Too Late for Lies:
The Story of Adam and Little Joe
It's a strange thing knowing you're going to die. I guess I just never thought it was possible. Not now, anyhow. I figured I'd get to be like Pa. Not that I thought I could ever fill his shoes. But…I wanted to try.
I wonder if that's what Adam figured. "Adam?" It's odd how his name scratches my throat. I suppose it's from all that shouting we were doing up until now…up until there wasn't any point to it anymore.
"Yeah, Joe?" He sounds...sad.
I don't want to make him sadder, but I want to know. And there won't be any chance to find out later. There won't be a later, will there? "Did you want to be like Pa?"
His brows are all pulled down when he looks at me. I can tell he doesn't know how to answer…maybe 'cause he doesn't really know just what I'm asking.
I figure I'd better help him out. "Did you see yourself takin' over the Ponderosa one day…with sons of your own?"
His sigh tells me he didn't. And when he can't look at me anymore, that tells me even more.
But it doesn't tell me enough. "Or maybe…building a Ponderosa of your own somewhere? Maybe…not even a ranch, but…something that matters, something of your own?"
He's looking at me again, wearing one of those small smiles of his. And I can tell his answer isn't going to be the one he wants to give, but it's the one he has to give. You can't lie when you know death is coming. It's already too late for lying.
"To tell you the truth, Joe…."
Now he sounds tired. Not a sleepy kind of tired, but a worn out kind of tired, the kind that says there ain't nothing left to do. Nothing left he can do, anyway. I ought to know. I'm that kind of tired, too.
"The things I saw myself building are more…." He closes his eyes, like he's looking for a word inside his head. "Ethereal," he decides, opening his eyes again, "than the Ponderosa. Less…permanent."
"You're wrong." I don't know how I got it all figured out, but somehow I do. I know exactly what he's saying. And because I know that, I know he's got it figured wrong.
But he doesn't know what I mean. "Joe…." He sighs and shifts his position up against the rock behind him. I envy him that. Lying on my stomach like this kind of hurts my neck to keep looking at him. But I have to look. He's all I have right now, and the last thing I want to see before….
"All I ever built in my dreams…." Adam's voice is low and soothing. It makes me almost believe I'm dreaming…it makes me want to believe. "…Was dreams."
Pa built a dream too. Didn't he? "It's the same thing."
"No. It's not." He's getting riled now. I don't know why, but he is.
I don't mean to rile him. I don't want to. But…. "It is. It is the same, Adam. Pa built a dream. Your dreams could be just as lasting. Just as permanent." But I've said it wrong, haven't I? Both our dreams are in the past now. "Could have been."
The sharp edge around his eyes softens at my correction. "My dreams involved seeing the world." It sounds like a confession, but I don't know why. "Not locking myself onto a single piece of land, however large that piece might happen to be."
"Why can't that be lasting?" There's that pulled down brow look again. I guess I need to explain myself better. "You'd write about it all, wouldn't you? About all the things you saw, the people you met?"
"You'd tell us stories about it…and we would tell other people those stories."'
"I imagine so."
"Stories have a sort of permanence to them, too. Don't they?"
"Yours would." I'm sure of it. And I show him I'm sure.
And he shows me he's surprised. Maybe…maybe even appreciative. I like to think that, anyway. I like to think that maybe I made him feel a little better about his dreams…even if they can't be his dreams anymore.
My arm's going to sleep, but shifting positions—or trying to, anyway—makes my shoulder hurt something fierce where that arrow caught me from behind. For a few seconds, I remember hearing Adam hollering that them renegades were swarming toward the south. We had our backs to each other, but I didn't need to look at him to know what he wanted me to do. I started firing over that way, and then….
I don't mean to grimace, but I just can't help it. As my vision clears, I can see Adam's feeling guilty again.
"How's your leg?" I figure the best way to stop him feeling guilty is to remind him he wasn't the only one who had to make a bad wound worse by pulling an arrow out of his brother's flesh.
"Better than your shoulder."
I have to smile at the way he tried to turn it back on me again. "I doubt it." And I do. That arrow caught him good, digging deep into his thigh. I figure we're both lucky I wasn't hit until after I'd dug that arrow out of him. I don't think I could've done it, otherwise. It's bad enough us having to wait to die like this. It'd be worse if Adam still had that arrow sticking in him.
We let the night slip around us for a while. I like the feel of this cool, desert breeze brushing up along my cheek. Maybe I should feel cold. And maybe it's good that I don't. Good in some ways, I suppose. And bad in others. But it doesn't much matter. It's not the wound that's gonna kill me. Maybe it would eventually, given enough time. But it won't get enough time.
