A Summer Affair (by Diana)

Summary:    Adam, Hoss and Little Joe stop to help a woman travelling alone.  Their act of kindness brings with it a storm of emotions and a revelation for their father.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  30,615


 

The three Cartwright boys, usually referred to as brothers, were actually half-brothers, and it was the combination of their different mothers and the different circumstances of their upbringing that had given them their differing characters and appearance.

Just turned twenty, Little Joe was the youngest, smallest and lightest of the three. He was the son of his father’s third wife, a fiery blonde of French extraction from New Orleans who had died tragically early, in a riding accident. Joe had been raised in the security of an established home with a loving family to support him, which had given him a carefree, but not careless, attitude to life. From his mother he had inherited a quick, mercurial temper, which could change him in an instant from a laughing prankster to a caring friend, or drive him to draw his lethally fast gun, though he had never been known to pull the trigger in anger. Little Joe was handsome, with brown wavy hair over a face that was often lit by a flashing smile, and green eyes that could melt the heart of any girl he chose to focus them on.

The middle brother, Hoss, twenty-six, had the legacy of his Nordic mother in his fair hair and ice blue eyes. She had been killed by an Indian’s arrow when he was a baby, but he had had the love of an elder brother and a father to protect him. He was six inches taller than Joe and outweighed him by a hundred pounds, all of it muscle. Hoss was as gentle as he was large, with a caring nature and an innocent love of his fellow man which often led people to label him as ‘slow’, but Hoss’ bright mind was too full of the need to help those less fortunate than himself. There was no room in his thoughts for the scheming and trickery that he hated in others, and he saw what others missed; the essential goodness in the world.

Adam, the oldest at thirty-two, showed the reserve of his New England mother, who had died when he was born. He had spent the early, formative years of his life traveling west from his Boston birthplace, at first alone with his father, then with the motherless Hoss, and responsibility had fallen prematurely onto his young shoulders, turning his emotions inwards. Adam was an enigma to his brothers; a man of great intelligence with a love of the finer things in life, who had chosen to return to his home and family, and the rougher ways of the west, after leaving to spend three years at college in the east. His size put him between his brothers; slimmer than Hoss and taller than Joe, and he had dark, somber good looks which were emphasized by the black clothing he habitually wore. Where Joe would use his speed to fend off trouble, and Hoss would employ his strength, Adam would try to reason his way out of difficult situations, only using force as a last resort.

Three very different men, who had also inherited traits from Ben, their father and mentor; among which was a sense of justice and duty that was famed throughout their community, and a courage that would make them fight to protect those who were threatened, whether it was one of their family or those who were defenseless in the face of danger. Ben had also instilled in them a love of the country around their home by Lake Tahoe, and a feeling of closeness to each other that any family would envy.

Now these diverse brothers shared something else in common; they were standing immobile and speechless in the face of the shotgun that was pointing at them menacingly.

“Don’t come any closer. I know how to use this,” the young woman threatened, moving the gun to cover each of the brothers in turn as they stood before her.

Adam took a pace forward. As the self-appointed protector of his younger brothers, he felt that it was his responsibility to get them out of the situation in which they found themselves. He looked down at the figure before him, who stood no higher than his shoulder, trying to guess her age; he thought her to be no older than Joe, surely too young to be traveling alone. Her appearance gave no hint; a simple loose cream linen blouse over a plain black skirt, her long dark hair tied high behind her head and then falling thickly round her shoulders in the way of a girl. But Adam saw the determination on the fine, beautiful features, which spoke of a grown woman who had seen and dealt with more than her years should have allowed.

There was absolute silence while the world dozed in the afternoon sun, and the heat beat back from the surrounding rocks at the tableau formed by the four people, until Adam slowly raised his hands and the twin black tunnels moved to point straight at his face.

“Ma’am, please, there’s no need for that.” He bent one wrist and used a finger to point at the weapon.

“Maybe not, but I’ll keep it handy, just in case.” The weapon didn’t shift position. Adam looked round at Hoss and Joe, who seemed content to let older brother tackle the woman.

Adam turned back. “We saw your wagon and came down to see if you needed any help.”

“Just trying to help, huh?” There was no hint of belief in the tone.

Adam nodded and smiled reassuringly. “Yeah.”

The gun wavered and the heavy barrels dropped, taking with them the threat of violence. As the weapon sagged so did the shoulders of the woman, and her fingers slowly released the gun, her knees starting to give way. Adam moved swiftly and caught her before she hit the stony ground, then he lowered her gently and ordered his brothers to get some water. Hoss ran to his horse and returned, dampening his kerchief before handing it to Adam.

As Adam wiped the woman’s forehead she glanced up at him, and when he looked into her eyes he felt a frisson of emotion. They were a deep misty blue and held him fascinated, so that Adam found he couldn’t look away, but the spell was broken when she closed her eyes, the color drained from her face, and she fainted. He put his hands under her knees and shoulders and carried her easily into the back of the covered wagon that she had been protecting, where he knelt down and laid her on the make-shift bed, gently pulling a blanket over her. He rested his hand lightly on her forehead but felt no sign of fever, then he ran his finger down the side of her face, seeing the small straight nose above the well formed mouth and strong chin. Not a girl, as Adam had at first supposed, but a woman, and a beautiful one he thought as he sat back on his heels, and sighed. After a minute he climbed down from the wagon and looked at Hoss and Joe.

“We may as well make camp here for the night; we can’t leave her like this.” He glanced around at the barren countryside; there was no fresh water nearby, but they found that thewagon’s water barrel was half full, and the surrounding cliffs would give them shelter from the constant wind.

“What d’ya reckon’s wrong with her?” Hoss asked, concern written on his face.

Adam shrugged. “No idea; could be just exhaustion. On her own out here with the wagon, who knows what she’s had to cope with.”

“Wonder who she is?” said Joe. He thought that whoever she was he’d like to get to know the beautiful, brunette stranger.

Adam was thinking about practicalities, and would not waste time speculating. “Well, let’s get something to eat, we’ll know the answers when she wakes up.”

The three brothers worked smoothly together, making camp; they had done this many times and each knew what was needed to make themselves comfortable. Hoss was the cook among them, he liked his food and his interest extended to knowing how to prepare it. While Joe was quite capable in the kitchen, he was too impatient to cook, he wanted to be able to come to the table, eat, and be gone. Adam would never starve if he had to fend for himself, but for a man who could design a mill to grind grain, or calculate the profit from a stand of timber, he was surprisingly useless at constructing an edible meal.

Occasionally one of them would check on the woman; she did not stir but appeared to be breathing evenly and to be sleeping. As darkness descended it became cold in this semi-desert, and the brothers sat huddled close to the fire eating their meal. They became aware of sounds from inside the wagon and, before anyone else could move, Joe was on his feet and went to the back of the Conestoga. As the woman appeared from between the folds of the canvas, which formed the top of the wagon, he reached up and she tentatively put out her hand. Joe helped her down and smiled at her, thinking how beautiful she looked, her dark hair tied back with a simple red ribbon that matched the plain dress she now wore, which in turn contrasted with her eyes. Joe stared into those eyes, captured as Adam had been.

“Maam, are you all right?” Joe asked. She had more color in her cheeks and seemed steady on her feet as she stood before him.

The woman lowered her head, releasing Joe from his optical imprisonment, and then raised her eyes to look at him. “Yes, thank you.”

She walked with Joe to join Adam and Hoss by the fire and looked round at the three men, not able to meet their eyes. Since she had woken she had heard them talking and their words told her that they posed no threat, as the eldest of the strangers had declared, and she knew that she had misjudged them. When Adam stood and offered her his seat on a barrel, she sat, smiling gratefully at him, as he upturned a pail and sat down beside her. Hoss held out a plate of stew and a cup of coffee, which she took from him, and as she sipped the hot, dark liquid, and slowly spooned up the food, her eyes strayed to her three visitors in turn.

“I’m…I’m sorry for my reception. But as a woman alone…”

Adam stopped her. “It’s quite all right, we understand. You didn’t know who we were; we could have had nefarious intent.”

“Nefarious intent! My, those are grand words,” she giggled, then stopped, suddenly realizing that this was the first time in weeks that she had felt like laughing. She looked at the dark eyes of the man, finding herself fascinated by the serious expression on his face, and had to drag her gaze away when she heard one of the others speak.

“Don’t mind older brother here,” laughed Joe, “he likes to try to impress us with words that no one understands. Thinks it makes him seem more intelligent.” The woman saw the sparkling green eyes looking at her and her heart missed a beat.

“Yeah,” Hoss smiled, “but I guess he means that you don’t have to be scared of us.” This time the ice-blue eyes caught hers, and the warm depths which she saw there made her feel as though the man had reached out, using his arms to shelter her from the dangers of the world.

The woman looked at them again. “Brothers?” she queried, seeing three very different faces.

Adam nodded. “The name’s Cartwright,” he informed her. “The big one there is Hoss, the runt is Little Joe, and I’m Adam,” he gave her a lop-sided smile, “the intelligent one.”

Joe looked at Adam and his eyes hardened into emerald points because he had tried, and failed, to get his brothers not to use the appellation ‘little’ around women, especially beautiful creatures like the one who faced him.

The woman smiled at the men. “My name is Susanna Wood; I am very pleased to meet you.”

Adam thought that she spoke with more than just politeness in her voice. “What are you doing out here, alone?”

“I didn’t start out alone,” she said quietly, “I was traveling with my father. We left St. Joe nearly four months ago.”

Joe was puzzled. “But why not join a wagon train, if you were coming west?” He knew of the many dangers involved in such a journey, which were tempered by the numbers in a wagon train.

“We were with a train, but Papa got sick and they were afraid that it might be contagious so they made us leave the train, went on without us.” She looked down at the plate resting on her lap, lost in her thoughts.

Hoss asked softly, “What happened to him?”

Susanna replied without shifting her eyes. “He died.” She took a deep breath and looked up. “They were right to leave us, he had typhoid.” She seemed to shake herself to push away the memories. “I decided that I would continue to California alone; father bought a piece of land there and I want to see it before I decide what to do with it.” She sighed as she remembered the exhausting struggle to continue on her own. “I probably should have gone back to Ohio, but I wanted to complete the journey that Papa and I had started.”

“California, huh?” Adam frowned as though deep in thought. Susanna nodded and looked at him. Adam glanced at his brothers and could see that the same idea had occurred to them as well. “We live near Virginia City. Why don’t you let us accompany you that far and perhaps we can find someone to take you the rest of the way?”

“Oh, but you will be delayed if you stay with me. You must want to get on…” Susanna knew she would feel safer if they stayed with her, but didn’t want to impose.

“Well,” said Adam, thinking of the reason that he and his brothers were all away from home at the same time, “I think our Pa can do without us for a while longer. When we reach Fallon in a few days, I’ll see if I can send him a telegraph to let him know what’s delayed us.”

Susanna looked again at the men sitting with her; she had taken on the challenge of completing the trip by herself, but part of that challenge was, surely, to grasp good fortune when it appeared. She nodded. “Then, if you’re sure, I would be very grateful.”

Joe smiled broadly at the thought of spending more time in this woman’s company. “Then that’s settled.”

Adam stood. “I think it would be just as well if we all get a good night’s rest.”

Susanna also rose. “Of course. Goodnight.” She looked at each of the brothers in turn, smiling her grateful thanks.

The following morning they packed up the camp and moved out, Joe driving the wagon with Susanna sitting beside him. When Joe had offered his services as driver, Adam had agreed, sighing to himself as he did so. Joe had monopolized Susanna at breakfast, while Hoss and Adam watched, amused by his predictable reaction to a pretty face, and now Adam saw a look in his young brother’s eyes that he recognized; a look of expectation and excitement. Although Adam also found the girl attractive he decided, when he saw the look, that he would leave the field to his brother. Unlike Joe, it wasn’t the chase that he enjoyed; he would not pursue a woman unless he intended a relationship to develop. He tried to persuade himself that this girl was too young for him, and he wouldn’t fight Joe for her affections. He shook his head in forbearance; Joe was always tipping his hat at one female or another. Adam wondered whether his young brother really liked all the girls he chased after, or if he only saw them as a challenge to be met. As so often before, only time would tell.

When Adam eased his horse alongside the wagon Joe and Susanna were laughing together, but they stopped when they saw his serious expression. “Little Joe, I’m going to take a look up ahead, find the best trail for the wagon.” He pointed towards an outcropping of rocks that could be seen in the distance. “I’ll meet you at the bottom of that bluff in a few hours.” He was conscious of Joe’s hard stare as he turned away.

“Okay.” Joe waved absently as Adam kicked his horse and galloped off.

Susanna watched Adam’s retreating back. “Is your brother always so serious?”

Joe laughed. “Yeah, but that’s just his way, you’ll get used to it. You have to watch his eyes, they smile when his face doesn’t.” Joe didn’t want to talk about Adam; he wanted to know more about the girl beside him. “What plans did you and your father have for the land in California?”

“We were going to grow grapes. It’s in the hills near Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, and should be ideal wine making country.”

“Wine! In California?” Joe’s startled expression made Susanna laugh.

“Yes, whynot? Father was involved in wine making in Ohio, but there is not much opportunity there for a man to set up his own business; the old wine growing families have seen to that, they want to keep it all to themselves. Then he heard about the country in northern California, which sounds perfect, warm and not too dry, and he wanted to go there and start his own winery.” Susanna gazed into the distance, thinking of the valley her father would never see.

Joe noticed the silence that enveloped the girl beside him and he tentatively put his arm round her shoulder. She did not pull away; she liked the comfort of having a strong man beside her.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “we’ll make sure that you get there safely.”

As they rode on, Joe chatted about the country, and horses, and people he knew, about anything that would help her to forget the memories and visions that had been brought to mind by their conversation, and Susanna was touched by his thoughtfulness.

Adam was riding along the trail, laughing to himself; he knew how Joe hated to be called ‘little’ in front of a girl, and now he had got his small reward for not challenging Joe’s claim, he would drop it. He stopped laughing when he thought of the pair sitting together on the wagon. It was obvious that his young brother had started to work his magic, and Adam wanted to get away from them. The more he thought about Susanna, the more he felt unsettled by her presence, and had decided that it would be best to spend as little time as possible in her company, in case Joe noticed; it could only lead to the kind of trouble that Adam wanted to avoid.

He had covered several miles of good going when he came across a river; wide, shallow and fast flowing. After letting Sport drop his head and drink his fill, he urged the horse forward, looking for a safe crossing. The water bubbled busily against Sport’s legs, but the footing beneath the moving surface was solid. As Adam reached the opposite bank he looked round for landmarks by which to remember the place, then re-crossed the river and rode back the way he had come. He slowed as he approached the outcropping of rocks where he would meet the wagon, seeing that he had got there ahead of his brothers. He let the horse walk, and was looking at the surrounding country, with which he was not familiar, when he suddenly turned Sport’s head into the bushes beside the trail, and dismounted. He walked a few paces and stood, looking down at the remains of a fire; fresh, judging by the amount of ash still among the circle of small rocks that was protecting it from the light breeze.

Adam straightened and looked round. He soon saw the marks of two horses, hoof prints in the dust, leading away in the direction from which he had just come. He frowned; there was no reason to be suspicious, but he was not one to take chances, and there were too many places to hide in this landscape with its high cliffs, boulder strewn slopes and outcroppings of trees. He remounted slowly and made his way to the meeting place. As he looked along the trail he could see a small dust cloud, and at the base of it, the wagon. He began to gather wood for a fire and by the time Joe pulled the Conestoga to a stop, he had a fair sized blaze going.

*****

After supper, while Joe was giving all his attention to Susanna, Adam drew Hoss aside and told him about the signs he had seen.

“It’s probably nothing, but keep your eyes open anyway,” Adam instructed.

Hoss nodded, he knew better than to dismiss his older brother’s worries. “Do ya think we should set a watch tonight?”

Adam looked up at the rocky hills, wondering what they might conceal. “Yeah, no point in taking chances, this wagon might be just too inviting for some people. I’ll tell Joe,” he glanced towards the camp fire, where his brother was busy impressing the young lady with tales of his life on the ranch, “but not until I can get him alone. Don’t want to frighten the girl.”

Hoss and Adam walked back to join the pair, apparently unconcerned, and after helping themselves to coffee, sat down.

Susanna turned to Adam. “Joe has been telling me about your home. I must say it does sound beautiful.”

“It is,” Adam said solemnly, but Susanna watched his eyes as Joe had suggested and she saw them light up, as they always did when he thought of the Ponderosa. “If you’ll forgive me for saying so in present company, it’s like a beautiful woman. She’s lovely in whatever she wears, whether it’s the fresh green of spring grass, the muted colors of a hot summer day, the warm red of a fall sunset or the harsh white of winter snow; they each bring out her beauty. And like a woman she has to be treated with respect, looked after and fussed over, and don’t you dare take her for granted or she will creep up behind you when you’re not looking and challenge you to keep her.”

Susanna sighed. “Adam, you make it sound so lovely, I can almost see it.”

“It’s all those books he reads,” Joe mumbled under his breath.

“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Adam asked mischievously.

“Who me?” Joe shook his head. “I wouldn’t dare.”

Hoss laughed. “Now don’t you two start; Miss Susanna don’t want to hear you settin’ on each other. Why don’t you for once jest try an’ be nice and not argue.”

“Do they argue a lot then?” Susanna watched as the two brothers eyed each other challengingly.

Hoss shrugged and smiled. “Some.”

“I used to argue a lot with my brother,” Susanna observed quietly.

