The Quick and the Dead (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  3146


 

“Yes, of course I understand,” Ben Cartwright assured his son. “But I’m going to miss you, you know.”

“I know, Pa,” Adam replied. “And I’ll miss all of you, but I’ve got to go.”

“You’ll have to tell your brothers,” Ben warned him. “Do it gently, Adam, especially with Joe.”

Biting back the comment that his father was mollycoddling Joe again, Adam simply nodded. He didn’t want to argue with Ben such a short time before leaving. Already, he felt freer, as though a great weight had lifted from his shoulders, allowing him to breathe deeply for the first time in years. He knew he’d made the right decision.

 The hard part would be explaining it to Hoss and Joe.

*****

The weather had been bad for more than a week. Rain had fallen relentlessly every day for hours at a time. Clothes never seemed to get completely dry, and the house felt damp, despite roaring fires. The boys never came home clean – never mind dry – and conversation was in short supply as the hard work in the constant downpour left them all exhausted.

Getting his brothers on their own was proving harder than Adam had anticipated. They were all working separately and didn’t always manage to get around the table together for supper. But having made his decision to leave after round-up, Adam was more relaxed and knew that he had a couple of months to tell Hoss and Joe his plans.

Since he was leaving, Adam found that he was often seeing things through fresh eyes. And the thing he noticed most was how grown-up Joe had suddenly become.

*****

Like many older siblings, Adam had become accustomed to watching out for both his younger brothers, but particularly for Joe. And because Joe was shorter than the rest of his family, Adam still tended to think Joe was younger than his years. The boyish charm and impetuosity that Joe displayed made him seem young, too. But now that Adam was looking at Joe more closely, he could see big changes in his younger brother.

The first sign was when they were in town. Adam and Joe had packed the supplies into the wagon, then Adam had gone down to the post office to check the mail. Joe headed for the saloon, which didn’t come as a surprise to Adam at all. Walking slowly back along the street sifting through the mail, Adam belatedly became aware of a fracas at the saloon.

Hurrying his steps, Adam headed in that direction, tucking the mail safely away in his pocket. Pushing his way through the crowd, Adam saw exactly what he had expected – Joe was right in the middle of the fight.

Heaving a sigh of disgust, Adam shoved past the interested spectators and prepared to defend his youngest brother once more. But it had been some time since Adam had seen Joe in a fight and he saw at once that Joe was standing up to his taller, broader opponent. He was keeping his cool and allowing his greater agility to keep him out of trouble, although the occasional punch still broke through.

Relaxing slightly, Adam hesitated, unwilling to go to Joe’s rescue when he so clearly didn’t need rescuing! At that moment, the barman recovered from the pounding he’d had and retrieved his scattergun from under the bar. He fired it into the ceiling and Joe flinched, caught by surprise. His guard came down and his opponent hit him with a quick one-two, right in the face. Joe went down.

Leaping forward, Adam was just in time to see Joe kick the feet from under his opponent and the other man went down too. By now, the by-standers were moving in the separate the fighting men, and moments later, Sheriff Roy Coffee appeared to take them into custody.

“Are you all right, Joe?” Adam demanded, as he helped Joe to his feet.

“I’m fine,” Joe assured him, shaking off Adam’s hand. He mopped the blood coming from his nose and mouth.

“Pa’s going to be livid that you started another fight,” Adam commented. “I don’t know if I can help you out here, buddy.”

Giving Adam an unfriendly look, Joe replied, “What makes you think I started this, Adam? And what makes you think I need your help?”

“You all right, Joe?” asked another voice and Adam glanced around at Cosmo, the barman. “I’m real sorry I didn’t fling that fella out earlier. I knew he was trouble just by lookin’ at him! But I didn’t expect him to jump on you.”

“I’m fine, Cosmo,” Joe answered. “And it’s not your fault.”

“You were real restrained, waitin’ for Roy ta get here,” Cosmo added.

“An’ I remember the days when you’d have caused the fight in the first place,” added Roy Coffee. He peered at Joe. “D’you need ta see the doc, boy?”

