Blood Bonds (by Corinna)

 

Summary:  Writing Bonanza fanfic has brought me some unexpected benefits, one of those being the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. With a few of those people, I felt a surprisingly strong instant connection. Crystal was one of those people, and I’d like to dedicate this story to her. May our friendship be long and sunny!
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,000


 



They were so dark, those eyes.

Really dark. Not the cinnamon-and-moss color of Adam’s eyes or even the strong coffee color of his pa’s. No, these eyes were black and flat, like still water lying in the bottom of a deep well. He found himself staring at them as the brave raised his knife, and he suddenly felt disjointed and curiously detached, as if what was happening was happening to someone else.

Blue Wolf stared back. Joe felt his mind moving into those black eyes, and in that moment, he lost himself. He was no longer in the warm, protected world he had known for all his fifteen years, but somewhere else entirely, someplace raw and wild.

Someplace he had never been, but a place where he had always belonged.

The blade’s sharp edge sliced through the tender skin of his wrist, and the sting of it was almost enough to bring him back to himself. Almost, but not quite. He stared at the crimson line of blood as it welled up, the light from the setting sun turning it to a fiery red-gold as it flowed over the edge of his wrist and fell, glistening, to earth.

He felt a tiny splash hit his cheek, and he looked up. The brave was running his knife along his own wrist, and small ruby droplets spilled down onto Joe’s upturned palm. Blue Wolf pressed his bleeding wrist against Joe’s and wrapped a length of rawhide around their two arms, holding them fast together.

For a moment, Joe’s skin slipped and slid against Blue Wolf’s arm, the heat in his pulse seeking that of the Indian’s. Then the flow slowed, and the blood grew thick and tacky, cementing their wrists to one another in a clinging embrace.

“We have spilled our blood, welcoming death so that we may be reborn as brothers,” Blue Wolf said, and his eyes once again held Joe’s. “When you saved my life today, you chose me as your brother. In return, I now choose you as mine. We are as one. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Joe said softly. He knew what being brothers meant, if that’s what the Indian was asking. It meant caring for someone so much that his pain was your pain. It meant praying for his happiness long before you would think to pray for your own.

It meant, when necessary, risking your very life to help him. Something he would gladly do for his own brothers, and now something he had done for Blue Wolf, even if it was a situation he had more or less fallen into unexpectedly.

It was as if the Indian had been reading his mind as he thought about Hoss and Adam. “You have birth brothers?”

“Yes. Two.”

He shook his head. “It is not the same. Brothers of blood are different from brothers of birth. Stronger. There is no choice with birth brothers, but today—you and I—we choose. We choose to protect each other, and to always be loyal to each other.”

The ‘stronger than birth brothers’ bit was bothering Joe. His forehead wrinkled as he thought about it, pretty certain he could never agree to such a thing. Even at fifteen, he was aware that the bond he shared with Adam and Hoss was strong, exceptionally so. Yet he also understood something of what Blue Wolf was telling him, although he wouldn’t have been able to comprehend it before today.

Today he had killed a bear.

He had been hunting for deer, a particular deer as a matter of fact, a big wily buck that led him on a wild goose chase that had gone on all day. He had been hot on the buck’s trail, sure he was about to close in on him, when his horse started acting like a dang fool, rearing and fighting the bit.

“Would you cut it out?” he whispered. “You’re going to scare him off.” He tried to rein him up the trail, but Red refused to cooperate. He crow-hopped and fought to turn back in the opposite direction. Joe was aiming a few choice words into the horse’s ears when he heard it.

A deep, rumbling growl and low, strained grunts.

Red reared again, threatening to unseat him. He jumped off and tied the horse to a tree, grabbed his rifle, and hurried up the trail. As he topped the rise, he jerked to a stop.

In the middle of the trail was an Indian struggling to hold off an enormous grizzly. They were entwined in a primal dance of snarls and growls and blood, and the Indian was clearly on the losing end of it. His knife was flashing in and out of the heavy matted fur, but it didn’t appear to be making much of an impression other than making the bear even angrier.

It was clear what the bear would be having for supper that night. Joe hadn’t had time to think about what to do, so he had done the first thing that came to mind, the thing that came most naturally to him whenever he was frightened or angry or confused.

He opened his mouth and started yelling. His hope was to get the animal’s attention off the Indian. It worked, although not exactly as he had hoped.

The bear turned loose of the Indian and turned to charge toward Joe, barely leaving time for him to raise his rifle and pull the trigger. His eyes were squeezed shut and he was braced for the worst by the time the creature crashed to earth a few feet away from him. He had hit the ground himself immediately after, his legs gone suddenly weak. When the bear twitched a paw, he shot him again, and this time there was no other movement.

Shuddering violently at the remembrance of those gaping jaws rushing toward him, he had pulled himself together enough to get to his feet and hurry to see whether or not the Indian was dead. Blue Wolf, however, was very much alive, and looking quite astounded to find himself that way. He pulled himself up off the ground, ignoring the deep, bloody furrows gouged into his shoulder and thigh, and met Joe face to face.

In that moment Joe’s eyes locked with the Indian’s, and something indefinable passed between them. A connection, a strange affinity. After staring each other up and down, the Indian grunted and nodded at him. He thanked Joe, and it was soon apparent that he knew a fair amount of English. They exchanged names, but it was as if they had known each other before they even spoke.

No, Joe didn’t know if what he was feeling could possibly ever be as strong as what tied him to Hoss and Adam.

But it was strong, there was no doubt.

“You choose?” Blue Wolf asked.

Did he? He chewed his lip, already worried about what his pa and brothers would have to say about his taking part in the ritual.

“You let him take a knife and do what?” He could hear them already, and he stiffened as if they were standing right there in front of him, shaking their heads in disapproval and ready to take him to task for using such poor judgment. As so often happened these days, he was suddenly angry. It seemed he could never make a decision for himself without his family interfering, even when they weren’t around.

He shrugged. It was too late anyway. The cut on his wrist had been made. Apparently the acceptance of new brotherhood was just a final formality, and he suddenly felt smug that he had entered into something so important without advice from his pa and brothers.

He nodded, his mind made up. “Yeah. I choose.”

Blue Wolf grunted approval. He made some signs in the air and said some words Joe didn’t understand, and then he released the rawhide strap. Joe felt an odd sense of loss as their wrists parted and fell away from each other. He looked into the Indian’s stony face, wondering if he felt it too, but Blue Wolf only cocked his head, studying him as if he could see deep, deep inside.

It was growing dark. His family knew he had gone hunting for the buck, but they would be expecting him back by now. They would be getting worried. “I have to go,” he told Blue Wolf. The Indian walked with him back down the trail to retrieve Red.

“Before you leave, come with me a short distance down the mountain,” Blue Wolf said. “I would give my brother a gift to show my gratitude.”

If anyone had told him he’d willingly go into the woods with an Apache brave as dark was falling, he’d have said they were crazy. But here he was, riding behind Blue Wolf, headed out into the woods.

After a short ride through dense timber, Blue Wolf led him into the back of a small box canyon. A rough pen had been erected there, and it held a handful of horses. The Indian pointed toward them.

“The young one, he will grow into one who will serve you well. Strong of heart, full of spirit. Unafraid.” He turned and looked at Joe, and a corner of his mouth slid up. “Like you, Joe Cartwright.”

In the gathering gloom, Joe could see a black and white paint yearling pacing back and forth along the fence. He got down from Red’s back and moved closer, stretching his hand out through the rails.

The horse snorted, but held its ground. Tentatively, it reached out a velvety nose but refused to come close enough for Joe to touch. Blue Wolf smiled. “He knows he is yours. He just does not yet understand who is the master and who is the servant.” Blue Wolf’s expression grew serious. “Take care, my brother. He will not take to restraint well; he will fight the tether hard.” He smiled. “I think you are one who fights against restraint, as well. This is true?”

Joe blushed, wondering how the Indian had so quickly come straight to the heart of the very thing that Pa and his brothers were always warning him about. He shrugged.

Blue Wolf smiled again. “As I said, the young horse, he is like you; your spirits are the same.”

Together they stared at the horse as he danced under the rising moon, the black and white patterns of his coat shifting like shadows and moonlight.

“I say again, take care with him,” Blue Wolf said softly. “He will not be an easy one to master.”

*****

Late Autumn, 1862

The corners of Joe’s mouth lifted in a tiny smile as he thought about his first meeting with Blue Wolf. He rubbed his hand gently along Cochise’s face.

“He sure knew what he was talking about, didn’t he, boy?” he whispered. As Blue Wolf had predicted the pinto had not bent easily to his taming. During those first months, Joe had been kicked, stepped on, and dragged around the corral more times than he cared to count. When it came time to accustom the horse to a rider, Joe had been thrown off his unwilling back over and over again.

