Summary: Joe has a conversation with Hoss about the reasons why Adam left the Ponderosa and then wonders if he will return. Meanwhile, Adam is thinking about that one thing he yearns to do and hasn’t done.
Word Count: 4560
The moonlight made the ripples on the lake glitter like jewels. A weary Joe Cartwright leaned against a tree and spoke to his brother Hoss with complete honesty. Often he kept things bottled up inside, but with Hoss, he could let it all out.
“People ask sometimes if I’m upset with him because he’s gone and hasn’t ever been back. How could I be upset with him? It’s my fault he’s gone. I know he told everyone he wanted to travel and had been thinking of leaving for years, but we both know why he left.”
With clarity, Joe could still recall almost everything that had happened in those six months before he last saw his brother Adam climb aboard that stagecoach and wave goodbye one final time. It had started so innocently and simply with a conversation on a cattle drive. His memories of it all were still vivid and rolled through his mind as if it was all happening again. The first memory was from a night on a cattle drive.
They were in a deep mountain valley where the sun disappeared early and arrived late. The darkness was complete and Joe had found it a bit unnerving even though he didn’t have a fear of the dark. As they sat down to have a late dinner and discuss work assignments, Hoss mentioned his thoughts of the ebony night to his brothers.
“Yessiree, never seen it so dark as it gets in this valley. Always seems kinda spooky, don’t it. I remember the first time we set up camp where the house is now. With those big trees, I thought it was darker than I ever seen it before although I wasn’t very old so I hadn’t seen much yet. I was a bit scared and I run right to Adam.”
Giggling, Joe looked over at his very large brother and had a difficult time imagining him running to his older brother for comfort for anything.
“Aww, Joe, ya know I was only a little scamp then. I couldna been no more than four years old. It’s one of the first things I remember probably ’cause it was such a big change in my life. We’d been in California, ya know, while Pa made enough money ta get his stake.”
“So what could Adam do about your fear of the dark?”
“Turns out, nuttin really. He was afraid of the dark too.”
“What?” Joe had been shocked. It had always been his impression that Adam wasn’t afraid of anything. At least, he always appeared to act that way. That night, he got an amazing education about the inner workings of his brother’s mind. “You never looked like you were afraid of the dark to me.”
“I never seemed afraid of the dark to anyone. I acted like I wasn’t afraid of it, and it made it less of a problem. I looked right into it and dared anything there to come out and cause me harm.”
“Yup, that’s about what he said back then too. It was the darndest thing. He told me to take a look right into that darkness and tell it to throw its worst at me. Now, I thought he was crazy. But of course, this was my brother Adam, who I trusted for almost everything, so I did it.”
“Nothing of course. Geez, Joe, what didja think was gonna happen? Well, when nothing happened, Adam said ta me that proved there was nothing there that night to worry about.”
“So that was it? You weren’t scared any more?”
“No, I was still scared some, but it didn’t seem so bad no more.”
Looking over at Adam, Joe wondered for a bit before asking. “Is that true for you too? It didn’t seem so bad any more?”
Shrugging as if it wasn’t worth a whole lot of conversation, Adam said a little but said a lot as he rolled out his bedroll. “Still doesn’t.” He said no more and lay down to sleep with his back to them letting them know he was done talking.
For weeks, Joe felt a bit superior to Adam in that he felt he had conquered his fear of heights while Adam was still in thrall to his fear of the dark. It had been a tremendously difficult experience for Joe to defeat that terror of heights, and his family had suffered through his moodiness as he struggled to face that almost debilitating fright he had when he had to consider climbing a hundred feet almost straight up to retrieve a rifle he had abandoned. However he had done it. He had gone back to where his rifle was, climbed to that height, and grabbed it. Granted, his father had showed up to help, but he had beaten that panic that seized him and done what he had set out to do. At least, he thought he had. He never realized how much something like that took up residence inside you and never let you go.