“No, the bleeding’s stopped,” Joe replied. “Thanks all the same, Roy.”

“You mean the fight wasn’t Joe’s fault?” Adam asked, gazing from one to another.

“Nope,” agreed Cosmo. “That big fella’s bin in here all day, itchin’ fer trouble. He took a dislike to Joe’s green jacket there and next thing, he was poundin’ on him! Then everyone else joined in, but Joe hardly threw a punch! Not like in the old days, eh, Joe?”

Giving Adam a look, from which triumph was remarkably absent, Joe smiled. “No, Cosmo, not at all like the old days,” he replied.

*****

“Hey, look, Adam, I haven’t started a fight in ages,” Joe protested as they drove home. “Okay, sure, I still lose my temper; I haven’t changed that much! I’m not a kid any more.”

“I know,” Adam replied. He wondered if now was the time to tell Joe he was leaving, but decided against it. Joe was still annoyed that Adam had assumed that he was guilty of starting the fight in the saloon. Besides, Adam wanted to tell Hoss first, so that the middle brother would be on hand to talk Joe round if the youngest son took it badly.

So he was glad to see Hoss in the yard as they drove in. Getting rid of Joe wasn’t hard, especially as Ben came out to greet them and immediately commented on Joe’s split and swollen lip and hustled him off inside to take a closer look. Joe’s rolling eyes provided adequate comment on his feelings in the matter!

“I wanted a word with you, Hoss,” Adam said, as they unloaded the supplies.

“Sounds serious,” Hoss replied, uneasily. “What is it?”

“I’m leaving,” Adam responded. “After round-up is over.”

For a long moment, Hoss just looked at Adam, and Adam’s heart sank. “Where are ya gonna go?” Hoss asked. He sounded unutterably sad.

“I don’t know, exactly,” Adam answered. “Back to Boston, first. I’ll see my friends there and then see what happens. I’d like to see the world.”

“Are ya ever comin’ back?” Hoss asked. Adam could hear the tears in his voice.

“Yes, someday,” Adam replied, but even he could hear the uncertainty in his reply. In truth, he hadn’t thought of coming back; his mind hadn’t really travelled beyond leaving.

“I unnerstand, Adam,” Hoss told him. He put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed. “We’ll miss ya.” He cast a look at the house. “Have ya tol’ Pa an’ Joe?”

“I told Pa,” Adam agreed. “But I haven’t told Joe yet. I thought I’d tell you first. I might need you to talk sense into the boy. We both know he doesn’t think half the time.”

“Adam, that ain’t true!” Hoss protested. “Joe’s as smart as a whip! Sure, he goes off half-cocked, but he wouldn’ be Joe if’n he didn’. But he’s steadied up a lot. Ain’t ya noticed?”

“Well, not until today, if truth be told,” Adam admitted slowly. “I thought he’d caused that saloon fight, but he didn’t.”

“Joe ain’t started a saloon fight in a coon’s age,” Hoss agreed. “That’s what I mean. But Joe ain’t gonna take yer leavin’ well, Adam. He loves ya, ya know.”

“I know,” Adam replied, uncomfortably.

“Break it to him gentle, like,” Hoss advised.

“I will,” sighed Adam.

*****

It was the next morning before Adam got Joe alone. He had lingered in the barn, saddling Cochise for his brother, until Joe, last out because of Ben’s insistence on checking that he had no new bruises or injuries from the previous day’s fight, appeared. “Hi, Adam,” Joe cried cheerfully as he went in. “I thought you’d be long gone! Thanks for saddling Cochise.”

“I wanted a word with you,” Adam told him and watched as Joe’s face fell.

“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” Joe accused. He had known for some days that Adam was behaving differently, and he instinctively feared the lure of the east, where Adam had gone to college. Unwilling to face his suspicions, Joe had submerged the thought, although it had resurfaced in his dreams, causing him to sleep poorly the night before.

“Yes,” Adam nodded. “But not till after round-up.”

