The Protector (by EPM)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,000


Adam Cartwright had been hunting alone since he was a child. Early on, there had been a constant need to supplement the pantry with wild game. But as he and the Ponderosa grew together, Adam’s wide-ranging responsibilities often precluded any time for hunting. When he did get a chance to go, it usually turned into a trip with his whole family or with his two brothers. Those were the times he cherished most.

So when Adam found himself trailing alone through the autumn woods, it was truly a rare experience. Sport tossed his head, impatient to increase his gait beyond a walk. But Adam was enjoying the unhurried pace and held back his eager mount. It was early Fall and the sun still held its warmth but when it disappeared behind the horizon, the promise of winter was in the air.

Suddenly frowning, his thoughts strayed back to yesterday morning. He had found himself in the middle of a standoff with his younger brother and for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how it got started.

*****

“You alright, Joe?” Adam asked as he walked over to where his brother lay sprawled in the dust. He tried to sound matter of fact, but his anxious voice betrayed him.

“Yeah, I’m ok. What’re you so worried about?” Joe asked in a belligerent tone. The group of hands who had been watching Joe ride the latest in a series of broncs became quiet as the two brothers faced each other. Joe Cartwright was embarrassed at his older brother’s show of concern in front of the men.

Adam remained quiet for a moment then said, “apparently nothing.” He turned, walked out of the corral and mounted his horse. He looked back at Joe, anger showing in his eyes, but he didn’t speak before riding toward home.

*****

The nonsense had continued into the evening as all the Cartwrights gathered at the table for dinner. Adam had arrived home before Joe. He had time to relax and cool off before he saw his younger brother. Joe, on the other hand, had just returned from the corrals. He was hot and tired and sore from being twisted and thrown around by a bunch of none too friendly horses. And he barely had time to wash before dinner appeared on the table.

A variety of delicious smelling foods made their way around the table with very little conversation accompanying them. Ben knew something was wrong and he was getting impatient waiting to find out what. “Someone care to tell me what’s going on?” he said.

Hoss filled his mouth with food immediately, hoping his father would see that he couldn’t answer. Joe tucked his head and looked down at his plate. Adam continued his meal as if he hadn’t heard his father speak.

“I an unaccustomed to having to ask twice,” Ben said. His voice rose in volume and pitch.

Hoss swallowed hard and said, “nothin’s wrong that I know of.” Joe gave his middle brother an angry look. A look not unnoticed by his father.

“Joseph, you have something to say?” Ben asked.

“Ask your oldest son. He can tell you!” The same belligerent tone that Adam had heard at the corrals now echoed around the dining room.

Before Ben could ask more, Adam responded to his brother’s challenge. “Are you referring to my inquiry into whether or not you were injured when you got dumped by that horse, baby brother?” Both Adam’s voice and eyebrow were arched.

That was all the provocation Joe needed. He tried to grab his older brother across the table. Glasses spilled and dishes scattered. Adam simply stood up and raised his hands in the air as a gesture of surrender. Hoss grabbed Joe and pulled him back into his seat. Ben’s voice rose above the din. “Stop this immediately!” Joseph Francis Cartwright—sit down. He turned his attention to his eldest— “you too.” Once again, Adam arched an eyebrow and hesitated, holding his father’s eyes. “Son, please—” Ben said. Adam sat down.

Taking a deep breath then exhaling slowly, Ben continued. “Could someone please tell me what happened, without trying to destroy the house and each other?”

Joe still trembled with rage. Adam had bated him on purpose and he fell for it, once again. “He embarrassed me in front of all the hands at the corral, Pa,” Joe started. “I got thrown and he had to come over and make a big deal out of it. Just to make me look bad.”

Adam had had enough. “Has it ever occurred to you that I might be concerned for your welfare?” A simple gesture of caring had turned into a family crisis and he was no longer interested in being a part of it. “You can either accept it as it was meant Joe or you can go on being angry over some perceived hurt. I’ve had enough.” The eldest Cartwright son got up and moved toward the great room.

“Adam, I would appreciate it if you would come back to the table. We can’t sort things out if you walk away,” Ben said.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re sorted out. This whole episode has been blown way out of proportion.” Adam walked to the bottom of the stairs, turned and said, “I’m tired. Goodnight.” His footfalls were soft and the sound was finally lost with the distance.

Ben’s face went from bright red to a fading pink, as he breathing became normal again. He turned back to his remaining two sons. Hoss was trying to repair some of the damage to the now ruined dinner. Joe sat still, waiting for his father to say something. “Joseph, whatever your brother did or didn’t do is no excuse for you to try to attack him. I will not stand for that behavior from you or anyone else in this house.” Ben’s voice softened. “Don’t you think Adam has better things to do then to try and think up ways to annoy you?”

“Well, maybe Pa but it comes out the same. How are the men ever gonna respect me if I get treated like a baby all the time?” Joe wasn’t willing to concede his position until he had a chance to defend himself.

“Joe, the men will make up their minds about you for what you do and how you act, not for what others say or do.” Ben stood up. “It’s up to you to earn their respect and constantly fighting with your brother will not help you. They already like and respect him. Think about it.” Ben left the table and sat in his chair by the fire. He picked up the paper hoping to lose himself for a while in the problems of others.

*****

The outline of a line shack came into view and Adam finally let Sport have his head. The big chestnut stretched out with a ground-covering stride. The freedom and exhilaration of an unfettered gallop cleared Adam’s mind of the troubling thoughts. He had told his father that morning that he would only be gone for a few days. Ben had asked him to stay and straighten things out with his youngest brother but Adam was still stung by Joe’s reaction and he wasn’t ready to forgive and forget.

*****

“Sure, Pa, I’ll be glad to,” said Hoss. It was Adam’s job to go to the bank on Fridays and bring back the ranch payroll. There always seemed to be some kind of banking business or contracts that called for his oldest son’s expertise so Adam fell into a Friday routine of leaving early for Virginia City. But with Adam gone on his unexpected hunting trip, Ben had asked Hoss to attend to the chore.

“Thank you Hoss. I appreciate one cooperative, son,” Ben huffed.

“It’ll be ok Pa. Them two just need to cool off then they’ll be fallen all over themselves to apologize.” Hoss smiled at his troubled father.

“I know you’re right, son, but I can’t help but worry that someday there will be one fight too many and they won’t be able to get by it.” Ben’s eyes seemed to glaze over as he stared off toward the distant mountains. His sons were his world and right now his world was upside down. And he was helpless to fix it.

“I’ll be goin’ now. Be home before dinner.” With that, Hoss reined Chubb toward town. He hoped that what he had said to his father was true. He arrived close to noon and the thoughts of a cool beer brought a smile to his round face. Well, he thought, if I’ve got to take on brother’s job then I deserve a reward. He headed toward the Silver Dollar. The beer was cool and the company was good. “Sam, I guess Adam may have a fight on his hands next Friday. Think I’ll start volunteerin’ for bankin’ duty.” Hoss smiled and winked at the bartender as he drained the last of the pale yellow brew. He picked up his change from the bar and headed out the door. “See ya Sam,” he said and waved goodbye.

