One Night in Spring (by Becky)

Summary:   An “In between” story for the episode She Walks In Beauty’
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,900


Adam Cartwright rode slowly into town that night, aching in his ribs, his jaw, his back . . . and his heart. Hoss hadn’t been careful in the fight they’d just had in the bunkhouse, and for the first time since they were kids, Adam had felt the full force of his brother’s fists. At twenty-six, Hoss was at the height of his power, and Adam now had a fresh appreciation for his strength.

He groaned when his horse, Sport, took a sudden misstep and jarred his ribs. He’d had only one thought after his talk with his father – to leave the house, leave the ranch. Tonight should have been Hoss’ night; a special evening when he told the world that he’d found the love of his life…and Adam had ruined it. He would let Hoss salvage what he could without staying around to remind him of his oldest brother’s betrayal.

For that’s what it had been, really. Regardless of whatever could be said about being right or having the best intentions, he’d betrayed the kindest, gentlest man he’d ever known. And even though he’d stood up to Hoss in the bunkhouse, refused to be cowed by his brother’s righteous anger, he also took the punishment he knew he deserved.

He looked up at the canopy of bright stars overhead, numerous enough and bright enough to light his way.

How had something so simple gotten so complicated? Hoss had found a girl he loved, a girl he wanted to marry, and she said she loved him, too. It happened all the time. Except that Adam hadn’t been able to bring himself to believe she really meant it. He’d heard too many stories about the beautiful Reagan Miller of San Francisco to believe she meant the same thing as Hoss when she said those three words. His doubt had solidified to near certainty the first time he saw her. He felt the pull of attraction and knew it was reciprocated – an unmistakable dark thread of desire that shouldn’t have existed if she truly loved his brother.

He’d wanted to find out if the stories were true, and if they were, to determine if she’d changed. And so for one moment, to his eternal discredit, he’d given in to that desire. And so had she.

She was everything they’d said and he’d lost himself in their kiss until he remembered Hoss, and then the kiss of desire turned to something sickening. As discreetly as possible he’d tried to wipe the memory of their passion from his mouth.

But Hoss hadn’t stayed around to see that part. He’d only seen the woman he loved in his brother’s arms.

Adam felt around his jaw again. Still sore, still swollen, and likely to stay that way for a while. His brother had a hell of a punch.

This ride into town probably hadn’t been a good idea, but regardless of his father’s sensible orders, he’d found he couldn’t bear the thought of trying to rest in his room while Hoss held his betrothal party downstairs. He hadn’t said much to explain the fight, but then he’d discovered he didn’t have to. Ben Cartwright had sized up Reagan Miller almost immediately; though he, like Adam, had hoped she’d changed. Adam knew he was in for a few deadly quiet words about his role in this whole fiasco, but for tonight he knew he had a reprieve. His Pa rarely lectured his boys when they were hurt; he simply focused on getting them well again. It was only later… He grimaced.

So he’d dragged himself to the barn, determined to re-saddle the horse one of the hands had just untacked and fed, his father trailing behind trying to make him listen to reason. Adam had unbent enough to sit on a small tack box while Ben helped him get cleaned up, but neither his father’s calm sense nor his youngest brother Joe’s confused support had broken his resolve to leave. Ben decided he might have more luck with Hoss and went to the house to see if he could get his middle son to calm down enough so that Adam would feel he could stay. Adam knew, though, that his father would have no success.

When Joe saw his oldest brother was determined to go, he insisted Adam stay seated while he saddled Sport himself. Adam knew Joe was praying this would all blow over, that his brothers would resolve whatever had driven a wedge between the last two men he ever would have believed could become enemies; but in the end, Joe just handed Adam the few dollars he had in his pocket and promised to stop by the hotel in Virginia City tomorrow with fresh clothes for him.

His little brother’s intense green eyes were haunted with questions, but Adam didn’t have any answers. Finally he just rested his hand briefly on Joe’s shoulder, then mounted and rode out.

And now he was nearly to Virginia City. One last hill to climb . . . Sport stumbled suddenly in the darkness and Adam jerked in the saddle, trying not to fall off. He jarred his ribs again and grabbed them, bent over and gasping in pain. Sport snorted at the sudden pull on his reins and tossed his head up in complaint. The next Adam knew there was an explosion in his head and then nothing.

*****

Acting sheriff Tom Sanders tossed the keys to the jail down on Roy Coffee’s desk and wondered at his old friend’s assertion that Virginia City was basically just “a quiet little town that got big kinda fast.” He snorted in amusement as he poured himself a cup of coffee. He and Roy had worked together in the past and had a long and enduring friendship to go with their mutual respect, but he should have remembered how low-key the man was about everything.

Retired from his own sheriff’s job, he still liked to help out now and again and so had responded quickly to the Virginia City sheriff’s telegram. It had said that Roy had to go to Downieville to testify in a trial, and would Tom mind coming to help out for a few weeks?

Sanders had no doubts about his ability to do the job. He was a tall man, with pale blue eyes and carefully combed white hair; whipcord lean and fit even at the age most men were grandfathers. Though he was generally a friendly sort, he could change in a heartbeat to a cold, deadly seriousness that had sent more than one smart outlaw straight out of his town. Virginia City was going to be as safe and lawful when Roy got back as it had been when he left.

He’d hoped to get out to the party at the Ponderosa that the youngest Cartwright had invited him to – he wanted to meet and get to know more of the residents he’d be dealing with for the next three weeks – but a barfight, an altercation between two landowners over water rights and a lost miner’s wife put paid to his plans. He’d just started on the paperwork for the three cowboys he’d locked up over the fight at the Silver Dollar when Jeb Magruder, who worked at the livery store when he needed whisky money, ran into his office.

“Sheriff, you better come,” he called as he slammed the door behind him.

Sanders casually set his cup on the desk. He could move fast when he felt there was a need, but as his years of sheriffing piled up he’d found that what others considered needful usually wasn’t. “What’s the trouble?” he asked.

“It’s Adam Cartwright. He was bushwhacked on his way to town.”

“Adam Cartwright, bushwhacked?” Sanders exclaimed. “What was he doin’ comin’ here? They’re havin’ a big shindig out at the Ponderosa tonight.”

“I dunno, but two of the boys found him lyin’ next to his horse just outside o’ town. They took him over to the Doc’s and tole me to get you.”

The sheriff grabbed his hat. “Is he hurt bad?”

“Doc didn’t say, but he ain’t come to yet.”

He hustled the liveryman out the door. “Jeb, you better ride on out to the ranch and let his pa know what’s going on. I’ll be over to Doc Martin’s first, then when you get back you can show me where it all happened.”

“You bet,” Jeb said and ran down the street to get a horse. Sanders moved almost as fast in the opposite direction, toward the son of one of the most powerful men in this part of the country. If there were outlaws around willing to take on a Cartwright, he knew he was in for trouble.

He knocked once on Paul Martin’s door, then let himself in. “Doc?” he called as he carefully shut the door behind him and looked around. “It’s Tom Sanders.”

“We’re in here,” he heard from the next room.

Sanders entered what would be the front parlor in any other house, but served the town’s only doctor as an examining room. He immediately recognized the man who was stretched limply on the leather chaise in the center of the room. Even without Roy Coffee’s rundown of the town’s prominent citizens, Adam Cartwright would have been hard to mistake. Black-haired, tall, lean, powerful; even unconscious he had the look of a man to reckon with.

The doctor had unfastened his patient’s shirt to evaluate his condition, and Sanders winced in sympathy at the massive bruises on the man’s left side. He found himself thinking that whoever had managed to put him in this condition was going to be mighty dangerous to deal with.

The doctor was holding a small bundled cloth against Cartwright’s left temple. “Well, come on over here and be useful,” he snapped. “I have to find out what other damage there is.”

Sanders dropped his hat on a nearby table and moved to the other side of the chaise. “What do you want me to do?”

“Hold this ice against his head just a minute while I check him over. Don’t push with it, just hold it against the swelling.”

He slipped his hand under the Doc’s and studied Cartwright’s face while he held the cold package securely against the black hair. The beard-shadowed face was pale except for an angry red and purple swelling along his left jaw. A trace of blood still leaked from the corner of his mouth, as well as from a small cut on his left cheekbone.

“Jeb said he’d been jumped,” the sheriff said.

“If he was,” said Doc Martin, busy pressing gently on Cartwright’s side, “it must’ve been by more than one, because there’s not a mark on his hands.”

