The Scent of Deception (by DJK)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count: 18,050


 

What was that scent? He had smelled it before; he knew he had, yet he could put no name to it. It was faint and soft and sweetly pungent with a clean trace of the oranges he had sometimes found in the toe of his Christmas stocking. It did not make him think of Christmas though. No, it brought to mind . . . Adam tried to snatch the memory flitting just beyond his consciousness, but it slipped away. He shook his head and set the mail he carried on the credenza so that he could unbuckle his gun belt.

“You back, Adam?”

Adam turned to see his younger brother sitting in Adam’s favorite blue chair with legs stretched out and arms folded behind his head.

“Obviously, little brother,” Adam replied slightly irritated that he could not take his favorite seat.

Little Joe ignored his brother’s tone and asked, “You get the mail?”

“I said I was going to, didn’t I?” Adam picked up the string-tied bundle and walked over to his brother. Letting the correspondence drop into his brother’s lap, he ordered, “You can sort through it; I want to get washed up.”

Adam’s tone rankled Joe, and his reply was a curt, “Fine.” Then he looked up and saw his brother’s retreating back. Indulging a childish impulse, Joe stuck his tongue out at the black shirt. Then he popped the string holding the mail together and began to sort it into piles.

*****

Adam was buttoning the cuffs of his clean shirt when he heard his door open. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Little Joe saunter into the room.

“I thought Pa taught you enough manners that you knew it was polite to knock,” Adam observed acerbically.

Little Joe shrugged and plopped down on Adam’s bed. “Guess not.” He kept his feet on the floor but lowered his back to the bed. Then he held up a letter and studied it. Bringing it down to his nose, he sniffed loudly.

“What’s that?” Adam asked failing to admonish his brother for musing the bedclothes.

“A letter.” Little Joe sat up. “One I thought you might not want to receive in front of Pa.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to receive it in front of Pa?” Adam asked moving across the floor to stand in before Joe.

“Well, seeing as how it’s been drenched in perfume and the writing’s pretty feminine, I thought you might not want Pa asking what little lady you’ve got tucked away in Sacramento.”

“I haven’t got any ladies tucked away in Sacramento or anywhere else for that matter.” Adam’s temper snapped his words, and he reach out to snatch the letter from his brother, but Joe pulled it out of reach.

“Well, she’s definitely female even if she ain’t a lady,” Joe teased and then had the good sense to pull up his feet and roll off the far side of the bed. Keeping the bed between himself and his now angry older brother, Joe tossed the letter toward Adam’s face and darted out the door.

Adam cursed softly and plucked the letter from the bed. Bringing it to his nose, he smelled the scent that had teased his memory earlier. Perfume, yes, it was perfume, her perfume. Memory did not flit at the edge of consciousness this time but washed down at him like a flashflood in a dry river bed. The hand holding the letter trembled with emotion he chose not to acknowledge. He stared at his own name written in her hand, and the paper seemed to burn his fingertips. He dropped the letter onto the bed and remembered. The memory brought both anger and shame and underneath that a burning desire to see her again. Recognizing that desire, he snatched the letter from the bed and began tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces. When a pile of paper shreds were left on the bed clothes, he lifted the bedcover and folded it over the pieces. Carrying the folded cloth, he went down the backstairs, through the kitchen, and out the door. Crossing the yard, he walked into the woods. A steady breeze rustled the branches overhead as he unfolded the his bundle and let the pieces of paper cascade onto the wind and blow away. Then he walked back to the house. Going straight to Joe’s bedroom, he rapped once and entered without waiting for a reply.

“Joe.”

Little Joe turned and swallowed convulsively. “I was just funning, Adam. Didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“You will not mention that letter to Pa or Hoss or anyone else, for that matter. You will not mention it to me. Do you understand me, Joseph?”

Little Joe understood his brother’s tone and the look in his darkened eyes. “Sure, Adam. If that’s what you want.”

“That is the way it shall be!” Adam spun on his heel and strode out of the room.

Little Joe shook his head. He did not think there was a man anywhere who could rattle his unflappable big brother, but apparently there was at least one woman who could.

*****

“Joe Cartwright?”

He turned and smiled deeply as the woman who had called his name came into view. “She’s beautiful! Those eyes; they’re violet.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m Joe Cartwright.” His eyes sparkled.

She moistened her lips and then said, “I’m Katherine Cummings.” She extended her gloved right hand, and Little Joe bowed slightly and lifted it to his lips. He only grazed the material of her glove, but caught the scent of her perfume in his nostrils. She smiled at the gesture. “I have a favor to ask of you.”

“I would grant any favor for such a fair lady.” Joe took pains to make his smile his most charming. “How might I be of service?”

“I asked the man at the hotel how I could get a message to Adam Cartwright, and he pointed you out to me.”

“Adam! Elder brother has been keeping secrets! I’m glad I listened to a few of his lectures on how to treat a lady.” He straightened and gazed into her eyes. “Adam’s my elder brother.” Joe managed to make it sound as if Adam was tottering on the brink of senility. “We live on a ranch outside of town. It would be no trouble for me to drive you out to see him. I could rent a buggy at the livery.” Little Joe’s smile remained undaunted. “A man can accomplish a lot on a long buggy ride.”

Katherine shook her head. “No, no, if you could just tell Adam that I’m staying at the International and that I would like to speak with him, I would be so grateful.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather. . .”

She did not allow him to finish but shook her head again, “No, if you would just give him my message.”

“I most certainly will,” Joe conceded gallantly, “I can only hope that Adam will convince you to come to dinner at our home.” Joe tipped his hat. “Better he brings her to our table than has a private dinner with her.”

“Perhaps,” she murmured as she turned to walk back to the hotel.

Little Joe swung onto Cochise’s back and rode out of town whistling. “Katherine Cummings. Katherine Cummings.” He slowly made a mental list of her various desirable attributes including the intriguing scent of her perfume. Then he suddenly jerked pulling Cochise to a standstill. “The letter,” he said aloud. “She’s the one who wrote the letter Adam demanded I never mention.” He shook his head in amazement and contemplated the fact that a boringly ordinary afternoon was becoming more interesting by the minute.

*****

Joe found Adam doing the books at their father’s desk. Seating himself on its edge, Joe cleared his throat loudly.

“What?” Adam’s reply was sharp-edged and irritated. Whenever Ben made an error in the books that Adam had to correct, Ben’s eldest took his irritation out on his brothers. Even though it was not fair, it was far more prudent than venting his irritation on his father.

“I’ve a message for you, elder brother, but if you’d rather. . . “Joe rose as if to leave.

“What message?” Adam growled gesturing for his brother to stay.

“A Katherine Cummings is staying at the International Hotel and wants to see you,” Joe stated simply and then held his breath waiting for his brother’s reaction.

Adam’s face drained of blood losing all color beneath his tan. “Katherine’s here?”

“Yes, sir, in all her glory. That’s one fine filly, elder brother!”

Adam rose so abruptly that the desk chair slid into the wall with a bang. Little Joe took a startled step backward.

“I could ignore the fact that she is here,” He drew in a slow deep breath as if the air in the room had suddenly become low in oxygen. “She’ll only come out to the ranch. Do I want to introduce her to Pa? Coward! Just go and send her away.”

Little Joe felt the need to break the silence. “She said she wanted to see you,” he reiterated.

“Tell Pa I’ve gone to town if he asks,” Adam snapped and then strode to the credenza. As he buckled on his gun belt, he turned a glare on his younger brother. “You will not mention Katherine!” Before Little Joe could answer, Adam was slamming the door behind him.

Little Joe rolled his eyes and shrugged. Then he decided to see if Hop Sing had baked any cookies that morning.

*****

Adam hated having to ask the desk clerk for her room number, but he had no choice. He took the stairs two at a time and strode down the hall to number 27. He paused and stared at the number for almost a minute before knocking. As the door slowly opened, he saw her for the first time in over seven years. He silently cursed her and then himself as he stepped inside.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Thousands of times,” she said her voice soft and filled with warmth. “Haven’t you wanted to see me?”

He pushed the door closed with more force than needed before he answered with his own question. “Why are you here?”

She lowered her lashes for a few seconds and then opened her eyes wide to gaze into his. “I came to see if you had forgotten. Have you, Adam? Have you forgotten what we meant to each other? Have you forgotten. . .”

“Have you forgotten why I left you? Where is your husband, Katherine?”

She shrugged slowly; the gesture serving more to emphasize her white shoulders and low neckline than to convey any message. “In that mausoleum of a house in Boston, I suppose. I… I left him.” She allowed tears to add sheen to her eyes.

“Are you sure he didn’t kick you out?” Adam could taste the bitterness in the words.

“I could stay no longer; I ran away.”

“Alone?” He spit the question at her.

She took two steps toward him. Standing close enough for him to breath in her scent, she asked, “Does it matter?” She reached up and ran her finger along his jaw line.

Does it? Had it ever?” He caught her wrist and drew her hand away from his face. “Go away, Katherine,” he ordered. “Oh, please go away,” he silently pled.

“Go away? Why, Adam, it’s you who came to me.” Katherine glanced pointedly around the hotel room. “This is my room, darling. Of course I’m quite willing to share.” Her gaze moved to the bed and rested there.

Adam stepped back putting precious inches between them. “I came only to tell you to leave Virginia City. There’s nothing here for you, Katherine. Just go.”

“Where would you have me go, Adam?” She reached out and caught his hand. Smiling she placed her other hand against his chest and felt his heart race. She became more confident and drew his arm around her waist. “Where, my love?”

“To Hades for all I care!” His tone was vehement and his body stiff, yet he did not pull away.

“And will you play the devil for me again?” She stretched on her toes to whisper the words in his ear, her body pressing against his.

“Never!” He pulled her away from him so suddenly that she stumbled. “It ended over seven years ago, Katherine. Nothing’s changed.”

Her lips curved into a mocking smile. “You’re right as always, darling. Nothing’s changed. You still want me, and you always will.” Her next words were a challenge. “I intend to stay here until you accept that.”

“However long you stay, Katherine, this is the last time we will be alone together. Accept that.” He turned his back to her. “I’ve grown up. The boy may have found you irresistible; the man does not.” He went to the door and opened it. Pausing to glance back over his shoulder, he stated calmly, “Goodbye, Katherine.” The door did not slam behind him, but its shutting convinced her of his words.

She moved slowly to lower her body onto the bed. Then her eyes sparkled. “The boy found you irresistible. Ah, yes, the boy. . .”

*****

Adam mounted Sport and began the ride back to the Ponderosa. After leaving the environs of Virginia City, he rode automatically staring down the winding road but viewing an entirely different landscape.

It had been winter when he had first seen her. The earliest snow of the season had fallen blanketing Boston and blurring the harsh outlines of its buildings. The surfaces around him, though slick white, had absorbed not reflected the weak light slipping through the gray clouds. Sounds also had seemed softened: the rattle of wagons and carriages muffled, the calls of humans muted, and the cries of the ever present seabirds less distinct. Only the air had been sharper as he drew it into his lungs.