Pa had not been at all impressed. Even after weeks of working with him, Cochise showed no signs of settling into the role of cow pony. When left alone in the corral he would continually charge along the fence as if searching for a way out. Being approached by a human being was enough to send him rearing and pawing and acting like a total jughead. A “raving lunatic”, Adam grumbled, and even Hoss didn’t have much good to say about the horse. Before long, everyone but Joe kept a wary distance from him, and Joe didn’t have much to show for his efforts other than cuts and bruises and worse.

The point finally came when Pa forbid Joe to keep him.

“He’s a rogue, Little Joe,” he said, his mouth set in a grim line as he watched Doc Martin finish up after setting Joe’s broken arm. “He’s dangerous.”

As with all the accidents and injuries Cochise had been involved in, Joe defended his horse. “It was my fault, Pa. I shouldn’t have snugged him down so tight to the post. He wasn’t ready, and I pushed him. He panicked; that’s all.” He watched Pa’s face harden against the mercy he was pleading for, and he began to cast about in his mind for ways to make him change his mind.

The problem was his pa knew it wasn’t the first time the horse had “panicked”, nor was it the second, fifth, or tenth time. This latest session had resulted in Joe being trapped between the frenzied animal and the fence; he had been saved from further damage only because Hoss had been nearby to drag him out of reach. The implications had frightened Ben.

“Joe, sometimes a horse comes along that is just not trainable. They remain wild and unpredictable no matter how much we try to change them. That type of horse is always a danger, both to himself and to his rider. There is no place on the Ponderosa for an animal like that.” Pa shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to either turn him loose or give him back to Blue Wolf.”

Joe was devastated. “No, Pa! Please don’t ask me to do that. Please.” He saw that his pa’s mind was made up, but he continued to beg for one last chance. The horse was important to him in ways that he couldn’t begin to name. Part of it, of course, was the fact that Cochise had been a gift from Blue Wolf, but there was more to it than that. The wildness in the animal somehow appealed to Joe, even as he worked to rid him of it.

“Please,” he said again, and tried to ignore the twinge of pain that came as Doc Martin finished adjusting the sling on his arm. “One more chance. I promise I’ll be more careful around him. Just don’t make me give him up.”

It would have been so easy for his father to say no. Joe’s own mother had died from an accident involving a horse that Ben had been set against her riding, and Joe knew Ben had always felt partially responsible for the accident.

Ben had always found it near impossible to resist a plea from her, though, and now it seemed his youngest son had the same power over him. Much against his better judgment and in the face of Doc Martin’s loud snorts of disapproval, he eventually gave in and granted Cochise a reprieve.

“All right.” He nodded grimly. “One last chance. But mark my words, Joe. If you are hurt again because of that animal, he will be gone that same day. Understood?”

He had meant it, too, Joe knew. He smiled now, thinking of the mistrust Pa had long held for Cochise. He leaned against the horse in the dim, warm confines of his stall, brushing the horse’s flanks with long, lazy strokes.

“Five years you’ve been with me, and look how far you’ve come,” he said and he smiled as the horse nickered softly.

It wasn’t that he and Cochise had come to an understanding the day Pa had given him the ultimatum. No, there had been months of battles to come, with Joe getting the worst of most of them. To prevent Cochise’s banishment from the ranch, Joe had become amazingly adept at hiding his injuries from his family. It helped that, to some extent, he had always had a tendency to try to downplay illness or pain in himself, but the burden of Cochise’s training had made him a master at it.

He had resorted to outright secrecy, something that didn’t come naturally to him. He had taken to wearing his sleeves rolled down to hide the bruises. Once he had bribed a ranch hand into keeping quiet after binding up his broken ribs, and when Cochise struck out with a hoof and opened up a gaping cut on his leg, he had ridden alone to Virginia City to have a Chinese doctor sew it up. A broken bone in his foot had been dealt with by weeks of managing to assign himself to working cattle by horseback; he had spent as many hours as possible in the saddle and off his foot until it healed. It still bothered him when the weather changed.

Doc Martin, and therefore Pa, had never known about any of it.

He had become very proficient at gritting his teeth and forcing his body to bend and move normally when he was in sight of Pa or Hoss or Adam, regardless of what it cost him physically. They had sometimes eyed him suspiciously, but he had always been able to put them off by saying his muscles were just a little stiff. He knew they didn’t always believe him, but if they’d had any idea of just how much he was getting battered around they’d have thrown a conniption fit. So he kept hiding it.

By the time Cochise was truly rideable, denying physical pain had become such a habit to Joe that he continued to do it without thinking long after it was no longer necessary.

It was a habit that drove his family crazy, he knew, saying he was fine when he wasn’t, but they thought he did it out of pure stubbornness and a need to prove himself as a man. If he was honest, he supposed it had started out that way, when he was still young enough to believe that showing pain was a weakness. After Cochise became his, though, it had become something else. His pa and brothers had never caught on. They didn’t know that hiding injury was a skill he had taught himself, had forced himself to learn—all out of desperation to save his horse from exile when he was just a kid.

It was the first time he’d ever figured out how to deceive his pa and brothers about anything. He couldn’t say he was proud of it, but neither could he say he would do anything different if given the chance.

“Becky would tell me I should be ashamed of myself,” he told the horse and smiled at the thought of her. ‘Little Joe Cartwright, you should be ashamed’ was a mild rebuke that came often from his girl, and it held no sting coming from her sweet lips. There were times when he purposely did something to annoy Becky Cullen just so he’d have the pleasure of watching her eyes flash. Her exasperation with him was always shallow and short-lived though, and she would invariably lean over to kiss him seconds later.

“You are incorrigible,” she’d mutter and then laugh when he’d grab her for another kiss.

Becky had become an increasingly important part of his life over the last several months. Her family lived a couple of ranches over and Joe had known her his entire life. One day, just like that, he had looked at her, really looked, and had seen the woman she had become and suddenly he couldn’t get enough of her; he was totally and completely beguiled. Being with her gave him the same feeling he got whenever he stretched Cochise out into a full-tilt run—dangerous, reckless, exhilarating. Much like his relationship with Blue Wolf, and yet different.

He loved Becky Cullen, and when Joe Cartwright loved someone, he did it the same way he did everything—he threw everything he had into it.

Even when he was away from her his thoughts were not. Standing there now in the dark stall, he leaned his forehead against Cochise’s neck and confessed a secret. “She’s the one, boy. I’m going to marry that girl. It’s just a matter of me convincing her pa that I’m not that ‘wild Little Joe Cartwright’ he seems to think I am.”

Cochise snorted as if reminded of his own wilder days, and Joe laughed. The days of worrying over Cochise’s welcome on the ranch were long gone, and now he saw no need to tell his family anything of his earlier struggles with the animal.

“What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em, right, Cochise?” he murmured now, and the horse snorted as if in agreement.

“Sometimes I swear that critter understands you, little brother.”

For a big man, Hoss could be mighty quiet on his feet. Joe grinned at him, only slightly embarrassed to have been caught talking to his horse.

“Yeah, well, he’s a good listener.”

Hoss chuckled. “And what was it you was tellin’ him that we don’t need to know?”

Joe patted Cochise on the neck and flashed Hoss a grin. “That’s between me and Cochise. If you ask him real sweet-like, maybe he’ll tell you.”

Hoss laughed, but it was a hollow sound that gave Joe pause. Hoss’ expression was not matching up with his easy words. As Joe watched, Hoss’ smile slid off his face as if it were too heavy for him to hold there and Joe felt his own smile slip. His heart begin to hammer.

“Joe…Adam just rode in….”

Joe abruptly turned away to concentrate on brushing Cochise again. He knew deep in his soul that he didn’t want to hear what Adam had found out, and he found himself suddenly wishing Hoss hadn’t come into the barn at all, that he could stay inside the barn forever, alone among the horses, barricaded from the outside world and all its troubles by large, warm bodies and sweet-smelling hay.

But Hoss had come in. He’d come to find him and tell him what he had to hear, even though he didn’t want to hear it.

“Joe…they’re sayin’ in town that Blue Wolf was leadin’ that pack that killed those homesteaders two days ago. Just like the ones last week.” Hoss’ voice was quiet.

Joe stopped brushing but didn’t take his eyes off the horse. “He didn’t do it, Hoss.”

“There were witnesses, Joe. They say he was seen riding…“

Joe whirled around and flung the brush against the stall wall. The loud thump made Cochise snort and throw back his head, but he remained standing quietly, unlike his owner. Joe pushed in front of the horse and rounded on Hoss. “I don’t care what they say. It’s not true.” He stood with his fists clenched and his chin jutted out toward his brother as if daring him to argue.

