The Fourth Son (by Rona)

Summary::

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5997


 

 

Standing by the stage office, Jamie Cartwright fiddled nervously with his hat. Beside him, his older brother Joe sighed heavily. “Why is the stage always late?” he asked.

“Because we’re waiting for it?” their father, Ben, suggested. He looked impatient, too.

“It’ll get here,” Hoss, the middle brother said, placidly. He clapped a large hand onto Jamie’s shoulder. “You excited, Jamie?” he asked.

“I guess so, Hoss,” Jamie replied, unable to tell him that he wasn’t excited – he was terrified. Ben’s oldest son, Adam was returning home for a visit, and this was the first time Jamie would meet him since Ben had adopted him, and he had no idea how Adam was going to react.

*****

The initial rounds of greetings were over, and Jamie hung back with Joe as they made their way across to the buggy and horses that were waiting for them. Ben and Hoss were beaming happily at Adam, but Joe didn’t seem to be as pleased to see him as the others were.

Jamie wasn’t sure how he felt yet. Adam had been polite to him, but reserved. It hadn’t taken Jamie long to notice that Adam was reserved to the other members of the family, too. Hoss hadn’t seemed to mind, and Ben had taken Adam in his arms before Adam could object. But Joe had only shaken hands with his oldest brother, and Jamie had the distinct impression that the coolness was mutual. Adam wasn’t as pleased to see Joe as he was the rest of the family.

Riding home alongside the buggy, Jamie listened with half an ear to the conversation. Ben had been talking about Adam’s exploits since Jamie arrived, and he knew the older man had been in Europe, as well as back east. However, he was surprised at how cool Adam’s tone was as he described some of the places he had been.

Arriving back at the house, Joe offered to put up the horses and Jamie volunteered to help. Ben gave them both a smile of thanks, but Jamie thought that he hadn’t really been aware of it. All his attention was fixed on Adam, the first born, the perfect, long-lost son. Jamie suddenly felt out of place, in a way that he hadn’t since Ben had adopted him. Joe, his adored big brother, looked unhappy, too. Leading the horses into the stable, he fought the sudden urge to cry.

*****

“Good morning, Jamie,” Adam said, as he took his place at the table.

“Morning,” Jamie ventured. He had lingered over his breakfast that day, not sure quite what he was going to do. It was a school day, but Ben had said that, since Adam had arrived only the previous night, Jamie could stay home. As far as Jamie was concerned this was a mixed blessing. A day out of school was a treat not to be scorned, but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to spend it with Adam. “Did you sleep okay?” he asked, to break the silence that had fallen.

“Fine, thank you,” Adam replied and smiled at Hop Sing, who brought out some fresh bacon for him. “Thank you, Hop Sing,” he said, his tone slightly warmer than usual. “Where is everyone?” he asked.

“Pa an’ Joe are in the barn,” Jamie explained. “Hoss went down to give Candy some instructions.”

“Candy?” Adam queried, raising one eyebrow questioningly.

“The foreman,” Jamie added. Adam had met Candy the previous night at dinner, and Jamie was annoyed that he hadn’t remembered who he was.

“Oh, Candy,” Adam repeated. “Yes, I’d just forgotten who he was for a moment.” He chewed some bacon and looked at the ginger-haired boy who was now his youngest brother. It was a concept he was having difficulty with, he had to admit. He had been surprised when Ben had written to say he was going to adopt Jamie, and he wasn’t quite sure why his father had done it, but he had mostly put thoughts of the boy out of his head. When he thought about home, he thought of it how it had been, just he, Ben, Hoss and Joe. Now, there was Jamie and Candy, too, who lived in the house.

The changes were rather disconcerting to Adam. He still expected Joe to be the scape-grace youngest, and instead found Joe a mature man of 30, with long, grey-flecked hair and a much more assured manner. He seemed less volatile, too and Adam was having some difficulty believing Joe had grown up and changed that much. He shrugged mentally. In a way, Joe hadn’t changed; they were still at loggerheads, although Adam had said nothing to upset Joe that he could think of. Could Joe still be upset because he left the Ponderosa in the first place? Why that had been years ago. Surely Joe hadn’t been holding a grudge all this time? Well, whatever was wrong with Joe, he could work it out for himself; Adam wasn’t going to put himself out to try and sort Joe out on his first full day home. Pa could deal with his baby son’s sulks. Hoss and Ben had changed less, but they had already been fully mature when he had left.