Stepping out onto the street, Hoss’ attention was drawn to three men exiting the bank in a hurry, guns drawn. He recognized George Taylor, one of the tellers, coming to the door. “They robbed the bank,” he shouted, pointing to the three mounted men. Before Hoss could draw, the gunman fired and the bank teller went down. The three men urged their horses into a gallop. Hoss moved further into the center of the street and took aim. His bullet found its mark as one of the robbers fell into the dust. The two remaining men turned their sites toward the man who had killed their partner and fired.

Hoss felt a stinging in his right leg as it buckled beneath him. As he started to fall, a second bullet buried itself deep in his broad chest. He remembered falling in a heap on the main street of Virginia City as the two killers rode by. Things became hazy for Hoss Cartwright after that as he fought to stay conscious. “Oh Pa,” he whispered, “I didn’t get the bankin’ done…” As his vision dimmed, he called for his father.

*****

Ben and Joe knew something must be wrong when they saw Hop Sing driving the buckboard at a dizzying pace. They had been at the breaking corrals, looking at the new stock.

“Mr. Ben, Li’til Joe go to town quick. Mr. Hoss hurt. Sheriff say to come right away.” Hop Sing lapsed into his own language as father and son mounted.

The ride to town had been harrowing. Ben and Joe dismounted and ran up the steps to Doctor Martin’s office. They were greeted in the waiting room by Roy Coffee. “Ben, Joe,” the sheriff said, his fingers curling and uncurling along the rim of his hat. “Doc’s with Hoss now.”

“How is he, Roy?” Ben’s face was pale; the muscles around his mouth drawn tight. Joe stood next to his father.

“I don’t really know Ben and that’s the truth.” The sheriff told Ben all he knew of the incident. “We got him right over here as soon as it happened.” Roy Coffee looked away from his old friend then looked back. “He was shot twice Ben, once in the leg and once in the chest.”

Ben felt his legs grow weak and he began to stumble forward. Joe and the sheriff caught him and helped him to the nearest chair. Joe’s anxiety for his brother turned into fear for his father. “Pa—Pa you alright?”

“I’m alright, son. I just need to sit for a minute.” Ben felt his son’s hand on his arm and he patted it gently.

Roy looked around and said, “Where’s Adam?”

Joe’s head came up quickly. He looked at the sheriff and said, “Gone.”

Roy Coffee was taken aback by the bitter tone of Joe’s voice. He had heard angry between the brothers before but never bitterness.

Ben interceded, bringing Roy’s attention back to him. “He’s gone hunting Roy. I expect him back tomorrow.”

“My deputy is formin’ a posse right now, Ben. Do you want me to send someone to find Adam?”

Joe spoke up. His voice held the tremor of controlled anger. “We don’t need him!”

“Joseph! Don’t you have more important things on your mind right now other then a petty argument with your brother?” Ben’s own anger was beginning to show.

Joe dropped his head. He looked back at his father and said, “Yes sir.”

Roy excused himself and left the two Cartwright men to wait. Ben motioned for Joe to sit down beside him. “Joe, if Adam were here, he’d be the first person you’d turn to for comfort. It’s always been that way,” Ben said.

“No Pa, if Adam hadn’t decided to run away and be by himself like he always does, then it’d be him in there instead of Hoss.” The anger returned to Joe’s voice. “Hoss didn’t ask for this. He was just doing Adam’s job.”

“Joseph, if you’re saying you’d trade one brother for another to be in there with two bullets in him, then I’ve somehow failed you as a father.” Ben turned away and closed his eyes against the reality surrounding him. In his head, he prayed for all three of his sons.

*****

It was late the next afternoon when Adam sat on a ridge overlooking the Ponderosa ranch house. Being away from home with his own thoughts had helped him think through what he needed to say to his youngest brother. Just thinking of Joe made him smile. The boy—no the man, he corrected himself, got such pleasure from life. And he made those around him feel the same way. It was for that reason and so many others that Adam couldn’t stand the thought of him being hurt. Somehow, he had to make Joe understand that was why he reacted as he had when he saw him thrown. He urged Sport forward.

Adam stopped in front of the barn and started to open the doors. Hearing a noise from behind, he turned to look and saw Hop Sing come running from the house. “You go to town right away. Mr. Hoss hurt. Father and brother with him now.”

“What happ—-,” he started to ask but Hop Sing interrupted.

“You go now!” he repeated.

*****

It was dark by the time he reached Doctor Martin’s office. Coming through the front door, he was stopped by Paul Martin. “Adam, let me talk to you before you go in to see your brother.”

“He’s alive.” Adam let out a long, steadying breath.

“Yes,” Paul reassured him. He explained what had happened and Hoss’ current condition. “He’s very weak and I’m worried about infection but he’s sleeping quietly right now. I can’t get your father and brother out of there to rest. Maybe you can.”

Adam nodded and moved toward the door. Entering as quietly as he could, his eyes took in the picture of his family before him. Hoss lay on his back, sleeping or unconscious; he wasn’t sure which. The soft, dim light from the lamp threw shadows on the wall behind him. His father sat in a chair pulled next to the bed. He held his middle son’s hand, eyes closed, lips moving in some unheard prayer. Joe sat in the corner; his small frame curled up in a restless sleep.

He moved to Hoss’ side and laid the back of his hand against his brother’s face. He felt the abnormal heat emanating from his body. “Now just how did you get yourself into this fix? Can’t I leave you alone for a minute without trouble finding you?” Adam whispered.

“It was your trouble that found him.”

Adam was startled by Joe’s voice. He turned to look as Joe unfolded himself from the chair and stood up.

“Joseph, not in here,” came a warning from his father. Ben saw the confused look on Adam’s face and motioned toward the door. As the three men left the room, Paul Martin entered to check on his patient.

“Paul told me what happened,” Adam said to his father.

“Did he tell you that Hoss was doing the job you were supposed to do? Did he tell you they shot him down in the street?” Adam knew by Joe’s voice that he was very close to breaking down and that whatever he said at this point would only push him over the edge. So he held his brother’s eyes with his own and kept silent.

“Joe, I told you what happened has nothing to do with Adam’s decision to go away for a few days. And your behavior isn’t making this situation any easier.” Ben’s tolerance was at an end.

“No Pa, leave him alone. If he feels that way, nothing you can say will change it,” Adam said. He looked from his father to his brother. “Maybe you’re right Joe. Maybe it should have been me. And I wish for his sake and yours that it was.”

Ben flinched at his son’s words and reached out to touch him but Adam had backed away and reached for his hat. “I’m going to speak to Roy. I’ll be back, Pa.”

Ben watched as his oldest son disappeared into the darkness. Turning back, he looked at Joe but said nothing. He slowly shook his head and opened the door to Hoss’ room.

*****

Shaken by his brother’s words, Adam stopped for a moment and leaned against the hitching post at the end of Doctor Martin’s walk. The kid had struck home this time. What had started as a silly misunderstanding escalated into something neither he nor Joe was prepared for. Adam’s thoughts turned to Joe’s reaction at the table. It was entirely my own fault. I could have apologized and it would have ended there. But no, he chastised himself; I couldn’t let it go. I bated him with the right words and it worked. He pushed himself away from the post and untied Sport. The horse had put in a long, hard day and Adam had done nothing to help him. He led the tired animal toward the livery.