But Hoss only watched him with troubled eyes, and Joe felt his insides deflate along with his anger. He leaned his elbows along the top of the stall wall and dropped his face onto his arms, suddenly as tired as he could ever remember. He felt his brother’s big hand drop gently onto the nape of his neck, and he sighed.

He knew his family had always had a hard time accepting Blue Wolf’s presence in his life. His relationship with Blue Wolf had always been hard to explain, even to himself. Blue Wolf insisted on holding himself quite aloof from the Cartwrights and other homesteaders, limiting his association with whites to infrequent trading with a few trappers. He had reluctantly acquiesced to Joe’s introducing him to his father and brothers once, but other than that, he preferred to shun the company of the “white eyes”, save for Joe. Joe knew he sometimes watched the Ponderosa from afar, but after that initial meeting, he had rebuffed any other contact with his family. Joe wrote his reserve off to the distrust often held between white men and Indians and at fifteen, he had been naïve enough to believe that he could eventually change Blue Wolf’s mind about the misgivings he held.

Despite the Indian’s aversion to white men, Joe’s friendship with him had been an easy one from the beginning. Their widely differing backgrounds never seemed to matter when they were out hunting together, and Joe was continually amazed at the wealth of knowledge Blue Wolf possessed. He had learned a tremendous amount from him—the best way to sneak up on wild game, how to tell how soon snow would fall by looking at the moon, how to survive without water by chewing pine needles, and how to throw himself onto the back of a horse without ever having to touch the stirrups.

They didn’t talk much when they were together, which was a funny thing since it was completely at odds with Joe’s usual inclination, but a lot of words between them had never seemed necessary.

At first Joe had been up front with Pa regarding his frequent contact with Blue Wolf, but when he saw that his father wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea he started thinking up ways to be more covert about it. He’d volunteer to take inventory in a remote line shack or he’d offer to check on the herd grazing in the outermost sections of the ranch. He told himself it wasn’t exactly lying. After all, they were all legitimate tasks and he faithfully executed each and every one. Once the job was finished, though, he’d head off deep into the woods and almost invariably would meet up with Blue Wolf. It was as though the Indian knew when he was coming.

He would wander home several hours later than expected, but when Pa would mention something about how long he had taken, he would simply shrug his shoulders and murmur an apology. It was one of the advantages of being the youngest and most irresponsible member of the family. People were generally satisfied as long as he completed the job, regardless of how long it took.

He wasn’t sure what drew him so strongly to the Indian. Blue Wolf was a good ten years older than he was, and he was a lot more serious than the sort of men Joe usually collected as friends. For one thing, he wasn’t young and wild; no, he was a grown man, strong and tough and wary. With his somber eyes and calm demeanor, he sometimes reminded Joe very much of Adam.

He was different than Adam, though, in that he never treated Joe like a kid. He might give a word of cautionary advice, much as he had when he had given Cochise to him, but he never ordered him not to do something just because it might be dangerous. On the contrary, he sometimes encouraged Joe to try things that Joe’s own intuition and common sense would normally warn him away from.

He wasn’t much worried over Joe’s safety, and that in itself appealed to Joe. For the first time in his life, a man—not one of his young friends, but a grown man—treated him as an equal. At fifteen, it was the highest sort of compliment.

The Indian fascinated him, and he had continued to seek out his company. By the time he was seventeen he sometimes even told Pa where he was going. His defiant candor did little to put his father’s mind at ease where Blue Wolf was concerned.

“Joseph, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for you to spend so much time with someone we know so little about,” Pa had argued upon occasion.

Joe understood his father’s worry even though he himself knew there was no basis for it. “He’s secretive for his own protection, Pa,” he had tried to explain. “He’s like a lot of Indians, Apaches and otherwise. He doesn’t trust white people that much, that’s all.”

Actually, he trusted them not at all, except for Joe. He had made that point abundantly clear to him.

“But you can trust my Pa and brothers,” Joe had insisted once. “They would never hurt you. They’re my family…“

Blue Wolf’s reaction was vehement. “They are not my family,” he spat. “My family was wiped out by their kind. They are from a people that seek only to destroy all tribes that are not their own so that they can steal all the land, all the oceans, all the forests. They might take my hand in theirs in friendship, but it would only be so that they could better thrust their knives into my back.”

Joe’s astonished denials had only made Blue Wolf erupt in fury.

“Little brother, do not continue to try to force my heart into friendship with your White Eyes. My tribe has tried your way before, only to be cut down by the very arms offering peace. Your insistence makes me think that perhaps you are as deceitful as they are.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” Joe stammered. “I can understand how you might feel the way you do about whites, but I promise you that my family is not like that. They’re worried about me, that’s all.”

Blue Wolf’s eyes had bored into his. “Why do you give others the power to decide for you when to worry?”

He had stalked off into the woods and Joe hadn’t seen him again for months.

He had been so shaken at the thought of losing his friend’s trust that he’d never mentioned his family to him again.

And so his association with Blue Wolf continued. Pa didn’t like it much, but never actually forbid him to spend time with Blue Wolf. By the time Joe was eighteen, it wasn’t unusual for him to be gone from home overnight while attending to various far-flung ranch duties, and if Pa suspected that those duties had something to do with Blue Wolf, he didn’t say so.

Joe and the Indian would sometimes hunt together all day without saying more than a handful of words, but the silences were comfortable and easy. Those hunts had never failed to leave Joe feeling replenished somehow, more in balance with the world, and he always found himself looking forward to the next time Blue Wolf would leave a sign for him to come. If the far-away grimness in the Indian’s eyes sometimes bothered Joe, he told himself Blue Wolf was no more sullen than his oldest brother could be at times.

One day Blue Wolf stopped coming around, simple as that. As abruptly as their friendship had begun, so it seemed to have ended. Joe searched for signs of his passing now and then, but had no luck in finding him. For all he could tell, the Indian had deserted the area. Joe couldn’t help feeling a little hurt that he hadn’t at least said goodbye.

Rumors of Blue Wolf’s return to the area had recently begun surfacing from a couple of traders, but if he was anywhere near he wasn’t making that known to Joe. In the past couple of weeks the rumors had turned ugly, whispering of murder and theft, and Joe was as angered and hurt as if the accusations had been thrown at Hoss or Adam.

Now he stood fiddling with a halter hanging on the wall as Hoss watched him with troubled eyes. He spoke again in a low, soft voice, desperate to make Hoss understand. “How could it be true, Hoss? How could Blue Wolf have had anything to do with it? He’s no killer; you know that.” The pit of Joe’s stomach hardened into a cold knot when Hoss didn’t answer. Joe raised his head to look at him. “You…you don’t really think he had anything to do with those killings.” He stared at his brother, willing him to say what he wanted to hear. “Hoss? Do you?”

It was Hoss’ turn to drop his gaze. “Joe, how long’s it been since you seen Blue Wolf? Two years?”

“A year and a half.” Joe pulled out from under his brother’s hand, his anger taking root again. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Nothin’, Joe, it’s just—well, a man can change a lot in that amount of time. Things happen…“

“No.” Joe shook his head and then slammed his fist against the wall. “No! How can you be saying that? I know this man almost as well as I know you. He couldn’t have murdered those people. How can you even be thinking that?” He was angry, and he was frightened for his friend’s sake. If Hoss, of all people, couldn’t look past the lies to see what sort of man Blue Wolf really was…

“He’s not the only one thinking it, Joe. There’s a posse back in town getting ready to ride even as we speak.” Adam had come quietly into the barn to stand beside Hoss, and his voice had a hard edge to it that rankled Joe.

“And you, Adam?” Joe’s voice was deceptively soft. “Are you riding with them?”

It wasn’t Adam who answered, but Hoss. “Little Joe…we’re all riding with ‘em.”

*****

It hurt Hoss to see Little Joe flinch like that, like he had slapped him full in the face. He felt bad for the boy; they all did. When Joe was younger, he and that Indian brave had been as tight as any two men Hoss had ever known, and to have to face up to what Blue Wolf had become—well, Joe was having a real hard time of it.

Hoss’ stomach was sick with the fact that they still hadn’t told him the worst of it.

Joe was looking at them with narrowed eyes. “I guess Pa is riding, too?”

“He’s upstairs changing right now,” Adam said, and they watched Joe turn his face away, trying to hide the emotions that were surging through him.