Sanders’ stomach turned. Even after all his years in office, the violence men could inflict on others still sickened him. He vowed to get the ones who’d done this, as much for the safety of the town he’d had entrusted to him as for the sake of the man on the chaise.

“Is he going to make it?” he asked as the doctor straightened.

“Well, they worked him over pretty good. I’d say he has at least some cracked ribs, maybe one broken. Don’t know if there’s anything wrong inside; it doesn’t look like it, but sometimes you can’t tell till later. What we’re really going to have to watch out for, though, is this blow to the head. We won’t know for a while how bad it is, but the longer he stays unconscious…” He trailed off. The sheriff knew what he meant, though.

“You’re saying he could die.”

He could see Paul Martin didn’t like that much, but the doctor was an honest, straight-talking man, and he didn’t disagree.

“I sent Jeb for his father,” Sanders said quietly.

“Good. Now hold him forward a bit so I can get his shirt off the rest of the way and his ribs wrapped, then we’ll move him to a bed. I want to keep an eye on him tonight.”

*****

The last of the party guests had left for home, and Hoss was gone, too, escorting the Miller sisters back to their house. Ben didn’t really expect to see him back for a while, as he knew his son and Reagan Miller had a lot to talk about. He put his arm around his youngest boy’s shoulders and they walked back into the house together and regarded the mess that was their living room.

“I love a party, Pa, but it sure will be nice to get everything put back together again. I’d like to just lie down on the couch in front of the fire about now . . .”

Ben laughed. “I know what you mean. A pipe and a glass of brandy wouldn’t be too bad, either.” He stretched, then sobered a bit. “I’d better get to bed, though. First thing tomorrow, I want to ride into town and check on Adam.”

Joe held him back with a hand on his arm. “What was it all about, Pa? I’ve never seen those two go at it like that before. Hoss wouldn’t tell me a thing.”

Ben rubbed his forehead while he tried to decide what to tell his youngest. No matter what he said, he knew Joe’s temper would fly and neither of them would be able to sleep from the resulting upset. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow, all right, son?”

He wasn’t happy about it, but if his father thought it should wait, well, that was the way it was going to be. “All right, but I’m riding in with you. I promised Adam I’d bring him his things.” His hand dropped. “I’ll get the lamps.”

Ben patted him once on the shoulder. “Thanks. Just leave one for Hoss.”

Joe nodded and went to the dining room to extinguish the candelabra on the table while Ben headed upstairs.

He hadn’t gotten halfway up the steps, though, when they heard a pounding on their front door. “Now, who in tarnation could that be at this time of night?”

“Someone who left something behind?” Joe asked as he joined his father.

Ben opened the door and found the old man from the Virginia City livery standing on his doorstep. “Jeb! What are you doing here?”

“Ben,” Jeb gasped. “You gotta come. Right now.”

“It’s the middle of the night,” put in Joe. “Can’t it wait ‘til morning?”

“Nope,” Jeb shook his head. “Your boy’s hurt, Ben; he’s at Doc Martin’s.”

Ben grabbed his arm. “Which boy, Jeb?”

“It’s Adam. A couple o’ the fellas found him just outside Virginia City. Took him to the Doc right away.”

“What happened?” exclaimed Joe as he grabbed their hats and handed his father’s to him.

“Don’t know, just found him on the ground next to his horse. Toby said he looked like he’d been bushwhacked.”

“Bushwhacked!” Ben said, thinking about the pounding his son had already taken that evening.

“I’ll get the horses ready, Pa.”

“Better hurry, Joe,” said Jeb. “Doc don’t know if he’ll make it through the night.”

Joe turned worried eyes on his father. “I’d better find Hoss.”

Emotions flitted across Ben’s face: fear, concern, and the embers of an anger he hoped would have no cause to be fanned to full flame. Let him be all right,he prayed, but what he said was, “Leave a note for your brother in case we miss him between here and the cutoff to the Miller place. If we haven’t seen him by then you can take a quick side trip. But, Joe . . .” Ben paused, then said finally, “If he doesn’t want to come, you make him.”

“What–” Joe started, confused. He couldn’t imagine a fight so serious that Hoss would let it keep him from his injured brother…but he didn’t have time to finish the thought for his father was already headed for the barn.

*****

Ben rode into town alone. They hadn’t met Hoss on the trail so Joe was on his way to the Millers’ to see if he could find him. Ben hoped he would; regardless of the pain that now lay between his two oldest boys he couldn’t believe Hoss wouldn’t want to be with Adam. He tied Buck quickly to the hitching post in front of Doc Martin’s house and knocked quietly but firmly on the door.

It took a moment, but the door opened to reveal Sheriff Sanders.

“Sheriff,” Ben exclaimed, surprised and then suddenly fearful. “Adam?”

“Still with us,” Sanders said calmly and stepped aside. He jerked his head toward the side room. “Back there.”

Ben took his hat off and blindly set it on the nearest table as he headed to the room the sheriff had indicated. “How is he?”

“Don’t know yet,” he answered. “We’ve been waiting for him to wake up, but so far haven’t had so much as a peep out of him. The Doc’s in his office, looking up new things to try.”

They’d reached the small room by then and Ben moved swiftly to the bed. He stared down at his son for a moment, seeing the raw swelling Hoss had put on his brother’s jaw, the bruised ribs from when Hoss had thrown him against the tack box in the bunkroom, the other cuts, and scrapes he’d dressed himself earlier this evening. Dear God in Heaven, he thought.

Sanders was speaking. “I’m going out at first light to see if I can pick up any tracks. I figure there must’ve been two or three of ‘em, considering the damage and the fact that he didn’t even get a chance to defend himself.”

Ben touched his son’s face gently and spoke so quietly that Sanders almost didn’t hear him. “No need, Sheriff. He wasn’t bushwhacked.”

“But, Mr. Cartwright–” Sanders cut himself off when the rancher turned around. The devastation and anger in his eyes were terrible to see.

“It wasn’t outlaws . . . it was Hoss.”

*****

Joe rode all the way to the Millers’ and found his brother’s black horse tied just inside the front gate. He looped his horse’s reins next to Chub’s and took a single springing step to the front door. He rapped on it sharply, only holding down his desire to bust in with difficulty.

Amelia Miller came to the door, her hair down but still in her evening dress.

“Why, Joe, what are you doing here?”

“I need to see Hoss,” Joe said bluntly, his normally smooth delivery to ladies deserting him in the wake of his concern for his oldest brother.

She looked over her shoulder but didn’t open the door any further. “I believe he’s having a … difficult discussion with my sister.”

Joe pulled his hat from his head and started twisting it around. “I’m sorry about that, Miss Amelia, but I need to see him just the same.”

She raised a brow but opened the door enough that he could slide through. “They’re in the side parlor – but, Joe?”

“Yes, ma’am?” he answered, halfway across the room.

She hesitated and finally settled on, “Knock first.”

He nodded and did as she asked, and it was several moments before there was an answer.

“Come in,” he heard in Reagan Miller’s distinctive low voice.

When he entered the room Reagan was seated on a brocade couch, looking as distressed as he’d ever seen her, and his brother was across the room, facing the dead ashes of the hearth.

“Uh, Hoss?” he said tentatively.

He got only a headshake in answer.

“Hoss? You gotta come with me.”

His brother’s low voice rumbled, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Joe walked up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. “Hoss, you gotta. It’s Adam.”

Hoss shook him off and turned to his little brother, his face fierce and full of pain. “Leave me alone, Joe.”

“You don’t understand. He’s hurt.”

“I imagine so,” Hoss replied, and Joe couldn’t believe he heard a thread of satisfaction in his voice.

“Hoss, you gotta come. Jeb says he might die and we have to get there.”

Hoss turned back to the hearth and rested his arms against the mantle. “I told you, Joe. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“But he’s your brother!” Joe cried.

At that, Hoss turned back to him and for the first time in his life, Joe was afraid of this big man who was his brother. “No, he ain’t! Not no more. Startin’ today, you’re the only brother I got.”

“Hoss, what’s going on with you two? What happened?” He grabbed his brother’s arm again and insisted, “Tell me what happened today!”

Hoss turned away again, and it was Reagan who finally answered him.

“I happened,” she said as she rose and walked toward him. “I came between them.”

“But–” Joe halted what he wanted to say. How could you break them apart so easily, so fast? But even as the thought was formed, he knew the answer.

