He could feel the heat build at the back of his neck and along his arms as his emerald eyes ran over the lines on the slightly yellowed page. His hands had begun to tremble with anger that built with each word. How could he do this? How could his brother do such a thing? Until now, he had never been given reason to believe that someone whom he had always trusted didn’t even trust in him. His fingers tightened on the paper, and he wanted to rip it to shreds. But if he did that, he would destroy the evidence, and he didn’t want the liar to be able to deny it. In a pique of fury, he wadded up the letter and threw it across the storage shed. Now you’ll just havta go pick it up, he thought. But he didn’t care. It felt so good to lash out, even in such a small way. With a groan, he got to his feet and retrieved it from where it had landed behind a crate of old clothes. He smoothed it against his chest, and glared at it. He could hardly wait to the see look on that meddler’s face when he presented him with this. The corners of his mouth turned maliciously and green sparks flashed in his eyes. And when he did, he just might present Adam with something else.
April had blown in like a refreshing breath of spring. The air still bore a wintry chill and snow hugged the ground in many places like giant, sleeping white monsters. And the threat of more still hung over everyone’s heads in the ominous gray sky. The sun did peak from its dark abode more than it had, but Old Man Winter wasn’t quite yet ready to relinquish his grasp on the land. But the mere fact that the calendar said it was spring was enough for everyone.
Adam Cartwright had been up before the crack of dawn – nothing unusual with a working man – and he had been going at the hard work like a biting sow ever since. He had stopped long enough to wolf his breakfast, much to his wife’s consternation. But when he had insisted that he had a whole winter’s worth of chores waiting for him, she had reluctantly relented.
“Boss,” Chris McCutcheon said, as he came into the barn.
Adam glanced up from where he sat on a barrel. The right stirrup lacing on his saddle had needed repair for some time, and now was as good a time as any to see to it. “Yes, Chris, what is it?”
“Boss, your brother Joe just rode in.”
Adam’s tapered fingers seized on the lacing, and he looked straight at Chris. A bright light filled his dark hazel eyes, and his finely sculpted mouth crooked. “Joe! That’s great.”
“Maybe, and maybe not.”
Adam’s dense, black brows fell into a puzzled frown. “What do you mean by that?”
“Only that I ain’t seen such a grim countenance on nobody in a long time. And the last time I did, they was in a killin’ humor.”
Adam’s gaze flicked in the direction of the house. If Joe was upset over something, it had to be pretty bad to drive him all the way from the Ponderosa. He put his work aside and came to his feet. “All right, Chris. I’ll see what the problem is. But knowing Joe as I do, I can probably say with some amount of certainty that it’ll turn out to be a tempest in a teapot.”
Chris wasn’t so sure about that, and judging by his expression, neither was the Boss. But it wasn’t his place to say more than he already had. He watched the tall, black-haired man walk out and hoped this would only be a… well, whatever the Boss called it.
As Adam came into the parlor of the big log house, his brother was having a cup of coffee with his sister-in-law. “Joe!” But the minute those burning green eyes turned on him, he knew this was more serious than he had given credence to.
“I was just telling Joe that if he had come on the first of the month he could have fallen victim to your pranks with the rest of us,” Angelica Cartwright said, in a honeyed tone.
In spite of the sweetness of her voice, Adam could read in her delicate face, that something bothered her. He pushed the door closed, and hung his hat and coat on the stand just inside. “Well, I can’t slight family, you know that, dear.” He went to sit on the wine velvet settee next to his wife, but his eyes never left his little brother’s dour face. “So, Joe, what brings you all the way up here?” He poured himself a cup of coffee. “How’re Pa and Hoss?”
“They’re fine,” Joe said, flatly, and his eyes narrowed. “And so is Hop Sing.”
“Of course, I can’t forget Hop Sing,” Adam said, and snickered then took a sip.
“Adam, we need to talk.”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
Joe sat his cup and saucer on the long, low table with a hard clink. “In private.” His features softened as he turned his attention on her. “I don’t mean offence or to be rude, Angelica, but this is important.”
“I understand.” She smiled, but it bore an edge of wariness. “You and Adam haven’t seen each other since last year, and I know how it is with brothers and sisters.”
“All right, Joe.” Adam stood with his coffee. “Let’s go into my study.” He bent down and gave her a peck on the cheek.
She watched them as the crossed to the other end of the room, and Joe followed after his brother. She brushed back a dark brown tendril from her face and a heavy breath shook her. Whatever had brought Joe here was serious, and no one needed to tell her so.
Adam pushed the door together and stepped to his large mahogany desk and sat on the corner of it. “You know, you still haven’t commented on my new house. Howdaya like it?”
Adam couldn’t miss the hardened glitter to Joe’s eyes or the lack of enthusiasm in his answer. “All right, Joe, out with it. I’ve known you long enough to know that you didn’t come all the way here just to visit with me. Now what is it?”
Joe took an envelope from the breast pocket of his shirt and slapped it onto the desktop next to his brother.
Adam eyed it suspiciously then put his cup and saucer down and picked it up. It took him less than a second to recognize the return address and name, and a sudden jolt of cold ran through him.”
Joe’s mouth set into a hardened line, and his head took on a cocky tilt as he crossed his arms over his chest. “So you do remember. Then why don’t you tell me about it?”
“Why don’t you tell me? It’s obvious that you’ve read it.”
Joe’s arms fell to his sides, and his hands knotted into fists. “Adam, what were you thinking, or were you? Didn’t you believe in me enough to think I knew what I was doing?”
“Joe, that had nothing to do with it. I just didn’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Hurt?” Joe stomped closer to him. “You mean worse than this?” His voice clogged. “You went behind my back and…, stuck a knife in it.” He whirled away from his brother.
“You know better than that.”
Joe spun back on him. “Do I? You didn’t even have enough confidence in me to do the right thing.”
That lone eyebrow rose. “That wasn’t it at all. But you’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face and a shapely figure, and Matilda Hutchins had both. Not to mention a melodious voice and very persuasive ways. And you were only sixteen.”
“I was a man!”
“Yes, a very young man, who didn’t know when to walk away from a woman, and still doesn’t.” Adam laid the envelope on the blotter and rose from the desk and stepped to Joe. With an understanding smile, he placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Joe…,”
Joe forcefully slapped his hand away. “You gave up the right to do that a long time ago!”
This injured Adam worse than any blow. “Ah, come-on, Joe, use your head for a change. The girl was no good. Any man that wanted her could have her. And a lot of men wanted her.”
Adam’s smug expression lit a fuse at the back of Joe’s head. He had never cared for his oldest brother’s condescending manner, and now it stung more than it ever had. As if with a will of its own, his left hand clenched and shot around.
Adam staggered backward into the desk, and his right hand struck the cup and saucer as he fell. It sailed through the air and broke against the wall next to the back window. The dark brown liquid ran down to pool in the floor and stained the draperies.
Adam tried to shake the buzzing bees from his head and blink away the stars. As his senses began to reform, he daubed a knuckle at the corner of his mouth and it came away red.
“If you’re smart, you’ll stay there.”
Adam managed to look up into the menacing visage of his brother as he hovered over him. He had never been afraid of Joe, but at that moment, he gave it a second thought.
Joe burst out of the study. He brushed past Angelica, who had been drawn to the sound of raised voices. “Joe?” But then she turned from him and saw her husband in the floor. “Adam!” She rushed forward and fell onto her knees beside him, as he sat up and leaned back against the side of the desk. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“Joe belted me, is what happened.” He groaned and rubbed his jaw. “That boy sure does pack a wallop.”
“But why? What could you have possibly done to make him want to?”
“Something I did nine years ago.” His face set into a sullen mask. “And because of it…, I did the one thing I was trying to prevent. Joe got hurt.”
Adam sat at the dining table while Angelica washed the blood from his mouth. He could do it himself, and had many times in the past, but this was so much better.
“You still haven’t told me what all this is about.” She dipped the cloth into the water and wrung it out. “I have always seen how close you are to your brothers. So what could be so bad as to drive a wedge between you and Joe?”
“This,” and he slapped his hand down on the envelope lying on the tabletop. “I meddled in something I shouldn’t have, and then made the mistake of not telling Joe about it.”
She cupped his chin in her hand and raised his face to her. “You don’t meddle, you intervene. And whatever it was, you did it out of love and concern, and not spite.”
“And you know this how?”
“By knowing you. There isn’t a spiteful bone in that wonderful body, and even if there were, you would never direct it at your family.” The cloth meandered along the firm jaw line, over a prominent cheekbone and into the heavy black hair. “Would you feel better if you told me about it? You know I’m a very good listener.”