Adam shivered and pulled the collar of his coat up wishing he had listened to his grandfather and wrapped a woolen scarf around his throat before heading outside. Even after two years he kept forgetting how the damp ocean air seeped cold into a man’s bones. He quickened his pace and walked with determination. It was Sunday and every Sunday afternoon he visited his mother’s grave. Often his grandfather made the pilgrimage with him, but today Abel Stoddard had declared his bones too old and the temperature too low. His Elizabeth would forgive him if he stayed beside the fire. “She’ll forgive you too, boy,” Grandfather had urged. Adam had just smiled and said he needed some fresh air knowing that since it had taken him seventeen years to visit the first time, he would never forgive himself for such a lapse.

He pushed the gate of the cemetery open and walked inside. Only the largest monuments held their shape while the smaller headstones were simply white mounds. He walked the familiar path toward his mother’s grave expecting to see no one when suddenly she had been there. At first, just a sharp, dark relief against a snow-whitened stone caught his eye, and then she turned at the sound of his approach. He could discern the shapeliness of her figure even though it was wrapped in layers of purple wool. It seemed only polite to call a quiet greeting. When she stepped toward him with her acknowledgment, he breathed in sharply. “She’s exquisite!” He smiled and tipped his hat and quite uncharacteristically began a conversation. They had left the cemetery together.

A toss of Sport’s head brought Adam from his reverie. Settling the horse, he felt a flush enter his cheeks. He had not visited his mother’s grave that day but had spent the afternoon in the company of Katherine Cummings. It was a small thing, forgetting to visit his mother, but it was the first of many things Katherine had made him do of which he was still ashamed.

*****

Adam forced himself to make the brush in his hand move vigorously without being harsh. His temper after all should not be directed at the horse. When he heard footsteps behind him he reminded himself it should also not be directed at any of the human occupants of the ranch. The reminder proved futile.

“Hey, Adam, I hope you invited Katherine for dinner. You know Hop Sing sets the best table in the territory.” Little Joe’s voice carried a bright cheerfulness that at this point irritated Adam extremely.

“Katherine is it?”

“That is her name, or are you going to expect me to call her Miss Cummings? Really Adam, I’m seventeen not a little boy.”

Adam started to say, “It’s Mrs. Cummings,” but hesitated and said instead, “In the society that Katherine comes from it would be insultingly familiar for you to address her by her given name.”

“Is that so?” Little Joe raised his eyebrow. “Well, I notice that her given name just rolls off your tongue. Is that because you’ve already been insultingly familiar?” Little Joe was simply throwing his elder brother’s words back in his face and was unprepared for Adam’s response. For only the second time in his life, his brother’s hand cracked across Joe’s cheek.

Joe gasped and stepped back, his hand flying to his face. “What in blazes!”

Adam had enough immediate regret to rein in his temper and drop his hand. Little Joe, on the other hand, let his temper surge and came at his brother with a punch that Adam barely managed to block. Adam had the advantage of size and experience. In a minute he had his younger brother pinned against the barn wall.

“It stops here, Joe.” Little Joe bucked against Adam’s hold, and Adam leaned in harder. “I said it stops.” Little Joe stilled, but his eyes continued to blaze. “Now,” Adam drew in a deep breath and forced out the rest of his words, “I should not have slapped you. I admit that. I apologize.”

“Well, ain’t that grand.” Joe’s tone made it clear that the apology had not been accepted, but the defiant jerk of his head only served to bring Adam’s eyes to the reddened hand print on his brother’s cheek.

“No, no, it’s not.” Adam released his hold and stepped back. “If I could take it back I would, but I can’t, so I’m sorry.”

Little Joe heard a weariness in his brother’s voice and a total absence of the anger that had been there moments before. He brought his hand up to his face and rubbed gently at the soreness. “I didn’t mean nothing by what I said, not really.”

“I know, but, well, I’ve said it already; I’m sorry.’’ Adam ran his hand through his hair. “You should go hold a cool cloth against that cheek.”

“I guess.” Little Joe took a step toward he barn door and then hesitated. He asked softly, “Who is Katherine Cummings, Adam?”

Adam sighed; his guilt required him to answer. “Someone from back East that I wanted to forget.”

“Do you still want to forget her?”

“Yes!”

“Okay.” Little Joe took several more steps toward the door and stopped again. “I, I won’t tell Pa you hit me.”

“You don’t have to cover for me. I don’t want you lying.”

“You’re not the only one in this family who can get around the truth without lying, Brother.”

Adam let out a slow breath and decided to accept his little brother’s pay back for the many times Adam had gotten around the truth to protect the selfsame baby brother. “Go on and get that cool cloth.” He watched his brother walk out of the barn and cursed softly at Katherine Cummings. “I will not play the devil because of you, Katherine, not again, not ever.” Then he sighed. He knew it was only a matter of time before his brother asked more about Katherine, and he held few delusions that she would simply fade away. “Is it time to tell you, Pa? It would be better coming from me. You always said it was better if you heard the worse from us first.” Adam shook his head, and a rueful smile curled his lips. “I was always the one to wait for the last moment before I did.”

*****

He had had three beers instead of one, and his mood was mellow. He sauntered down the wooden sidewalk toward the general store whistling softly. “Hoss should have the supplies all loaded by now,” Little Joe thought with a smile and not a trace of worry. He was confident that his brother would not toss him in a public trough and that any anger his tardiness generated would be doused by the long ride home.

“Well, my!” The exclamation reached Joe’s ears despite the street noise, and he paused to look for the source. Catching sight of Katherine Cummings, he doffed his hat with a sweeping gesture and smiled.

“Miss Cummings! What a pleasure to see you again.”

Katherine Cummings titled her head slightly and lowered her lashes. Her voice was as soft and shimmering as silk. “Why, Joseph Cartwright, I believe the pleasure is mine. I have wanted to thank you for your kindness to me.”

“My kindness?”

“In conveying my message to Adam, I do appreciate your prompt delivery.”

“It was nothing; I assure you.” His mind flashed back to the scene in the barn, but he pushed it from his mind to ask, “Did your business with my brother go well?”

“Our business?” Her chuckle was light and feminine. “Oh, yes, everything was settled quite swiftly. Mostly I wanted to, well, I never said goodbye properly when he left Boston, and one hates to think that a perceived offense might linger.”

“You and Adam were friends in Boston then?”

“He and I saw a great deal of each other for a time.” She allowed a faint blush to rise in her cheeks. “Finding myself in Virginia City, well, I felt it only right.” Her hand made a fluttering gesture and quite casually settled on his arm. “I’m sure I don’t need to explain to a man like yourself; I’m sure you’re quite knowledgeable about such things.” She stressed the word man ever so slightly, and Joe straightened to his tallest.

“Will you be in Virginia City long?”

“For a while. My plans are less than definite.”

“Then you might be able to include a dinner at the Ponderosa in them.”

“I don’t know. The Ponderosa, it’s not very near town, is it?”

Joe could hear the hesitancy in her voice. “No, it is rather a long drive.” Then he felt the pressure of her hand on his arm and added smoothly, “Perhaps dinner here in town would be better. We have several places that set a fine table.”

This time her smile as definitely coquettish. “Are you asking me to dine with you, handsome sir?”

“Most definitely, lovely lady.”

“Well, it would be rude to decline such an offer, now wouldn’t it? And foolish to deny myself such charming company.”

“Very rude and quite foolish.” Joe’s words were warmed by the charm of his smile.

“Then I shall most eagerly accept. Tomorrow perhaps?”

“Tomorrow definitely. Would seven o’clock be suitable?”

“Very suitable.”

Joe found himself walking her to her hotel and kissing her hand as he departed. Resuming his whistling, he headed once more toward the general store, and when he decided that he would not mention his dinner companion at home, he thought it was entirely his own idea.

*****

Adam stared into the flames. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath.

“Adam.” He looked into her eyes and watched the reflected flames from the fire dance in their depths.

“Katherine, We . . .” He felt her finger against his lips as his words died. Her lips came to his, and his arms tightened around her.

When he released her mouth, her hot breath carried her words to his ear. “It is my gift to you, Adam. You accept only what I freely give.”

“But. . .” he began. Then her hands moved, and the answer his body gave was beyond his control.

“Adam. Adam!” His father’s voice broke the memory.

“Yes, Pa.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Is there something you want?”

“Actually there is.” Ben Cartwright’s hands settled on his hips, and his eyes grew serious.

Adam turned to face him. “What?”

“I would like to know what it is that is troubling you, son.”

“Troubling me? Why do you think something is troubling me?”

“Would you like me to list the signs, or will you accept the fact that I learned to read you at least that well decades ago?”

Gesturing his acknowledgement, Adam rose and walked over to the table that held the brandy decanter. “I’ve been thinking, Pa.”

“You have?” Ben’s eyebrow rose expectantly.

“It’s been some time since anyone has made a thorough swing to assess all our holdings. I think now would be a good time for me to do so.” He picked up the decanter.

“Why now, Adam?”

“Things are fairly settled at the moment. My absence for two or even three weeks wouldn’t be a problem.” He poured himself a drink. “Would you like one?”

Shaking his head, Ben closed the distance between himself and his eldest. “I want to know the real reason.”

Adam looked directly at his father. “It needs to be done, Pa.”

“Adam Stoddard!” The demand in Ben’s voice was clear.

Capitulating, Adam replied, “There is someone currently in Virginia City, someone I knew when I was in college, that I prefer not to meet again.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

Adam’s eyes dropped. “Let’s just say that this person never brought out the best in me and leave it at that.”

“Who is this person?”

Adam turned away. “The devil has many names, Pa.” His spine stiffened. He drained the brandy from his glass and set it down with a loud clunk. “I’ll be leaving early in the morning.”

“You expect this person to be gone before you return?”

“I expect so. After all, patience is a virtue, and there is no trace of virtue in the person we’re discussing.” He looked once again at his father.

“You tell me a devil is in town and expect me. . .”

“A private devil only.”

Ben saw the plea for understanding in his son’s eyes. “A man should be allowed some privacy, even some secrets.” He sighed. “Fine. Perhaps we should make a list of things to be checked.” As they turned to walk toward the desk, Ben’s arm slipped across Adam’s shoulders.

*****

“We waiting on Joe or eating without him?” Hoss asked as he hung his hat on the rack beside the door.

“Your younger brother has once again left word that he will be dining in town.” Ben Cartwright’s voice held an edge of irritation.

“Third time already this week if I ain’t mistaken.” Hoss strode across the room to stand beside his father.

“You are not mistaken.”

“I’m figuring it must be a gal.” Hoss saw agreement in his father’s face and continued, “Thing is Little Joe usually has a lot more to say about a gal he’s courting.”

“So he has not mentioned her name to you either?”

“No, and that has me wondering; what with. . .” Hoss’ gaze wandered about the room, and he shifted from one foot to another.

“With what?”

“Well, now, it’s just, well, Harvey was saying. . .see I met up with Harvey when I went into town for the mail, and he said, well, now you know Harvey’s as much a gossip as some of them old biddies at church . . .”

“Hoss!”

