Summary: Adam and Joe have a heart-to-heart about Marie.
Word Count: 2633
Little Joe Cartwright lounged on his bedroll. He’d propped his saddle against a rock and used it as a cushion. He sopped up what was left of his stew with his last bite of cornbread and popped it into his mouth. He sighed with satisfaction. Tossing his tin plate to the side, he stretched and placed his hands behind his head as he exhaled a long, indulgent sigh.
“Older brother, you sure know how to make a great rabbit stew,” he complimented.
“Well, thank you.” Adam replied as he sucked on a toothpick. “Cooking isn’t exactly my forté, but I do my best.”
Joseph was 20 years old. He and his brother Adam, 16 years his senior, were traveling back to their ranch from buying breeding cattle in Yuma, Arizona. Usually, it was the middle brother Hoss, who accompanied either brother but just before the trip he separated his shoulder breaking an extremely cantankerous bronc. So, Adam stepped in to make the trek instead.
Hoss and Joe were a better match. They had a great deal in common and were closer in age. The youngest sons of Ben Cartwright shared great camaraderie and a wonderful sense of fun. They often found trouble and were notoriously rambunctious. Their devotion to one another was blatantly obvious.
Joe and Adam, however, rarely traveled together. Yes, they loved each other dearly but they didn’t necessarily like each other. If they hadn’t been half-brothers, they probably wouldn’t have been friends. To Adam, Joe was just an impetuous kid who needed constant discipline. Adam felt he was incurably immature – incorrigible. To Joe, his eldest brother was simply another parent. Adam was overly serious and authoritative and Joe always felt intimidated by Adam’s intellect. The pair were like chalk and cheese.
But, the auction in Yuma could not go unattended so Adam and Joe were it. Of course, they made the best of it and enjoyed each other’s company. They were usually congenial until they inevitably butted heads. Either Joe’s sensitivity or Adam’s stubbornness could ignite the smallest spark leaving the pair upset. The easiness that was always present in Hoss’ company was missing. Both men felt it. They always had. Their personality conflict was so old it now seemed normal. They were comfortable with being uncomfortable with one another.
“Did you have enough to eat, Joe?” Adam asked, as he too, sprawled on his ground sheet fighting fatigue.
“Yes. Thanks,” Joe answered as he glanced across the campfire at his brother.
Adam’s face was illuminated by the flames, making his complexion look like butter. His eyes were lazily half-open.
“Tired?” Little Joe asked, after he’d yawned himself.
“Very.” Adam smirked. “I’ll be glad to spend some time sitting in a chair than in a saddle. My saddle sores have saddle sores.”
Adam’s painful comment made Joe chuckle as only Little Joe could – like a chipmunk. But, he couldn’t agree more with Adam’s assessment. He shifted slightly to place his derriere in just the right position to avoid said tender spots.
The men settled into contented silence. Twilight had melted into night over the dry flatlands of lower Nevada. The soft mauve of dusk was now a deep indigo and the sky looked like blue velvet. Its texture was irresistible. Stars that an hour earlier were as faint as dapples on a pony had blossomed into a bouquet of what looked like a million diamonds.
“Hey, Adam?” Joe murmured over the cry of crickets and the haunting howl of distant coyotes.
“Where’d you learn to cook a stew like that, anyway?” Joe asked from beneath the brim of his tipped hat. He put his hand on his abdomen with gratification
Adam sat with his right knee bent up against his chest. He leaned his forearm casually over it, his empty coffee cup dangling loosely from the end of his forefinger. He pulled the toothpick from his lips and let his head bob forward as if it were too heavy to hold up any longer. He chuckled softly and shook his head.
“What?” Joe inquired quizzically, wondering what Adam found so amusing.
“Your mother taught me how to cook that stew, Joe.”
“Yes. She did.” Adam confirmed warmly.
Joe’s curiosity was piqued and he sat up and turned to face his brother. He crossed his legs and picked up a twig to play with.
“How come you never talk about her?”
“What do you mean? We talk about her all the time.”
“Well, Pa talks about her; you never do. How come?”
“Oh, I don’t know Joe. I guess I’m… well, I guess I find it hard to.”
“Because why?” Joe probed vehemently.
“Joe.” Adam said firmly, trying to halt the conversation before it accelerated into an argument. He rarely let his guard down with regard to his innermost thoughts and he wasn’t about to start.