“There’s not that much to tell. When Joe was quite a bit younger, he was seeing a girl that was plainly no good. She was the talk of the area, and there were very few single men and some married ones who didn’t know her very well. Her parents couldn’t do a thing with her, even though they tried.”
“And then she took an interest in your brother.”
“More to the point, he took an interest in her when he saw what a beauty she had become. And he wouldn’t listen to anything against her from anybody, including me, Pa and Hoss.” He heaved an heavy sigh. “So I took things into my own hands. I made a deal with her father that I would pay their way and help them get set up someplace else if they would take the girl and go. Clay Hutchins had wanted to, to get away from the shame of it, but couldn’t afford it.” He shrugged. “So I made it possible. The letter came several weeks later to thank me and promise that we needn’t ever worry about Matilda again.”
“Did your father know what you were doing?”
“Not until about a month after the fact. I didn’t want to put him in the position I’m in now.”
“Well, if Joe finds out that he has known all these years, then maybe you already have.”
Adam went pale as a ghost, and it accented his eyes. “I can’t let that happen.” He bounded from the chair, and started toward the front door.
She tossed the cloth into the pan and it made a splash as she dashed after him. “Where are you going?”
“Into town. Maybe Joe decided to stay the night to rest up and head out in the morning.”
“And if he didn’t?”
He froze with one arm in his maroon coat. “I’ll go looking for him, and it he registered at the hotel, I’ll spend the night, too. This is my doing, not our father’s, and he shouldn’t be punished for my actions.”
He reached out and touched her cheek, and she grasped his fingers.
“If I need to go looking for him, I’ll buy some supplies in Bantree and leave straight from there. But I’ll send somebody to let you know.”
He kissed her then went out as he slipped into his coat.
Joe stalked back and forth in his room at the Sinclair like a caged cougar and muttered to himself. He had thought about heading straight back home, but after four days on the trail the appeal of a nice soft bed had overwhelmed him. And the food at Tabler’s was decidedly better than anything he fixed.
He had just flopped back on the bed when someone knocked. With a groan, he pulled himself up and stomped to answer it. Without much thought, he jerked the door open, and his expression instantly soured. Joe started to slam the door in his brother’s face, but Adam stuck in his foot and blocked it.
“We need to talk some more about this. We need to get things straightened out.”
“There’s nothing to straighten out. Now move your foot before I break it.”
“No, Joe. Not until you let me in, and we get this settled between us.”
Joe studied on it for several seconds, and the dark thoughts tracked across his face. Then he yanked the door wide. “All right, but don’t make it too long. I’m tired, and I haven’t had my supper yet.”
Adam smiled as he closed the door behind him, then took of his hat and dropped it onto the dresser. “Maybe we could have it together.”
“Whadaya wantta do? Spoil that, too?” Then Joe flared. “I told Tom not to tell you which room I was in if you showed up.”
“Tom wouldn’t tell me, but other people do work here.”
“It doesn’t matter, just say what you gotta say and get out.”
Adam laid his hat on the dresser and started to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Don’t sit down. You’re not gonna be here that long.”
Adam got the distinct impression that his brother took immense pleasure in each verbal blow he placed, and it had the desired effect. But he would die where he stood before he would let it show.
“Why won’t you be reasonable about this? Haven’t you known me long enough to know that I would never do anything to deliberately hurt you or Pa or Hoss? Sometimes our best intentions blow up in our faces, but I would never knowingly or willingly do you harm. Joe…,” he put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, “you’re my brother.”
Again, the hand was slapped away, only with a bit more brutality this time. “Not any more. You threw that away when you skulked around like a cowering wolf and cost me somebody I cared a lot for. Did you know I thought about marrying Matilda?”
“I feared as much, and I knew I could never let that happen. Any more than I could let Hoss marry Reagan Miller. She would’ve broken his heart just like Matilda would’ve broken yours, and I just couldn’t let that be without trying to do something about it. I only want the best for the both of you, and to see that you get it, I would die if I had to.”
Joe’s hand went down to rest on the gun on his hip.
Adam swallowed the lump in his throat then forged on. “I didn’t mean for my actions to…”
“Did Pa know about this?”
Adam’s breathing staggered. “Not until long afterward and it was my decision not to tell you, at least, not just then. He warned me about what could happen if you ever found out on your own. And I always planned to, but I just never got around to it.” A dark shadow crossed over Adam’s face. “Then things happened beyond my control…, and I completely forgot about it.”
“Do you expect me to believe that claptrap? How could you forget something like that?”
“If you’ll remember, there for a time, I forgot my own name.”
Joe blanched, but the red quickly returned. “Then you should’ve told me when you did remember.”
Adam inhaled heavily. “That wasn’t until two hours ago, when you showed me the letter.”
For almost a minute they stood motionless, little more than a foot part and in total silence. Then Joe broke the stillness between them as he went to the dresser and picked up the familiar black hat.
“You can go now.”
Adam felt the icy stab deep in his chest. “Joe…”
Joe’s features seemed set in stone as he opened the door.
“Joe, please don’t let it end this way.”
“You made that decision for both of us a long time ago. Now I still haven’t eaten, and I would appreciate it if you’d just get out.”
“Joe, would you…?”
“I’m sick of looking at you! Now get out before I throw you out!”
The corners of Adam’s mouth pinched ever so slightly then he went to his brother and took his hat. He thought to try once more, but he knew it would only be a waste of breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Not as sorry as you’re gonna be in about two minutes if you don’t just go.”
With a duck of his head, Adam stepped out into the hall, and the door slammed behind him. The harsh, unforgiving sound ran over him with hard finality. He had inadvertently caused what he had tried to avert when he bought Clay Hutchins off. And it was his doing, not Matilda’s.
He put his hat on and turned back to the door. “I really am sorry, Joe, whether you choose to believe it or not…. And it may only make you hate me more, but I won’t stop trying to get you back.”
Then, with a definite slump to his shoulders, he walked down the hall and didn’t look back.
If Joe knew his brother, he didn’t go home the night before. And he wanted to leave early before Adam got the chance to corner him again, but his belly wouldn’t let him go without breakfast. And the thought of fried eggs and sausage gravy lavishly spooned over golden biscuits made him salivate. So he headed down to the hotel dining room.
Some of the distaste from the previous evening’s confrontation had dissipated through the night, but the bad taste lingered. He tried to smack it away, but it clung to his teeth and gums like a film.
“Good morning, Joe,” Stan Balding said, brightly, as Joe came down the stairs into the lobby. “I trust you had a good night’s sleep.”
Joe stepped to the admission desk. “I’ve had better, but it wasn’t the hotel’s fault.” He handed over his room key.
“Not gonna stay with us another night?”
“No, I really need to get back to the Ponderosa.” A hint of a smile settled over his mouth but went nowhere near his eyes. “But not before I have a good breakfast to send me off. Say, Stan…,” Joe looked clandestinely about him, “you haven’t seen Adam yet this morning, have you?”
“No, but then I’ve been on duty for only a few minutes. But he’s in Room 111 if…”
“No!” Joe instantly flushed. “No, I just wantta have something to eat and get started on my way. Thanks, Stan.” Then he headed for the arched doorway beyond the stairs that led into the dining room.
This time of morning, there was only a small smattering of diners, so finding a table wasn’t difficult. Nor was taking in every face, and the moment Joe saw Adam seated near the middle of the room, he whirled to go before he was seen.
Joe had just started out when someone grabbed his arm, and he spun around. Anger shot from his eyes like daggers as he jerked free from Adam’s grasp. “What’re you doing here?”
“Breakfast, like everybody else.”
Joe shook his head. “You know exactly what I mean. Why didn’t you go home? Not that I really expected you to.”
“Because I had some unfinished business here in town.”
“It that all I am? Unfinished business?”
“Now, I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Just like you didn’t mean it with Matilda?”
Adam started to reach out to his brother, but the look he got changed his mind. “Why don’t we sit down and have something to eat. And I could sure use some coffee to finish opening my eyes.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“After about half an hour on the trail and your hand goes into that jerky bag, you’ll wantta kick yourself.”
Joe could feel his stomach gurgling as it moved around under his hand. He hadn’t eaten since supper the previous night, and he could take the hide off a bear. “All right, as long as you keep your mouth shut except to put food in it.”
“It’s a deal.” Adam held out his hand, and Joe brushed right past him. This isn’t gonna be easy, he thought then followed after his brother.