“Why?” Joe blurted, unhappiness rushing to blot out all other feelings. “Is it something I’ve done?” He thought miserably of the way he had shrugged off Adam’s helping hand the day before.

“Why does everything have to be about you?” Adam demanded. “This isn’t about you, Joe; this is about me! I need to leave.”

“So it is me,” Joe muttered. “Adam, I can change, I know I can. Please, don’t go!”

“Joe,” Adam began, not seeing that he hadn’t answered Joe’s question. He swallowed his exasperation as best he could. “I need to get away from here, that’s all. Unlike you, I’m not content to live in one place all my life.” Adam hadn’t realized his words sounded like a criticism to the young man in front of him.

Unbearably hurt, Joe lost his temper. “You always have to throw that up at me, don’t you?” he cried. “I didn’t want to go to college, and I still don’t! Well, fine, Adam, you leave; see if I care!” He grabbed his horse’s rein.

“Now, Joe,” Adam started, but that was exactly the wrong tack to take with Joe at that moment.

“Don’t bother trying to concoct any more excuses, Adam,” Joe told him, although Adam hadn’t offered any excuses for anything. “You’ve made it quite clear! You can’t stand to be near me any more.” In one swift movement, he vaulted onto Cochise’s back and rode out of the barn. Moments later, Adam heard Cochise’s hooves speed into a gallop.

“Damn the boy!” Adam muttered under his breath. He led Sport from the barn. “Hi, Pa,” he said, as he came out and almost walked right into his father.

“I gather you’ve told Joe?” Ben asked.

“Yes, and he thought it was because of something he’d done. Why does he always think he’s the center of things?”

“Did you tell him it was nothing to do with him?” Ben enquired.

“Sure!” Adam responded indignantly. “I told him it wasn’t about him, it was about me. Then he threw a tantrum, went on about not going to college again and rode off. And here I was thinking he’d grown up.”

“He has,” Ben snapped. Softening his tone, he went on, “I didn’t hear what was said, son, but I don’t think Joe got your message clearly. But either way, you need to go after him and make sure he does understand. He will accept your leaving, Adam, but you know how Joe is about people going away. Remember how he used to be when I went on trips after his mother died? And how he was when you left for college? For Joe, this…” with a sweeping gesture, Ben indicated the ranch, “is his whole world, and he finds it difficult to accept that it’s not your whole world, too.”

“I’ll go after him,” Adam agreed, somewhat ungraciously.

*****

As he raced Cochise across the ranch, Joe had no immediate destination in mind. But his subconscious was working, and he headed towards the lake and his mother’s grave. He replayed the conversation he and Adam had just had in his mind, and realized that Adam hadn’t said that it was Joe’s fault that he was leaving. “Am I really that self-centered?” he whispered to himself.

Pulling his horse to a slower gait, Joe rode on. The rain started again, coming down in huge, cold, drops. Joe turned his jacket collar up some more, as he had left his slicker hanging in the barn. “I don’t want Adam to leave, Cooch,” Joe muttered. “That is selfish of me. I don’t want him to leave because I’ll miss him.” Swallowing against the lump that had risen in his throat, Joe went on, “But it’s natural that I’ll miss him, so maybe I’m not being selfish.” Frustrated by his whirling thoughts, Joe let out an incoherent shout of anger. Cochise took this as an indication to go faster and broke into a gallop again.

They were down by the shore side by then, and Joe didn’t stop the horse’s headlong pace. The sheer exhilaration of riding at speed helped ease his confusion slightly. The rain flew into his face, causing him to screw up his eyes and squint into the wind. Next moment, Cochise shied violently to the right and Joe, caught completely unprepared, was thrown off the left side of the saddle.

He landed on a patch of sand that squelched nastily. The next instant, Joe was sinking!

*****

Quicksand! Joe knew about quicksand, and that struggling was the worst thing you could do. But he had never before been deposited into quicksand at high speed, and he had already sunk up to his waist. With a gargantuan effort, he freed his left hand, and forced himself to stop struggling. At once, he stopped sinking.