"Adam?" His eyes are closed and he doesn't answer, but I know he's listening. "You think if we run out at 'em like in that book I told you about, they'll kill us right off? Make it quick?" Adam doesn't like dime novels. But I like to read 'em. They always end good. I want this to end good. This is our story, the story of Adam and me fighting off a whole bunch of renegade Indians by ourselves, both of us hurt, and….
Yeah. I want it to end good. But I know it won't. So I reckon the next best thing is for it to end quick. I don't like the thought of dying slow, the way some Indians like to kill a man, slow and hard, full of the worst kind of pain.
Adam's wearing that sad look again, but it's even sadder than before. He's shaking his head and sighing in that way of his that tells me he'll play along even if he doesn't want to. "I don't know."
Of course, he does know. He knows dime novels always end good because all they are is stories. They're not real, not as real as this story of Adam and me.
And I know that too. But just because it's not real doesn't mean you can't get a good idea or two out of a dime novel. Like running straight into all them Indians. That is a good idea for a man who wants to die quick. Trouble is, neither one of us is gonna be getting up on our own anytime soon, let alone go running anywhere. At dawn, when those renegades come for us, they're gonna find us right here in these rocks. Unless….
Unless something happens to stop 'em.
"Pa always says…." Dang. My throat's really getting scratchy now. I sure could use some water. But the canteens were with the horses, and the horses are long gone. "Where there's life, there's hope."
"Yes. He does."
"I don't suppose he was thinkin' about…getting' caught up in a bunch of rocks by a…pack of angry renegades."
"I figure if the horses kept running like they were…they might of reached Pa and Hoss."
"Don't, Joe." The way he says it, I think he'd be looking at me, giving me a hard stare that says I'm wrong. But he's not. He's looking at the sky. "Don't hope so much that you lose yourself in a dream. It'll only make it harder, when…." Now he is looking at me, but…. It's like he's confused.
"I'm sorry, Joe. You said something about the horses?"
I think that leg is hurting him more than he's letting on. Or maybe…maybe it's the idea of dying that's hurting him. He's thinking too much on it. I can't seem to think on it at all. I don't want to think on it. I want to think on not dying, like maybe…. "If the horses kept heading west, they'd a'been bound to run into Pa and Hoss," I tell him again, "or maybe even them soldiers."
"Maybe." I can tell he's playing along again.
I don't want him to play along. I want him to believe it's possible. I know this is real. It's not a dime novel. But…that doesn't mean it can't end like one. "Pa didn't lose himself in a dream, Adam."
He still looks confused…and maybe a little surprised. "What?"
"You could say Pa found himself in a dream. Don't you think?"
He's shaking his head again. "Joe…."
"Maybe we could, too."
"Dreams aren't the answer. Not here. Not with this."
"What's wrong with dreams?"
He's getting riled again. "I didn't say anything's wrong with dreams. But Pa's dream…and this…. It's just not the same, Joe. And you know it."
"It doesn't have to be the same. It just has to be…well…hope." I think maybe he wants to hope, too. But he's…afraid. Not like a cowardly kind of afraid, but…afraid to hold on to something that he can't never hold on to. I guess I'm just as afraid as he is. I want to hold on to him, and we both know it won't be enough.
Drums…. That's what I'm hearing now. Them Indians are letting us know they're still out there. They sure don't have to. We knew it even when they were quiet. But now they're playing those drums of theirs like it's time for a celebration or something.
"Get used to it." Adam's jaw's gone hard. He won't look me in the eye now. "They'll be at it most of the night, working themselves up into a killing frenzy."
"Just for us?" I make it sound like a special thing, like there must be something remarkable about us to make those renegades want to celebrate like that. I don't mean to; it just comes out that way. And Adam looks as surprised as me to hear it.
He's looking at me again. I see his shoulders begin to shake…and then his chest. Finally a big old laugh comes out of his mouth. I can tell he tried to hold it back but couldn't. I'm glad he couldn't, because now I'm laughing, too. It hurts like the devil, but I don't care. It's the last laugh I'll ever have, and I want to make it last as long as I can—which ain't too long, of course. That devil's hurting pretty bad now. I wonder if it'll be worse when the Indians get here.
I'm not sure if it's their drums or my heart thumpin' up against my chest, but whatever it is, it's making me have to fight to breathe. I ain't ready to stop fighting yet. Maybe I should be, but I ain't. So I fight back against that devil until I'm so tired I just want to close my eyes. But I ain't ready for that, either, so I open 'em up as wide as I can, and I look over at Adam again….