He turned back, a tiny muscle jumping in his jaw. “The three of you are just like all the others. People get killed, blame it on an Indian. You want to be sure to be along to make sure Blue Wolf gets what’s coming to him. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“No, that’s not it.” Adam ran an exasperated hand through his hair. “Joe, that posse is riding with or without us. We want to make sure Blue Wolf gets a chance to see a fair trial…“

“A fair trial?” Joe’s voice rose. “Tell me, Adam, just how fair a trial do you think someone like Blue Wolf could ever receive in Virginia City? He’s Apache. That’s enough to make him guilty as far as anybody in that courtroom is concerned.”

Adam drew in a breath as if to speak but then let it out again. He dropped his head. “He has to be stopped, Joe.”

“I’m telling you again, Adam. It wasn’t him.” Joe had his fists doubled up, and for a moment Hoss thought he might go after Adam. But then he simply sagged against the wall and shook his head. “It wasn’t him.”

Hoss looked at Adam, waiting for him to tell the rest, but his older brother only stared at the barn floor as if he hoped to see an answer there. Being the one to tell Joe was the last job on earth that Hoss wanted, but it had to be done. Dragging things out wasn’t going to make it any easier.

He took a deep breath. “Little Joe…there’s somethin’ else.”

Joe’s head snapped up and his eyes sparked with fury. “What? I suppose you’re going to tell me that you and Adam saw Blue Wolf kill those people too?”

Hoss shook his head, his chest constricting with pain for the heartbreak he was about to cause his brother. “Joe…there was another homestead hit this morning.” He stopped and swallowed, and found himself unable to finish delivering the final blow.

But Joe was moving slowly to stand directly in front of him, his green eyes searching and full of the dreadful certainty that something awful had happened.

“Who?” he whispered. His face had paled as if someone had already told him, although Hoss knew that couldn’t be.

Hoss opened his mouth but couldn’t make the words come out. He looked at Adam, going weak in the knees with gratitude when his older brother moved forward to take pity on him.

“It was the Cullens, Joe,” Adam said gently, and as he told the rest in quiet, halting words, Hoss watched each one blindside Joe with devastating effect.

*****

Ben found himself angry at his two older sons for taking it upon themselves to deliver the news. If he had thought that they might intend to say something before he could get back down to the barn, he’d have instructed them to wait. He didn’t know how he could have possibly made the news more bearable, but still, he wished he had been there.

No, it wasn’t their fault. If he had been thinking more clearly, he’d have gone straight out to the barn rather than up to his room to change.

Late that afternoon, Adam had ridden into town to find out if anything more was known about the killings that had taken place over the last few days. He was later getting home than expected, but Ben tried to tell himself that it wasn’t anything to fret about.

He had already changed into his robe and was getting ready to settle in for the night when Adam rode in and gave them the bitter words.

“There’s been another incident—the Cullen place was burned to the ground this morning,” he had said. “Horses stolen, livestock slaughtered. The family was dragged out into the yard and murdered.” He had delivered the message quickly and emotionlessly; there was no way to soften it.

The great room fell into stunned silence.

“No!” Hoss whispered. “Becky too?”

Adam shut his eyes and nodded. “Becky too.”

“Dear God…Joe.” Ben murmured the prayer they were all thinking.

Even though Joe’s losing his heart to a girl occurred often enough that it didn’t usually merit much attention, they had all gradually come to the conclusion that this time might be different. Becky was pretty and sweet, and her tranquil demeanor balanced out Joe’s high-strung personality in a way that his family fully appreciated.

When he started answering his brothers’ teasing comments about wedding bells with nothing more than easy going shrugs, they knew things had gotten serious. It was only a matter of time before Joe asked for Becky’s hand in marriage.

There would be no wedding chimes now. The church’s bell would sound only low and mournfully.

“They’re getting the posse together now,” Adam had told them in that even, emotionless, terrible voice. Adam had always been one to concentrate on getting the facts laid out no matter how horrible the news. “They’re dead certain the band rode north…“

“Do they know for sure who it was?” Hoss asked. Ben hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask although deep down he was afraid he already knew the answer.

Adam grimaced and nodded. “Seems there was one survivor at the Cullen place. They didn’t quite finish off Mr. Cullen, and he managed to hang on long enough to tell what had happened.” He stopped and looked at Hoss and then back at Ben. “He said it was five Apaches, and he swore that Blue Wolf was giving the orders. Said the tattoo on his arm was clear as day.”

A third attack. And now a third witness. Three people who pointed at Blue Wolf as the leader of the raids. If the bright blue headband he always wore wasn’t enough, the unmistakable design tattooed onto his left forearm made it easy to identify him.

They would have to ride with the posse, of course, just as they had done after the first attacks. More of their neighbors had been brutally cut down, and, the Cartwrights’ own personal grief aside, it was their responsibility to help ensure justice was done, regardless of who had done the killing.

Ben had told Hoss and Adam to get the horses ready, and then hurried up to his room to dress. He had been pulling his boots on when it occurred to him that Hoss and Adam would have to explain to Joe why they were saddling up so late at night. He’d better get down there.

He sat on the edge of the bed and dropped his head into his hands. How to tell his boy that the woman he loved was dead—and that one of his best friends had murdered her?

He sighed. Telling him was unthinkable—and unavoidable.

Forcing himself to move, he hurried downstairs and stopped dead on the landing. His sons had come in so quietly that he hadn’t heard the door shut. Their stricken faces told him everything.

Joseph stood frozen a few feet inside the door, looking as if he didn’t quite know where he was. Hoss and Adam stood just behind him, looking up at Ben with the same slicing pain in their eyes that he felt in his gut. Hop Sing waited off to one side, hovering in anxious silence.

Ben pulled in a breath and continued down. Joe didn’t look at him. He took hold of the boy’s hands and was startled at how cold they were.

“Joe, come sit down,” he said gently. His son was uncharacteristically docile as he allowed himself to be led to the settee. For a long time, the three of them took turns talking to him, but if he heard any of it Ben couldn’t tell. Joe stared straight ahead and said nothing at all, his thumb rubbing absently against the small scar on his right wrist.

“Pa…the posse,” Adam finally reminded him softly, and he nodded. He wanted to tell Adam to take Hoss and ride on without him. He wanted to do nothing more than sit here and hold his boy, rocking together in an attempt to weather a flood of grief, just as they had done all those nights after his mother’s death.

But he couldn’t. Time wouldn’t allow it. If they were going to catch the killers, they had to move now. Otherwise, Becky’s death would go unpunished and more innocent people could end up dying. If that happened, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. He knew Joe wouldn’t, either.

He had to go. He squeezed his son’s arm and then pulled gently away from him. “Joe, you stay. Hop Sing will be here with you if you need anything.”

The reaction was instantaneous and startling; Joe shot off the settee and headed for the door, and it was obvious where he was going. Ben’s mouth tightened. He should have known the boy would have no intention of remaining behind while others hunted for those responsible for Becky’s death.

“Joe,” he called. His son ignored him and kept going, and he raised his voice. “Joe!”

Joe stopped then and turned slowly to face him, and Ben let out a breath, relieved that he apparently still had a tenuous hold on him.

Joe’s emotions had always been easily discernible, but the expression on his face at this moment frightened Ben. Such betrayal and raw, savage anger… Ben swallowed and stepped toward Joe.

“Son, I know it’s hard, incredibly hard, but you’ve got to stay calm. When we catch Blue Wolf, we will turn him over to the law to deal with. Do you understand?”

Joe shook his head slowly, and Adam broke in. “Joe, you know you can’t go after him with the intention of gunning him down.”

Joe stared at his brother, and the anger in his face melted away. The fathomless sorrow left in his eyes was enough to make Ben want to drop to his knees.

“You don’t understand, Adam,” Joe said softly. “I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to make sure he doesn’t take the blame for something he didn’t do.”

*****

The members of the posse were good men, all of them, but they were angry, and vengeance was high on their list of priorities. All of them had known the Cullens, and most of them also knew the two families who had been killed earlier in the week. Although the witnesses had quickly pointed a finger at Blue Wolf, he had been impossible to find, moving like a phantom between desert and mountains.

Now Frank Cullen had given them a definite direction in which to look.

Unease tightened in Roy Coffee’s belly as he looked around at the faces in the posse. It wasn’t going to be easy to hold them back—if they actually did catch Blue Wolf, that is. He had his own unvoiced doubts about that.

They had set out to find Blue Wolf and bring him in for questioning after the second attack, but the Indian had slipped through their fingers like water. The Cartwrights had come along on the pursuit, and Roy had been glad of their cautionary presence. After all, the first two witnesses had thought the Indians’ leader had been Blue Wolf, but they’d seen him from a distance and couldn’t be sure. In the end, it didn’t matter, since Roy hadn’t been able to find him.