Taking a deep breath, Joe waited until his pulse rate had dropped slightly before moving slowly to try and stretch out on the surface of the sand, as though he was swimming. But the quicksand, caused by the heavy rain, and unusually deep because of this, had set like concrete around his legs. Joe was trapped.

*****

Following in Joe’s wake, for it was never difficult to guess where to find Joe when he was upset, Adam was also reviewing their conversation. It was hard to admit he was wrong, but Adam was willing to admit it this time. He had handled Joe badly, and he thought he knew why. He was feeling defensive about his reasons for leaving. Although he knew that Ben accepted his leaving, he also knew that Ben was disappointed, as he had built the Ponderosa for his sons. But something in Adam was not settled, and Adam wasn’t sure he would ever be able to settle. Was it because of his nomadic childhood? Had that given him his wandering foot? Adam didn’t know the answer; he just knew he needed to get away.

In the distance, Adam could see Cochise grazing by the shore. He frowned. Marie’s grave lay almost a mile further on. Why had Joe stopped there? Was the horse lame? Adam glanced around, but there was no sign of his brother anywhere.

It wasn’t until he reached Cochise that Adam spotted Joe. Jumping down from his horse, Adam hurried as close as he dared. “Joe! Are you all right?”

“I think so,” Joe replied. “But I’m stuck.” Joe was coated with the oatmeal-colored sand and was barely discernable from the surrounding ground.

“Don’t move,” Adam reminded him. He went back to his horse to get a rope. Swiftly making a loop, Adam threw the rope to Joe, who caught it with his left hand, the only one above the surface of the muck, and struggled to get it over his head.

At last, Joe had it positioned as best he could, and Adam tied the other end of the rope to Sport’s saddle horn. “Ready?” he asked.

“I guess so,” Joe replied.

Slowly, Adam took up the slack, then began winding the rope around the saddle horn as he began to take the strain. And it was quite a strain. Joe did what he could to help, which wasn’t much, and for Adam, it was like pulling a dead weight.

Finally, with an horrendous sucking noise, Joe was pried loose from the patch of quicksand. He sprawled on the ground, unable to help as Adam swiftly pulled him clear before rushing over to kneel by his brother.

Joe’s boots were missing, and he was unable to move, due to the consistency of the sand, which had set hard. “Are you all right?” Adam asked, disentangling the rope.

“Yes, thanks,” Joe panted. He hadn’t noticed before that he had been finding it difficult to breathe. He gulped in huge draughts of air while Adam did his best to scrape the muck off him. Finally, Joe’s limbs were free and Adam helped him to mount.

They rode home in sober silence.

*****

Bathed and changed, Joe sat down in front of the fire in the great room and sipped the hot coffee gratefully. He had been shivering violently when he had arrived home, but he now felt that he was human again. He had no discernable injuries. And he had learned that emotions could be like quicksand, too. When Joe stopped focusing on his hurt, the voice of reason was able to assert itself and Joe came to an understanding of his brother’s needs and motives. When he had fought them, he had become stuck, just like he had become stuck in the quicksand.

Coming into the room, Adam sat down. “I’ve left Fred trying to scrape the stuff off your saddle,” Adam told him. “But I’m not sure it’ll ever recover.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied. He glanced at Adam. “Adam, I wanted to say how sorry I am about the way I reacted earlier. I know you weren’t getting at me, and I was just being selfish, because I’m going to miss you. But you’re right; we’re different people, and I’m happy to stay here forever. You’re not, and so be it. I will miss you once you’ve gone, and I’ll never entirely understand your need to leave, but I give you my blessing.”

“Thanks, Joe,” Adam replied, an unaccustomed gruffness in his voice. “I wanted to apologize, too. I hadn’t noticed you growing up and was still treating you like a kid. I didn’t mean to.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Joe assured him.

*****

When Adam rode away a few months later, he looked back just once. Ben, Hoss and Joe stood there, smiling and waving, hiding their hurt under a show of support for him. Adam didn’t know if he would ever return but he knew one thing for sure.

The Ponderosa would always be his home.

***End***

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