Summary: Joe gets a chance to practice his own big brother skills.
Word Count: 6139
“Hey, brother. What’d that barn ever do to you?”
Hoss lifted an eyebrow as Joe stepped onto the front porch, but his scowl didn’t fade. Joe turned to follow the big man’s gaze across the darkening yard, but seeing nothing out of the ordinary he looked back down at his companion.
“All right, I give up. What’s goin’ on?”
Hoss stretched and pursed his lips, then sighed. “Oh, I been out here tryin’ to figure out what’s goin’ on in that fuzzy little head this time.”
Joe looked quickly back around, eyes rising to the open loft. “Jamie?” Hoss nodded and Joe slumped against the nearest post, hat turning absently in gloved hands. “What? Did somethin’ happen?”
“Well, little brother, if I knew that I wouldn’t be out here wonderin’, would I?”
Joe spared a halfhearted snarl for the jab, attention still fixed primarily on the silent hayloft. Since Jamie still wasn’t allowed much beyond the main yard without telling someone where he’d be—it hadn’t been that long ago they’d found him lost, injured, and sick from exposure in the woods, and Ben wasn’t quite prepared to do the whole thing again so soon—the loft had become his default hiding place when some teenage angst dictated the need for alone time. The problem with that, of course, was that everyone down to the greenest hired hand knew exactly where the boy had taken himself upon disappearing … but no system was perfect, and Jamie knew better than to challenge Ben on this. He was, if nothing else, learning to pick his battles.
“What did he do? What makes you think something’s goin’ on, I mean?”
“I was out in the corral when he come home from school. I waved, but he didn’t pay me no never mind—just rode right on past. When he come out of the barn he stomped by again like I weren’t even there, slammed the front door behind him, was back out a minute later with that book, and—”
“Aw, not the book …”
“And back into the barn he went. Haven’t seen him since.”
“Why is Pa always gone when that blasted book comes out?”
“Prob’ly cause Jamie knows better than to be draggin’ it around in front of him. Ain’t like Pa to let somethin’ like that go without a good long man-to-man about what’s ailin’.”
Joe glared suspiciously. “You’re tellin’ me you’re gonna let it go without a man-to-man?”
Hoss surged out of his chair, sending it rocking hard into the wall. He staggered Joe with a hearty cuff to the shoulder. “I’m tellin’ you that we wouldn’t dream of it, little brother.”
“Oh we wouldn’t, would we?”
Joe grumbled, but followed Hoss readily across the yard. He had expected nothing less—would probably have suggested it himself if he hadn’t every confidence that big brother had the matter well in hand. Siblings in the Cartwright household had always carried a good dose of responsibility for the younger children, and Jamie’s relative youth in comparison to his new brothers made it all the more natural. Prior to Jamie’s arrival, of course, Joe had only ever been on the receiving end of the ‘big brother-little brother’ setup, but he was well-versed in how it worked.
“You know what that book means,” he muttered as they approached the barn doors. Hoss sent him a reproaching glance.
“And you know what Pa said—that boy needs a lot of reassurin’. So if we gotta go through it all again …”
“I’m not saying otherwise.” Joe held up his hands in a defensive gesture. “I’ll reassure until he’s seventy-three and I can’t get up out of my chair anymore, if that’s what it takes. I just don’t understand why he won’t believe us, is all. It ain’t like we’ve given him any reason not to.”
Hoss stopped in his tracks, and Joe almost plowed into his brother’s solid back. “Joseph, do I gotta count the number of times we had to tell you that Pa was comin’ back and Adam was comin’ back and I was comin’ back for all them years after Mama died?”
“Now wait a minute. That’s not—”
“How come you didn’t believe us the first dozen times?”
Joe huffed out a breath. “That’s not what I’m saying, and you know it. Anyway, I wasn’t even ten years old then! How was I supposed to—”
“You weren’t, but you had a good solid lovin’ family. Just like I did when I was twelve and ol’ Jed Grayson kept on me every day at school, and no matter what Pa said I could just never quite believe that Jed weren’t right about big and stupid bein’ one and the same.”