All through the wait to be served and then breakfast itself, the only sound of voices came from the patrons around them. Forks and knives clinked and scraped against plates and cups against their saucers, but no words were spoken between brothers. Joe ate, though not with any real gusto, and Adam paid more attention to him than his food.
Adam finally decided that he had finished – though half still hadn’t been touched – and emptied his cup. “You about done?”
Joe swabbed the golden yellow yolk up with a partial biscuit then popped it into his mouth. But words still weren’t forth coming, and he didn’t look at his brother.
“I guess I am, too,” Adam went on. He chuckled and pushed a piece of bacon around with his fork. “I think Maggie’s cooking has spoiled me.”
Joe remained mute as a sphinx as he shoved his chair away from the table and stood. His emerald gaze flicked across to Adam then he turned and started out.
Adam tossed his napkin onto his plate then hastened out after him.
Joe had just started up the stairs when Adam came into the lobby behind him. “Why don’t you come back with me? We can talk better at the house, and you can rest up better there. Whadaya say?”
Joe’s hand clenched on the banister rail, and his back stayed to Adam. “No. I just wantta get my saddlebags and start for home.”
“My house is home to you. It always has been and always will be.”
Joe’s head snapped around, though his body didn’t move, and he glared through the corners of his eyes. “I only have one home…, and it isn’t yours.”
Adam felt as is he had just been slammed into an invisible wall as he watched Joe go on upstairs. For one of those few times in his life, he didn’t know what to say. Joe had been angry with him before, but never anything even approaching this. “Joe.”
But Joe kept going until he left Adam’s sight. Only the thump of his boots remained, and then a door opened and closed, and that was taken away.
Adam just stood there more than a little dumbfounded and at a loss as to what to do next. Then one corner of his mouth curved, and his eyes filled with light as a plan formed in his fertile brain. He hadn’t given up, nor would he, not where a member of his family was concerned. “Not yet.” Then he turned back to the dining room. He hadn’t paid the bill, and maybe his plate hadn’t been cleared from the table.
Joe slapped the saddlebags over Cochise’s back and tied them into place behind his bedroll, and his eyes continually darted about him. He hadn’t seen his brother since right after breakfast, and it wasn’t like him to give up so easily. As he had left the hotel, he had sensed Adam lurking about somewhere out of sight, and it had made his skin crawl. Even now he could almost feel those devious hazel eyes watching his every move, and it made him jittery.
He finished then paid the liveryman and led the sprightly black-and-white paint outside into the pale morning sun. The street had filled up, and he recognized most everyone, but not one of them was who he didn’t really want to find.
“Blast you, Adam,” he said, half under his breath then vaulted into the saddle. He had the urge to ride out in a whirlwind, but what good would that do?
With a grunt, he turned his mount’s head and headed out in a nice leisurely walk. And Joe’s boots itched.
For the second time in the past several minutes, a twig cracked, and Joe looked around. This time he caught a fleeting glimpse of the head of a black horse he instantly recognized. That cunning bastard was back there, and it made his blood come to a rapid boil. Hoss had said more than once that Adam was more Paiute than the Paiutes, and you only knew he was around if he wanted you to. And now, thirty minutes out of town, he apparently wanted Joe to know, and it irked him to the point of physical violence.
He thumped around in the saddle, and it made Cochise toss his head. As always, when Joe was in an anxious, agitated or angry state it telegraphed to the horse, and he responded in kind. He leaned forward and gave the animal a healthy pat on the neck. “I saw him, Cooch, I saw him.”
Just like in Bantree, Joe wanted to give Cochise his heels and leave his backstabbing brother in a cloud of snow and mud. But, again, what good would it do? Adam could track a gnat over a flat rock, and out here in this slushy landscape, it would be easy for a blind man with a stick. And, besides that, Dusty could run like a jackrabbit.
Joe rode on in furious silence until he couldn’t any more, and he reined his horse to a halt. “You might as well come out here where I can see you! I know you’re back there just like you wanted me to…! Well, are you gonna or not?”
Time seemed to drag like a cold lizard and only the breeze answered him. Then the overgrowth rustled, and the big coal black horse came out into the clear. Joe cringed internally. There was that smug look again, and he wanted to slap it right off that dark face. Adam was gloating over his prowess, and it made Joe’s blood heat up even more.
No one had to tell Adam that his little brother bubbled like a cauldron full of bitter bile. The way he held himself in the saddle, the green fire in those eyes, and his fingers knotted on the reins virtually shouted it. He rubbed his jaw. He knew he had to watch his step or he would likely wind up flat of his back with something else busted. “Do you mind if I ride with you?”
“Would it make any difference if I did?”
Adam grinned and shook his head. “Nope.”
“Then I guess I’ve got no choice unless I shoot you and leave you here.”
Adam felt his muscles tense.
“Will it do any good for me to tell you not to talk about this?” Joe went on.
“Not when that’s the reason I’m here.”
“Then you might as well turn around and ride right straight back to Bantree.”
They just sat there and stared at each other. Then, without a word, Joe started up again, and Adam faded back into the weeds and bushes.
Angelica had just stepped outside to shake out a small rug when Sheriff Dan Jillian rode into the yard. A big, wire-haired dog sat beside her, and his chocolate brown eyes missed nothing. He gave a feeble woof, but it wasn’t one of alarm.
“Good afternoon, sheriff.”
“Afternoon, Mizz Cartwright.”
“Is this business or a social call?” She gave the rug a snap, and dust and debris filled the air. It made Buddy sneeze, and he pawed at his nose.
Dan walked his horse over to her and leaned forward against the pommel. “A little bit of both, I s’pose. Adam asked me to send somebody to tell you that he may be gone for a few days, but I decided to do it myself. I don’t get to come out here as much as I’d like.” His eyes roved over the large log dwelling. “And it’s the first time since he built the new house. Now I see what everybody’s been gabbing about. There’s never been nothin’ like it around here before. He did a right fine job” As his gaze lowered back to her he could see that some of the brightness had left her. “Is everything all right, Mizz Cartwright?”
“Everything’s just fine, sheriff. But thank you for asking.”
He could tell that her air of civility and warm smile were forced. Something was definitely wrong, and he wondered if he had the right to ask. He had picked up on the same thing in her husband’s manner, and he hadn’t asked him either. “Are you sure, ma’am?”
“I’m sure.” She hung the rug over her arm. “Now why don’t you get down and come inside for a cup of coffee? Maggie just made a fresh pot, and it’ll warm you up from your cold ride.”
“I wish I could, ma’am. But I’ve got to get back into town. Maybe some other time.”
He tipped his hat then turned his horse and headed out past the barn. And he wished he had asked.
Joe had become all pinkies and thumbs as he fumbled with his fire makings. He knew his brother was still out there watching him like a cougar just waiting for the right time to spring. He cursed under his breath and called Adam everything but a man as he struck his fourth match. And it – like it predecessors – refused to catch on the damp wood.
With a grunt, he shook the life out of the match as the tiny flame singed his fingertips, and gave it a fling. Another epithet passed his lips, and he hurled a stick into the approaching darkness. “Blast you, Adam.”
As he sat on his haunches, his expression took on an odd cast, and he stood up. He raised his chin and sniffed the air then the corners of his mouth pinched. “Bacon.”
His stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten anything but jerky since breakfast. He shook his head and sat down hard on the rock he had pulled up to his stillborn campfire. It hurt his butt, but he would be the last one to complain. He grabbed his saddlebags and tugged them over to him. His hand probed into the right pouch, and he came out with a grease stained muslin bag. He opened it and took out a strip of dried venison and tore a bite off with his teeth. One thing he had always noticed about jerky, it seemed the longer you chewed, the bigger it got. But even if he knew he would starve to death in his sleep he would never go up there. He couldn’t and wouldn’t give in to Adam.
The small cave, actually more a deep gouge out of the rock wall, glowed with the radiance of Adam’s fire. The meat sizzled in the skillet, and a new coffee pot sat off to the side while Dusty watched from several feet away. He had purchased supplies in town before he had ridden out after his brother. He hunkered closer and blew the scent in the direction of Joe’s camp. The breeze didn’t really need any help, but it wouldn’t hurt, not that he thought it would do any good.
He turned the bacon then got up and went to the cave’s entrance. His eyes probed the shadows for any hint of firelight, but it didn’t take him long to realize there wasn’t any to see. He knew his kid brother was out there. He and Dusty had stayed back in the trees while Joe set up his campsite.
With a snicker, he returned to his cooking. “I thought everybody knew that it’s a stretch to find dry wood this time of year. So it pays to bring your own supply. And a night with a gurgling stomach won’t hurt anything, except maybe his pride.”
