The barkeep eyed the youngest Cartwright wearily. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Little Joe?”
“I still got money in my pocket, Clem,” he answered in a drunken slur. “Enough for one more drink and one more girl—pour me `nother.”
Clem doubted that Joe could handle either a drink or a girl at the moment, but he complied anyway. Just as he set the drink on the bar Adam Cartwright strode into the saloon. Clem breathed a sigh of relief and sent him a pleading glance.
Adam raised his eyebrows at Clem and then sighed when he got a look at his brother. He made his way over to him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Come on, Joe,” he said. “Time to go home.”
“Don’t worry about me none, older brother,” Joe managed with drunken smile. “There's a girl here I'll stay with. Where's Maggie?”
“I don’t think Maggie's too anxious for your company just now. Come on.”
Clem cringed as Joe took a swing at his brother. But he needn’t have worried—Joe was too drunk to be accurate. Adam ducked easily and managed to sling Joe up over his shoulder as he stood up again. Clem expected to hear some protests from Little Joe, but the kid kept quiet. He must have passed out.
He smiled as Adam held onto Joe with one hand and dug into his pocket with the other. He watched him produced a few coins and set them on the bar.
“Does this cover his tab?” he asked.
Clem nodded. “Sure does.”
Adam tipped his hat with his free hand and exited the saloon, still carrying his brother. Clem shook his head and hoped that he wouldn’t see Little Joe for a spell. That young man was spending far too much time drinking of late.
Adam walked into the International House with Joe slumped over his shoulder. He would have preferred to bring him back to the Ponderosa, but Joe was in no condition to ride. So Adam signed in and paid for the room with his free hand. Then he carried Joe upstairs, drawing a few snickers and raised eyebrows along the way.
He brought Joe into their room and deposited him on the bed. Then he got his jacket and boots off without waking him. Good. With any luck he’d stay passed out for the remainder of the night.
Adam stood at the side of the bed for a long moment, just looking down at his brother. He furrowed his brow, wondering what had set him off. Joe enjoyed his liquor but he didn’t usually drink to excess. He frowned and tousled Joe’s hair. He was worried for his little brother. Worried and angry. The kid hadn’t slept at the Ponderosa for four nights now—Pa was getting frantic.
But Joe wasn’t a kid, he reminded himself. He was a grown man. Which was too bad—Adam would take great pleasure in putting Joe over his knee right about now. But he forced himself to dismiss that thought.
He sighed as he shrugged himself out of his own jacket. He would bring Joe home tomorrow, willingly or not. Maybe Pa could get to the bottom of his problem.
Adam unbuttoned his shirt, pulled off his boots and then washed up. He emptied the basin when he was done and set it on the floor close to Joe’s side of the bed. He had a feeling that his brother would need it come morning. When that was done he climbed into the bed, put his back to Little Joe and closed his eyes. He was just drifting off to sleep when he felt Joe shaking him.
"Hey Adam, you awake?"
Adam sighed. He had no mind to talk with him now—not while the liquor was still in his system. He thought about feigning sleep, but decided against it. It was unlikely that Joe would give up.
"Yeah, I’m awake," he admitted. "What’s wrong?"
"Nothing," he said. Adam noticed that his voice was still slurred. "I just—just wanted to know."
"Well, now you know. I’m going to try to get some sleep."
"Okay," Joe said.
Adam closed his eyes again. Not a minute later he felt Joe’s hand back on his shoulder.
"You were right."
Adam rolled over so that he was facing Joe. He had left one lantern burning, so he could just make out his little brother's face.
He propped himself up with his elbow. "About what?" he asked.
Joe shrugged. He was sitting up in bed now. "’Bout Seth," he answered.
So that’s what was eating Joe. But that was months ago! But the trial was only a few weeks ago, he reminded himself. Adam swore under his breath. He should have guessed how that would affect Joe. How could he be so stupid?
Seth was an old friend of Little Joe’s—as was his fiancée, Sara. Seth had murdered his future father-in-law and then convinced Joe that it was a mercy killing. He even got Joe to lie for him.
Adam sat up and put an arm over Joe’s shoulder. "Joe, you’ve got to put that behind you. You made a bad decision—but you set it right."
Joe shook his head. "I lied for him, Adam. He would’ve gotten away with murder."
"But he didn’t," Adam reminded him.
Joe sighed. "Yeah, I know. And now he’s dead and Sara’s miserable."
"Sara would be a lot more miserable if she’d married him and found out later what kind of man he was," he pointed out.
"Maybe," Joe said with a shrug. "Jesus, Adam, why’d they have to hang him?"
"He killed Sara’s father in cold blood, Joe," Adam reminded him. "I know he was your friend once, but he deserved to hang." He paused and tousled Joe’s hair again. "Now come on, let’s get some sleep. We’ll talk more in the morning."
Joe said something like "Yea’alright," and curled up against the crook of Adam’s arm.
Adam rolled his eyes but then smiled despite himself. He remembered Joe as a little kid and how he used to crawl into Adam’s bed at night to demand a story. Well, at least now he knew what was wrong. Hopefully in the morning Joe would talk it all out.
Adam sighed and considered pushing his brother back down to his own side, but it didn’t seem worthwhile. So he closed his eyes instead and fell asleep with his head resting on top of Little Joe’s.
Joe woke up with a blinding headache. He moaned and tried to open his eyes, but it was just too painful. He sighed, wondering who he was nestled up against. He was almost afraid to find out, because it wasn’t a woman. But hadn’t he gone to bed with Maggie? No, he never made it that far. Adam had come into the saloon and carried him off. He breathed a sigh of relief. It must be Adam that he was curled up next to. He could deal with that.
He stayed right where he was, hoping that his head would clear. But no such luck. He would have to get up and vomit the liquor.
Just then Adam began to stir. Joe felt him lift his head off of his own and then he heard him yawn.
“Are you awake, Joe?” he asked at length.
“Kinda. I’m trying to get the strength to open my eyes. My head is pounding.”
Adam chortled. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”
Joe felt him try to disentangle himself from their, um, brotherly embrace. He protested immediately. “Don’t, Adam! I’m comfortable. Besides, I might hurl right here if you move too fast.”
Adam sighed and kept still. “All right, I’ll give you a few minutes.”
They were quiet for a spell. Joe broke the silence.
“Why didn’t you take me to task over that whole Seth affair?”
He felt Adam shrug. “Because you’re a grown man. Why should I holler at you? Besides, I knew you’d do the right thing in the end.”
Joe frowned, wondering why Adam had such confidence in him. “I don’t know, older brother—I came close to letting Seth go.”
“But you didn’t, Joe,” Adam reminded him. “And I knew you wouldn’t.”
“Because I know you. You ready to get up?”
Joe managed to pry his eyes open and look up at his older brother. “I’m ready to try.”
Adam grinned. “All right. I’ll get up first and bring the basin to your mouth. Once you finish hurling your guts out, we’ll get some water into you.”
Joe nodded and shut his eyes again. Normally he’d object to Adam babying him, but he didn’t mind at the moment.
He cringed again at the way his head was pounding. Not to mention the way his stomach was churning. He knew that he should tell Adam how grateful he was for fetching him from the saloon last night, but he was in too much agony to find the words.
“I owe you one, Adam,” he managed as he felt his brother get up to retrieve the basin.
Adam responded by walking around the bed, lifting the basin up and helping Joe tilt his head toward it. Joe understood his methodical silence—no thanks were necessary.
This is what brothers were for.