Homecoming (by Rona)

Summary:  After many years, Adam returns home. How will his return affect him and his family? This is set roughly about season 12 of the show.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9308


 

 

“It’s been a long time, Joe,” the man said, coolly. He glanced up at the younger man on the pinto horse.

Gazing back impassively, Joe Cartwright nodded. “A very long time,” he agreed. There was nothing friendly in his tone. “What are you doing here?” He dismounted and looked around the yard. There didn’t appear to be anyone else around.

“What do you think I’m doing here?” returned the other impatiently. “This is my home.”

“Really, Adam?” Joe asked. “Since when?”  He turned on his heel and led his horse into the barn, leaving his oldest brother standing there with his mouth open. It wasn’t the welcome Adam had expected.

*****

Following Joe into the barn, Adam leant against the door, his arms crossed, watching as Joe cared for his mount. Joe didn’t look at his brother, or show any signs that he was aware the man was there. Adam took the chance to examine Joe more closely, for 6 years absence had brought a lot of changes to his youngest brother.

He saw a young man in his late 20s, slim of build, but muscular with it. Joe’s shoulders were broader than they had been when Adam left, and there was a new depth of maturity to his face, but his legs were just as long and slim, and his waist was still circled by the same old black leather belt he’d always worn. The most noticeable change was the way Joe wore his hair and the hints of grey in it.

“What’s with the long hair?” Adam asked, unable to keep silent. “Has Pa decided to let you become a Mississippi riverboat gambler after all?”

Giving Adam an unfriendly look, Joe said, shortly, “it’s my hair.”

“There’s no need to be touchy, kid,” Adam retorted. “But when I left, Pa would never have let you go around looking like that!”

“You don’t say,” Joe responded, and continued brushing the glossy black and white coat of his horse.

“Different pinto,” Adam noted, belatedly.

“Cochise had to be put down,” Joe offered. “I called this one Cochise after him.”

“I’m sorry,” Adam said. He knew how much Joe had loved that horse. Joe just shrugged, his back determinedly to Adam. “Where’s Sport?” he asked.

For the first time, Joe’s movement faltered. He stopped and turned round. “You must not have got that letter,” he said, awkwardly. “He got colic, got cast in his box and when we found him next day, he was dead. I’m sorry.” Sport had not been Joe’s favorite horse, for although he was flashy, he was bad tempered and wasn’t all that well trained, and there were few men on the ranch who were willing to ride him. Joe had never had any problems riding him, and so had found himself delegated to keeping his brother’s horse fit after Adam left.

Adam felt a pang of regret. “I’d kind of hoped he’d still be here,” he admitted. Joe said nothing, just resumed his steady brushing.

There was a rush of hooves in the yard and a dark-haired man appeared in the doorway of the barn. “Joe…” He stopped as he saw Adam.

“Yeah, Candy?” Joe asked.

Still eyeing Adam askance, Candy stepped in, leading his horse. “Just wanted to tell you that the last of the foals are separated, and the boys are turning the mares loose.”

“That’s great,” Joe said. He watched as Candy led his horse into the stall next to Joe’s and began to untack. “Candy, this is my older brother, Adam. Adam, this is Candy Canaday, our foreman.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Candy said, thrusting out his hand. He wasn’t a handsome man, having something of a lantern jaw, but he had a friendly grin that changed his face completely. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“But not from me,” Joe added. “Just before you start worrying, big brother, Hoss is the one who’s been singing your praises.” He dropped his brush and headed out of the barn. Candy looked embarrassed, as well he might, and Adam wondered what had happened to the friendship that he and Joe used to share.

Shrugging, Adam followed Joe outside and he was half way across the yard when Ben and Hoss rode in. For a moment, Ben peered at Adam in disbelief, then threw himself from his horse to take his oldest son into his arms. “Adam! What a surprise! Why didn’t you let us know you were coming?”

“Hi, Pa,” Adam answered, extracting himself from his father’s embrace. “I thought I’d surprise you, that’s all.”

“Dadburnit, Adam, I’m right glad to see ya,” Hoss said, thumping his older brother on the shoulder. Adam staggered slightly, but Hoss didn’t notice.

“Me, too,” Adam agreed, seeing the changes the years had wrought in Hoss. His brother’s hair was thinning on top, and he looked heavier than he had been when Adam last saw him. But his face was unchanged; the genial smile and the gap-toothed grin were the same as ever.

“Come into the house,” Ben said, putting his arm round Adam’s shoulder. Ben looked the same as he had always done. His silver hair was just as thick, and if there were a few more wrinkles around his eyes, they were only visible close up. “It’s good to see you, son,” Ben went on, warmly.

Adam had changed, Ben thought. He was older and heavier, and balding. He got that from his mother’s side of the family, Ben decided, for his hair was as thick as ever. Joe seemed to be the only one of his sons who was not going bald. Reminded, Ben looked round for Joe, surprised that he wasn’t in sight. However, when they went into the house, he saw Joe sitting on the settee.

“Look who’s home, Joe,” Ben called, unaware that Joe had already seen him.

“Yeah, I know,” Joe responded. “Hi, Pa, Hoss. Have a good day?”

“It were a great day, little brother,” Hoss told him. “What about you? Get them foals done, did ya?”

“All done,” Joe replied. “Pa, Candy says the mares were turned loose. We’ll start handling the weanlings tomorrow and we should be ready to let them into the pasture in a couple of weeks.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, although his attention was mostly on Adam. “Adam put your bags into your old room. Supper should be ready soon. Hop Sing!”

The Chinese factotum scurried out of the kitchen. Over the years, Joe had decided that this was the diminutive cook’s way of giving the impression that he was working at top speed on something much more important than anything the Cartwrights could want or need. However, on this afternoon, he forgot about being busy and just stood looking at Adam. “Mistah Adam!” he said, and bowed reverentially.

