Summary: A short WHN for ‘He Was Only Seven’ — a moment on the way back home.
Word Count: 1863
Pa was going to skin him alive, and he would deserve every minute of it.
Joe blew on the fire, long and full, and when the flames caught he sat back, feeding twigs in until a good blaze licked at the wood. He set up the coffee, put on a pot of beans—he really hated his own beans, but tonight wasn’t the night to complain—and sat back on his heels, glancing toward the tree where Jamie was bedding down the horses.
The kid was taking an awful long time about it.
The sorrel and the bay weren’t even their own, so there was no chance Jamie was lingering for an in-depth conversation with Cinnamon. They had all set out together after the bank robbers who had shot young Jonah Morgan, the elder Morgan’s wagon their only transport. Joe hadn’t registered any problems with that at the time, but now he wondered why he hadn’t thought to have at least one of them ride alongside. He hadn’t expected that he and Jamie would be coming back without their elderly companion, of course … but then again, Joe knew better than to assume anything would go as expected. Things just didn’t generally work out that way for him.
They hadn’t this time, either. The three had caught up to the gang (or what was left of it) bit by bit, strung across graves and saloons and old abandoned sheds, and there at the end he’d had to pry Joshua Morgan’s hands off the ringleader’s throat. Joe understood the old man’s anger—at least, and here Joe’s lips twisted, he understood that Morgan was hard and driven in his grief. He couldn’t, as the man himself had made perfectly clear, understand the feelings of a man who had lost his only family, a grandson of only seven years. Even so, he couldn’t give Morgan free rein. Not if they wanted real justice for Jonah … and not with Jamie in the room.
A shadow detached itself from the horses, and Jamie joined him at the fire. The boy hunkered down on the opposite side of the flames, digging his hands into his pockets. The air was nippy, yes, but not that cold. Joe wondered how much of the kid’s chill was due to what he had seen over the past days.
Things he never should have seen at all.
He never should have let his little brother come. What had he been thinking?
He hadn’t been, apparently.
“You hungry?” Jamie shrugged, staring into the orange depths, and Joe reflected that he was starting to get an idea why his pa hated that gesture so much. “Won’t be too long.”
Jamie nodded, eyes never leaving the fire. Joe sighed, and stirred roughly at the gloopy mass of beans in the bottom of the battered old pot.
The sheriff in the little town where they’d finally caught up with Jonah’s murderer was a drunk, and possibly in league with the outlaw himself—it was impossible to know which man’s account to believe, if either was to be trusted. Joe had marched the man to the telegraph himself, sending off a wire to Clem in Virginia City to come and collect the prisoner. That still left the time until Clem arrived, and Joshua Morgan had settled himself into the corner of the sheriff’s office, clearly intent on seeing that the prisoner remained behind bars until Virginia City’s more competent (not to mention trustworthy) lawman arrived. Joe disliked leaving Morgan with full responsibility there, but his own responsibility had been growing heavier by the minute, and he finally decided that he couldn’t in good conscience do anything other than get Jamie back home.
Joshua Morgan seemed unconcerned.
“I been talkin’ to a few others, and there’s them that’ll take shift with me. Hold the fort. There’s them who know that he,” Morgan nodded toward the sheriff, slumped behind his desk, “ain’t ta be trusted here.” The flat, dark eyes turned toward the blond man lounging in the cell. “I don’t plan to be anywhere but here until Clem comes to take him, Joe. I’m seein’ him all the way home, and then I’ll see him hang.”
The man’s intensity was disturbing, but he had reason. Joe’s memory supplied that moment against his will, Jamie kneeling on the bank floor holding the limp little boy. Rocking him. Tears rolling silently down his cheeks. Oh yes, Morgan had reason.
And what reason did Joe have for letting Jamie come along on a manhunt that was little more than a grandfather’s quest for vengeance? The insistence of a fifteen-year-old.
“I brought Jonah home. I’m just as much a part of this as you.
“I’ll just catch up to you on the trail.”
Joe had backed off then, too distracted with the need to keep Joshua Morgan in line to consider what he was agreeing to. He’d had plenty of time since then to regret it, with every new discovery and confrontation, and even though at the end he had tried to get the kid out of the line of fire …
Well, that had turned out to be too little too late.
“Beans are ready.”
Jamie jumped at the words, coming back from wherever his mind had drifted. He took the plate silently from Joe, along with a mug of coffee, and spent the next fifteen minutes stirring aimlessly at the contents. Not much of it, Joe noticed, made its way into the kid’s mouth.
“They’re not that bad, are they?”
“What?” Jamie blinked, then shook his head. “Oh … naw. I just ain’t too hungry, I guess.”