The door opened, and Ben and Joe came in. Joe was still wearing the same green jacket and tan hat, Adam noticed. “Well, good morning,” Ben said, cheerfully. “Did you sleep well? Is Jamie looking after you all right?”

“Fine, thanks, Pa,” Adam replied. He glanced at Joe, but offered him no more greeting than Joe had offered. “What can I do to help today?”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it,” Ben assured him. “You’re not here to work, Adam, you’re here to have a holiday, you said so yourself.” He laughed. “Still the same old beaver for work, eh, Adam?”

“Old habits die hard,” Adam responded.

“I’d better get going, Pa,” Joe said, as though Adam hadn’t spoken. “Jamie, want to come with me?”

“Where are you going?” Adam asked, the first time he had directly addressed Joe since saying hello to him the previous afternoon.

“I’ve got a few broncs to break,” Joe replied, politely, although he didn’t like Adam’s tone. It had been all too reminiscent of the old days, when he had been a second father to Joe.

“I’d like to come and watch too,” Adam suggested. “Jamie and I can get to know one another while we’re there.” He smiled coolly. “Perhaps I might get onto one of those horses and show you how it’s done. What do you think, Jamie?”

“Err,” Jamie began, unsure what Adam wanted him to say. He couldn’t imagine Adam ever riding broncos.

“Who are you kidding, Adam?” Joe snapped. “Your back played you up badly before you ever left home. What makes you think it’ll hold up now, when you’re that many years older and that many years heavier?”

The room was suddenly very still. Ben flicked a glance at first Joe, then Adam. Jamie didn’t know where to look. He knew that Joe wasn’t too happy at Adam’s return, but he hadn’t realized how deeply his resentment went. Jamie adored Joe, who took a lot of trouble to explain things to Jamie and include the youth in discussions about the family, and tell him the background to something that the others thought was funny. To Jamie, Joe was the prefect example of the man he hoped to become. Joe was dashing and good looking, but kind, considerate and hard working. He had a temper, but he mostly kept control of it, but when he’d lashed out wrongly, he didn’t hesitate to apologies. Jamie strived to be like Joe with every fiber of his being and he didn’t like the way Adam had just spoken to Joe.

“Still can’t take a joke from me, huh, Joe?” Adam said, softly, but the flush staining his face gave the lie to his words.

“If you’d ever meant it as a joke, I might have taken it,” Joe responded, his face hard with anger. “Coming, Jamie?”

Getting to his feet, Jamie said, “Is that all right, Pa?” He knew Ben had hoped he would stay home and get to know Adam better, but he would far rather spend time with Joe. He hoped that his presence would make Joe forget about Adam, and maybe give Jamie some insight into the oldest son.

“Fine, son,” Ben replied. He watched as Jamie put on his hat and left with Joe. Then he turned back to Adam, a troubled look on his face. “I’m sorry about Joe,” he said. “I don’t know what’s got into him.” This wasn’t true; he had a pretty good idea of why Joe was behaving the way he was.

“It’s all right,” Adam replied, although this wasn’t true either. Adam had thought that the long separation would have made them closer, not driven a bigger wedged between them. Adam knew that Joe had been hurt by his decision to leave, but he’d expected that Joe would have got over it by now. Clearly he was wrong. “You don’t have to try and explain Joe to me.” He snorted. “He hasn’t changed.”

“Oh, he has,” Ben told him, laughing. “Trust me, Joe has changed!”

 Watching as Ben poured himself another cup of coffee, Adam dismissed that. “It seems very odd to me to hear Jamie calling you Pa,” he ventured.

Ben smiled. “He sneaked it into the conversation once or twice before I had told him I was considering adopting him. And do you know, I didn’t notice? It just seemed natural, somehow. I missed having a youngster around. You boys have all got to old for me to boss you around, or hug you.”

“I doubt that,” Adam laughed. “You can’t tell me that you aren’t still bossing Joe and Hoss around. Especially Joe. He’ll always need someone riding him.”

