Summary: After the accident in which Adam shot Joe, Adam suffers guilt that affects every aspect of his life until Joe comes up with a way to fix that.
Word Count: 1,484
It had been fun for a while. In fact, Joe had felt it was justified at first. After all, Adam had shot him and put him in bed unable to do any of his normal activities. He had suffered through a lot of pain too in addition to that boredom. When Adam volunteered to do his chores for him, he accepted, and his father and middle brother seemed to think it was a good idea too then. Joe’s shoulder needed some rest and his brother, Adam, was in need of some task that made him feel that he was making reparations for his lapse in good judgment. Frankly, Joe thought it was fair even if he was at fault too for the accident. He should never have gone after that wolf in heavy brush like that. He knew he was as responsible as Adam for the accident that had occurred. He knew too that he might likely have died if Adam hadn’t come to his aid. It was a war of conflicting thoughts but the self-righteous side won out.
The reason he drew that conclusion was that even though he made an error, in the process, it was his brother who shot him before killing the wolf. Joe forgave him because he understood it was an accident and he was as much responsible as his brother, but a little part of him thought he had paid a higher price for that accident. Therefore, it seemed fair that Adam do some work for Joe to help even up those scales of justice. Joe knew how Adam liked to keep things fair and felt he was actually doing a good thing. It was only as the weeks turned into a month that he began to realize that perhaps there was a greater penalty in the way Adam was punishing himself. The haunted look, the way he took on every onerous task like a penance, and the lack of active participation in any family discussion or activity began to worry him.
His father and brother, Hoss, had been worried for some time but Joe had thought they were overly concerned about his serious brother. Dismissing any concerns they voiced, he had thought Adam would snap out of it after he got a chance to think about it especially as he saw his younger brother heal up and get back to doing normal things. But as Joe took on his normal duties and showed no lasting ill effects, the same could not be said for his oldest brother. He stayed as dour and depressed as he had been in the immediate aftermath of the whole mess. Ben pulled Joe aside for a private discussion when Adam and Hoss left to cut some timber for fence posts.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you eased up on your oldest brother?”
“Pa, he liked doing all those extra jobs. It made him feel like he’s a better person again. I was helping him out.” Although Joe no longer felt that way, he wasn’t sure how to express his doubts. “He can stop any time he wants to stop. Whenever he thinks he’s done enough, he can let things go back to the way they were.”
“If it was only that simple. Joe, by having him do all these tasks, you’re, in effect, telling him he isn’t a good person. You’re making him work to be accepted as if he isn’t worthy to be part of this family unless he works harder and longer than the rest of us. He won’t stop on his own.”
“That’s not what I wanted. I was only letting him do some things so he could feel like he had made things even between us, you know, evened the score, more or less.”
“But that’s not what is happening. You’re reinforcing the guilt he feels by telling him by your actions that there was a reason for that guilt.”
“I don’t think that’s what happened.”
Unwilling to accept the concepts voiced by his father at first, Joe started to pay more attention to Adam and how he was acting. He did look a little gaunt and like he wasn’t sleeping well with dark circles under his eyes. Joe told Adam he wasn’t responsible for what had happened but got responses that were more neutral than he had expected to get. However, Joe wasn’t sure what he could do about the situation. He knew no one could ever tell Adam what to think. So Joe began to scheme and came up with a plan. He set himself up so Adam could save him guessing that would be the atonement that his brother needed. It didn’t quite work out as he planned though because Adam was more mad than grateful when it happened. The important thing though was that it did work much like one of Joe’s schemes: it turned out well but not at all according to Joe’s plan.
“Thanks for saving my butt. I thought I might have done something that was going to get me killed back there.”
“What kind of fool stunt was that?”
“I thanked you. You could say something to that.”
“How about you acting stupid? Any greenhorn should know you don’t get off your horse in the middle of a bunch of cattle. At least you don’t do it without a couple of other hands there to protect you. Doing it all by yourself was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen you do.”
“Are you saying I’m stupid?”
“No, I said you acted that way.”
“Well, I’m not stupid, and you’re arrogant to even say that. I saw you were close and I knew you could help me if I needed it. That’s not stupid, that’s smart.”
“I’m not arrogant. I’m the brother who had to save you from yourself again. All you had to do was let me know what you were going to do and wait for me to get over by you. You took too big a chance doing it without telling me. That’s not arrogance, by the way, that’s common sense.”
With a sneer to match his sarcasm, Joe answered in the same tone as Adam was using forgetting entirely that he had wanted to help his brother. “Well, that’s what I do. I’m just here to make you feel good about yourself.”
“I don’t need you to make me feel good about myself.”
“I guess not. You seem to feel awfully good about yourself without any help from me. You don’t seem to mind telling me how smart you are either.”
Hearing the exchange, Hoss and Ben looked at each other. Hoss was the first to speak. “Lordy, seems like things are finally back to normal.”
Ben shrugged in agreement. “It was bound to happen. They’ve been holding back for too long. It was building to the bursting point.”
“They need one of them valves like a steam engine’s got that you can pull a cord and let the extra steam out.”
Ben had to laugh then at the image of steam coming out of Adam’s head and then the picture of the same happening with Joe. Hoss asked why he was laughing so he told him and had company in the mirth. Adam and Joe didn’t notice as they continued to trade insults for a while until they ran out of things to say. Adam was the first to break looking at Joe who had pursed his lips and frowned as he tried to think of a good insult for Adam that he hadn’t used yet. Adam waited, and the longer he waited, the more the humor of the situation began to affect him.
“Maybe I should go get my dictionary so we could look up more words to call each other.”
“So is this, little brother. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. It near killed me after I did. I don’t want to do that.”
“Aw, none of this hurt. This was a challenge. You got a few zingers in there, but I got you with a few good ones too. Mine might have even been a little sharper. I think you’re a little behind in your practice, so I did better.”
“Yes, you did. How about we head to town and celebrate with a beer?”
“Or two or three.”
“Sounds good.” Looking over to where their father stood with Hoss, Adam called out to him. “Pa, Joe and I are going to town. We’ll be back late. Don’t hold dinner.”
Hoss wasn’t to be denied though. “Hey, wait for me. I like going to town too.”