Adam hesitated before he spoke, worried that he might be treading on some tender emotions. “He didn’t come with you?”

But she smiled at his question. “No, he was against this trip as soon as Pa suggested it. He’s married and has a family in Ohio, and wouldn’t move them to California on the off-chance of finding something better, and he couldn’t understand why I would want to go with Pa.” Susanna’s eyes became soft as she thought of her father, then they hardened as she spoke. “But Alexander chose his way, and I chose mine.”

“Will you go back to Ohio?” Joe wondered, needing to know the answer.

“I don’t know; my mother is still there. She wasn’t strong enough to make the journey so she stayed in Ohio with my brother, and planned to join me and Pa when we were settled. I know that I wouldn’t be able to start the business that my father had planned, and I will probably have to get our attorney to sell the land for me. But I’ll wait until I’ve seen it and then decide.”

Adam hadn’t missed the note of concern in Joe’s question, and thought that his brother should back off. The woman was obviously set on moving on, and it would only break his heart, yet again, if he got too attached to her.

“Well, time for bed, I think,” he said, giving Joe a warning look. Joe immediately felt his temper flare as he saw Adam’s fixed gaze, knowing what it meant.

As they all rose and said goodnight Adam held Joe’s arm, letting Hoss escort Susanna to the wagon. “Just a minute Joe, I want to talk to you.”

Joe pulled his arm from Adam’s grip and turned to him, ready to let his brother know that he didn’t appreciate his interference. “Don’t start telling me…”

“Calm down, it’s not about Susanna.” Adam held up a placating hand. “When I was scouting up ahead, I saw the remains of a camp fire. I think we should set a guard tonight.”

Joe stood and thought for a moment, his body relaxing. “Okay, what d’ya want to do?”

Adam beckoned Hoss over to join them. “Joe, you stand the first watch, then I’ll relieve you. Hoss, since you’ll be cooking breakfast, you might as well take the last one.”

With that agreed they settled down for the night.

When Hoss woke them for breakfast, Adam stirred slowly. Taking the middle watch meant that he had had two short periods of sleep and even when he did settle he had kept one ear open for trouble, which in the event had not materialized. He wondered, as he stretched and yawned, if he had been worrying for nothing. He stood as Joe came over to him and handed him a cup of coffee.

Adam looked round. “Susanna not awake?”

Joe shook his head. “Thought we’d let her sleep as long as we could, but I guess I’ll take this to her,” he said, motioning with the cup in his other hand. He made his way to the back of the wagon and knocked on the tailboard. He heard a shuffling from inside and then Susanna’s head appeared through the folds of the heavy canvas which covered the top of the wagon.

Joe smiled. “Good morning. Brought you some coffee.”

She smiled in return as she took the offered cup. “Why, Joe, thank you.” In the short time that they had spent together, Susanna had found that she wanted Joe to turn that smile on her, noting how it made her heart skip.

“Breakfast’s ready when you are.”

“I’ll be there directly.” Susanna disappeared inside the wagon as Joe returned to his brothers. She looked in the small mirror that was propped against the side of the wagon and patted her hair, tucking a stray lock into place. When she was satisfied with her appearance, she climbed down and made her way over to sit by the fire, where she accepted a plate of bacon and biscuits that Hoss handed her. They sat for a while, enjoying the peace of the early morning, until Joe and Hoss said they were going to hitch up the team. Adam offered his help, but Hoss said they could manage.

Susanna glanced at Adam, who was standing with his back to her, sipping the last of his coffee quietly. “Adam, did you all keep watch last night?” Adam looked over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows in question, wondering how she knew. “I woke up in the night and heard you and Hoss talking, saying that nothing was stirring.”

“Oh, I see. Yes we did. It is as well to be careful out here; you never know who’s about.”

Susanna stood and moved towards him, seeing again the attractive seriousness in his face, but she thought that the attraction was in simply getting to know the person behind the guarded expression, so different from Joe’s cheerful openness.

Adam took a step away, conscious of the girl’s closeness. “I’d better give Hoss and Joe a hand.”

“Don’t you think they can manage without you?” Susanna sensed his nervousness, but didn’t suspect the reason for it.

”I think they can manage perfectly well, but it never hurts to check on those two.” He took another step, but stopped when Susanna spoke.

“You take your responsibilities as the oldest very seriously, don’t you.” She laughed, trying to make him feel at ease with her.

Adam turned and smiled at her thinly; her bantering words told him she was well aware that he wanted to get away, and he didn’t wish to seem impolite. “You’re right, they can manage.”

“How come you three were way out here?” Susanna asked curiously when they were both again seated, and was surprised to see Adam’s expression change to one she would have described as ‘sheepish’ in anyone but this apparently confident man.

“It was all because of an argument.” Adam saw Susanna’s eyebrows rise in question, and he nodded, remembering. “Not just any argument, it had been going on for days, too many to count in the end.”

“Who was arguing?”

“Me and Joe, as usual,” Adam had to admit, and Susanna recalled Hoss’ remark about their disagreements. Adam looked towards his brothers, who were checking over the wagon. “Joe and I are very different…”

“I can see that,” Susanna interposed.

“Yeah, and not just in looks but in character as well. It has a lot to do with the difference in our ages, of course. He’s only twenty and sometimes I think he’s reluctant to leave his boyhood behind, and he thinks that I’m too bossy and demanding.”

“Are you?”

Adam shrugged. “Maybe. Not only am I the oldest, but I also have the responsibility of standing in my father’s place, running the ranch when he’s away, and that means that sometimes my brothers and I will be at odds. That’s what started it; I felt that Joe hadn’t done his job properly, and he didn’t disagree, but said that he would do it again. I wanted him to understand that it would have been better if he’d done it right in the first place. Anyway, things went from bad to worse, so that we couldn’t say a pleasant word to each other, and then we got Hoss involved as well. Pa came back, and finally said that he’d had enough and sent all three of us to deliver some horses to a ranch east of here.”

“Kill or cure, I suppose,” Susanna observed.

“Exactly. Either we’d come back having made peace between us, or one of us would come back in pieces.”

“Looks as though peace has broken out.”

“Yeah, thanks to Hoss. That man could calm a maelstrom. He made us see that the argument was a waste of time and effort, which we both knew perfectly well, but it takes someone like Hoss to make us see sense. I know that if it wasn’t for him, Joe and I would have taken more than a few lumps out of each other before now.” It was with some relief that Adam saw Hoss and Joe were ready to leave. He enjoyed talking to Susanna, but his determination to avoid her company had not diminished. “We’d better be getting on; we’re still at least four days from Fallon.”

They broke camp and Adam rode on ahead, saying he would meet them by the river. Joe again drove the wagon with Susanna sitting beside him, and he was telling her enthusiastically about Virginia City.

“It’s quite a size now, and we have our own theatre and there’s a school for the children, and…”

“It sounds very attractive,” Susanna said.

“It’s the sort of place a person might want to settle down.” Joe was looking sideways at Susanna trying to gauge her reaction.

“But isn’t it still in what the periodicals would have us believe is the ‘wild west’?” Susanna was teasing him. She was planning to go even further west, and the lonely valley that awaited her was surely wilder than the town Joe was describing.

Joe laughed. “Well, Saturday nights can be a bit wild, when there’s a church social.” He was pleased to see Susanna smile. “But we have a strong sheriff in Roy Coffee and he makes sure that it never gets out of hand.”

“But don’t you miss the little luxuries of life out here?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know, things like modern fashions and, dare I say it, indoor plumbing.”

“Indoor…? Oh, right…well er…yeah…um.” Joe smiled with attractive shyness at discussing such a topic with a lady, then he recovered his composure. “But then you’ve got this wonderful country all around you.”

Susanna looked at the rocky landscape with its arid scrub and occasional trees, and raised her eyebrows in disbelief.

“No,” said Joe, “I don’t mean like this. When we get to Virginia City I’d like to show you the Ponderosa; the mountains and lakes and the pine forest. It’s just as Adam described it, only better.”

Susanna was thinking about the land they were traveling through and the scenery that was to come, and she suddenly realized that even this dry, rocky vista had an attraction she had not noticed before. Since her father had died, leaving her to struggle on alone, the country had seemed threatening and dangerous. When she had passed through wide, open land, it had given her a feeling of loneliness and exposure, then the enclosing cliffs and narrow trails had made her feel oppressed. Now, with Joe beside her and Hoss and Adam to protect and help her, she could appreciate its simple beauty.

Joe saw her looking around and the smile that played on her lips. “Will you stay for a while when we get there? Let me show it to you?”

“Well, I don’t know; I should be getting on to California.” She looked at Joe and saw the hopeful expression in the green eyes, and suddenly she wanted to be able to spend more time with this man. “But I suppose I could take a little time to see it.”

Joe beamed. “Great.”

They were approaching the river and Adam pulled up alongside the wagon. “There’s a safe crossing, follow me.” Without waiting for Joe’s reply, Adam headed for the river. He looked around, spotted the landmarks he had noted earlier and in a few minutes they were safely on the other side.

The going on the trial was good, and they had covered another four miles when Hoss suggested that they could stop for a rest. Adam had ridden ahead looking for the best trail out of this country, with its cliffs and hidden canyons; he still had a feeling that there was a possibility of trouble. While Hoss busied himself setting a fire and making coffee, Joe checked over the wagon, then he drew Susanna aside and they wandered through the sparse trees.

“Has your family always lived in Nevada?” Susanna asked as they walked.

“No. I was born here, on the Ponderosa that is, but Adam was born in Boston. His Ma died, and Pa started west with him when he was just a baby.” Susanna smiled and Joe looked curiously at her. “Why’s that funny?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t imagine your brother as a baby.”

Joe laughed at the thought. “Yeah, he seems like he’s always been old.”

“What about Hoss?”

“He was born on the trail west. His Ma was killed by Indians, so when Pa settled here it was just him and my brothers. Then he met my mother.”

Susanna hesitated then asked, “Is she still alive?” She was instantly sorry as she saw a shadow cross Joe’s face. She stopped and put a hand on his arm. “Joe?”

He smiled gently and took Susanna in his arms. “It’s all right. Mama died in a riding accident when I was five. I guess you never really get over losing a parent.”

“No, you don’t. It’s very lonely.” Susanna buried her head in his chest and Joe could feel her tears soak into his shirt. He caressed her hair softly and let her weep, until she lifted her head to look at him.

Joe raised his hand and brushed away the remains of the tears. “You needn’t feel lonely, I’m here.” He lowered his head slowly, not sure of her feelings, but she did not resist as he kissed her.

“Oh Joe,” she said as she rested her head once more on his broad chest, “I was so afraid, so alone, and then you and Hoss and Adam came and now I feel safe.” She eased herself out of his arms and walked a step away, taking a deep breath. “But I have to be strong if I’m going to get to California. I have to put the past behind me, and look forward, not back.”

Joe nodded, understanding, and he didn’t want to push her. “You don’t have to go to California,” he said gently.

“Yes, I do. It’s what Papa would have wanted; I have to do it, for him.”

Joe heard Hoss calling them and took Susanna’s hand. “We’d better be getting back or Hoss will come looking for us.”

They wandered slowly back to the wagon, where they could smell the freshly made coffee. They both accepted the cups that Hoss held out to them, then sat talking. Hoss could see that Susanna had been crying and looked enquiringly at Joe, who shook his head minutely and tried to cheer her by relating the story of the bull that had escaped in the middle of Virginia City, the brothers’ attempts to return it to its owner, and the chaos that had ensued, which would, as their father said in a withering lecture to his three battered and exhausted sons, ‘reduce twenty-five years of Indian raids to a footnote in history!’*. Soon they were all laughing at Joe’s narrative, accompanied as it was by liberal gestures as he frequently leapt to his feet to demonstrate some part of the story.

Suddenly they heard the cracking of an explosion in the distance, followed by a deep rumble as the sound echoed from the surrounding rocks. The laughter was forgotten as they all stood, frightened by what it might mean, and Joe put his arm protectively round Susanna. It had come from the direction that Adam had taken and they watched anxiously for a minute. When he did not appear Hoss made for his horse.

“Stay here with Susanna,” he ordered and pushed Chubb into a gallop. He raced up the trail, his heart beating faster as he saw no sign of his elder brother. Then above the hoof beats of his own horse, he heard the sound of other hooves, and Adam rode into view round a bend in the trail. The two brothers met, halting as they came level.

“Why did you leave the wagon?” Adam demanded.

“Cause the explosion came from over here,” Hoss explained reasonably.

Adam looked round, then back to his brother. “Yeah, but there’s nothing here to cause it, unless someone wanted to attract attention. I don’t like it, let’s get back to Joe.” He kicked his horse and was off, leaving Hoss to follow him.

Adam approached the camp slowly, alert to any signs of danger. Suddenly he stopped and held up his hand, tilting his head to one side listening, and then he motioned Hoss to be quiet; he could hear voices that he didn’t recognize. Dismounting wordlessly, Adam beckoned Hoss off to one side and crept between the rocks that lined the trail. They worked their way up until they were looking down on the camp, where they saw two men, one standing in front of Joe, who had Susanna pushed protectively behind him, one a little further back. The men both had guns drawn and cocked, ready to shoot. Adam knew that he could drop them from the safety of the rocks, but it would only need a twitch of one man’s finger to kill Joe. He whispered in Hoss’ ear and motioned with his head. Hoss simply nodded in reply, and they started to make their way down towards the camp.

Zeke, the older of the two men, was talking, his deep voice contrasting to his thin frame. “Yeah, that was us, wanted to reduce the odds a little. By the time they find out there’s nothing there we’ll be long gone. Now, we want your money, give it to us with no trouble and we’ll be on our way.”

Joe stood up straighter in defiance. “You’ll get nothing from me. That explosion won’t fool my brothers for long, then they’ll be back.” Joe had his left hand away from his body, and his holster, so as not to incite the man to action, but he was itching to go for his gun. It was only Susanna’s presence that stopped him.

“Yeah? But by then it’ll be too late. Throw your gun over here.”

Joe hesitated as he saw Hoss and Adam approach from behind the men.

“Joe,” whispered Susanna, worried that he would be hurt, “just give them what they want.” She wasn’t tall enough to see over his shoulder and did not know that rescue was imminent.

“No.” Joe used his right hand to pull Susanna closer to his back as he kept his gaze fixed on the man who stood in front of him, so as not to give any indication of what was about to happen.

For such a big man, Hoss was surprisingly quiet in his movements and he crept up behind the man nearest them and wrapped his arms round him in an embrace that was impossible to break. The other man heard the strangled cry from his companion and turned, still with his gun drawn. Adam advanced towards him, ignoring the threat from the weapon, but instead looking at Joe, whose face said that he was mad; he could have handled these men. Adam suddenly realized that Joe wanted to make an impression on the girl and his brother had stolen his thunder. He would have to be very careful, or the argument that had led their father to send them away would be reawakened, but with a different cause. Adam turned his gaze to the man, and saw wariness in the pale eyes staring out from beneath the dark hat, but the gun didn’t move, it was still leveled at him.

He spoke lightly, not wanting to antagonize the man into making a move. “My little brother doesn’t take kindly to being threatened.”

“So you think you’re going to rescue him, huh?”

Adam took a step towards Joe, then turned back, and as he stood in front of Zeke the gun pressed into his belly, just to the north of his belt buckle. Although it made his heart beat faster, he ignored the weapon; if the man was going to shoot him he would have done so when he and Hoss first appeared. Adam raised his hands to brush a little dust off the shoulders of the grey shirt in front of him, as though to make the interloper look tidier. “Oh no, he doesn’t need my help, or perhaps you don’t know who you’re dealing with. No one quicker with a gun in these parts than my brother, but if you think you can take him….” He took a step back, still observing the man closely.

“What are ya looking at?” the man demanded nervously.

“Oh, I was just wondering how long it would take to dig your grave,” Adam said casually. “You’re quite a big fella, and I don’t want to be delayed too long.” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Perhaps it would be better not to bother; just let the coyotes eat your bones.”

Zeke stood transfixed at the thought of a gun fight; he was a man who liked the odds stacked in his favor, and this wasn’t turning out as he had expected. But then he realized that he had his gun already drawn.

Adam saw Zeke’s face relax and his hand tighten on the gun. “You’ll have to put your gun in its holster,” Adam informed him, and Zeke looked sideways, wondering how Adam had guessed his thoughts. “If you don’t it’ll be murder, and I can’t let you get away with that.” Adam walked over to Joe and took Susanna’s arm, pulling her to one side, and to her amazement, he winked at her. “This will only take a moment, then we can be on our way.” Susanna looked at him open mouthed; surely he wasn’t going to encourage Joe to shoot the man? “Okay, little brother, any time you’re ready. But be quick, I want to be off.”

Joe eased his shoulders and relaxed, ready if necessary to prove his brother’s assessment of his abilities. Joe knew what Adam was up to and he stared hard at Zeke, trying, with only partial success, to look the part of a hardened gun fighter.

“Zeke, for God’s sake don’t do it!” cried the man still wrapped in Hoss’ infrangible embrace. He was looking at Joe, seeing the young man standing like a coiled spring ready to be released.

Zeke looked round, saw the frightened face of his accomplice, and addressed Adam, who seemed to be the leader of the party. “I suppose that if I shoot your brother you’ll just kill me and Jack.” Zeke realized that Adam was still armed.

Adam frowned as though considering the words and crossed his arms over his chest, casually leaning on one hip. “Well now, I must admit that possibility hadn’t occurred to me.” He glanced at Hoss. “What do you think, should we kill them?”