“You’re wrong there, son,” Ben replied, mildly. “I do tell Joe what to do, but I am his boss, remember. But he doesn’t need anyone riding him. I tried to tell you that years ago. Joe works really hard, and I’d be lost without him.” He smiled to take the sting from his words. “He’s so good with Jamie. I wondered how he’d take the loss of his position as youngest, but he was fine about it. I suppose he is too old to be babied, although I can’t help it when he’s injured.”

“Yes, I see from your letters that Joe still attracts trouble,” Adam responded, acidly. “Some things will never change.”

“I suppose they won’t,” Ben agreed, and turned the subject. He hoped Adam would see for himself that Joe had changed and treat his younger brother accordingly.

*****

Over the next few days, Jamie spent more time with Adam. He had returned to school, and found that Adam was a great help with his homework. Both Ben and Joe had always helped him when he had asked, but Adam wanted to see the homework as soon as he walked in the door, and Jamie found himself thawing to his oldest brother. It was odd to think of Adam like that, as Hoss had been, in his mind, the oldest for a long time.

For his part, Adam was quite pleased to have something to talk to the youngster about. Jamie tended to daydream over his work, but he was a good student – much better than Joe had been at his age, Adam told him. Joe hadn’t been fulfilled at school, although Adam was astounded to discover how much of the ranch’s bookwork he took care of. “I’m surprised Joe does any bookwork,” Adam mentioned as he checked Jamie’s homework and pointed out several corrections that needed to be made. “I bet Pa has to stand over him with a big stick.” He smiled, as though joking, but Jamie had the impression he was being serious. Jamie was offended on Joe’s behalf that Adam should be running him down, but he didn’t know how to protest. The breach between Joe and Adam hadn’t really been healed, although there had been no further outbursts from Joe, and he and Adam seemed to get along just fine.

“Do you want to go to college, Jamie?” Adam asked, as Jamie re-worked the sums he had done wrong.

“I dunno,” Jamie admitted. “I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know what I’d want to study.”

“There are a whole lot of things you could study,” Adam replied, pleased with the boy’s answer. “You could become a lawyer, or a doctor. You could even study ranching.”

“I guess,” Jamie responded. “I just don’t know, Adam.” He sometimes found himself wanting to call Adam ‘Mr. Cartwright’, because of his serious demeanor and never more so than when Adam was in teacher mode. Jamie thought his teacher in school was easy going compared to Adam, and Mr. Foster was known to be very strict.

“Well, I suppose you don’t have to decide right now,” Adam sighed. “But give it some serious thought, Jamie. I could give you a recommendation to the college I went to, if you’d like.” He smiled at the youth, although he was glad the boy’s homework was over, as he was growing bored. “Unlike Joe, you’d probably do well in college.” He rose to his feet and went upstairs, leaving Jamie, seething, behind him.

*****

Once Adam had started talking about college, he never seemed to let the subject drop with Jamie. He mentioned several of his college friends who’d gone on to have glittering success in their chosen careers, and offering Jamie the chance to do some summer work for them so he could find out about the various career options.

For Jamie, at 15, this seemed like pushing. He had another year in school at Virginia City before he even thought about college and the more Adam talked about it, the less Jamie wanted to think about it. He was afraid to say anything, though, as he and Adam were finally finding something to talk about, and Jamie had been afraid that Adam would never warm to him at all.

“Adam tells me you’re thinking about going to college, Jamie,” Ben mentioned at supper one evening. “I’m delighted to hear it. What are you thinking of studying?” There was immense pride in Ben’s voice.

Gazing at his adoptive father, Jamie was struck dumb, unable to say anything at all. He flushed uncomfortable, and finally muttered, “I’m not sure.”

“You’ve got plenty of time to decide,” Ben told him. Jamie glanced around the table to see that’s Joe’s head was up and he was glaring at Adam. “You don’t need to make any decisions today.”

“I know, sir,” Jamie muttered. “I’m not sure that I want to go, it was just a thought.” He didn’t quite know how to extract himself from the topic without saying that this idea was Adam’s, not his.

Oblivious to this, Ben said, “Well, as I said, son, there’s no rush to think about this yet.” He smiled at Jamie and went on with his meal.

Relieved, Jamie ducked his head, but was still in time to see Joe send a scorching look across the table at Adam, who returned it in full measure.