After feeding and bedding down Sport, Adam walked to the sheriff’s office. The light shinning from the window told him Roy Coffee was still there. The aging sheriff was bent forward over his desk, head resting on folded arms. Adam took a minute to look at the man who had befriended him when he was only a boy. Through the years, Roy had offered sound advice when stubborn pride or circumstance wouldn’t allow him to confide in his father. Now, like his father, the man’s chosen profession was beginning to take its toll.

Adam walked to the desk and reluctantly called the sheriff’s name. “Roy—Roy,” he said softly.

Roy Coffee slowly lifted his head and looked up at Adam. Deep lines shadowed his face. “Adam—I been expecting you.” He ran his hands across his eyes than rose to get some coffee. “Want some?”

“No Roy, thanks.” Adam sat on the edge of the desk and waited while the lawman filled his cup. “You know why I’m here.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yeah Adam, I do. How’s your brother?” he asked.

“I was just there. He seems to be sleeping quietly,” Adam answered. “Doc says he’s holding his own.”

“And yer other brother?” Roy asked. Adam lifted his head. He eyes reflected the weariness he felt.

The sheriff took a sip of the bitter liquid. “When your Pa and Joe rode in, I was at Doc Martin’s office. Joe had a few things to say.”

Adam’s laugh was empty. “Yeah, that’s our Joe.” He got up and walked to the window. Staring out at the night sky he said, “He’s angry and scared Roy. He and Hoss are close.”

You takin’ this on yourself, boy?” The sheriff moved to the window where Adam stood.

Adam looked at the sheriff then turned and stared out the window again. “No. Logically, that wouldn’t make any sense—and I’m nothing if not logical,” he said softly. “Who knows what would have happened if it had been me instead of Hoss in town. Everything could have been different.” Adam hesitated as he continued to look outside. “But I wish…”

After another moment, Adam straightened his shoulders and once more let the mask fall back into place. “I’m assuming you’re going out again in the morning. I’ll be ready to go when you are.”

“You sure, Adam? Thought maybe you’d want to hang around—fer Hoss that is.” The sheriff searched the younger man’s face.

“Pa’ll be here—and Joe.” Adam put on his hat and headed for the door. He stopped and faced the sheriff. “I want these men, Roy.” He opened the door and walked into the night.

*****

When Adam entered the room, Ben was at Hoss’ side once more. Although Hoss seemed to be breathing easier now, his pale face was beaded with sweat. His father’s eyes didn’t open as Adam wrung out a cloth to cool his brother’s fever. Sitting on the side of the bed, Adam continued to tend to Hoss while speaking soft words of encouragement. He was surprised when the clear blue eyes looked into his own.

Adam needed to take a steadying breath before he trusted himself to speak. “Hey, brother. Welcome back.”

“Guess I should be glad I’m still here. Remember being hit and going down but that’s all.” He stopped speaking and closed his eyes against the pain then spoke again, “Mr. Taylor?”

Adam dropped his eyes. “I’m sorry, Hoss.”

“Oh Lord, Adam. He was such a nice little man,” Hoss said. “They shot him before I could do anything.” His voice caught and he closed his eyes once more.

“You had no idea what they were going to do.” Adam smoothed back the baby fine hair from Hoss’ forehead. “Drink some water for me and go back to sleep.”

“Pa,” Hoss called.

“Yes son, I’m right here.” Ben had awakened and stood, taking his son’s hand.

“Where’s Joe?” Hoss said, his voice fading.

“He’ll be back soon. He just went to get some sleep,” Ben said.

“Tell him I’m ok, Pa. Just need to rest a little.” Soft, deep breaths followed.

Ben waited to make sure his sleeping son was comfortable then signaled for Adam to follow him outside. “We’d better tell Paul he was awake,” Ben said.

As Paul entered his patient’s room, Ben and Adam walked out into the night air. “Please go get some sleep, Pa. I’ll stay with Hoss.”

“Maybe—let’s wait and see what Paul has to say.” Ben leaned against the porch railing. Both father and son were silent.

Finally, Ben reached over and placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Son, I know you’re upset by what Joe said. So am I for that matter but I think he’s so afraid for Hoss that he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

Adam gave a small smile and shook his head. “Oh Pa, do you really believe that? Joe’s not a boy anymore. He knows exactly what he’s saying.” Adam walked away from his father’s hand. “But it doesn’t really matter does it? Nothing will change what’s happened.”

“Of course it matters!” The strength had returned to Ben’s voice. “I know my boys love and care about each other.”

“Your boys are men now! You can’t tell them what to feel anymore then you can tell them what to think.” Adam hesitated a moment. “Joe thinks what he thinks and feels what he feels. You can’t make everything all better Pa, not anymore.”

Just as Ben was about to answer, the front door opened. “Paul, my son?”

“Is doing better then I would have expected, Ben,” said Doctor Martin said. “He does have a fever, but I anticipated that.” Paul took a moment to role down his sleeves against the cool night air. “Why don’t you get some sleep, Ben? I’ll stay with him.”

Adam’s deep voice cut through the night air. “No, I’ll stay with him.” Ben was about to object when Adam said, “Please Pa, I want to.”

Ben knew by the tone of Adam’s voice that he needed to be with Hoss right now. “Alright, son. I’ll be back in a few hours. You’ll get me if…?”

“Of course, Pa. Go rest. I’ll watch him.” Adam gave his father a little smile and walked into the house.

*****

The sun wasn’t up yet but its light was just beginning to climb over the horizon. It shown through the thin gray clouds, casting a purple hue into the morning sky. Adam Cartwright had slept in short naps, allowing him to check on his brother periodically through the night. Hoss’ fever rose and fell. Adam kept him plied with water and pain medicine hoping that the sleep he was getting was a healing one.

At last, a narrow beam of light shown through the window next to Adam’s chair. He could feel the warmth on his face before he opened his eyes. He was just aware enough to know he wanted to fall back into the dreamless state from which he was rising, but most of all; he wanted to open his eyes and his brother would be miraculously healed. Or better yet, never hurt.

Adam opened his eyes and squinted against the morning light. Hoss lay on his back, snoring lightly. Beads of perspiration clung to his face and chest. The fever that had been present just a couple of hours ago had broken. At least for now. He rose and stretched his long frame until his muscles stopped complaining. He looked over toward the bed once again and was greeted by the same clear blue eyes.

“Hey, brother,” Hoss said in a voice heavy with sleep. “You sleep in here last night?”

“Yeah well, somebody had to make sure you didn’t do anything dumb.” Adam’s words stood out in stark contrast to his look of deep concern.

“Not much chance of that, big brother. I don’t think I could manage anything outta line even if I wanted to.” Hoss looked around. “How’d you manage to get Pa outta here?”

“He’s been with you every minute. I convinced him it was my turn,” Adam said. He turned away and looked out at the rising sun. “I’m going with Roy. I wanted you to know that.”

“Give me some water, will ya Adam?” After drinking his fill and taking a few deep breaths, Hoss continued. “I figured you might. Can’t say as I’d do any different.”