“Hello, Hop Sing,” Adam replied, warmly. “So you haven’t gone back to China yet.” They laughed.

“Suppa ready soon,” Hop Sing announced.

“I’d better freshen up then,” Adam said, and took his bag and climbed the stairs slowly. Just before he reached the top, the door opened and he glanced back to see Candy come in and throw his hat and gun down on the credenza, as they all did. Adam realized, with a shock, that he had done it himself without thinking.

“Evening, Mr. Cartwright,” Candy said, casually. “I’d better go and get washed up. I wouldn’t want Hop Sing mad at me again.” Everyone downstairs laughed, and Adam suddenly felt left out. Telling himself that was ridiculous, he continued to his room.

*****

Nothing had changed. The furniture was exactly as he had left it, and his books still lined the shelves. Opening the armoire, he saw the few clothes he had left behind were still hanging there. A strong smell of mothballs wafted out. The surfaces were all dusted. The tiny hint of mildew on the mirror above the dresser was still there.

Dumping his bag onto the chair, Adam sat down on the bed. There was a knock on the door, then Ben’s head appeared round it and he smiled at his son. “I brought you some water,” he said, and put the ewer into the basin. He glanced around the room. “How does it feel to be back?” he asked.

“In a way, as though I’d never left,” Adam replied, honestly. “And in another way, I feel as if I’ve been gone forever.”

“I can understand that,” Ben responded. “Supper in a few minutes, son.”

“I’ll be there,” Adam smiled and he went to wash up as Ben left the room.

*****

Conversation over the supper table revolved mostly around Adam’s travels. Adam had been a little surprised that Candy seemed to be living in the house, but he figured it wasn’t his business. He took his usual seat at the foot of the table, opposite Ben. Candy sat beside Joe, who, as always, sat at Ben’s right hand. Hoss sat on the other side.

The food was as good as Adam remembered, and he had another helping of peach pie, as he told them about Paris, Milan, Rome, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and the many other places he had been in the last 6 years. The others plied him with questions, the only exception being Joe. He listened closely, but didn’t ask anything, and didn’t offer any opinion.

Over coffee, they sat in front of the fire, but tonight, the checkers board didn’t come out as Adam told them of the buildings he’d helped design in London and the friends he’d made world-wide who had all helped him secure work. It all sounded very glamorous, as Hoss remarked. “Dadburnit, Adam, if’n you ain’t bin everywheres,” he said, admiringly. “All them places in Europe. Is the English weather as bad as they say?”

“Worse,” Adam commented, wryly. “It seems to rain most of the time. And they told me it’s worse in Scotland.”

“Well, I’m going to bed,” Joe said, as the clock struck 10. “I have an early start in the morning. G’night, everyone.” He rose and made for the stairs, not pausing to hear any replies.

Joe’s going was the prompt that Hoss and Candy needed, and they headed up a few minutes later. That left Adam and Ben, as it had often done in the old days. Adam stirred. “Guess I’d better let you get to bed, too,” he murmured.

“There’s no rush,” Ben replied. “I did want a few words alone with you.”

“Go on,” Adam said, warily.

“I just wanted to tell you why I think Joe is being so cold towards you,” Ben said. He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. Adam’s dark eyes never wavered from his face. “A lot has happened to Joe since you left, Adam. Not all of it has been good. I wrote you about it, but it seems you haven’t had all our letters.”

“I didn’t know about Sport,” Adam agreed.

“Did you get the letter telling you that Joe had been trampled by a horse?” Ben asked. When Adam shook his head, Ben went on, “Or the one where I told you he’d been bushwhacked and shot in the back? Or the one where I told you he’d been blinded in an accident?” Again Adam shook his head, unable to speak.

Quickly, Ben sketched in the details of each incident, leaving Adam quite shaken, even though he could see Joe was all right. “It was especially hard on Joe when he was blind,” Ben said, quietly. “He so wanted you to write, and you didn’t.” He glanced at his son. “Joe was hurt when you left, Adam. He knew why you wanted to leave, but he hoped you would come back quickly. At first, he lived for your letters, but as they became fewer, he stopped looking for them. I think he was afraid to hope you’d write in case he was hurt when you didn’t.”

“I didn’t mean not to write,” Adam admitted, wretchedly. “But I was busy and somehow I didn’t do it as often. I never thought.”

“He’ll come round,” Ben assured his son. “You just have to give him time and remember that he isn’t a child any more.”

“I’ll do that,” Adam promised, and they went up to bed.

But it was some time before Adam slept.

*****

Next morning, Adam was last to the table. Ben was the only one still there, but the discarded plates told Adam that Candy, Joe and Hoss had all eaten and gone to work. “I didn’t realize I had slept so late,” Adam excused himself as he sat down. “It must be the country air.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ben smiled. “The boys all have work to be getting on with, and you must have been tired after your journey yesterday.”

“Is there anything you want me to do today?” Adam asked, forking bacon onto his plate and pouring a cup of coffee.

“No, nothing in particular,” Ben replied, airily. “Just have today to settle in. Joe’s left a horse for you in the barn. He says that you should like it.” A smile played over Ben’s lips and was gone. He pushed his chair back. “I’ve got to go and speak to Candy about a few things. See you later.”

“Right,” Adam answered. He chewed slowly, wondering what on earth he would do. He’d expected to be thrown straight back into the life of the ranch, and yet here he was, being treated like a visitor. With a start, Adam realized that the others had become used to his absence, and the jobs he’d thought of as his were being covered by someone else. He hadn’t expected that, although he should have. Well, when he saw Pa later, he would offer to help with the books. He knew Pa would be grateful to have a break from them.