She nodded as she saw him begin to understand. “I can’t help who I am. I thought I could change; I thought for Hoss I could be the woman he believed I was.” She approached him, moved just a little too close. “You see?” she said sadly as he backed up, warmth rising in his face. “Your brother knew; your father knew . . . my sister knew. Hoss and I were the only ones kidding ourselves. But your brother at least didn’t take anyone’s word. He allowed me to prove it to him.”

Somehow she was closer to him again. He could smell her perfume, he was drowning in her eyes, he could feel a sharp pang of desire . . .

“Stop it, Reagan!” Hoss said harshly. He grabbed her by the arms and swung her around. “You don’t have to be like that.”

She stood quietly in his arms and looked up at him, her eyes angry, sad, old. “You could sooner tell a bird not to fly, Hoss. It’s who I am, and it’s time I faced it. I’ll be going back to San Francisco just as soon as I can get my things together.”

“Reagan!” he cried.

“I’m sorry, Hoss. Sorrier than you’ll ever know for what couldn’t be. Go to your brother. Don’t give up your family for me; I’m not worth it. No matter if Adam dies or not, if I stayed neither one of us would be able to live with it. You, because you’re a fine, kind, caring man and you would never feel the same about me. And me,” her laugh was bitter, “I’d never be able to live with less than your total adoration. So go to him. Rebuild your life. I’m going to rebuild mine.”

She turned then and walked out of the room without a single backward glance. Amelia appeared at the door. “I think you gentlemen had better leave now,” she said.

Joe picked up their hats, held his brother’s out to him. After a moment Hoss took it and walked slowly to the front door.

And as Joe passed the older Miller sister, he heard her say softly, “I do believe that’s the only unselfish thing I’ve ever seen her do.”

*****

It was a silent ride into town. Joe kept shooting darting glances at his brother, but Hoss’ expression never changed from the grim despair that had settled there as they left the Millers’. He’d had a heck of a time convincing Hoss to come with him to Virginia City. His brother simply was in too much pain to care about much of anything, let alone the man who’d been the cause of his agony.

“Hoss–” he started once, but his brother cut him off.

“I don’t wanna talk about it, Joe.”

“But Adam–”

“I said,” Hoss repeated forcibly, “I don’t wanna talk about it, an’ I ‘specially don’t wanna talk about him. Now you just hush up or I’ll turn right around and be headin’ on home.”

Joe subsided miserably. Hoss and Adam had had their fair share of disagreements, but what was between them now was something he’d never seen. This was more like the type of fight he would have with their oldest brother, but thinking back over all the times he’d gotten into it with Adam, he couldn’t remember a time when, in spite of their differences, there hadn’t been the underlying bond of love, brotherhood and trust.

Trust. That was it; that was what was gone. Joe could see that Hoss simply didn’t believe in their oldest brother anymore.

He was still immersed in sorrow for his brothers when they arrived at the doctor’s house. Joe dismounted slowly, but even so he had his horse tied and was at the door before Hoss had finished dismounting. Joe felt the knob turn under his hand and was surprised to see the temporary sheriff open the door. He entered with merely an exchanged nod and strode to the room Sanders indicated with a jerk of his head. He heard the murmured greeting between Hoss and the sheriff, but by then he stood in the doorway of the sickroom and his attention was riveted on the sight before him.

On the ride to town, Joe had begun to understand Hoss’ rage, but when he saw his oldest brother lying in waxen stillness on the bed and his father seated dejectedly in a chair at his bedside, head in hands, grieving, Joe suddenly found himself angrier with Hoss than he’d ever been in his life. Adam looked dead. “Pa?” he asked softly, his heart beating wildly.

Ben raised his head from his hands and turned to his youngest. “Where’s Hoss?” he asked, voice harsh with strain. “I told you to bring him, no matter what.”

“He’s right behind me,” Joe said, waving a hand at the hallway. “How’s Adam?”

Ben sighed and stood, trying to roll the tension out of his shoulders. “We don’t know yet. He’s got a pretty good-sized lump on his head, and that’s a big part of the problem. Until the swelling goes down we can’t tell how bad it is.”

Joe moved next to the bed and reached a tentative hand to his brother’s bare shoulder, which felt cold. “I didn’t think he got hit that hard,” he said, his voice strained. “He didn’t say anything about it at home.”

Ben pressed his lips together irritably and paced quickly from one side of the room to the other in short, frustrated strides. “He wouldn’t, though, would he? No, he had to go riding off in the dark until it got so bad he fell off his horse, doing God knows what all else to himself.” He halted at the foot of the bed, and though his gaze rested on his oldest son, his words were directed to his youngest. “I thought you said Hoss was here.”

Joe realized his brother hadn’t followed him. “Yeah, he’s just–”

But Ben had brushed past him, to find Hoss and drag him to Adam if necessary. As soon as he saw his son his fury overwhelmed him and he hissed, “Hoss, how could you? You promised me this would never happen again–” He halted abruptly as he got far enough into the room to see the sheriff as well.

Sanders had his pistol aimed at his middle son’s heart and Hoss stood in front of him, still as a massive tree in a windstorm, gunless and manacled.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Ben roared.

“Just what it looks like,” answered the sheriff calmly, never taking his eyes off his prisoner.

“Hoss,” Ben exclaimed. “What’s going on?”

Doc Martin strode in before Hoss could answer. “Ben, you should know better,” he scolded quietly but sternly. Ben Cartwright was fiercely protective of his sons, but even he backed off when the doctor spoke in that tone. “You get an uproar started in here, and you’ll do even more damage.”

Ben rubbed at his forehead and calmed himself by sheer force of will. “Yes, you’re right, Paul.” He breathed deeply, but though his voice still held a thread of steel, it was quiet enough not to carry to Adam’s room. All the same, it made Joe shiver. “Sheriff,” Ben started again. “Would you please explain?”

The sheriff still didn’t turn, answering only, “He’s under arrest.”

“Under arrest?” Ben strode forward so he could face Sanders’ head on. “For what?”

Sanders spoke as quietly as Ben had, but his words seemed to echo through the room. “The attempted murder of Adam Cartwright.”

*****

Joe was torn between his brothers. He wanted to be with Adam, but he also knew Hoss needed him desperately.

There’d been a terrible uproar when the sheriff made his announcement, even after the doctor’s warning. Ben had tried to explain about Sanders’ preposterous accusation, but Paul Martin would have none of it.

“I don’t care if he’s telling you he found silver in your manure pile,” he’d informed his old friend in no uncertain terms. “If you’re going to start ranting, do it somewhere else. Your son needs quiet.”

“Pa,” Joe said, rising and placing a hand on his father’s arm, “let’s go with the sheriff to the jail and sort it all out there. Doc’s right, we’re not helping Adam this way.”

Ben sighed. “I know, I know.” He looked back at the doctor. “You’ll get me–”

“–the minute anything happens,” Doc Martin cut him off. Then his voice softened. “You know I will.”

Hoss hadn’t said a word as Tom Sanders escorted him through the streets, up the steps to the sheriff’s office, into the cellblock and through the door of one of the cells, but Joe could see the pain behind his brother’s stoic façade. He wondered, though, as he ran back to the doctor’s after promising to return as soon as he could, if any of the pain was for what he’d done to their brother.

Joe brought himself back to the present as he arrived at Paul Martin’s door, where he knocked once and then let himself in. The doctor was just coming down the hall from Adam’s room. He spoke without even waiting for Joe’s question, knowing through long experience the worry the young man would be feeling for his oldest brother.

“He’s the same, Joe. You can go sit with him if you want.”

Joe tried to speak over the lump in his throat, but finally just nodded and went to the sickroom. The Doc had put a nightshirt on his brother, he was glad to see; Adam wouldn’t be as cold, now. He sat on the edge of the chair next to the bed and leaned forward, trying to see some improvement, but finding everything was, as Doc Martin had said, just the same.

“Adam?” he said, searching for a reaction. He took his brother’s hand in both of his and whispered his name again, and this time it came out sounding like a prayer.

The doctor entered the room with a bowl covered by a white cloth, which he set on the table next to the bed and uncovered. It held a mound of ice chips, probably from the Bucket of Blood saloon, Joe figured. This time of year Clancy had the first of the high mountain lake ice packed in sawdust in the cellar of his saloon, and the bartender wasn’t one to begrudge the town doctor anything he might need, particularly when the patient was an old friend like Adam Cartwright.