“I knew you’d understand,” Adam said. “Look, I’m going to get Pa.”

“Wait Adam, just one thing. You ain’t blamin’ yerself for this, are ya?” Hoss asked.

That stopped Adam at the door. He turned around and said, “Part of me wants to, Hoss. If I’d hung around instead of taking off than it would have been me in the street, not you. And maybe me in that bed.” He paused.

“You know that’s crazy, Adam. Anything coulda happened,” his brother answered.

Adam looked at Hoss with a fleeting smile. “My head knows that brother but my heart’s a bit harder to convince. I’ll be back.” Adam shut the door quietly when he left.

*****

Ben had woken up with the dawn. He slipped into Joe’s room and found he was already up and dressed. “Pa?” I thought you were still with Hoss,” he said.

“No, son. Paul felt he was doing better so I thought I’d better get some sleep. Adam stayed with him,” Ben answered.

Joe stared at his father as if he wanted to say something but he remained silent. After a moment he said, “Adam going with Roy?”

“He hasn’t said so Joe but I believe he will. Adam wants these men very badly,” Ben said.

Joe bristled. “Yeah, well, he’s not the only one. I want them too!”

“You just cool off, young man. Whatever is between you and Adam will have to wait. Right now, we need to be concerned for Hoss.” Ben was angry and he was having a hard time controlling it but he softened his tone. “Let’s just go see your brother.”

Ben and Joe were coming up on the porch as Adam opened the front door. “How’s he…,” Ben started.

“He’s doing better I think, Pa. Paul is with him now,” Adam offered. “He knows I’m leaving with Roy. He understands. I hope you do.”

“I do, son, but promise me you’ll be careful.” Ben brushed his son’s back with his hand then opened the door.

Adam looked at Joe but didn’t speak. He started to walk down the steps. Joe spoke up. “I’m going too, Adam. You can’t stop me.”

Adam paused and turned. In a voice that held little feeling he said, “That’s up to the sheriff and your father.” He continued to walk away.

*****

“I’m going too, Pa. Please don’t try to talk me out of it.” Joe had approached his father outside of Hoss’ room. “It’s important to me.”

“Joseph—Adam told me that the three of you were all grown men now and that you had to make your own decisions. So I won’t argue with you. But you need to get it straight in your own mind why you’re going. Are you looking for revenge or is it really justice you’re looking for?” Ben gave his son a chance to respond but Joe was silent. “Just make sure the reason you’re going isn’t because you feel like it’s some kind of competition with your oldest brother.”

Joe began to object then stopped. “I need to say goodbye to Hoss.” Father and son walked into the room together.

“Good morning, son. You’ve got a little more color today,” Ben said.

“Doc said I could have a little broth and it actually sounds pretty good.” Hoss gave a weak smile.

“Hoss, I’m going with the posse,” Joe said. “I didn’t want you to think…”

“I heard you outside the door Joe,” Hoss interrupted him. “Listen to Pa. You need to figure out why yer goin’. You can’t afford to be angry. Angry people make mistakes.” Hoss took a breath then continued. “I know you’re mad at Adam but I got ta tell you Joe, I got no idea why.”

“Bet you didn’t tell Adam the same thing,” Joe said. “What makes you think he ain’t angry?”

“He is Joe but he can put it aside and think clear and that’s what you got to learn to do.” Ben stepped into the conversation, seeing that Hoss was getting tired.

“Please be careful, Joe.” Ben embraced is youngest for a brief moment.

Joe smiled and said, “I promise, Pa. Bye Hoss.” And in a moment, he was gone.

*****

Roy Coffee had some reservations about taking both Cartwright boys along with this posse, knowing they weren’t getting on too well just now. But how could he deny either man a chance to find the men who had shot down their brother. Adam was just as cool and measured as they come. He would have made one hell of gunman if he’d gone down the wrong path. Roy shook his head at the thought. Joe on the other hand was all fire and flare but the kind of man you wanted on your side when all hell broke loose. The boy did not know the meaning of the word fear. Both men were an asset to any posse. Roy just hoped they’d stay out from each other’s way ’til their business was finished.

The posse rode hard. They had gotten a break when they stopped at the way station about thirty or so miles southwest of town. Two men, one older and a younger man about twenty had come in two days ago. Both of their horses were nearly ridden to death. They took supplies and fresh horses at gunpoint and headed due west.

“What do you think, Roy?” Adam asked. He deferred to age and years of experience.

“Well, by the direction they seem to be followin’, I’d say they’re headed right for the Ponderosa,” Roy answered.

“Yeah, I thought so too,” Adam said. “Obviously, they don’t know who they shot or that we’re part of the posse.” He took a moment to look off into the distant hills. “I’d bet they’re headed for the high country, hoping to get lost up there.”

“That’d be my guess,” Roy said. “There sure is a lot of country up there, Adam. No way we’re gonna find them without splitin’ up.”

“I agree. We could meet at a prearranged place in a couple of days. How do you want to split up?” Adam asked.

“Teams are fine. You want to take Joe with you?” Roy waited patiently while Adam blew out a short breath then pursed his lips, thinking through his answer.

“Yeah, I want him with me. You want to tell him or shall I?” Adam was hoping that Roy would volunteer for that task and he must have read Adam’s mind.

“Why don’t you let me talk to him,” Roy said, putting a hand on Adam’s shoulder. The latter just nodded.

“We’ll be splitin’ up in teams of two. Seems like these fellas are headin’ for the high country on the western part of the Ponderosa. That’s a mighty big amount of territory to cover. We know these men are killers so if you find ’em make sure you can take ’em before you start anything. We’ll meet at Pike’s Basin in two days. Anybody got any questions?” the sheriff asked.

Each man went about checking his horse, tack and supplies. They couldn’t afford guns that misfired or horses that threw shoes. They knew the men they hunted had already killed once and would probably have no trouble killing again. Roy walked to where Joe was sitting. “Joe, I’d like you to ride with your brother.” The sheriff held up his hand. “And before you can object, let me just say that you two know this country the best so I’m countin’ on you to cover the most territory.”

Joe wanted to shout out his objection but he remembered Hoss’ words—put the anger away and think. “Alright Roy, if that’s what you think best, I’ll ride with Adam.” The lawman smile at him as he went to check his own gear.

*****

‘We’ve covered a lot of area, Joe. I think we need a short rest,” Adam said as he let Sport come to a stop.

“If you need to,” came the short reply.

“Well I think the horses do and it won’t hurt us either.” Adam dismounted and loosened Sport’s cinch and removed his bridle. The big chestnut wandered to the nearest tree and started scratching his ears and face against the trunk. Sport isn’t the only one feeling itchy Adam thought. I could surely use a bath, preferably one with warm water but the lake will do. Maybe when we stop for the night.

The continuing silence between the two brothers was wearing on Adam. “Ok Joe, enough of this. When will this foolishness end?”

“Well it may be foolish to you but not to me,” Joe shouted. “And it’ll end when you start treating me like a man instead of a boy!”

