A/N: Hi everyone! Sorry it took a while to get this next chapter up...rookie mistake #2: always make sure you have your chapters saved in more than one place so that if your computer gets a virus, you don't lose everything! Sad to say, that's what happened to chapter 4, so I had to recreate :( Hopefully this does the 'lost chapter 4' justice.
Anyway, I hope that the wait was worth it! This chapter was really long, so I actually split it into two chapters. Just means that maybe I'll get the next one up faster :)
Special thanks to Rachel L Driscoll for your very nice reviews. They made my day.
Adam sighed wearily as he tried to adjust his position in the saddle, trying to relieve the aching he was feeling in his back. Finding slight relief, he turned his horse in the right direction to finish the last few tired miles to home.
It had been a long week of bone-tiring work. His four years of school had made him slightly unaccustomed to the daily grind of ranch life. Sure, he had been doing a full day's worth of work for years, but the time away had caused a curious endurance problem. His muscles protested in every way, and he ruefully smiled at the thought of a nice hot bath when he got home.
The ranch had grown considerably in his absence, and with growth came more work. The new mining project, while important, was hardly the only activity that needed their attention. Adam and Hoss had spent the last week mending fence and gathering strays. The annual cattle sale in Virginia City was fast approaching, and everyone was needed to get things ready.
But Adam knew that it wasn't only the physical work that was causing his extreme weariness. His heart was heavy with the disappointment of the realization that his brother no longer needed him. He could still hear the words in his ears and feel the stinging pain they had caused to his heart. He had wanted so much to come back to what he had left, but instead he had come back virtually an unneeded stranger. And that hurt.
His mind wandered sadly back over the events of the past week. There had been no more quarrels or misunderstandings, but there hadn't really been any warmth or affection either. His brother had carefully avoided any real attempts to talk or spend time together. Whenever Adam tried to engage his brother, whether in conversation or task, Joe had smiled, made the necessary small talk, and had promptly excused himself at the first moment possible. The interactions hadn't been unpleasant, but made Adam feel like a houseguest rather than a brother. The two that had shared so much in a previous life now no longer had a single thing to keep them connected.
Hoss, riding next to Adam, watched his older brother intently. He could read the sadness in his brother's eyes, and he figured that he knew the cause of it. It had been going on this way since the night their pa had given Adam the gift. Adam hadn't said anything about what had happened that night, but Hoss suspected that Joe had said something to Adam that had hurt him terribly.
He also had the feeling that Adam was upset about Joe confiding in Hoss rather than in him. While he felt privileged and proud of his younger brother's confidence in him, Hoss felt that he could understand the sadness that Adam was feeling. He remembered back to those days, before Adam had left, when his younger brother had simply worshipped Adam. Now, Joe would hardly talk to his brother at all. Hoss shook his head sadly. If he himself had lost that kind of relationship with his little brother, Hoss knew he probably wouldn't be able to take it either. So, yes, he could feel for Adam now.
The awkwardness, however, was getting hard to take. Each night Hoss would be in the middle of his two brothers, one wanting to go back to the past and the other trying to hurry up into the future. He knew, from experience and observation, that Joe wasn't trying to intentionally hurt his older brother, that he just wanted to prove something, but he also knew that Adam was indeed hurting.
Above everything, Hoss wanted to take away some of that hurt. Looking again at the sad face of his older brother, Hoss decided that they needed to have a conversation about it. Maybe if Adam could understand where Joe was coming from, the real reason he was acting this way, he wouldn't be so sad.
That being said, Hoss was too tired and hungry to get into that type of discussion at the moment. This was something better left for earlier in the day. He made a mental note to speak to Adam about it the next morning, as they were supposed to be riding fence again the next day. Hoss shook his head again and turned his eyes away. Adam, meanwhile, was so lost in his own thoughts that he was oblivious to his brother's glances in his direction.
Adam sighed again as the house came into view. It had been a long week, and he was so tired. Trying to, at least temporarily, repress the depressing thoughts swirling in his mind regarding his youngest brother, he smiled warily at Hoss and said,
'About time we got home. I never thought that a good honest day's work would make me so tired!'
Hoss smiled back at his older brother, a slight teasing to his tone. 'Yeah, well, too much sittin' at that ol' school. Gotta get ya back in shape!'
Adam actually chucked as he and Hoss rode together into the barns. Regardless of all the tension, it was still good to be home.
Dinner was again a quiet affair. Ben looked at his sons and smiled. Hoss and Adam looked like they were about to fall asleep in their dinner plates. His eyes light up with pride as he thought on the hard work they were doing. His eyes then shifted to his youngest; Joe was eating quietly, his eyes on his plate. Ben again became a little wistful, missing the irrepressible chatter that had once bubbled from his youngest son. He sighed as his thoughts turned to what he was about to announce, and decided he might as well get it over with.