Shifting again, Hoss responded to the demand inherent in his father’s tone, “Well, Harvey said that Little Joe’s been squiring one of the hotel’s guests around town.”

“A hotel guest?”

“Yeah, a lady named Cummings. Harvey says she’s been at the hotel near two weeks and Joe’s been hovering the better part of that time. Says she’s a real beauty, a real high-toned kind of lady from back East.”

Hearing an odd emphasis on the word, Ben asked, “A lady?”

“I think Harvey was pointing out that she weren’t a girl, that she was older than Little Joe. He kinda seemed to think Joe was, well… not that she’s. . .well, it’s just that she’s older than Little Joe, and, well, nice, but, well, older and from back East and all. Harvey says Joe’s spending his money pretty free too, but then like I said Harvey’s a gossip so…” As he spoke, Hoss watched the expression on his father’s face darken. “I’m sure there’s nothing to fret over, Pa. Harvey said she seemed like a fine lady, and you know how Joe is about a pretty face.”

“I know exactly how your younger brother is about a pretty face, and I intend to discuss this pretty face with your brother when he returns tonight.”

“Now, Pa, I didn’t mean for you to get all het up and start in on Joe just ‘cause he’s sparking a gal we don’t know.”

“I don’t intend to start in on your brother, Eric. There were several things I had already planned to discuss with him including how his trips to town are interfering with his responsibilities here on the ranch. Now, I simply intend to add finding out more about this young woman to the list.”

“Maybe, well now, just maybe, the thing to do would be to have Joe invite her out to the ranch, so you could meet her.” Hoss ventured even though he had taken note of his father’s use of his given name.

At that point, Hop Sing called out a demand for dinner to begin, and conversation switched to business matters.

*****

Little Joe saw the light shining from the window above his father’s desk as he rode into the yard. He tended to Cochise carefully and slowly and then exited the barn. When he saw the light still shining, he squared his shoulders and strode to the door. Pulling it open with jerk, he walked in.

Ben turned to watch his youngest son divest himself of his hat and gun belt before speaking. “Joseph.”

Little Joe swallowed hard and then answered, “Yes, Pa?” He rubbed his hands on his pants as he turned toward the alcove. “I didn’t think you’d still be up.”

“I am sure you didn’t,” Ben commented before saying firmly, “I would like to speak with you.”

Sliding a smile onto his face, Little Joe took a stab at postponing the inevitable. “Wouldn’t it be better to talk tomorrow, Pa, seeing as how we both need to be up early?”

“No!” Ben pointed to the chair in front of his desk, and Joe crossed the room. He paused to smile at his father once again as he took his seat.

“What do you need to speak to me about, Pa?” Joe asked without voicing his final aside. “As if I didn’t know!”

Ben’s eyebrow lowered into a v as he fixed Joe with a stern glare. “There are several concerns I wish to discuss.”

“Concerns?” His voice had grown sheepish, and Little Joe slid down slightly in the chair.

“You have been shirking your responsibilities, Joseph.”

“Now, Pa, I. . .”

“That was not a question. You have been shirking your responsibilities here on the ranch leaving others to take up your slack.” Joe decided it was better not to speak, and Ben continued, “Partly this is due to your being overtired from constant rides into town and late night returns. You have taken to eating in town as often as you eat here.” Joe opened his mouth but closed it without speaking because what his father said was basically true. “You have made sure that you departed before I arrived home and seem to think an off-handed, second-hand comment about not being here will suffice night after night. Would you like to explain what you are doing in town?”

“I’m not doing anything wrong, Pa,” Little Joe responded with a slight degree of indignation.

Leaning forward, Ben demanded, “Explain to me what you are doing.”

Joe licked his lips and swallowed. “I’m seeing someone.”

“Who?”

“A girl.”

“What girl?”

“You wouldn’t know her.”

Ben expression darkened. “And why haven’t you remedied that?”

The question surprised his son. “Umm, I, umm, well. . .”

“Is there a reason you have not introduced your family to this girl? Why you have not invited her and her family to meet yours.”

“She doesn’t have any family in town.”

“A young girl on her own in Virginia City?”

“Well, she’s not. . .I mean she’s, well, she’s old enough to take care of herself.” Joe’s chin had sunk, and his eyes, though constantly moving, saw mainly the floor.

“I would not view a seventeen-year-old girl as old enough to make her way alone in Virginia City except under the direst of circumstances.”

“She not seventeen; she’s older.”

Ben’s voice held a silkily threatening tone. “How much older?”

“Umm, I’m not sure.” He gave a weak smile. “You don’t go asking a lady her age, Pa.”

Ben leaned back in his chair without his body losing an ounce of its rigidity. “Since she is on her own, I take it she is of age?”

“Yes, well, I suppose so.”

“Does my memory fail me, Joseph, or were there seventeen candles on your last birthday cake?”

Little Joe knew the question was rhetorical and simply gave a nod of his head.

“Then this person you have been shirking your responsibilities for is over four years your senior.” Ben’s tone had turned cutting.

“Now, Pa, it’s not. . .she’s not. . .if I’ve been shirking, it’s not her fault.” Joe’s voice had risen in volume.

“Joseph!”

“I didn’t mean to raise my voice, sir. It’s just, well, you’re not being fair.”

“And I am sure you will consider my next statement even more unfair. Still, you would do well to remember that I am your father and obey me.” Ben stood and glared down at his son. “You will not leave the ranch for any reason without my express permission until I decide otherwise.”

Joe shot to his feet. “Pa! That’s. . .you can’t mean that!”

“I most certainly do. Do not test me on this.”

“But, I. . .” Little Joe read his father’s face and reigned in his anger. “Pa, please, can’t we discuss this. I know I’ve been taking, well, some shortcuts with my work and all and getting in late too often. I promise I’ll change that, but, well, you haven’t even met Katherine, and it’s not right for you to keep me from seeing her just because she’s older than I am.”

“I’ve made my decision.”

“But you’re treating me like a child.” Joe raised his head and stuck out his chin. “What if I. . .”

Ben did not even let him finish. “If you defy me, boy, you will learn several more ways that I can treat you like a child. You are my son, Joseph Frances Cartwright, you live under my roof, and you are not yet of age. You will obey me, Joseph. It would be best if you did so from the first.”

Little Joe spun on his heels. He looked toward the door but stomped to the stairs and mounted them two at time. Ben opened his mouth to shout a reprimand but closed it with a sigh instead.

Hoss heard Joe’s door slam and debated going to his brother but some things Harvey had said that Hoss had not mentioned to his father made him lie down on his bed with his arms behind his head staring at the ceiling and wishing his older brother was there.

*****

Very little was said at breakfast the next morning, and it was not until lunch the next day that the matter was again addressed.

Ben looked at this son’s plate and watched the fork move the food around aimlessly. He raised his eyes to study Little Joe’s face and sighed.

“Joe.”

“Sir?” The tone was listless but held a shading of resentment.

“You will be working with the horses for the army this afternoon?”

“Yes, sir. Their schooling will be finished in plenty of time.”

“Good.” Silence settled once more over the table.

Then Little Joe spoke softly. “Katherine expects me tonight.”

Setting down his fork and picking up his napkin, Ben replied, “I’ll send word to her that you will not be coming.” He looked at his son expecting anger instead Joe spoke in an even softer voice.

“Why do you want to shame me, Pa?”

“Shame you? I have no desire to shame you, son.”

“Sending a hand to tell her I can’t come like I’m some little kid being punished.” Joe’s humiliation was readable on his face.

Ben took in a breath and released it slowly. “Perhaps it would be better for you to write a note explaining that your responsibilities on the ranch prevent you from coming tonight.”

“Or any other night?” Joe’s words were bitter. Then he turned a pleading look on his father. “Why, Pa?”

“She is too old for you.”

“You don’t even know how old she is!” Joe’s anger propelled his chair away from the table. “You don’t tell Adam who he can see.”

“Your brothers are both of age.”

Joe was on his feet. “And when I’m of age?”

“You will be afforded the same privileges as your brothers.”

“But until then you choose my playmates, is that it?”

Ben reigned in his own anger and answered evenly. “If you wish to write a letter to this woman and explain your absence in your own way, you may do so, and I shall see it is delivered.”

“Why thank you, Pa.” The sarcasm dripped from his words as Little Joe slapped his napkin onto the table. His farther watched him mount the stairs. It did not occur to Ben that he might want to read exactly what was written by his son to the mysterious Katherine.

*****

“I missed you last night.” Katherine’s voice was softly chiding. “I do so hate to dine alone.”

Little Joe shifted. “I’m sorry.” Then he smiled pleadingly. “Am I forgiven?”

Bringing her manicured finger to tap against her chin, Katherine gave him an appraising glance. “Are you ready to do penance for your transgression, young sir?”

Giving an imperceptible wince at the word young, Little Joe answered lightly, “Now that would depend on the penance.” He watched her finger tap once again against the milk-white skin.

“Let’s see; what would be appropriate?” Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. Little Joe, who had been stretched out beside the blanket that held their picnic, rose to his knees and set a hand on each side of her waist.

“A kiss or two perhaps?” He pulled her closer and without waiting for her agreement settled his mouth on hers. With his second kiss, she melted into his arms. The end of the third found her lying on her back with Joe hovering above her. She gazed up into his eyes and ran her tongue over her parted lips. When he started to lower his face to hers, she put her finger against his mouth.

“I forgive you.” Her lips curled teasingly. “If you do any more penance, sir, we’ll both have to seek atonement.”

Little Joe uttered a soft moan but pulled away settling into a seated position beside her. Katherine continued to lie watching the clouds above their heads.

“You’re beautiful.” Little Joe uttered the simple compliment as he gazed down at her face. Katherine accepted it without comment. She settled her arms beneath her head and sighed.

“I could stay here forever.”

“Beside the lake or in Virginia City?” Joe asked.

“In this moment,” Katherine replied.

“With me?”

She opened her eyes. “I’ve never cared for being alone. Shall I be alone to night, my Joe?”

Biting his lower lip, he shifted his eyes from her face. “I. . .that’s why I asked you to come out here today, Katherine. I couldn’t come into town last night, and I won’t be able to come tonight either.”

“Why?”

“My. . .” He bit his lip again. “I have family responsibilities, Katherine. Please understand.”

She sat up and fingered the cloth of her skirt. “Oh, I understand, Joe. Most surely I do. It’s just that I so enjoy your company, and I thought you enjoyed mine.”

“I do. Oh, Katherine, I hate the thought of not seeing you, but I just can’t come into town tonight.”

“Tomorrow night?”

Joe’s chin dropped to his chest as his fingers plucked grass from the ground. “No, I. . .”

“I see.” The words snapped, and she turned to look out over the lake.

“Katherine!” Joe reached out, but she eluded his touch.

“You need to understand too, Joe Cartwright. I mean it when I say that I cannot stand to be alone night after night.”

The threat was there in her words, and Joe read it easily. He spoke without realizing, “I can’t be seen in town.”

Turning to face him, Katherine asked, “Why can’t you been seen in town?”