“The point is, Jamie might be older, but he ain’t never had—”
“Hoss! I get it! Stop your crabbin’, brother, I ain’t pickin’ on him. I’m just …” Joe sighed and looked away, over the dim outline of the house. “I wish he’d believe us. There ain’t no need for him to keep doin’ this to himself.”
Hoss blew out a long breath, too, scratching at the back of his neck. “Yeah, I know. I ain’t really crabbin’ at you, neither. I guess I’m just tryin’ to convince myself.”
“Jamie’ll get it eventually.” Joe clapped a hand on Hoss’s shoulder and shook gently. “Like you said, we just gotta keep at it. Give him some time.”
“And hope he don’t throw nothin’ at us when we start up that ladder.”
Joe snorted out a little laugh. He didn’t think Jamie would throw anything at them … but that didn’t mean their little brother was always very happy about their well-meaning interference into his insecurities.
He heard them coming, of course—but then, they weren’t exactly trying to hide it. Jamie glared from his huddle in the far corner as first Joe and then Hoss scrambled off the ladder. “I don’t wanna talk about it, and I don’t want any company.”
The kid had apparently not learned yet that, in the Cartwright household, admitting there was a problem was more than halfway to losing the battle.
“What, we can’t sit in the hayloft?”
Jamie looked away, swiping a quick sleeve across his nose. He stared out across the yard, thumbing the battered, partially burned pages that were his last link to his dead father and blatantly ignoring his brothers’ none-too-graceful approach. “Guess you can do whatever you want. It’s your loft.”
The words might not have meant anything … but the disgruntled, almost sulky tone hinted otherwise. Joe and Hoss exchanged a glance, then Hoss settled against the wall beside Jamie and tossed his hat into the straw. Jamie tried to edge away, but found he had no place to go. Joe crawled to the open window and swung around, dangling his legs out into the evening.
“How was your day, young’un?”
“It was fine.”
“Uh huh. Looks like it was fine.”
“Well it was.”
Joe snorted softly, only partially bothering to hide his amused disbelief. Jamie leveled him an offended glare, but Joe wasn’t buying any of what the boy was selling.
“Sure it was. That’s why you’re out here in the dark instead of inside eating Hop Sing’s cookies and complaining about your homework.”
For a moment Jamie’s jaw worked silently, then … “Hop Sing made cookies?”
Hoss barked a laugh and thumped the kid’s shoulder—not as hard as he might have Joe’s, but still enough to send their new brother rocking. Jamie might be taller now, but more than a year of Hop Sing’s cooking hadn’t yet managed to put much meat on his bones. “You ever known that cookie jar to be empty when you got home from school, boy?”
Obviously he had never given the matter much thought. Jamie straightened a little, then shook his head cautiously. “No, I … I guess not.”
“Think that’s an accident?”
Jamie hesitated, then looked away without answering. For a (very brief) moment, Joe felt a flash of sympathetic pity—he knew what it was like to have Hoss knock an argument out from under him before it had even begun. Before Hoss even knew what they were arguing about. His (their) big brother had a sense about these things.
“How was your day, Jamie?”
The boy fanned almost violently through the burned pages. The large man reached out and closed his hand over the battered old rainmaking book, tugging gently. For a second Jamie resisted, then he sighed and let it go. Hoss cast the leather-bound volume a single disinterested glance—it didn’t mean anything in itself, other than as a clue that their brother was feeling alone and out of place—then chucked it over beside his hat. Hands suddenly free, Jamie rubbed them awkwardly then crossed his arms—a protective gesture if Joe had ever seen one.
“I still don’t see why I gotta go to school, anyway.” Even in the quiet of the loft, the muttered words were almost lost. “I was doin’ fine without it.”
Well … sort of.
It was an old argument, one that Jamie and Ben had out every few months or so—though in truth, Jamie did most of the arguing. Their pa generally listened, nodded, and then reminded the boy of all the reasons that he would, in fact, be back at the schoolhouse come morning.