*****

The horse was similar enough to Sport to have been his twin. Adam swallowed the lump that had risen unexpectedly in his throat. Joe was barely talking to him, yet had picked out a horse that he knew Adam would like. He put his hand out to the horse, wary in case it nipped, but the animal just sniffed, and then allowed Adam to fondle his muzzle.

A short time later, Adam rode out of the yard. The horse was well schooled, with a responsive mouth, but plenty of spirit. Adam was impressed. In one of his letters, Ben had told Adam that Joe was selling more horses to people round about who didn’t have the time or skills to break and train their own mounts. Proudly, he had told Adam that a ‘Joe Cartwright finished horse’ was worth a lot of money in Virginia City. If this was the quality of work Joe was producing, he could quite see why, Adam ruminated.

He found Joe down by the breaking corrals. He and Candy were methodically separating the weanling colts, haltering them and then letting them go. Each colt was stroked and fussed over after the halter was on, calming them and teaching them that humans weren’t their enemies.

Sitting watching from a distance, Adam could see that Joe was the expert there. Candy could clearly handle the colts, but Joe was the one who calmed them down. It was a time consuming process, Adam knew from past experience, but it was essential to a well-mannered horse.

How long he sat there, Adam was never sure, but he guessed it to be about half an hour. Finally he put his heel to his mount and rode over. Joe glanced up and Adam could see tension creep into his brother’s body.

“Morning,” he called, stopping just outside the corral.

“Mornin’,” Candy responded. He went to corner the next colt.

“I wanted to thank you for the horse,” Adam continued, trying not to be disconcerted by Joe’s silence. “He’s lovely. I don’t know when I last rode such a well schooled animal.”

A grin broke out on Joe’s face. “When you last rode Cochise?” Joe hazarded. “Because Sport was anything but well schooled, brother. You have to admit that!”

“Nobody made you ride him,” Adam objected, for his grief over the death of his horse was still fresh. “He was my mount, not yours.”

“Pity you didn’t remember that when you went off to Europe and left him behind,” Joe retorted and walked away, leaving Adam speechless.

*****

The house was empty when Adam returned. He had seen Hop Sing outside hanging up sheets, but he didn’t seek him out. He put away his horse and went inside. He could hardly believe the venom in Joe’s voice when he delivered that last shot. Perhaps it hurt more because it was true, he thought. He hadn’t thought about who would look after his horse when he left. What else had he not thought about when he left?

A knock on the door roused him from his reverie and Adam went over to answer it. A tall, thin older man stood there. He looked suspiciously at Adam, who didn’t recognise him. “Who’re you?” the man demanded, and Adam almost laughed.

“I’m Adam Cartwright,” he replied, politely. “Can I help you Mister?”

“Adam,” repeated the man. “Oh, you’re the older brother? The one who left? Right. I’m Jeff Dunn. Is Joe around?”

“He’s down at the corral,” Adam replied. “Can I help?”

“No, I need to see Joe. It’s real important.” Dunn began to turn away.

“Maybe I could help,” Adam persisted.

“I know where the corral is,” Dunn replied. “I’ll just go down there an’ talk to Joe. He’s the only one who can help.” He glanced over his shoulder, suddenly aware that he’d been abrupt. “I hope you enjoy your vacation,” he added, and swung up onto his horse’s back.

Closing the door, Adam went back to resume his seat. Someone coming to the house who didn’t want to see Ben, but had to see Joe. When had that happened? Was Joe taking on some responsibility at last? Adam wondered. He made a mental note to mention the man to Joe at lunch, just in case he hadn’t gone down to the corral.

Restlessly, Adam wandered over to the desk and saw a familiar ledger lying there. It wasn’t, of course, the same one that he had last worked on, but Ben always bought the same type of book and the very feel and touch of it were familiar. Unable to resist, Adam opened it and got another surprise. Although most of the writing was Ben’s, a good proportion of that writing was Joe’s distinctive backward slanting hand. Reading through each entry, Adam felt again the distance between himself and his family – a distance he had created. Joe’s book-keeping was neat, legible and accurate. The receipts from the sales of horses were impressive; the herd seemed to be growing more and more valuable with each year that passed and the timber operation was going full steam ahead.

The front door shut and his father’s voice called, “Adam?”

“Here, Pa,” Adam replied, still looking in the ledger. He suddenly felt awkward. “I’m sorry,” he said, as Ben came into sight. “I just couldn’t help myself.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Ben replied. “A third of this ranch will still be yours when I’m gone. You’re entitled to know how we’re doing.”

“How long has Joe been helping with the book work?” Adam asked, setting the ledger down and closing it. “That must take some doing.”

“Not at all,” Ben denied. “Your brother took on a share of the book keeping quite willingly. I would guess he’s been doing it for 5 or 6 years now. He began about that time I got the flu, and he’s kept it up.” Ben smiled as he shrugged out of his coat. “He’s very good at it.”

“I have to say its come as a surprise to me,” Adam admitted. “Joe was always terrible at math in school.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Ben disagreed. “He could always do the work, he just didn’t desperately want to. In retrospect, I don’t think the local school was the right place for Joe. He’s too bright. They weren’t able to give him the kind of challenges he needed to make him interested in learning. His teacher from the Institute commented on how quickly he learned to read Braille.”

“Braille?” Adam repeated. “Joe learned to read Braille?”

“Joe learned a lot of things in those few months,” Ben replied, remembering his son’s courage as he mastered living with his disability. “Miss Dobbs, his teacher, wanted him to go to the Institute and teach the blind there.”

“The blind teaching the blind?” Adam muttered, skeptically.

“You sound just like Joe. He thought that. But then he discovered that his teacher was also blind, and Joe had never guessed.”