Embarrassment made Joe shift and give a sheepish grin. “It’s just. . .” He shrugged. “It’s just, well, my pa, he, well, he took issue with too many late nights in town.”

“You mean too many late nights with me.”

He reached for her, and this time she allowed his hands to rest on her arms. “No, not really, he doesn’t even know you.”

“But he knows about me or thinks he does. Adam. . .”

“No, it’s not like that. He knows I’ve been seeing someone, and, well, it’s my fault really. I’ve been shirking my responsibilities, and that got his dander up. He’s put his foot down about me eating at home and getting a good night’s rest is all.”

“Oh.”

“Look. I’ll toe the mark for a bit, and he’ll get over it. Then I’ll introduce you to him, and he’ll see. When he knows you, he’ll understand.”

“And how long am I to sit alone waiting?”

He read the challenge in her eyes. “I could come later tomorrow. Not for dinner but later and we could. . .” His cheeks flushed.

She leaned toward him. “Talk in my rooms away from prying eyes.”

“Yes.”

She smiled and leaned toward him. The bargain was sealed with a kiss.

Hoss was too far away to hear any of their conversation, but he saw both the first and the last kiss before he turned Chubby back toward the ranch house.

*****

Hoss watched his little brother eat supper and chewed slowly on both his steak and his thoughts. When Joe excused himself from the table, Hoss quickly offered a game of checkers. Little Joe pled weariness and less than a half-hour later said goodnight. Hoss’ eyes followed Little Joe up the stairs. When Joe disappeared, Hoss felt his father’s eyes on him.

“Has he talked to you?”

“No, no, he ain’t, and I don’t really expect he will, Pa. This ain’t like when he was a little kid fussing with you over what he wanted to do. ‘Sides, well, something like this, about a gal and all, well, he’d be more likely to talk to Adam.”

“Little Joe is far too young to be involved with someone so much older.” Ben’s tone made his statement a matter beyond discussion. “But you may be right that this is something he might discuss most readily with Adam, and perhaps in a few days when your brother returns, Joe will be more ready to be reasonable.”

“Maybe, Pa.” Hoss rose to his feet. “Seeing as how there ain’t gonna be no checkers tonight, I might as well get repairs done on some of that tack that’s been piling up.”

“Hoss, you don’t have to. . .”

“I know, but I think I will. If I get to going, I might be in late, so I’ll say good night.”

“Good night, son.” Ben returned to his reading of the Territorial Enterprise as his son walked out the door.

Hoss returned after the lights in the windows told him his father had retired to his room. He walked through the downstairs and prepared the house for the night. The he settled himself in his own bed. If he had not been awake and listening he would not have heard Little Joe leave.

Maybe I should have told Pa about what I saw,” he chided himself. “Maybe I should just get up and haul his little hinny right home.” Hoss sighed. “Ain’t many things I’d straight-out face-to-face defy Pa over, but if he told me not to see a gal, well. . .” Hoss rolled over and stared into the dark. “Adam will be home in a few days. Even Pa said it would be best for Adam to talk to Joe. I’ll just talk to Adam first.

*****

Adam stared down at the ranch house. “Surely she’s gone. Like I told Pa, patience was not one of her virtues. She might have come …” Adam pushed the remainder of the thought from his mind as he had repeatedly over the weeks he had been gone. He did not think that Katherine would have approached his father with a tale of their lost love, but the thought that she might have still prodded him like a hot poker. “What version of the truth would she have told him?” His chuckle was dry and mirthless. “If she has told him anything, it will mean I have to tell him what I did.” He chuckled again and heard the voice of a schoolmate whose name he had long ago forgotten, “Skeletons, Cartwright my good fellow, when shoved into closets, rattle loudly and pop out at the most inconvenient times.” His heels touched Sports flanks and tugged at the pack horse’s lead. The horses eagerly moved toward home.

“You’re back!” Hoss’ voice carried a degree of pleasure that struck Adam as rather too deep for the circumstances.

“Yeah. The trip went well.” He swung his leg and dismounted. “Things go well here?”

“The ranch is fine. I’ll see to the horses for ya.” Hoss reached for the reins.

Noting his brother’s words and the expression in his eyes, Adam shook his head. “You can do Sagebrush; I’ll see to Sport.”

Hoss was quick to agree. “Okay.” He led the pack horse into the barn.

The brothers worked efficiently and without speaking. When the chore was complete, Adam said, “I guess I better go in and report to Pa.”

“Umm, Pa’s in town. Probably won’t be back until supper.”

Adam paused at the door and looked back at his brother. “Hadn’t you better tell me what the trouble is before then?”

“I did want to talk to ya.”

Adam searched his brother’s face but saw no warning of trouble for himself. He braced for it anyway. “What about?”

“Little Joe.”

Recognizing his own relief, Adam silently cursed himself. “What’s he gotten himself into this time?”

“Well, there’s this gal. . .” Hoss began and watched Adam roll his eyes.

“Who?”

“You wouldn’t know her. She’s new in town and older than little brother. When Pa heard all Joe’s trips to town were to squire her around, well, he put his foot down and told Joe he had to stay on the ranch and see to his responsibilities.”

“I’m surprised I didn’t hear Joe howling!” Adam delivered his comment with a smirk.

“Yeah, well, umm, thing is. . .” Hoss reached up to scratch his neck.

“Joe didn’t. . .”

“Naw, he has more sense than that, but . . .”

“But what?”

“Well, next day he had her out for a picnic.” Hoss scratched his neck again.

“Which Pa didn’t know about?”

“Nobody knows; I just happened to see.”

Adam studied his brother’s face as his hands slid into his armpits. “Just what did you see?”

“A little sparkin’ is all. I was a bit away, and they didn’t hear me.”

“You didn’t talk to Little Joe?” Hoss shook his head. “She’s older. Is that all you know about her?”

“She’s been staying at the International Hotel. She’s real pretty and from back East, least that’s what Harvey said.”

The color slowly left Adam’s face. He forced one more question from his completely dry throat. “What’s her name?”

“Katherine Cummings.” Hoss had been staring at his hands and did not observe the changes in Adam’s face and demeanor. When he did look up, he exclaimed, “Adam? What in tarnation! Adam!” Hoss reached out, but his brother stepped back.

“Anything thing more?” Adam demanded.

“Joe’s been sneaking out the past two nights.” The words were a low mumble, and Hoss jammed his hands into his pockets. “I thought maybe you could talk to Joe.” When Adam did not answer, Hoss added, “I’m afraid, well, if Pa finds out. . .well, Pa sees Joe as a kid. . .”

“He is a kid!” Adam snapped.

“Yeah, but he’s feeling a man about this and . . .I think Pa taking it out on his hide, well, this time I think it would, well, make things worse.”

Worse! Brother, you don’t know how bad things are let alone how much worse they could get.” Adam managed to keep his observation from actually leaving his lips, but Hoss was now watching his elder brother’s face.

“Adam, I told you; now you tell me why you’re looking like I just whupped ya up aside the head with an ax handle.”

“I know Katherine Cummings.” It was a flat statement, but Hoss saw the shadows in his brother’s eyes and recognized them. Shame was something he had seldom seen there, and its presence chilled Hoss to the core. The silence lasted several seconds. Then Adam said, “I’ll deal with it. Just don’t say anything to anyone else.”

“Okay.” Hoss’ agreement was automatic but brought no relief. For his elder brother, fixing things and dealing with them were horses of different colors.

*****

Little Joe slipped into the barn and closed the door behind him. He struck a match and lit the lantern turning the wick as far down as possible. Hanging his dim light on the appropriate hook, he strolled over to Cochise’s stall. “Hey, boy,” he whispered softly and patted the nose that turned toward him. Then he turned to grab his saddle from its stand and stopped breathing. His eyes grew to resemble those of a barn owl as he swallowed hard before uttering a single word, “Adam.”

Adam’s hands moved from his armpits to his hips. “Going for a ride, little brother?”

“Ummm, well, ummm, I . . . I came to check on Cooch.” Little Joe gave a slight shrug and a sheepish smile.

“And he looked like he’d be more comfortable with his saddle on?” Adam’s voice went from silky to sharp. “Since when do you think you can get away with lying to me, kid?”

“I was just going for a ride. You like to ride at night, you know!” Little Joe went from a nervous stammer to weak indignation.

“You were headed into town.” Adam’s glare demanded that Joe acknowledge the fact.

“Well, maybe.” Joe shifted nervously. “But I could just go back upstairs now, I guess.” He took two steps forward before Adam stepped directly into his line of retreat.

“We talk first.”

“Nothing to talk about.” Joe’s attitude had become slightly surly.

“If we have nothing to talk about, I’ll have to have my discussion with Pa.”

“No!” The word shot out of Joe’s mouth. “If you want to talk, I guess we’ll talk.”

Adam motioned for Joe to take a seat on an overturned barrel and leaned his own body back against the half-wall of the nearest stall. Joe complied and dropped his eyes to the straw-covered floor. When Adam did not speak, Joe kicked at a clod of manure and straw and demanded, “What did they tell ya?”

“For one thing, I know Pa forbade you to leave the ranch without his express permission. Two, I know that you’ve been sneaking out. Three, I know why.”

“Well, if you already know everything, what’s there to talk about?” Little Joe raised his head and jutted out his chin.

“A great deal, little brother, including the foolishness of disobeying Pa. You’ve beat the odds up to now, but we both know that even if I cover for you tonight that won’t last much longer.”

“So don’t!” Joe retorted and sprang to his feet. “Pa’s got to learn that I ain’t a little kid anymore!”

“Then stop the tantrum!” Adam straightened and stepped closer to his brother. “You’re seventeen, you’re not of age, and our Pa is still quite capable of whipping you in a fair fight before he takes a belt to your behind.”

Joe surged forward in fury but stopped short. “I wouldn’t fight Pa.”

“At least you haven’t completely lost your senses.” Adam’s tone was one that Joe had heard often, and it popped his anger like a pin in a balloon.

“Pa’s not being fair; he lets you and Hoss pick the gals you court,” Little Joe whined kicking at another clod.

“Katherine Cummings is not a girl; she’s a woman.”

“Well, I’m a man. I do a man’s work, and. . . .”

“I’ve heard this song before, Joe, so spare me. Katherine is . . .”

“Too old for me. I’ve heard that before too, so you can spare me.” Joe started toward the door, but Adam caught his arm.

“She twelve years your senior, buddy; hell, she’s six months older than me.” Adam watched the surprise slap Joe speechless. “She’s beautiful as beautiful as she was years ago in Boston, but time has passed for her as well.”

Joe swallowed his shock and retorted, “I don’t care how old she is; it doesn’t matter. Just because you knew her and got mad at her. . .”

“That has nothing to do with it.”

“Sure.” Joe could be as sarcastic as Adam when he chose to be.

Adam’s next words held his most acerbic tone, “Do you really want to spark a woman old enough to have changed your diaper and wiped your runny nose? One who was pleasing men before you were wearing britches?”

Adam saw the punch coming, dodged it, grabbed his brother’s arm, and pinned the boy against the stall wall. Joe struggled for a minute and then stilled. “Let me go!”