“Here’s some ice to keep on that swelling on his head,” he said.

Joe looked up at him. “It’ll help?” he asked.

The doctor sighed. “Maybe. But it certainly won’t hurt.”

Joe started piling ice in the cloth. “Then I’ll do it.”

“You know where to find me,” he said. Joe nodded and Paul Martin rested his hand on the young man’s shoulder for a moment, then wordlessly left the room.

Joe tucked the comforter up around Adam’s shoulders, then carefully tilted his brother’s head to the side, hoping to see the long dark eyelashes twitch with even faint awareness. When, as before, nothing happened, he sighed and lightly touched the lump just above his brother’s ear. He dragged the chair a little closer to the bed, placed the cold package on the swelling and settled in to his vigil.

*****

Hoss Cartwright was cold – colder than he’d ever been before. He sat on the bunk of the jail cell, frozen in his misery. His entire world had turned inside out in the space of a few hours and he just couldn’t come to terms with it.

This morning he’d been planning a betrothal party, happier than ever before in his life, secure in the love and good wishes of his family and of a very special woman. Tonight his heart was shattered into so many pieces he doubted it could ever be put back together again.

Spurned by his love, betrayed by his brother, he was, in some small animal corner of his mind, guiltily pleased that he’d hurt Adam. Regardless of the story Joe had told of Jeb coming to the ranch saying that Adam might die, Hoss didn’t really believe he’d injured his brother that badly. He was an experienced enough brawler both to know what it took to damage his opponent and to know exactly how tough Adam was. He knew he could have killed him if they hadn’t been interrupted, but his father’s intrusion had broken the blood lust if not the heart’s agony that had generated it.

He hadn’t fought the sheriff or tried to deny what he’d done because in a perverse way he was glad his brother would suffer, at least temporarily, some of the pain he was feeling, that he knew would never leave him.

He finally registered that there was a very loud conversation going on in the office part of the jail and that the loudest voice belonged to his father.

“–Adam wouldn’t want his brother locked up over this!” Ben was saying.

The sheriff’s voice was low, but carried easily from the other room. “Well, now, we don’t really know that, do we? And there’s no way to ask him.”

“When he wakes up he’ll tell you himself.”

“And if he doesn’t wake up? He took a pretty good blow to the temple, and a man who would do that to his own brother isn’t someone I want wandering around the streets of my town.”

They continued arguing, but Hoss was caught by the sheriff’s words. I didn’t think I hit Adam in the head . . . the jaw, yeah, but not the head . . . He thought back over the fight. A right to Adam’s jaw, then he’d grabbed him by the coat and hit him again. When his brother struggled to his feet, Hoss had easily tossed him into a corner where he fell against a box of tack. Adam had gotten up slower that time, but he put up no resistance, and Hoss threw him across the room where he landed in his astonished father’s arms.

Hoss frowned as he analyzed everything that had happened, every moment, every blow. After reviewing every move he’d made, he knew Adam hadn’t injured his head at Hoss’ hands, but what rocked Hoss to the core was the sudden realization that during the entire fight his brother had made no move to defend himself. He hadn’t thrown a single punch, hadn’t wrestled with him, and hadn’t even tried to get away.

Shame washed over him. Adam had been in the wrong and knew it, and he also knew the risk in allowing Hoss to take out his anger and pain on him. Their father’s first words as he’d entered the Doc’s main room came back to him: You promised this would never happen again . . . and it was suddenly fourteen years ago and he was in the middle of another altercation with his brother.

Adam had been seventeen years old and full of himself, thrilled that he was going to go East to college. In what Hoss now recognized as typical teenage arrogance, he’d lorded his upcoming status over his brothers to the point they were sick of him. Then one day, when the two older brothers were cutting winter wood just down the hill from the house, Adam had pushed too far.

Hoss tried to recall just what his brother had said, but the memory was too vague. All he remembered was the killing rage he’d felt, so like his anger in the bunkhouse. Just turned twelve, Hoss had been almost as tall as his older brother and outweighed him by a good forty pounds – all of it muscle – but no one, including Hoss, realized just how strong he’d become.

Adam ducked Hoss’ first swing with a laugh, but the second one hit him in the square in the stomach. He’d turned gray and looked up at his brother in astonished surprise just in time to take the third punch on the chin. Hoss still remembered with sick shock how his brother had fallen like one of the great Ponderosa pines the lumbermen had been cutting up on the ridge, landing with a nauseating thud on the ground. He’d waited for his strong, indestructible older brother to get up, to open his eyes and rake him over with devastating words, but Adam just lay limply on the ground, blood leaking from a corner of his mouth.

He shook Adam’s shoulder, trying to wake him, but the older boy’s body just moved loosely under his hand. “Adam!” he cried out on a sob, beginning to realize what he’d done.

He couldn’t leave his brother – he had to get his father. Torn between the two agonizing choices, he impetuously slid his arms under Adam’s knees and shoulders and lifted him with surprisingly little effort. Adam’s head fell almost trustingly against his shoulder, just like an exhausted Little Joe.

It was at this moment that Hoss Cartwright realized his older brother wasn’t immortal, and that he – not his father, not Adam – was going to be the physical protector of his family.

If his father and brother could ever trust him again.

He approached the house and breathlessly, desperately called for his father. Six-year-old Little Joe was the first to run from the house, but he stopped at the edge of the porch in wide-eyed shock.

Their father came through the door at a half-run, and Hoss could see on his face the horrified dread that he’d lost another member of his family.

“Pa,” Hoss cried hoarsely. “I’m sorry, Pa – I hit him and I hurt him bad. Oh, Pa, I’m so sorry” Tears of shame and terror streamed down his cheeks.

Without a word, his father took his oldest son from Hoss’ arms and carried him into the house to lay him gently on the settee. Joe followed Hoss through the door, but when Hoss stopped on the threshold, Joe slipped as quickly as he could past him to stand next to their father. The hurt and fear in the boy’s deep green eyes were almost more than Hoss could bear.

Hoss had never felt so alone as in the next few hours while Hop Sing and his Pa tried to rouse Adam. The two men moved his brother upstairs, but wouldn’t allow Hoss to do anything, even when he asked repeatedly.

His pa had merely looked at him and started to say, “You’ve done” then caught himself, but Hoss knew what he’d meant. Yes, he’d certainly done enough.

Adam had recovered, though he’d had a nasty headache that made him dizzy enough to be willing to stay in bed for a couple of days. He’d easily accepted Hoss’ apology, saying he was as much to blame, and at that moment their relationship had seemed to change from older and younger brother to something more of a partnership.

Their father’s anger had lasted longer, and it was well into the next morning before he could bring himself to speak with Hoss about what had happened. Although they’d all discussed Hoss’ size and strength in admiring terms before, this time Ben talked to him about the responsibilities that were going to go along with his great gift.

Hoss had listened carefully, and Ben had allowed him to go off to his favorite meadow for the afternoon to have some quiet time to think it all over. He’d been silent at dinner, for once not eating much. Afterwards, he’d asked to speak with his father.

They went to the nook that served as the ranch office, Ben sat down, and Hoss stood to the side of the desk, eye to eye with his father. He’d asked for his mother’s bible, laid his hand flat on the intricately stamped leather cover, and sworn he would never fight his brother again.

The door to the cellblock squeaked open, but Hoss didn’t lift his head from his hands. He heard the cell door being unlocked, felt the warmth of his father’s body next to him and the gentle pressure of his father’s arm around his shoulders.

Finally he looked up into those warm, wise, velvet brown eyes and his voice cracked as he said, “I broke my word, Pa. I broke–”

And as the tears ran down his face, just as they had all those years ago, Ben knew they were for far more than a shattered vow.

*****

Joe was still holding the ice pack against his brother’s dark hair, his arm going numb from the strain when Adam moved ever so slightly on the bed. Just a slight shifting, as if to get more comfortable, but Joe shot out of his chair – which hit the floor with a clatter – and ran to the door. “Doc!” he yelled. “Doc, come here!”

He went back to his brother and grasped his hand. “Adam,” he called softly. “Adam, wake up.” He leaned forward, trying to see any flicker of an eyelid, any movement that would tell him his brother heard him. “C’mon, Adam, you’ve slept long enough,” he pled.

Doc Martin strode into the room. “What’s going on, Joe?” he asked.

“He moved,” Joe said, picking the chair up and placing it out of the doctor’s way.