Chastened, Adam asked, “Why didn’t he go?”

“His sight returned,” Ben explained, and his voice suddenly sounded choked. He felt tears welling every time he thought of that morning when Joe had called for him, and told him he could see again, and suddenly, he had back the old Joe, the impetuous Joe, the Joe he had thought forever gone. “He woke up the very next morning able to see again.” Ben blinked away the moisture from his eyes.

“Months,” Adam repeated, numbly, the word having just impinged itself on his mind. “Joe was blind for months?”

“Didn’t I make that clear?” Ben asked, contritely. “I’m sorry. Joe was blind for about 4 months.” Ben’s eyes became unfocused as he thought back. “I was so proud of the way he handled himself. Of course, it was hard for him to begin with, but he adjusted wonderfully for the most part.” Smiling, Ben came back to the present. “But that’s in the past, although I believe that Joe still keeps up his Braille, just in case he can ever help someone in that situation.”

“I never thought of Joe as all that bright,” Adam admitted. “Oh, I knew he wasn’t dumb, Pa, but I never thought he was brighter than any other kid.”

“I couldn’t manage without Joe,” Ben said, startling Adam. “He and Candy could run this ranch between them without needing my help at all.”

“Candy seems a nice fellow,” Adam commented, changing the subject. He needed time to think about all the things he’d learned about Joe. “How long has he been here?”

“Oh, about 3 years,” Ben replied. “He’s almost like one of the family.”

Again, the remark jolted Adam. “I was a little surprised that he was staying in the house,” Adam mentioned.

“I guess we didn’t do that with any of the other foremen, did we,” Ben mused. “But it just happened, and it would be strange now if he wasn’t living in the house.” Ben smiled brilliantly at Adam. “How has your day been? How is the horse?”

“The horse is great,” Adam replied, truthfully. “But I still haven’t been able to coax Joe round. I thought I was getting somewhere, when he made a joke about Sport, but I said something about him not having to ride Sport, and he closed up on me again.” Adam shook his head. “Asked me who I thought had looked after the horse when I was in Europe. I guess it was him?”

“Yes,” Ben agreed. “And it was all mixed up with that accident that Cochise had about then. It was round up and there was a stampede. Joe was at the front of the herd, and we nearly lost him. Cochise was gored, and had to be put down on the spot. Joe broke his leg. When he was able to ride again, he wasn’t ready to get another horse of his own. I suggested he ride the horses that were in the corral, and one of them was Sport. Nobody else wanted to ride him, and Joe had taken him out fairly regularly before that, so he rode him for a bit, until he found this new Cochise.”

“I’ve missed so much,” Adam said. “All these things happening to Joe.” He forced himself to smile. “So trouble still seeks him out, huh?”

“No wonder I’m grey,” Ben agreed. He smiled. “Well, how about coffee? I’m parched.”

“Sounds good,” Adam agreed, but he was still thinking about all the things Ben had told him.

*****

“Yes, I saw Jeff,” Joe replied, when Adam remembered to ask him about his caller. “The deadline on the team he wanted schooled has changed and he needs them sooner than he expected,” Joe explained to everyone at the table. “Candy, can you and the boys carry on with the colts? That way, I can take a few days now and put that team to rights, and they’ll be ready when Jeff needs them at the end of next week.”

“Sure thing, Joe,” Candy agreed amiably.

“And cut back on Black King’s grain and turn him out,” Joe went on. “He’s done covering mares for this season; we can let him rough off now.” He was referring to the big black stallion he was using as a stud. Adam had seen the stallion briefly that morning and had been impressed with his quality. Joe had always had an eye for good horseflesh. Now, he waited expectantly for Joe to turn to ask Ben’s permission for all the orders he’d given.

“Personally, I reckon Jeff’s gettin’ the better end o’ this bargain, Joe,” Hoss mentioned. “That there’s a right good team you picked out fer him. You coulda had double the price fer ’em I reckon.”

“I don’t think he’d have paid double the price,” Joe commented, and Adam still waited for Ben to confirm Joe’s orders. His eyes flashed to the foreman, expecting Candy to ask for confirmation, but he didn’t. He just kept on eating, listening to the affectionate wrangling going on. “Half as much again, maybe…” He grinned at Hoss. “Maybe you should’ve negotiated the deal, Hoss.”

“Ah, hush up!” Hoss retorted, genially. “I ain’t no good at them fancy deals ya put together an’ ya know it, Shortshanks.” He looked singularly unmoved by this admission.

“We can’t all be good at the same things,” Ben replied, calmly.

“Yeah, look at Joe an’ shoein’ horses,” Hoss jested. “If’n we relied on him fer that, our horses would all be barefoot!”

The thought of barefoot horses made them all laugh. “Lucky we got you around to see to that for us, big brother,” Joe responded, giving Hoss a loving smile.

“Lucky you got me around ta keep ya outa trouble, seems to me,” Hoss replied. “Who was it that pulled ya outa the ruins o’ that hut, when ya tried to blow yerself up?”

Adam winced, knowing now that Hoss was referring to when Joe was blinded. He waited for the explosion – and waited. It never came.

“I know,” Joe said, quietly. He smiled. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Hoss.”

“More of your own work,” Candy inserted, thinking that they’d become serious enough.

“True ‘nough, Candy,” Hoss agreed mock seriously. “He’s always tried to git me to do his work, ain’t he, Adam?”

Caught by surprise, Adam wasn’t quite sure what to say. But a grin crept over his face, and he nodded. “Not just you, brother,” he commented. “Me, too.”

They all laughed and the subject turned away to something else. Adam realized that none of them were going to ask Ben to approve Joe’s orders, and it served to remind him once more that things had indeed changed.