Adam loosened his hold and stepped back. “How far has it gone between you?”

Joe took in a ragged breath before he spit his answer at Adam’s feet. “Katherine’s a lady!”

Adam knew his brother well enough that the words and the look in Joe’s eyes allowed a small tendril of relief to uncurl in his chest. “You won’t believe it if I tell you otherwise, will you, baby brother, not unless I tell you how I knowI’d rather face the devil than do that.” He glared down at Joe and spoke calmly. “Then a gentleman wouldn’t risk sullying her name with clandestine visits in the night. There are folks in Virginia City with both sharp eyes and sharper tongues.”

Joe’s gaze flitted nervously about the barn. “I want to court her in the open, Adam. It’s just Pa; he doesn’t understand.”

“Sneaking out like a kid set on playing a prank is not the way to convince him of your maturity.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“Not about tonight, not if you walk back into the house and go to bed.”

“A man would go to Pa tomorrow and ask him to at least meet Katherine, to allow me to invite her here.” Little Joe spoke to his own conscience as well as to his brother.

“He may allow her to dine here, but there’s a snowball’s chance in Hades that he’ll change his mind about you courting her.”

Joe raised his eyes to his brother’s. “I know. Still, it’s what a man would do.” Joe straightened his shoulders. “I won’t be sneaking behind Pa’s back anymore.”

“Fine.” With that single word, Adam slipped his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “And if I can help it, Katherine will be gone before you can issue that invitation of yours.”

*****

Adam left for town before sunrise. He took a table in the back corner of the hotel dining room, ordered coffee, and sent his message upstairs with one of the maids. Stretching out his legs, he leaned back in his chair and waited. When she walked into the room, every male head turned to look, but then every male always looked when Katherine Cummings entered a room.

“Why, Adam, so good to see you.” Her soft voice floated out to the onlookers, but their attention drifted back to their own concerns as Adam politely rose and seated her.

Adam’s answer was pitched to carry only to her ears. “Sorry I can’t say the same, Katherine.”

“Really.” Her voice was still cheery and clearly audible. She turned from Adam as the server came to the table. “I think only coffee this morning.” The server nodded and left. Katherine dropped her voice to a more conspiratorial level. “This is hardly the place for a private conversation, Adam.”

“I told you we would never be alone again.”

“I would have thought you’d be more concerned than I about listening ears.”

“Some of the gossip about me might as well be true.” His voice remained cool, but the volume was still low.

Katherine glanced around the sparsely occupied room and matched her volume to his. “Have you heard any interesting gossip since your return?”

Before Adam could answer, the server arrived with Katherine’s coffee. They studied each other across the table until she departed.

“I would have thought you’d left boys behind at your age, Katherine.”

She shrugged lightly. “He’s charming, and he adores me.”

“And will be heart-broken when he finds you have left, but I’m sure that his heart will mend quickly.”

A smile played on her lips at Adam’s assured tone. “Did yours?”

Making a dismissive gesture, Adam sipped his coffee. “There is a stage leaving this afternoon. I’ll take your farewells to Little Joe.”

Katherine shook her head. “I enjoy Virginia City.”

“If you need traveling expenses, those can be arranged.”

Her eyebrow rose. “Traveling expenses? Marriage would supply money for many more expenses and an adoring companion as well.”

“Marriage? I seem to remember an impediment to that.”

“He’s had time to divorce me.” Katherine smiled. “I’m sure he has. That is one thing you could say for the old dog; he always did what he said. Besides, he wouldn’t want me to have any rights to his money if he ever gets around to dying.”

“You don’t seriously think that my father would allow Joseph to marry you?”

“Could he prevent it?”

“He can prevent you from having any more money than Joe could make as two-dollar-a-day cowhand.”

“I can be quite charming to old men as well.” She laughed softly, “My husband proved that.”

“My father. . .”

“Would never leave his grandchild destitute.”

“Grandchild?” This time the soft laugh was Adam’s. “There isn’t any way.”

Her smile was cold. “I can see to it there is.”

“My brother would never take my leavings.”

Surprise widened her eyes. “You’d never tell him.”

Adam rose and stared down at her. “If you are still here when the sun sets, I shall.” He saw in her eyes that she believed him and walked away.

Katherine watched his departure, and her finger came up to tap against her chin. “Then I have until sunset,” she thought with a smile.

*****

“Little Joe!” Hearing his name, Joe turned to locate the source. One of the newer hands walked up and handed him a folded sheet of paper with only his name on the outside. Joe recognized Katherine’s handwriting even before the scent of her perfume reached his nostrils. “Thanks, Jake.” He tapped the note against his chin. “Take a break, fellas. In fact, let’s take a real early lunch.” The hands helping Joe at the breaking corrals exchanged surprised looks, a few shrugs, and some smiles. Little Joe was after all the boss’s son.

“Sure, boss. All right! Ain’t gonna argue with that.” The comments floated towards Joe as he walked in the opposite direction from the men. When he was out of sight, he stopped, settled his back against a tree, and broke the seal on the note.

Dearest Joe,

I have to see you today. If you have any feelings for me at all, you will meet me where we picnicked that lovely afternoon. I shall wait for you there with hope in my heart. Come to me, or I shall know that it is farewell forever.

Your Katherine

 

Little Joe read the words four times before he stuffed the note in his pocket. His father and Adam had both been gone when he came down for breakfast even though he had beat Hoss to the table. He had told himself that lunch or even supper would do for speaking to his pa about Katherine.

Well, I’ll go see if Pa is home. If he is, I’ll tell him. If he’s not, well, it’s not sneaking if I leave word for Pa that I’ve gone to talk to Katherine.” The decision made he headed towards the house pushing the thought from his mind that his elder brother might somehow have something to do with Katherine’s demand to see him.

*****

Katherine had dressed carefully for their meeting. She had chosen to look as young, as innocent, and as fragile as an ensemble could make her. She placed herself carefully in the shade of the grove and spread her skirts around her. When she heard his horse, she smiled and then hid her grin behind a lace handkerchief. As Joe walked toward her, she let her eyes fill with tears. When he went to his knees in front of her, she looked at him through dewy lashes and reached out beseechingly.

“I was so afraid you wouldn’t come.” Her voice was soft and liquid. She dropped her head so that her large brimmed hat shadowed her face and then placed her gloved hands in her lap. “He tried to pay me to leave. He thinks I’m. . . .” A sob left her throat. “To think he could believe I’m that kind of woman.”

Joe reached out and gently brought her to him. “Who?” Tried to pay you? Katherine, what are you talking about?”

Katherine controlled her sobs well enough for her next words to be very clear. “Adam tried to pay me to leave Virginia City and never see you again. I knew the moment he said it that I didn’t want to live without you in my life. I knew that I had found the man I wanted. . .” She stressed the word man and then let her voice falter. “That Adam of all people would think I would choose money like a. . . a common. . .” She buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed.

“Adam! He wouldn’t. . . He. . . I’ll. . .” Little Joe’s fury grew, but mindful of Katherine in his arms he fought for control.

“No, no, he’s your brother. I wouldn’t want. . . Oh, Joe what should we do?” She lifted a tear-stained face to his view, and he brought his hands to hold it gently.

“Will you marry me, Katherine Cummings?”

“Will they let us?”

“If you say you will be my wife, the devil himself won’t be able to keep me from marrying you.”

She brought her arms up, settled her hands in his curls, and raised her mouth to his. “Yes,” she whispered.

This time Hoss had not accidently witnessed Joe and Katherine; he had heard his brother telling Hop Sing where he was going and purposely followed. Hoss rode into the grove when he saw that more than schoolboy passion was melding the two together. He had to speak twice before they broke apart.

“Joe! Joe!”

Little Joe loosened his hold on Katherine and looked up to see his brother staring down at them. “Hoss!” There was surprise and sheepishness in the exclamation but more indignation.

“Pardon me, ma’am, but I’ll be speaking with my brother.” Hoss kept his voice as steady as he held his horse.

Joe was on his feet shouting in seconds. “How did? You followed me, didn’t you! Talk, I’ve nothing to say to you, to any of you. If you think, you can stop me. . .”

During Joe’s tirade, Hoss simply dismounted and came to stand directly in front of his brother. “I can put you on that horse conscious or not. I can take you home. I can keep you there until Pa comes.” He reached out, grabbed Little Joe’s shirt, and lifted until Joe’s toes barely touched the ground. “Or we can talk.”

For the first time in his life, Joe looked at his middle brother through the red haze of rage. He struck out, but Hoss had learned how to pin smaller men with quickness, ease, and no damage. Joe found himself being held immobile. He continued to struggle until a wave of embarrassment drenched his anger. “Let me go.”

“Ya ready to talk?”

“Yes.” The word was bitter, and he spat it from his mouth.

“Then I’ll let ya go. Now I’m trusting ya to help the lady into that buggy and not take any foolish notions about trying to race off.” Hoss released his hold.

“Katherine,” Joe said his humiliation keeping his eyes from finding hers.

“I’ll go, Joe. If, well, there is a stage leaving late today. Speak to your family and decide. I’ll be at my hotel until the stage leaves.” She rose and walked to the buggy. Little Joe came to help her. As she took his hand, she whispered softly, “Adam feels I spurned him, Joe. Don’t believe everything he says of me.” He lifted her into the buggy, and seconds later she was driving out of the grove.

Joe turned to glare at his brother. “I’ll never forgive you for shaming me like that.” He walked to Cochise, mounted, and rode toward home.

*****

Adam sipped his beer and waited. He spent the time phrasing and rephrasing the words he would use to tell Joe about Katherine’s departure. Even more difficult, he sought the best way of telling his family about his relationship with Katherine should she fail to leave on the evening stage. “Only the truth and all of it will stop him.” He took a swallow of beer and considered ordering whiskey for his next round. “Oh, yes, a drunken confession would be just the thing. He banged the mug onto the table and appreciated his own sarcasm. He listened to his father’s voice in his head, “You’re the eldest, Adam. You set an example for your brothers and always will, rather you want to do so or not.” “Yes, Pa, I know,” he mumbled even though his father was not present. “Will you understand, Pa? Surely you don’t think I’m like Caesar’s wife, above reproach and pure as the driven snow.” He chuckled drily and without mirth. “No, I don’t suppose you do, but I’d like to allow you and my little brothers to maintain some delusions.”

“Adam Cartwright. Now I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.” Adam looked up to see Harvey Biddle walking toward his table. Harvey called to the bartender and took a seat across from Adam.

“It has been a spell, Harvey. How have things been?”

“Fair, fair to middling. Business at the hotel is good. Some interesting guests too.” Harvey accepted his beer from one of the saloon girls and took a large swig.

“Interesting guests?”

“Like that high-toned Miss Cummings. Not too many fine ladies from back East come out here on their own.” Harvey took a second swig. “But then, well . . .”

“Well what?” Adam could hear the innuendo in Harvey’s voice.

“With Cartwrights for, umm, friends.” Harvey shrugged and took another drink.

Adam bit off a retort and asked calmly, “Has Mrs. Cummings settled her bill?”