“Ah, com on Adam. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you tell a story or mention any time with her.” Little Joe paused. “You didn’t like her, did you?”
“Now, what kind of talk is that?” Adam sounded annoyed.
“That’s why, isn’t it Adam? You didn’t like her because she was from the South. You never liked her because of her past.”
“That’s not true!” Adam blasted. “I never felt anything of the kind. Why do you insist on turning everything into a drama, Joe? Not everything is a drama. Some things are private, that’s all. You don’t have to know everything.” Adam expounded with ire.
“Tell me, Adam.” Joe insisted. “You hated her, didn’t you?” His tone was razor sharp.
“Now, that’s enough!”
“Why do you refuse to talk about my mother?” Little Joe pressed, breaking the twig into pieces.
“I have my reasons.”
“Well, what are they? I deserve to know!”
“You don’t DESERVE anything.”
“You did hate her. Why Adam? Why?”
Adam slowly sat up and placed his coffee cup on his plate. He could feel Joe’s glare burning like a branding iron into his skin. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Adam leaned back onto his side and faced his brother.
“Look Joe. And listen to me very carefully,” Adam said evenly, “I loved your mother. I loved her very much and I don’t appreciate being accused of hatred… toward anyone, especially Pa’s wife.”
Little Joe’s posture sagged. He sheepishly continued to play with twigs, kneading them humbly. He stared down at them, ashamed to make eye contact.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Adam.” Joe sniffed.
“Apology accepted. Now let’s get some sleep, shall we?”
Joe seemed satisfied with that for the moment and lay back onto his saddle. It creaked as he adjusted himself into a comfortable position. He stared into the heavens and couldn’t help thinking about this mother. He could barely remember her. If it wasn’t for the picture of her that sat at his bedside, he’d have to struggle to remember what she even looked like. Of the three boys, Adam knew her best. He had the most vivid memories of Marie. Joe thought a moment longer, debating whether he should force the issue with Adam. Since the subject still lingered in the air like smoke, he decided that now might be his one and only chance to pump Adam for information. He decided to take the opportunity and again sat upright.
“Well, can you tell me SOMETHING about her?” He asked shyly. “Like the stew. Can you at least tell me the story of the rabbit stew?”
“Joe. I’m tired.”
“Tomorrow. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“No.” Joe insisted. “Now! I have to know now.”
Adam had turned over away from the campfire and was just about asleep when Joe jolted him awake with his query. He should have known his little brother wouldn’t let it go without an explanation of some kind. He’d have to expose at least one memory to settle him.
Stretching his neck over his shoulder, he looked at a seemingly desperate Joe. Adam groaned his approval and flipped himself back over like a trout on a hook.
“Boy, oh boy. When you want something, you just won’t take no for an answer, will you.”
Joe didn’t agree or disagree. He just threw an innocent glance at Adam as he anticipated what he was about to hear.
“OK… all right… the stew story.” Adam sighed with resignation. “It was before you were born. Pa and Marie, Hoss and I went on a hunting trip to get acquainted. Pa sent Hop Sing a wire to tell us he was bringing Marie back with him from New Orleans. They arrived several weeks later. So, the four of us packed up and off we went to spend some time together. I think I was around 15. Hoss was 7. Pa was so happy – happier than I had seen him in a long, long time.” Adam grinned with sentiment. “It was on that trip that she taught me how to make her grandmother’s rabbit stew. I caught the rabbit. I’ve never forgotten it.”
“I never heard that story before, not even from Pa.”
“It’s hard for him, you know.”
“You still haven’t; told me why though.” Joe stated boldly, not allowing Adam to divert from the subject.
“Why you’ve never talked about her before. This is the first time I’ve ever heard you say anything about my mother.”
“Like I said before, I have my reasons.”
“Please tell me more. Don’t make me beg. I barely knew her, Adam. You knew her best. Won’t you even do that for me? Wont’ you even tell me about my own mother?”
“You’re not going to let me sleep, are you?” Adam muttered.
“Nope.” Joe grimed impishly.
“You’re a pain, you know that? A real pain.”
“Oh, all right then,” Adam grunted. “Better make some more coffee then.”