Of course, Ben usually stuck to the educational reasons. There were others, but he didn’t talk about those. Not in front of Jamie, anyway.
The fact was that Jamie was a good kid, smart and independent and brash in the face of opposition and disbelief. The boy had been raised in the back of a rainmaker’s wagon—he knew how to stand his ground and brush off ridicule when it came his way.
As long as he could pick up and drive away from it.
What he didn’t know was how to settle in for the long haul. The same wagon that had given Jamie a thick skin on the retreat had left their new brother ill-prepared for confrontation from which he couldn’t pull up stakes and drive away. The boy had little practice at socializing, especially with other children. He didn’t know how to make friends or talk to a girl or defend himself without going right onto the offensive. He knew only the basics of how to properly interact with any authority other than his own father, unless it be possibly a sheriff or storekeeper. That wagon had given Jamie a solid sense of himself as an outsider without any idea of how to change—or confidence that he even could. He needed the everyday interactions that school offered, and it was that as much as the math and spelling that Ben Cartwright was counting on school to help teach the boy.
“Well Pa, Adam grew up in the back of a wagon and turned out all right.”
“Adam and I stayed in town, and for longer periods of time. We met other families, and he played with their children. He attended school when possible. The women at the boarding houses watched him while I worked.” Ben shook his head. “Jamie has known very little but that wagon. Hunter may have loved his son—I have no doubt that he did—but he also did the boy no favors in his rearing.”
It was obvious to anyone who knew him well that Jamie wanted to fit in. He was wary and (truth be told) a bit awkward, but if offered some attention and a little praise the kid would perk up like an eager puppy. (It was, Joe had to admit, almost painfully endearing.) That desire to belong also, unfortunately, made Jamie overly sensitive to suggestions that he didn’t—and from the way his brother was pulled into himself like a turtle, not to mention the charred pages at Hoss’s feet, it seemed likely that something along those lines had been said. Again.
Kids could be mean … there was no two ways about it.
“What happened, kiddo?” Hoss’s voice was soothing, and Joe knew Jamie would break.
He didn’t. “Pa misses Adam an awful lot, doesn’t he?”
The switch caught them both off guard. They exchanged a cautious glance, then Hoss ventured, “Well, yeah. Pa’s more’n ready for ol’ Adam to be back. But he knew—we all did—that it was gonna be awhile.” He lifted a curious brow. “Pa’s doin’ fine.”
“Yeah.” Jamie nodded, clasping his hands and studying his fingers. “Yeah, I know. But he’s kinda used to havin’ more than just you two around, ain’t he?”
Where exactly was this going? “Jamie,” Joe cut in, “why don’t you just spit out whatever it is you’re trying to ask? Me and Hoss ain’t mind-readers.”
Gentle didn’t seem to be cutting it.
The kid’s blush was fire red, even in the dim light. Jamie shrugged. “Well, I … I was just thinkin’ about what if maybe Pa took me in because he missed havin’ Adam around and needed somebody else to take up his time.” He rushed on, “I mean, it’s okay if he did, it ain’t like it’d be the first time, but—”
Hoss beat Joe to it, but just barely. “Now, what in the world gave you a fool idea like that?”
Jamie shrugged again and looked away. Joe snorted.
“Does Pa seem particularly bored to you?”
A puzzled frown. “No …”
“Then what could possibly give you the impression that Ben Cartwright was just sitting around looking for something to do?”
Their little brother scowled. “That ain’t what I said.”
“Then what did you say?” Joe swung around, locking the pale eyes with his own. “Jamie,” he prodded, “tell us what’s goin’ on.”
