apologies for selling him short. I thought you’d sent me along to keep an eye on him, because he couldn’t be trusted, and I need to tell him that I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure there’s no need,” Ben began, not quite sure how to take this.
“I’d like to, sir, when he’s well enough,” Sims persisted and Ben gave in.
“Of course, when he’s well enough,” Ben agreed. “And thank you once more.” He smiled at Sims and thrust out his hand, delighted when the cowboy shook it firmly.
When Paul Martin arrived at the ranch, he wasn’t alone; Sheriff Roy Coffee came with him. “Hello, Paul, Roy,” Ben greeted them.
“Hello, Ben,” Paul replied. He gave his friend a searching look. “Did you get any sleep last night?”
“Some,” Ben evaded. “What are you doing here, Roy?”
“I come about the bushwhackin’, Ben,” Roy answered. “Doc here tol’ me about it last night.” He gestured to Paul. “Can I talk to Joe?”
“Let me have a look first,” Paul suggested.
“Have a seat, Roy,” Ben told him and followed Paul upstairs.
They saw at once that Joe was awake and Paul went over to look at him. “How do you feel, Joe?” he asked. “The truth, mind,” he cautioned.
There was hardly any need to ask. The pain was written plainly on his face and Paul straight away gave him something for it, before checking on his wounds. They were all clear of infection, which was a relief, given how long the bullet had been left in Joe’s hand.
“A week in bed, Joe,” Paul said, as he finished his examination. “And don’t stretch for any reason, until those stitches are out of there, is that clear?”
“Clear,” Joe replied.
“I’ll take the stitches out at the end of the week,” Paul continued. “By then, good food and plenty of rest will have put the color back into your cheeks.” He smiled at Joe, who gave him a small smile back. “Now I think we could let Roy come up.”
“Hi, Roy,” Joe said, as the sheriff came into the room. “It wasn’t me.”
Smiling at the joke, Roy got straight down to business. “Joe, had you ever seen them fellers that bushwhacked ya afore?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Joe replied, slowly. “But I didn’t really have all that much time to look at them closely.” He frowned. “Were you out there?”
“I went out there this mornin’,” Roy nodded. “An’ on the way I run inta Jeff Burrow, who tol’ me that three of his hired hands had disappeared yesterday. We found ‘em right where we figured they’d be.”
“They were Jeff’s hands?” Joe asked, disbelievingly.
“That they was,” Roy confirmed. “Jeff reckoned they musta seen him give ya the money, or else heard his wife tellin’ ya ta be careful with it. He was real cut up about it.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Joe commented. He felt exhausted from all the revelations.
“That’s what I tol’ him, too,” Roy agreed. “Well, Joe I jist thought I’d let ya know that the mystery was solved.”
“Thanks, Roy,” Joe replied. He closed his eyes briefly and when he next opened them, the sun had moved around the room and he knew that it was late afternoon.
“So you’re awake at last,” Adam commented, leaning over the bed.
Warm and drowsy, Joe smiled sleepily. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” he admitted. “You been here long?”
“A couple of hours,” Adam told him. “Pa needed to sleep, so I said I’d sit with you.” They sat for a moment in silence. “Sims said he’d like to talk to you. Do you feel up to it?”
“Sure,” Joe agreed. Adam nodded and patted Joe’s leg before heading out of the door. He was only gone for a moment, and came back in to help Joe to drink. Joe declined his offer to sit up.
Footsteps sounded outside the door and Adam went over to open it. Sims stood there with Hoss and Adam ushered him in before going out and closing the door behind him. Hoss gave him a sour look. “What’d ya do that fer?” he demanded. “I wanted ta hear!”
“That’s why,” Adam told him, and marched his big little brother downstairs, so neither of them would succumb to the temptation to eavesdrop.
“I owe you an apology,” Sims began, twiddling his hat nervously between his fingers.
“No,” Joe told him. “I owe you my thanks. If you hadn’t helped me, I would’ve died out there. Thank you.”
Shrugging, Sims looked embarrassed. “A few days ago, I’d have left you to die,” he admitted. “I didn’t think you were worth anything. I know that’s no secret; you made it pretty clear to me yesterday that you didn’t like me, and I guess I gave you good reason.
“But the truth is, I didn’t have a good reason for not liking you. I jumped to a conclusion about you before I knew anything about you at all. I assumed that you were like my last boss’s son; a complete waste of space. I thought your Pa was indulging you in letting you run the horses. I’m sorry about that.”
“Deke,” Joe began, but Sims interrupted him again.
“Let me finish, please,” he begged. “This isn’t easy. Joe, I wanted to thank you for saving my hide out there yesterday. I didn’t have a clue and I know that showed. I’ve learned something, thanks to you. I felt I ought to say that before I moved on.”
“Why are you moving on?” Joe asked, hoarsely.
“I’m not Dave,” Sims replied and Joe flushed deeply, considering the blood loss.
“And I must apologies for that,” Joe told him. “Dave was here for a long time. It’s not your fault that Dave had that accident. Please, don’t leave. You’re a good man and we’re lucky to have you. I’ve learned from you, too,” he continued, not able to read anything from the man’s face. “I’ve learned something I thought I’d accepted many years ago; that change isn’t a bad thing. Deke, please, stay.”
This time, the use of his Christian name registered and Sims slowly nodded. “All right, Joe,” he agreed. “I’ll stay.” He grinned, as he realized that he would have hated to have moved on. “Even if the boss’s youngest son is a pain.”
“Just wait till you get to know the older two,” Joe joked. “I’m an angel compared to them!” They laughed together.
“Are you going to satisfy my curiosity then?” Adam asked later, as he helped Joe with his supper.
“What do you mean?” Joe asked, knowing perfectly well what Adam was referring to. Hoss had dropped flaming hints, too, which Joe had chosen to ignore.
“Deke Sims?” Adam prompted.
“He was going to leave and I persuaded him to stay,” Joe replied.
“And?” Adam urged, clearly infuriated by the brevity of Joe’s answer.
Smiling, Joe gave in and told Adam what had happened. “He didn’t like me because I was young and I didn’t like him because he wasn’t Dave,” he concluded. “But we both learned a lesson, Adam.”
“I’m glad, buddy,” approved Adam. “He’s a good man.” He smiled. “But then, I sometimes wonder about you, since you are so young. It’s a hard life being an older brother.”
“Very funny!” Joe retorted.
“Make the most of your youth, Joe,” Adam told him, serious again. “It’s over far too soon. I’ve always felt that the days of our youth are kind of the days of glory. Enjoy your glory days, brother. You deserve them.”
Touched, Joe blinked back tears. “I intend to, Adam,” he assured him. “I intend to.”