Now things were different. Frank Cullen had seen which way Blue Wolf had gone. As for his account of Blue Wolf leading the attack, well, his confrontation with the Indian had been up close and personal, and in Roy’s experience, a dying man rarely lied. Blue Wolf’s guilt was a pretty sure bet in his opinion.

He slid a sideways glance at Joe, and his heart again went out to him. Poor kid. The whole town had been nudging elbows about the sparks between him and Becky Cullen, and it was plain to see how hard this thing had hit him. Grieving for a lost loved one was hard enough; grieving over something like this was way beyond what Roy liked to think about.

He had never quite understood the relationship between Little Joe Cartwright and that Apache, and when he asked Ben about it once, it was plain that Ben didn’t understand it either. Joe had always been a wild one anyway, and it didn’t strike Roy as being particularly prudent for Ben to allow him to run with the likes of a wild Indian like that.

But Ben Cartwright was nothing if not open-minded, and if he saw fit to allow one of his boys to associate with an Apache, far be it for Roy to tell him he was wrong. After what had happened, he was sure his friend was due to suffer for years from people wagging their fingers and telling him they’d told him so. Roy didn’t feel like he needed to be adding to that aggravation.

He sighed to himself. It no longer mattered anyway. Blue Wolf’s attachment to Joe Cartwright was soon to be severed by a hangman’s noose. What Roy couldn’t understand, any more than the rest of the posse, was the boy’s refusal to accept the Indian’s guilt.

“His thinking is just addled right now,” one of the men had shrugged. “Shock’ll do that to a man. He’ll come around.”

Roy was inclined to agree with the shock part. He wasn’t so sure about the boy coming around to their way of thinking though. Once Joe Cartwright got something stuck in his head, it was never easy to steer him back in another direction.

He looked over at Joe again. He was riding apart from everyone else, just as he’d done since they left Virginia City. He had nothing to say, not to his pa, not to Adam, not even to Hoss, and that bothered Roy more than anything.

Joe rode with his shoulders slumped, looking years older than he had two weeks ago when Roy had seen him whirling Becky around a dance floor.

He suddenly noticed that Joe was no longer completely silent. No, the boy’s lips were moving. He was talking, although he was too far away to be heard over the legion of hooves hitting the dirt.

Roy studied him closer. “Well, I’ll eat my hat,” he said softly and shook his head.

Joe Cartwright was apparently carrying on a quiet conversation with his horse.

*****

They were deep into the back country when they lucked into fresh, clear tracks across a sandy stretch.

“Less than an hour ahead of us, from what I can tell,” Hoss said.

The discovery gave the posse new resolve, and they increased their pace.

Adam moved in close to his brother. “Hoss,” he said, keeping his voice low, “if things get—if we find Blue Wolf, make sure Joe doesn’t get away from us. Stay by him.”

Hoss shot him a worried look. “What are you afraid he’ll do?”

Who could ever know what his kid brother might do? Joe had always been cursed—or blessed, depending on the circumstances—with a tendency toward acting without thinking. Fire, aim, ready.

What bothered Adam was the fact that the long ride had given Joe plenty of time to think, but it didn’t seem to have changed his mind. He was still clinging to the belief that Blue Wolf had had nothing to do with those killings, even though logic should tell him otherwise.

Logic had never been Joe’s strong suit.

Adam wiped a hand hard across his mouth and shook his head. “I don’t know what he’ll do. I’m not even sure that he knows what he’ll do. Take off with Blue Wolf and help him hold the rest of us off? I don’t know. I just know that we can’t trust him to think straight right now, so we can’t let him disappear on us.”

Hoss gave him a humorless smile. “I hadn’t planned on it, older brother.” He jerked his head in Ben’s direction. Their pa rode several paces behind and just to the left of Joe, and his eyes never left him. “I think Pa’s got the same general idea we do.”

They rode on in worried silence, and Adam’s thoughts drifted back to that night five years before when Joe had first met Blue Wolf.

It had been late. Joe had gone hunting for venison for Hop Sing’s larder, and it was well past the time when he should have been back. Pa had been anxious enough to order the horses saddled so that they could go out looking for him. They were mounting up when he had straggled into the yard with a nasty looking cut on his wrist and a crazed yearling colt tethered to his saddle horn.

He had looked somehow different that night, almost unfamiliar as he rode into the circle of lantern light warming the yard. Adam wasn’t able to put his finger on exactly what it was, this difference, but he was startled by it. There was a wildness to the boy, a sense of feral savagery that was at odds with the civilized world.

Through his shock of perpetually unruly curls, he had looked back at them from the back of his horse, and Adam found himself sucking in an alarmed breath. With their changing green light and dark lashes, Joe’s eyes had suddenly seemed to Adam to belong more to an animal of the forest than to a fifteen-year-old boy.

An instant later Joe had grinned apologetically, and the illusion was shattered.

They had scolded him, cleaned him up, treated his cut, and rolled their eyes as he told them all about his latest adventure. Pa had been put out by his recklessness, but his relief that Joe had come home safely made him forget most of the admonishments that he had intended to heap upon his youngest son.

Never again had Adam had the same sense of odd unfamiliarity when looking at his brother, and he was glad for that. He had been more unsettled by the whole thing than he liked to admit. Oh, Joe was still wild, all right, but in ways that could be named and categorized.

Not like that moment, on that night.

That moment had come back to haunt him a hundred times over when Joe began to slip off into the woods to meet Blue Wolf on a regular basis.

“Do you think it’s really a good idea, Pa?” he had asked. “Joe’s just a kid. We’re talking about him roaming about in the mountains with a wild Apache, for heaven’s sake.”

“Adam, I’ve tried to teach all my sons about the evils of prejudice,” Pa had said. “How can I forbid him to spend time with someone simply because he’s an Indian? Besides, if Blue Wolf meant to do him harm, he would already have done it on that first night.”

But the look on his face told Adam differently. Ben worried plenty about the time Joe spent with Blue Wolf.

Still, to Adam’s frustration, Pa refrained from forbidding Joe to see the Indian. There were many afternoons when Joe was off somewhere with him, usually having given them some story about riding herd or checking the line shacks, but they all knew better. By the time he was eighteen, he sometimes was gone for a couple of days before returning. It was during those times, when he would first come back home, that Adam would watch him without him knowing, studying him in fear of seeing a trace of that wildness that frightened him so and always feeling a wash of relief when it wasn’t there.

One day he disappeared again, and, as always, Adam was anxious about it. He considered talking to Pa again about the Indian’s influence over his brother, but the worry on his father’s face had stopped him. He knew Pa was having his own difficulties dealing with the situation. He had been caught between teaching his son tolerance and keeping him safe, and he wasn’t quite sure how to escape the trap of it.

Against his normal nature, Adam had fretted endlessly, pacing back and forth in front of the barn where Hoss was busy trimming Chubb’s hooves.

“There’s only one answer. Pa’s got to forbid him to go any more,” Adam grumbled finally, talking more to himself than to Hoss.

Hoss dropped Chubb’s foot and straightened wearily. “Why does it bother you so much? Joe’s just curious about what’s out there, Adam. He likes to see things for himself. I imagine Blue Wolf’s got lots to show him that you and I never could.”

Adam snorted. “I imagine you’re right about that. I’m just not sure he’s showing him anything that we would ever condone.”

Hoss laughed and gave him a comforting clap on the back. “Joe says he teaches him stuff—you know, Indian stuff. A boy Joe’s age just soaks that kind of thing up. Anyhow, I don’t reckon we can force him to stay away from Blue Wolf, can we?”

“Yes, we can.” Adam was emphatic. “We can, and we should. Joe has never been careful about the companions he keeps, you know that. And Blue Wolf is…I don’t know. I don’t trust him. He’s a grown man, for one thing, and Joe is just a kid.” Adam shook his head and leaned against the corral fence. “Joe has no business traipsing around out there with him, doing God knows what. He’s going to get hurt. That fool horse he got from Blue Wolf ought to be proof enough of that.”

“And that fool horse is turnin’ out to be just fine, isn’t he?” Hoss sighed and shook his head. “You can’t tie Joe down with force, Adam. He’d fight the rope every step of the way, and he’d kill himself trying to break free. Joe’s just like that.”

Hoss had been right. Joe was like that. Telling him he couldn’t do something was the fastest way to get him to start doing it, and Adam knew it. He also knew it was part of the reason his pa had chosen to tread lightly around the situation. His youngest brother couldn’t be forced into anything; he had to be cautiously led into it like a half-wild mustang. That was why Hoss generally had more influence over him than Adam had; Hoss knew how to gentle wild things, while Adam admittedly tried to deal with them the way he dealt with everything—through sheer force of will.