He picked up a brown paper wrapped bundle and took out two slices of bread. It had been bought at the boarding house right before he left town. He took up the bacon and put on it, and the grease soaked into it. He topped it with the other slice, and took a bite. “Not bad, Cartwright, not bad.”
Steaming coffee filled the tin cup, and he washed down his bite. Then he took the whole thing with him to the mouth of the cave. There was still no fire, which meant no hot food, which tainted his with a tinge of guilt. But what good would that do? He would be more than willing to share his bounty. But his brother would never come up there, no matter how enticing the aroma or how empty his belly. And it would be a slap to Joe’s dignity if he went down there bearing gifts. He took another bite, and this one didn’t taste as good as the first.
Why did stubbornness have to be such a dominating Cartwright trait? And there wasn’t a member of the family that didn’t suffer from its infliction, though he and Joe had gotten the lion’s share. For this he sited their mothers’ influence. His had been the headstrong daughter of a Massachusetts sea captain, and Joe’s strong willed New Orleans French.
“Well, there’s no sense just standing here and fretting over it. Do something or do nothing, but stop worrying yourself into a tizzy.”
From there on, the sandwich was forced, with each mouthful blander than the previous one. But he ate because his starvation wasn’t the answer and wouldn’t help anything, though Joe might argue with that. Joe had been so incensed the night before at the hotel that he had about expected to get shot. And if he had, he couldn’t be so sure that he wouldn’t have deserved it.
“Maybe you’ll learn to keep your nose out of other people’s affairs.” He took a sip of coffee. “Though I doubt it. You’ve never known when to mind your own herd, especially when it comes to family.”
He poked the last morsel of sandwich into his mouth as the wheels in his head continued to turn. There had to be a way to get some decent food into his little brother. He grinned. Yankee granite head, indeed. A New Orleans mule.
Delicious aromas wafted out of the cave and made their way to Joe’s camp to pull him out of sleep. He smacked as he pried his eyes open, and his nose wrinkled. More bacon. And coffee. Adam must be standing up there fanning those smells down on him.
He muttered and turned onto his other side, and brought the blanket over his head to close them out. He shifted and tried to get comfortable again, but the ground seemed to have acquired more bumps than it had last night. With a growl, he threw his covers away and sat up. He riffled his fingers in his thick, dark brown curls and scratched his scalp until it tingled. “Blast you, Adam.”
He worked his way onto his feet and stretched away some of the stiffness. If he had been smart, he would have taken the stage from Virginia City, but he hadn’t been thinking lucid enough for that when he left home. He massaged his lower back and tried to roll some of the kinks out of his neck. On their second pass over the ground his eyes caught on a drawstring cloth bag and a small bundle of sticks tied with twine piled beside what should have been his campfire. He stooped and picked up the bag and opened it. Food. A spark at the back of his head ignited a conflagration that raged through his extremities.
His eyes shot in the direction of the smells as he jerked the bag closed. A strangled grunt died in his throat, and his mouth set in a hard, flat line. He was so hungry he could eat his saddle and both boots, but there wasn’t any way on the face of the Earth that he would take anything from Adam.
Adam leaned over his skillet and took a heady breath. Until right now, he hadn’t realized just how altogether ravenous he was. Granted, he wasn’t the best cook, but as long as he didn’t poison himself, he could manage.
He had just turned one of the bacon slices when a shadow loomed over him. He glanced around, but his attention didn’t loiter. “Good morning, Joe. I see you found my offering.”
Joe just stood there, the bag dangling from one hand and the bundle of twigs clutched in the other. His face had become the very color of chalk.
“Why don’t you sit down, and we can share what I’ve got?” Adam went on.
“No thank you.”
“Suit yourself, but it’ll save you the trouble, and I…,”
“I don’t need your handouts. I brought my own supplies, and I can find my own kindling.”
Adam didn’t stop what he was doing or look up from it. “Oh, I see. That’s why you made a cold camp on the wet ground last night.”
Joe flew into a fury and threw the intended gifts into the dirt. “I don’t need your help or your lousy food! I can take care of myself! I don’t need you to do it! In fact, I don’t need you for anything!”
Adam felt as if his heart had been pierced by an icy arrow. He wanted to believe that anger and frustration were behind that last statement. And he knew Joe well enough to convince himself of it, but it still cut deeply, nonetheless.
With slow deliberation, he laid his fork aside and stood to face his brother. “Joe, it’s not charity, it’s not a handout; it’s just one brother helping another.”
Joe stepped forward until the toes of his boots nearly touched Adam’s. Something malicious glittered in his eyes, and his voice came low and seething. “Then you can just pack up and head back to your ranch, because you’re not my brother…. Not any more.”
They simply stood there, as if trying to read each other, until Dusty snorted and broke the spell. Joe’s eyes narrowed then he spun around and stomped out.
Adam blew out his breath, and his long body slackened some. For a second there, he had thought he was going to get flattened again. He had really wounded Joe this time, maybe beyond anybody’s ability to repair. But, still, he couldn’t simply turn tail and run away from this mess he had made.
His head dropped, and he looked down at his feet then turned and crouched before the fire. He picked up the fork and absentmindedly poked at the frying bacon. Maybe he couldn’t undo this, but quitting wasn’t an option. It wouldn’t be for as long as it took, even if that was for the rest of his life. Unless something drastically changed.
Adam glanced up at the dim sun. It would soon reach its zenith. Joe hadn’t stopped since packing out after breakfast, such as it was, except to visit a few local trees. There had been no campfire – which only ensconced Adam’s sense of guilt – so it could have only been more jerky.
Joe looked to his right and clandestinely let his eyes drift around. His brother rode in the clear today several yards behind, and it irritated him to no end. Of course, Adam thought he was being terribly clever. Joe couldn’t make the argument that he was skulking around in the weeds like a thief. His hands choked on the reins until his knuckles whitened.
“Don’t you think its time to stop?” Adam shouted. “It’s almost noon!”
“You can stop if you want to, but I’m not!”
“Then I guess I don’t need to either!”
They rode on for a few more minutes until Joe snapped like an over tightened watch spring. With a jerk of the animal’s head, he wheeled Cochise and galloped forward to stop in front of Dusty.
“I’ve had enough of this. I’m tired of you trailing along behind me like a dog looking for table scraps. I liked it better when you were off in the brush and out of my sight.”
“Have I become that offensive to look at?”
Joe’s mouth drew down into a hard knot. He eased his horse alongside of his brother’s and leaned closer. “Frankly, you ruin my appetite.”
Not since Ross and Delphine Marquette’s funeral had he fought so hard to keep control of his emotions. Joe knew just the right places to thrust his barbs, and Adam wouldn’t let on that they had struck home. “Would it do any good if I said I’m sorry?”
“It might’ve, if you’d said it nine years ago. But it’s been too long for forgiveness.”
“It’s never too long for that.”
“Maybe not for you, but thank goodness I’m not you. Now why don’t you go on back into the brush?”
“Won’t I make you nervous?”
“Some, but at least I won’t havta look at you. Of course, if you just went home I’d like it even better.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
Joe’s face scrunched then he let his horse have his heels and took off in a flurry of hooves. For less than a moment Adam thought about just letting him go, but that wasn’t part of his plans. He gave Dusty a nudge and melded into the overgrowth.
Noon had long since come and gone in the hour since, and Joe had still refused to stop to cook up dinner. Adam, who didn’t really disdain of jerky, had also gotten some biscuits along with the bread. And now he nibbled on one as he rode off to the side of the road, such as it was.
His dark hazel eyes rose to the sky, which had grown more ominous. Threatening gray clouds had moved in to obscure the sun, and portended of rain or, worse, snow. And this time of the year, in this part of the country, it could be either or both.
He polished off the biscuit and decided that he had had enough of Joe’s obstinacy. Maybe his little brother could go on like this all day, but he was getting too old for such nonsense. And whether he liked it or not, Joe was going to be invited to stop. At least, it would start out as an invitation.
With little coaxing, Dusty left the brush to come out behind the paint. One side of Adam’s mouth pinched. This time Joe would listen to reason, so far as their stomachs went, even if he had to beat it into that curly head with a rock. He gave Dusty his heels.
“Looks like something’s gonna fall,” Adam said, as his eyes lowered from the sky. He only got a muffled ‘uh-huh’ as an answer. “But hopefully it’ll hold off until we make night camp. There’s a rock outcrop not so far up ahead that should do nicely. And it’s even large enough to accommodate the horses.”