Joe drew in a long breath. “Jamie …”
“I think I’m gonna turn in.” Jamie set the plate aside and rose, long body taking Joe by surprise yet again. The boy’s sudden growth spurt had caught them all off-guard, and none of the older Cartwrights had grown quite used to seeing this new version of their youngest member. He was growing up … and yet, he wasn’t grown. Not yet.
Jamie had seen a lot in his years, but that was no reason to add more.
As the kid moved away Joe caught a flash of movement—hands rubbing restlessly against the brown coat—and a sudden realization struck him. He stood abruptly, his own plate tumbling unnoticed to the ground. “Jamie, come back here.”
“Joe?” The kid’s voice was genuinely puzzled. As he stepped back into the firelight Joe swept the fabric with careful eyes and found the dark stains he feared.
The kid had been running all over the countryside for the past two days covered in a dead child’s blood.
“Get outa that coat.”
“Your coat.” Even as he spoke, Joe was stripping his own. Jamie looked down at himself then, and didn’t even try to play dumb. Instead, he just shrugged slightly.
“It don’t … I mean, it’s cold, Joe. It don’t … matter.”
“It does matter. Come on, now. Off with it.”
Joe tugged at Jamie’s sleeve. The kid’s movements were almost reluctant as he finally stripped out of his jacket, but Joe didn’t miss the soft sigh of relief as Jamie handed his coat over. Probably the kid wasn’t even aware, himself—Jamie’s thoughts would be focused on Jonah Morgan, and Joshua Morgan, and the single-minded vengeance and violence of the past days. The kid had done well, warning them there at the end and even providing Joe with the opening needed to overcome the outlaws and finally bring them to justice, but he had been unusually quiet ever since.
He’d been unusually quiet even before that.
“How you feelin’?”
“All right’s an easy answer. Never shoulda let you come with us.”
It was too late for that now.
Jamie balked when Joe handed over his own coat, but then pulled it on without argument. Joe watched as the kid settled his shoulders and flipped up the collar, and it was like a punch in the gut. He hadn’t even noticed when Jamie had started wearing his collar like that. When he finally did and asked their father about it, Pa had just laughed. “Joe, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”*
Right now, it just made him want to scream.
He had promised Pa he’d look after Jamie, and then he had dragged the boy into … this.
“Joe?” Jamie’s voice was soft, uncertain.
“Do you think … well, if I’da gone into the bank first, or if I’da—”
“No,” Joe cut him off, vaguely horrified that his little brother even had to ask the question. “No, Jamie, there was nothin’ you coulda done. It’s not your fault, what happened.” He reached out to grip the kid’s elbows. “It was just bad timing. Coulda happened to anybody.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Jamie sighed, and looked away into the darkness. “Wish it hadn’t happened to Jonah.”
“Me too.” They stood for a long minute, and the silence was heavy around them. Finally, Joe rubbed Jamie’s arms briskly. “I am sorry, though.”
“For getting you into this. Letting you come.”
“I told you, I’da followed.”
“And I could have dealt with that when it happened.” Joe gave the boy a little shake. “But I’m your brother. It’s my job to look out for you, and I shouldn’t have brought you.”
A faint smile twisted Jamie’s lips, and he looked down almost shyly. “You look out for me real good.”
Joe snorted. “I don’t think Pa’s gonna agree with you.” Jamie shrugged again—who had ever decided that was an acceptable form of communication, anyhow?—and sighed. Joe took a long breath, then thumped the boy’s elbow gently and released him. “Go on. Get some sleep.”
Jamie turned a concerned glance on him. “Ain’t you gonna be cold?”
“No, I’ll sleep closer to the fire. Go on, now.”
The kid hesitated for another moment, then nodded and wandered over to his bedroll. Joe hunched back down beside the fire, scraping the uneaten beans from the dirt and the plates and tossing them into the coals. He listened as Jamie settled in, heard the rustling that told louder than words the boy might be lying down but he wouldn’t sleep any time soon.
“I kinda felt sorry for that fella in the saloon. What was his name?”
“I don’t know why. I just felt sorry for him.”
Jamie had made the admission as if he was vaguely ashamed, as if he didn’t understand the feelings and didn’t approve of them. In a way Joe understood. The man was part of a gang—voluntarily—that had robbed a bank and murdered a child. But he was also drunk and pathetic and grieving his own loss, and Joe was suddenly glad—fiercely so—that Jamie could still feel that kind of pity. That he wasn’t old enough, wasn’t jaded enough, hadn’t seen enough yet to burn it out of him.
Across the way, Jamie rolled restlessly onto his other side.
No, Joe never shoulda let him come. The kid was only fifteen.
*Charles Colton (1780-1832)
Dialogue in italics is taken from the episode.