Hoss laughed, playing his part in turning the tables on the bewildered men. “No, if he can beat Joe he deserves to live.”

“Okay, we won’t kill you. So if you want to try it…” Adam left the sentence hanging.

Zeke was careful not to look at Joe in case he took it as a sign to draw his gun. “What if I don’t want to fight your brother, you gonna take us to the sheriff?”

Again Adam considered his answer. “No, but you’ll have to leave your weapons here. Don’t want you to get any ideas about jumping us later.”

Zeke pondered for a minute then gently lowered the hammer, turned his gun and, holding it by the barrel, handed it to Adam. “No need for anyone to get killed over this. If you meant it, we’ll be on our way and not bother you any more.”

“Adam, you can’t let them go!” Joe protested.

Adam was looking at Zeke and Jack as he answered. “Oh, I think they’ve learned their lesson.”

“But…”

“You have learned not to bother us, haven’t you?” Adam said as he stepped towards Zeke, who nodded silently, his only thought to get away.

Adam motioned to Hoss, who released his hold and relieved Jack of his gun before the little man hurried to Zeke’s side, and they stood as Hoss took their rifles from their saddles. When Adam indicated they could leave, they both backed away slowly and then, turning, made a dash for the safety of their horses and were gone in a cloud of dust.

“Well, how about some coffee?” Adam moved casually towards the fire as three pairs of eyes followed him.

“Doggone it, Adam, they sure didn’t know what to make of that,” said Hoss laughing, as he accepted a cup of coffee from his brother.

“Yeah, but I still don’t think you should’a let them go.” Joe was concerned that they might try some other way to rob Susanna.

Adam straightened, the coffee pot still in his hand. “Joe, we couldn’t take them in,” he said patiently, “we’re still at least three days from Fallon. We’d have to keep a guard on them all the time. It would only need a slip, then they’d get the drop on us, and we could all end up dead. Just because they didn’t shoot this time, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t, if it meant they could get away. Better to let them go now, while we’re all still alive. I’ll report it to the sheriff when we get to town and leave it up to him.”

“I still don’t like the thought of them being out there,” Joe insisted, knowing that he stood little chance of changing Adam’s mind, but wanting to make his own position clear.

“Think about it; it’s a day’s riding to Fallon on a horse, which is the only place they’re going to get guns to replace those we kept. They probably don’t have enough money to buy any weapons, or they wouldn’t have risked attacking us, so even when they get to town they won’t be able to arm themselves. I suppose they could try to steal them, but you’ve seen how inept they are.”

“What if…”

Adam had had enough of Joe’s questioning. “Look, if they come back, we’ll be ready for them. We’ll stand watches as before. Will that keep you happy?” he asked with an edge to his voice that told Joe he wasn’t pleased to be challenged by his younger brother.

Joe looked as though he would like to argue further, but saw that he would not be able to persuade his brother, and, anyway, it was too late, the pair was gone. He nodded abruptly and, taking his coffee, he went to stand on the other side of the wagon, away from Adam. He was breathing hard, trying to bring his anger under control, when suddenly he felt a gentle hand on his arm.

“You don’t agree with what your brother has done, do you,” Susanna stated; she could see the red spots of anger on Joe’s cheeks.

“No.” Joe walked away a few paces, then turned. “He always thinks he knows best, it never occurs to him that sometimes I might be right.”

“He seems certain that the men won’t come back.” There was a touch of doubt in Susanna’s voice.

Joe put his arm round her shoulders. “I expect he’s right, he usually is, don’t worry. And if they do come back we’ll be ready.”

Susanna looked up at him. “Joe?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you have shot him?”

Joe hesitated for a moment, then nodded and said softly, “If it meant keeping you safe, yes.”

Susanna settled her head into Joe’s shoulder and smiled to herself as she felt his grip tighten. Joe put down his coffee cup and eased her round to face him, then put his fingers gently under her chin and lifted her head until he was looking into those slate blue eyes, which held the light of a summer’s morning when the mist covered the lake and the world was mysterious. Joe lowered his head towards Susanna, gazing into her face, and kissed her. Susanna let herself fall into his warm, tender embrace.

Adam was looking for Joe to tell him it was time to move, but he stopped as he came round the back of the wagon and saw the couple in an embrace that made his breath catch in his throat. He retreated silently and went to his horse.

“Tell Joe it’s time to go,” he instructed Hoss, and then rode off as far as the next bend and waited for them.

Hoss frowned, wondering why Adam hadn’t told him himself.

“Joe, we should be makin’ a move,” Hoss called.

Joe released Susanna slowly, smiling down at her. “That’s it, gotta go.” He helped Susanna up onto the seat of the wagon, and followed her, untying the reins of the team from the brake handle. As he glanced at Susanna, the argument with his brother was forgotten; he had something more important to occupy his mind.

They went silently; Adam riding ahead, Hoss behind, keeping their eyes open for any sign of trouble, but all was quiet. After putting more miles behind them, Adam called a halt and again they made camp for the night.

It was near the end of Joe’s watch and he was walking the perimeter of the camp, when he saw movement. He put his hand on his gun, waiting for the shadow to move again, and when it did he saw that it was Adam, coming to relieve him.

“Hi, brother,” Joe said quietly.

Adam looked round, wrapping his arms across his chest and burying his hands as he hunched his shoulders. He didn’t like the cold. “Anything moving?”

Joe looked round as though to assure himself that all was quiet. “Apart from you, nothing,” he reported.

“Okay, ‘night.” Adam was going to continue the rounds that Joe had started, but his brother caught his arm.

“Can I talk to you?” Joe asked.

Adam peered at Joe in the darkness, the risen waxing moon the only light. “Yeah, of course. What’s on your mind?” he asked guardedly, hoping that Joe wasn’t going to bring up the subject of Zeke and Jack.

“Susanna.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh. Adam, do you think that she might want to stay in Virginia City rather than go on to California?”

Adam leaned against the tree beside him and watched as Joe paced to and fro. “Well, I don’t know, why would she want to?”

Joe paused in his pacing. He wanted to tell his older, worldly-wise, brother what was on his mind, but Adam might not treat it seriously, and Joe was serious about Susanna.

“She might want to if I told her that I love her.” Now it was out and there was no going back.

Adam nodded to himself, knowing that he had been correct in his reading of the signs, and that he had been right to keep his distance, but he wanted Joe to think about what he was saying. “Whoa, hold on there Joe, isn’t this a bit sudden? You’ve only known the girl a couple of days.”

“I know, but I think she’s special. She’s intelligent, and strong and independent.” Joe laughed, “Sounds a better match for you, big brother.”

Adam was glad that Joe couldn’t see his face clearly, couldn’t see the flicker of pain that crossed it. He didn’t reply.

“What do you think she’d do if I told her?” Joe stood in front of Adam, his fingers toying nervously with the ties of his green jacket. Too many girls had slipped through his fingers and he wondered if, despite his reputation, he just didn’t know how to handle a woman.

“That depends; do you know how she feels?”

Joe shook his head. “No. I know that she seems to enjoy being with me, she doesn’t mind if I put my arm round her and she even let me kiss her. But otherwise…,” he shrugged, “I don’t know.”

“Don’t you think that you should wait and try to gauge her feelings? If you tell her too soon, you might frighten her away, you could lose her.” Adam saw Joe’s downcast expression. “Joe, give her time, she’s young and she’s only just lost her father, and it might be too soon for her to want to commit herself to any sort of relationship, or she might clutch at your love out of grief or loneliness. Why don’t you ask her if she wants to stay at the Ponderosa for a while before moving on? The passes to California won’t close up for a few weeks yet.”

Joe’s face brightened. “I already have and she said that she would like to.”

“Well, that’ll give you a bit more time. Then, maybe, you can talk to her about love.”

Joe put out his hand to Adam. “Thanks, brother; I knew that I could rely on you to help me.”

Adam pushed him gently. “Go to bed.”

*****

They stopped on a rise from where, in the distance, they could see Fallon shimmering in the heat of the late afternoon sun, so one could imagine that it might be a mirage. As they approached the settlement it became clear that it consisted mainly of wooden buildings, but with the occasional brick-built structure and one or two more in the process of construction; not a mirage at all, but a town that was growing. Adam was pleased to see telegraph wires leading away in the direction of Virginia City; he would be able to send his father a message about their late return and stop him worrying.

The wagon rolled down the town’s wide main street towards the livery, where they stopped and Adam went inside. A minute later he reappeared.

“Joe, you can pull the wagon into the side of the building. It can stay there tonight and one of us can sleep in it to keep an eye on things.” Adam watched the people passing by, going about their business. “Apparently there’s no sheriff here; the last one got himself shot and they haven’t replaced him yet. So we can’t report the robbery, or attempt at it.”

“Who’s staying?” Joe wanted to know. He refused to contemplate that, as the youngest, it should be his duty to stay with the wagon and miss out on a night in a proper bed.

“We’ll decide like we usually do; draw straws,” Adam informed him, and Joe’s face fell, knowing what would be the outcome. Adam went back into the stable, and returned holding three lengths of straw between his thumb and the base of his index finger, their ends concealed in his hand.

“Short straw stays,” he said, holding out his hand to Joe.

“Oh, no,” Joe protested, “Hoss first.” Adam turned to Hoss who drew out a straw and held it close to his chest, peering into his hand and trying to gauge whether he had the short one. Adam turned to Joe, whose fingers hovered over the remaining straws until, at last, he chose one. Adam held up the final straw, which was long, and Hoss matched his to it.

Joe sighed and threw away his chosen straw in disgust. “I don’t know how you two do that.”

“Just lucky I guess,” Adam said, putting his straw between his teeth and smiling. Joe had never cottoned on to the fact that Adam always held the short straw furthest away from the end of his thumb, a fact that Hoss knew perfectly well, and that he could always silently persuade Joe to take the shortest by simply making it look as though he wanted Joe to take the straw nearest to him. Joe would react in his usual way, by doing exactly the opposite of what he thought his brother wanted.

Hoss glanced up and down the street. “Well, I guess we’d better go find the hotel, and something to eat, I’m starving.”

“So what else is new?” Adam remarked as he picked up his saddle bags and followed his brother.

Susanna held back, concerned that Joe was going to be left alone for the night. “Will you be all right?”

Joe smiled at her worried expression. “Oh yeah, sure. I’ll come and have some supper and then settle down here. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” He called after his brothers, “I’ll meet you fellas in that eating place in half-an-hour.” He indicated a restaurant opposite the livery.

Hoss and Adam waited for Susanna to join them, and then waved over their shoulders as they headed down the street to find themselves rooms for the night. The hotel was a two-storied building, and the first floor bedrooms were small and dark but contained the main requirement; a comfortable, clean bed. Once settled in their rooms, Susanna changed her blouse, Hoss dunked his head in a basin of refreshingly cold water, and Adam took the time to shave. Then they went to join Joe at the restaurant. After they had eaten their fill of some tender steak, with apple pie to follow, they stood on the sidewalk together.

“Joe, if there’s any sign of trouble, you come and get me, you understand?” Adam instructed. Joe resented the implication that he couldn’t handle anything that might occur, but he nodded his agreement. “Okay, we’ll see you in the morning, back here for breakfast.” Adam turned away, towards the hotel.

Hoss slapped his little brother on the shoulder, a silent signal that he wished Joe a safe night and that he trusted him to be careful. Susanna stood on tip-toe and quickly brushed Joe’s cheek with a kiss, then they parted and Joe went back to the wagon. The livery was dark as Joe looked round to check that everything was in order before climbing into the back of the wagon and settling himself under the warm blankets. The bed was no more than a palliasse laid on the floor of the wagon, but Joe, who had been sleeping on hard ground for the past month, found it soft enough. He lay for a minute thinking of Susanna, imagining her lying in this same bed on her lonely travels. Then he thought of her beside him and a warmth spread through him. He sighed with the love in his heart, turned over and was soon asleep.

In his hotel room Adam, too, lay in the darkness thinking about Susanna. He liked her spirit and her courage in undertaking this journey alone, and she was beautiful. Adam had noticed her unusual blue eyes, which were the color of mountains seen from a distance in the haze of the summer sun, and as he lay half-asleep those mysterious eyes drifted in front of his, and he smiled. He had not made any approach to her, knowing how his brother felt, but he too experienced a pleasing warmth at the thought of her. Maybe if she rejected Joe, he would say something to her, but in the meantime he would keep himself at a distance. He sighed with resignation, turned over and was soon asleep.

Joe stirred and woke, slowly remembering where he was. The bed he lay in was better suited to the slender frame of Susanna, and Joe shifted, trying to make himself comfortable. He closed his eyes again but sleep would not come as he tossed from side to side. Finally he gave up and lay with his hands behind his head, telling himself that he didn’t mind a sleepless night if it was to protect the wagon and its contents. His mind was wandering, but always coming back to Susanna and his feelings for her, when suddenly he became aware of the sound of movement outside and he sat up slowly, reaching for his gun. As he took it in his hand he threw back the covers and crawled to the back of the wagon, pushing aside the heavy canvas and peering out into the darkness. He saw no one, and climbed quietly over the tail board. As his feet touched the ground he came upright slowly; he could feel the hard pressure of a gun in his back.

“Drop the gun,” Zeke’s deep voice ordered and Joe complied, turning as he did so. He saw three men, Zeke, Jack, and a stranger.

“What do you want?” asked Joe, knowing the answer.

“We want whatever it is that you got in that wagon. Jack, take a look.” Jack, following Zeke’s command, climbed into the back of the Conestoga, lit a match, and his shadow flickered on the canvas until he lit a lamp and could be seen moving about inside the wagon. After a few minutes, he reappeared with the lamp in one hand and a bundle of notes in the other.

“’Bout a thousand dollars, I reckon.” Jack showed them the money he had found.

“Bring it over,” Zeke ordered.

The stranger came to stand in front of Joe. “Is this the kid who’s supposed to be so fast?”

Joe looked into the close-set eyes of the man, and was afraid. Even in the darkness they shone with an ill concealed malice, a disdain for other men that Joe had seldom seen before but which he knew meant trouble.

Zeke smiled nastily. “According to his brother, yeah.”

“He don’t look so fast to me.” Clem, the third man, was no stranger to gun fights. He reckoned he was as fast as any man around, and anxious to prove it at any given opportunity.

Joe didn’t reply, he was looking at Zeke holding the money, thinking what it would mean to Susanna to lose it, and his temper flared. He leaped at the man, who was knocked off his feet by the sudden impact. Joe stood and faced Jack and Clem, and for a moment no one moved. Then the two men both went for Joe at the same time and, despite exchanging blows with them, Joe found himself on the ground. He grunted as a boot hit him in the ribs, robbing him of breath, then he was lifted to his feet and Zeke hit him in the face. As the world receded, Joe cried out silently for his brother, for the help that he knew would never come.

*****

“Adam, help me!” The words screamed in his head, demanding attention. Shocked into wakefulness, Adam sat bolt upright, waiting for the voice to come again, knowing it was Joe’s, then he looked round and found that he was in bed in the hotel and it was still dark; he must have been dreaming. He shook his head and lay back against the pillows but couldn’t settle. The desperation in the voice was ringing in his head, and he lit the lamp by the bed, trying to clear it from his mind, but it persisted. Finally he got out of bed and, after hurriedly pulling on his clothes, went out of the hotel in the direction of the livery.

All was quiet as Adam approached the wagon, and he smiled to himself. He hoped that Hoss hadn’t heard him leave; he would tease his elder brother unmercifully for the illogic of acting on his dream. Adam was about to turn and head back to the hotel, when he saw a glimmer of light through the dirty window set high in the side wall of the livery. Curiosity, and the memory of the desperate cry he had imagined, led him round the front of the building, to the doorway. He heard voices coming from inside and immediately recognized Zeke’s deep tones. As Adam drew his gun and eased himself silently round the partly open door, he saw Joe, his arms held behind him by Jack, his chin on his chest.

“Now let’s see who’s the fastest,” Zeke said, standing in front of Joe and grinning. Three to one were the sort of odds that he could handle.

”I guess I am,” said Adam, moving out of the deep shadows by the door and coming up behind Zeke, pushing his gun into the man’s back as he did so.

When he heard his brother’s voice, Joe’s head came up slowly and his eyes opened wide. “Adam, no!” Joe’s eyes slid sideways to look behind his brother.

Adam saw the move and had started to turn to see who Joe was looking at, so that the gun butt that was aimed at his head did not hit him with the force that was intended, but still the blow momentarily robbed his mind of thought and his legs of strength and he sank to his knees, dropping the gun as he put his hands out to stop himself from hitting the ground. As Adam slowly collapsed, Clem, who had been standing to one side hidden in the shadows, stepped past him and kicked the gun away, out of reach. Adam stayed on all fours, shaking his head to clear it, then he stood slowly, and as he rose he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun that was aimed at his head.

“Well look who’s here, the mouthy one.” Zeke stepped up to Adam and backhanded him across the face. Adam managed to stay on his feet, and as he recovered made to retaliate, but the man holding the gun stopped him.

“You stand right there and don’t move,” Clem instructed.

Adam looked at the weapon, held purposefully in the steady hand, and stood still. He glanced across at Joe, who was struggling against the restraining hands of Jack. “You okay?”

“Yeah, he’s all right,” Zeke answered him, “he tried to stop us taking the money. Now he’s just getting ready to face my friend here.” He indicated the man who stood in front of Adam. “Clem reckons that he’s fast enough to take your brother, so now we’re going to find out.”