Joe just sat on his dead log and glared at the ground, his hands and fingers tangled together in a hard wad. He wasn’t in the mood for idle chitchat, and he wished Adam would just shut up. Better still, he wished he would just turn around and head back home.
“Here ya go, Joe.”
Joe’s gaze rose to the steaming tin plate of beans. He entertained the thought of slapping it from his brother’s hand, but his hunger and rumbling stomach wouldn’t stand for such a petulant outburst. There were instances when one must simply gulp down their pride, sometimes with their food. He took it, grudgingly, and never uttered a sound.
Adam returned to the small fire and filled his own plate. He took a bite, and he couldn’t remember when beans had ever tasted so good. “The man who discovered how to put things in cans deserves a medal. Don’t you agree?”
Joe didn’t even grunt and kept to his food with his head down.
Adam stood and took a few steps away from the fire. He let his eyes wander over the countryside as he continued to eat. “Doesn’t look much like April, does it? Back in Boston the spring flowers are rearing their heads. And the students are getting ready for graduation.”
“Maybe it would’ve been better if you’d just stayed there.”
Adam froze then his head came slowly around. He swallowed and hoped he wouldn’t sound too injured. But then Joe would like that, wouldn’t he? “I thought about it. My grandfather was still living at the time, and there were so many more opportunities for an architect than in the Utah Territory.” He took a bite. “But Pa needed me to help with the ranch, and I was eager to see my family.”
“And if you had, I’d probably be married to Matilda Hutchins now.”
“A good reason in and of itself that I didn’t.”
Green lightning flashed toward Adam, and he felt as if an invisible fist had gripped him. He took another bite, but it no longer had any flavor.
“Joe, if I’d thought you were really and truly in love with the girl, maybe I would’ve stayed out of it. That is, if I hadn’t known what kind of cloth she was cut from.”
Joe’s fingers squeezed on the fork’s handle.
“But I did,” Adam went on, “plus the fact that it was just another of your boyish infatuations.”
Joe impulsively slammed his plate down, and beans skittered over the still-frozen ground. “Infatuation?” he stormed, and jerked to his feet. “And what right do you have to decide who I do and don’t marry? This isn’t your own private fiefdom where you can just push everybody around and tell them what to do, though sometimes you act like it!”
“Nobody was being pushed. I just didn’t want to see your life ruined by her.”
Joe snickered derisively. “So you decided to reserve that pleasure for yourself.”
Adam’s brows knit. That didn’t even deserve an answer. “Have you ever thought that if you had married her, that you wouldn’t have been the only one whose heart was broken by her wild ways? It would’ve killed our father.”
Joe paled slightly. “Pa would’ve been happy for me.”
“I don’t think so. Like me, he knew what she was; he just didn’t know how to keep you away from her or even if he should. And while we’re on the subject, how would you’ve felt the first time you found out about one of her indiscretions?”
“That would’ve been in the past.”
“I’m talking about the ones after you were married. And there would’ve been plenty.” He put his plate down by the fire and stepped to his little brother and put his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “Could you have forgiven that she was with other men while she was married to you?”
Joe glared at his brother’s hands then viciously knocked them away. “You don’t know everything! You don’t know…?”
“But I do. When she was fifteen, she married a young man in St. Louis. Mad about her, he was. But, like you would have, he found out about what she was doing behind his back. He confronted the last man in the long line and got killed for his trouble. Out of shame and in an effort to outrun the scandal, her parents came here with her. But her ways came with her, only here she had miners and cowhands who were so starved for a woman, they didn’t care what she looked like. So the fact that Matilda was pretty and willing made it even better.”
“I’m not lying. I’d have no reason to when the truth is stronger than anything I could possibly make up.”
“Then how come I…?”
“I contacted some friends of mine in St. Louis. They told me everything I wanted to know, and even some things I didn’t…. Matilda never told you there was a baby, did she?”
Joe went ghostly white. “Well, she was married.”
“Except that it wasn’t her husband’s.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Her husband had brown hair, but the child’s was fiery red, so they said.”
“That’s enough! I don’t want to hear any more!”
“Don’t you even want to know what happened to the little boy?”
Joe jerked around and tromped toward his horse.
“Mercifully, it was born dead.”
Joe swung up into the saddle, gave his brother one last arctic glare, then whipped Cochise into a gallop.
Adam pushed his hat back as he watched the paint head away. He hadn’t enjoyed telling that to Joe, but he felt it was something he needed to know. In fact, he had needed to know it a long time ago, but his oldest brother hadn’t had the guts to tell him. Amazing what desperation could accomplish.
It was close to five o’clock when the Heavens finally opened up. A mixture of snow and rain – swirled around by an increasingly brisk wind – assailed the riders and their mounts. The drops came in a fine mist while large, white flakes played among it like ethereal nymphs.
Adam glanced up for the umpteenth time and again the whole thing splattered in his face. His eyelids batted against it until he ducked his head and turned his attention ahead of him. Joe – hunkered down against Mother Nature’s assault – rode a couple yards ahead.
“Joe! Joe! We need to stop for the night! It’ll soon be dark, and we can’t go much farther in this anyway…! Joe!”
Adam got the distinct impression that Cochise picked up speed. He gave a guttural growl and urged Dusty faster.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Adam asked, as he came alongside the paint. “We need to find a place to shelter for the night.”
“You can if you want to, but I’m going on.”
“Oh, Joe, don’t be so mule headed. Now let’s find a place to stop, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
Joe gave him a resentful look then nodded, but nothing more. Right now he didn’t want to give in to his brother on anything, but he knew that Adam was right. It wouldn’t do him any good to get soaked to the skin and catch pneumonia. And if that happened, Adam would win, and he couldn’t allow that. He simply couldn’t.
They had made their camp beneath the rock outcrop Adam had spoken of, and it was indeed large enough for them and both horses. In fact, it was big enough for a small posse. The snow had gathered force while the rain had very nearly stopped. The sun had just dropped below the horizon and the light, such as it was, was fading fast. A small fire crackled and smoke rose to slide off the stone ceiling. The brothers – though Joe, at the moment, wouldn’t care for the description – sat huddled around the flittering flames with coffee cups in their hands.
Adam reluctantly pulled himself away from the fire’s warmth, and went to the edge of their sanctuary. He looked out into the rapidly encroaching darkness, and his broad chest swelled with a heavy sigh. “I wonder what Angelica and the boys are doing.” His mouth curved into a fond smile, and he took a sip. “If I know my sons, she and Maggie have their hands full. Bedtime isn’t always a welcomed visitor at our house.” His smile widened. “But a smart woman like my Angelica is up to the challenge.”
“Not so smart or she wouldn’t’ve married you. But then there’s no accounting for taste.”
As Joe glared into the black-brown depths of his cup, he became aware of a threatening presence. He looked up and gulped at the dark visage that hovered before him like a hawk about to swoop down on its unsuspecting prey.
“Joe, you can cast aspersions on my character, call me any foul, derogatory name you want to, but if you ever speak of Angelica in that manner and tone again, I’ll break you in two.”
Joe swallowed and it felt like a rock had lodged in his throat. The ice in his brother’s voice, and the amber sparks that danced in his eyes said that he meant it. And Joe knew that he did, maybe like he never had before. But then she was Adam’s wife, and he himself would be as protective of own wife, whoever she turned out to be. “I shouldn’t’ve said that. Angelica hasn’t done anything to me, and I have no call to lash out at her. It won’t happen again.”
“Good. See that it doesn’t.” Adam stooped before the fire and picked up the coffee pot and held it out. “Coffee? The way you’ve been nursing yours, I figure it’s of the same temperature as the snow.”
“No thanks. This’ll do.”
“Suit yourself.” Adam topped off what remained in his cup then replaced the pot by the fire. “In the morning, instead of going on in the direction we’re headed, why don’t we turn around and start back to the house? We could stuff ourselves with Maggie’s cooking and sleep in a soft bed, and I could hold my soft wife. Whadaya say?”
“I’m going home.”
“Can’t you think of my house as your home, too?”
“I only have one home, and that’s where my family is.”
Adam felt a chill that had nothing to do with the weather. “Aren’t I your family?”
“Once.” Joe slung his coffee to the ground and rose. “Now I’m gonna turn in. It’s been a long day.”
“We need to talk some more about this.”
“I think enough’s been said. You did what you felt you had to do, and now so will I.”
Joe tossed the empty cup down next to the fire, and it bounced once with a metallic thump then he stood with a jerk. He stalked away to where he had left his saddle.
Adam watched him as he spread his bedroll close to the rock wall. “Don’t you think you’d do better closer to the fire.”