Adam took a deep breath, trying to hold on to his own temper. “Since when is showing concern for your welfare treating you like a boy?” He softened his voice. “You went down hard, Joe. I was afraid you’d gotten hurt. There wasn’t anymore to it than that.” Joe just stared at him, the defiance still bright in his eyes. “Let me ask you something, Joe. If you’d seen me—no, if you’d seen Hoss go down like that, what would you have done?”

Joe’s look turned from defiance to confusion. “I’d make sure he was ok.”

“Why Joe?” Adam asked. His voice was very quiet, very calm now.

“What’d you mean, why.” Joe’s temper rose again. “Because he’s my brother and I care about him, that’s why!

“Yes Joe, that’s why.” Adam turned from his brother and walked the short distance to the lake.

Joe watched his brother’s receding back. Could it have been as simple as that? He saw his brother go down on his knees to bath his face and hands in the cold, clear water. He started to walk toward him, suddenly wanting to finish the conversation.

But he was stopped abruptly by the sound of a single rifle shot. Joe drew his gun and took cover behind the nearest rocks. Scanning the area, he was unable to tell where the shot had come from. Turning back to the shoreline, he knew Adam would have taken the same defensive position that he had. But what met his eyes was the sight of his brother’s body lying face up, half in, half out of the water. Joe shouted his brother’s name but there was no answer. His first instinct was to run to Adam’s side but that would leave them both vulnerable. He needed to think before he made a move.

“Come out now!” came a shout from behind a group of trees to Joe’s left. Joe remained silent and looked once more at the still form of his brother. Adam lay where he had fallen; his body stretched out with his arms spread wide at his sides. His long legs lay on the rocky beach while the rest of him lay in the cold of the lake. Another shot rang out and Joe saw a spray of water kick up next to Adam’s head. “The next one goes through his skull. You want that?” The voice sounded more impatient and Joe knew he had no choice.

“Leave him alone,” Joe shouted back. “I’m coming out.” Joe walked out from behind his cover, throwing his gun into the dirt as he came. He didn’t stop until he was at Adam’s side. He had no idea how badly his brother was hurt but he did know the cold water was robbing him of precious body heat. He bent down and grabbed Adam’s shirtfront with both hands, pulling him until his whole body was on the dry beach. He dropped to his knees.

Water streamed from Adam’s face and hair. Joe ran his hands gently along the sides of his brother’s head, wiping away the water. He quickly scanned Adam’s body but saw nothing until he pulled back the black vest. A scarlet stain, faded and enlarged by the water, spread across his right side.

Joe pulled Adam’s tan shirt from his pants and uncovered the wound. The bullet had exited just above his right hip and when Joe rolled him over, he saw that his brother had indeed been shot in the back. It took everything Joe had to control his anger. He had nothing to halt the flow of blood from the in and out wound. He put his brother’s shirt and vest back and placed both hands over the ragged wounds. He gently pushed; hoping the pressure would be enough. Adam tried to move away but Joe’s soothing voice reached him and he stopped struggling. He gave a soft cry and opened his eyes.

Adam took a minute to look around then gave Joe a weak smile. “They found us, I take it.”

“Yeah, afraid so. They musta been hidin’ in those trees,” Joe said.

Adam tried to pull away from Joe’s hands again. “You can stop that any time now.” His breathing was labored and he had a hard time pushing out the words.

“Now I could do that but you’d bleed all over the place and you know how you hate a mess.” Joe tried to keep his tone light.

“I hate it when you’re right, Joe,” Adam answered, his smile fading as the pain hit him again. Once more, he tried to roll away from his brother’s hands.

“God Adam, I know I’m hurting you but I don’t know what else to do.” Joe looked closely at his older brother. Adam’s face was pale and drawn tight. Fine beads of sweat mixed with the lake water and ran backward into his hair. His hands clutched at the earth, giving him something to hold on to.

Joe had been so absorbed in helping his brother, he almost forgot the men who had done this to him were still there. “Get away from him,” commanded the older gunman.

Joe’s fury was obvious. “I can’t!” he shouted. “He’ll bleed to death.” He continued holding on to his brother.

A gun touched the side of Joe’s head. “I said, get away from him.”

Adam looked from the gunman to Joe. He could feel the tremor of anger in Joe’s hands. “I’ll be ok. Do as he says,” Adam said. Joe was about to argue but he knew Adam was right. He’d put them both in more danger if he didn’t do as he was told.

Joe stood up. “Now what?” he asked, as he clenched his hands into fists. His anger was calmed for a moment and replaced by surprise when he looked down at his sticky hands. He opened them and realized they were covered with blood. Without asking, he went to the water’s edge and cleansed them in the clear water.

“Now you two boys must be part of that posse that’s been following us. Thought we’d lost you up in these hills.” The killer motioned for Joe to move back where he had been standing. He looked down at Adam. “He somethin’ special to you, boy?”

Joe looked down at Adam who continued to struggle with consciousness. He knew he only had a split second to make the right decision. “He’s just some guy that was on the posse with me, that’s all.”

“The way you was fussin’ over him, thought he was kin to you.” The man hesitated and stared at both of them for a moment. “But now that I think about it, you two don’t look nothin’ alike.” The gunman turned toward the younger man. “Johnny, go bring them two horses over here.”

“Sure, Pa,” the boy responded and went to tack up the Cartwright horses.

Addressing Joe, the gunman said, “Now we don’t really know this country too good. Could sure use some help losin’ that posse.”

Adam remained silent as he fought to control the pain and his senses. So far, Joe had played things just right. He needed to trust him to take care of both of them. A new pain stabbed at his side and he emitted an involuntary moan. He grabbed at his side and curled into a tight ball. Joe started to move toward his brother.

“Hold it right there.” The ominous sound of a gun being cocked stopped him in his tracks.

“Pa, why don’t we just put a bullet in this one and get outta here?” He motioned toward Adam with his gun.

Joe stepped between the killers and his wounded sibling. “Now that wouldn’t be too bright. You already fired once. You do it again and you’ll have the rest of the posse up here.”

The younger man stepped toward Joe. “I’ll show you who’s not too bright!” he shouted. His father put out a hand to stop him.

“The kid’s right. Use yer head,” the older man said. “You fire that thing again and you’ll bring ‘um down on top of us.”

He turned back to Joe. “Now we could still kill your friend there— use a knife, bash his head in with a rock. You get the idea.” The man smirked. “That wouldn’t make no noise.” He waited to see if Joe would react but was met with silence. “Or we could just leave him here while you show us the best way out and away from the posse.”

Joe hesitated only a moment. He knew that even though Adam was hurt, his best chance of staying alive was for Joe to leave him and lead the killers away. “Alright, I’ll go with you,” Joe said. He gestured toward Adam. “Just let me check to see if he’s still bleeding.”

Joe bent down close to his brother’s face. “Adam, listen to me. I’m gonna lead them away. Think you can get to Pike’s Basin? The posse’ll be there tomorrow.” Joe opened his brother’s shirt once again and looked at the ragged holes beneath. “It’s stopped bleeding. I’ll get them to leave Sport behind.”

Adam briefly took his brother’s hand. He knew Joe had made the only decision he could but he was afraid of what might happen to him once the killers no longer needed him. “Please Little Joe, don’t take any chances.”