Although Paul didn’t see any difference in his patient’s position on the bed, he knew better than to discount what Joe told him. Joe Cartwright might be a bit young, but he was a keen observer. He rolled up his sleeves to get them out of the way. “Moved how?” he asked as he felt around the lump at Adam’s temple.

“Just shifted a bit.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Paul responded, a faraway look in his eyes as he probed the injury.

Adam moaned ever so quietly, more of a deep sigh than a sound, but Joe’s expression turned hopeful. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he asked.

The doctor didn’t seem to be listening; he had his attention focused on some inner voice. “No fracture,” he mumbled to himself. “That ice did the trick – I can finally tell for sure.” He checked the pulse in Adam’s wrist and lifted each eyelid. Then he stood back, arms crossed, and studied his patient.

“Well?” Joe asked impatiently.

“Well,” Paul repeated thoughtfully, and the hint of a smile touched his lips. “Very well, indeed. We’re not through this yet, but it’s a good sign.”

“Would it help if I talked to him?”

The doctor stroked his chin. He had his doubts that it would help Adam, but it likely wouldn’t hurt and would be something the young man could do that he’d feel was making a difference. “Go ahead. Keep your voice low – if he does wake up, he’s going to have one hell of a headache.”

Joe dragged his chair back to the bed and sat down. He took his brother’s hand and started to speak, not even noticing when the doctor quietly left the room. “When you wake up, Adam. Not if, when. So c’mon, Adam, it’s time, you’ve slept enough; you gotta wake up and explain that fight with Hoss . . .”

*****

Adam was afloat on a sea of pain. He couldn’t even figure out where he hurt; it was all encompassing. Something was pulling at him, drawing him out of the comforting darkness. He tried to get back, but the words just kept dragging him back to the pain.

“. . . wake up . . . fight with Hoss . . .”

Hoss. A fight. Hoss pacing by one of the beds in the bunkhouse, turning as Adam entered . . .

Adam pointed to the door to the outside. “Hop Sing said you wanted to see me.”

“Yeah, where you been?”

Hoping that Hoss didn’t know what had happened between himself and Reagan Miller, he answered reasonably, “Well, you know where I’ve been; I’ve been over to the Miller house to see Miss Amelia.”

He could see it wasn’t going to work and his heart dropped. Hoss knew, and he was going to push it.

“Miss Reagan, you seen her too, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

But Adam wasn’t about to let his younger brother question his behavior. He grew suddenly still and asked in a deadly quiet tone, “You askin’ me or tellin’ me?”

But Hoss was every bit as serious, and the look in his eyes warned Adam of what was coming. “I’m tellin’ you,” Hoss said, and he threw a right cross to Adam’s jaw. The force of the blow spun Adam around and he went down, landing against a saddle that had been placed on a sawhorse behind him. He grabbed at it to keep from falling, but it went right over with him and he landed hard on one knee.

There was no time to think; he had only a dogged determination to hold on until Hoss got this out of his system.

Hoss grabbed him by the front of his coat and threw another punch that landed on his left cheekbone. Adam went flying and crashed into another saddle stand, this one made from a tree log. He felt a sharp, blinding pain on his left side, but had no time to think about it because Hoss grabbed him from behind, one hand on his right arm, the other on the back of his jacket, and tossed him across the room.

He crashed into a tack box, his left side hitting the corner of the box, and the pain was now blazing, leaving him breathless.

Again, Hoss grabbed him from behind and lifted him bodily from the floor. He spun and let Adam loose at the end of his turn, throwing his brother the length of the room toward the doors to the great room, where he landed in his astonished father’s arms, almost bowling him over along with his youngest brother.

The two of them managed to catch him, though, and keep him somewhat upright, which he found he was unable to do on his own. He held one hand to the corner of his mouth, which was bleeding copiously. He legs gave out for a moment and he almost fell, but Ben caught him again while Joe peered at his face, trying to make sure he was all right.

“What’s this about,” Ben demanded, appalled at the sight of these two sons brawling.

Adam staggered as Hoss brushed past the group to go back into the main house.

“Ask him,” Hoss shot back as he strode from the room.

Joe’s worry for Adam shifted in an instant to his other brother. With a quick glance, he left Adam in their father’s care and followed Hoss.

Adam wavered dizzily for a moment and Ben caught him again. “What’s this about!” he repeated.

‘Old habits die hard,’ Adam thought; his father almost instinctively held his oldest responsible for the fight.

Well, in a way he was right.

Breathing heavily, Adam got his feet under him and jerked his arm out of Ben’s hand. He staggered two steps forward to lean against the top bed of a double bunk and tried to wipe the blood from his chin.

Determined to get an answer out of one of his sons, Ben followed. “Why were you fighting him?” he demanded.

Adam didn’t look at his father. He stared down at his bloody hands and then felt at his split lip. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. “I wasn’t fighting him,” he finally managed to gasp, cradling his ribs.

“All right,” Ben said with just a thread of exasperation. “Why was he fighting you?”

Still trying to breathe against the pain in his side, Adam found he couldn’t answer; he just wiped at the blood on his hands.

Joe caught his brother’s hands in his own, stilling the restless movements. Adam was coming back from wherever he’d been, but he wasn’t with them yet. The nightmare Joe hadn’t been able to wake him from was proof enough of that.

Joe checked the gold and glass mantle clock. Four-fifteen, he thought. Isn’t this night ever gonna end?

Maybe their father would have better luck rousing Adam. His brother was calmer now, though not, thankfully, with the terrifying stillness of earlier. Joe rose, tucked the blankets back in place around Adam’s shoulders, and set out to tell Paul Martin he was going after his pa.

*****

It took a long time for Hoss to settle down, and Ben sat next to him, patiently waiting. He rubbed his son’s back in comforting circles while Hoss’ great gulping breaths gradually slowed. He murmured softly, “I know, son, I know,” as Hoss tried to explain what was in his heart.

“She don’t want me, Pa,” he moaned, his greatest hurt finding expression first. “She said she don’t love me.”

Ben grimaced. What to say? He thought that perhaps Reagan loved Hoss in her own way, but it wasn’t the kind of love he wanted for his son. Perhaps it would be kinder to let Hoss go on believing she’d been using him.

No. He’d always been straight with his sons; always told them the truth. Now wasn’t the time to change. “Son, I don’t think she was being completely honest with you when she said that.”

Hoss lifted red-rimmed eyes to his father.

“I think she loved you as much as she was capable. Probably more than she’d ever loved anyone.” He sadly shook his head and sighed. “For you, she tried to change, but in the end she just couldn’t stop being who she was.”

Hoss could still hear what she’d said to him at the end of the party, the words that had sent his world crashing to pieces.

“What can I tell you to make you realize what I am?”

He’d tried to break through to her. “Stop it!” he’d said. “You stop it right now! I don’t wanna hear no more talk like that. Reagan, you love me and that’s all that counts.”

“Love,” she’d said bitterly. “Haven’t you understood anything I’ve been trying to tell you? If I loved you that would be the worst thing that could happen, can’t you see that? My love would destroy you, Hoss, because you’d have to share it with every other man I’d ever meet. Now do you know?”

Yes, now he understood. He dropped his head into his hands. “Why couldn’t I be good enough for her, Pa? Did I need to be better-lookin’ or smarter or–”

Ben’s heart nearly broke for his boy. “Oh, Hoss,” he breathed, “it wasn’t you, son. There are some people who are born into this world with hearts big enough to love everyone and everything. Your mother was like that. She somehow knew how to reach out to anyone–” he paused for a moment and a corner of his mouth lifted in amusement, “–whether they wanted it or not.”

Hoss looked up at him, eager, even in the midst of heartache, for stories of his mother. Ben smiled ruefully. “The trouble she could get into . . . But she always believed, even when everybody said to ignore someone because they were too mean to trouble with, that she had to try anyway. It was simply part of who she was.” He placed his hand gently on his son’s arm. “And you’re just like her. You both see the best, the possibilities in people, and just like your mother, sometimes you end up getting hurt.”

“I just wanted to love her, Pa. I just wanted to make her happy.” He rubbed his forehead, trying to ease the pain behind his eyes.

“I know. I don’t think that was ever possible. Just like there are people with hearts like yours and your mother’s, there are people who seem to have been born with some of that special something missing. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was something about the way they were raised, or just the way God made them. They’re as crippled as a man who’s lost his leg in a mining accident. More so.” He paused, then shifted on the bunk to face his son square on. “Hoss, look at me.”