“It’s just …” Jamie looked away, then took a deep breath. “Well, Gary Sutter’s pa came by school today—he’s replacin’ that window Gary knocked out throwin’ rocks.” It was the first Joe had heard of the incident, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that Ed Sutter was a loudmouth who didn’t like their pa and had never taken any pains to hide it. “We were playin’ baseball. Jack got a hit up toward the schoolhouse, and I almost run right into Mr. Sutter—just missed him, but then I hit the pump ‘cause I was lookin’ at him ‘stead of where I was goin’.” Embarrassment colored the boy’s words. Jamie had never been terribly coordinated, all arms and legs like a half-grown colt. “Anyways, the ball went under the schoolhouse and I had to look for it, and I think they forgot I was there because I heard Mr. Sutter say that it seemed like Pa just couldn’t help himself—he needed that third bedroom filled up so bad he’d stick almost anybody in there.” Hoss muttered something that didn’t bear repeating. “And Missus Hagan said Pa kept a pretty tight rein on his boys and she wondered if he was just wishin’ he hadn’t let Adam go.” Joe had met the schoolteacher a few times, and wasn’t terribly surprised (or impressed). The woman was smug and unsympathetic, and made him grateful for Abigail Jones. “And I just got to thinkin’—”
“Well, don’t.” Jamie blinked, and Hoss scowled deeply. “That kind of talk ain’t worth your thinkin’, boy. First of all, Pa didn’t let Adam do anything. Adam’s a big boy now, he gets to decide these things for hisself. Pa don’t—”
“Well I didn’t say it.” Jamie tugged on a handful of hay. “And anyways, after that Missus Hagan said whyever he took me in, Pa must have gone and got attached because she was in town when them outlaws grabbed me and the others, and he really did look like he was afraid of losin’ another child. So I guess he—”
“Another child!” Hoss exploded. “He ain’t lost one yet! Adam ain’t—”
Somehow, Joe didn’t think that was the point.
“Maybe she was just talkin’. Maybe it was figure of speech.” He hated giving the woman any benefit of the doubt, especially after what they’d just heard, but it wouldn’t help Jamie if they got riled up over the wrong thing. “Adam is gone long-term, and Pa does miss him.” He cracked a grin and nudged at his little brother’s foot. “And Pa does keep a pretty tight rein.” Unexpectedly, Jamie snorted back laughter. Hoss nodded encouragement over the boy’s head. “And he does love you—ain’t no ‘gone and got attached’ about it—and he was afraid of losing you.” Jamie ducked his head. “And he was afraid of losing you when your grandpa tried to take you back, and he was afraid of losing you last month when we found you half dead out in the woods. And none of that has anything at all to do with Adam, does it? Every bit of that is about Pa and you.”
Jamie grinned faintly. “I … I guess so.”
“Don’t guess so, boy. Know so!” Hoss ruffled the fuzzy red hair and Jamie laughed outright, flashing that goofy grin that Joe loved best.
“I … yeah, okay.”
Hoss lifted an eyebrow. “Okay what?”
“Okay, I guess I was bein’ … kinda silly, or somethin’.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout that.” Hoss bumped him gently. “What’s family for?”
Jamie shrugged, almost cheerful again, and Joe hated to ask his next question. He did, though, because there was something else—something that had been almost buried in with all the rest, and he wondered if maybe it needed some attention. “Wait a minute.” Both of his brothers turned curious eyes on him. Joe twirled his hat, and almost lost it out the window. He snatched it back and returned his attention to his young brother. “What did you mean, ‘it ain’t like it’d be the first time’?”
Hoss’s eyes widened. “Hey, yeah.” He turned a furrowed brow on the boy. “Shortshanks has got a point, kiddo. What didyou mean by that?”
“Oh, that.” Jamie’s gaze slid away. Absently, he seized another handful of hay. “It wasn’t nothin’, I was just talkin’.”
“Now, don’t start that up again.” Hoss thumped one knobby knee. “What’d we just say about family?”
“Yeah, but …” Jamie sighed, shredding a couple of stalks. “It ain’t important.”
He didn’t believe it for a minute—discomfort screamed off of the kid. Joe crossed his arms. “You brought it up. It must be at least a little important.”
“Well it ain’t. Not no more.”
“That ain’t what I heard.”