“I don’t want to leave you, Adam, but I don’t know what else to do.” Joe looked into the eyes of his brother, now dulled with pain. He was rewarded with a reassuring smile. “I’ll take them up over Spanish Pass.” Joe felt Adam squeeze his hand then he let go.

“Ok kid, let’s go.” Both the gunmen had already mounted. “You want your friend left alive then I suggest you mount up.”

Joe got up and mounted quickly. The afternoon sun had dropped lower in the sky. He gave Adam one last look then started the slow climb toward Spanish Pass.

*****

The shadows of evening were lengthening upon the ground when Adam opened his eyes. His first thoughts were of his younger brother. He wanted desperately to go after Joe but he knew he’d never be able to catch them. Not with the amount of blood he’d lost. Joe’s best chance and his, was for him to be at Pike’s Basin when the rest of the posse arrived. Slowly, he turned over and pushed himself to his knees. He sat back on his heels and waited for the world to stop spinning.

Holding his left hand tightly across his body, Adam heaved himself to his feet. Good to his word, Joe had somehow convinced them to leave Sport behind. He stumbled to his horse. Leaning against Sport’s side to rest, Adam looked in the direction of Spanish Pass. Hang on Joe; just hang on, were the words that echoed in his head as he lifted himself into the saddle. He reined his horse in the opposite direction and moved out.

*****

It was late the next day when Roy Coffee surveyed the surrounding hills for the tenth time in the last half-hour. The entire posse waited for Adam and Joe Cartwright. Those two boys are more than capable of taking care of themselves he thought and each other. He shook his head as if to banish the bad feeling he had. The exhausted men and horses took advantage of the break.

The sound of a horse approaching brought everyone to their feet, hands tensed over the tops of their guns. Out of the fading light came a single horseman; slumped over his mount’s neck. They immediately recognized the eldest Cartwright son. Sport halted in front of the sheriff. “Adam!” Roy called.

Adam sat up and looked around as if surprised that he had reached his destination. He looked down and said, “Joe—they have Little Joe.” Suddenly, he could no longer hold himself upright as the work hardened muscles became fluid. They caught him before he hit the ground.

Roy bent close to Adam’s side. He saw that both hands were covered with blood and searched his body for the offending wound. Seeing it, he called for clean clothe and water. “Who’s got Joe?” Roy asked. Adam struggled to get up. “Now you got ta stay down, boy. Tell us, who’s got Joe?”

“The men we’re chasing. They were hiding up at the lake. Shot me. Took Joe.” Adam’s next breath caught in his throat as the pain forced him to stop.

Roy placed a hand on Adam’s forehead and pushed back the dampened hair. “It’s gonna be ok, Adam. We’ll get you back to home then go after Joe.”

“No!” Suddenly, Adam found some hidden strength and held tightly to Roy’s arm. “You don’t understand. Joe went with them to protect me. They wanted to kill me but Joe said he’d lead them out of the high country if they left me alone.” Adam’s voice began to fade. “Go after Joe. They’ll kill him when they don’t need him anymore.” Adam’s grip on the sheriff’s arm loosened and his voice could barely be heard. “Roy, please, go now. Joe…”

Adam’s head came to rest against Roy Coffee’s shoulder.

*****

Ben Cartwright was relieved and thankful when he brought his son home. Hoss was doing remarkably well after what could have been a senseless tragedy. It would take a while but he would be well again. Hop Sing handed Ben the lunch tray. “You take to Mr. Hoss. Make sure he eat all things. Get betta soon.” He retreated into his kitchen amid a torrent of his own language.

Ben smiled as he climbed the stairs. He knew that Hop Sing worried about the boys as much as he did. Balancing the tray on one hand, he quietly entered Hoss’ room. He was met with the familiar broad smile that split his son’s face. Yes, he thought, an open, honest face that never tried to hide what he was thinking or feeling and most of the time carried that same smile.

He couldn’t help but wish his other two sons had been blessed with some of the even temperament of their brother.

Hoss eagerly consumed all that was put before him. “I think Doc Martin and Hop Sing are in cahoots,” Hoss said, a frown covering his face.

Ben smiled from his seat next to the bed. “In cahoots about what, son?” he asked.

“They’re trying to starve me so I don’t have the strength to get up outta this bed,” Hoss groaned. “I could sure use a cookie or two.” He hesitated. “Or maybe a half dozen or so.”

Ben got up from his chair and took the lunch tray. “I’ll make a deal with you, son. You sleep for a while and I’ll make sure you get some cookies when you wake up.” Ben moved toward the door. “Deal?”

“Sounds like the same thing you said when I was little and you wanted me to take a nap,” Hoss grinned at his father.

“Yup—and I’m still using the same bait.” Both men chuckled. “Sleep well, son. Call me if you need me.”

Ben sat heavily in his accustomed red chair in front of the fire. As relieved as he was about Hoss, thoughts of Adam and Joe kept nagging at his mind. He knew he could never completely relax until all of his sons were together under his roof. Adam’s comment had come to his mind more then once— you can’t make everything all better Pa, not anymore. He fell into a light sleep.

Hop Sing’s angry, high-pitched voice and a pounding on the door roused Ben from his short nap. For a moment, the time between asleep and awake overlapped and he wondered if something had happened to Hoss. Hop Sing opened the door to John McComb. “Why you pound on door with sick man upstairs?” McComb stepped aside and let Hop Sing have a clear view of the yard. Ben knew McComb had been with the posse and the expression on the housekeeper’s face told him something was terribly wrong. Ben walked quickly from his seat. “John…?” he started to say but stopped when he looked out and saw his oldest boy tied to the back of his horse.

The color drained from Ben Cartwright’s face, as he stood rooted at the front door. Rousing himself, he ran to Adam’s side. Carefully he cradled his boy’s face in work-scared hands, hoping for a response. Golden brown eyes shown bright with fever under hooded lids. “Pa—make them go after Little Joe. Please…” Adam’s eyes closed and his head dropped into his father’s hands.

Ben shook Adam’s shoulders. “Adam, tell me where Joe is. What’s happened to Joe?” There was a frantic edge to Ben’s voice and both Hop Sing and John McComb looked at each other and stepped forward.

Hop Sing placed a hand on Ben’s arm and said quietly, “Mr. Adam cannot hear you. Let Hop Sing take care of oldest son.”

“Yes Ben, let’s get Adam inside then I’ll tell you what I know,” said McComb. He pulled a knife from his pocket and cut the ropes that bound Adam to his horse. Instantly, the injured man started to slip toward the ground. They caught him as he fell. The three men managed to get his inside and laid him on the settee.

McComb told Ben what he knew. “Sheriff Coffee and the others are headed for Spanish Pass.”

One son upstairs in bed, recovering from two bullet wounds. Now another son is brought home, shot in the back. And who knows the fate of the third. Ben felt as if the world he had known just a short time ago had ceased to exist and he was caught up in a whirlwind over which he had no control. And control was something that rarely slipped from Ben Cartwright’s grasp.

Adam had quickly come around and was struggling to sit up, despite the protests from his father and Hop Sing. He sat with his elbows on his knees and his head resting in his hands. “I just need a little rest, Pa. It’s really not that bad.”