Hoss dropped his hands onto his knees and turned his head to his father.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, boy. I don’t like to say this because I know you love her, but I’m afraid Reagan is one of those people who are somehow crippled. And I think she knows it.”

They sat in silence for a long time, until Hoss finally whispered, “She told me it was her fault. That she’d encouraged him.”

Ben didn’t have any trouble figuring out who Hoss was talking about. “I don’t know if it helps any, son, but he told me she was upset because she thought he was trying to break the two of you apart. She convinced him that she really loved you. He just wanted to show her that her new family cared, so he put his arm around her–”

Hoss stood abruptly and strode across the small cell to the window where he looked out at the stars. “I thought I could trust him. Of all the people in the world aside of you, Pa, I thought I could trust Adam.”

This time Ben had no words; nothing he could say would heal this breach. Hoss would have to come to terms with it himself. “I’ll be back later, son,” Ben said sadly.

He rose and moved to the cell door. “Sheriff,” he called, and Sanders appeared in the door to the office. “I’m ready.”

The sheriff unlocked the door and let him out, appraising the two men carefully as he secured the door again.

It wasn’t until his father was almost out the door that Hoss turned and spoke, “Pa? What Jeb told you – is he gonna die?”

Ben paused with his hand on the door, but he didn’t turn around. “I don’t know,” he said, voice strained to harshness, then he was gone.

“If your brother dies,” the sheriff said, not unkindly, “I’ll have to bring charges of murder against you.”

Hoss’ gaze dropped to the floor. “I reckon you will,” he said softly.

*****

Joe found his father getting ready to leave the sheriff’s office. Ben’s face paled as his youngest son swung through the door.

“Adam?” he gasped.

“Pa, I think he’s better,” Joe said with a spark of hope in his flashing green eyes, “but I need your help.”

Ben sagged in relief against the desk.

“That’s good news, son,” the lawman said, genuinely pleased. “Did he tell you what happened to him?”

Ben’s strength returned quickly and he brought his focus back to Joe, who shook his head.

Ben reached for his son’s arm. “But you said he’s better?”

“He’s starting to move around a bit, and the swelling’s down enough Doc said there’s no fracture. I can’t get him to wake all the way up, though.” Joe gripped his father’s shoulder. “I thought you might have better luck.”

Ben stood. “Let’s go, then,” and led the way out the door, the sheriff included.

*****

When Ben saw Adam, he had to agree his son looked a bit better. He’d lost that waxen stillness, and Ben could almost see, moment by moment, the life coming back into Adam’s face, hands, body. His eyes were still closed, though the lids twitched along with some dark dream.

Ben took the chair next to his son; Joe, Doc Martin and the sheriff stood in a small group towards the foot of the bed. “Adam,” he called softly. “It’s time to wake up, son.”

Adam’s long fingers plucked at the bedcovers, and Ben took them into his hands. “Come on, son; come back to us.”

Joe blinked back tears at the yearning in his father’s voice and even the doctor rubbed at his nose once. The sheriff stood back a little, impassive in his professionalism, but something about his stance made Joe think he was genuinely hoping for Adam’s recovery as well, and not just because it might save him the trouble of a trial.

“He’s putting up a good fight,” the doctor said to Joe, but Ben heard him as well.

He rose and gestured the doctor over to a corner where they wouldn’t disturb his son, and Joe took his place by Adam. “Why won’t he wake up, Paul?” Ben asked. “It’s like he’s on the verge, but just can’t cross over.”

Doc Martin rubbed at his chin. “These things just take time. Adam’s time, not ours, much as we’d like it the other way. Whatever damage was done has to heal to a point where he can wake up.”

“He will eventually, won’t he?” Ben asked.

“I think so,” said the doctor, “but there’s really no guarantees, not with an injury like this.”

The sheriff spoke up for the first time. “I’d still like to know how he got that injury.” He turned to Ben. “Your son says he didn’t do it, and much as I’d like to take his word for it, I just can’t do that. I need Adam, there, to tell us what happened, or I’m going to have to hold Hoss for a murder trial, and the way he’s been talking, he’ll be lucky to escape a hangman’s noose.”

Joe turned from the bed. “What do you mean by that?” he exclaimed.

The sheriff sighed. “Hoss doesn’t deny he was in a rage when he beat your brother. He also doesn’t deny that he fully intended to pound him into the ground – and those are his words, not mine. He just denies that he hit Adam on the side of the head.” Sanders shook his head. “Now, whether a jury will make that distinction or not . . .”

“I could lose both of them,” Ben whispered.

Joe could almost feel the impact of his father’s pain in his own body. “No,” he said fiercely. “It won’t come to that, Pa. I won’t let it. Adam’s gonna get well, and he’s gonna tell us who really hit him on the head.”

The three older men looked at the younger, and even though they knew that it took more than wishes to make things come out right, somehow they started to believe, just a little.

And into the resulting silence came a new voice, one that was harsh with dryness and pain.

“. . . Tin Gail,” Adam said hoarsely.

“What?” came three voices simultaneously, the doctor being the only one who acted instead of speaking.

He poured a small bit white powder into a glass, added water and stirred. Then he lifted Adam slightly and held the glass to his lips.

Adam’s eyes stayed closed, but he swallowed once, twice, then the doctor let his head down again to the pillow.

“Who’s Tin Gail?” asked the sheriff. That hadn’t been one of the names on Roy Coffee’s list of citizens, prominent or problem, he was sure.

They moved up closer to the bed as Adam raised a hand limply to his forehead and groaned.

“. . . hurts . . .” he said next.

“That’ll ease up in a minute,” Paul said to him. “Adam, do you know where you are?”

“Joe’s right,” he slurred, and tried to open his eyes. “Joe?”

Joe slid in front of the doctor and grabbed hold of his brother’s hand. “Right here,” he said.

“Sam,” Adam said, “gotta help me . . . “

“Anything,” answered his brother.

Ben frowned with worry. “He’s not making any sense.”

“Sam Witliff . . .” Adam broke off and tried to focus on his little brother. They could all see how painful the effort was.

Ben was stunned. “Sam did this?”

“Isn’t he the harness maker?” asked the sheriff.

“Yes,” answered Ben, “but he couldn’t have attacked Adam; he was at the party last night.”

“Joe,” Adam said again, having finally focused his eyes enough to recognize his brother. “Go see Sam, willya?”

“Well, sure,” answered Joe, completely bewildered. “For what?”

Adam started to slide back into sleep, his eyes blinking, closing. Joe leaned close to hear what he was saying. “Martin . . .”

“Martin? Tin Gail? Who’re they?” asked the sheriff.

At those words though, Joe’s eyes went round with astonishment, and to the surprise of everyone in the room, he started to laugh softly.

“Joe?” Ben asked.

“He wants a martingale, Pa. For Sport.”

“What’s a martingale?” asked the doctor at the same time as the sheriff asked, “Who’s Sport?”

Understanding dawned, at least for Ben Cartwright, and he shook his head in disgust. “Sport. I should have guessed. After all the times you warned him–”

Joe smiled. “You heard him, Pa; he finally agreed with me. He said I was right.”

“Would someone please explain what’s going on?” asked the sheriff.

“That’s right,” Joe said, “you’ve never seen Adam’s horse. Beautiful animal, well-trained,” and his voice was a bit smug since he’d had a hand in it, “spirited, can run forever. But I’ve been telling older brother, here, for years that he’s gotta get a martingale.” He turned to the doctor, who seemed more confused than ever. “It’s a leather strap that runs from the saddle’s breastband to the chin of the bridle. See, there’s just one problem with Sport.”

Dawning enlightenment widened the sheriff’s eyes.

Ben explained to Paul Martin, “He throws his head.”

Joe nodded. “It wasn’t bushwhackers or Hoss that knocked Adam out; it was his horse.”

*****

The sheriff still refused to release Hoss – he’d been arrested for assault on his brother, and the simple fact that he hadn’t put the knot on Adam’s head didn’t absolve him of inflicting the other injuries. Sanders waited with enduring stillness for the next time Adam woke, hoping to be able to clear up everything after a talk with him. Ben and Joe Cartwright were less than understanding, insisting that Adam wouldn’t press charges. Sanders sincerely hoped they were right; he’d come to appreciate, through the long night, why his friend Roy Coffee held this family in such high esteem, but he’d seen stranger things happen and couldn’t in all good conscience release such a dangerous man until he’d heard from the victim.