“But Joe’s in no fit state for a fight; look what you’ve done to him!” Adam protested, seeing that Joe’s eyes were unfocused; there was blood seeping from a cut over his right eye and swelling on his jaw. Adam took a step forward, intending to check whether his brother had sustained any more serious injuries, but stopped when Clem cocked the gun.

Zeke sneered, “One more move from you and you won’t be around to care what happens to your brother.” Then he spoke to Clem, without taking his eyes from Adam. “Tie him up.”

Clem moved behind Adam and pushed him towards a post at the far end of the stable. “Sit down,” he ordered. Adam lowered himself slowly onto the straw covered dirt floor; Jack had released his hold on Joe and now had a gun in his hand, pointing it at the young man who stood swaying slightly, and Adam didn’t want to give Jack any excuse to use it. Clem told Adam to put his hands behind the post, and then tied them securely. Zeke came over, pulled a kerchief from his pocket, and, forcing Adam’s mouth open, gagged him, tying the dirty material tightly round his head.

“That should shut your smart mouth for you.” Zeke was enjoying turning the tables on the man who had made a fool of him, and Adam could do nothing except watch as Zeke turned to Joe. “Okay boy, now let’s see you take on Clem. He’s fast, but if you’re as good as your brother says, you should have no trouble.” Zeke smiled nastily, thinking that Joe stood little chance against the man that he had seen take down all who had challenged him.

Joe stood unmoving, drawing in deep breaths and forcing himself to concentrate on what Zeke was saying. “I won’t fight him,” Joe declared, “I got no reason to kill him, and I won’t do it just to prove I can.” He caught Adam’s eye and saw the look of relief that flickered across his face.

Zeke studied Joe, seeing the determination in the young features. Then he moved to stand beside Adam and drew his gun, pressing it into Adam’s temple. “Then do it for your brother’s life. You draw or he dies.”

Joe stared at Adam for a moment, shrugged as though in apology, and then went slowly and unsteadily to stand in front of Clem. When Adam saw Joe flex his fingers in preparation, he tried to make himself understood as he shouted at his brother to back off, but his words were lost amongst the folds of the gag in his mouth, and Joe continued to stare at Clem, forcing his eyes to focus.

Zeke turned to the man who would get his revenge for him. “Any time you’re ready.”

“I’m ready.” Clem walked away from Joe and turned. “Okay kid, take your best shot.”

Adam struggled against the rope holding him and shouted unintelligible, muffled words at their captors, who simply ignored him.

Joe could see that he would have to draw against the man if they were to have any hope of getting out of this. From somewhere deep inside he found the strength he needed, born of a love of his brother and a hatred for the men who threatened him. He straightened and tried to steady himself, running through in his mind what he was going to do. He rehearsed silently to himself the sequence of events. He would look into the man’s eyes, waiting for that tell tale sign that he was going to go for his gun, then his own hand would move, grasp the handle of his weapon and, while drawing it from its holster, cock the hammer and then aim and shoot in the same moment. He relaxed; his body knew what to do, and he tried to blank the movements from his conscious mind.

For five interminable seconds there was absolute silence in the stable as the two faced each other, then a sudden flurry of movement and the stunning sound of gunfire. Adam looked on wide eyed, and let out a shuddering breath as Joe stood uninjured while the other man slid to the floor.

Joe cocked his gun again and turned towards Zeke and Jack. “Let my brother go,” he ordered, taking a step towards Adam. Jack was about to move when they were deafened by the sound of another shot. Joe flew backwards into the empty stall behind him, and Adam heard the sickening thud of his little brother’s head striking the wall. Joe rebounded and fell to the ground as Clem climbed unsteadily to his feet, the gun in his right hand still smoking and his left pressed against his side.

He went over to look down at Joe where he lay unmoving among the straw. “It’s never over till it’s over, kid.” Clem started to collapse as his knees threatened to give way, and Jack hurried to support him.

Adam struggled uselessly against the restraining rope; all he could see of Joe was his head showing beyond the wooden barrier of the stall, his face a deathly white, and Adam could only wonder whether his young brother still lived.

Zeke looked round the stable as he moved towards the door. “We’d better get outta here before someone comes.” Jack supported Clem out of the door and Zeke was about to follow, but then he stopped and returned to crouch down in front of Adam, and brushed the shoulders of the black shirt, imitating Adam’s earlier gesture. He showed him the money they had stolen. “You should’a taken us in. Guess you ain’t so smart after all.” Then he was gone.

Adam sat staring at Joe, with Zeke’s last words filling his mind, hammering at him as he forced his eyes to look at his motionless brother. He shouted Joe’s name repeatedly, but the words were deadened by the gag, and the green eyes were hidden behind lids that remained stubbornly closed and showed no reaction. Adam fought against the rope that held him, his face tense and his eyes reflecting his shifting emotions; anger, regret and sorrow. He thought that perhaps someone would come to investigate the gun fire, but then he remembered that there was no sheriff, and he knew that the good citizens of Fallon would stay safe in their homes. Adam’s shouts slowly got softer until he fell silent, straining his ears for any sound that would tell him Joe was still alive, but there was nothing. Adam pulled harder against the ropes and thought that there was some give in them. He kept fighting to free his hands, desperation making him indifferent to the damage he was doing to his wrists; he had to free himself, to get to Joe, to find out what he dreaded to discover.

*****

In the hotel, Susanna was up and dressing. The last time she had slept in a bed was months ago, and now she felt thoroughly rested for the first time since she and her father had started on their journey. As she put on her freshly laundered bright yellow blouse and tucked it into her grey skirt, she thought of Joe, and the less than comfortable night he would have spent in the wagon. She would make sure that he knew how grateful she was that he had done so. She gazed at herself in the full length mirror beside the open window that let in the cool, early morning breeze, and imagined Joe standing behind her, his strong arms wrapping themselves round her slim waist. She hugged herself and smiled; when she had decided to continue her journey alone, she had not thought to find a man like Joe in the wilds of Nevada. He was kind and courageous, humorous and full of life, in fact the sort of man that any woman would be proud to have standing beside her as a husband.

As her mind conjured up the fantasy of living with Joe, she thought of his brothers. Would Hoss and Adam welcome her into their family? She was sure that Hoss would accept her; he was too open and straightforward with his feelings to hide any dislike he might have. But what about Adam? He had seemed to avoid her on the trail, never riding beside the wagon, but going on ahead at every opportunity, and when they sat together for meals he was polite and joined in their conversations, but Susanna felt that he was holding back, that she was not seeing the real person behind the serious façade.

She shook herself out of her reverie and made for the door.

Hoss was dressed and looking for Adam, but when he knocked on his brother’s bedroom door he got no reply, so he opened it slowly. He saw the empty bed and thought that Adam must already have gone down for breakfast. As Hoss backed out of the room he nearly bumped into Susanna in the hallway.

“Good morning Hoss, is Adam ready?”

“Mornin’ Ma’am. He’s already up and out by the look of it. Let’s go get breakfast.”

Hoss escorted Susanna down the quiet street to the restaurant. The lack of people made him realize that it was Sunday, and the town would not stir so early. They went inside, but found no sign of Adam or Joe.

“I expect Adam’s tryin’ to wake Joe, that boy hates to get out of bed. Let’s go help him.” They walked over to the wagon but could not find either brother.

“Wonder where they’ve got to?” Hoss looked round, puzzled.

Inside the stable, Adam had finally succeeded in his struggle to free himself from the bonds that kept him from going to Joe. He had been oblivious to the time and, as his hands parted, he looked up and was horrified to see daylight coming through the window set high in the wall. How long had he been fighting, how many minutes, or hours, had passed, and did one of those uncounted moments mark the passing of his brother? He pulled the gag from his mouth, not bothering to try to undo it but letting it drop round his neck, and pushed himself to his feet. He ran across the stable, his eyes wide as he slid to a halt on his knees in the stall where Joe lay. Adam bent over the young body, seeing Joe’s left side covered with blood from his shoulder almost to his waist, and his hand hovered over Joe’s chest, afraid to touch it, afraid that all he would feel was the chill of death. As he hesitated, Adam stared, hardly daring to believe what he saw. He closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief as Joe’s chest rose and fell unevenly, testament to the life that was still present.

Adam knew he had to get Joe to a doctor, but first he crossed to the stable door, stopping to pick up his discarded gun, and he had to force his fingers to close on the weapon and grip it; his struggle with the rope had torn at his wrists and blood covered his unfeeling hands. He peered outside, and when he had assured himself that all was quiet, he returned quickly to Joe’s side, grimacing as he saw the pale face and the sheen of sweat that covered it. Adam placed his hands under Joe’s knees and shoulders but, as he tried to lift him, he realized that his arms were weak from his fight to free himself. His breath caught in his throat as he struggled against his feebleness and forced himself to stand and carry the limp form from the stable, intent on finding help.

Hoss came to the front of the building as he heard the door creak open, then he was hurrying to relieve Adam of the burden he carried.

“What the devil happened?” Hoss wanted to know as he saw the blood that stained Joe’s shirt, but Adam was not going to waste time with explanations that could wait.

“We’ve got to find a doctor, quick. You carry him, I’ll find out where the doc is.”

Adam ran across the street into the restaurant. He emerged a minute later and pointed. “This way, come on.” He ran towards the hotel, but turned into an alley before he reached it. Hoss followed, Joe cradled in his powerful arms, Susanna holding Joe’s head against the bumping movement.

Adam came to a halt in front of a door which bore the sign ‘William Ferguson MD’. He knocked, but when he did not immediately receive a reply he opened the door, his hand leaving a bloody smear on the handle. Inside a single lamp illuminated the room, which contained a desk, what looked like a medicine cabinet, a couple of chairs and a narrow bed in one corner. An elderly man was rising from behind the desk. He was tall, heavy set, grey haired and had an unlit cigar in his mouth, which he chewed on as he peered at his sudden visitors.

He pulled the cigar from his mouth as he stood. “What’s your hurry?”

“My brother’s been shot.” Adam held the door as Hoss entered.

“Take him through there,” the doctor instructed, pushing open the door at the back of the room. Hoss made his way through the office and into the surgery, where he laid Joe on a high leather couch that doubled as an operating table. Beside the couch was a cabinet in which could be seen the tools of the doctor’s profession, shining dully in the lamplight, and a table to hold them during use. On the other side of the room, against the wall, were two beds waiting to be occupied, and two wooden chairs, the only furniture in the otherwise bare room.

The doctor followed his early morning callers, then stood looking down. He lifted one side of Joe’s shirt, peered beneath the material, and addressed Adam as he let it fall back into place. “You’re right, he’s been shot.”

Adam drew a deep breath and spoke with deceptive calmness. “Yes, I know that. Help him.”

The doctor took a step back. “Well now, I don’t know you. You come bursting in here and demand that I tend to your brother. But I don’t do this for free, you know. How do I know you got any money?”

Adam’s patience snapped and he stepped quickly round the couch as he drew his gun. Ignoring the pain from his cut and bruised wrists, he forced his fingers to work, pushing the gun under the doctor’s nose, at the same time grabbing hold of the front of his jacket.

Adam’s voice was low and threatening. “I’ve got more money than you are ever likely to see in your miserable lifetime, which is going to end in five seconds if you don’t tend to my brother, NOW!”

Hoss put a restraining hand on his brother’s arm. “Take it easy, Adam.” He looked at the doctor, who seemed unaffected by the threat of imminent demise. “Don’t worry, you’ll get paid.”

Adam dropped his arm and the gun fell to the floor from his nerveless fingers, but his eyes bored into the doctor. “Just save my brother and you’ll be well rewarded, I guarantee it.”

Ferguson saw that agreement would be the easier course; this man was obviously very close to the edge of madness. “Very well, I’ll do what I can.” He stepped towards Adam and took hold of his hands. “Those cuts should be treated as well.”

Adam pulled away from the doctor’s grasp. “Never mind that, just take care of Joe,” he said, angry at the delay.

The doctor saw Susanna standing in the doorway, her hand at her throat as she watched the scene in front of her. “Young lady, do you know anything about nursing?” Susanna nodded silently. “Then I could do with some help.”

Susanna stepped closer. “Just tell me what to do,” she said bravely. She had nursed her father, but had never come across anything like this before and hoped that she was capable of assisting.

Before the doctor started he turned to Hoss, nodding towards Adam who was staring at Joe. “Take him in the other room. You’ll find medicinal alcohol, sulfur powder, and bandages in the cabinet. Clean those wounds, and wait there.”

Hoss picked up the abandoned gun that lay on the floor, and pushed Adam from the room. “Come on, there’s nothing we can do here.”

Adam took a last look at the brother he had failed to protect. “Please, make him live,” he whispered, and saw the doctor nod as he started his preparations.

Adam sat silent and unflinching as Hoss cleaned and bandaged the deep wounds. Hoss’ usually calm features registered anger as he worked, and he questioned his brother. “What happened? Who shot Joe?”

Adam didn’t reply, but remained motionless, unblinking; all he could hear was his own foolishly confident voice telling Joe that they should let the men go, and all he could see in his mind was the sight of Joe flying backwards as the bullet hit him. He lowered his head as he thought how wrong he had been, and hated himself for what he had brought on his brother.

Hoss put a comforting hand on Adam’s shoulder. “He’s gonna to be all right.”

Adam lifted his head and Hoss recoiled as he saw the depth of the pain in the brown eyes. “But what if he isn’t, how am I gonna tell Pa that I killed him?”

“He ain’t dead yet.” Hoss tried to reassure his brother; he didn’t understand why Adam blamed himself.

“But…” Suddenly Adam stood. “They won’t get away with this, I’m going after them.” He was halfway to the door when Hoss stopped him, holding his arm in a firm grip.

“You cain’t leave Joe now. You gotta be here for him; he needs you.”

“No, I brought this on him, he doesn’t need me.” Adam took a pace towards the surgery door, awful images in his thoughts as he pictured the doctor working to save Joe. “I should have listened to him, but I’ve always got to be right, never listen to what he says, even when he’s making sense.”

“What d’ya mean? Adam, who did this?”

As Adam’s mind went back over the events of the night, he remembered the kerchief and raised his hands to undo it, but his fingers refused to work and Hoss stood behind him, undoing the knot and holding the unfamiliar material in his hands.

“Adam, who was it?”

“Zeke and Jack,” Adam said slowly, hating to say the names. He explained haltingly how he had gone rushing in to help Joe only to be captured by the men. “They’d found a friend who they thought could take Joe.” Adam paused as he remembered his brother preparing to fight. “Joe didn’t stand a chance the state he was in, but he did it anyway…to save me. He beat Clem to the draw, but he didn’t wait to see if he’d killed him, and Clem shot him. Joe was telling them to let me go and Clem…shot him.”

“Zeke and Jack!” Hoss whispered, understanding dawning. “But you couldn’t know…”

“But I should have, I should have realized what they were like.” Adam started to pace the floor, then he paused and turned desperate eyes on his brother. “Hoss, what have I done?”

Hoss looked into the sad brown eyes and knew that his brother needed the strength that he could give him simply by his words. He spoke quietly but with conviction. “You did what you thought was right, as you always do. Joe knows that and Pa’ll understand.”

“Pa’ll understand!” Adam shook his head. “Understand that his eldest son, who he’s always relied on to protect you both, stupidly used the threat of Joe’s speed to stop them, then let them go, and when Joe needed me I went rushing to rescue him not thinking that they wouldn’t risk taking him on alone. I was so concerned to get Joe out of there I didn’t think…” He turned and tried to grasp Hoss’ arms with his hands, but his fingers had no strength. “I can’t lose him, not Joe, not so young, he should have all his life ahead of him…” His words faded and he stared, unseeing, as he thought of that life cut short.

Hoss took Adam’s hands from his arms and made him sit, while he went to the medicine cabinet and, after examining the labels on the mysterious assortment of large and small, clear, green or brown bottles, recognized the one he was looking for and poured a small amount of liquid into a glass and added a little water.

“Here, drink this.” Hoss held the glass to Adam’s lips, making him drink the soporific. Adam drained the contents unquestioningly, his only thoughts were for Joe, and slowly his eyes started to close as Hoss lifted him onto the bed and then sat watching over his elder brother, but thinking about his younger. He kept telling himself that Joe was strong, with a love of life that would pull him through, and he lowered his head into his hands and prayed. When he heard the sound of the door opening, he looked up and saw the doctor appear, wiping his hands on a towel. Hoss got slowly to his feet, trying to read Ferguson’s expression.

“How is he, Doc, is he…?”

“He’s alive.” Ferguson dropped the used towel into a wicker basket standing in the corner by the surgery door before he continued. “The bullet went into his shoulder, simple enough to remove, but he’s lost a lot of blood and is very weak. If only you’d brought him here sooner. But now it’s up him, I can’t do any more.” The doctor looked across to where Adam lay sleeping. “Perhaps he’ll be in a better mood when he wakes. How’d you get him to sleep?”

“Gave him something outta your cabinet. And don’t blame him for his mood, he blames himself for Joe getting’ shot.”

Ferguson made a mental note to add the medicine to the bill. “Joe’s his brother, he said.”

“Mine too.”

The doctor looked at the big man before him and tried to find some likeness in the three, but he couldn’t. “You’re brothers?”

“Yeah. Can I go and see Joe?”

“Yes, but quietly, rest is what he needs right now.”

Hoss nodded and went into the adjoining room and saw that Joe had been moved onto a bed. Susanna was sitting at Joe’s side, looking tired and drawn. Hoss went to her and put a hand on her shoulder and she covered it with her own.