“Settled her bill?” Harvey sputtered in surprise. “She told you she was leaving?”

“I was under the impression that she was taking the afternoon stage.”

“Well, she didn’t say anything to anybody at the hotel, and seeing how she had Fred arrange for the livery to rent her a buggy for the day. . .”

“A buggy!” Adam’s posture stiffened.

“Asked him about sending a note out the Ponderosa way too.” Harvey’s lips settled into a smug grin as he watched Adam Cartwright rise.

“You’ll have to excuse me, Harvey.” Adam managed to keep his voice nonchalant.

“Of course, Adam, of course.” Harvey sipped his beer and watched Adam’s departure.

Adam mounted Sport. Mentally he cursed both Katherine and himself. Managing to keep his horse at a walk, he maneuvered through the crowed city streets but sunk in his heels the minute they achieved the open road.

It’s your fault, Cartwright,” he chided himself. Then his father’s voice added to the mental scolding. “Lies of omission are as bad as any other, son, and can cause as much harm.” Adam’s sardonic grin was directed at himself. Lies of omission had always been his deceit of choice. Then Ben Cartwright delivered his final mental order, “It’s your mess, boy; now clean it up!”

*****

The shouting became intelligible as Adam rode into the yard where saddled horses and Cartwrights populated the area in front of the ranch house. He watched Little Joe break free of their father’s hold on his upper arm, back up, and explode with rage.

“You’re my father, but you’re not God! How can you judge her? You don’t even know Katherine.” Joe’s voice was hoarse with fury.

“But I do.” Adam’s statement carried to his family’s ears, and each head turned to see Adam swing down from Sport. Both Joe’s and Ben’s mouths opened to speak, but Adam continued in the same cool yet forceful tone. “Katherine Cummings, Mrs. Horatio Alistair Cummings of the prominent Boston Cummings.” Adam did not see the surprise that came into Hoss’ and Ben’s eyes because his gaze was reading his younger brother. “She told you that she was married.” Adam made it a statement, but Joe replied anyway.

“So she’s a widow.” Joe’s attention was now settled on his older brother. He took a step toward Adam that managed to radiate defiance. “My mama was a widow when Pa married her.”

Before Adam could reply, Ben exclaimed, “I wasn’t seventeen!” Neither son responded to his words, their focus being solely on each other.

“If Katherine is a widow, she doesn’t know it. Her husband was alive and in good health when she left him. She may or may not be divorced.”

“Divorced!” The word burst from Ben like a volcanic eruption.

“You. . .” Joe growled the syllable. “She said you’d lie.” He spat the words at his brother’s feet as his hands curved into fists.

Adam ignored the insult but stopped advancing and kept his eyes on his brother’s hands. “What I say is provable. It will take a few days perhaps, but it is easily proven who is lying.” Joe’s entire body signaled he’s intention, and Adam was able to sidestep his brother’s attack. Hoss and Ben both moved forward as Little Joe turned and advanced toward Adam again. In seconds, Little Joe found himself pinned by his middle brother’s massive arms.

Hoss spoke softly into his little brother’s ear. “We agreed to talk. Now, it’s time to go inside and do just that.” Joe bucked and tried to break Hoss’ hold.

Ben drew in a deep breath and reined in control. “Joseph!”

Little Joe looked at his father and then at Adam. Recognizing his position, he stilled, and Hoss released him. “Damn you all,” he declared before he turned and walked into the house.

“Pa.” The name came from both Adam and Hoss. Though the tone was different, the request was the same.

Ben held onto his self-control. “We’ll talk.” He followed his youngest. Hoss exchanged a look with Adam. Then the two of them walked into the house together.

Little Joe had slammed his body into his brother’s favorite blue chair, crossed his arms, and taken on the posture of a sulky but defiant seven-year-old. His body delivered the message that they could make him stay and hear but they could never make him listen. Ben stood in front of the fireplace as Adam came to stand behind the settee. Hoss moved himself into position beside Little Joe’s chair. Ben surprised his youngest by addressing his eldest.

“You knew this woman in Boston?”

Adam placed both hands on the back of the settee. “Yes.”

“Is she the person we spoke of before you left?”

“Yes,” Adam replied as his fingers tightened their grasp.

Ben paused to review in his mind the statements his son had made in that discussion thus allowing Little Joe time to interject, “She spurned him, Pa. That’s why he hates her. He tried. . .”

Ben swung his attention to his youngest. “You will allow me to finish speaking with your brother.”

“Fine.” Joe’s chin dropped to his chest as he shut out his family.

Ben turned back to Adam. “Shall we do this question by question, or would you rather just tell us what we should know?”

Adam released his hold on the settee and slid his arms across his chest. He glanced over at Little Joe and then turned back toward his father. “You might want to sit down, Pa.”

Ben seated himself on the hearth and then sent his son a look that declared procrastination was no longer acceptable.

“I meet Katherine my last year in college. We didn’t travel in the same social circles. I met her at the cemetery in fact. I knew only what she told me of herself. I spent a great deal of time with her. I allowed her to distract me from my studies. I fought with Grandfather. I. . .” Adam paused in his toneless recital to swallow the bitterness the words brought to his mouth. “I fell in love with her.”

Little Joe’s head snapped up. “But she didn’t love you! That’s why. . .”

“On the contrary, little brother, she told me many times that she loved me. What she failed to tell me was that she was married. She was young; she seemed so innocent; I never even wondered. . .”

“She was a married woman?” Ben’s eyes were burning as he fixed his eldest with a powerful glare.

“She married Horatio Cummings when she was fifteen. He was fifty and quite wealthy; she had been his ward since she was ten.”

“It’s no wonder,” Little Joe leaned forward, and Hoss’ hand settled on his shoulder.

Adam turned toward his brother to deliver the next blow. “No wonder that she took her first lover at seventeen.”

The growl that issued from Joe’s throat was feral, but Hoss managed to keep him in the chair.

“We will hear Adam out.” Ben’s pronouncement filled the room. Little Joe glared at them all but did not speak.

Keeping his eyes on Little Joe, Adam swallowed and continued, “She was practiced at keeping secrets when we met. It was nearly four months before I found out who she really was, that she was married, that she had no intention of leaving her husband, that I was not the first.” Adam took several steps closer to Joe. “I didn’t just listen to gossip, Joe. Katherine admitted it all to me.” Joe struggled against Hoss’ restraint and then went still.

“You broke it off?” Ben’s question demanded an affirmative answer.

Adam schooled his face and answered, “Yes.” “Don’t ask how long that took, Pa.

“Why did she come to Virginia City?” Ben’s voice had grown low and harsh.

“She ran away from her husband. That’s all I know about it except that she said he planned to divorce her.”

“Why did she come here?” Ben repeated.

“She wanted to. . .to renew a our relationship.” Adam straightened to his full height and looked directly into his father’s glare. “I told her that would never happen. I left on my trip. It never occurred to me that she would sink her teeth into Joe.”

Ben decided that the rest of his questions could wait until he was alone with Adam. He turned his attention to his youngest. Little Joe sat slumped in his chair as if something had drawn all the air out of his body. The simple truth was that he had not been able to continue to fight the knowledge that his brother would never stand and outright lie to his family. Ben walked over and stood looking down at his son.

“Do you believe your brother?”

“Yes.”

“You have seen this woman for the last time?”

Little Joe stood. He stared over Ben’s shoulder at Adam. “Did you, did you and she. . .”

“Commit adultery?”Adam finished for him. Joe nodded slowly. “Yes, yes we did.”

Joe twisted away and the dashed up the stairs. Adam turned to his father.

“It won’t matter if he sees her again; like I told Katherine, Joe will never settle for my leavings.” He spun on his heel and strode out of the room.

“Oh, Lord!” Hoss spoke for the first time since entering the house. Ben hoped God viewed the words as a prayer.

*****

Katherine heard the rapping on her door and walked slowly across the room. One of the maids stood in the hallway.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the girl began and then held out a wrapped paper packet. “Mr. Cartwright asked me to deliver this to you.”

Katherine took the packet. “Which Mr. Cartwright?”

“Adam Cartwright, ma’am. Will you be needing anything more?”

“Would you tell Mr. Cartwright I’ll be down in a few minutes?”

“Of course, ma’am.” The maid bobbed a slight curtsey and departed.

Katherine untied the string and pulled back the paper. Setting the money and tickets on the dresser, she smoothed her hair and applied perfume before she went downstairs.

Adam leaned against the banister at the bottom of the stairs. Katherine stopped on the next to the last step.

“The stage tickets can be used tomorrow or any day thereafter.” Adam’s voice was coolly smooth.

“Any day?”

“It really doesn’t matter anymore.”

Her finger tapped the wood of the stair rail. “You told him everything?” Adam only gave a single nod in reply. “And he believed you?”

“He’s my brother, Katherine.”

She shrugged and came down the final two steps. Less than an inch separated them as she tilted her face to his. “I could have had him many times before you returned. Do you know why I didn’t?”

“It certainly wasn’t out of respect for his youthful innocence.”

Her voice was airy and light enough to float. “I love you, Adam; I did, and I do love you.” She rose on her toes to place her lips against his.

Taking a single step back, Adam looked down into her eyes. “You’re exquisite, Katherine, the most exquisite woman I have ever known, but you’re damaged goods. Far too damaged and far too highly priced.”

She broke the gaze that tied them. “I could still. . .”

“Never. “ He caught her chin in his hand and held it tight. “If you try to see Little Joe again, I’ll crush you, Katherine, and I don’t think there is anyone around who will bother to sweep up the pieces.”

*****

He had known that his father would be waiting when he came home. That was the reason he had limited himself to only two drinks though those drinks had been sipped very slowly. He was not even surprised when his father came out to the barn as he unsaddled Sport. Adam patted the horse and turned to face Ben.

“Is there significance to your choice of setting?” Adam asked with a wry grin.

“Perhaps,” Ben answered and paused before saying, “symbolically, of course.”

“Of course.” Adam dropped his eyes to the ground and allowed his right hand to tug his left ear. “Pa, I’m sorry, ashamed and sorry.”

Ben walked closer. “You’re old enough to deny me the answers to my questions.”

Adam raised his eyes. “The truth is bad enough, Pa; I’ll not have you imagining worse.”

“Abel never wrote a word about Katherine to me. I even reread his letters this evening to make sure I hadn’t missed. . .”

“Grandfather didn’t know, well, most of it. He only knew some girl had turned my head. When I found out about her marriage, and, well, the rest of it, I did everything I could to keep that from him. I suppose he thought he could handle the problem and needn’t worry you.”

“I see.” Silence followed Ben’s declaration. Adam pivoted so that his back was to his father before he spoke again.

“Just ask me, Pa.”

“Did you, after you knew she was a married woman, did you. . .”

“No.” Ben knew that his son spoke the truth, but still he was aware that Adam had turned away to hide something.

He closed the space between them and placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. Softly he asked, “But you wanted to?”

Adam’s voice was raspy with emotion. “I still wanted her, even knowing it all, I still wanted her so much I ached.”