Doc Martin wouldn’t allow them to talk to his patient at first, insisting that they wait until he was more coherent. The sheriff didn’t mind; he didn’t want anyone to be able to question what Adam Cartwright had to say, but the wait wore on Joe to the point where his pacing inspired Ben to curtly tell him to go over to the jail to keep Hoss company. Joe stopped in mid-stride and his head drooped. Ben softened immediately and moved to his side, putting one arm around his shoulders.

“Go on, son. Hoss needs you more right now, anyway. One of us will let you know as soon as Adam clears this up.”

Joe looked over at the sheriff with a hard expression. Sanders raised his hands in surrender. “I’ll be over just as soon as I talk with your brother,” he said.

Satisfied, at least for now, Joe nodded and with a final glance at his now-sleeping brother, left the room.

Ben turned to the doctor. “How much longer?”

Paul Martin smiled just a bit. “I keep telling you, Ben; Adam’s recovery depends on Adam, not me. He’ll be ready when he’s ready.” He rolled his sleeves back down and fastened the cuffs. “You’ll probably be the first to know.”

“. . . too loud,” came the voice from the bed.

Ben sat back down by his son and consciously lowered his voice. “Adam? Are you awake?”

“No,” he mumbled in answer. “Go ‘way, don’ wanna get up yet.”

“Shh,” Ben murmured with a slight smile of his own. “You don’t have to get up, son, we just need to ask you something.”

One eye opened and Adam scowled, “Then will all of you be quiet?”

“Of course,” Ben assured him and moved aside for the sheriff who sat in the chair by Adam’s bed.

“I’m Tom Sanders, Mr. Cartwright, acting for Roy Coffee while he’s in Placerville.” He waited for a sign of comprehension, trying to determine if this man lying before him was coherent enough to tell him his honest wishes.

“Yeah,” Adam responded a bit hoarsely, both eyes open now, though his eyebrows were furrowed with pain. “Roy said you were coming. Sorry I didn’t get in to see you before.”

Sanders nodded, satisfied with the response. He moved ahead with his questions. “You and your brother had a fight last night.”

Adam looked up at him a bit warily. “That’s right,” he said slowly.

“He did a pretty thorough job on you.”

Adam’s gaze shifted momentarily to his father, lifting an inquiring eyebrow. Whatever he saw seemed to be an answer of some sort and he responded, “Yeah, he threw me around a bit.”

Sanders sat back in the chair. “That’s something of an understatement. I could have the Doc list all your hurts, but let’s just say he pounded on you pretty hard.”

Wondering where the sheriff was going with this, Adam nodded carefully. “He had cause.”

The sheriff studied the man before him and said thoughtfully, “Your brother’s over in the jail.”

In jail?” Adam asked, picking up immediately on the relevant word. “For what?”

“Assault. Originally, for attempted murder.”

Adam’s bewilderment did more to set the sheriff’s mind at ease than anything Ben and Joe Cartwright had said.

“Of who?” was all he asked.

“You,” the sheriff said.

“What!” Adam exclaimed and immediately tried to sit up. He grabbed at his ribs and bit back a moan, but his eyes never left the sheriff, drilling him wordlessly with angry questions.

Adam Cartwright’s reaction was all the sheriff really needed, though his father and the Doc weren’t nearly as happy. Ben and Paul both told him to stay put, but it was to the sheriff that Adam actually listened.

“Lay back down, boy,” he advised. “There’s no need to get all upset over this. Just tell me what happened.”

Adam settled, waving his father away, and turned his full attention to the sheriff. Sanders was impressed; he figured the man before him had one whale of a headache, but he could see the sharp mind operating in spite of the pain. What Adam finally said, though, wasn’t what he expected.

“No.”

“Adam!” said Ben in exasperation, though, unlike the sheriff, he knew that Adam meant exactly what he’d said.

“C’mon, son, just tell me what happened and we can clear this all up.”

“I told you,” said Adam tightly, “Hoss had his reasons, and that’s all you need to know. I’m not going to press charges, so it’s really none of your business. Now, go let my brother out of jail.”

“Sheriff,” interrupted Paul Martin before Sanders could speak, “don’t push him. I can vouch that he’s in full possession of his senses and is making an informed decision. I can also tell you from long experience that once Adam Cartwright makes up his mind about something like this, he isn’t going to change it. You’re just going to make him ill if you try to get him to talk when he doesn’t want to.”

Sanders studied the obstinate look of the man in the bed, then transferred his gaze to Ben Cartwright, who was standing with arms folded and an expression of sympathy for the sheriff’s dilemma.

“Paul’s right,” Ben sighed. “Even I can’t get Adam to talk when he gets that particular scowl on his face.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Sheriff, I know my boys; they’ll work this out between the two of them.”

“Mr. Cartwright, you say that, and you might even believe it, but your son, here, is mighty big and powerful. I’ve got a man over in that jail, though, who managed to beat him so severely that he couldn’t even get a punch in himself. I’ve gotta be sure this won’t happen again.”

“Not couldn’t,” said Ben softly, watching his son. “Wouldn’t.”

“What?” asked the sheriff. He felt a hand on his arm and, surprised, he turned back to the man in the bed.

“He’s my little brother,” Adam said, sorrow in his dark eyes, “and I hurt him. Hoss would never have gone after me like that if I hadn’t–” He broke off what he’d been about to say and turned his head to the wall, closing his eyes.

“Little brother?” the sheriff commented with a raised eyebrow, but quickly returned to the relevant. “If you hadn’t what?”

Adam just sighed and repeated, voice muted by the pillow, “Like I told you, he had cause.”

Doc Martin waved Sanders away from the bed. “That’s enough, now. He needs to rest, and you aren’t going to get any more out of him anyway.”

“Is that good enough?” asked Ben with irritation. “Will you let Hoss out of jail now?”

Sanders regarded Adam thoughtfully, considering everything he’d said, and finally came to a conclusion. “Yep, I guess that’ll do it. It’s gonna be an interesting report to write, but it looks to me like Roy will understand well enough.”

“Roy would never have let it get this far,” Ben said under his breath, but the sheriff heard him.

“Mebbe. But I still gotta do the best I can by his town.”

Ben sighed and sat next to his son, who seemed to have dropped back off to sleep, though with Adam’s current mood he couldn’t be sure. “I realize that, and I apologize. It’s just been a very long, wearing night.”

Sanders nodded in appreciation. “Take care of your boy. I’d like to meet up with him again when he’s feeling better.” At Ben’s sharp glance he added, “Not about this. He just seems like someone I’d like to get to know.”

Ben looked the man over carefully and apparently made up his mind about something because he suddenly relaxed. “I think he’d like that.” He paused, then said in a more friendly voice, “I think we’d all like that, Sheriff.”

*****

Joe stood hesitantly in the doorway to the cellblock. Hoss was seated on the edge of his cot, head resting in his hands. Joe gestured at the man the sheriff had left to watch the office. The clink of the cellblock keys was loud in the moonlit darkness, but Hoss still didn’t look up. The barred door swung shut behind Joe and he moved quietly to his brother’s side. He sat in the same place his father had, and wordlessly put his arm around the big shoulders.

The brothers sat in silence for a long time, comforted by just being together. Finally Hoss heaved a great sigh and looked up, though not at Joe.

“Is he dead?” he asked.

Joe shook his head. “No, he woke up. Told us it was Sport, tossing his head again.”

“Hmph,” Hoss snorted. “You been tellin’ him for years that’d get him in trouble.”

A small grin teased at Joe’s mouth. “I’m not gonna let him forget it, either. He always thinks he knows best–”

“Well, he don’t!” Hoss interrupted, anger lending a resonance to his voice that made him sound suspiciously like his older brother.

Joe dropped his chin onto cupped hands and said thoughtfully. “He didn’t mean it.” They both knew what he was talking about.

“Don’t matter,” Hoss shook his head.

“Doesn’t it?” Joe looked sideways at his brother. “God knows I’m the last one to say he’s easy to get along with, you know that, but whatever he does, it’s always because he believes it’s the best thing.”

Hoss stood suddenly and paced to the window. “Well, he was wrong.”

“Even Adam makes mistakes.”

“Not according to him.”

Joe shook his head and said softly, “I don’t think he’d agree with you this time.”

Hoss looked out at the stars. Finally, he said just as quietly, “He didn’t even raise his hand to me.”