*****

“I want a word with you, Adam,” Joe said, as he came into the barn the next morning. The rest of the family was already out, but Joe had hung back, wanting to catch Adam alone.

“That makes a change,” Adam retorted, coolly. “So far, you’ve avoided talking to me whenever possible.” He leant on the stall partition. “What’s on your mind, little brother?”

“I’m sure you can guess,” retorted Joe. “Jamie. Leave him alone about this college thing, Adam. The poor kid doesn’t know what to think and you telling Pa he wanted to go to college was a dirty trick! Stop trying to push him into something he’s not sure he wants!”

“Don’t go judging everyone by you, Joe,” Adam snapped. “Just because you were too idle to go to college doesn’t mean Jamie is too. He’s quite bright and he’d do well, I’m sure.”

“I’m not disputing that,” Joe commented, his voice low. “What I’m saying is; leave the boy alone! He doesn’t have to make a decision to please you, so back off! He’ll decide for himself when he is good and ready.” He picked up his horse’s rein, turning his back on his brother.

“Not everyone is as aggressively unambitious as you and Hoss, you know!” Adam taunted.

Slowly, Joe turned around. “Unambitious,” he repeated, his voice quiet. “If making this ranch the best in the territory, if not the country is unambitious, Adam, then I’m guilty as charged! Not everyone’s ambitions are the same. Look at you! You go from job to job and country to country. Is it ambition that drives you, Adam? Or something else?”  He took a step away, then turned round. “And don’t you dare run Hoss down! He’s always there for you, Adam and don’t you forget it! Maybe Hoss didn’t do well in school, but he’s a far better human being than you are!”

Without waiting for an answer from his stunned brother, Joe led his pinto from the barn, leaving Adam standing there with his mouth open.

*****

It was clear to all the family that Joe and Adam had had words. Joe avoided his oldest brother at all costs and they met only at the table when Joe couldn’t find a reason to be elsewhere. Adam took to offering to do the books for Ben, but his father refused, saying that they were up-to-date, thanks to the hours Joe had been putting in on them of late. Ben wasn’t sure what had happened between his sons and hoped that if they kept meeting during work, they could sort the problem out.

They finally did, but at a cost neither of them wanted.

*****

A few days later, Jamie was in the barn doing his chores after school when he heard Joe and Adam arrive back together. Adam had been watching Joe working on the horses, although no more had been said about him trying to break them. He wanted to make his peace with Joe, for he really didn’t think Jamie was worth fighting over.

“Joe,” Adam said, as he dismounted from his horse. “I don’t want us to keep fighting.”

“Nor do I,” Joe reluctantly admitted. He had never been able to hold a grudge for long and he knew that the coolness between he and Adam was hurting Ben and that was the last thing Joe wanted to do.

 “Do you really think of Jamie as your brother?” Adam asked, as he eased down from his horse. He hadn’t done much riding over the years, and found that his bad back was playing up.

“Sure,” Joe replied, defensively. “Why wouldn’t I? He is.”

“Only legally, not by blood,” Adam replied. “Didn’t it seem odd when Pa said he was going to adopt him?”

“No,” Joe answered, his tone puzzled. “Jamie had been living with us for quite some time by then, and we had been kind of treating him like our kid brother anyway. We were real happy for Pa to adopt him.”

“I just can’t get used to the idea,” Adam admitted. “To me, you’ll always be the youngest.”

There was a pause, and Jamie tried to pretend that he wasn’t hurt by Adam’s words.

“You really take the prize,” Joe said, his tone disgusted. “Are you jealous, Adam? Jealous because Jamie is living here and you aren’t?” He paused and looked at Adam. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Adam snapped. “I chose to leave, remember?”

“I sure do,” Joe responded. “But maybe Jamie is lucky that you don’t consider him your brother. Because by the way you often treated me, I think he’s got off lucky!”

“What does that mean?” Adam demanded.

“You were always on my back, Adam. You nagged me about doing chores; you nagged me about not going to college. Nothing I did was good enough for you. Sure, I made my peace with it, because you were the eldest and I had to tolerate you or leave. But you’re trying to do that to me all over again now you’re back and I’m not having it. I suppose you’ll only approve of Jamie if he does tell you he wants to go to college, then you can bully him into doing some course that you think is worthwhile.”