*****

Over the next few days, Adam became more integrated into the running of the ranch. He began to take on some of the daily chores that had been his previously, and found Joe thawing slightly towards him. Once more, he realized that Joe had taken on the roles that had been Adam’s. However, they were still no nearer regaining the ease that had existed between them before Adam left.

Part of it now was that Joe was busy working on the team for Jeff Dunn. Adam was extremely impressed when he went past to see what was going on. Joe was a thorough worker and gifted with horses. It seemed to Adam that the horses would be ready well before the end of the week.

The next afternoon, Adam was in the house when Joe came in. Glancing up in surprise, for he was usually alone in the house during the afternoon, Adam said, “Hello. Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied, in a distracted tone. He shucked his hat and jacket and gun belt and Adam became aware that Joe was being careful with his right hand.

“Have you hurt yourself?” he asked, concerned. Joe had always been a daredevil and frequently fell heir to scrapes and cuts because of it.

“It’s just a cut,” Joe replied. He took a ball of material from his hand, and Adam belatedly realized it was his bandanna, which was stained with blood.

“How’d you do that?” Adam asked, finding himself standing by Joe, examining his hand. The cut ran across Joe’s palm in a perfectly straight line and had obviously been done with a knife. “Knife cut,” he added, in case Joe thought about trying to pretend it wasn’t.

“Tell me about it,” Joe said, wincing. “I was cutting the twine on a bale of hay and – I don’t know what happened, but the knife slipped and I cut myself. It won’t stop bleeding.”

“I’ll get a bandage,” Adam said. “A doctor friend of mine told me that pressure helps stop bleeding.” He went off to the kitchen and shortly came back with a roll of bandage.

Before he could do anything, a wailing filled the air. “What’s that?” Adam asked, startled.

“The mine!” Joe exclaimed, turning for the door, his bleeding hand forgotten. “There’s been an accident!”

He dashed out of the door. Adam dropped the bandage and followed.

*****

Dust hung thick on the air as they arrived at the entrance to the mine. Adam hadn’t known that the Cartwrights had an interest in this mine, but Joe had explained on the way that Ben had bought a part share, as the workings went beneath Ponderosa land.

“Mr. Cartwright!” a voice hailed, and Joe dismounted from his horse. “Thank goodness you’ve come!” It was the mine foreman. He was caked in dirt.

“What happened?” Joe asked, guiding the man to a place he could sit down.

“We were adding the new timber to replace the old shoring,” the man said, and coughed deeply. “I’m not quite sure what went wrong, but one of the old timbers came down before the new one was in place and the wall caved in.”

“Is there anyone in there?” Joe demanded, knowing that there had to be.

“Yes, I think there are 4 men missing.”

“All right.” Joe straightened up. “Are you hurt, John?”

“Just bruises,” John replied. “What do you need, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Get someone to bring the doctor. Send someone else to alert my father. He’s down at the South Forty. I’m going in.” He glanced around, seeing the men who were ready to go in and help their fellow miners.

“Wait a minute, Joe!” Adam objected. “It’s not safe to go in there!”

“I know,” Joe agreed. “But I have no choice. You stay here and wait for Pa.”

“If you’re going in there,” Adam stated, grimly, “then so am I!”

“Grab the canteen from your saddle then,” Joe advised him. “We’ll need water in there.” He led the way over to the entrance. The men were waiting for him. “Let’s go,” Joe advised.

*****

The dust was killing. The men all had bandannas over their noses to try and keep some of it out, but it didn’t seem to be working. Adam was surprised to see Joe produced a bandanna, remembering that his other one was at home, covered in blood. Reminded, Adam glanced at his brother’s hand, in time to see Joe wipe his palm on his pants. There was a dark stain left behind. So, the hand was still bleeding slightly.

They began moving the debris, slowly and carefully. It was back breaking work. After a while Ben appeared with Hoss, and after a few words to his sons, Ben went back outside, taking Hoss with him, to tend to the injured miners.

“We got a gap,” one miner called, and everyone stopped to peer at the small hole that had appeared in the debris.

“We’ll need to widen it before we can get through,” Joe said, examining it more closely. They began digging again. Within half an hour, the hole was wide enough for them to squeeze through. “I’ll go first,” Joe said.

He climbed carefully up to the hole and peered through, lowering his lantern so he could see the other side of the hole. “All right.” He handed the lantern to Adam and eased his way through the space. The whole mine seemed to creak. Joe disappeared into the darkness. “I’m through,” he called, softly. Adam handed the lantern through, followed by the canteens.

“Me next,” Adam said, and began his climb. The men nodded. They didn’t know Adam, but it seemed he was a true Cartwright, always willing to do the things they asked the men to do.

He had just disappeared through the hole when there was an ominous rumble and the roof collapsed, filling in the small space they had created such a short time before. When the miners could see again, the hole was gone and so were Joe and Adam.

*****

There was a rock digging into his side, Joe realized as he swam back to consciousness. He moved slightly to try and get away from it and the movement set up a chorus of pain throughout his body. He groaned. After a few minutes, everything settled down to a miserable throbbing, and Joe wondered if he’d been thrown from a horse.

Opening his eyes, he saw profound darkness, and for one terrified second, thought he’d been struck blind again. Remembering, he sat up abruptly and his head began to throb. Something sticky ran down his face, and Joe guessed that it was blood.  “Keep calm,” he told himself. “Remember the still centre within.” He forced himself to be still.

Once he was calm, Joe called softly for Adam. There was no answer. “The lantern must be here somewhere,” he muttered. He put his skills to good use, feeling carefully around until his hand encountered a warm, cloth covered body. “Adam!” he murmured. Gently, his sensitive fingers felt along his brother’s back and head, until Joe found a knot on his brother’s skull.