Joe waited patiently.

“I pounded him, Joe; I pounded him good, an’ he didn’t even try to fight back. He just . . . took it.” His voice broke on the last words, and he turned from the window.

Joe’s heart nearly broke at the pain that shadowed Hoss’ clear blue eyes. “He knew he was wrong.”

Hoss nodded, but then a fierce scowl grew, “But he shouldn’t o’ interfered, Joe. This was between me and Reagan. If it wasn’t gonna work, I woulda handled it on my own. I didn’t need him messin’ around in the middle of it.”

Joe shook his head in resignation. “Ain’t you learned nothin’ about our big brother after all these years? He’s always messin’ around in our lives. Always has, and I bet he always will.” Joe rose and moved to his brother’s side, his boots making soft swishing noises on the floor. “It’s his way of caring for us, Hoss. That prickly, arrogant, high-minded mule of a brother of ours doesn’t have any other way to show it. I don’t like it any better than you, but that’s who he is. And I tell you something, Hoss.”

He put a hand on each of his big brother’s shoulders and squeezed gently. Hoss finally looked straight at him, surprised to see the tears gathering in Joe’s emerald eyes.

“I got a scare tonight, Hoss, thinking he’d never wake up, never scowl at me again, never interfere in my life, never try to take care of us again . . . and you know what? I’d miss it.”

Hoss sighed. “That’s just what he was doing, wasn’t it? Takin’ care of me like I was six years old again and couldn’t take care of myself.”

Joe raised one eyebrow, sharing Hoss’ frustration. “Yeah. He’d of done the same thing to me, brother. He didn’t go there to . . . do what he did.” Joe shook his head in wonder. “She’s something, Hoss. I’ve never met anyone like her. I’m not saying it was right, but seeing her tonight; well, I can understand how it happened.”

Hoss sat down on the cot again, his face crumpled with pain. “She was my gal, Joe. Mine! He had no right–” He bit back a sob.

“You’re right. He didn’t. And he knows it, even if he didn’t mean to do it. He knows he’s lost your trust, maybe forever. But bein’ Adam, he’ll live with it, if it means you don’t get hurt by her.”

Hoss spoke so softly Joe almost couldn’t hear him, but there was a thread of iron desperation in his voice. “I made him pay. I made him pay, but I hurt Pa doin’ it, and I did somethin’ I swore on my mother’s Bible I’d never do again. But I couldn’t find my brother in him no more, an’ I hurt him bad.” He scrubbed at his face, trying to make sense out of everything that had happened that night. “It’s too much, Joe; it’s just too much.”

Joe was having trouble keeping up with his brother’s emotions. Anger over Adam’s betrayal. Hurt from Reagan’s rejection of his love. Anguish that he’d broken his word to his father, and his father’s trust. Guilt that he’d hurt Adam, yet Joe could see, even now, the gleam of satisfied revenge in his eyes. But that would hurt Hoss, too. He was too gentle to ever feel happy about hurting someone, even someone who’d been the cause of such devastating pain. It felt strange to be the one giving his older brother advice, but he had to try. “Just slow down, Hoss. Take it one thing at a time. Adam’s gonna be all right, so you don’t have to worry about any of that right now.”

“No, I just have to worry how I’m gonna face Pa.”

“And how to face Adam?” Joe guessed.

But Hoss shook his head. “I don’t wanta see him. Not ever again.”

“Hoss! You can’t still be feeling that way–”

“I mean it, Joe. He ain’t no brother of mine. There ain’t no way I can trust him again after what he done–”

Joe finally got mad. He’d tried to understand, he’d sympathized, he’d worked to help Hoss make sense out of everything that had happened – but this, oh, this was too much. He started to pace back and forth the length of the cell, his quick, angry footsteps punctuating his words. “So you’re just gonna throw away your family. You’re gonna rip it apart, gut it like it doesn’t mean any more to you than … than … a fish you’re gonna eat for dinner. You’re gonna forget everything Adam ever did for you, forget how he took care of you when you were little, how he taught you to ride, to shoot, to track – you’re just gonna pretend he doesn’t exist?”

Hoss just shook his head, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Joe slumped, defeated. He slid to his knees in front of his brother. “Hoss, you’re not just ripping the heart out of the family, you’re tearing the heart out of your own chest. Don’t do this; don’t do it to us, but most of all, please don’t do it to yourself.”

Hoss finally found his voice, though it was strained and harsh. “I just cain’t trust him no more, Joe. Don’t you get it?”

Joe grabbed his brother’s hands. “Then don’t try. Maybe it’ll come later, maybe not. For now, just try to understand. That’s all I ask, Hoss. Just do me this one thing – try to understand.”

Before Hoss could answer, Sheriff Sanders was unlocking the cell door. “You’re free to go.”

Joe jumped to his feet, trying by example to lift his brother’s spirits. “You hear that, Hoss? It’s all over. C’mon, I’ll buy you some breakfast, and then we can go see . . .” he trailed off, realizing his brother wasn’t paying any attention to him.

“What’d he say?” Hoss asked the sheriff.

Sanders rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced. “Not much of anything. As a matter of fact, damn little aside of telling me it was none of my business. Said he wasn’t pressing charges, that you’d had cause.” He shook his head. “Said he’d hurt his little brother, and pretty much told me he’d deserved what he got.”

Little brother,” Joe snorted. “What’d I tell you, Hoss? He just can’t get over trying to take care of us.”

Hoss didn’t answer, though; he just rose and walked out of the cellblock. Joe followed and waited while Sanders gave him back his hat and gunbelt, but Hoss just took them from the sheriff and left the jail without saying a word.

“He gonna be all right?” Sanders asked.

Joe shook his head as he watched Hoss walk down the street into the new dawn. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

EPILOGUE

Late that afternoon, Reagan Miller stood on the boardwalk next to the stagecoach, lost in thought. Her black dress, trimmed in blood red and white lace, was stunning, and set off the expanse of fair skin revealed by the low-cut bodice. She wore a black hat with a large fluffy red feather that almost shaded her eyes, and a black veil covered the glorious white-blond hair. She was a vision.

When the stage driver walked up to her and announced it was time to leave, she shook herself out of her abstraction and allowed an admiring fellow passenger to help her on board. She settled herself on the padded bench, looked once out the window at the town she was leaving, then turned her attention back to the inside of the coach.

Hoss Cartwright stood in the street and watched the stage drive away, taking all of his hopes and dreams with it. Mind numb, he finally noticed his oldest brother had walked up to stand at his left. He studied Adam surreptitiously, looking for the injuries Joe had told him about.

He stood a bit stiffly, favoring his ribs, and his hat was at a slight angle, likely from the sore spot on his head. Hoss’ darting glance couldn’t make out any bruises on his face, though that could have been the angle. Otherwise, he seemed all right. He didn’t say anything, just watched the stage turn the final corner and disappear from sight.

All of Hoss’ mixed feelings – his pain over losing Reagan, over his brother’s betrayal, his shame over his own behavior – crashed down on him. Tangled in his need to offer forgiveness for the unforgivable and to ask for it for the inexcusable, still hurt beyond bearing, he managed to say, “Hi, Adam.”

Adam didn’t look at him, didn’t respond immediately, and they both gazed down the busy street.

Then Adam sighed and with a hint of a smile said, “Well, there goes one we’ll never forget, huh?”

It was a typical Adam comment – seemingly off-hand and a bit obscure, yet to one who knew him well, it offered apology, acknowledgement, and absolution. Hoss’ nod was miniscule when it came. “Yeah.” And in that moment he found he could face his brother after all, and the unbearable wasn’t quite so bad. Not when he finally accepted that Adam had been right, even if his method was wrong; that he’d only wanted the best for his younger brother, even when he knew it would drive them apart; and that he was truly sorry for all of Hoss’ pain, knowing full well that he’d been the cause of it. The man at his side was the same brother he’d known from his first moments of awareness as a child, and he knew he could no more walk away from him than he could walk away from his own heart. Something deep inside finally let go, and he said, “Let’s go home.”

They headed down the street, side by side, and after a moment Hoss lifted his arm hesitantly, not quite sure of his brother’s possible response, then went ahead and dropped it around Adam’s shoulders anyway and squeezed once. Adam relaxed ever so slightly at the touch, so he left it there and they continued on their way, the pain not forgotten, but comforted by the love of brothers.

***The End***

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