“I’m fine.” Joe kept his back to his brother as he continued to work.
Adam sipped on his tasteless coffee, and watched Joe settle in for the night. Had he pushed his little brother one time too many? He had been well intentioned enough. But what was it they said about best laid plans? His nose wrinkled, and he looked down into the dregs of his coffee. He didn’t want that. He threw it out the same as Joe had, but he sat his cup on one of the rocks that ringed in the fire.
He stood to his full length and stretched some of the cold’s stiffness away that had permeated his bones and joints. He stooped and undid his bedroll and – unlike Joe – spread it close to the fire. If Joe wanted to pout and freeze, that was his business.
With one last stretch, he slid beneath the blanket and leaned back into the fleece lining of his upturned saddle. Both had been sufficiently warmed by the fire, and cut off some of the damp chill. “Goodnight, Joe.”
For all the response he got, he could have convinced himself that he was alone. And maybe he was. He snuggled down in the warmth the saddle provided and pulled the blanket up around his chest. For tonight he would sleep and maybe formulate another plan of attack in his dreams. Maybe Joe had given up on them, but he hadn’t. Though he didn’t know how long he could hold out against such stubborn will.
Angelica pulled the heavy pine front door closed behind her and went out onto the deep front porch. The two immense lamps suspended from heavy chains had been obligingly lit by one of the ranch hands. They held back the blackness but not the cutting cold that the wind carried as it rushed through. She shivered and tugged her dark purple cloak closer. The tail of it billowed on the stiff breeze that whirled around her before it exited on the other side.
Beyond the porch’s arches, she could see that the snow had grown heavier in the yellowish glow of the lamps. It flitted and flirted with her like buttery insects as it drifted to the ground. It had already accumulated several inches, and she hoped it would stop before that turned into feet.
“Not again,” Maggie O’Shea said, in her hearty Irish brogue, as she came to stand beside her mistress. “This is the twentieth time ya’ve been out here in the past hour. I know, for I’ve counted every one.”
“He’s out in this, Maggie.”
“I know, and he has been many times before. He was raised to it, and he has his brother with him.”
“Then I’m afraid he might as well be by himself.”
“Now, Miss Angelica, I don’t think Mr. Joe’s goin’ to let somethin’ like this come between him and his own brother.”
“You didn’t see that black look on his face as he rushed past me after he had knocked Adam down. It frightened me.”
“Well, we all know that Mr. Joe is fiery as a good bottle o’ whiskey, but I don’t think he’d do harm to his own brother.”
Angelica slowly looked around, and the light caught in her violet eyes. “Cain did.”
It felt to Maggie as if a cold hand had been brought across the side of her face. She knew the story well of how Cain slew his brother Able. And she had heard of it happening before – though she wasn’t about to tell that to her girl – but still she couldn’t see Adam’s brother doing such a thing. She didn’t know Joe as well as Mister Adam, but she knew his father and that was enough to assure her.
“I still don’t think ya have a thing ta worry about. He is, after all, a Cartwright. O’ course, it’s not his fault he had the poor misfortune o’ bein’ born English, but except for our own sainted fathers, no finer men have I met than Ben Cartwright and his sons.” She put a gentle hand on her girl’s shoulder. “In the end, I think Mr. Joe will do the right thing. Now ya come on into the house before ya catch yer death o’ cold. Why, Mr. Adam would have me own hide for lettin’ ya get sick.” A grin reached her nutmeg eyes, and the breeze tugged at the strands of her upswept, silver streaked mahogany hair.
Angelica was slow to smile, and it was a poor facsimile of one, to be sure. But it was better than nothing.
“That’s better. Now ya come settle yerself down before the fire, and I’ll bring ya a nice hot cup o’ tea.”
“And tonight I think I would like it sweetened the way your father did.”
Anyone who didn’t know of the love Miss Angelica held for her husband might have been shocked by the request, but not Maggie. And maybe a good jolt of the Irish was just what her girl needed.
Maggie gave her a gentle pat. “Then ya shall have it. Now let’s go inside before we both come down with the pneumonia.” She sniggered. “Wouldn’t that be a grand state o’ affairs?”
Angelica let herself to be steered back to the door and into the house. But as she started in after her girl, Maggie looked back into the night, said a silent prayer, crossed herself then followed and closed the heavy door behind her.
The advent of the morning sun brought with it a cessation of the snow, but not before a couple feet had accumulated. And it lay over the land like a cold, white blanket to chill everything it touched. The fierce wind that had blown through the night to leave drifts in its wake had simmered down as well to become little more than a mild breeze. Spring had definitely taken a setback.
Brush had held the snow at bay and kept it from piling in on the brothers and their horses. A white half wall had been formed around the perimeter of the outcrop and made what essentially amounted to a windbreak.
Adam, who had stirred first, had breakfast cooking when Joe roused. The aroma of the food, mingled with the coffee, made his mouth water, but he refused to look in Adam’s direction. He had had a fairly lousy night, and he didn’t want to start off his day on the same note. Though he didn’t know how he could possibly avoid it.
“It’s about time. Breakfast’ll soon be ready.”
But Joe didn’t acknowledge him in any way as he pulled himself out of his warm camp bed. The ground was chilly against his knees as he began to roll the blanket. And he kept his back turned to Adam.
“I’ve got some biscuits left, and I though you might like to have a couple so I got them out so they could warm by the fire.”
Joe kept to his work as if he hadn’t even heard.
Adam decided that he had had enough of this and needed to have it out with his brother once and for all. “Joe, there’s no sense in being so bullheaded about this. It’s gone on for too many days.”
“Not too many.”
Adam slammed the fork down and cursed, and this really caught Joe’s attention. His brother had to be seriously irked to come to that point.
“Two minutes is too long. Now we need to talk about this before it goes any further.”
“Can’t it wait until after breakfast?”
“It’s waited too long as it is.”
“And what if I don’t want to?”
“I don’t give a good hoot what you want. If it were only you and me, maybe. But this involves Pa and Hoss and Angelica. And if you think this won’t affect them too, then you’re duller than I thought.”
Joe smashed the rolled blanket to the ground, yanked himself to his feet, and tromped over to his brother, who also now stood. “All right, talk.”
Some of the fire left Adam’s demeanor. “I shouldn’t’ve snapped at you. But, blast it all, Joe, you’re making this very difficult.”
An air of arrogant satisfaction settled over Joe’s face. “That’s how I want it. I don’t intend to let you off that easy.”
“Did I commit such a crime? All I did was try to keep you from being hurt.”
“And wound up hurting me worse than she ever could.”
Adam ducked his head for a second. “I know I should’ve told you long before this…, but I dreaded it…. I was afraid. And then things kinda got out of my control.”
“It would’ve been the same even if you’d told me then.”
Adam sensed that the truth was about to come out. “Why?”
“Because you didn’t trust me to do the right thing. You didn’t believe in me enough to let me handle it…. And that hurt worst of all.”
“And now you’re punishing me for it. All right, I made a mess of things. Okay?”
“Well, this is a first: the great and infallible Adam Cartwright admitting to a mistake.”
“Yes, I made a mistake. We all do, it’s a part of what makes us human. But the mistake was in not telling you and not in what I did. I’d do the same thing over again if I had the opportunity.”
“You’d still do it?”
“Yes, I would. But you gotta understand, it wasn’t because I didn’t trust you. It’s Matilda I didn’t trust. She knew just exactly how to use her feminine wiles on a man. Remember what she did to Brent Hershey?”
“Brent Hershey was a fool.”
“And even strong men can become a fool over a woman. Something Matilda knew very well, and used to great advantage. Just like Reagan Miller.”
“And you interfered in that, too.”
“And Hoss almost beat me to death for my trouble and like to never forgave me for it, but it would’ve been worth it to keep that woman from hurting him. And, as I remember, you agreed with me.”
“That was different.”
“How different? Because it was Hoss and not you? You couldn’t see what the girl was, and that’s why I did what I did.”
“Who says I didn’t.”
“You did when you told me you wanted to marry her. A man doesn’t marry a woman like that unless he’s as bad as she is. She used men like something expendable that you throw away when you use it up. Joe, there’s no polite way of putting it. Matilda Hutchins was a slut.”
Before Adam realized what was happening, he found himself on the ground and looking up onto the ceiling of the outcrop. Pain ran through his jaw and tiny bells rung inside his ears. Then Joe looked down on him, that left fist still clenched into a foreboding ball.
“You get up, Adam, and I’ll knock you down again! So help me, I will! And if you follow me, I’ll shoot you right off your horse.”