Feeling around some more, Joe located the canteens first, then the lantern. The glass on the chimney was broken, but Joe was sure it would still light. And a flicker would be very welcome. He searched his pockets for matches, but found none. Retracing his steps to Adam’s side, he searched his brother’s pockets, and there, as he expected, was a match.

The flicker of light from the match was the most welcome thing Joe had ever seen. He lit the lamp, but he could see that a lot of the oil had spilled out and it wouldn’t last long. So he took his opportunity to examine his older brother.

Apart from the bump on Adam’s head, Joe thought that Adam had a broken leg. Joe had no way to splint it, and he wasn’t sure enough of his medical abilities to try and set the leg. Pulling the bandanna from round his neck, Joe soaked it thoroughly and began to wipe some of the dirt from Adam’s face.

The cool water soon brought Adam to mumbling consciousness. He squinted up at Joe. “Where are we?” he asked.

“In the mine,” Joe reminded him gently. “The roof caved in as you climbed through after me.”

“Will they come for us?” Adam asked.

“They’d better,” Joe responded. He laughed. “There were at least half a dozen men who saw exactly where we went.”  He touched Adam’s shoulder. “Lie still, Adam, you’ve had a bang on the head and your leg is broken.”

“Are you all right?” Adam asked, seeing the blood on Joe’s face. “You’re bleeding.”

“Still,” remarked Joe. “Yes, I know, but I don’t think it’s serious.” Joe crossed his fingers as he said that. His head was throbbing fiercely and he felt incredibly sick. But Adam needed him and he had to keep his brother from moving about.

“We don’t have a lot of oil,” Joe mentioned, sitting down more comfortably. He peered at his injured hand in the feeble light, but his hand was so dirty that he could no longer see the cut. Shrugging, he reached for a canteen and gave Adam a drink. “And it’s pretty dark in here.”

“How did you find it?” Adam asked.

“Easy,” Joe replied. “I learned to do things like that when I was blind.” He said the words casually enough, but the memory of those dark days haunted his worst nightmares even yet.

“I wish I’d known about that,” Adam said. “I didn’t get a lot of your letters, Joe. I was moving about so much, they never caught up with me. I didn’t know you’d been bushwhacked, or that you’d been trampled.” Adam swallowed. “That must have been scary.”

“It was,” Joe replied, soberly. “I was alone, and my hand had swelled. I knew I could die from gangrene and my only hope, according to Pa’s medical book, was to amputate my arm.” He shuddered at the memory. Adam reached over and put his hand on Joe’s arm.

“I can’t imagine what that must have been like,” Adam admitted. “I can’t imagine the courage you’d need to do that.”

“I didn’t want to die,” Joe responded, simply. “Pa has already lost too much.” His voice cracked slightly. “Your mother; mine; Hoss’. And…” Joe stopped. His head ducked a sure sign of distress.

“And me,” Adam completed. “That’s what you were going to say, isn’t it, Joe?” He moved and agony flared up his leg. He winced. “It’s true, don’t worry. I know Pa thought I was never coming back.” He took a deep breath. “But I needn’t have worried, Joe, need I? Because he had the perfect son to step into my shoes, didn’t he?” The bitterness in his voice flayed Joe’s feelings like a whip.

“Sure, I stepped into your shoes, Adam,” Joe retorted, angrily. “What other choice did I have? You’d gone, and Pa was trying to do your work as well as his own. He got sick and then I had to step in. did the books, I looked after your horse, I did the timber contracts, I kept an eye on the mines, I bossed the cattle drives. I did it, Adam! Me! Your stupid little brother! And boy! Did I resent it at first!”

“Nobody asked you to!” Adam flared back.

“No, they didn’t,” Joe agreed. “But I couldn’t let Pa struggle with doing the work of 2 men, either. I had to take some of it on. Hoss did what he could, but we both know that Hoss isn’t good at bookwork. He’s too heavy to break horses. So Hoss took on the herd, and some of the timber and Pa and I did the rest. And do you know what, Adam? I found I was good at it. Really good at it. And then I discovered that I was better at it than you had been.” Joe was really on a roll now. He couldn’t have stopped if he’d wanted to. All the hurt and bitterness was pouring out. “I wasn’t ‘Little’ Joe Cartwright any more. I wasn’t playing second fiddle to my clever older brother. I was Pa’s right hand man, and if we disagreed sometimes, it didn’t matter. I became a grown up after you left, Adam. Oh yes, I was legally an adult before you left, but how many times was I trusted to do something really important? If you were around, never. And you couldn’t help but run me down. Well, guess what? I grew up and discovered that I’m a worthwhile person, too. Pa and I make the decisions together and when I make decisions, they are respected by everyone.”

There was silence apart from Joe’s panting breath. Adam tried to absorb Joe’s bitterness, telling himself that his youngest brother was right. He had gone without a thought as to how they would cope without him, and when he’d returned to discover they had coped just fine, he’d resented it. All the things he’d learned about Joe since his homecoming had shown him that he had never really accepted Joe as an adult. He had never realized that Joe was more than just the family clown and baby. He couldn’t envisage the Joe he’d known back then coping with being blind, and yet, when he stopped to think about it, Joe had shown a lot of maturity in dangerous situations even then.

“You’re right,” he said, in a low voice. “I didn’t want to let you grow up. I still thought of you as my pesky baby brother.”

“I know you did,” Joe replied and there were tears in his voice. The lantern had been flickering wildly for the last few minutes, but neither man had noticed. It suddenly guttered out, leaving them in impenetrable darkness. “But you know, what, Adam?” Joe went on. “It doesn’t matter any more. It really doesn’t. I’m glad you’re back. I’ve missed you. And if you hadn’t gone away, I might never have found myself.” In the dark, Joe’s hand found Adam’s and gave it a squeeze. After a moment, the pressure was returned.