“I couldn’t care less what Jamie does,” Adam snapped, and Jamie bit back a sob. He thought he’d been building a relationship with Adam, and that the oldest Cartwright son was coming to care for him as a brother. It hurt immensely to discover that he didn’t. Suddenly, Jamie couldn’t bear to be there another minute, and he flung a saddle onto his horse and leapt on.

His appearance through the barn doors caught both Joe and Adam by surprise. Joe spotted the tear-streaked face and realized at once that they had been overheard. He shot Adam a filthy look as he cried, “Jamie! Wait!” The younger boy ignored him. “Now look what you’ve done,” Joe growled and jumped onto Cochise to give chase.

Shaken rigid, Adam hesitated for a moment before remounting and following. He realized how insensitive he had been, and how cruel. His attention had nurtured Jamie’s hopes of a real relationship, when Adam was just trying to find something to say to him. As he galloped after Joe and Jamie, he realized that Joe was right; he was jealous that Jamie was living there like another son. Adam was immediately ashamed of his thoughts. Jamie was a nice enough lad, he supposed and in Ben’s mind, he was another son. The fourth son. Adam just hadn’t bothered to get to know him. Now, he could only apologies and hope Jamie would forgive him.

Looking ahead, he could see that Joe was fast catching up to Jamie, and was calling to him. Adam couldn’t hear the words, just the sound of Joe’s voice carried back on the wind. Jamie appeared to be ignoring whatever Joe was saying, for Joe put his heel to his horse and closed the last gap between them, and reached over to catch Jamie’s reins.

At that moment, disaster struck. Cochise stumbled, and Joe, leaning out at a precarious angle, was thrown. Jamie’s horse put in a huge, ungainly jump to try and avoid standing on the human who was tumbling about his feet, and Jamie, much less of a horseman than Joe,  was unseated, too.

Pulling his horse up, Adam jumped down from the saddle and raced towards the two still figures lying on the ground. “Joe! Jamie!” he cried, his heart in his mouth.

As he knelt by Joe, Jamie sat up. He didn’t appear to be hurt, and he crawled across to Joe, who was unconscious. “Is he all right?” Jamie cried, guilt in his voice.

“I think the hoof just clipped him,” Adam replied, seeing the blood on Joe’s head. He gently brushed back Joe’s tangled curls to reveal the gash on his head. It didn’t appear too deep, and Adam realized how lucky Joe had been. Joe groaned, and began to stir. “I think he’ll be okay,” Adam assured the frightened youngster.

Joe’s eyes flickered open and Jamie dissolved into tears. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he sobbed. “I didn’t mean to run off and cause an accident.”

“It’s all right,” Joe slurred, clearly dazed. He moved slightly and groaned again. “Oh my head.”

“Don’t try to move until I make sure you haven’t broken anything,” Adam told him. He saw comprehension in Joe’s eyes. “Jamie,” he said, softly. “Jamie, this wasn’t your fault. It was mine. Joe was right; I hadn’t bothered to take the time to get to know you because I was jealous. So this accident isn’t your fault, its mine. You could both have been killed because of my selfishness. Please, forgive me?” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and when Jamie didn’t resist, drew the boy into a brief embrace.

*****

It proved that Joe’s shoulder was dislocated, too, and Adam and Jamie worked together to get their brother home. By the time they got there, evening was well on, and Ben was concerned by their absence. He sent a hand for the doctor the moment he saw Joe, and was soon fussing over Joe in his usual way. However, it hadn’t escaped his notice that there was an ease between his oldest and his youngest son that hadn’t been there previously.

However, he didn’t have time to dwell on the changes, as Joe needed attention. Adam and Jamie were left alone downstairs, as Hoss helped their father and the doctor.

“Did you mean what you said out there?” Jamie asked. He was still feeling a bit teary, as a result of the shock of the accident. “Are you jealous of me?” He sounded surprised. Jamie had a very tentative sense of self as a result of his up-bringing. He was amazed that Ben had wanted to adopt him, even if he had dreamt of it.