Adam raised his head enough to watch his brother stamp away. For the most part, he didn’t believe what Joe had just threatened to do. But a small part of him didn’t dismiss is so lightly.
Joe slammed the saddle onto Cochise’s back with such force that it startled the animal. However, he didn’t really notice as he grumbled under his breath. “How could he do something like that? Back stabbing son-of-a-bitch.” He gave the cinch such a jerk that the horse’s head came around, and still Joe didn’t notice. He snapped his bedroll up from the ground and proceeded to tie it into place behind the cantle. “If I never see him again, it’ll be just fine with me. Like I told him, he’s no brother of mine.” Then he felt a light touch on his back, and he whirled and shoved out.
Adam stumbled backward but managed to keep his feet under him, if only barely.
“Are you looking to get knocked down again? If you are, I’ll be more ‘n happy to oblige.”
“Joe, this isn’t over.”
“As far as I’m concerned it is. Everything that needs to be said has been. And nothing else you could say would make any difference. I know all I need to know. Now just stay away from me before you really get hurt.”
“Shut up! Just shut up!”
Joe vaulted into the saddle. He gave his brother an icy glare that could freeze fire. Then he jerked Cochise’s head around and plowed out through the barrier formed by the snow-covered brush. Adam could only stand and watch as his brother rode away and the horse’s legs threw white clods into the air.
Adam didn’t move a muscle until his brother disappeared into the trees. Then, with a laborious breath that would have made an elephant shake, he finally turned around. His feet seemed bolted to the ground as his eyes slowly drifted down. Then his gaze landed on something, and he bent down and picked it up. Joe had been in such a snit that he had ridden off without his saddlebags.. Joe wanted no further part of him. Joe hated him. And that hurt worst of all.
With heavy legs, he walked to the campfire. A thin line of dark smoke trickled up from the skillet. The bacon had burnt to a blackened crisp.
A longer day Adam couldn’t recall as the big black he rode plodded up the slight rise. The depth of the snow wasn’t as much of a hindrance as it could have been, had it been deeper. But it was still enough to slow their progress. He glanced to the sky, and the sun wasn’t even bright enough to warrant a squint.
Joe was easy to follow. In fact, a gnat would be easy to follow in all this white stuff. Nothing could touch it without what it left some kind of sign. And to an experienced tracker like Adam Cartwright, it was nothing.
At one point, he could see that Cochise had almost fallen. He sucked in the cold air, and his fingers gnarled on the reins. But Joe – fine horseman that he was – had kept the animal to its feet and himself in the saddle.
The sides of his mouth crooked as he imagined some of the blue language that would have heated things up. When they were boys, they had quickly learned that their father didn’t approve of foul talk. And any inadvertent profanity in his presence caught serious scolding as children and black looks when they got older. It wasn’t that Ben Cartwright wouldn’t cut lose with a cuss word now and again, if he felt the situation warranted it, but he didn’t like it from his sons. It was a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ kind of thing. “What comes out of your mouth can give a false impression,” he had often told them. But when they were away from him, especially as teenagers, well, Katy bar the door.
Adam kept to the trail left by his brother and wondered if Joe had cursed the snow for being a dead giveaway. But, after their blowup that morning, he wondered if Joe even thought he was being followed. Surely to goodness, for as well as he knew his oldest brother, he had to expect that he was being dogged right at this moment.
Images of the curly-haired youngster and ardent young man floated before his mind’s eye like animated daguerreotypes. He had always felt that Joe and Hoss were his charges as well as his brothers. And he would be remiss in his duties if he didn’t do everything he could to smooth this over and win his little brother back. That he had made a monumental mistake was glaringly obvious, so it was left up to him to rectify the situation. And he wouldn’t let himself think that it couldn’t be undone.
Dusty nearly stumbled as he took a hidden dip, but the big animal hardly turned a hair as he kept on going.
Adam leaned forward and patted him on the side of the neck. “We can’t stop now. We havta catch up with Joe.” He gave another pat. “Sorry.”
The horse tossed his head as if he understood and continued on. Their mission wasn’t over yet.
When Joe had parted from his brother he hadn’t looked back, not once. In fact, it had never even entered his mind to do so. He had wanted to put as much distance between them as quickly as he could. So he had pointed Cooch in the direction of home and lit out. And it never once occurred to him that saddened eyes were fixed to his back. Nor would he have cared if he had.
He sat slumped in the saddle and swayed with the animal’s motion. From time-to-time, he would get a good jerk as the sprightly paint churned through the snow. But it was never really enough to disrupt the thoughts that filled his mind.
Disappointments in his life had never been in short supply, though hardships were softened by his family and the lifestyle he had been raised to. But now a member of that family had done the unconscionable. Adam, in his constant butting in, had crossed over the line this time, and there was no turning back. He hadn’t exactly lied, but he had kept the truth hidden, and Joe had never felt so betrayed. Why couldn’t Adam have just come to him? Did he think Joe wasn’t man enough to even bother talking to?
His legs squeezed on Cochise’s sides, and the horse sidled to the left. But Joe was so deep in his musing that he didn’t catch it.
He could never look at Adam the same way again, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to. When he had been a child, his oldest brother had been one of the most important things in his life. But Adam had cared more for an education than he had his own family, and he had left them for Boston for four years. And when he had finally returned, things had never been the same between them. Oh, sure, Pa and Hoss and even Hop Sing had welcomed him home as if nothing had changed. And even he had, at first, but it didn’t take long for the falling out that would set the stage for future ones.
A slow burn built in Joe’s chest as that confrontation rose in his head. It had been a different set of circumstances, but, like now, it had been brought on by Adam’s meddling. Joe had skipped a few days of school to go fishing with some friends, and his newly college educated brother had found out before their father had. It wasn’t anything that other twelve-year-old boys didn’t do but from Adam’s reaction, you would have thought Joe had committed the most heinous of crimes. First the lecture had started then the admonitions, and the grim predictions of what Pa would do when he found out. Then Adam had taken it upon himself to go talk to Miss Abigail, and drag his fuming little brother along with him. Joe had complied with the coercion and promised her that it wouldn’t happen again.
Joe huffed and shifted in the saddle. He pushed his hat back and a dark curl dangled over his forehead.
Things had remained quiet but strained between the brothers until another lecture had started on the drive back home. And Joe had chafed to himself until he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“What makes you think you’re so special?” Joe had stormed out. He would never forget the look of pained surprise on his brother’s face, and for a second it gave him a twinge of regret. “Didn’t you ever do things like that when you were a kid? No, you probably didn’t! You’re too perfect!”
For a long couple of minutes which had seemed to stretch to infinity, Adam had driven the team in what amounted – he guessed – to stunned silence. The youngster had sat and reveled in his triumph as he watched a mingling of emotions track over his brother’s face. Then Adam had fired his second salvo.
“Joe, if you think that I’m doing this just to showoff… then you’re sadly mistaken. Contrary to what you may think you believe, I do still love you. That will never change no matter where I go or how much I learn. I just don’t want to see you make a mistake that could affect the rest of your life.”
“But I only missed three days.”
“And that’s how it always starts. First a few days, then a week, and before you know it you find yourself not going back at all. Freedom from responsibility can be a dangerous thing if you aren’t careful, especially at your age. And another thing, when I was your age Pa had his hands full. When I set my mind to it, which was way too often, I could make you look like a lamb. And when I was fifteen and sixteen I used to chase around with the Bonner brothers, which got me into even more trouble. Yes, I grew out of it, but I kept our father in an absolute tizzy until I did…. Now don’t you think he’s had enough?”
Rather than answer and admit that Adam may have been right, Joe had sulled up like an old possum and hadn’t said another word the whole way home or for the rest of the day. And for the next four days he had kept his distance from his oldest brother, but then things had settled back into an uneasy peace until the next flare up.
Joe shifted again and tugged his hat down in front. Now that he looked back on the incident, he knew that Adam had probably stretched the truth about his rambunctious ways. Adam had always been Pa’s golden son, and the pride of the Ponderosa. Well, Joe wasn’t proud of him, and he couldn’t help but hope that Pa wouldn’t be either.
Out in the open, light could be seen for a long distance. So when Dusty cleared a clump of trees, the glow from a campfire instantly caught Adam’s attention. The corners of his mouth turned, and he snickered. He hadn’t been wrong that some of his bundles of twigs had been purloined.
The big black moved through the night like a wraith, with only the telltale crunch of the snow to give away its presence. So Adam reined up some distance from the camp. He didn’t want Joe to hear him coming or for Cochise and Dusty to call out to one another. Granted, it would be a good slog in the dark and cold, but he felt compelled to do it this way.