It had been only a few weeks after their talk about fear of the dark that Joe found out that he hadn’t beaten that particular aversion but had only won one battle. That happened when they were looking for strays from the herd after a particularly bad thunderstorm had scattered some of them during the night. Although they had managed to hold most of the herd, they knew they were probably fifty head short. As half the men held the herd and let them graze, he and the others looked for the strays. It all went well until one of the men saw some of their cattle and rode up a game trail toward them only to have the whole side of the hill give way. He ended up clinging to the exposed roots of a tree with nothing but air and sharp rocks far below.
“Help me, Joe.”
Hearing those words didn’t make Joe move at first. All he could see was the sheer drop to the rocks below. The man’s horse had already fallen. It was only when Adam and a few other men arrived and dismounted pulling their ropes and preparing to rescue the man that Joe was able to dismount and get over to the side. The men looked at him wondering what was wrong. Adam asked who was willing to climb down to help the man hanging to safety because he wouldn’t be able to hang onto those roots for much longer. Joe questioned his plan.
“Why can’t we throw a rope to him?”
“Joe, the tree is in the way. Someone has to climb around it so a rope can get to him. We can see him from the side here, but from above, the tree blocks the view.” Turning back to the men, Adam repeated the question and said that whoever it was would have a safety rope securely tied around him. Joe volunteered.
“Of course I’m sure.”
Joe’s voice had a slightly higher pitch. They knew he wasn’t so sure, but he was determined. Moving quickly into position, the men tied a rope securely around Joe’s waist and gave him another rope to take to the other man. The plan worked, but when Joe was pulled in, the first thing he did was vomit up his breakfast. No one commented. Under the circumstances, any one of them might have done the same. Putting a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder, Adam held a canteen for him until he took it.
Looking up, Joe had expected some form of disapproval in his brother’s eyes but had seen only sympathy and warmth. Surprised, he rinsed his mouth and reached out to hand the canteen back.
“Keep it. You may be thirsty soon.”
Nothing more had ever been said about that incident, but Joe had thought about it quite often. Adam had known how afraid he had been and could have teased him about it or said something to Hoss or later to their father. As far as he knew, Adam had never said a word about his fear to anyone only telling people how he had gone down that cliff to deliver the rope to save a man’s life. He let people believe that Joe was a brave hero never giving them a hint of the panic that had gripped him and made his insides feel like jelly. He guessed it was because his older brother knew what terror was and what it was like to act despite being afraid. It was an important lesson to learn. It was something he had been told by Adam but never understood until that moment. He remembered the words then that had taken on an importance he had never assigned to them when he had first heard them.
“Everyone is afraid. It’s overcoming that fear and acting anyway that makes one a brave man. Not having fear in the face of danger is simple foolishness or stupidity.”
It was so ironic that he started seeing the wisdom of Adam’s words so close to the time when Adam left and there were no more words of advice or wisdom to be shared. That next step in the process started too in what seemed to be a fairly innocent way. It was a simple card game on a Saturday night with a couple of men he knew and a couple he did not. Adam had always told him it wasn’t a good idea for him to play poker with strangers. Again, he ignored the advice that was given in good faith and with the intent to help because he assumed he could handle things just fine without his older brother’s guidance. Joe found out that he was wrong.
“I don’t cheat. I don’t need to cheat. You and your friend don’t play that well.” Joe smirked as he pulled in a large pot, but the smirk died as a gun was pulled and the barrel placed squarely against his forehead.
Standing up, he backed away as the man holstered his pistol and pulled all the money toward him. “I’ll take this. Cheaters don’t get to keep the money.”
Adopting a fighting stance, Joe prepared to challenge the man. Suddenly Adam was at his side.
“I don’t need any help.”
“There are two of them at the table.”
“I still don’t need any help.”
“And one more is off to the side with a shotgun.”