His fingers squeezing the shoulder beneath them, Ben ordered gently, “Forgive yourself, Adam Stoddard Cartwright.” Adam’s head turned toward his father. “The Cartwright family tree has no saints, son, none before you were born. . .”

“And most definitely none after.”

Ben heard the tone he desired and smiled. “No, not after either, though sometimes that middle son of mine. . .” he teased.

Adam chuckled. “I could tell you a few stories, Pa.”

“I’m sure you could if you were willing to incriminate yourself.”

Adam shrugged his agreement; then his face grew serious again. “If I had told you or if I had warned Joe. . .I was just too ashamed. . . too. . .”

“Sure I would condemn you?” There was self-condemnation in Ben’s eyes.

“No, no, that’s not the right word. I didn’t want you. . .I didn’t want to lose your respect. I didn’t want Joe to. . . well, this wasn’t exactly a case of me being a shining example.”

Ben placed a hand on each of Adam’s shoulders. “You have been a fine example for both your brothers. If Little Joe becomes a man such as you, I shall go to my reward a proud and contented man.”

“I learned from you, Pa. So have Hoss and Joe.”

“Your brother will need help with the rest of this lesson.”

“Should I talk to him tonight?”

Ben shook his head. “Not tonight.”

*****

Hoss looked down and watched his brother enter the barn. He was not surprised when he saw his father walk across the yard and enter the barn after Adam. He made his decision. Entering Little Joe’s room without knocking, he paused to let his eyes grow accustom to the darkness. Little Joe was stretched out on his bed with his arms behind his head; he was still but not asleep. Hoss closed the door.

“You’re not planning to run off, are ya?”

“No. I’ve got a brother who could track a ghost across a rock barren.”

Hoss strode to the bed and pushed Joe’s feet over, so he could sit. “That the only reason?”

“Like I’ve been told quite a bit lately, I’m not of age. You all made it pretty clear just what that means.” Little Joe’s voice still held a sharp edge.

“You’d rather we didn’t care?” The question hung in the air between them. Hoss waited for a time before he continued, “You’re our little brother, Short Shanks, and Pa’s baby, ain’t no way of getting around that, not if we all live to be more than a hundred.”

“Doesn’t mean you get to treat me like I’m five.”

“No, no, it don’t. It’d be easier if it did.” Hoss shifted and leaned closer to his brother. “If I could’ve done it another way, I would’ve.”

“I said some real mean things.”

“And ya meant ‘em at the time, but that time’s past,” Hoss declared firmly. “Even if it’s true that a piece of you won’t never forgive me for what ya felt.” He accepted the thought and put it aside.

Joe drew his knees up beneath his chin and rested his arms on them. “Adam hadn’t told you, well, about everything. When you came to get me. . . how did you know? You hadn’t even met her.”

“When I told Adam who you were sneaking off to see, when I said her name, he didn’t say nothing about her, but I can read that brother of ours real well, and it was there, it was in those eyes of his.”

“How come I couldn’t see it!” The question snapped with anger. “I knew he knew her, I knew he wouldn’t talk about her, didn’t want Pa or you to know about her letter. How come I couldn’t see there had to be a reason? I just let her. . .I just. . .she made me feel. . .” Joe’s voice broke and faded.

“She used ya, Joe.”

“I know, but I loved her.”

“Some love is like the plants that grow year after year; some’s like the flower that only has a season and dies. The truth should have killed this one.” Hoss waited for a response, but Little Joe simply lowered his chin. “Ya know, little brother, some mighty pretty things hold a poison. A body has to learn which ones.”

Joe stared through the faint light. “He could have just told me, Hoss.” Joe’s gaze dropped again. “He would’ve just told you.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I’m still his little brother.” Hoss grinned. “If I was twice my size, Adam would still see a little brother standing there. Sometimes Adam just takes being eldest brother too much to heart. You know that, Joe. Of course, some of that can be laid at Pa’s feet. Adam’s done heard a durn lot about being a good example.”

“Pa didn’t know either.” There was a spark of anger in Joe’s voice.

“No, Pa just knew enough about the world to know full-grown women aren’t looking for a future with them as ain’t full-grown.”

“And I ain’t!”

Hoss reached out and settled a hand on his brother’s leg. “Joe, there ain’t one moment, one hour, one day when ya go from boy to man. A body stays between hay and grass a good long while, a person’s spirit even longer.” His hand patted Joe’s leg as he spoke. “Could be a man is something ya never get finished with becoming.”

“Pa. . .I cursed him, Hoss.” Joe’s voice had lost its anger and grown very young.

“Things are gonna take some setting to rights.” This time his fingers gave a gentle squeeze. “Have we got things right between us?”

“Yeah.” Hoss rose, but Joe reached out and grabbed his hand. “Adam. . .”

“He and Pa are setting things right out in the barn.”

“In the barn?” Just a touch of smugness lightened the question.

“Yeah, and I’m thinking that will be enough for the both of them tonight. Rest of it might best wait until tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? I wanna ride up and, well, talk to Mama tomorrow.”

“If ya go early, I’ll make sure Pa knows ya didn’t take off.”

“Thanks.” Joe released his brother’s hand. He watched Hoss move toward the door. “I’m gonna learn how to break that hold of yours one day, ya know.”

“Don’t you wish!” Hoss chuckled and ducked the pillow Joe threw.

*****

As Ben started to enter Little Joe’s room, Hoss stepped into the hall with his shirt and pants still unbuttoned. Clearing his throat, he announced, “Pa, um, Little Joe’s not in there.”

“He’s not!”

“Now, Pa, it ain’t like that.”

“Then what is it like?” Ben demanded.

Hoss opened his mouth to answer but paused as Adam entered the hallway. “Pa, Little Joe he wanted to talk things out.” Hoss saw the question forming on his father’s lips and said quickly, “Up at the lake by Mama’s.”

“Oh.” Ben’s anger departed at the thought of Little Joe visiting his mother’s grave.

“He left real early; I don’t think he slept much.”

“He talked to you before he left?”

“We talked last night. He’s not half-cocked no more. He’s not gonna do nothing foolish.”

“He’s not?” Adam’s eyebrow rose with the corner of his lip.

“Nothing anymore foolish than usual.” Hoss smiled. His brother and father had been standing next to each other for a full minute, and he had sensed no strain between them.

“Well, then, I guess we could keep Hop Sing happy and eat a decent breakfast.”

Eyeing both his sons, Ben stated, “I’ll see the both of you at the table when you’ve finished dressing.” The chiding tone in his voice was completely normal. Adam waited until Ben had started down the stairs before he looked at Hoss and rolled his eyes. Hoss rolled his in return and then turned toward his door.

“Hoss, wait a minute. I. . .I want. . .”

Hoss turned back toward his brother. “Last time I thought you were perfect, I was about four; since then you’ve had to settle for pert near.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, and when you use to drag me along into trouble, ya sunk down to pretty good.”

“When I dragged you into trouble? I never had to drag you, little brother; I always got you to come along willingly.”

Hoss grinned. “I guess ya did. You and Joe both could do it anytime ya tried.”

Adam reached out and placed his hand on Hoss’ arm. “It’s not that I thought. . .well, it was never a matter of trust.”

“I know.” Hoss rested his hand over Adam’s. “You gonna ride up to talk to Joe?” Adam nodded. “Then let me get dressed. I’m getting powerful hungry.”

“You know, I’m getting powerful hungry myself.”

*****

Adam made no attempt to conceal his approach but simply rode up, dismounted, tied Sport next to Cochise, and sat down beside his brother.

“I think I would have told her.” The unexpectedness of Adam’s statement turned Joe toward his brother.

“You would have told Mama about Katherine?”

Adam nodded. “After I got her promise to never tell Pa. She did promise not to tell a few times, not many, but a few.”

“What do you think she would have said?”

Adam turned to face his brother; a wry smile coming to his lips. “She would have blistered my ears and then blamed it all on Katherine. Now with you, she would have gone straight to blaming Katherine. Come to think of it, if there are such things as ghosts, Katherine’s got a lot to worry about.” His gaze turned back to Marie’s headstone.

Little Joe’s head dropped, and his fingers plucked at the grass. “She made a fool of me.”

“She made a bigger one of me, and I was older.”

“I told Pa you were lying.”

“I deceived him by omission.”

Little Joe risked a teasing tone. “Well, that ain’t really nothing new.”

Adam’s tone matched his brother’s. “There have been plenty of times you’ve been glad that I did.”

Little Joe shrugged. “Neither of us cares for being in Pa’s bad books.”

“Joe.” Adam’s voice had grown serious. “If I had thought for a moment that Katherine, well, I would have told you, warned you.”

“I’m not a little kid, Adam; you can tell me things you couldn’t when I was.”

“There’s some things I’m never going to tell you willingly, little brother, but fair is fair, so there’s some things I’m not going to expect you to tell me.”

“We didn’t, Adam.”

“I know.”

Little Joe’s voice became a whisper, “I would have.”

Adam swallowed and focused on the blue of the lake. “They’re wrong, you know, when they say after the first time ‘He’s a man now’. You’re no more a man after than you were before; sometimes you’re less.” He cleared his throat and continued, “If there’s no feeling then you might as well be a stallion standing to stud, and if there is, well, the thing is, it’s a joining, and no matter what that joining stays between you.” He forced himself to turn his gaze to Joe’s face. “Pa said there aren’t any saints on our family tree. The Bible says it’s a sin, but then it’s one among many. What I’m telling you, brother, is that it’s not, it never should be a thing done lightly.” Adam turned his eyes quickly to stare again at the lake. “Remember that.”

“Hoss says there are pretty things that have a poison in them.”

“I told her she was damaged goods.”

“Still she didn’t let. . .” Even though there was no one else in miles, Joe’s voice had dropped to a whisper. Adam bit back his answer and simply shrugged. “Do you hate her?”

Adam swung his eyes back to his brother. “That depends on you.”

“Don’t then; I ain’t gonna bother.”

“Good.”

They both watched a bird sail out over the water.

“Hoss said you and Pa talked last night.”

“We did. Things are settled.” Adam tossed a pebble toward the lake.

“If things got settled in the barn does that mean ya took your punishment and got forgiven?” Joe’s tone had lightened.

Adam lips turned up. “Pa was forgiving from the start. Guess the statute of limitations had passed on my transgressions.”

Little Joe bit his lower lip. “There’s no chance that they’ve passed on mine.”

“Like you keep telling us, you’re not a little kid anymore.”

“And like you keep telling me, I’m not of age.”

“If you want me to. . .”

“No, no, I’m too old to have you hold my hand.”

“Yeah.” It was a short acknowledgement but a sincere one. Adam stood. “Guess I better get to work then. Pa wants us home for lunch.”

“Okay. See you at lunch then?”

“Yeah. Hop Sing’s making dumplings.” Adam looked down and gave into temptation. His hand ruffled his brother’s hair before he turned and walked over to Sport. Little Joe just shook his head and tossed the grass in his hand toward the lake.

*****

Ben watched from his desk as Little Joe hung his hat on a peg, set his gun belt on the credenza, and paused to square his shoulders. “Joseph, I would like to speak with you.”