'I will be leaving tomorrow to spend a few days in Silver City,' Ben announced to his sons rather abruptly. He waited for three pairs of eyes to meet his gaze before he continued. 'There is a meeting of the Cattleman's Association, and with the sale coming up in Virginia City in the next few weeks, I think it would be beneficial for me to attend.'
Ben decided to give his sons a moment for his announcement to sink in before he continued. In all honesty, he didn't really want to go. Adam had only just returned a week before, and Ben could see that there was tension between his oldest and youngest sons. But common sense overran his heart in the matter. He needed to be a presence at the meeting to ensure that his interests in the sale would be well. Sometimes owning a successful ranch meant putting business first, but he sure did hate it.
'I will be gone maybe three days at the most,' he continued. 'Adam, I want you and Hoss to finish the fence in the south pasture. The hands can handle the western slopes and can finish gathering the strays. I also want you to go up to the lumber camp and make sure that they are keeping to the schedule. We need to get that timber cut.' He smiled at his older sons as they nodded their heads in agreement.
Ben turned his eyes to his youngest. 'Joseph,' he said warmly, 'I want you to mind your brother.' Joe, too, nodded his head in agreement.
Ben felt his mood darken slightly as he thought about the reaction his next words were going to cause. He knew his youngest was going to be unhappy, but that couldn't be helped. His youngest son had always been emotional, his spirit so similar to that of his mother, Ben's wife Marie. His son was a tangible reminder of her: her love for life, her irrepressible excitement about everything. The similarities he saw between his son and Marie had helped him make it through the time of her death.
Ben felt himself shiver involuntarily as the memory of Marie's accident flashed through his mind. But Joe was too much like her in some ways, and the way he liked to ride his horse into the yard was one of those ways. He had caught the boy, just yesterday, tearing into the yard on his way home from school.
And, to his concern, he had recently found out that his youngest had taken to hanging around where the hands were breaking the new horses. Joe had always been incredibly curious when it came to horses, begging for his own practically as soon as he could walk. It didn't escape Ben's attention that Joe liked to push the limits when it came to riding, and the 'what-ifs' that crept into his mind scared him a little.
His fatherly instinct to protect his youngest from himself overrode the desire to keep the peace in this matter. He returned his gaze to his oldest and said, 'Oh, and Adam, I want you to make sure that Joe gets to school safely each day.'
Adam went to nod in agreement, but the look he caught in the corner of his eye from his youngest brother caused his to freeze his actions. Ben turned around again to look evenly at his youngest.
Joe's head bolted up, his green eyes blazing at his father. 'Aw, Pa,' he muttered. His mind was reeling with indignation. Take me to school! Just like a little kid!
Ben caught the gaze in his son's eyes and frowned. 'Joseph, you will mind me on this.'
His tone left no room for discussion, and Joe quickly dropped his eyes down in reluctant agreement. He knew there was no way his father was going to change his mind. His mind remembered the stern, disapproving gaze his father had given him yesterday when he had returned from school. Realizing, now, that this incident probably had something to do with his current situation, he sighed. Sullenly, he went back to eating, even though he couldn't even taste it now and it kept getting stuck in his throat.
Adam watched his brother with a mixture of hope and uncertainty creeping into his mind. He wasn't sure about how he felt about his father being gone and his being in charge. He had done it before, but things were so different now. Strained, unfamiliar. He wasn't sure how all of this was going to turn out.
It was a very early morning, before breakfast, when Ben set out. He lingered as he finished saddling his horse, reluctant to leave his sons behind. His eyes smiled warmly at his oldest and middle sons, but when his eyes met his youngest he lost a bit of the smile.
Joe was standing forlornly on the steps to the house, his bright eyes sulking. The early hour, coupled with the fact that his father was leaving, did not leave the young man in the best of moods. Joe hated it when his father went away, even for a day, and this was going to be for several days. His indignation over last night's conversation was even forgotten at the thought of his father leaving. His first impulse was to rush to his father and cry in his arms, but his pride kept him from doing so. He was grown up now, and grownups didn't act that way.
Ben reached out and took Adam's hand in a firm shake. 'Goodbye, son,' he said warmly. 'I'm sure you will do an excellent job running the place.'
'Sure, Pa,' Adam agreed, the slight uncertain feeling coming back to his mind. 'Have a safe trip.'
'I will,' he replied, turning his attention to his middle son. 'Hoss, take care of yourself. I'm trusting you to have that fence done by the time I get back.'