And I realize that all this hope I've been trying to hold onto isn't doing as much good for me as it's doing bad for my brother. Because he's doing something he's almost never done in front of me before. Almost never? Maybe never. I can't really remember seeing Adam cry before. But I must have at some point. It looks…familiar. Not common, but familiar. And there ain't nothing comforting about it. And I can't do anything to comfort him either, except something I promised myself I wouldn't do—I look away.
I'm pretty sure he already knows I'm crying, too.
"Joe?" Adam's voice pulls me away from something I can't put a name to…or maybe I do have a name for it, a name Adam gave it earlier: Ethereal. Whatever it is, it fades at the sound of Adam's voice, drifting like a fog.
I guess I fell asleep. I don't know how I could have. How does a man fall asleep when a bunch of Indians are banging on their drums and whoopin' and hollerin' over the fact they're gonna kill that man come morning?
"Joe!" Adam sounds like he's in a hurry all of a sudden. He wasn't in that kind of hurry the first time he said my name. Maybe not even the second. But this time he is, and I figure I'd better not keep him waiting.
I almost laugh again when I look up at him. Throughout the night, all we've been doing is waiting. What difference would it make if I kept him waiting a minute longer? But seeing the worried look to his eyes takes that laugh right out of me. That look eases some when he sees me, but not a lot, and not for long.
"There isn't much time left."
At first, I don't know what he means. Then I realize the stars are fading just like whatever ethereal dream Adam had woken me out of…and for an instant I'm angry at him for waking me. Wouldn't it have been better to sleep through death? Could I have slept through it? But then I realize my sleeping through it would have made Adam face it alone, and I'm glad he woke me.
But I look into those eyes of his, and I know that's not why he woke me. "Joe…listen, I…want you to know…I'm proud to be your brother."
I want to shout at him, because I know he's only saying that because he won't ever get another chance.
I want to thank him, because hearing those words means all the world to me; it means so much that it almost makes all of this worthwhile. Almost. Or maybe not worthwhile, but…acceptable. It's like I feel stronger all of a sudden, from the strength of those words.
Mostly, I want to tell him the same thing, because it's true.
But it's hard to say any words at all. My throat wants to close around 'em. All I manage is, "Me, too."
And then I try to push myself up on my elbow. It hurts, but I don't care. It's too late to worry about hurting. I don't bother trying to get up; I just drag myself across the ground until I reach him. Then he helps pull me up to sit beside him. And I don't have to worry about leaning my shoulder against the rock, because Adam sees to it I don't have to…he sees to it I'm leaning up against him, instead.
There's a million things we should say, but not a one of them seems important anymore. So we hold quiet, watching a purple line spread itself out across the horizon, and then a trace of red and orange floating along behind it. As we sit here, the sky gets so full of color I can almost believe I'm dreaming. And I don't even care that I'm not.
When the first sound of gunfire sends a jolt through me, Adam grips my arm. "You know all that talk about hope, Joe?"
I just look at him. There's no need to answer.
"You were right."
I'm still looking at him, not sure what he means, when I start to hear more guns.
"They didn't have that many guns," I realize. "Did they?" I'm sure most of them renegades only had arrows to shoot.
"Not as many as we're hearing now, little brother." I almost feel like I'm intruding, watching him lean his head back and close his eyes like a man in silent prayer. One new tear cuts through caked-on blood and dirt and the dark streaks of old ones.
And then, when I start to hear more gunfire than Indians whoopin' and hollerin', I do the same as Adam…right up until I hear our pa's voice calling out to both of us.
I'd thought this morning's sunrise was the most glorious thing I would ever be privileged to discover. I was wrong. I knew that the instant I saw Pa and Hoss climbing up this hill of rocks, trailed by a group of U.S. cavalry men.
"Maybe you'll listen to me next time, older brother." I don't have much of a voice left.
Adam heard me, just the same. "Let's just pray there isn't a next time, younger brother." He squeezes my arm again. "And I promise to listen to you, from here on out."
"Always." He matches my own, hopeful grin. "Everything you say that makes sense." I expect him to wink, but, instead, another tear slips out the corner of his eye. He pulls his brow down, looks up at the sky again, and adds, "And Pa, too." His next words are almost too soft to hear. Almost. But not quite. "Where there's life, there's hope."
Maybe none of this is real. Maybe I'm still asleep and we're both lost in a dream. But I don't think so. I think we both just found ourselves in one, instead…a dream right out of the pages of a dime novel. And the story of Adam and Little Joe just ain't finished, yet.