“Yes, Pa.” Joe walked across the room to the chair that had been placed facing his father’s desk. He took his seat as his father walked from behind the desk and came to sit on its edge facing him.

Ben studied his youngest son and found not a trace of the defiance he had feared or the bravado he had come to expect. He set down the pen he still held, placed his hand on his knee, and leaned forward. “You asked this woman to marry you?”

“I loved her, well; I loved who I thought she was. As many times as I said you didn’t know her, it seems I was the one who didn’t really know her at all.” Little Joe’s gaze descended to his hands and settled there.

“And now?”

“She’s nothing to me now.”

“Then, if there is no possibility. . . “

Little Joe’s chin snapped up. “We didn’t, Pa; we never. . .I promise we never. . .”

“I believe you, Joe.” Ben pressed his lips together, and his fingers curled around the edge of the desk. “We shall put her behind us then. Still, there are things we need to discuss, son. You need to realize. . .”

“I realize a lot of things I didn’t yesterday, Pa.”

“But do you understand the realities of the situation?”

“The realities?” Joe’s repeated the words with confusion.

Ben sighed. “Do you know what sometimes causes me the greatest worry when it comes to your future, Joseph?” It was not the question Little Joe had expected, and it drew his eyes to his father’s face. “It is not that you seldom recognize impediments or that you charge forward even when you do; it is the fact that you do so not because you decide to overcome them but because you simply brush them from your mind as inconsequential. Did you think about how you would provide for a wife? Would this woman have been satisfied living on your wages? They are the only money to which you have access.”

“I didn’t. . .I didn’t think about money, not like that. . .I thought we loved each other. Money just…” Joe’s words sputtered, and he shrugged.

“Money is a reality, Joseph. You, boy, have had very little reason to worry over that reality in any meaningful way, but I assure it is one of the realities that must concern a man when he takes a wife. Did you think that if you brought her here already your wife, a fait acompli. . .”

Joe’s voice stopped his father even though it was barely more than a whisper, “You would have turned us away?”

Ben was on his feet and for the first time in days his touch on Joe’s shoulder was warm and gentle. “No, no, never! Joe, this is your home, and I would never turn you or any woman you married away.” Ben’s hand moved to lift Joe’s chin as it had so often when he was a child. “Son, please understand that I want for you a wife that will find a place not just within these walls but within this family.”

“I want that too, Pa; I thought. . .” Little Joe shifted uneasily, “I was thinking like a kid, I guess, but I felt like you all, well, that you were treating me, thinking of me, as a child, and when you saw I was a married man that you’d realize. . .” Joe’s chin dropped to his chest. “Hoss says no one thing makes you a man.”

“Your brother is right.”

“I didn’t act like a man.” Joe chewed on his lower lip and took a long, slow breath. “I can’t even say I defied you. I didn’t stand up to you like a man; I snuck around like a kid. I disobeyed you.” He paused, stood, and wiped his hands on his pants. “I disobeyed you, and I know what you said the consequences would be if I did.” His hands rubbed against his pants again. “I’m not as much of a man as I thought and you’re my pa and I accept that I earned, well, whatever you decide.”

Rubbing his chin, Ben spoke in a low and even tone. “I have decided I need to deal with the man in you, son, instead of the child. In some ways that may be less painful, but in others it may be more. I expect better of my sons than deceit.”

“I’m sorry, Pa.”

“And I forgive you.” He squeezed Joe’s arm and said, “That is the easy part.” Moving away from his son, Ben Cartwright seated himself behind the massive desk. “Joseph, we have discussed deceit and trust before.”

“I know we have, and I know, well, I’ll have to prove myself to you, prove that I’ve learned, that I’ve grown up, well, at least that I won’t,” Joe’s voice broke. He swallowed and looked at his father, “I know there’s things I won’t be allowed, and now you’ll check to make sure I don’t. I understand, and I’ll try hard, Pa; that’s all I can promise.”

“That’s all I ask.” Ben smiled, and Joe managed to return a shy smile of his own. “You’ve some making up to do around here when it comes to your work responsibilities. I expect to see extra effort in those areas.”

Joe tried a slightly lighter tone. “All the barn chores are mine for a while, I suppose.”

“Along with your other responsibilities.”

“I guess I better get to it then.”

“After lunch will be soon enough.” Ben pulled the open ledger toward him. “Your brothers will be here for lunch.” The question beneath the statement was clear.

“I’ve talked to Hoss and to Adam, Pa. We. . . I know that they, well, they’re my big brothers.”

Something deep inside Ben relaxed. “And always will be,” he teased.

“Yeah, “Joe agreed with a giggle. “I’ll make sure Hop Sing knows it’ll be the whole family for lunch.” Joe turned and started toward the kitchen but stopped after a few steps. His voice was soft and boyish when he asked, “Pa, you ain’t, I mean. . .you’re not, well, ashamed of Adam, are you? ‘Cause. . . Pa, he just. . .”

“I am not ashamed of any of my sons. I may at times be disappointed in their behavior as I have often been in my own, but none of you has ever made me truly ashamed.” The rich warmth of Ben’s voice seemed to wrap around his son. Joe turned to look at his father but did not speak. “Joe, I have been proud many more times than I have been disappointed.”

“So have we, Pa. Lots and lots more.”

A bang from the kitchen startled them both, and the sound of irate Chinese shouting set them both chuckling before Joe went to deliver his message and satisfy his curiosity.

*****

Ben turned from the credenza and scanned the room. “Where’s your brother?”

Looking up from the ledgers, Adam replied, “He went upstairs to bed earlier.”

“He was plum tuckered out, Pa,” Hoss interjected.

“I see.” Ben glanced up the stairs and walked toward them. As he passed his middle son, Hoss’ touch caused him to pause.

“He ain’t done nothing but work for a good while. He’s wearing out.” Hoss’ voice was a whisper. He glanced toward the desk where Adam was once again working on the books. Lowering his volume even further, he added, “Adam too.”

After a few seconds, Ben nodded and changed direction walking over to the table that held the liquor decanters. “I think I’ll have a brandy. Would either of you like something?”

“No, Pa,” Hoss replied as he stood. “I think I’ll head to bed myself.” He walked to the bottom step and paused to say goodnight to both his father and brother before ascending.

Ben repeated his inquiry, “A brandy, Adam?”

“No. I want to finish the books.”

“Tomorrow will be soon enough.” Ben walked over to the desk with a glass in each hand. “Adam, do you intend to punish yourself as long as I punish Little Joe.”

Adam took the brandy. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?” Ben’s only response was a raised eyebrow, so Adam shrugged. “How much longer will Joe’s day be filled with extra chores?”

“His work responsibilities go back to normal tomorrow.”

“And the rest of his punishment?”

“He will not be leaving the ranch for a while yet.” Ben sipped his brandy slowly. Adam raised his own eyebrow. “Until after next week,” Ben conceded.

Adam sipped his own drink. “And the checking on his every move?”

“Is not a punishment. The rigor with which I supervise your brother will decrease as I feel appropriate.”

“Of course,” Adam acquiesced. Changing the subject, he asked, “Did you get the mail while you were in town?”

“Before the meeting.” Ben gestured toward the credenza. “It’s over there.” He finished his brandy with a single swallow. “I think I shall join your brothers in retiring for the night. How about you?”

“I’ll sort through the mail first. I want to see if there’s anything from Peters about that lumber contract.”

“The lumber contract will wait until tomorrow.”

“I know. I’ll just sort the mail and check to see if anything’s there.”

“See that that is all. If you’re truly not sleepy, try reading something.” Ben knew how long it had been since Adam had read anything for pleasure.

Adam gave Ben a wry smile. “Sure, Pa. Good night.”

“Good night, son.”

Adam retrieved the mail, sat down behind the desk again, and began sorting the letters into stacks. He stopped when he came to a fat packet labeled with only his name. Immediately recognizing the handwriting, he stared at it for a full minute before draining the brandy glass he had set aside earlier. Taking a deep breath that brought the scent of her perfume to his nostrils, he broke the seal and drew out a stack of bills and a folded piece of paper.

Adam,

Using the tickets was a necessity, and, after all, it was your desire that I leave. As to the money, well, let us just say that I did not earn it. The past is the past.

Katherine

PS Some of the memories that remain are still sweet.

The paper fell to the desk. “Sweet memories, Katherine?” Adam rose and strode across the room to pour another brandy. He brought the liquor to his lips and swallowed its warmth in deep gulps. He turned and walked across the room and out the door. Standing on the porch, he felt the night air cool his cheeks. He leaned against the wooden support and closed his eyes, as the chill seeped into his muscles,

Nights in Boston could be chilling even in June, and he tugged his suit coat closed as he leaned against the lamppost. He studied the house across the street catching glimpses of the interior through the lighted windows. She was in there, she and her husband. He had seen the husband earlier when he returned to the house. The man had never wronged him, but the sight of Horatio Cummings had filled him with a bitter hatred. Was it because Cummings had wronged Katherine by taking her innocence? A pigeon cooed, and he shrugged deeper into his jacket. No, Cummings had not wronged him; he had wronged Cummings, and he wanted to worsen that wrong. He straightened and crossed the road barely avoiding being struck by a carriage. Walking up to the door, he lifted the large brass knocker and let it fall. When the butler opened the door, he asked to speak with Mrs. Cummings.

“Adam, what. . .how could you come here?”

“I know what I said, but. . .” He reached out then let his hands fall back before he touched her. “Divorces are possible.”

“Divorce!”

“When you are free, we could marry and go home. Pa would welcome us, and . . . There are thousands of miles between here and there, Katherine. People need only know what we tell them.”

“You would lie for me. After your tirade about honesty, my upright Adam Cartwright, you would take me to your ever-so-honorable father and lie.”

“We needn’t lie. There won’t be an inquisition. There are simply things we shall not tell.”

A cold and cutting laugh rose from her lips. “You think Horatio would release me quietly. Your grandfather would read all the sordid details, I’m sure. He might well feel the need to inform your father.”

“I can. . .I can make Grandfather understand, and Pa. . . it won’t be easy, but. . .”

“He will forgive you?”

“Yes.”

“And allow us to live on that ranch of yours.” Katherine’s eyes were as cold as her voice. “Horatio would never allow me to leave with more than the clothes on my back. Do you expect me to give all this up for a ranch in the wilderness?” Her hand swept around her gesturing toward the furnishings in the lavish drawing room where they stood.

He had known then that she would give up nothing for him even though he would have given up so much of true value for her.

A night bird called, and the breeze sent a shudder down his spine. He turned and walked inside. When he reached the desk, he took her note, crumpled it, and tossed it into a waste basket. Picking up the money, he turned, went to his heels, and unlocked the safe. Setting the stack of bills inside, he closed the door firmly and twirled the dial. “At least there is truth in one thing you said, Katherine. The past is the past.” He banked the fire, put out the lights, and mounted the stairs. Instead of reading, he lay in bed and planned a hunting trip for himself and his brothers. A hunting trip, after all, did not require anyone to leave the Ponderosa.

***The End***

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