Giving the kid a loose rein had always made him nervous somehow, as if letting the line out too far would result in the boy careening completely out of control. That wildness—fear of it taking the boy over made Adam want to tamp it down without mercy. He’d always felt there was a fine line between Joe and that ‘riverboat gambler’ that Pa was always muttering about. Joe so often teetered on the edge of scandal; it wouldn’t take much to push him over into disaster and ruin.

And so Adam had always kept a heavy hand on his brother, even though he knew that Pa’s quiet authority and Hoss’ gentle guidance worked better with him. Adam knew his touch with Joe needed to be lightened, but he didn’t know quite how to go about changing it. He just wasn’t the soft-touch type.

Apparently, even Blue Wolf had known better how to deal with Joe than Adam did, if the kid’s craving for the Indian’s company were any indication. That hurt more than Adam was willing to admit even to himself. Oh, Joe was still happy to go hunting or fishing with him or Hoss. But every time he started a sentence with ‘Blue Wolf says’, Adam heard a touch of awe in his voice that grated on his nerves.

The Indian had far, far too much influence over his youngest brother.

To his relief, the issue had finally resolved itself almost two years ago, or so it had seemed. The Indian had abruptly dropped out of sight, and although Joe had tried to find him, he’d been unsuccessful. He’d moped around for weeks, and Adam had felt guilty and relieved at the same time.

Now, as they trailed along with the posse, he thought about the way Joe’s friendship with Blue Wolf had always eaten at him. He’d met the Indian only once and had been able to discern absolutely nothing about his temperament in those few minutes. It had been like staring into the face of a stone statue. After that, Blue Wolf had refused Joe’s invitations onto the ranch. That in itself did nothing to ease Adam’s concern, although Hoss had brushed it off as typical Indian shyness.

Somehow Adam had never believed that Blue Wolf was at all shy.

He’d watched his brother carefully whenever he’d known Joe was going out to meet Blue Wolf. A few times he’d even secretly ridden after the two of them, but it was as if the Indian had known he was following. He had always managed to slip away, taking Little Joe with him and leaving Adam alone on a dead-end trail. Joe had never known, but he was sure Blue Wolf knew exactly what he was doing.

In the back of his mind, he had always been afraid that the Indian would somehow steal his youngest brother’s innocence. He shook his head now, wondering at his fears. Joe was a grown man, and he would be the first to admit that he was no innocent. He certainly didn’t need his older brother’s blessing on his choice of friends. Still, there was something about the Indian that raised the hair up on the back of Adam’s neck. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but he’d always felt that the relationship would only end in hurt for Joe.

It had taken five years, but he’d finally been proven right.

It was one of those times when he wished with all his heart that he’d been wrong.

He licked suddenly dry lips. “I thought we were going to lose him,” he admitted suddenly, the words coming unbidden to his tongue.

Hoss glanced at him with a puzzled expression. “Huh? No, he’s right over there. Pa’s stickin’ to him like a burr under a saddle.”

Adam shook his head. “No, not now. Back then. All those times he was out in the mountains with Blue Wolf. Every time he was gone, I’d wonder what he was doing out there, remember?” He sighed. “I think it bothered me so much because, when he’d come back it was like…I don’t know, like he wasn’t ours anymore. Like Blue Wolf had a claim on him that we didn’t have.” He looked up to see Hoss regarding him with an odd look.

“You’re thinkin’ about that crazy blood brother stuff, aren’t you?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know.” He ducked his head, suddenly feeling foolish, and he forced a laugh. “Yeah, I guess I am. Joe was just so convinced about the whole thing, I guess he half-convinced me too.” He shrugged. “This whole thing is really getting to me, I guess.”

Hoss stared between his horse’s ears and pursed his lips, quiet for several minutes before he spoke again. When he finally did, his words took Adam by surprise. “He was different that night, though. The night he came ridin’ in after he first met Blue Wolf. Wild as all get-out, even for Little Joe.”

That shook him. “You saw that?” Adam asked incredulously. “You didn’t say anything…”

Hoss frowned and shrugged. “What was there to say? I don’t think I could’ve explained it, even to myself. Shucks, I wasn’t even sure I’d seen anything at all until you started talkin’ about it just now. Reckoned it was just my imagination. But yeah…yeah, I think somethin’ happened to Joe that night. Somethin’ I’m not sure I’ve got the words for.”

The revelation didn’t make him feel any better. Adam sighed heavily and tipped his head back to stare at the sky. When he finally looked back at Hoss, it was to find himself under his brother’s steady blue gaze. Hoss pulled his horse to a stop, and Adam did the same.

“You don’t always have to understand everything, Adam,” Hoss said gently. “There’s plenty that goes on in this world that I reckon we’re all completely ignorant about. I know that’s an idea you’re not used to. But it’s all right.” He looked down at his big hands resting on his saddle horn and then back up at Adam. “I’ll tell you this much. Little Joe is our brother. That’s all I need to know. He belongs to us, and we belong to him. We’re part of each other, and nobody can ever, ever change that.”

Then Hoss clucked to Chubb, and Adam was left staring after him.

*****

It dawned on him suddenly that he was shivering, and he wondered how long he had been cold. They were high in the mountains now, and when Joe looked over at his brothers, he could see their breath and that of their horses frosting into the air like spirits.

His mind drifted toward Becky, and he frantically yanked it back. No, he couldn’t go there. Not yet. He didn’t have the strength or the courage. Maybe after all this was over, but not yet. If he thought about her now, his soul would splinter apart, and he would be able to accomplish nothing, nothing at all. Sometimes grief had to wait.

Nudges of doubt tried to work their way in, and he pushed those away too. No matter what they said, the Blue Wolf he knew wouldn’t do such a thing.

…a man can change a lot in that amount of time. Things happen…

He sighed and turned his mind away from that thought as well.

A shout had the posse circling to study the tracks, and he stopped, staying apart from the others, waiting. He had held himself apart for the entire ride, feeling that associating with them would somehow betray his friendship with Blue Wolf. Besides, shutting himself off from the others was the only way he could hold himself together enough to think.

A few of the men had looked at him off and on with accusation in his eyes, as if, just by being Blue Wolf’s friend, he himself had had something to do with the killings. The rest of them had watched him with commiserating sympathy, and he found that even harder to bear. So he held his isolation like a blanket around him, insulating himself from the current of threats and advice and condolences that threatened to suffocate him.

“They’ve split up, three ways. Two east, two south. One north.”

They began to discuss how to divide the party up, but he had heard all he needed to know. He pushed Cochise northward, up a steep trail slippery with a thick shed of pine needles. Blue Wolf had ridden this way, and he wasn’t far off. Joe didn’t know how he knew, he just did, just as he had known that the Indian hadn’t been anywhere near the trail the posse had taken last week. He hadn’t felt guilty about trailing him then, because he’d known all along that they were heading in the wrong direction. He’d even had hopes that they would come upon the real killers, but that hadn’t happened.

He urged Cochise forward; behind him he heard the low, frantic tones of Pa and Adam and Hoss alerting each other to his leaving, but he didn’t slow, and he didn’t look back. He could hear their horses clambering up the slope behind him while the rest of the posse divided itself between the remaining two trails.

Soon the four of them were alone, riding through the silent confines of thick stands of aspen. The trail was steep, and the horses’ breathing came in rhythmic grunts; the stamp of their hooves were muffled by a heavy growth of grass and ferns and dry pine needles. No one spoke.

Joe could feel Pa’s anxious eyes on him, Hoss’ and Adam’s too, and he suddenly felt terrible about the anguish all this was causing them. He wanted to tell them not to worry about him, but he couldn’t seem to find the words to do it. He couldn’t seem to find the words for anything right now. Speaking seemed like an insurmountable effort. He was just so numb…

Cochise stopped without being asked. His ears pricked and rotated slowly back and forth as if he were listening to something the rest of them couldn’t hear. Joe didn’t try to urge him on. He sat still in the saddle, waiting. His family silently waited with him. The forest was hushed around them except for the murmured warnings of trembling aspen leaves.

They sat there for five minutes, ten, fifteen, watching him, watching the woods. Joe kept his face turned straight ahead and watched his horse’s twitching ears. Blue Wolf was close. His family didn’t know, but somehow he did. He could feel him out there, watching. Waiting.

The wait grew too long for Adam, and he sighed in exasperation. “I’m going to take a ride over to the top of this ridge on the right, see if I can spot anything.” He shot a hard look at Joe. “Do us a favor and don’t try to leave us behind, all right? We’ll just catch you again.”

