Summary: Growing up isn’t easy. Two vignettes, two times in Joe’s life when he is forced to mature—and he’s all on his own. Or is he?
Word Count: 1200
A Man of Sixteen
Joe was sixteen, and he was a grown up man.
Sheriff Roy Coffee had asked him to be deputy for one day, and Joe had exceeded all expectations. He had patrolled the streets with Roy, separated brawling drunks, chased a twelve year old shoplifter and rescued Miss Abigail’s cat from a tree.
He had proven he was a man. Not a boy anymore, no matter what his brothers might think.
No one had expected the bank robbery that day. No one expected bank robberies any day, but they happened from time to time, and one had happened on this very day—the day Joe Cartwright had been deputy.
And even though Joe had already proven he was a man, no one had expected the youngest Cartwright to stay so cool in the thick of action. But Joe had. He had spotted the robber through the front window of the First International Bank, and he had calmly waited for him to emerge from the building, right in the middle of C-street.
Calm and composed as a man.
When the robber had left the bank Joe had called him out, had urged him to give up. Calmly, controlled. Grown up. But the robber had underestimated Joe, and he had drawn his gun.
Joe was sixteen, but he had two bigger brothers, and his big brothers had shown him how to shoot. And how to draw. Fast.
The two shots had sounded like one, and only one shooter had been lying in the dust after the crash had faded away.
Joe was sixteen, and he was a man. A hero actually, that was what the sheriff had said, and Joe had smiled broadly, and then he secretly had sent a note to the undertaker, saying that he would pay for the bank-robber’s funeral.
The “ladies” from the saloon had bought him a beer and a whiskey and another beer, and had invited him “upstairs”, but he had declined the offer. A man knew when it was time to get home, Adam always said, and Joe was a man, and he suddenly had seen the truth in his brother’s words, clearer than ever.
Hop Sing had made a special supper for the hero, and Pa had opened a bottle of wine. The wine had tasted sour and somehow funny, but a man drank wine at supper, and Joe was a man.
Joe was sixteen, and he was a man, but even a man had to go to bed sometimes, especially after a day of heroism. When he had excused himself, Hoss had slapped him on his shoulder, and Pa had said how proud he was of his youngest but now finally grown up son.
Adam had stayed silent, and Joe was grateful for that. And when Adam entered a sleepless Joe’s room at midnight, reached out for him, whispering, “Hey, little buddy,” Joe made a dash at his big brother, buried his face in Adam’s shoulder and wept.
Joe was sixteen, and he was a man. He had never thought growing up could be so painful.
The Day Has Come
So, Joe thought, finally the day has come that my family has decided to drag me back home.
He wasn’t surprised. It had been—how long?—a week or more since he had started to spend first his nights, then even the days as well in the saloon; gambling, drinking, brawling, generally throwing his life away.
Joe emitted a sharp snort. Who cares? Well, apparently his family did.
Another snort. And then a duck of the head. Of course they did. He knew that. They really did. They had given him time, time to come to terms with…. No, he didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t.
Somehow he had already forgotten why he had come to the saloon in the first place. It didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was that while he gambled, drank, brawled and wasted his life, he didn’t have to remember it.
Obviously his family had decided that they had given him enough time. That he had to start remembering again. That was what they always did, making each other remember, talk about it, get it out of the system, talking, talking, talking.
Joe didn’t want to talk. He wanted to gamble, drink, brawl, waste his life. Well, he didn’t really wanted to waste his life, but somehow this seemed to be a package deal.
And now his family had sent someone to make him stop. Just as it had been to be expected. The only surprising thing was that Adam of all people was here to bring Joe back onto track.
Adam. Out of nowhere he suddenly stood next to Joe’s chair, unmoving, silently watching his brother downing another beer.
“Go away,” Joe slurred.
Adam crossed his arms.
“I don’t need you.” Joe knew he sounded like a child, and maybe he was a child right now. Well, what the heck? All right, then he was a child. He could be a child whenever he wanted to be one, right? Right?
Adam tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. High.
“You—” Joe started to yell but then choked and continued softly, “You can’t save me.”
“No,” Adam’s voice was barely audible. “Only you can do that.”
Joe didn’t know when or how exactly he had made his way home. Adam hadn’t said another word, and eventually had turned and slowly walked out of the saloon. He hadn’t even looked back over his shoulder when he had asked, “Are you coming?”
Joe must have stood up and left the saloon; must have mounted his horse and he must have ridden home.
He didn’t bother to tend to Cochise; he was far too tired and unsteady, and when he entered the house he gratefully let himself fall into Hoss’ strong arms.
Pa practically jumped from his chair, and both he and Hoss settled Joe onto the settee.
“Get some coffee, Hoss,” Joe heard his father ordering, and then Pa was at his side, reaching out for him. Joe let his heavy head fall on Pa’s shoulder.
“Pa,” he mumbled into the warmth that had been there all his life. “I don’t want to talk about it. Not now, please.”
“It’s all right, it’s all right.” Pa’s hand went up and down Joe’s back. “I’m just glad you came home.”
“Adam made me, Pa.”
Pa started. He leaned back, considered Joe’s face. “Joe…Adam is in Europe, he’s been there for years.”
“Oh…yeah…he is.” Joe accepted a mug of coffee from Hoss and gave his father and his brother a crocked half smile that reminded even himself of Adam.
You can’t save me, he heard in his head, and then the soft reply, no, only you can do that.
Somehow this seemed even more true now. Maybe, Joe thought, finally the day has come to stop being a child.
And just like that, he stopped.
A/N: With many thanks to Sklamb, for the beta.