The boy’s jaw jutted. “Well I don’t know what you heard, but it ain’t.”
Irritation surged. The kid was stubborn … “Look, all we’re tryin’ to do is help. If you don’t want it, though, there isn’t much I can do about—”
A piercing whistle split the air. Jamie cringed away from their big brother, and Hoss leveled a glare at them both. “Enough! This ain’t gettin’ anybody anywhere.”
Joe rubbed at his ear, scowling. “Down, brother.”
“Well, you two was about ta get a little off the subject, wasn’t ya?”
Yeah. Probably. Joe mentally kicked himself, remembering just how good Jamie was at diverting any subject he didn’t want to discuss. Before he could return them to the topic at hand, though, their young brother was off down a completely different path.
“How’d you do that?”
“What, the whistle?” Hoss grinned. “Adam taught me that when I was no more’n knee-high to a bullfrog. Don’t know where he picked it up, he don’t remember and Pa sure can’t do it.” The big man nudged their young brother companionably. “I was always better at it than ol’ Adam, though.” He pointed to the gap between his front teeth. “Gives me an edge.”
Jamie looked to Joe. “Can you do it?”
“Not like him.”
What had Hoss been saying about getting off the subject? Seemed like this time, it was big brother who had been successfully diverted. Joe had to hand it to the kid. Although to be fair, Jamie probably was genuinely fascinated—the boy’s lips were already beginning to purse experimentally.
“Who taught you?”
“Who do you think?”
The kid turned the most pathetic begging eyes Joe had ever seen onto Hoss. “Can you teach me?”
There was no way their big brother would be able to resist that. The gap-tooth grin widened. “Think you got it in ya, huh?”
“I know I do!” Jamie threw a smirk at Joe. “Bet I can do it better than him, anyway.”
Normally, those would be fightin’ words. Right now, though, he had to think of some way to get this discussion back on track.
“Well, that ain’t too hard.” Hoss snickered. “Punkin’ here don’t really—”
Their cook’s voice bellowed from the yard. “Where everybody?” As one, the brothers ducked away from the window. “I hear Mr. Hoss whistle, I know you close by! You three not at table soon, dinner get cold and Hop Sing done with you all!” The crash of the front door punctuated Hop Sing’s ultimatum.
Jamie started to scramble up, but Joe yanked him back down. “Oh no. We ain’t done yet.”
“But Hop Sing—”
“Ain’t goin’ anywhere. You know he’s not.” Both Hoss and Jamie were casting anxious glances toward the house, though, and Joe sighed. This was getting more complicated by the minute. How had Adam and Hoss done it all these years? He rolled over and hung out the window. “Hop Sing!” The front door flew open again, and their cook appeared on the porch. Switching to Cantonese, Joe called, “Fifteen minutes! Jamie had a problem at school, we’re talking.”
The little man folded his arms. “And whistling?”
“It’s a long story.”
Hop Sing glanced past Joe, though he couldn’t have seen into the loft. Despite his disgruntled posture, the little man’s concern was obvious to anyone who knew him well. He too had a soft spot for the newest Cartwright. “The boy was certainly in something of a mood when he came home. Take whatever time you need—I’ll keep dinner warm. And make more cookies.”
Cookies. Hop Sing’s answer to most any childhood ill. Joe remembered warm batches by the dozen during his own growing up years …
“Dòjeh!”^ He pulled himself back in and turned on his brothers. “There. Hop Sing is—”
“What did you just say?” Jamie demanded.
Joe glowered. “I said we’re getting off the subject.” Hoss at least had the grace to look abashed. Jamie only looked defiant.
“I told you, I didn’t—”
“You said it was okay if Pa took you in because he was missin’ Adam.” Joe settled back against the window frame, crossing his arms firmly. “We both heard it, right Hoss?” The big man nodded agreeably. “Which we all know wouldn’t be okay, because what’s the first thing we promised you when you joined this family?”
Jamie sighed and reluctantly resettled, mumbling beneath his breath. Hoss nudged him. “What was that, kiddo?”