Joe almost leaped at the bag of beans and filled the pot with water from his canteen. He mixed them together and placed the pot over the flames. Adam watched the exercise as he stifled a yawn. He hoped the coffee might keep him awake long enough to satisfy Joe’s curiosity. But, he knew he might be in for a long night. Joe waited patiently for the coffee to brew and as soon as it did he poured his brother a cup and passed it to him.
“There you go.” He said.
“So, what do you want to know?” Adam asked casually.
“Everything? I can’t tell you everything, Joe.”
Joe thought a moment before he began his interview.
“Why is it so hard to talk about her?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Adam began. “I guess it’s because I’ve always felt guilty.”
“Guilty? About what?”
“Well, quite frankly Joe, I didn’t exactly make it easy for your Ma. When Pa brought her home, I wasn’t very nice to her. I never knew my Ma, you know and then when Pa married Inger I kind of thought of her as my mother. I don’t think I truly understood until much later in my life how much her death affected me. I loved her too. I took it hard… her death.” Adam reflected woefully. “Hoss never knew her. Only me. So, when Marie entered my life, I didn’t really welcome her with open arms.”
“What about Hoss?”
“Hoss? Oh, Hoss loved her right away and she him. But, not me.”
“Go on.” Joe said wide-eyed, intrigued by the tale.
“I remember the first time I saw her. She entered the living room of the house with Pa. I was so happy to see him but he didn’t pay much attention to me. Sure, he grabbed both of us up in his arms, but he was so taken with her, it seemed she was all he cared about. That’s’ not true, of course, but to a child who had lost two mothers already and was so dependent on his father like I was, it was hard.” Adam stuck out his lower lip and nodded as if his explanation was a new revelation.
“Can’t really blame you for that, Adam. But, why did you feel guilty?”
“Oh. I was bad. I was mean to her. I tested her and Pa too. And then you came along.”
“How did you feel about that?”
“Not very good, I’m afraid. Not at the time anyway.”
“Do you really need to ask me that, Joe?”
“No. I guess not.”
“So, it took a long time before I finally realized that I was lucky to have her. She loved me from the start, even though I was a terror. Then, just when we became mother and son… she died. It made me very angry. I was devastated. We all were. Pa was crushed. But, he had three young sons to take care of. So, he had no choice but to go on. He had to be strong for all four of us. Then to top it all off, after her funeral, I ran away. I was gone for days. It just added to Pa’s grief.”
“Why did you run away, Adam?”
“Well, like I said, I felt guilty about the way I treated her in the beginning. And, in hindsight, I think I just couldn’t bear to see Pa go through it again. I don’t know, Joe. I was young and confused. It was a trying time for me. It was for all of us.”
“Oh.” Little Joe said simply.
“So that’s it. That’s why I don’t talk about your mother. I don’t talk about Hoss’ Ma either. It’s been a long time but the scars are still there, you know.” Adam took a sip of coffee and paused. He hoped he had receive some sign of absolution from Joe.
“What about me?”
“What about you?”
“Well, it’s like you said. You never really liked me, did you?”
“Joe. I was 16 years old when you were born. The last thing I wanted was a baby around the house. You made a heck of a lot of noise, you know.” Adam jabbed, with a crooked smile and an affectionate wink.
“Ah, come on, Adam.” Joe smirked.
“I guess maybe I’ve always held you responsible for yet another tragedy in my like. I also had to take care of you when Pa was away on business. You tied me down, and you were a handful, to say the least.”
“No need to be, Joe. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. There were good times too.”
“Yes, really. Now, if there are no more issues you would care to discuss, I’d like to go to sleep.”
“You bet.” Joe replied. “You get some sleep, Adam.”
Joe watched Adam throw the dregs of his coffee into the darkness and turn back over, his back now heated by the fire. Joe heard Adam take a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Joe had never considered his older brother’s youth and how much turmoil he’d endured. Joe remember all the times Adam took him to school, fishing and teaching him how to ride and rope. All the trouble he’d gotten into that Adam had smoothed over with his Pa. All the birthdays and Christmas’ they celebrated. No wonder Joe had always considered Adam another parent; he truly was. Suddenly, a feeling of warmth surged through his body and he finally leaned back against his saddle in quiet gratitude.
“Hmmm?” Was all Adam could muster.
“For being my brother.”
“You’re welcome.” Adam replied wearily.
“I will as soon as you stop talking.”