“Son, let us help you upstairs. We’ll get you cleaned up and you can rest until Paul comes.” Ben knew it was not the time to argue with Adam.

Letting out a long, slow breath, Adam nodded. He gratefully accepted his father’s and Hop Sing’s help. The cold and blood loss topped off by a long ride had weakened him more then he thought. He sat heavily on the bed and gave a small cry as his side was jarred. Ben helped him remove his wet, dirt-encrusted clothes then bathed the wounds with warm water. Finally, exhaustion took over and Adam lay down in the warmth of clean sheets and quilts. With eyes half closed, he called to his father. “I’ll get him back, Pa.” His eyes shut and he murmured, “Just need to rest for a minute.”

Ben watched as his son fell into a deep sleep. Brushing a hand over the still damp hair, he said, “Yes son, you rest.”

*****

“Adam, what’s wrong with you? You’re the one I count on to be sensible in this house!” Doctor Martin’s level of frustration was pushed to overflowing as he stared into the uncompromising eyes of his patient. “You’ve been shot! And just because I didn’t have to go digging around to get a bullet out doesn’t mean it’s less dangerous.”

“I heard you the first time, Paul,” Adam said in a quiet voice. He sat on the edge of his bed, splinting his side. “I’ll rest when Joe’s back.”

Finally in exasperation, Paul Martin said, “If you get back!” He looked at Ben for help, but the oldest Cartwright stood quietly in the corner. “I’m going to check on Hoss while I’m here. At least he’s doing what I tell him”

Paul walked quickly from the room.

Ben moved to Adam’s side. “He’s right. You know he is,” Ben said, putting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Is it because you and Joe have been fighting?”

Angry at his father’s inference, Adam pulled away and stood up. “You think I’m going because Joe and I have been having a silly fight?” he shouted.

Adam walked to his dresser and leaned on it with his free hand. All the anger and fear and confusion surrounding his relationship with his younger brother seemed to come together at once. “What about all the years I’ve been just as much a parent to him as you have? I’ve spent more then half my life teaching him and watching out for him and protecting him.” His voice lost its anger as he continued. “Now he’s out there somewhere because he was trying to protect me.” Adam looked at his father and shook his head. “Don’t you see, Pa? It’s just not right.”

“Adam, listen to me. It doesn’t seem right because you have spent Joe’s entire life looking after him. This time, things turned around. But you said it yourself; he’s not a boy anymore. He made the best decision he could, given the circumstances.” Ben stopped for a moment. “You would have done the same, Adam, had things been different.”

“You think I don’t know that!” Adam said. “But I don’t want him sacrificing his life for mine.” Adam reached for his shirt. “I’m going, Pa. You can’t stop me.”

“No son, I’m not going to try and stop you—I am going with you,” Ben said.

“You can’t do that, Pa. Hoss needs you here,” Adam said as he sat down carefully and reached for his boots.

“Hoss needs to eat and sleep. And I need to find my youngest son and make sure my oldest comes back in one piece,” Ben said. And Hop Sing will take good care of him. This isn’t up for debate, Adam. I’m going.” He walked toward the door. “I’ll have Hop Sing get some supplies ready.”

*****

Adam was glad for the moments of silence. He walked to the window and looked out onto the yard below. He saw his father and Paul Martin talking. Actually, it looked as if Paul was doing most of the talking and Ben most of the listening. Occasionally Ben would shake his head. Adam wondered if it was in agreement or frustration.

He hadn’t managed his boots, so with sock-covered feet, Adam padded down the hall to Hoss’ room. He entered quietly, hoping not to disturb his now recovering sibling. He didn’t need to worry. Hoss was wide-awake and sitting up. “I heard all the commotion and wondered when someone was gonna fill me in.” He studied Adam for a moment. “You ain’t lookin’ too good there, older brother. Come on and set down.”

Adam moved to the side of Hoss’ bed and gingerly sat down in the chair his father had been using. “It’s ok, Hoss. I just had a little accident but I’m ok,” he said.

Hoss pulled back Adam’s shirt and saw the bandage that covered him from hip to just below his breastbone. “A little accident, huh? Now how about startin’ from the beginning and telling me the truth.”

Adam sucked in a full breath and told his brother everything.

“They got Joe?” Hoss said, not wanting to believe what he had been told. Suddenly, his disbelief turned to anger. “And I’m stuck in this bed. How am I gonna help him stuck in this bed?” His big fists pounded the mattress on either side of him.

“Easy, Hoss. You aren’t gonna help anybody if you get yourself all riled up,” Adam admonished. “I’m going after him. I just came in to see how you were and tell you I was leaving.”

“Adam, use yer head. How you gonna ride with a hole in yer side?” Hoss tried to sit up further in bed but it was too much, too soon. He lay back in resignation.

“There is no choice here, Hoss. I have to go get him.” Adam stood up.

Hoss held out his hand and Adam took it. “Take care of yourself, brother.” Hoss’ voice cracked. “Bring the boy home, Adam.”

Adam smiled down and nodded.

Adam was walking back to his room when Ben entered the upstairs hall. He waited a minute and watched the slightly bent figure of his oldest as the door slowly closed behind him. With a sigh, he headed toward Hoss’ room. Ben hoped he’d understand why he had to go.

*****

Ben and Adam had ridden as hard as Ben would allow. As much as he wanted to bring Joe home, he refused to sacrifice one son for another. Ben could see the price Adam was paying for his stubborn insistence on coming along but the concerned father knew he’d never hear it voiced.

The sound of sporadic gunfire greeted them as they arrived at Spanish Pass. They could see that a small old cabin, long since abandoned, was the focus of the posse’ attention. They dismounted and took cover behind a cluster of trees. Neither law nor law-breakers knew of their arrival. From their higher vantagepoint, the Cartwrights watched as the sheriff’s men surrounded the cabin on three sides. The back of the house was butted into a small hillside.

Adam sat down with his back resting against a tree. His father continued to study the situation before him. “Pa, if they’re well armed, they can stay in there forever. I’m going in now.”

“Adam, use your head. They’ll cut you down before you get half-way down the hill.” Ben put a restraining hand on his son’s arm.

“They won’t if they’re too busy talking to you. Let them think they can negotiate their way out with their hostage’s father.” Adam stood up, shrugging off Ben’s arm.

“And you’ll be…?” Ben started to say but Adam interrupted him.

“I’ll cut along the back of that ridge and come at them from the back of the cabin. Their attention will be on you.” Ben started to respond but Adam knew what he was going to say. “These men have seen me, Pa. They think I’m just one of the posse. Negotiating with Joe’s father will carry a lot more weight then an older brother who lied to them in the first place.”

Adam started to leave but Ben grasped his arm once more. “Adam—please. I know you want him safe but I want you both safe. Don’t take any chances.”

The hard lines in Adam’s face softened and a warm smile took their place. “I’ll bring us both back, Pa. I promise…” Before Ben could respond, Adam was gone.

Ben moved in diagonal lines from tree to rocks, keeping himself out of the line of fire. When he was close enough, he called Roy Coffee’s name. “Come on in, Ben. We’ll cover you,” the sheriff said. Ben quickly described Adam’s plan. “I don’t like it, Ben. They could cut you down a soon as you show yerself.”