“Oh Hoss, what’s going to happen? Is he going to be all right?” As she watched Joe, she realized how desperately she wanted him to live.

“We’ll have to wait, it’ll take time, but he’s a fighter, it’ll be okay.” Hoss fetched a cloth and gently wiped it over the young, unlined features of his brother, who was pale and sweating, his breathing shallow. Then he sat down with Susanna and waited.

Hoss was staring so intently at Joe that he didn’t at first notice Adam standing behind him. It was only when Susanna looked round that he realized there was someone else beside the bed. Hoss saw the desolate look in Adam’s eyes and rose.

“He’s gonna be all right, you’ll see.”

Adam dragged his gaze away from Joe’s face, nodded uncertainly, and was going to leave the room; he couldn’t bear to see his brother suffering, knowing that he had caused it. But Hoss stopped him.

“Sit with him for a while, in case he wakes up. He’ll want to know you’re here, and that you’re okay,” he said softly. Adam was about to turn away, but the grip on his arm tightened. “Please.”

Adam desperately wanted to get away from the still form lying on the bed, but he sat reluctantly as Hoss backed slowly out of the room. Adam and Susanna sat close together keeping watch, and when her hand found his and held it gently, he glanced at her, seeing again the deep blue eyes that had haunted his thoughts. He smiled thinly.

Adam‘s mind was far away, imagining having to tell his father what had happened, when he became aware that Susanna had moved and was sitting forward looking closely at Joe.

“What is it?” he asked.

“He moved, I think he’s waking up.”

“Joe…Joe?” Adam spoke softly, hopefully.

Joe could feel the fire that burned in his shoulder and the throbbing pain in his head that crowded out all thought. He tried moving to ease the discomfort, but as soon as his muscles tensed the fire became an inferno and he lay still. He was vaguely aware that someone was calling his name and he tried to ignore it, to escape from the voice that wanted to drag him back from the gentle blackness into the pain-filled light, but it was a voice he knew he wanted to hear. He forced his eyes open slowly and looked at Adam, who could see that Joe was barely conscious.

Joe took a shaky breath. “Hi brother,” he whispered.

Adam spoke softly. “Don’t try to talk, just concentrate on getting better. That’s all you gotta do now, just get well.”

Content for once to follow his brother’s instructions, Joe nodded, closed his eyes, and his breathing became more even as he succumbed to his body’s need to sleep. Adam rose and went out of the room to find Hoss, who was sitting talking to the doctor. They both looked up as Adam joined them.

“He woke up.” Adam smiled as he spoke, his relief evident.

“He did, that’s great.” Hoss’ smile lit his face.

The doctor went to check on his patient and returned to tell them that Joe seemed a little stronger and the outlook was promising. Adam held out his hand to the man, who matched him for height, and looked him straight in the eye. “Doctor Ferguson, I want to apologies for the way I behaved when we come in. You’ve done a fine job and I’m grateful.”

As the doctor shook the offered hand he could see Adam wince as he tried to tighten his grip. “That hurts, doesn’t it.” It was more a statement than a question.

Adam shrugged and shook his head; he was not concerned with his own injuries, only with Joe’s recovery. “No, it’s fine,” he said dismissively.

The doctor frowned, then went to the medicine cabinet and took out what was unmistakably a whiskey bottle. Ferguson poured three measures and, after handing one to Hoss, held one out to Adam, whose hand closed round the glass but he couldn’t stop it slipping through his fingers.

Ferguson nodded. “Tell me you’re in the habit of throwing away good whiskey, and I’ll believe you.” When Adam didn’t bother to reply, the doctor continued. “Now sit down and let me take a proper look.”

Adam was going to refuse, but Hoss took his arms and made him sit. Fifteen minutes later Adam’s wrists and hands were swathed in bandages which prevented him moving his fingers.

“That should stop you using them for a time. You’ve torn the tendons in your wrists and that’ll take a while to heal, probably longer than your brother’s shoulder.” The doctor’s bedside manner asserted itself, reassuring Adam and Hoss that Joe’s wound was not as serious as they feared, now he had received the treatment he needed.

Adam held up his hands, looked at the bandages, and remembered the struggle to free himself, but dismissed it immediately; during those seemingly endless hours Joe had been lying, bleeding. He stood and went back into the surgery where Joe was sleeping easily, though the grey pallor on his face had not changed.

Adam approached the bed and looked down at Susanna. “You should get some rest.”

Susanna sat up straighter and stretched. “Perhaps I’ll just go for a walk and get some fresh air,” she suggested.

“Take Hoss with you,” Adam advised, “see if you can find something to eat, he must be starving by now.”

Susanna smiled as she went in search of Hoss, and a minute later Adam heard the front door open and close. He sat on the chair by the bed and stared at his little brother, who seemed so much younger than his twenty years as he lay unmoving and vulnerable.

When Joe stirred again, Adam reached out and held one cold hand between his own. He cursed the bandages, which prevented him making proper contact with his brother, but Joe must have felt the touch; he opened his eyes slowly and looked round the room, seeing it for the first time.

“Where…?” His voice was no more than a breath.

“We brought you to the Doc.” Adam swallowed hard, trying to keep his tone positive. “He fixed you up and you’re going to be fine, you just need to rest.”

Joe frowned and for a moment he couldn’t remember what had happened, but knew that this was not the office of their friend and physician, Doc Martin. “This…ain’t Paul’s.”

“No, we’re not in Virginia City. Joe, do you remember where we are?” Adam was concerned at Joe’s statement.

The frown deepened as Joe tried to concentrate through the pain in his head. Then the furrows in his brow softened. “Fallon.” His voice was a little stronger as he closed his eyes with the returning memory.

Adam was relieved. “Yeah, that’s right. Good boy.”

“I’m not…a boy,” Joe’s perennial protest came automatically as he opened his eyes, challenging his brother to disagree.

Adam recalled Joe facing Clem, ready to fight him for their lives. “No, you’re not, I’m sorry.” Then he remembered what had brought this on them. “Joe, I’m more sorry than I can ever say. If I’d listened to you, none of this would have happened. You saved us both in the livery, but you wouldn’t have had to if I’d taken any notice of what you were saying when I let them go. You were right and I was wrong.”

Adam was watching Joe’s face intently, seeing the struggle he was having just to stay awake, and was surprised when Joe smiled and spoke. “Can…I have that…in writing?”

Adam smiled as well, if Joe was feeling well enough to make jokes he certainly hadn’t given up the struggle to survive. “No, and you have no witnesses that I ever said it.”

Joe’s eyes closed and Adam thought that he had drifted off to sleep, but then he asked, “Why…why did you come?”

“I heard…” Adam stopped, his logical mind hesitating to acknowledge what had driven him to find his brother. “I knew…I thought…you needed me.”

Joe opened his eyes and looked curiously at his usually eloquent brother, who seemed to be having trouble expressing himself. “But…why?”

Adam smiled gently. “Because I’m your brother. Now you must rest, no more talking.”

Joe nodded and closed his eyes again, accepting, though at that moment not understanding, what Adam was saying; it was enough that he had come. He slowly drifted into sleep where he felt no pain, only the love that flowed from his brother. Adam hung his head; he knew that Joe wouldn’t hold his mistake against him, but it had been a mistake and Adam knew that he would hold it against himself for a long time.

All was quiet in the room as Susanna pushed the door open. Adam looked up, and she could see on his face the strain of watching his brother fight against his injury.

“How is he?” she enquired quietly as she came to stand behind Adam, looking at the still figure on the bed.

“He woke again. I think he’s a little stronger.”

“Then why don’t you get some rest?” She put her hand on Adam’s back and could feel the tension in his muscles.

“No, I want to be here with him. I owe him that, at least.” He paused as he noticed that she was alone. “Where’s Hoss?”

“He’s gone over to the livery to check on the wagon and the horses, he’ll be back soon.”

“They took your money, Joe tried to stop them,” Adam told her, and she looked at him aghast. How would she complete her journey with no money?

“But that means…”

“No, don’t worry about the money, I’ll replace it.” He thought that there was no reason for her to suffer for his error of judgment.

Susanna shook her head slowly. “No, I can’t let you do that.”

“Why not? But we’ll talk about it later.”

Susanna nodded as she sat in the chair next to Adam, and after a while leaned quietly against him, looking for some comfort as she watched Joe. Adam put his arm round her, also treasuring the contact.

“He’ll be all right,” he said, more to convince himself by the words, and Susanna nodded silently, letting her head rest on Adam’s shoulder as a tear crept down her cheek. Adam felt the staccato breaths of her concern, and put his hand under her chin, lifting her face towards him. He raised the other hand, using the bandage to brush away the tears, and their eyes locked. He bent slowly and kissed her, pulling back quickly as he realized what he had done. He turned away…and froze. Joe had his eyes open and Adam could see, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, that those eyes were focused and aware.

Joe frowned; the pain in his shoulder was robbing him of breath as he tried to shout at his brother. He had seen the kiss and his head swam with the thoughts that were going through his mind. He struggled to get the words out, but they wouldn’t come.

“Joe, I’m sorry,” Adam said desperately, “it wasn’t what you think.” He was going to try to explain, but his brother turned away from him, squeezing his eyes tight shut against the image of betrayal that was imprinted on his brain.

Susanna rose unsteadily and backed away towards the door. Why had she let Adam kiss her? Were the stirrings of love that she felt for Joe the real thing? Were they to be dismissed so easily by his brother’s presence? She turned and fled.

Adam saw her leave and rose to follow her. When he reached the door, he turned to his brother and said softly, “Joe, I’ll be back in a minute, I have to explain.” As he went into the office he noticed the door closing swiftly and hurried to open it, knowing that he would find Susanna outside.

Night had fallen but Adam could see, by the light from the open door, that she was leaning against the wooden wall that formed one side of the alley, breathing heavily, fighting back the tears. Adam approached her, resting his hand gently on her shoulder, and she turned towards him. As she looked up into eyes that were dark with sorrow, she backed away, afraid of what she might do if he stood too close.

“Susanna,” Adam said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t fair to you, or to Joe.”

“Oh Adam, it wasn’t your fault any more than it was mine.” Susanna looked up at the clear night sky, then back into the clouded brown eyes before her. “It’s just…I was so worried about Joe. I’ve never seen anyone shot before. It was so awful, seeing him bleeding, and then having to help the doctor, and not knowing if he would be all right.” She lowered her eyes. “I love your brother,” she looked up at him, “but I was glad when you kissed me.”

Adam stared at her, startled by this revelation, and suddenly he was afraid of his own powerful emotions. He backed away to lean against the wall that lined the opposite side of the alley, out of her reach.

“Susanna, I’m going back to talk to Joe, to try and explain if I can, to make him understand. Then, when I know that he’s going to be all right, I’m leaving. You can go on to Virginia City with Joe and Hoss.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not going home, not yet. Joe loves you, and you love him. It would only complicate things if I was there as well. No, I’ll let you two sort out how you both feel, give you some time alone. Then, maybe, I can come back, when you’re more certain of what you want.”

“But where will you go?”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.” Adam hung his head thinking about a future without his family, but knowing that in ten careless, uncontrolled seconds he had forfeited the right to be with them.

Susanna moved towards him and put her hand on his arm. Adam was going to move away, but she held him with both hands and stopped him. “You would do that, for me?”

Adam shook his head. “I’ll do it for Joe. He’s my brother and I won’t hurt him any more than I already have, not when I can prevent it simply by leaving.”

Susanna was going to try to persuade Adam not to take such a drastic step, but he moved past her. “I’m going to speak to Joe. You go and try to get some rest.” He disappeared into the office, and Susanna walked slowly out into the street, then she took to her heels, the tears she had been holding inside suddenly falling.

When Adam returned, the doctor was sitting at his desk chewing on the unlit cigar as he calculated just how much he was going to charge for his services. Ferguson started to speak, but Adam walked past him ignoring the words and stopped in front of the door to Joe’s room, his heart beating fast and hard in his chest. How was he going to explain what had happened, could Joe forgive him? He opened the door slowly, walked quietly round the bed and sat on a chair, his elbows resting on his knees, looking at his young brother.

“Joe?” Adam called softly in case he was sleeping, but Joe heard him and opened his eyes. “Joe, I want to explain. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

Joe was looking at Adam, his green eyes full of hate for what he had witnessed. He fought to get the breath he needed to speak. “How long…behind my back?”

For a fleeting moment Adam felt bitterness rise in him, as he thought how he had sacrificed his own feelings so that his brother could charm the girl unhindered. But it passed as quickly as it came; it had been his own decision, freely taken, not to compete with Joe.

“No, never. I wouldn’t, you must believe that.” Adam spoke desperately, trying to convince his brother. “It was just at that moment, she needed some reassurance and…it just happened. Joe, I’m sorry.”

“You think that ‘sorry’…makes everything right,” Joe said bitterly as he struggled for enough breath to express what he was feeling. “You say it too easily. Well…’sorry’ ain’t enough.”

“No, you’re right, it’s not enough.” Adam stood and started to pace beside the bed, then he stopped and, leaning on the back of the chair, faced the fury directed at him. “Do you want me to be honest with you?”

Joe stared at his brother, frowning against the pains in his shoulder, his head, and his heart. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Adam hung his head, then looked up. “I can’t deny that I find Susanna attractive, have done ever since we stopped to help her. But I have not done anything to let her know, never led her to believe that I had any interest in her. I went out of my way to avoid having anything to do with her; why do you think I spent so much time scouting what was a perfectly good trail? I knew I had lost her the minute you saw her. I could see that you were more than interested in her, then you confirmed it when we spoke, and I was ready to keep any feelings I had to myself. Do you believe that?”

When his brother gave no indication either way, Adam sat down and continued. “When we were sitting here watching you sleeping, I could only think how I had failed you, and she was watching the man she loves fight for his life. At that moment we needed each other, needed to know there was someone who cared as much as we each did. I suppose I kissed her because I wanted to know there was someone who didn’t hate me as much as I hate myself. And I think she needed…I don’t know…comfort, someone to cling to.” Adam stopped; he didn’t know what else to say.

Joe let the words flow over him; he had seen the evidence with his own eyes and did not need or want Adam trying to rationalize his treacherous actions. There was silence for a minute, until Joe forced a breath. “How you must have laughed…when I asked for your advice.”

Adam shook his head, knowing that he had not convinced his brother and hoping that Joe would see the sincerity in his face. “No, what I told you then was honest, I was only thinking of you and how I could help. Joe, you gotta believe me.”

Joe stared at the brother who had betrayed him, and a tear made its way from the corner of his eye. “Get out,” he whispered. Adam nodded sadly and, as Joe turned away from him, he left slowly.

Meanwhile Susanna had run towards the livery and the familiar shelter of the Conestoga. As she ran blindly into the yard she suddenly felt herself held, and struggled against the force restraining her.

“What’s the matter, is it Joe?” Hoss looked anxiously towards the street, preparing to return to his brother.

When Susanna realized who had stopped her, she threw her arms round Hoss’ waist and wept into his shirt.

“Joe’s all right,” she managed to force the words through her tears.

Hoss held her, gently stroking her hair, as he tried to calm the storm of her emotions. Hoss had an empathy with all injured animals that would allow him to help them, and that same innate understanding made him wrap Susanna in his arms. “Then what is it? What’s upset you?”

Susanna straightened and took a deep breath. “Oh Hoss, what have I done?” Hoss looked puzzled and Susanna explained between her fading sobs. “I love Joe, but I kissed Adam, and Joe saw me.”

“You kissed Adam?” Susanna could only nod as she remembered the look in Joe’s eyes. Hoss was taken aback by her admission. “Why?” He could see that she was too upset to explain and, taking her hand, led her to her room in the hotel. “Will you stay here for a minute, I’ll be right back.” Susanna nodded, but Hoss insisted, “Promise.”

“I promise.”

Hoss was gone and back again while Susanna merely sat on the bed and stared at her hands, which were twisting the material of her plain, grey skirt into knots.

“Drink this.” Hoss held out a glass to her and she took it, sipping the brandy that he had brought from the saloon. She shivered and Hoss refilled the glass as she emptied it. “Now, tell me, what happened.” The bed creaked as he sat down beside her.

“I was sitting with Joe; Adam and I, that is. We were sitting, watching Joe sleep, and then suddenly we were kissing each other, and Joe woke up and saw us. I don’t know why it happened, but Joe saw us.” She sipped slowly at the tawny liquid feeling it burn its way into her stomach. “He saw us, and now Adam’s there trying to explain it to him. But how can he explain it, I couldn’t.” Susanna looked up at Hoss. “If I love Joe, why did I let Adam kiss me?” She took another sip of brandy. “Now Adam says that he’s going to leave. What am I going to do?” Susanna sat silently. She had gone past the point where she could cry, her tears brought her no relief from her guilt.

Hoss frowned. “What d’ya mean ‘leave’?”

“Adam said that he would go away and let me and Joe sort out how we feel, without him there to complicate things,” Susanna whispered.

Hoss tentatively put his arm round her and she lay quietly against him, feeling the strength that held her and was grateful for it. Then she remembered Adam telling her how Hoss could sort out his brothers’ differences, and she sat up, looking at him with desperation in her eyes.

“Hoss, will you speak to them? Perhaps you can make them both understand.”

“I ain’t much good when it comes to what Pa calls ‘affairs of the heart’. Yeah, I can usually settle their arguments, that’s just using common sense, but when it comes to this, well, there ain’t much sense when love’s involved.”