We’ll just catch you again…

Yes, his family would always be there to catch him. It was a knowledge that sometimes had him chewing at the bit to get out from under them. Right now, though, it was the only comfort he could find to grasp at, and he was grateful for it. He felt part of his wall of detachment break away, and he was torn between trying to build it back up again, or pulling the rest of it down so that he could let his family in.

He gave his head a slight shake. Adam gave him a grim look and then nudged his horse in the flanks and set off across the aspen studded slope. Cold fear caught Joe by surprise, unfurling in his belly like a snake gathering itself to strike. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to wheel Cochise around and fly back down the mountain as fast as he could go with his family behind him.

But he couldn’t. For Becky’s sake, and for his own, and maybe even for Blue Wolf’s, he couldn’t.

Adam was moving further away across the slope, and Joe felt panic licking at him, surrounding him. “Adam, wait!”

His brother stopped at his cry and was looking back at him, waiting.

The seconds ticked away, and he watched frustration claim Adam’s features. “Joe, look,” Adam said finally, “if you’re trying to give Blue Wolf time to get away…”

Joe shook his head, as close as he could come to putting his muddled thoughts into words. No, he didn’t want Blue Wolf to get away. He wanted to find his friend, to talk to him, to hear him swear that the witnesses had been mistaken, that someone else had been committing all those murders.

He wanted to hear Blue Wolf swear that someone else, some evil, vile person, had killed the girl Joe loved.

His faith in so many things was shattering, the pieces flying so far and wide that he didn’t know if he could ever get them back together inside himself again. He didn’t know what was real anymore. Trust, friendship…was that ever real, or was it always just a comfortable illusion that people buried their heads under?

He didn’t know. He looked at Adam. His oldest brother always had all the answers. There had been a time, when he was much younger, that Joe thought Adam knew everything there was to know. Did he have the answers that Joe so desperately needed right here, right now?

He turned his face away from the strange expression crossing Adam’s face, unable to ask, afraid of what he might hear. Whatever happened, he knew he had to finish this ride, all the way to the end. The answers might come when he found Blue Wolf, or they might come later.

Or they might not come at all.

Adam drew in a deep breath and looked down, his patience used up. Then he turned his face away and reined his horse toward the top of the ridge. As he loped away, Joe stared after him.

Pa sighed. “Hoss, see if you can get a good look down that left slope,” he said. “I’ll check that gully below us.” He looked at Joe, and his gaze was worried but stern. “Can I trust you to stay here and wait?”

Joe hesitated, then nodded, and was surprised that Pa accepted his word as fact.

The three of them split off from him; Hoss and Pa slowly disappeared around a bend in the rough trail and Adam continued to ride across the slope. As he had promised, Joe didn’t move. For a long time he sat, not moving and trying not to think.

His eyes stayed on Adam’s black hat, disappearing and reappearing among the white pillars of aspen trunks, slipping further and further away…

Several minutes had passed when the sense that something was wrong rumbled to life again. Something broke inside him, and the tiny curl of fear in his stomach burst into a roaring flame.

The fear made him start, and his body exploded into movement before his mind could make the connection, driving his heels into Cochise’s flanks and racing toward his older brother, now far in the distance.

Come back, Adam. Come back. He wanted to shout the words out at the top of his lungs, but some invisible, cautionary hand held him back. Somehow he knew it was vitally important for Adam’s eyes to stay on the trail, not to be turning back toward him…

There was a jumble of large, shadowy boulders just to Adam’s right, and Joe watched as one of the shadows moved. Before he could suck in a breath to scream the shadow evolved into Blue Wolf, leaping down onto Adam and knocking him from his horse. Joe heard Adam’s horse give a frightened whinny. Down the mountain, the faraway, questioning shouts of Hoss and Pa rang through the air.

Cochise was still running. Joe was whipping him hard, and the horse was giving him everything he had as he slipped and stumbled across the slope.

It wasn’t going to be enough.

Adam was struggling with Blue Wolf, the two of them rolling across damp grass and rocks until at last Blue Wolf gained the upper hand. He had Adam pinned to the ground with his knife held tight against his throat.

“No!” Joe’s scream reverberated through his entire being, echoing through his mind and across the mountainside. His breath caught as he saw Blue Wolf hesitate and look up.

Then he was leaping off Cochise and stumbling through the grass in his hurry to reach them, his eyes holding tight to Blue Wolf’s the entire time he was moving. At last he stood before him, trembling and breathing hard.

“Ah, little brother,” Blue Wolf said softly, but he did not lift the knife blade from Adam’s skin. A black thatch of Adam’s hair was clutched tightly in his other fist, restraining him as effectively as if he had been tied down. “I have not seen you in many moons.” He sounded calm, as if he and Joe had just happened upon each other in the woods, just as they had done years before.

He was the same Blue Wolf, and yet not the same. There was a coldness in his eyes and a hard set to his face that Joe didn’t remember. He didn’t know what to say, so he leaned on the truth. “I looked for you.” He knew Adam’s eyes were wild and fastened on him, but he didn’t dare look at his brother.

Blue Wolf nodded. “I know. I did not want to be found.” He nodded toward Cochise, who stood blowing hard. “The unafraid one. He still serves you well.”

Joe gave a hesitant nod. “He does.” His eyes shifted to the knife blade, and he was instantly sorry he looked, for Blue Wolf’s eyes moved with his and stopped to rest on Adam, and when the Indian spoke, his voice was soft.

“Since you saw me last, I have made many enemies. My tribe grows weary of the lies of white men. I seek only to gain back what my people have lost.”

Joe had to know, or his heart would continue to ask the question until the day he died. “Those homesteaders, Blue Wolf—did you help kill them?” His breathing froze up inside him as he waited for the man’s answer.

Blue Wolf looked back at him and shrugged. “It does not matter if I did or not. The white eyes will continue to chase me day and night, and they will hang me if I do not fight to stay alive. This man is only one among many who would see me dead.” He looked back up at Joe and cocked his head. “Have you come to hunt me as well?”

Joe shook his head, and edged steadily closer. “No. I came to find you. I came to talk.” He could hear Adam’s ragged breathing, and it took everything he had not to look at his brother again. Blue Wolf’s knife could end Adam’s life in an instant, and he didn’t want to do anything to remind the Indian of that fact. He could hear Hoss and Pa still shouting, closer, but still at a far distance. “I came to talk,” he said again.

“Talk? I have had enough of talk, brother. Your people use talk only to deceive.” He smiled slowly. “Ah, but you are different. Deceit is a trait that you never learned, is it not? Your face is as open and clear as a mountain stream. Your thoughts run like the trout in the water, visible to any who would look.” His eyes narrowed. “Do you know what I see in your face now, brother?”

Joe shook his head, his fingers opening and closing as he visualized how many inches of space were between his hand and the gun in his holster, knowing that Blue Wolf would never allow him to reach it. He had seen the Indian’s skill with a knife; it was swift and terrible, and it would cut him down before he could pull the trigger.

“What I see is fear.” Blue Wolf’s voice was very soft. “Do you fear me, brother?”

“Should I?” He tried to still the beating of his heart, sure that Blue Wolf could hear it.

Blue Wolf didn’t answer. Instead, he gave a vicious yank to Adam’s hair, arching his throat back further. Adam let out a tiny sound, a tight, muffled groan. Blue Wolf tightened his grip on the knife. He pressed one knee into Adam’s chest, pinning him tighter, and watched Joe’s face as he lifted the knife up a few inches. “You are afraid for this one. Who is he?”

Joe swallowed, his mouth dry as sand. “He’s my oldest brother. Adam.”

Understanding lit Blue Wolf’s flat, black eyes. “Ah, yes. I thought I recognized him.” He eyed Joe’s gun. “If you truly wish to talk, do not try to do it as an enemy. Place your weapon on the ground. Over there.” He jerked his head toward a patch of tall grass.

Joe nodded, wondering if he could get a shot off before the Indian could strike, but Blue Wolf was watching him closely and once again pressed the knife against Adam’s throat.

Slowly Joe pulled the gun from the holster and flung it into the grass. He could feel his chest heaving with the effort to stay calm. “I ask you to let him go, Blue Wolf.”

The Indian shook his head angrily. “You would have me release him so that he can come after me and hunt me down like a dog?”

“If you harm him,” Joe said quietly, “I will hunt you down myself.”

Silence fell around them, and Blue Wolf sighed. “You would not do that, Joe Cartwright. This one has been your brother only for a few years, only since you have been on the earth. I have been your brother always, since before we both were born. Do you understand?”

Joe didn’t understand much anymore. He was beginning to believe he never had. He stared at Blue Wolf’s bright, hard eyes and suddenly felt like a rabbit in a snare. “I understand that you are no longer the man I believed you to be, Blue Wolf. Maybe you never were. Now, let him go.”