“Equality,” the boy bit out, looking anywhere but at the two of them.
“Equality,” Joe confirmed, kicking at Jamie’s boots again. “We were born to Pa, and he picked you. I know he’s told you that a dozen times—”
“Ain’t been a dozen.”
Joe tipped a grin at his big brother. “At least a dozen, right Hoss?”
“At least,” Hoss nodded, cheerfully unrepentant in the face of Jamie’s scowl.
“And,” Joe plowed stubbornly on, “I know me and Hoss said when Pa made it legal that we were all gonna be brothers with no difference. Didn’t matter what anybody else thought, we decided that’s how it was gonna be, and that’s how it is. Right?”
The boy rolled one shoulder, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Yeah.”
“So.” Joe leaned forward, trying to catch Jamie’s gaze. “You know you’re not second to the rest of us, you know that ain’t why Pa wanted you or we wanted you, but you worried about it anyway?”
“No! I didn’t really, that ain’t what I—”
“You brought it up like it’s happened before, though. So, what about that?”
Memory and stubborn defiance and hurt flickered across the boy’s face, so fast that Joe could barely keep up. Finally Jamie sighed. “Well …” he offered cautiously. “You know. When my grandfather came.” Joe and Hoss nodded briefly. It was no real surprise that Ferris Callahan would be the first person out of their brother’s mouth. “You don’t think he wanted me for me, do you? He didn’t even know me.” Jamie tossed his handful of hay toward the window. “He wanted my ma, really. He never wanted her to marry my pa, and he always wanted her back after she was gone. I was just the closest he could get.” He leveled a challenging glare across the loft. “And don’t tell me it ain’t true.”
It … was hard to argue with the kid, not when the three older Cartwrights had all privately reached the same conclusion.
Some of the fight went out of Jamie, and his shoulders slumped. “Sometimes, though, I think my pa wanted the same thing. He was always tellin’ people how much I looked like my ma, and how much I sounded like my ma. When people asked him if it was hard takin’ care of a kid on the road, he always said he couldn’t give me up ‘cause I was all he had left of her.”
The silence was awkward this time. Finally, Hoss sighed. “Jamie, that don’t necessarily … I mean, it’s hard for a man when his wife dies. You know that. Pa done it three times, and it was like a little piece of him died for a while with each one of ‘em. Every man handles that kinda loss different, and comes through it different.”
“Oh, sure. I know.” Jamie rested his chin on his knees, scratching at the loft floor. “And my pa loved me, I know he did. Just sometimes …” He shook himself. “Like I said, it don’t matter.”
“Sure it does.” Hoss tousled the red hair again, and Jamie offered a pale grin. “Ain’t like there’s much we can do about it, kiddo, but it matters.”
The boy returned his chin to his knees and his gaze to his feet. In the heavy evening dusk Jamie’s silhouette blended into the wall, making him hard to pick out. For a long moment all the brothers could hear were the sounds of the ranch settling down—the horses in the barn below, cattle in the distance, the muted buzz of bunkhouse conversation. Joe was thinking it was probably time for them to head inside—keep Hop Sing happy—when Jamie added quietly, “Another lady said she wanted to keep me too once, but that … didn’t work out.”
In all the time he had known the kid, it was the first Joe had heard of it. A covert glance confirmed Hoss’s similar confusion, a barely visible shrug. Not sure what to say, and not wanting to shut the kid down, Joe finally ventured, “Yeah?”
He thought for a second Jamie had changed his mind, but then, “Yeah. I was nine, we were over in California for a while. I’d been wantin’ to … well, I’d kinda noticed that other kids didn’t move around all the time—they stayed in one place, went to school. I asked my pa if we could stay somewhere for a while, but he … well, ‘course we couldn’t. That ain’t how rainmakin’ works, I know that now.” The boy rustled, shuffling his feet and wiping his eyes, and a soft sniff drifted out of the dark.