“You’re right, of course, I shouldn’t have asked you.” Susanna became very still as she thought about the two brothers, her feelings, and what might be the result of them. “Hoss will you leave me alone for a while, I have to think.”

Hoss nodded uncertainly and went in search of his elder brother. He found Adam sitting on the sidewalk at the end of the alley that led to the doctor’s office, his feet in the dust of the street and his elbows on his knees. Adam didn’t look round as Hoss sat down beside him, but continued to stare blindly across the street, not seeing the buildings; all he could think about was the look in Joe’s eyes as he witnessed his brother’s betrayal.

Hoss put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Adam, I just spoke to Susanna. She says you kissed her. Did you?” Adam dragged his thoughts back from the abyss and nodded but made no reply. Hoss asked quietly, “Why? When you knew how Joe felt.”

Adam turned to Hoss and an anger fuelled by shame filled him. “I don’t have to explain it to you!”

“No, you don’t. But if you was happy about it you wouldn’t be sittin’ here.”

“Of course I’m not happy about it.” Adam put his head in his hands. “I wouldn’t hurt him on purpose, you know that.”

“Have you told Joe?”

“Yeah,” Adam sighed sadly. “I tried to tell him that we both just needed someone to hold at that moment, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“Joe ain’t really in a fit state to listen right now. P’rhaps when he’s stronger…”

“He’s strong enough to understand what I’ve done.” Adam got to his feet, intending to walk away.

“Is he?”

“What do you mean?” Adam stopped and turned back.

“I mean, he’s not feelin’ so great right now, but when he’s better p’rhaps you can tell him again. Make him understand how it happened.”

“I don’t know that I can.” Adam stepped off the sidewalk. “I’m going to the saloon.” He strode off down the street and disappeared into the depths of the town’s only bar. Hoss wanted to follow, thinking that Adam shouldn’t be alone, but first he had to speak to Joe, as Susanna had requested.

As Hoss entered, the doctor emerged from Joe’s room. “Your brother’s almost asleep, you shouldn’t disturb him.”

“I’ll just go and sit with him a spell, if that’s all right.” Hoss moved past the smaller man and opened the door quietly. As he sat down, Joe opened his eyes and Hoss saw the hurt reflected in his silent stare.

“Joe?” Hoss tried to get his attention.

“Yeah,” Joe breathed, not looking at his brother.

“I just spoke to Adam; he’s real upset about what happened.”

“He’s upset!” The whispered words shouted their disgust.

“Yeah, he knows he done wrong. But he didn’t do it to hurt you, he says it just happened.”

“But he knew how I felt about her.” Joe dragged in a shaky breath. “He admitted that he likes her.”

“Joe, think about it. All the days we’ve been with Susanna, has Adam made any move towards her? Has he shown any interest in her?”

“No, he waited until I couldn’t do anything about it…lying here.”

“But he couldn’t hurt you like that.”

“He doesn’t care about what happens to me.” Joe’s barely audible words were full of despair as he admitted that his eldest brother had no feelings for him.

Hoss’ voice was tinged with anger as he heard Joe’s statement. “Joe, did you notice Adam’s hands when he was here?”

“What?” Joe was taken aback by the apparent change of subject. “Yeah, they were bandaged…he must have hurt himself. Why?”

“Because when you was shot, he dang near crippled himself trying to get free so he could save you, that’s why. He cain’t use his hands, won’t be able to for a while. Would he have done that if he didn’t care? And now he’s going to go and leave us, so you and Susanna can be together.” Hoss could see that Joe was surprised by these revelations and what they meant. He rose slowly. “Think about it,” he ordered as he turned to leave.

Hoss hurried over to the saloon and his eyes scanned the noisy, crowded room, looking anxiously for his brother. When he spied Adam sitting alone at a table in one dark corner, silently staring at the glass of whiskey in front of him, Hoss went to the bar, ordered a beer, and joined him. Adam looked up, and then went back to studying his drink. He reached out, took the glass between his hands, the only way he could hold it, and drained the contents, motioning to the bartender for a refill. Obviously not the first, Hoss thought. Then he remembered that Adam hadn’t eaten all day and saw that the whiskey was affecting him quickly, judging by the slightly glazed look in his brother’s eyes.

“You goin’ to drink it away?” Hoss was concerned; Adam didn’t usually allow himself to drink too much, and it was a sign of his despair that he was doing so now.

“I think I’m old enough…”

“That’s always what you say when you know you’re wrong.” Hoss had the beginning of a smile on his lips, and as Adam saw it he smiled in return.

“Yeah, you’re right, it’s a wonderful excuse, and no one can argue with it.” He stared at the glass, wishing that he could drown in its golden promise of oblivion. “But I am old enough not to have let it happen.” Adam looked up and spoke softly. “I love that boy, I couldn’t hurt him, but I have and I’ll never forgive myself.”

Hoss leaned forwards, his elbows resting on the table as he studied his brother. “Don’t you think that running away will hurt him?” Adam didn’t answer. “If you go and leave it will hurt Joe far more than what you did with Susanna. He’ll blame himself, and any chance that those two had will be gone.”

“What am I supposed to do? It seems that I’ll hurt him if I stay, and hurt him if I go.” Adam drew a deep breath. “It’s a real great choice.”

Hoss sagged back in his chair, he found that he had no easy words of comfort to give and they sat in silence, as Adam downed his drink and it was again refilled. When Hoss couldn’t stand any longer to look at the quiet figure sitting opposite him, he asked the question that had been on his mind all day.

“Why did you go to the livery at that hour?”

Adam was startled out of his silence. “What?”

“What made you go lookin’ for Joe?”

Adam grunted, the breath catching in his throat as he tried to disguise an embarrassed laugh. “If I tell you, you’ll think that your older brother has lost his senses.”

Hoss raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Tell me anyway.”

“I heard Joe call me.”

“You what?” Hoss knew that the hotel was too far from the livery for such a thing to be possible.

“Yeah. I must have been asleep, but I woke hearing Joe calling for help. Then I couldn’t settle and went to check.” He stared at his bandaged hands. “But I just made things worse.”

Hoss shook his head. “No. Remember it’s Sunday; the livery man probably comes to work late and Joe could have bled to death before we looked inside, if you hadn’t been there to bring him out.”

Adam smiled sadly at his brother, and rested a hand on his arm. “Thanks, Hoss, I don’t know if you’re right, but thanks for saying it.” He was about to call for another refill, but Hoss went to the barman and paid for the drinks, then returned to the table.

“Come on, brother, I think you’ve had enough. I left Susanna in the hotel, I aught to go check that she’s all right.”

Hoss stood and waited for his brother to join him. Adam was reluctant to face the girl, but he followed as Hoss left the bar and headed down the street, towards the hotel. As they approached Susanna’s room Adam’s steps slowed, until he stopped.

“I don’t want to see her, not tonight. Let her rest and we’ll talk about it in the morning.” Adam backed away, towards his own room. “Will you sit with Joe? I don’t think he’d want to see me.”

“I reckon you oughta see Joe; I spoke to him an’ he might feel different now.” Hoss knew in his heart that keeping his brothers apart would be a mistake; they needed to talk, only that way could they heal their differences. Hoss took his brother’s arm, and Adam found that the amount of whiskey he had consumed robbed him of the ability to resist.

Ferguson looked up as they entered Joe’s room and put his finger to his lips, to indicate that they should be quiet. The doctor left and Hoss went to the bed, looking down at the face of his brother, now furrowed against what was occupying his mind; the things Adam, and Hoss, had said to him, the thought that Adam had come looking for him in the night in answer to his unspoken pleas, and seeing Susanna in his brother’s arms. As Joe became aware of movement, he opened his eyes and saw Hoss standing over him, then he looked sideways at the door, where Adam hung back, waiting for his brother’s reaction to his presence, but Joe simply ignored him and spoke to Hoss.

 

“Hi brother,” he said softly. Joe was surprised to find that what was going on in his head was taking his mind off the pain that only a short while ago had seemed to encompass his whole being, and he was slowly feeling stronger. His animosity to Adam was losing the sting that had sent ripples of anger through him. He knew that he would forgive Susanna because he loved her, and if that was the case then he had to forgive Adam for the same reason. Perhaps his brother was right; it was just the emotion of the moment. He tried to think how he would have felt, and knew that he might have done the same thing, for as little reason.

Joe turned his head. “Adam, sit down,” he said slowly, “you look like a bear that’s been caught raiding the chuck wagon. I ain’t gonna to shoot you.” Adam moved further into the room, and Joe noticed his unsteady movements. “You been drinkin’,” he accused.

Adam sat heavily on a chair. “I think I’m old enough…” He stopped as he caught Hoss’ eye. “Yeah.” He hung his head, knowing what he had done to his brother and he wanted to leave, but stayed for Hoss’ sake.

Joe took a deep breath and when he spoke his voice held some strength. “Hoss told me what you did, in the stable.”

Adam’s head came up and he looked at his brothers. “Oh?”

“Yeah, and I’ve had time to think about that, and what happened…after. Let’s forget it, it’s over.” Adam didn’t reply; he was surprised at Joe’s words and the maturity they showed. “It is over, isn’t it?” Joe still held in the back of his mind a fear of the answer

Adam nodded slowly. “It was never started. Joe, please believe me.”

“I do.” Joe closed his eyes and finally found the rest that he so desperately needed.

*****

Hoss kept watch over Joe for the first part of the night. Adam needed to sleep off the effect of the whiskey and went to the hotel, but left a message with the clerk that he wanted to be called in the early hours to go and relieve his brother.

When Adam appeared, Hoss went back to the hotel and his bed, having promised Adam that he would return with Susanna, so that she could talk to Joe and know that he still loved her, that nothing had changed.

After shaving and dressing, Hoss knocked on Susanna’s door, but got no reply. He knocked again but the door remained stubbornly shut. He stood, frowning, and then decided to go and check at the doctor’s, but Adam said he had not seen her and suggested that she might have gone to the livery.

Hoss strode across the street. “Miss Susanna!” he called as he approached the Conestoga, but she did not appear. He went to the back of the wagon and pushed aside the canvas that hid what was inside. He peered left and right, but there was no sign of the girl. As he stood holding his hat and scratching his head in bewilderment, the liveryman came out of the barn and called to him.

“You Hoss Cartwright?” the man asked and Hoss nodded. “Then this is for you.” He handed over an envelope and Hoss raised his eyebrows at the man, who explained. “The young lady left it for you, asked me to give it to you.” The liveryman turned and was about to disappear back inside the barn when Hoss stepped towards him.

“Where is she?”

“Well now, I don’t rightly know. She asked if I’d buy the wagon from her and let her have a saddle horse, and then she took off; north or maybe west, but I wasn’t takin’ much notice.”

Hoss let the man go and looked down at the envelope in his hand, which was addressed to him. He opened it slowly and read the note on the single sheet of paper.

“Dear Hoss,

I am sorry to leave you all like this, but I know that I cannot stay. My actions today have made me realize that, while I love Joe, it seems that I have feelings for Adam which I have ignored until now. I need to get away to sort out in my mind all that has happened.

I know that I am being selfish in taking the coward’s way out, but I ask you to please speak to your brothers for me, explain what I have done, and why.

I entreat you to stop Adam leaving his family, no feelings that there may be between us are worth the sacrifice that he was prepared to make, and I will not ask it of him.

Assure Joe that I know where to contact him, and will do so as soon as I am certain of the path I want to follow, and when I know I will be able to travel that path with confidence.

My love to you all, and especially to you, Hoss, for undertaking the burden I have placed upon you.

Susanna.”

 

Hoss hurried across the street and ran into the doctor’s office, going straight into Joe’s room.

As Hoss entered, Adam looked up. “What’s the matter?”

Hoss held out the letter. “She’s not there, she’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“Yeah, she says she wants time to sort out her feelings.”

Joe stirred and opened his eyes. “Hi,” he said sleepily. He saw both his brothers, but not the person he most wanted to see. “Where’s Susanna?”

Hoss sat on the chair beside the bed and held Joe’s hand. “Joe, Susanna’s gone.”

Joe frowned. “Where, when’s she coming back?”

Hoss shifted nervously. “I don’t know that she is.”

As Hoss read the note to him, Joe’s eyes filled with tears and he turned his head away from his brothers.

“Joe,” said Adam, resting his hand gently on Joe’s arm, “I’m…” He stopped, not knowing how to comfort his brother.

Joe spoke, but his whispered words were too soft for Hoss and Adam to hear. Adam leaned closer and Joe turned back to look at him, accusation in every line of his face.

“I loved her,” Joe said loud enough for his brother to hear. “I loved her and we could have been happy. Until you…”

Adam hung his head, knowing that while Joe might have granted him forgiveness, he would never forget his brother’s betrayal.

*****

Ben stood in the yard to greet his sons as they returned from their eventful trip. Hoss and Joe dismounted immediately and Joe flung one arm round his father, the other being restricted by the sling he still wore.

“Pa, it’s good to be home.”

“It’s good to see you too son, how are you?” Ben took a pace back and held Joe at arm’s length, examining him closely.

“I’m fine, really,” Joe assured him and took his arm from its sling to prove it. “Just need to rest my arm sometimes,” he said, gazing at his father with a look on his face that was half a smile but totally loving as he realized that he was home, safe and alive. He stepped aside to make way for Hoss, who also embraced his father, but gently. He wanted to hug Ben tightly but knew his strength could crush the breath out of the older man.

“Hi Pa.” All Hoss’ feelings were wrapped in two simple words. His had, perhaps, been the most difficult journey, having to care for both his brothers in different ways; helping Joe back to health, and stopping Adam from drowning in self-recrimination. He would now be happy to pass the responsibility back to his father, knowing that he was the one person who could best handle Joe’s impatience with his recovery, and Adam’s moods.

“Welcome home, son.”

As Hoss moved aside, Ben looked for Adam, but he had dismounted quietly and was making his way into the house.

“Adam, wait!” Ben called, but Adam had already opened the door. Ben looked at Joe and Hoss and almost ran into the house, his two younger sons following with worried frowns on their faces, wondering at their father’s concerned expression.

Adam opened the front door and came to an abrupt halt. Standing in front of the huge fireplace that dominated the living room was the last person he expected to see.

“Susanna! What are you…?” he said, but was unable to finish the sentence, unsure of the reason for her presence and afraid of the answer he would receive; was she here to see Joe…or himself. Adam turned as his father entered behind him, and Ben flinched at the look in his son’s eyes; a look of uncertainty and something else which Ben could not for the moment identify.

Adam moved round his father and, pushing his way past a stunned and smiling Joe, left the house.

As Ben watched the delight and love that shone from Joe’s face when he saw Susanna, he suddenly knew that what it was that he had seen in Adam’s eyes; fear. Ben hurried to follow him, leaving Joe to greet his visitor.

Adam was leading Sport into the barn, ready to bed him down for the night, as Ben emerged from the house and followed him across the yard, hesitating before entering the building, wondering if he wouldn’t be better to leave Adam to sort this out for himself. Then he shrugged; as a father he had a duty to let his son know that he was there to help if he needed it, and from what Susanna had told him he suspected that Adam would be deeply troubled.

Ben walked slowly into the barn, and inside he could see Adam absently brushing Sport’s coat, his eyes staring at a point on the wall, his thoughts obviously far away. As Ben neared, Adam dropped the brush; his hands were still not strong and the ride home had not helped. Before Adam could retrieve the brush, Ben bent to pick it up but did not hand it back to his son. Adam looked up surprised, he had not heard his father come in, and then he looked away, ashamed to meet the ebony dark gaze. Ben stood on the opposite side of the horse, and smiled gently.

“You go sit down, I’ll do this,” Ben said, but Adam didn’t move and they looked at each other over Sport’s russet brown back.

Adam wanted to get this over with. “Pa, there’s something you have to know. Joe got hurt because I made a terrible mistake.” Adam explained to Ben what had happened, and his part in it. He didn’t spare any details, wanting his father to hear the truth. When he had finished he turned away and made to leave the barn, but Ben stopped him.

“Where are you going? We need to talk.”

Adam spoke without turning back. “No, we don’t. I’m going to pack a few things and then I’m leaving.”

Ben moved towards Adam and took his arm. “Why?”

“Why? How can you ask that, isn’t it obvious?” He pulled away from Ben’s grip.

“Not to me,” Ben insisted.

Adam hung his head. “I let you down; I made a mistake that could have cost Joe his life. And then…there’s Susanna.”

Although trying to sound calm, Ben couldn’t stop the frustration he felt from creeping into his voice. “Adam, you listen to me. I don’t expect you to be perfect, no one is. Yes, you made a mistake when you let those men go, and you will have to live with that. But that’s what makes us grow and mature, learning from the mistakes we make. Joe won’t hold it against you, he knows that you always do your best and he looks to you for guidance. How do you think he will feel if you run away?”

“I’m not running away,” Adam said defiantly.

“Then what would you call it?”

Adam thought for a moment and answered softly. “I’d call it…being myself, not being responsible for anyone else but me.” He looked at Ben, and decided that he might as well tell him everything; this might be the last chance he got. “When we stopped to help Susanna I knew straight away that I liked her, but then I saw how Joe felt and I was prepared to step aside for him.” His tone hardened. “Well, I’m not stepping aside any more. I’ve spent all my life thinking about other people, now I want to think about me.”

Ben was speechless for a moment; was that how Adam felt, that he had to put his family’s feelings before his own? “Have you talked to Joe about this, about how you feel?” Adam shook his head. “Then don’t you think you should?”

“No. He doesn’t need to know, just let him think I’m leaving because he got shot. He’ll be able to understand that, and accept it.”