“You do not remember your promise of brotherhood to me? If you were truly a man of your word, you would ride with me now. You would act as my shield. Your father is an important white man; the posse would not shoot you.” Blue Wolf cocked his head. “I ask you again, Joe Cartwright. Do you not remember your promise of brotherhood?”

Joe’s voice fell to a whisper. “Blue Wolf, I promise you this only: if you hurt my brother, I’ll kill you.”

Blue Wolf’s eyes narrowed to slits. Then he shrugged. “Then you have made your choice, my brother. Now I make mine.” In a flash of sunlight on metal, his knife twisted in the air and plunged down.

Even as the knife began its downward arc Joe launched himself at Blue Wolf, catching him full in the chest. Adam twisted to the side, and the blade caught him high in the shoulder, ripping loose as the Indian staggered under the force of Joe’s body slamming into him.

Joe and Blue Wolf strained against one another, both of them trying to gain control of the knife the Indian still gripped in his hand. Joe was aware of Adam struggling to get out of the way, and he wanted to scream at him to hurry, but he couldn’t waste the time or the breath. Blue Wolf was a large man, powerful, all sinew and muscle, and Joe knew he was hopelessly outmatched.

Blue Wolf backed over a downed limb and stumbled slightly. His momentary loss of balance gave Joe a temporary advantage, and he managed to drive the Indian back against the rocks. He smashed Blue Wolf’s arm against a boulder, and the knife fell to the ground. Joe’s elation was short-lived. Blue Wolf regained control, although his knife was still in the grass. He wrenched away from Joe and whirled toward Adam, who was gasping and still trying to pull himself through the grass. Blue Wolf pivoted around and kicked Adam in the side, leaving him writhing in pain. Then he reached down and grabbed the gun from Adam’s holster.

Blue Wolf backed up a few steps and cocked the gun.

Joe froze in place. Blue Wolf’s face looked almost sad as he stared back at him. “You have betrayed me, brother, just as your people have always betrayed mine,” the Indian said. “I do what I do for the sake of my people; the Apache must fight, or all will be lost to us.”

With slow deliberation, he aimed the gun at Adam’s head.

Joe heard himself screaming in fury and desperation even as he snatched Blue Wolf’s knife from the ground and barreled into him. The gunshot echoed once in his head and then again as the last fragments of what he knew and believed about the world went spinning slowly out of sight.

*****

Adam lay on his side trying to force a breath back into his lungs. The Indian’s kick to his side had done a good job of slamming all the air out of him and it took a few moments before he finally drew in a wheezing gasp. He rolled over onto his elbows to raise himself up.

He had never come so close to getting his head blown off. The bullet had sprayed dirt up into his eyes, the shot thrown off by Joe’s interference.

He had heard a second shot as well. That second shot was the one that worried him now because he didn’t know where it had gone. Through the grass, he could see two bodies, both of them perfectly still. Adam pulled himself to his feet, still working to pull in a decent breath of air.

Ignoring the biting pain in his shoulder, he staggered over and cautiously reached down to roll the Indian over. Blue Wolf fell onto his back with the knife buried in his belly and his sightless eyes staring up at the whispering aspens. Adam shivered.

He felt his breath come easier when he looked down at his brother. Joe was blinking at him, alive and looking as dazed and frightened as Adam felt.

Limp relief set in, and Adam dropped wearily into the grass to sit close beside him. Joe struggled slowly into a sitting position.

“Are you all right, Adam?” he whispered. His voice was hoarse. “Your shoulder…”

Adam gave him a tight, grim smile. “I’ll live.”

“I thought…I thought I wouldn’t be able to save you. I thought…” Joe shook his head, and for several long moments, neither of them spoke. They kept their gazes deliberately turned away from Blue Wolf and instead watched Pa and Hoss urging their horses up the mountain toward them.

Overhead, they could hear the aspen leaves still whispering secrets, and Joe finally interrupted them to whisper himself. “He never admitted to committing those murders. He did help kill those people, didn’t he, Adam? He killed Becky?” His voice cracked as he spoke her name.

Adam’s heart clenched, and he found himself wishing he could lie to his brother. He nodded. “I’m pretty sure he had something to do with it, Joe.”

He studied Joe closely. In that tiny, horrible instant when the knife was slashing down toward him, it was his brother’s face that had been seared into his mind. When Joe had leapt at Blue Wolf, Adam had once again seen wildness flicker across his face, the same wildness that had shaken him so on the night Joe first brought Cochise home.

But it was gone now, replaced by loss and betrayal and a crushing, unrelenting sadness.

Joe let his head fall back and he stared at the trees overhead. “Why, Adam? Why did he have to do it? Why would he turn into a person that would…that would do something like this?”

The wretchedness in his brother’s voice struck Adam more sharply than Blue Wolf’s knife had. Joe was desperately reaching out for answers and Adam was distraught to realize that he had none to give.  He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, Joe. There have been a lot of wrongdoings between the Apaches and the white man over the years. Could be that Blue Wolf just couldn’t accept it any more and struck out the only way he knew how. I guess he just ended up thinking every person with white skin was his enemy.”

It was a flimsy offering and he knew it. No justifications, no wide-spread vindications—nothing that would save his brother from being set adrift in a sea of abject misery and distrust from which he might never recover. Knowing the reasons behind Blue Wolf’s actions didn’t matter anyway; it wouldn’t bring Becky back to Joe.

Adam’s fear that his brother’s innocence would be stolen had come to pass. Never again would Joe be quite as open to friendship from a stranger. Before he gifted any outsider with the flash of that wide grin, he would first greet them with a narrowing of the eyes, a slight jutting of the chin…

Adam watched Joe turn his face to stare at Blue Wolf, and then duck his head as the tears came. Adam offered him the only lifeline he had to give—he dropped an arm around his trembling shoulders and pulled him close.

As he moved, the sharp pull in Adam’s left shoulder reminded him to be thankful. Heartbreak had marched over them, but it had arrived hand-in-hand with a portion of benevolence. If Blue Wolf had been a hair faster or Joe a second slower, Adam’s casket and perhaps Joe’s would be joining the Cullens’ in the churchyard tomorrow.

Blue Wolf obviously would not have hesitated to kill him. But would he have also killed the man he called brother? It was all a matter of speculation at this point, but Adam thought he probably would have. Thank God he would never know if he was right on that count. He thought again of Blue Wolf’s knife swooping down at him, and he shuddered and closed his eyes against the image, saying a quick prayer of thanksgiving. He sent one up on his brother’s behalf as well, knowing that thankfulness would be too much to ask of Joe for now.

Adam’s jaw clenched tightly as he felt Joe’s silent sobs go bone deep. His brother’s heart was breaking, and Adam could almost hear the sound of his own fracturing in reply.

Losing someone they loved wasn’t new to the Cartwrights, not to any of them. Loss was a fire they had all walked through, and each time, they had emerged all the stronger for it. Every journey through it had forged ties between them beyond what could easily be explained. Facing heartbreak never got any easier, and this time was no exception, but they had survived this sort of pain before. They would survive it again.

A friend’s betrayal, though, and having to kill that friend—that was a different type of pain altogether, something at odds with the natural way of the world. It was something with which Adam had had his own experience, and he would have given anything to have been able to keep Joe from having to go through it. The despair of it was deep and dark, and he wasn’t sure it was something that a man ever really got over.

But he’d be there to help bind up the pain of it, just as Hoss had been there for him. Just as the three of them would always be there for each other. None of them walked alone.

He clasped Joe tighter as his brother shuddered and wept, and he pressed the boy’s head into his good shoulder. He watched Pa and Hoss ride up; they jumped off their horses and ran toward him, faces drawn tight with anxiety. The aspens kept up their trembling whispers and carried Hoss’ words back to him.

He belongs to us, and we belong to him. We’re part of each other, and nobody can ever, ever change that.

Adam knew it was the strongest truth he’d ever been taught.

It would be enough.

***The End***

Author’s Notes:    I want to thank DJK, my oh-so-patient beta reader, for proofing this story for me. It was my first experience with beta reading, and I entered into it with some trepidation, a little afraid that my story might be changed until it wasn’t mine at all. DJK sensed that fear right away and she guided me through the edits with a very gentle touch. She provided invaluable insight into the plot, and her technical advice was very thorough. I do have an unhealthy attachment to sentence fragments, and I throw in enough commas to sink a ship! It is a habit I hope to eventually break. DJK made me aware of technically incorrect sentences and then left it up to me whether or not to change them, so any grammatical errors are mine alone. Thanks for everything, DJK!

Return to Corinna’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.