It wasn’t, Joe supposed, so strange that the boy had waited until nobody could see him cry. Apparently, this was a bigger deal than Ferris Callahan.
“Anyways, we were headed out of one little town pretty fast one night—I don’t think they was chasin’ us yet, but Pa thought they might—and Pa thought we could go up a steeper hill than we could. The whole wagon went over backward, and me with it.” Jamie laughed shortly. “I was lucky it didn’t roll right over the top of me.” He wasn’t kidding. That kind of accident was dangerous, and a shiver shook Joe just thinking about it. “I landed on a rock, though, and one of our trunks came down right on top of me. I was pretty lucky, the way it hit it just went on goin’ and didn’t crush nothin’, but I broke a coupla ribs and cracked my shoulder blade.”
“Your shoulder blade?” Hoss’s tone rang with wry shock and sympathy. Even out here, where ranching and mining accidents abounded, it wasn’t a common injury.
“Yeah.” Their young brother’s glum tone matched. “Them ribs wouldn’ta been no problem on their own, but that shoulder blade … I couldn’t move my arm. Couldn’t carry anything, couldn’t get in the wagon by myself. Couldn’t even ride in the wagon without cryin’ or yellin’ or passin’ right out.” Jamie sighed. “Course, that meant I couldn’t really travel nowhere, and Pa had to keep goin’. We was always short on money, people don’t always …” Another sniff, and he moved quickly on. Joe let him—there was no need to express his opinion of a man who would leave his injured nine year old son with a stranger to continue drifting. It wouldn’t help anything. “He took me to the doctor in the next town, and paid the widow who run the boarding house to look after me. Mrs. Peterson.” The boy took another shaky breath. “Mrs. Peterson.”
Another moment of silence, and Joe prodded gently. “Mrs. Peterson?”
A long sigh. “She was real good to me, she treated me like … like I was her own son.” There was something odd in Jamie’s voice, but it was hard to place without being able to see his face. “Her husband and son had been killed in a loggin’ accident a couple years back. She was still missin’ them pretty bad, and she’d tell me about them. I liked listenin’ to her talk—she’d settle me in her chair or on the couch and just talk while she cleaned or cooked or sewed. It was … nice. It was what I thought … havin’ a real home might be like, ya know?”
It felt wrong suddenly, being across the loft for … well, whatever they were hearing. Joe closed the distance in a swift, smooth slide, landing on the wall beside his young brother. He didn’t touch him—he was afraid of breaking whatever spell had Jamie sharing rather than avoiding his past life—but slid one boot to rest against the scrawny hip. Contact, but no crowding.
He’d seen Hoss manage Adam that way any number of times (not him—it was usually better if he just left that task to the big guy), and it seemed like the right play here too.
Sure enough, Jamie hesitated but then kept on. “When I got to feelin’ better I started helpin’ her around the place, and she started talkin’ about … well, she wanted me to stay.”
“Live with her?”
“Yeah. She … she said I could have the big room at the end of the hall, and go to school, and have friends over whenever I wanted …” Joe felt more than saw the shrug. “It was … I wanted to stay with her, I wanted to have all them things, but I didn’t …”
“Didn’t want ta leave your Pa?” Hoss offered.
“Well, yeah. I mean, things weren’t always great, but … he was my pa. I … you know. I wanted to be with him.”
The boy rocked gently—probably Hoss had bumped him from the other side. “Course you did.”
“But I wanted to go to school too.”
Joe snickered. “Got over that, didn’t you?”
A pause, and then a watery giggle. “Yeah, I guess.”
“So, you went with your pa.”
Silence fell, and Joe realized that the kid had finally run dry. “Jamie?” Nothing. He nudged with his boot tip. “Come on, kiddo. Don’t stop now.”
There was a reason Jamie had started this, and he was pretty sure they weren’t there yet.
“You know …” The young voice was soft. “They fought about it. Right there in Mrs. Peterson’s living room, between the front door and her flowery couch. She had the ugliest couch I ever seen … Anyways, Pa kept goin’ on about me bein’ his son, and Mrs. Peterson … well, she kept sayin’ that Pa couldn’t take me away again.”