“Susanna came here to see me, to tell me what happened and to ask my advice.”

“And what did you tell her?”

“That time is what she needed, to think about what she wanted, and how that would affect this family. She was very honest,” Ben put his hand on Adam’s shoulder, “she told me all that happened.”

Adam couldn’t look into his father’s eyes. “I see.” He was waiting for some reaction from Ben.

“Adam, you can’t blame yourself, what you did was understandable, given the circumstances.”

“Maybe, but not excusable.”

“Come in and speak to her…please.”

Adam shook his head; he didn’t want to see Susanna. She had told him before she left that she loved his brother, and he wouldn’t stay to remind them of what had happened. At the same time, he admitted to himself that he was afraid that his emotions might once again take over his thinking. He decided that he wouldn’t bother to pack; he would leave immediately and stay in town. He reached for his saddle blanket and placed it on a bay mare in the stall next to Sport, while his worried father watched, at a loss to know how to stop him from leaving.

Ben held Adam’s arm. “Please don’t go like this,” he pleaded, but his hand was roughly shrugged away and he let it fall to his side, knowing that it would take more strength than he had to stop his son. Suddenly Adam moved away from the mare and went to sit on a hay bale against one wall of the barn. He leaned back against the wall, staring up at the dark, dusty rafters for a long time, then he looked down and spoke quietly.

“Hoss told me, not so long ago, that I would hurt Joe if I left, and he was right. If he thought that he had driven me away somehow, then he and Susanna could never be happy.” Adam fell silent and Ben waited patiently, seeing the inner battle that was raging in his son. Eventually Adam spoke of what he feared in his heart. “What if it happens again?”

“It won’t, you won’t let it,” Ben tried to reassure him.

When he heard the confidence in his father’s voice, Adam turned and raised his eyebrows. “I couldn’t stop it the first time.”

Ben moved to put his hand on Adam’s shoulder, but hesitated to touch him as he saw the uncertain look in the dark eyes that were watching him; suddenly his normally robust son appeared fragile, as though a touch might shatter his control.

Ben’s tone was encouraging, cajoling. “That was because you were worried about Joe.”

Adam stood and walked away from his father. When he spoke he couldn’t face the older man. “I say that I want to be free to have feelings of my own, and I do, but the strongest feelings I have are here, with my family.”

Ben stood motionless, hands on hips, hardly even breathing, waiting while Adam decided which way the battle would turn.

“All my life, as long as I can remember, I have cared for my brothers, trying to protect them and keep them safe.” Adam’s shoulders rose and fell as he sighed. “It hasn’t always been easy, and, sometimes, like now, it was my fault that they were put in danger. But I would never do that willingly or knowingly, and they forgave me for my mistakes. I would give anything right now to walk away from it and them, but I can’t. It is what, and who, I am, and without them I…I…” Adam’s voice was low and husky, and as he turned towards him, Ben could see his eyes were shining with unacknowledged tears.

Ben stepped hesitantly towards his son and put a hand on his arm. “Adam, don’t go, they need you. I need you.”

A stray beam of sunlight in the barn illuminated the dust motes floating in the warm air, and as he watched them, Adam thought absently that a shingle must have come loose and he would have to fix it; Hoss was too heavy for the roof, and Joe disliked heights. Adam realized that he had unconsciously acknowledged that he would be there to mend the roof. His shoulders sagged as though in defeat. He went to the mare and removed the saddle blanket, setting it aside, then turned to Ben and smiled thinly. “All right, you win, for now.”

*****

Meanwhile, inside the house, Joe and Hoss had come face to face with Susanna. They both stood speechless, Hoss with eyebrows raised, Joe with an uncertain grin, gazing at the one person they least expected to see. Hoss recovered first.

“Miss Susanna!” He walked round the sofa that stood in front of the fireplace. “It’s…good to see you again. We thought you’d gone back to Ohio, or to California, or…” Hoss guided Susanna to a seat on the sofa and looked over her dark head to where Joe was standing, irresolute. Hoss jerked his head, indicating to his brother that he should say something.

Joe advanced slowly, hardly daring to believe the sight that greeted him, but wondering who she had come to see, was it him…or Adam? Susanna turned and leaned an arm on the back of the sofa.

“Hello Joe.” She was studying his face closely. She had not seen him since she had run from the doctor’s office and was unsure of her welcome.

The words seemed to break the spell that had settled on Joe and he moved quickly towards her. Hoss stepped out of the way, and decided that the kitchen would be a better place to be for the next few minutes. He disappeared quietly, as Susanna rose and Joe slipped his arm from its sling and embraced her.

“Oh Susanna, it’s so good to see you. Why did you run away without saying goodbye?”

Susanna looked into Joe’s eyes. In the time since she left, the love that she had seen in them had faded into memory, but now it was rekindled anew. “I wasn’t sure that you would want to see me again.”

“Adam explained what happened, and Hoss made me see how wrong I was to blame either of you.” He put his hand under her chin and raised her face to look at him. “All I want is to be with you.”

When Susanna didn’t immediately reply, Joe had an awful feeling that she had only come back to tell him that he had lost her.

“Joe, I know that what we did was wrong, and I had to get away; I couldn’t face you, or Adam, until I knew what it was I wanted.”

“And do you know?” Joe asked, holding his breath as he waited for the answer.

“No.” Susanna freed herself from Joe’s grip and walked round the sofa, putting its solidity between them. “I know that I don’t love Adam, and I do love you.”

Joe’s heart skipped a beat at her admission. “Then that’s all we need.” He started to move round the sofa, but stopped when Susanna spoke and the smile that had come to his face froze, half-formed.

“No, it isn’t. I have to be sure in my own mind that what I feel for you is love, not just some imagined sanctuary from the loneliness I have suffered since my father died.”

“But how…?”

“Joe, I am going to stay in Virginia City, at least for a time. That will allow us to find out if what we both feel is real. This has all been so sudden.”

Joe’s face fell as he realized that, though Susanna had returned, it was without any commitment to their love. “But you came here. Surely that means something.”

“Yes, it means that I am being selfish again. But I have to think of what I want.” Susanna paused, then looked Joe straight in the eye. “Joe, if I asked you to leave here and come with me to Ohio, what would you say?” Joe didn’t reply immediately as he thought of the enormity of the question, and its repercussions. Susanna continued. “I thought so. You see, you are not that sure of your love for me, or you would have answered without hesitation. Well, I am not sure of my feelings either, so you see the problem. No, if I stay in town it will give us both time.”

“You could stay here,” Joe suggested hopefully, as he rounded the sofa and held Susanna close.

“Your father has allowed me to stay and wait for you to return, but now you are all back, I don’t think that would be such a good idea.” Her glance shifted towards the door.

Joe thought of his brother, and had to agree with Susanna. “OK, I’ll drive you in to town and get you a room at the hotel. I’ll just go and tell Pa.” Joe headed towards the door but as he put out his hand to lift the latch it was opened by his father, and Joe could see Adam behind him.

Joe spoke quickly, knowing how his brother would be feeling. “Pa, I’m going to drive Susanna into Virginia City. She’s going to take a room at the International House.”

Joe went out to hitch up the buggy, and Ben moved to stand in front of Susanna. “Is that what you want, my dear?”

“Yes, I think it is for the best.”

“Very well, but you know that you are welcome here whenever you choose to come.”

Susanna looked nervously towards Adam, still standing by the front door.

“It would be a pleasure to have you here,” Adam said politely; then he nodded a farewell and hurried up the stairs.

Ben put his hand on Susanna’s arm and smiled gently. “Don’t worry about Adam; all he wants is to see Joe happy and he will do everything he can to make that happen.”

Susanna went into the downstairs guest room and collected her valise, and then Ben escorted her outside, where Joe was finishing hitching up the buggy. Joe helped her into her seat and then jumped in beside her.

Joe looked at his father. “If it’s OK I’ll stay in town and have dinner with Susanna.”

Ben nodded his agreement and waved as Joe drove off. He hung his head for a moment, wondering at the effect one woman could have on his family.

The following morning the whole family was together for breakfast. Hoss was tucking into a pile of Hop Sing’s pancakes and Adam sat thoughtfully drinking his coffee. Joe had come home late, after seeing Susanna settled in Virginia City, and now sat trying to hide a yawn behind one hand. His other hand rested in his lap because he had removed the sling that supported his shoulder, feeling easier without it. As long as he didn’t move too suddenly he felt better for having his arm free.

Ben looked round the table and decided that it was time his sons got back to work, they had been away long enough and there was plenty to do. They had had an unsettling trip and he felt that the best way for them to get back to normal again was the routine of work.

“Adam, how are your hands?”

“Fine Pa, almost good as new.” Adam looked at the bandages on his wrists and flexed his fingers slowly.

Ben knew that Adam was hiding the discomfort he was obviously feeling, but also knew that his eldest son hated anyone to make a fuss. “Well then, I need you to go up to the logging camp and get the figures for the last cut. Jeremiah was supposed to bring them down yesterday, but he seems to have forgotten. You could have a word with him about that at the same time.” Ben received the expected nod of acknowledgement from Adam and then turned his attention to Hoss. “Charlie says that some of the cattle in the south pasture are looking off color. I want you to go and take a look. If you think there is anything wrong with them, you will have to separate them from the rest of the herd until we find out what it is.” Ben raised his eyebrows, waiting for a reply.

“Sure Pa. Won’t take long to see if they’s sickening.”

“Good. Now Joe,” Ben turned to his youngest son, “if you’re feeling up to it, I want you to go over to Rufus Jackson’s. He wants to buy some riding stock, and I need to know exactly what he has in mind. There’s no hurry, a gentle ride shouldn’t strain your shoulder too much, and…”

“But Pa,” Joe interrupted, “I was going into town today…”

“And what made you think you’d be free today?” Ben interrupted in his turn.

“Well… I thought I could meet Susanna.”

Ben’s voice was firm, but the concern in his eyes took away any harshness from his words. “There will be time enough for that when you have finished your chores and done what I asked. I’m sure that we will be able to find you plenty of time to spend with the young lady, but meanwhile I expect you to do your work as usual. Do I make myself clear?” Ben was anxious that Joe shouldn’t rush into any relationship with Susanna, who obviously needed time, and space, to make some decisions, but he could see the disappointment written on Joe’s face and he spoke more gently. “Son, you both need time, take it slowly and let things develop as they will.”

Joe hung his head. “Yes, sir,” he muttered.

Ben accepted that as agreement, and looked round the table. “Well, don’t you think that you’d better all be getting started?” He watched as his three sons rose and, collecting their hats and gun belts from the sideboard behind the front door, made their way out.

They readied their mounts and led them from the barn. Once outside, Adam held Joe’s arm letting Hoss ride out ahead of them, then he turned to his youngest brother.

“Joe, I’ll go to Jackson’s on my way back from the logging camp. You go into town and meet Susanna.”

Joe looked at Adam and raised his eyebrows in surprise, then he glanced nervously towards the house. “But what about Pa?”

Adam’s smile held a confidence he didn’t feel. “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with Pa. You just go before I change my mind.”

Joe’s face lit with a broad grin. “Thanks, Adam. I won’t forget this.” Joe leaped into the saddle and was gone, afraid that Adam would, after all, think better of his offer. Adam watched Joe leave, and the smile faded as he mounted Sport and headed off quickly to the logging camp, wondering how he was going to explain his action to his father.

Ben was, indeed, less than pleased to find that Joe had disobeyed his instructions and gone into Virginia City. He sat behind his desk in the office alcove of the great room that formed most of the downstairs of the ranch house, and took Jackson’s list of requirements from Adam.

“Why didn’t Joe go, as I asked him to?” he asked, and his eyes narrowed. Adam’s tense yet unconsciously defiant stance told Ben that his eldest son was prepared for battle.

Adam took a breath; despite his age, the thought of his father’s angry reaction set his stomach churning. “Because I told him I would go, and he could visit Susanna.”

Ben’s lips thinned. “Oh you did, did you?”

“Yeah. Pa, keeping him working isn’t going to help anyone.” Ben didn’t seem inclined to interrupt, so Adam went on quickly, “Joe will have his mind on Susanna, and a ranch is too dangerous a place not to be paying attention to what you’re doing. If you assign him jobs and he doesn’t do them because he’s preoccupied, you’ll get angry with him, Joe is going to resent not being free to see Susanna, and Hoss and I are going to have to pick up the pieces.”

“So you think I should relieve him of his chores until he and Susanna decide whether they love each other?” Ben was still calm, which had Adam worried. Pa’s long, slow burns were more dangerous than his instant eruptions, which tended to disappear as quickly as they came.

Adam nodded nervously. “Yeah.”

As he rose from behind the heavy wooden desk, Ben said nothing, but moved to the small table standing by the staircase, where he poured out two glasses of whiskey, handing one to Adam who raised his eyebrows in surprise. This had been too easy and he was still suspicious.

Ben nodded slowly; Adam had merely confirmed the thoughts that had been running through his own mind all day. “Very well, Joe can go into town any time he likes,” he raised a finger to emphasize his instructions, “provided that, if he is not seeing Susanna, he takes some of the load here. I won’t have him taking advantage of you or Hoss.”

Adam looked down into the drink in his hand, a relieved smile crossing his face, then he raised his glass to his father and drained the contents. “Thanks Pa.” He put his empty glass on the table, and went to change for dinner.

Ben watched him go and sipped his own drink, wondering for the thousandth time at the nature of his eldest son. He had faced the possible wrath of his father so that Joe could court a girl that Adam admitted held an attraction for himself, knowing that it was giving them the opportunity to form a relationship which might bring Susanna into their family. Ben raised his glass in silent salute to his son.

Joe had spent a very different day to Adam; going into Virginia City, and only worried whether Susanna would be glad to see him. As it was he need not have been concerned, for when she opened her hotel room door and saw who was calling on her, she smiled broadly, retrieved her purse and slipping her arm through Joe’s, allowed him to escort her outside for a walk.

They spent the morning around town, looking in the shops, occasionally stopping to buy something that caught Susanna’s eye or greeting people that Joe knew. As he introduced Susanna he was met with some knowing smiles, some raised eyebrows and in a few cases, disappointment, as young ladies of his acquaintance saw their hoped-for prize being snatched from their grasp.

They went back to the International House for lunch, seating themselves at a small, round table in a quiet corner of the dining room, which was bright with green and white checkered table cloths reflecting the sunlight streaming in through the large windows. After ordering their meals, Joe explained how he had managed to get away for the day, and Adam’s part in it.

Susanna looked down at her hands as they lay in her lap, then raised her eyes. “Have you really forgiven him for what he – we – did?”

Joe smiled at her concerned expression. “Of course. I know he was just worried about me, and so were you. Now all I have to do is make him forgive himself.” Joe laughed quietly. “Though, if it means him taking over my work, I might put that off for a while.”

“I promise you that it will never happen again.” Susanna put out her hand to hold Joe’s.

“Then forget it. I want you to be happy here, to enjoy yourself.” Joe spoke brightly, “How about a picnic tomorrow? We can go to the lake, it’s beautiful and quiet.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively and Susanna laughed.

“Will I be safe, alone with you in the forest?”

“I shouldn’t think so, do you mind?”

“Joe, I never mind being with you no matter where we are,” Susanna said sincerely.

They sat chatting, each a little restrained as they wondered which way their relationship would turn, until their meals arrived and then they ate, not tasting the food but only concerned with the person sitting opposite. They were both trying to find in themselves the words that would convince the other of the rightness of their feelings; Joe needing Susanna to see that he loved her and wanted her to stay with him, and Susanna, while not denying her love, trying to make Joe understand that she needed time. The meal finished, they strolled outside until Joe said that he must be getting back.

They stood at Susanna’s bedroom door, decorum dictating that Joe couldn’t enter, no matter how much he wanted to. He took Susanna’s hands in his. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Are you sure that your father won’t mind?”

Joe kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Don’t worry about Pa; Adam’ll persuade him.” He let her go and, backing away towards the stairs, waved farewell.

Joe and Susanna spent the following days riding out into the country, or walking round town, always together, but their favorite outing was to the beautiful solitude of the lake. As they lay on the grass at the edge of a sandy cove, Joe reached out for Susanna and she rolled over towards him until she was cradled in the crook of his arm. She sighed with pleasure.

“Oh Joe, I could stay here for ever,” she whispered.

“Well, you could.”

Susanna pushed herself up onto her elbows and looked at him. “I know. But what I don’t know is whether that would be the right decision. I’ve never felt like this before, and I have to be sure.”

“I understand, I guess.” Joe couldn’t hide his disappointment.

“Joe, I’m sorry.” She put her hand on his chest and could feel his heart beat. “You’re the first person I have ever loved, who was not family that is, and if I commit myself to you it would be for the rest of our lives, and that frightens me.”

Joe put his hand over hers; she had said that she loved him and his heart sang at the words. “I do understand, and I can wait.” He smiled, “Just not too long.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t be.” Susanna leaned towards him and their lips met in a kiss that was gentle at first, then more passionate as they expressed the love that was in their hearts.

*****

Susanna was in her room, thinking that she had an hour or so before Joe appeared, and wondering where he would take her today. Would it be back to the lake, or into the forest, or a ride into the Carson valley? She didn’t mind where he chose; it was enough that he was coming. Joe’s conscience had been pricking at him and he had spent the previous day on the ranch, working, but had promised that he would return today.

When she heard a knock on the door, Susanna raced to open it, thinking that Joe had arrived early, but when she saw who stood in the hallway, she was at first disappointed, then nervous.