“I was,” Adam admitted, slowly. As ever, he found it hard to reveal his deepest emotions, and he still didn’t know Jamie well. “When I came home, I expected that nothing would have changed; that I could pick up where I left off.” He made a rueful face. “But everything has changed, Jamie. The biggest change was you. I knew Pa had adopted you, but I couldn’t picture you here at all. I always just thought of home as Pa, Hoss and Joe.” He sighed and took a sip of his coffee. Jamie said nothing, just watched, waiting for Adam to go on. “The other big change was Joe. I thought of him as still 22, and here he is 30, going grey, and helping Pa run the place. I never thought Joe was capable of that, you know.”

“Why not?” Jamie demanded, angry on Joe’s behalf.

“Partly because I didn’t want to see the truth, I guess,” he answered. “I didn’t want to admit that Joe was as clever as I was, even if in a different way. Joe has grown so much since I left.”

There was another pause and they both blanched and glanced at the stairs as a cry of pain floated down. “Guess Joe’s shoulder is back in place,” Adam commented.

“It’s not funny!” Jamie flared.

“I quite agree,” the other responded. “I wasn’t making fun of him, Jamie.” Adam looked down at his empty cup and placed it carefully on the table. “When Joe fell out there…” His voice trailed off and Jamie looked as though he were going to cry again. “Jamie, I meant what I said,” Adam assured him, leaning forward and putting his hand over the boy’s. With a shock, he saw how lined his hand looked next to the youth’s. “I didn’t try to get to know you. I should have done. But I was so jealous of you, that I didn’t think about your feelings. I guess it must have been pretty hard to meet an older brother you didn’t know. Just as hard as meeting a younger brother I didn’t know.”

Jamie looked skeptical, and Adam couldn’t blame him. Leaving his chair, Adam knelt by the boy’s side. “I was wrong and I’m sorrier than I can say. Jamie, can we start afresh? Can we learn to be friends, please?”

Unable to resist the plea in those dark eyes, Jamie nodded slowly. “I’d like that,” he admitted. “I’d like to have three older brothers that I know.”

Smiling, relieved, Adam put his arms round the boy for the second time that day and hugged him. Jamie clung to Adam for a moment, and Adam felt the loneliness that still lingered beneath the surface contentment. He knew how that felt.

As they let go of each other, there was a moment of awkwardness. Adam was the one who moved to dispel the feeling. “Well, there’s something to be said for getting a new brother who isn’t a baby, you know.”

“What’s that?” Jamie asked.

“I don’t have to change your diaper!” He grinned and Jamie laughed aloud.

*****

Later, Adam went upstairs to see Joe. Ben was pottering around the room, putting away the things the doctor had been using, unable to stay away from his injured son. Joe was concussed and his sore shoulder was strapped up and his arm was in a sling.

“How are you doing?” he asked Joe, perching on the edge of the bed.

“I’ll be all right,” Joe told him, drowsily. “Is Jamie all right?”

“He’s fine,” Adam assured him. “And you were right, Joe. I hadn’t made an effort with Jamie. But I’ve begun to mend that fence.” He caught Joe’s eye. “Can I mend another fence here?” Joe was silent. Adam squirmed slightly.

Looking slightly above Joe’s head, Adam focused his thoughts. “I didn’t want to admit this,” he began softly, “but it wasn’t just Jamie I was jealous of, you know. It was you, too, Joe.”

“Me?” Joe ventured, sure Adam was about to make some sarcastic comment, and show he was joking. “After all you said about me being unambitious, you’re telling me you’re jealous of me?”

“Yes,” admitted Adam, so low that Ben barely heard him. He knew that both his sons had forgotten he was there. “Jealous because, when I came home, there wasn’t a place for me any more. The place I thought was mine had been filled – by you. You were doing the books, you were negotiating contracts, you were ordering the men around – you! When the Joe I remember couldn’t hold onto his temper for more than a few seconds at a time and wouldn’t open a book unless there was 6 feet of snow outside! The men look up to you; Pa relies on you. Why wouldn’t I be jealous? I always thought there’d be a place waiting for me.”

“If you came back for good, there’d be a place here for you, Adam,” Joe returned. He had a headache and was sore all over, but he was determined to make his brother understand. “But what are we meant to do until you decide – if you decide – to come back? Not do the books? Not bid on contracts? Not get the work done? Did you think of any of this when you left? No.”

“Joe,” Adam began, but Joe interrupted him.