“I didn’t deliberately stop writing,” Adam said, softly. “It just happened. You’re right, Joe. I was selfish when I left. I didn’t think about how you were going to get on without me. It was rather galling to come back and find you’d barely missed me!”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Joe murmured. “We did miss you.”

“I was jealous, Joe,” Adam admitted. “I was jealous to come home and find Candy living in the house, for all the world like another son. You and he get along and I was jealous, Joe. You all had your jobs to do and I was excluded. Most of the hands don’t know me; and even the ones who do check out my orders with you or Pa or Candy.” He fell silent.

“Do you want a drink?” Joe asked. His hand went unerringly to the canteen in the darkness. He took Adam’s hand and placed the canteen securely in it. “Here.”

Adam drank deeply. “I’m sorry I held you back, Joe,” he muttered. “I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t you understand?” Joe replied, sounding amazed. “I’m not hurt any more, Adam. My life is on the Ponderosa. I never want to live anywhere else. But your life isn’t. Your life is somewhere out there. And that’s all right.  You were a square peg in a round hole. It happens. You go on and live your life. We’ll be here whenever you come home again, whether it’s for a holiday or a visit. We’ll be here.”

In the darkness, Adam felt tears prickle in his eyes. He wanted to cry, but he had spent too many years holding back. He wondered if he had been jealous of Joe all those years ago without realizing it, and thought the answer was probably yes. Joe had never had the worries or responsibilities that Adam had had at a similar age and he had resented it, even while knowing that was crazy. It wasn’t Joe’s fault that their circumstances were different. He found he couldn’t speak.

*****

Time passed. Joe kept a close watch on Adam. He pressed water on him regularly and kept him talking, terrified that Adam might slip into unconsciousness. He checked Adam’s leg, gently touching the break and making sure it wasn’t swelling too much.

However, Joe was concerned about himself, too. His right hand was slowly seizing up and the fingers were swelling. Joe knew that dirt was causing a massive infection. His head was throbbing harder than ever as the air became a bit stale and Joe wasn’t sure how much longer he could control his nausea. He moved very little, as his head swam alarmingly when he did. It was horribly disconcerting to feel the rock walls whirling when he couldn’t see them.

“Joe?” Adam muttered.

“Yeah?” Joe asked, cutting the word short as he swallowed the bile that rose in his throat.

“Do you think they’re coming for us?” Adam sounded despairing. Joe didn’t blame him.

“Of course they are!” he declared, stoutly. “Just take it easy, big brother. They’ll get here. It’s difficult to judge how much time has passed in the dark. We haven’t been here as long as you think.”

“Haven’t we?” he asked, feeling for Joe’s hand. His fingers touched Joe’s hot, swollen hand and his younger brother let out a scream of pain. “Joe!” Adam sounded much more alert suddenly. “Joe, your hand!”

“I know,” Joe said, and he knew he was going to be sick. He thrust himself up and stumbled across the space, where he fell to his knees and retched hopelessly.

There was nothing Adam could do for him except lie there and listen. Finally, the sounds of his brother’s distress stopped, and Adam spoke. “Joe? Are you all right?”

“I guess,” Joe replied. Adam could hear him getting up and then his brother’s slow steps crossed the space between them. “Speak again,” Joe requested.

“What should I say?” Adam asked, at a loss. He didn’t know why Joe wanted him to talk.

“That’ll do,” Joe replied and he sat down beside Adam. “I just needed you to speak so I knew how close I was to you. I didn’t count my steps as I went over there.”

“You don’t say,” Adam remarked faintly. He was impressed with even that small skill.

“Do you want some more water?” Joe asked.

“No,” Adam responded. “Take some for yourself. You need it as much as I do.” Joe was sitting closer to Adam this time, and he could feel the heat from Joe’s body. “You’ve got a fever.”

“I had noticed,” Joe laughed, but the laugh was forced. His voice sounded slurred all of a sudden. Joe took a deep drink. He wished their rescuers would hurry up. “Rest, Adam, they’ll get here soon.” Joe hoped he sounded more confident to his brother than he did to himself.

*****

The rescuers broke through about an hour later. Adam was asleep and Joe was unconscious, the infection and head injury combining to sap his strength as time passed. He didn’t stir as he was tied to an old door and passed through the hole to fresh air and freedom. Adam was only a few minutes behind him, and a huge cheer went up as they were brought from the bowels of the earth alive.

Doctor Martin was there and he examined both the Cartwrights before supervising them being loaded into wagons for the journey home. He remembered doing something very similar to this many years ago, when they thought Joe might not be alive. This time, they had known the boys were alive and that gave them hope. But still, Ben and Hoss were exhausted from their vigil.

They were quickly brought home, then transferred to bed. Joe had roused during the journey, and Paul thought he might, in the end, need more care than Adam. However, the first thing Paul did was to set Adam’s leg. The break was quite straight forward, and Paul was sure it would heal cleanly. He put splints on the leg to hold it until the swelling was down, then left Hoss to give Adam a good wash.

Across the corridor, Ben was in Joe’s room. He had already washed the blood and dirt from his son’s face. He glanced up as Paul came in. “How’s Adam?” he asked.

“He’s going to be fine. No concussion that I can see, just that broken leg, and it’s a nice clean break. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I didn’t try to set it,” Joe muttered, his eyes still closed. “I didn’t want to mess it up.”

“Quite right,” Paul said approvingly. “Too many people have been crippled by amateurs setting bones.” He peered into Joe’s eyes and saw that his pupils were a bit sluggish, confirming his earlier diagnosis of concussion. The cut on his forehead would need a stitch and was full of dirt. But it was Joe’s hand that worried Paul most.