“But that wouldn’t help them get out of there, Roy. They know all you have to do is wait them out. They’ll be ready to talk. Especially when they know I’m Joe’s father.” Ben unbuckled his gun belt and handed it to the skeptical sheriff. “I’ll keep them occupied until Adam gets into place.”

Ben walked into plain view; his hands held high. “You,” he shouted. “You in the cabin. I’m Ben Cartwright. You have my son Joseph in there with you. Let him go and you can walk out.”

Adam made his way carefully to the steep ridge overlooking the back of the cabin. The ground was rocky and he slide easily in the sandy soil. He could just see over the top of the battered roof to where his father stood. There was no door in the back of the house but there was a small window.

Adam continued his decent through the loose earth, frequently landing on his backside as he went. He tried to dart between the scarce trees and boulders to keep himself anchored and hidden. There was a narrow path between the cabin and the hillside. He flattened his body against the rotting boards next to the window. Taking a few minutes to catch his breath, Adam reached inside his shirt and pressed his damaged side. The hand he drew out was stained with fresh blood. Knowing there was nothing he could do to help himself now, he wiped his hand then removed the leather tie from his gun. He squinted through the dust-covered window.

Both gunmen were listening to what the elder Cartwright could offer. Looking around the room, Adam let out a sigh of relief when he saw Joe. Although his younger brother was tied to a chair, it didn’t appear that Joe had been harmed. Without waiting any longer, he pushed his shoulder against the fragile glass and frame of the window. Both gave way. Stepping through the shower of glass, he yelled for the father and son to give up. Neither was inclined to do so. One shot brought down the younger of the two. Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw Joe struggling against his bonds. Knocked off balance, as he fell to the floor, Adam didn’t have time to aim at the outlaw leader.

Looking at Adam, the man smiled as he started to squeeze the trigger. The loud retort of a gun bounced around the little room. The man who killed the bank teller and shot his brother fell dead at Adam’s feet. His father had ended the gunman’s life.

The next thing he knew, Roy Coffee was helping him up. Adam looked over to see his father cutting Joe’s ropes and helping the young man to stand. He watched as his father inspected his brother for any injuries then reach to pull him into a brief embrace. The same look of embarrassment that Joe wore at the corral was back again. Adam dropped his head and looked up at Joe under hooded eyes. A slow smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.

Joe crossed the room, stopping at Adam’s side.

“You alright, Joe?” Adam asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine but I had my doubts if I’d stay that way for awhile. The last thing I expected was for you to come bustin’ through that window.” Joe turned back to his father. “Hoss–is Hoss ok?”

“Yes Joe, he’s doing just fine,” Ben answered. “Bargaining for more cookies when I left. He’ll sure be glad to see you. Adam, are you…?”

Adam waved his father’s concern away. Joe and Ben started for the door.

Joe stopped and turned around. “Adam, I don’t know what to say besides thanks. Thanks for coming back for me and caring enough to see that I was all right. I—well, I’m sorry for everything. I didn’t understand.”

“It’s over, Joe. Let’s just go home.” Adam’s words were short and he seemed tired.

Roy put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “You sure yer all right, Adam?” he asked.

Adam once again splinted his side and said, “Yeah, I’m just a little sore is all. Think I might have torn loose a couple of Paul’s stitches.” He straightened his shoulders and said, “I’ll be fine when I get home and get some sleep.” Roy left, unconvinced that Adam was telling the truth but he needed to see to the rest of the posse and get the bodies wrapped and tied to the horses.

Noticing Adam had not followed them out, Ben said, “Joe, would you bring the horses, please. I’m going back to see what’s holding your brother up.” As he walked back to the shack, it occurred to him that in his relief to see that Joe was uninjured he had not paid much attention to the state of his eldest. Something he was prone to do since Adam stood for little coddling.

Ben had just finished berating himself when he stepped back into the shadows of the cabin. Half in the darkness, he saw his eldest leaning against the shack’s center beam. He was doubled over with his hands holding his knees and his head resting on a heaving chest. “Adam— Adam what is it?”

Adam didn’t answer right away. Finally, he looked up and held out a blood stained hand. “I think I need a little help, Pa,” he said, sinking to his knees. Adam gave in to the encroaching darkness as he came to rest on the cool dirt floor.

*****

He didn’t remember any of the trip home, but Adam did remember Doctor Martin’s none too gentle touch as he restitched the open wound. He also remembered his father and youngest brother hovering over him until the doctor assured them of his complete recovery. He slept and ate and slept some more. For once he let go of his concern for the ranch and allowed himself time to heal.

Adam questioned his father about Hoss at every visit. Neither man had been well enough to see the other. But on the morning of Adam’s third day home, he wasn’t going to wait any longer. He let Hop Sing bring his breakfast and fuss over him for a few minutes. Funny, he thought, how it seemed so natural to let Hop Sing “mother” him but so uncomfortable when anybody else tried. Adam decided he wasn’t up to dwelling on that thought. He lingered until his father and brother came in to say good morning. When they went downstairs for breakfast, he made his escape. With great care, he was able to wash and at least get into a pair of pants. He put on an old, soft red shirt, not bothering to button it.

He walked quietly down the hall to Hoss’ room. He slipped in and shut the door behind him. Hoss was finishing his last flapjack when he heard the door open. “Well now older brother, they wasn’t lying. You did get home in one piece,” Hoss said. “Well, just about one piece.”

“Yeah, a little worse for wear but I’ll survive. You’re looking better then the last time I saw you.” Adam smiled and cocked his head to the side. “Your appetite’s back at least.”

“Not sure it ever left. They darn near starved me to death.” Hoss could see that Adam was looking tired. “Come set down on this bed before you fall down.”

“I’m not sure the bed can take both of us. We were pretty young the last time we both sat on it.” Adam looked doubtful but he sat down on top of the covers, resting his back against the headboard. He answered Hoss’ questions about Spanish Pass. They looked up as the door opened and Joe came bounding in. “Got room for a third?” he asked. Not waiting for an answer he sat heavily on the bottom of the bed.

Both Adam and Hoss groaned from being jostled about. “Are you crazy, boy?” Hoss asked. “Or are you just tryin’ to do in yer elders?”

“You two are I’ old real fast.” Joe grinned. “You’ll be sittin’ on the porch in rockers along with Pa before you know it.”

Ben noticed the door to Hoss’ room was ajar. He stopped for a moment and listened to the good-natured bantering among his boys. Boys, he thought—no not boys. Adam was right; they weren’t boys anymore.

All three looked toward the doorway at the sound of the low rumble they knew was their father’s voice. “Joseph, would you care to repeat that comment about the rocking chair?”

Joe did his best to hide behind his bigger, older brothers. And they, out of instinct or habit or both, shielded him. “Rocking chair? Oh, I was talking about Adam and Hoss, Pa, not you. Why, you’re not ready for a rocking chair.” He edged off the bed and toward the door.

Joe ran from the room as Ben’s hand missed its target. A smile of contentment spread across his face. They were home; they were safe and they were together.

***The End***

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