A quick glance confirmed that Adam was correct. At that point, Joe wished he had gone for Sheriff Roy Coffee instead of confronting the man. The three opponents didn’t want to wait for him to figure that out. They drew forcing him and Adam to return fire. It was all over in a few seconds of wild shooting with both of them diving to the side to avoid the shotgun blasts. When it was done and there were bodies on the floor and smoke in the air, Joe stood and looked at Adam who appeared uninjured at first until Joe saw he had dropped his pistol and was holding his right arm to his side. Sitting on the floor with his head down, he made no effort to get up. Joe knelt beside him and saw blood on the wooden floorboard below Adam’s elbow.
“Where are you hit?”
Adam hissed only that he was hit in the arm, and Sam, the bartender, was there with a large towel. He looked up at Joe.
“He took one by his elbow. It doesn’t look too bad.”
However as they helped Adam to his feet to take him to the doctor, he gasped in pain and nearly passed out. Unable to talk to them because of the stabs of burning fire radiating into his chest, he could only cradle his right arm.
“Joe, maybe the arm is broken. He seems to be in an awful lot of pain.”
“I’ll get him to the doctor.”
Taking Adam’s left arm, Joe draped it over his shoulders. Even then, it was a difficult task to get his older brother to the doctor’s office as Adam seemed less and less steady on his feet. Luckily Hoss had been alerted and showed up to help him. He took Joe’s spot and also grabbed Adam’s belt nearly lifting him as they walked and Adam’s head lolled.
“Joe, is he hit anywhere else? He sure acts like he is.”
“Not that I know.”
Once they arrived at the doctor’s office and got inside, the lamplight made it clear that Adam was bleeding far more than he should have been from a minor wound to his elbow. Doctor Paul Martin directed Hoss to help Adam onto the exam table. Once they removed his shirt, it didn’t take long to find the source of the bleeding and why Adam seemed to be in so much pain. The bullet that had hit his elbow had gone into his armpit. That’s why they had not seen another wound.
“Well, that won’t be so bad then, will it, Doc?”
“Joe, I’ll know more when I take a closer look, but a lot of nerves and muscles connect there. It could be very bad.”
The brothers sent a messenger to the Ponderosa to summon their father, and he arrived before Paul came out of surgery. It had been hours, and the look on his face told them the news was grim before he said a word.
“He lost a lot of blood, but he’s in no danger.” Paul paused knowing how the rest of the news would affect them. “However, the damage is severe in his shoulder. I doubt very much that he will have any normal use of his right arm in the future.”
“Paul, surely there must be something you can do for my son?”
Sadly, Paul had to tell them that there was nothing he could do nor did he think anyone could do anything. A bullet penetrating the soft tissue of the armpit even after ricocheting off the elbow first did too much damage to be repaired. The destruction of nerves and muscles was too severe to heal completely and there would be extensive scar tissue that would create additional problems. He couldn’t tell them how much use Adam would have of that arm. He did know the iron will the oldest Cartwright son had, but not even that could make nearly destroyed or devastated nerve and muscle tissue function normally again.
Over the next few months, Joe carried a lot of guilt over what had happened to Adam. Every time he saw Adam try to use his right arm even after weeks and weeks of exercises to try to strengthen it, he knew his brother would fail. At first, Adam couldn’t even lift a pail of water or pick up a book. Sitting at the dining table watching him struggle with the simplest tasks had caused Joe to lose his appetite more than once. Adam wasn’t the only one losing weight. There were some things Adam could still do though. He could write if he used his left arm to move his right hand into position. If he used his left arm to carefully position his right hand and propped up his right arm, he could play his guitar softly. However, he didn’t wear his pistol because he couldn’t draw it from the holster. Out behind the stable, Hoss helped him try to shoot and he couldn’t do that either. Joe couldn’t bear to watch as Adam tried to lift the pistol and pull the trigger with sweat building on his face only to fail again and again. He could shoot left-handed, but he wasn’t fond of that solution.
“It’s no good when I can’t hit what I’m aiming at. The first time I ever used it to shoot at something, the word would be out there that I couldn’t hit the side of this stable if I drew down on it.”