“Oh, Adam, it’s you.”

“Good morning, Susanna. May I have a word with you?” Adam said, a little coldly, Susanna thought.

“Er, of course. Shall we go downstairs?” Susanna disappeared into the room, came back with her purse, and allowed Adam to guide her down the stairs to the lobby of the hotel, where they sat in a corner, away from the early morning customers coming and going from the restaurant.

Susanna looked curiously at Adam. “What did you want to talk about?” she asked uncertainly; she could think of no easy reason why he would want to see her, but several uneasy thoughts went through her mind.

Adam pulled an envelope from his pocket and held it out to her. “When we were in Fallon, I told you that I would replace the money that was taken from you. There’s a thousand dollars in here.” Susanna shook her head, about to speak, but Adam stopped her. “Please, I want you to have it. If it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have lost it in the first place.”

Susanna was firm. “No, Adam, I can’t, it’s too much. There’s no need for you to feel responsible. If you and Hoss hadn’t come back to the wagon as quickly as you did, if you’d gone to investigate that explosion as those men thought you would, I could have lost a lot more than just the money.”

Adam looked at her, grateful for her words, but still determined to persuade her. “How are you going to manage without it?” Adam asked reasonably, “You need some funds for your stay here.”

“I have the money the livery keeper paid me for the wagon. That will be enough, until I decide what I am going to do.”

“But I would like you to have it anyway, please take it.”

“No, there’s no need, really.” She pushed away the hand holding the envelope, and looked into Adam’s eyes. There was silence for a moment as they stared at each other, remembering, and then Susanna realized what it was that had brought Adam to her. “If it’s your conscience that’s troubling you, then giving me that money will not help. Adam, you did what you had to do, and what happened between us was a mistake, an accident, and you should forget it, as I have.”

Adam drew back and straightened. “My conscience is just fine,” he said firmly. “I simply wanted to give you back the money you lost. I can afford to lose it, but I don’t think you can. So, please, accept it.” Adam put his hand on Susanna’s arm, encouraging her to take the money he was offering her. “There are no strings and no regrets. As you say, everything else should be forgotten.”

“Get your hands off her!”

Adam looked round sharply, and stood slowly as Joe approached them.

“What d’ya think you’re doing?” Joe asked, his jaw clenched in anger.

“I don’t ‘think’ I’m doing anything that needs concern you,” Adam retorted defiantly. The brothers glared at each other for a minute in stony silence, until Susanna rose and put a hand on Joe’s arm.

“Adam came here to give me back the money I lost,” she said softly, hoping to ease the tense atmosphere.

Adam thrust the envelope into Joe’s hand. “Perhaps you can persuade her to take it,” he said sharply, and collecting his hat from the seat beside him, he strode from the hotel, leaving Joe breathing heavily but with no target for his anger.

He glanced down at the envelope and then at Susanna. “I’m sorry, but when I saw him here…”

“You don’t have to apologize; I know how it must have looked, but that is all he came for.”

Joe joined Susanna as she sat down again and then, placing the envelope between them, he took her hands in his. “Of course, it’s just…after what happened…”

“You said you’d forgiven Adam for that,” she reminded him.

Joe smiled thinly and nodded. “I have, really.” He picked up the envelope. “You’d better take it; it’s Adam’s way of trying to put right what he thinks he did wrong, so you’ll be helping him by accepting it.”

Susanna reluctantly took the money. “Very well, if you think I should.”

Joe stood. “Now, how about a ride on this lovely morning; where would you like to go?”

Susanna held up the envelope. “How about shopping?” she suggested, and smiled broadly as Joe rolled his eyes, picturing a morning spent loaded down with boxes from the finest establishments of Virginia City.

*****

Joe pulled up in front of the International House, dismounting and tying Cochise’s reins to the hitching rail, then running up the steps and into the lobby of the hotel. He hurried up the stairs to Susanna’s room and knocked on the door, but received no reply. He frowned and knocked again, wondering what could have taken Susanna from her room. Joe thought that she had probably gone out to get some fresh air, or do some shopping, and he went back to the lobby to leave a message with the desk clerk.

“Sam,” Joe said to the young man attending the reception desk, “when Miss Wood comes back would you tell her I’m in the restaurant?”

Sam looked round at his friend. “Yeah, sure Joe. I don’t expect they’ll be long, looked like they was goin’ for a walk.”

“They?” queried Joe.

“Uh huh, she went out with a gent, ‘bout half an hour ago.”

“Do you know who he was?”

“Never seen him before, but looked like Miss Wood did, though she didn’t look too happy to see him if you ask me.” Sensing Joe was going to question him about his statement, Sam continued, “She had that look women get, you know kinda stiff, when they’re doing something they don’t want to but know they got no choice.”

Turning away slowly and deep in thought, Joe headed towards the small restaurant, seating himself at a table that gave him a clear view of the hotel lobby. He was half way down his second cup of coffee when Susanna appeared, followed by a man who stood close beside her as she went to the desk and Sam gave her Joe’s message. She turned to her companion and, with a quick shake of her head, thrust her way past him and approached Joe’s table. Joe rose as she lowered herself into the chair he held for her, and the man took a seat opposite them.

Joe stood behind Susanna and put his hands on her shoulders. “Are you all right?” he asked her, but he was looking at the man, who was older than Susanna, but bore a striking resemblance to her. He, too, was small and dark with the same dark blue eyes, but where Susanna’s were enticing the man’s were wary.

Susanna turned her head and looked up. “Yes, Joe, I’m fine. This is my brother, Alexander.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed as he nodded an acknowledgment. “Mr. Wood.”

Wood stood up and held out his hand. “Mr. Cartwright.” Joe shook the offered hand reluctantly; there was something he didn’t trust about the man. “My sister has told me much about you. I am grateful to you, and your brothers, for bringing her safely to Virginia City.” He glanced at Susanna. “I really don’t know what she thought she was doing, trying to carry on alone, it was bound to end in trouble.”

Joe sat down before he answered, needing the time to bring his rising temper under control in the face of Wood’s attitude to his sister. “She seemed to be managing perfectly well. We just happened to be going past and traveled with her.”

“But I gather that you and your brother were injured by some men who robbed her.”

Joe nodded. “But that had nothing to do with Susanna being alone.”

Alexander leaned back in his chair. “Maybe, but then again, maybe not. I have decided that Susanna should return to Ohio with me. I have booked us passage on tomorrow’s stage.”

Joe was speechless for a moment as he glanced at Susanna, trying to gauge her feelings in the matter. “But she wants to stay here.”

Alexander smiled a smile that held no humor. “I’m sorry, that’s impossible. She is too young to make any decision of that sort, and certainly too young to stay here alone.”

“She isn’t alone. I’m here and so are my family. If you’re worried about her being in town alone, she can come and stay at our ranch.”

“Ah yes, the Ponderosa, I have heard people speak of it.” Alexander shook his head. “That would be totally inappropriate. A single woman alone in a house full of men, quite out of the question.”

“How about what Susanna wants? Don’t you think that you should ask her?” Joe looked at Susanna hoping that she would argue with her brother, but Alexander did not give her the chance.

“Susanna is going to her room now,” he turned to the girl, “aren’t you, my dear?”

Susanna looked from Joe to her brother and back, then rose swiftly and, holding back her anger, stormed from the restaurant.

Joe turned furiously to Alexander. “What makes you think that Susanna will do as you say?”

Alexander stood, faced Joe, and smiled. “Because I am her brother, and since the death of our father I am responsible for her.” He put his fingers to the brim of his hat. “I bid you goodbye, Mr. Cartwright.” Wood left and Joe leaned on the table, breathing hard to quell his anger. How was he going to stop Susanna from leaving? Did she really want to stay? Had he the right to stand between her and her brother? As these thoughts went through his head he thought of his own brother. What would Adam do? It didn’t matter; he wasn’t Adam and he had to make his own decisions. Suddenly it came to him and he left the restaurant and hurried up to Susanna’s room, knocked quietly and prayed that he was right.

“Joe!” said Susanna in surprise. “What happened?”

“Change into some riding clothes, then get your things together, I’m taking you to the Ponderosa.” Joe slipped quietly into the room and closed the door behind him.

Susanna disappeared behind a heavily decorated wooden screen. “But what about Alexander?” she asked as she hurried to change her clothes.

Joe stood looking out if the window. “If he wants you to go back with him he’ll have to come to the ranch and get you. If you don’t want to go we’ll have Pa and Hoss and Adam to stop him forcing you.”

Susanna appeared from behind the screen and stood irresolute for a moment, was she doing the right thing in running off with Joe? Suddenly she seemed to make up her mind and pushed a few belongings into a valise and handed it to him. He took hold of her elbow, led her out of the hotel and, catching up Cochise’s reins, headed towards the livery where he hired a horse. Less than half an hour after Susanna had left the restaurant, she and Joe were headed out of town and towards his home, and sanctuary, but were unaware that angry eyes had seen their departure.

They rode side by side through the forest, seldom speaking, both with thoughts of what would happen when Alexander found that she was missing. They went quickly at first then slowed as they crossed the boundary of the ranch. Here Joe felt in charge of the situation, he was nearing the safety of his family, and in country that he knew and loved. He looked towards Susanna and added to himself that he was with the woman he loved; he knew it and knew that she was the one he wanted to share his life with. Once they were safely home he would let her know that she never had to leave, that she could stay here, safe with him and they could be together always. The fact that she had not hesitated, when he suggested she should go with him to the Ponderosa, told Joe that she had made a decision about her future. He had a small smile on his lips knowing that his life was about to take a leap forward.

Suddenly the smile died as Joe became aware of other hoof beats than theirs and he looked round anxiously, wondering if Alexander had, somehow, managed to catch up with them. As he prepared to leave the trail and take shelter among the trees, he realized that the sound was coming from in front of them, not the sound of pursuit. They pulled the horses to a halt and Joe breathed a heavy sigh as he saw Adam appear up ahead and slow as he approached them.

“Hi brother,” Joe called.

Adam raised his hand in greeting and frowned when he saw Susanna’s valise attached to Joe’s saddle. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m taking Susanna to stay at the Ponderosa.” Seeing that Adam needed more explanation he continued. “Her brother wants to take her back to Ohio, but she doesn’t want to go.”

Adam looked from Joe to Susanna and back again, then he dismounted and jerked his head to indicate that he wanted to speak to Joe alone. Leaving Susanna standing with the horses among the trees at the side of the trail, Adam led Joe away from the path and deeper into the forest, so that Susanna should not hear their conversation. Adam turned to his brother. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“I told you, her brother…”

Adam raised his eyes to heaven, looking for strength to deal with Joe’s impetuous behavior. “Joe, you can’t just make off with her. Her brother is now responsible for her, and by going against his wishes he could charge you with kidnapping, or abduction.”

“But she wanted to come.” Joe’s face fell, he had not thought past getting Susanna away.

“That doesn’t matter, cain’t you see that? She’s twenty years old, legally still a minor. Her brother is her legal guardian and can deny her permission to marry.”

Joe was defiant. “I don’t care about that; she can stay here until she’s old enough.”

“You can’t stand in her brother’s way; he’s got the law on his side.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed as another, quite different thought struck him. “You don’t want her here, you don’t want us to be happy, that’s it isn’t it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Adam said quietly, wondering if there wasn’t a grain of truth in Joe’s accusation.

“I’m sorry, Adam, I didn’t mean that. I know you’ve done everything you could to help us, and I’m grateful. But I’m not going to let Wood make her go back when she doesn’t want to.”

Adam drew a deep breath. Arguing with his young brother was always frustrating, especially when he was this determined to get his own way.

“You can’t just take her away…” Adam stopped, silenced by shouts coming from the direction of the road. Both men took to their heels and raced back to where they had left Susanna. Joe ran ahead of his brother, leaping over fallen trees and the low undergrowth, and made it back to the road to see Susanna struggling in her brother’s grip as she shouted at him to release her. Joe used his rush to grasp Susanna and pull her from Alexander’s hold.

“Are you all right?” he asked anxiously. Susanna nodded and Joe turned to Alexander, his eyes smoldering with barely contained anger. “Get away from here. Susanna’s staying with me.”

Wood was furious at being attacked in what he saw as the lawful execution of his responsibility to his sister. Without pause he drew the gun that hung from a holster hidden beneath his coat and pointed it straight at Joe. “Let her go. She’s coming with me, whether you like it or not.”

“Put the gun away,” Adam ordered calmly, coming out of the trees, drawing and cocking his own weapon meaningfully.

Alexander’s vision was shrouded in a red mist of fury as he heard the new challenge to his authority. He had had enough of trying to be reasonable and was not prepared to be thwarted any longer. He turned and fired in the same movement. The bullet hit Adam’s right arm and spun him round but he didn’t lose his grip on his gun and tried to raise it towards Wood, intent on defending himself, but the muscles in his arm were slowly going numb and they did not react. Joe watched in horror as Alexander pulled back the hammer of the gun, again aiming at Adam, and his finger was slowly tightening on the trigger.

To Joe everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. He had time to register that Alexander blinked once, while the knuckles of his finger whitened as it pulled on the trigger. In the face of the threat to his brother Joe acted; he drew his gun and fired, his bullet sending Alexander crashing sideways onto the road, as Adam sagged back to lean against the tree behind him.

Joe and Susanna both rushed to their respective brothers.

Joe helped Adam to sit on the ground, and then used his kerchief to press against the wound which was bleeding steadily. Adam held the pad in place and told Joe to look after Wood and Susanna. Joe hurried to Susanna’s side ready to aid her brother, but as he neared she looked up at him, tears in her eyes. She stood and faced him.

“You killed him!” she said softly, then screamed, “He’s dead, and you killed him!” She rushed at Joe, her fists beating at him as she continued to cry that he had killed her brother. Joe let her rant until she collapsed against him sobbing.

He brushed her hair gently, trying to calm the storm. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but he was going to kill Adam, I had to stop him.”

Finally Susanna pushed away from him and the look in her eyes made Joe’s breath catch in his throat. It was a look of such bitterness as Joe had never seen before, and in that single instant he knew he had lost her.

*****

Ben had been into Virginia City to see Susanna off on the stage that would take her back to Ohio. He returned to the Ponderosa with a heavy heart, and went in search of his youngest son to persuade him to go to his room and rest. Ben could see that Joe was exhausted; unable to sleep at night and finding no rest during the day, Joe had spent the days since Alexander’s death wandering the Ponderosa, shrugging off the loving words of his family and finding no peace in the usually comforting surroundings of his home. He knew he had driven Susanna away with his reckless act, and no matter how they tried to tell him that he had had no choice, that he had done it to save his brother, Joe knew that it was his fault that he had lost the woman he loved.

Ben found Joe prowling the house and managed to get him to go to his room, where Joe lay on the bed as his father pulled the covers over him and sat, holding his hand and stroking it gently.

Turning towards Ben, Joe took a shuddering breath. “I loved her, Pa.”

“I know, son, I know.”

Suddenly Joe reached out, and Ben wrapped him in a comforting embrace as he buried his head in his father’s broad chest. Ben could feel the sobs that wracked the young body as he let his sorrow pour out, and he sat with Joe until he quieted. As his son’s exhausted body relaxed and finally found refuge in sleep, Ben settled him down on the pillows, then stood for a moment to make certain that Joe would not stir, and was surprised to feel a hand on his arm.

“Go downstairs, Pa, I’ll sit with him for a spell, in case he wakes up,” said Hoss.

Ben looked at his giant son, who had such feeling for his young, heartbroken brother, and nodded gratefully; he too was exhausted with the worry of the last few days. He went downstairs looking for Adam, needing the calm common sense of his eldest. He found him sitting outside on the veranda cradling a cup of coffee in one hand, another sat opposite him waiting for his father. Ben sat down and gratefully sipped the strong, bitter drink.

“How’s your arm?” Ben asked.

“OK.” Adam eased his shoulder, testing Doc Martin’s stitching. “How’s Joe?”

“He’s asleep, at last. Hoss is with him.”

“He loved her.” Adam observed and Ben nodded.

“Perhaps she’ll forgive him in time, if she really loved him.”

Adam sighed. “Maybe. But I don’t think it would make any difference.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it, Pa.” Adam took a sip of his coffee and continued. “Joe could have gone to Ohio with Susanna and her brother, but it never occurred to him to do that.”

“Well, his home’s here,” Ben reasoned.

“No, you’re missing the point. It never crossed his mind. His whole being is here, with you, the ranch, everything.” Adam took another sip of his drink then looked up at his father who was turning the bone china cup in his hands. “This is what he loves, where his heart really is.”

Ben looked up, surprised by the sad tone in Adam’s voice. “Go on,” he invited, knowing that Adam wanted to say more.

“I just wonder if any of us will marry if we stay here. I know we’ve come close more than once, but always something stopped us. Sometimes it was events that we couldn’t control, sometimes not. But this place has a hold on us that seems impossible to break.” Adam swept his hand over the view of trees and mountains before them. “What woman can compete with all this, and would she want to?”

Ben cast his eyes towards the forest that surrounded the ranch house, and sighed. What was it about this place that had such a hold over his sons? Was it the land, the way of life? He looked at Adam and suddenly knew the answer. Yes, it was all of these things, but mostly, he suspected, it was what had driven Adam to go to Joe’s aid in the middle of the night, had given Hoss the strength to support both his brothers, and had made Joe sacrifice his need for Susanna to save Adam: the love of, and for, a family.

***The End***

*See ‘The Ponderosa Matador’ by Alex Sharp.

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