Joe sat back. “Again?”
The kid’s laugh held no humor this time. “Yep. And when Pa told me to go get in the wagon, she hugged me and called me Jeremy and begged me not to go.”
Jeremy. “Her son?”
“Uh huh.” Jamie leaned his head against the wall, staring up into the blackness overhead. “And I stood there in the middle and listened to ‘em—Pa sayin’ I was his son and all he had left of Ma, and Mrs. Peterson callin’ me Jeremy and askin’ me not to leave again—and I just knew that neither one of ‘em remembered I was actually there at all.”
Well. This went a ways toward explaining a few things, he supposed. Joe finally slung an arm around the scrawny shoulders, careful not to dislodge the large hand petting Jamie’s hair. He was relieved when the gesture wasn’t immediately rejected—fifteen was an awkward age, and they could never be sure when a hug would be considered beneath the kid’s teenage dignity.
It was hard to know what to say. The widow had obviously been injured by the loss of her family, grieving and alone. And Hunter … though Joe had never met the man and wasn’t always terribly impressed with his parenting skills, Jamie had a love for his pa that just didn’t speak of a man who was more focused on his dead wife than his living son. As Hoss had said, every man handled that kind of loss differently. Whether Hunter was still working out his grief or whether it had been a poor way of expressing his love for his son, there was no way to know. Whatever the truth, though, a nine year old child hadn’t been prepared to sift through the complexities and come up with the reality behind his father’s words. Even if Hunter had meant nothing like what Jamie had taken away from the incident, the uncertainty had still be planted.
“Well, we know you’re here.” Hoss’s voice rumbled through the darkness, and he thumped the boy (gently) on the back of the head. “And we know the difference between you and ol’ Adam.” He chuckled. “Can’t help but. And we love him—”
“When we don’t want to kill him,” Joe interjected, drawing a wry frown from Hoss.
“And we love you—”
“When we don’t want the same.” It was a risk, but it paid off—the kid actually laughed, digging with one elbow in the direction of Joe’s ribs.
“And life wouldn’t be the same without both of you. That’s a fact.”
Joe clapped Jamie’s shoulder then, and released him. “So. Got it?”
Jamie nodded, dragging a sleeve across his eyes. “Yeah. I got it.”
“You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah. Course I am.” Their brother squinted out into the dark yard, and dragged another sigh from the bottom of his toes. “But … can you guys give me a second? I’ll be right down, I promise, I just … need a minute.”
Sometimes it took a while to put yourself together after somethin’ like this—Joe knew that himself from long experience. He grinned, and rolled to his feet. “Sure. But I can’t promise how long we can keep Hop Sing and his cookies at bay.”
“If he brings cookies, send him on up,” Jamie laughed, offering an extra heave from behind as Hoss hauled himself up. The big man shook a finger at the scrawny figure.
“You show some respect, young man.”
“I always respect you, Hoss.”
Hoss snorted, and Joe cackled, and Jamie sprawled out as the two men ambled across the loft and down the ladder.
They were alone in the yard, most of the hands having retired to the bunkhouse for the evening, and they crossed in companionable silence. As they stepped up onto the porch, Hoss put a light hand on Joe’s arm.
“You do ‘big brother’ real good, little brother.”
Joe thumped the solid bulk beside him. “Well, I learned from the best.” His grin flashed. “Way more useful than that whistle, anyway.” His laughter followed him into the brightly lit house, cut off by the closing door. Hoss paused on the porch, shook his head, and grinned.
“The best, huh? Well, I did too.” He glanced up at the stars, wondering if Adam could see the same ones where he was. “Hurry on home, brother. It ain’t right without ya.” Then Hoss pushed open the great wooden door and went looking for supper.
^ Cantonese has two forms of ‘thank you’. I wasn’t quite sure which was appropriate here, but I chose to use the response for a gift rather than a service.