“You needed to get away, Adam, we all knew that! But we knew, all of us, that you weren’t coming back and that changed things around here. Pa couldn’t be expected to do the books alone. He would have done, and did for quite some time, but that wasn’t fair. Hoss isn’t interested in books and that’s not his thing. So I helped out. And guess what? I’m not bad at it. Just because I didn’t work much in school and didn’t want to go to college doesn’t mean I’m stupid, Adam.”

“I didn’t think it did,” Adam protested.

“Sure you did,” Joe told him and a smile flitted over his face. “And I let you. After all, I was young and as you kept pointing out, I’d had a different life to yours. I want different things to you, Adam. Everything I want is right here, and I know it. I don’t know what you want, and I don’t really think you know either,” he added shrewdly. “But it doesn’t matter. You do what makes you happy and I’ll keep doing what makes me happy. Just don’t forget that things change. I’ve changed. I’ve grown up. It’s a scary thought, because I’ve never been convinced that I wanted to be grown up. But I’ve done it, somehow. Now, we’re helping Jamie do it. He’s not a replacement for you, Adam. He’s just another Cartwright. The fourth Cartwright son.”

“I guess I did sort of think that,” Adam admitted. “I’m so sorry, Joe. That accident this afternoon was my fault, and it was because I was so jealous of Jamie that I didn’t bother to try and like him, or find any common ground. I can’t say he’s completely forgiven me, but we’re trying. Can you and I try, too?”

The smile Joe gave Adam told him that the fence mending had been well underway for some time. “Anytime, big brother,” Joe told him. “Anytime.” Joe’s emotions had exhausted him, on top of the concussion. Relief caused tears to shine in his eyes and spill down his cheeks.

Adam found he couldn’t speak and he put his hand on Joe’s arm and squeezed. Joe moved his uninjured arm and returned the pressure. Ben stood immobile in the background, afraid to move, lest he break the spell that seemed to have fallen on the room.

After a time, Adam stirred and rose. His eye fell on Ben and he realized that their father had been there the whole time. He flushed self consciously, but Ben only smiled at him; a smile of such unqualified love that Adam felt a lump rise in his throat again. “I’ll make sure Jamie gets to bed, Pa,” he offered, huskily. “Good night, Joe.”

“G’night, Adam,” Joe replied. “Tell Jamie good night from me, huh?”

“Sure thing,” agreed Adam. He let himself out quietly. Joe gazed at the closed door for a moment. Ben crossed over to sit on the bed, as Adam had done. Joe smiled at him. He looked tired, but happier.

“You didn’t have this accident on purpose, did you?” Ben asked Joe suspiciously, as he saw that Joe’s tears had dried.

“Even I’m not that crazy,” Joe responded. “But I guess it did the needful, huh, Pa?” He smiled, even though he was clearly in pain. “Its even brought Adam and I close again.”

“Pity you couldn’t have found another way,” Ben commented, dryly.

Joe laughed.  “Tell me about it,” he commented.

*****

When the time came for Adam to leave a few weeks later, Jamie was sorry to see him go. He could hardly believe that the Adam he had come to know was the same, aloof, cold man who he had first met. Once Adam had admitted the truth to himself, he set about rectifying his mistake, and he and Jamie soon found they got along better than either had imagined they would.

In a sense, they felt a certain kinship, as both felt they were slightly outcast from the warm, loving relationship that Ben, Joe and Hoss shared. Those three had shared things that the other two could only guess at and it created a slight barrier between them. Jamie didn’t resent this, as he was so new to the family. He was constantly being told stories of the days when Joe and Hoss were younger. Adam was finding it was something new he had to learn to live with.

“Any time you want to come visit, you’re welcome, Jamie,” he said, giving the boy a quick hug.

“And what about the rest of us?” Joe joked. He was pleased that Adam and Jamie were finding their feet as brothers, even if their relationship wasn’t as warm and close as the one between Joe, Jamie and Hoss. But then, Adam’s relationship with his family had often been at arm’s length even when he lived with them all the time and it was something they all had to learn to live with.

“I might manage to tolerate you,” Adam replied, in the same vein. “Take care of that shoulder.”

“I will,” Joe replied. “Take care, Adam.” He draped his uninjured arm over Jamie’s shoulders, drawing the youth near to him.

Yes, Adam thought, looking at them there. Jamie was a Cartwright. The fourth Cartwright son.

***End***

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