“Joe, I’m going to tend to your hand,” Paul explained. He took out a bottle of chloroform and in a short time, Joe was asleep. Paul worked for a long time, cutting away the infected tissue, flushing the wound with alcohol and finally stitching it closed. He left in a thin piece of tubing to allow any remaining infection to drain. Finally, he bandaged the hand tightly, and showed Ben the position that allowed the drain to work best. Again, it was eerily reminiscent of something he’d had to do for Joe before. At least this time, it wasn’t gangrene he was fighting. He then turned his attention to the head wound, and by the time he was finished with it, Joe was stirring back to life.

Meantime, Ben had been popping in and out of the room, tending to Adam, who just wanted to sleep. Hoss finally shooed their father out so Adam could rest and the oldest Cartwright slipped off to sleep almost at once.

“They’ll be fine,” Paul told Ben, as he saw the worried frown on his face. “Joe’s strong. He’ll rally quickly, Ben, don’t worry.”

“You’re a bit late with that advice,” Ben retorted. “It was worrying about this one that gave me grey hair, as well you know!”

“Must be worryin’ about you that’s givin’ me grey hair,” Joe muttered, for he was beginning to go grey. It didn’t bother him one bit.

“You go to sleep, young man!” Paul ordered.

“In a minute,” Joe agreed. “But I must know about Adam.”

“He’s fine,” Paul assured him.

“He’s asleep,” Ben added.

“Good,” Joe said, with decided satisfaction in his tones. “I told the ole Yankee granite head that if he just did as I said, he’d be fine. Seems I was right. Again.” Joe chuckled. The grin stayed on his face as he slid off into a healing sleep.

*****

It was several days before they were all together in the main room again. Adam was learning to negotiate his crutches and Joe was longing for the day when the drain would come out of his hand. The risk of infection seemed to be gone, although Joe had been quite unwell for a few days.

Ben was coming from the kitchen one afternoon when he heard Joe and Adam talking. He stopped to do a little eavesdropping.

“Joe, I wanted to thank you for what you did for me in the mine,” Adam began. “I might not have held up as well if you hadn’t been there.”

“Of course you would,” Joe replied, briskly. “You surely ain’t telling me that Adam Cartwright would let a little bit of darkness get him down? I don’t believe it.”

“It was a lot of darkness,” Adam responded quietly. “And it would have got me down. I was impressed by the way you coped. And it gave me an insight as to how it was for you after that accident. I don’t know if I’d have coped as well as you.”

“I didn’t cope to start with,” Joe admitted. “But Miss Dobbs showed me I could be useful.”

There was a pause and Ben was about to start walking again when Adam spoke once more. “I wanted to thank you, too for what you did when I left. Taking care of Sport, helping with the books, doing my chores. I never thought about how it would be for you here when I left. All I could see was my own need to get away. I never thought about how it would affect you.”

“It affected me in the best way,” Joe responded. “I grew up, finally. I learned not to be envious of you. I learned that this is my home and I love it too much to ever want to leave it.” He glanced at Adam and hurried on. “I understand why you don’t want to stay, Adam, and that’s all right. You’re not me, any more than I am you. You’ve found what you want elsewhere. I’ve found it right here.”

“I don’t know that I have found it, in quite the way you mean, Joe,” Adam told him. “In a sense I am still searching; searching for a place that I can put down roots. I might search for ever. I might end up coming back here and putting down roots. I don’t know.”

“Adam,” Joe confided, leaning forward, “you like your nomadic life. That’s why you aren’t going to stay here after your leg is healed. We all knew, from that first day, that you were only here on a holiday. That doesn’t make the Ponderosa any less your home. We all understand that. The door is always open for you, and you know it.”

Standing there, Ben felt tears in his eyes. Once again, Joe had said exactly the right thing, and although Ben knew that Adam would leave again, he would always return, drawn by the love of his family. He dashed the tears away and went into the room. There was peace on Adam’s face; a peace he hadn’t seen in a long time.

“Coffee?” he offered, as blandly as he could.

*****

“Look after Sport for me, will you, Joe?” Adam asked, as he waited for the stage east to leave.

“Sure will,” Joe responded. He had been flattered when Adam decided to call his new mount after his old one.  “And he’ll be here waiting for you when you get back.”

“Take care, son,” Ben said, putting his arm around Adam’s shoulders. He had never admitted to his sons that he’d heard their conversation that afternoon, but he was fairly sure Joe knew.

“You, too, Pa,” Adam responded. “Keep this hellion under control, won’t you?”

“No promises,” Ben muttered as Joe and Hoss laughed.

It was more difficult taking his leave from Hoss, Adam thought. He felt a pang running through him as he wondered if he would see any of his family again. Life was uncertain; one never knew what was round the corner. He hugged Hoss, suddenly wanting to weep. “Good bye,” he managed.

“Take good care o’ yersl’, Adam,” Hoss replied. There were tears in his eyes. “An’ write lots.”

“I will,” Adam replied. The driver got onto his box and Adam hugged each member of his family one more time. He saved the last one for Joe. “Thanks, little brother,” he whispered. “Thanks for setting me free.”

Stepping back, Joe smiled through his tears. “If you love something, set it free,” he quoted. “If it comes back to you, it’s meant to be yours.” He wiped the tears away, but they were replaced at once by more. “I reckon you came back to us once, Adam. You’re free to go.”

This time, the tears did fall and Adam climbed aboard the stage and waved to his family for as long as he could see them. When at last they and the town were out of sight, he sat back, oblivious to the stares of the other passengers.

Adam Cartwright felt free.

***End***

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