“Aw, Adam, ifn ya practiced, you could get better with your left hand.”
“And how do I get people to practice a new idea about me? How do I get them to know I can’t back up what I say any more? You know how it is out here.”
Hoss knew as well as did Joe and their father. Adam had been perhaps the most intimidating of the four of them able to strike with his words as well as his pistol, rifle, or his fists. Now, all he had left were his words. In those words was some bitterness, but although Joe felt he deserved some retribution, none of those bitter words were ever directed at him. Suspecting that Adam was protecting him as he often had done in the past, Joe wondered if he was holding back on what he actually thought about what had happened.
On a fall day, Joe was surprised when Adam asked if he would help saddle Sport for him. Again, with one arm working, well, that was a more difficult task than it had ever been even if he was getting better at that one. Joe could hardly refuse. When Adam asked if Joe would ride with him, it was another request he couldn’t deny. It was as if Adam knew that too by the small smirk he had when he asked and Joe agreed so easily. Joe wondered what else he was going to ask after his first requests were met with such acquiescence. Finally he had to ask. They had gotten to the lake and decided to give the horses a rest. Sport had been skittish on the ride still not completely comfortable with how Adam handled him using only his left hand. It tired both Sport and Adam to ride that way so they could use the break. Standing high on the hill overlooking the north end of Lake Tahoe, Adam gazed from one end of the horizon to the other.
“Trying to decide what you want me to do next?”
“Huh? No, I’m trying to drink it all in and paint a picture in my mind so I won’t forget.”
“Forget? Why worry about that? You only have to ride out here and take another look.” In a flash of intuition, Joe knew. “You’re leaving.”
“It’s my fault.”
“No, it isn’t. That’s why I asked you to ride with me today. I had the feeling you would try to take the responsibility for my decision. Joe, I had been thinking of leaving for a long time. You must have known that. I want to see a lot of things and do things I can’t do here. Yes, this arm of mine does make it easier to go, but it’s not why I’m going. Besides, you’re not responsible for that either. Those men who wanted to get easy money are the ones responsible, and they paid a heavy price for it.”
“But I am responsible too. If it wasn’t for me, your arm would be fine and you would be staying. Pa and Hoss wouldn’t be losing you.”
“I don’t want you to go either. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I understand you better, and I want to get to know you more and be able to learn more from you.”
“Thank you, Joe. Right there, you gave me one of the greatest gifts you can imagine.”
“Adam, if you go, I’ll always feel guilty about what happened.”
“Please don’t feel that way. Try to think of it as giving me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do but didn’t have the courage to try. Now, I’m better suited to leaving than I am to staying.”
“We can find a way for you to still do things here.”
“Joe, I don’t want that.”
“So you would rather leave us?”
“I would rather seek out new opportunities and adventures than try to adjust to being half of something here.”
Before he could stop himself, Joe blurted out something with an unintended double meaning. “But you’re Pa’s right hand man!”
With a slight smile, Adam reached into his coat and pulled out a small flask of liquor. He unscrewed the cap and handed the metal flask to Joe. “Hoss thought we might need this in order to talk. We don’t, but it is a bit chilly, so why not.”
“You’ve talked to Hoss about this? I suppose you talked to Pa too.” A quirked up eyebrow and a slight smile were the only answers he got. “Aw, hell, give me that.” Taking the flask, he took a good swig and then coughed. “You could have filled it with some of Pa’s good stuff.”
“I did mention that Hoss gave it to me, didn’t I?”
Both laughed then. It was the last time they talked and laughed together like that. A few days later, Adam boarded the stage and was gone. The Ponderosa and the Cartwrights were never quite the same after that. Life was good, they were blessed, but something important was gone. They tried to act as if it didn’t matter, but it did. Letters were written, and visits were promised, but always there were complications. Then Adam moved to Australia, and all dreams of a visit diminished to a wispy hope. News of any kind took a month or two to deliver and another month or two to acknowledge delivery.