'Sure thing, Pa,' Hoss smiled a toothy grin at his father. 'We'll get it done right quick, won't we, Adam?'
Adam mumbled his agreement, and Ben's eyes wandered to his youngest's face. He moved over to the steps and put his hand on the small boy's shoulder.
'Joe,' his voice trembling a bit as he looked into the big green eyes, 'I want you to promise that you'll do everything your brother asks you, and that you'll mind what I said.' Joe nodded his head quietly, and Ben continued. 'Make me proud.'
The words stirred Joe's heart, and he forgot his resolve to act like a grownup for just a second. In a moment of release, he reached his ten-year-old arms around his father's neck and buried his face in Ben's chest. Ben smiled as he returned the tight hug, a lump in his throat. This was the boy he had missed for so long. Reluctantly he pulled away from his youngest and looked him again in the eye.
'Goodbye, Joseph,' he said, his voice cracking just a little. Turning around, he noticed his other boys standing there, eyes slightly averted to give their pa and brother a little privacy. Clearing his throat, Ben placed his foot in the stirrup and swung up on his horse. Giving one last glance to his youngest, he kicked his feet into the horse's side and spurred him forward. He was quickly gone from the yard.
Joe stood gazing after his father's retreating figure, the same determination renewed, crossing his features. He would make his father proud. He would show them all how grown up he was. Today.
Adam stared a bit apprehensively at his youngest brother before turning his attention towards the necessary chores before breakfast. He had noticed the look of determination crossing his brother's face, and he found himself almost slightly worried at the prospect.
'What are we in for?' he inwardly groaned as he turned to go into the barn.
Hoss and Adam walked back into the house, after the morning chores were finished, to grab a quick bite of breakfast before heading to the south pasture to work on the fence. Sitting down at the table, Adam was a bit surprised that his youngest brother was not already there. He raised his eyebrow in a questioning look at Hoss, who just shrugged his shoulders in response.
'Hop Sing,' Adam asked as the small man brought a plate of pancakes from the kitchen, 'where's Joe? He needs to eat before he can leave for school!'
'Little boy already eat,' Hop Sing replied, setting the plate down in front of Hoss, who stabbed several of the cakes and put them on his plate. 'Already go outside to get horse.'
'Humph,' Adam sighed grumpily, standing from the table. 'He knows he is supposed to wait for me.'
He shot an annoyed look at Hoss, who again just shrugged his shoulders as he dug into his pancakes. Adam's brow furrowed into a frown as he stomped out the front door to find his brother. Muttering under his breath, he lifted his head in a search for his brother. What he saw caused his eyes to grow wide in absolute fear.
He ran to the corral, his heart in his throat. He wanted to yell, but knew the damage it could do. He saw his brother swinging up into the saddle, obviously unaware of the approaching presence of his older brother. But it wasn't Joe Adam was watching, it was the large, newly-broken horse his brother was attempting to ride that had caught his attention. A large, powerful animal with a wild look in its eyes. An animal that could kill.
There were always horses being broken on the Ponderosa; Adam himself had broken horses before he had left for school. How Joe had gotten to one of them without anyone noticing Adam could only guess at, but he knew he had to stop him. He ran as fast as he could and caught the reins just as Joe swung the animal around to the corral's gate.
'Whoa,' he whispered as the animal reared and tried to break free from his grasp. With a sweeping motion, Adam grabbed his brother from the saddle as the animal broke free and ran thundering to the other side of the corral.
Adam held his brother firmly by the arm as he tried to control his ragged breathing. The fear dissipating, replaced by a steely anger, he continued to grasp the now wriggling arm as his brother tried to break free.
'Let me go,' Joe demanded angrily, his eyes blazing with fire as he continued to try to shake himself free from his brother's grasp. 'Let me go!'
'What were you doing?' Adam hissed, staring angrily at the small figure before him. The fear he had felt only moments ago was replaced with rage as he thought of all the things that could have happened.
'What were you thinking?' he yelled, shaking the arm he still held tightly in his grasp. He could hear Hoss running up behind them as he continued to shake the boy in front of him.
'Adam, Joe, what…?' Hoss's question died on his lips as he saw the two angry figures in front of him. Snapping to, he grabbed Adam's arms and pulled him away from Joe. He tried to make sense of the scene in front of him as his two brothers glared at each other with fire in their eyes.
Suddenly, Hoss noticed his younger brother's eyes fill with angry tears, and the small boy turned around and ran towards the barn. Hoss looked up at his older brother and saw something he had never seen before. It scared him a bit, the rage clouding his brother's bright eyes.
'Adam, what happened?'