By the time Adam reached the outer fringe of the small encampment – Joe’s saddlebags in his hand – he was plumb worn out. His joints ached and throbbed from the cold that had settled into them. His gloves kept his hands from feeling the arctic chill so acutely, but they still felt like ice balls. And being careful not to make the slightest sound also took its toll on his nearly thirty-seven-year-old body.
He hunkered behind a stand of scrub brush and hoped he was downwind. But when Cochise didn’t react to his presence, he knew he was.
The glow of the petite fire played over Joe’s face as he sat hunched close to it. His mind seemed to be miles away as his thumb rubbed idly over something in his left hand. Adam strained to see what it was, but it was obscured by his brother’s fingers.
An onerous breath shuddered through the youngest Cartwright, and his head dropped for less than a second. He raised his hand and held the object so that the light caught it. At this distance Adam could see that it was Joe’s lucky piece. It was an old Roman coin that Adam had bought from a destitute seaman in San Francisco a few years back right at the beginning of the late war. He hadn’t needed it, but the sailor had been in dire need of some eating money. At least, he had said it was for eating, though had Adam expected it to go for a bottle. He grinned as he remembered when he had presented it to his little brother upon his return home.
Adam had just raised a foot to step into the small circle of light when Joe’s voice cut into the stillness, and he stood motionless.
“Why?” Joe’s thumb began to run harder over the contours of the coin. “Why couldn’t you…” He went perfectly still then his fingers gripped tighter on the piece. For a long moment he just sat there, his gaze fixed on it. Then, with a vicious fling, he slung it into the fire and buried his face in his hands.
Adam felt as if he had been run through. A keen pain cut into his heart and made his eyes sting, and his vision blur. He blinked and swiped at his cheeks. I’m sorry, Joe, he mouthed, inaudibly. He put the saddlebags down where Joe would be sure to find them, then turned back into the night and faded into the gloom without his brother ever knowing he was there.
By this time the wind had changed, and Cochise raised his head and gave a slight snort. But Joe was so deep in his grief that he didn’t even notice.
Angelica had resigned herself to the fact that Adam had gone all the way to the Ponderosa. She didn’t like it that he had gone without her, but she knew why he had. And, even though she didn’t care for the idea, she condoned it. Adam’s family was important to him – as it should be with any man – and he would do what needed to be done to safeguard it.
Supper was over and the table cleared, and bedtime would soon come. And it was always the best time for the boys’ baths. Angelica had learned that the warm water and the energetic play that ensued helped them to sleep. This didn’t mean that they still didn’t fight it when the mood suited them, but it helped. Usually.
Little Hiram gave a huge splash and his brothers copied him, and absolutely soaked Maggie. And her exaggerated reaction brought out a peel of laughter from all three babies, as well as their mother.
“Now I know what the rat that forgot to leave the sinking ship felt like,” Maggie said, as she shook her dripping hands.
Angelica pushed a sodden strand back from her face. “Well, they can’t let me have all the fun. Like their father, they are very fair minded.”
The sound of someone entering the parlor temporarily diverted the women’s attention. The light glittered in Angelica’s violet eyes as she gave Maggie a quick glance. “Adam’s home. Would you…?”
“You go ahead. We’ll be just fine. They might even teach me how to swim.”
“Thank you, Maggie.” Then she dashed for the kitchen door as she dried her hands on the tail of her sopping apron.
Angelica’s eyes scanned the expansive parlor as she stepped into the dining room. It was as vacant as it had been before, and she detected no sign of life. Even the dog was gone from where he had been stretched before the hearth. “Adam.” But she got no answer. “I know I heard…” Then her gaze went to the closed study door on the other side of the room.
Her shoes clicked against the hardwood as she crossed the room. She knocked. “Adam, are you in there?”
After another moment of pure silence, she finally got an answer. “Come in, Angel.”
She poked her head inside, and saw that he stood behind the desk with his back to her. In the gentle glow of the desk lamp she could tell that his arms were crossed in front of him, and he stood before the window with the draperies opened onto the night. His coat and saddlebags had been hung over the wingchair by the floor-to-ceiling bookcases along one wall. His hat and gloves had apparently been haphazardly dropped onto the blotter. And he didn’t move.
Still, he stood as if chiseled from a single piece of onyx.
A sense of unease coursed through her, and no one had to tell her that something was wrong. She pushed the door quietly closed behind her and – with cautious steps – went to him. Buddy sat next to his legs and his soulful chocolate eyes rose to her. Shadow cast over the side of her husband’s face as his gaze remained set beyond the window pane.
“Adam…, are you all right?”
He stood there for what felt like an eternity then looked around at her. A sharp breath whistled into her lungs and made an audible gasp. For as long as she had known him, she had never seen such an expression of despondency and loss on that dark, handsome face.
She reached out and touched his cool cheek. “Adam…, what is it?”
Another second of silence passed.
“I’ve lost Joe…. He hates me.”
“Oh, I can’t believe that. He may be angry over this now, but he will get over it. You have told me that he always has in the past.”
“Not this time…. This time I went too far.” He set his eyes back on the window. “He despises the ground that I stand on…, and I can’t say that he wouldn’t happier if I were dead.”
She flounced in front of him and gripped his shoulders. Her head blocked the window and forced him to look at her. “Don’t even say such a thing. I won’t believe that, and you shouldn’t either.”
“But it’s the truth, and not believing it won’t change that.”
“Then why do you believe it? Did he say something?”
“What he said did didn’t say as much as the looks. The way he looked at me that last day told me everything I didn’t want to but needed to know.”
“I still can’t… He’s your brother.”
“Not to hear him tell it. According to him, he has only one brother now…. And it isn’t me…. But even with that, I couldn’t quit until…”
“You know the lucky piece I gave him several years back.”
“That old coin?”
He nodded, and a sharp sigh rattled through him. “I watched him throw it into his campfire.”
Different emotions mingled in Angelica’s body and made it tremble. She wanted to cry. She wanted to strike Joe and scream at him. She wanted to reassure Adam that he was wrong, that he couldn’t possibly be right. But she couldn’t do any of the aforementioned.
“He thinks I lost my trust in him…, and as the result, he’s lost it in me…. He wanted to marry that girl. Yet, even knowing that, I would do the very same thing if I had it to do all over again. She was no good, and I couldn’t let that happen to my little brother.”
“Then it wasn’t a mistake.”
“Maybe not that part of it, but I didn’t tell him. Nine years, and I never told him…. And that’s what he can’t forgive the most.”
“Then he had better learn to. This isn’t worth breaking up the family over, and neither is a stupid grudge. And if Joe Cartwright isn’t man enough to admit that then maybe he needs to grow up some more.”
“It isn’t his fault. I’m to blame for this fiasco.”
She took his face in her hands and looked straight into it. “Stop it. Do you hear me? Just stop it. Everything that goes wrong isn’t your fault. No, of course, you aren’t’ perfect, but then neither are the rest of us.” Some of her fire died. “When we love someone so desperately, we will go to any length to protect them. I know…,” she tenderly caressed his cheek, “for I would kill or die to keep harm from touching you or our sons. And if I had your brother here right now, I would slap the face and eyes right off of him and tell him so.”
One side of his finely sculpted mouth crooked as he looked down on her. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“I did once before, and I certainly would do it again. And I do not, cannot, and will not forgive him for turning his back on you. And so help me, if he ever touches you again…”
He could feel her hands begin to quiver and see the tears that flooded those marvelous eyes. He gave her a light peck on the lips as his arms stole about her waist. “You make me whole even when a part is missing.”
Her eyes traced over his features then – with a whimper – she thumped her head against his chest, and her arms went around him.
His hold tightened on her, and he pressed her warmth closer. His Angel had not abandoned him, and he knew his father wouldn’t either. As for Hoss, as much as he hoped it wouldn’t, he knew that this would bring up painful memories of Reagan Miller, and that lost love. But, a tiny voice in his head whispered that his decidedly larger brother would stand with him. Even with that, however, the thought that he had lost Joe, maybe for good and all, made him hollow. He squeezed his eyes together and rested the side of his face against the top of her head and felt the pain more keenly than he had in days.
Angelica hoped that Joe came to his senses before it was too late, for if he didn’t, his heart would know a misery that time would only augment. To think that Adam would live the rest of his life in the belief that his little brother hated him tormented her. Her arms clenched around him and for the first time, she thought she could hate Joe. And if this hurt her Adam as much as she feared…, she would.
TO BE CONTINUED