Now Joe stood at the lake and wondered if Adam could still remember the pictures in his mind and if he cared. After so many years and with his own family, did he have love in his heart any more for his family in Nevada? Did he miss the home he had for so many years?
“Hoss, do you suppose if I asked him to come back, he would? You knew him best. I wish you could give me an answer to that question.” Joe closed his eyes and turned his face up to the sky. “You’re the only one I can talk to about this. I can’t talk to Pa about it. I know how much he hurts inside not seeing Adam in all these years. I can see it in his eyes whenever someone mentions his name. Now that he’s sick, I’m afraid I’m going to lose him too, and I can’t bring up something painful like that especially now that Jamie has gone off to pursue his career in the east. Hoss, I’m afraid of being alone. What’s it going to be like being the only Cartwright on the Ponderosa? I don’t want to find that out.”
Dropping to his knees, Joe leaned his forehead up against the cold stone that marked his brother’s last resting place. “Please, Hoss, if you and Mama can do anything up there, have them send a guardian angel to help Pa, and another one to guide Adam back home.”
The jeweled waters of Sydney harbor reflected the winter moonlight and shadows flickered across the bedroom and the empty spot next to Claire Cartwright. She looked across the room wondering where he had gotten to this time and saw him standing at the window again staring at the ships in the harbor. It seemed he did so every night now. Slipping from the bed, she pulled on her robe but still shivered a little in the chill. When she reached him, she slid under his left arm by habit so he could pull her close and hold her tightly. After a full day of work, his right arm would be tired and weaker than ever. Pulling her around and dropping his chin to her head as she leaned into his chest, Adam Cartwright breathed deeply savoring her scent and her warmth. Twelve years of marriage had done nothing to dull the sharp ache of desire he felt whenever she was near. But at this moment, there was another ache he felt, and he guessed she knew what it was.
“You feel a call to the sea again, don’t you?”
“Tonight, especially, it felt like Joe had been talking to me. All day at work, I had this chill like there was a cool breeze blowing on me yet the windows were closed and the stove was stoked as usual.”
“The children are old enough. We could go with you.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that. It’s a long trip, and there are risks.”
“You didn’t ask me. I volunteered, and if I tell the children that you want to go to America, they will want to volunteer too. You know how much our son wants to see the Ponderosa. Our daughter is much like her father and is curious about everything.”
“My father will be so pleased that I have a child who does to me what I did to him.”
“Asking questions incessantly?”
She felt the rumble in his chest in answer to that. For a time, they stood silently there as she let him have the time he needed. There was no rush. She knew how he would answer even before he did.
“We would likely have to wait for a few months for the weather to improve.”
“Yes, it would take that long to make all the arrangements too, I suppose. Except.”
“One of our ships sails for San Francisco by the end of the week. We could be on it.”
“It would mean a lot of work for the next week.”
Her silence then was his answer. She wouldn’t make excuses. She never did.
“All right. Let’s talk it over in bed. It’s rather cool standing here by the window.”
They made love then and several more times that week knowing how difficult it might be to be amorous aboard a ship especially with two children with them. As they sailed, their son and daughter had many questions as they expected. Both were silent though and stood almost open-mouthed as the ship sailed into San Francisco Bay and then to the harbor for the city. It had grown over the years and was quite impressive to the two who had never seen something so large. As they disembarked and immediately secured passage upriver, Claire turned to Adam and stood staring back at the harbor.
“We’re never going back to Australia, are we?”
“We haven’t discussed that. We have a home and business interests there yet.”
“Yes, but when we came ashore, it felt like home.” She turned to Adam. “Do you think your brother would mind if we decided to stay on the Ponderosa?”
“I think he would be willing to accept that. Pa’s dream was for the family to continue there. I think Joe would be happy to see us join him in keeping that dream alive.”
“I think our children should get to know their grandfather and uncle too.”
Overcome with emotion, Adam didn’t speak but wrapped an arm around his wife and walked to the depot with his children trailing behind. His last dream was coming true.