A Choice to Make (by DebbieB)

Summary:  Ben is away, and Adam is planning for his wedding to the beautiful Rachel Stanrick.  Joe knows something about the lovely lady that would break his brother’s heart, but he’s afraid to tell Adam.  Not quite fifteen, Joe is hard pressed to know how to deal with the situation, especially since he’s been made a party to deception.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count
:  18, 100 words

A Choice to Make Series:

A Choice to Make
Love at Its Best


Joe Cartwright followed his father slowly through the door and out into the yard, stopping at the end of the boarded porch to watch as Ben tied his bedroll to the back of the saddle. His expression was one of dismay, for the young teen hated it each and every time that his father was called away from home to tend to business elsewhere. Joe watched his two older brothers as they talked softly with their father and Joe knew without having to ask that Ben Cartwright was issuing certain orders to each of them.

Adam, who was twenty-seven, would be in charge, he always was thought Joe, and Hoss, six years Adam’s junior would be second in command. Joe knew too, that both Adam and Hoss would be instructed on their daily chores as well and without even thinking about it, Joe knew that his brothers would do their best and see to it that he was made to do no less.

Joe watched silently as Ben shook Hoss’ hand and then Adam’s. When Ben glanced up, searching for his youngest son, his brown eyes met the hazel eyes that he knew had been watching him. Ben smiled and motioned for Joe to come closer. Reluctantly, Joe did as ordered and slowly crossed the yard. This was the moment that he had always hated, saying goodbye to his father, for within the deepest chamber of his heart he held a secret fear that his father would one day go away and never return to him. Joe’s heart pounded and he feared that his father might be able to hear how hard the member beat within his breast.

“Joseph,” Ben smiled, “I expect you to stay out of trouble while I’m gone,” Ben said, his dark eyes twinkling.

He had not missed the sad countenance that Joe wore on his face, or how, when he had placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, Joe’s body had been trembling, nor did he miss the tears that threatened to fill the worried eyes.

“Yessir,” Joe muttered softly, unable to meet his father’s probing eyes.

“I know you will, son,” Ben said encouragingly. “You mind your brothers now, understand?”

Joe pinched his lips together and when Ben lifted his son’s chin upward so that he could see into the boy’s face, Joe had no other recourse but to nod his head in acceptance.

“I will, I promise, Pa,” Joe forced a smile.

“Good boy. Now, I won’t be gone more than three, four weeks at the most and…”

“That long!” Joe said, his voice rising slightly. “I thought you were only going to be gone a week or two at the most, not a whole month…Pa!”

Ben glanced worriedly at his two older sons and then back down at the near fifteen-year old.

“I explained that to you yesterday, Joseph. I told you that…”

“Fine…stay a month then…I’ll be just great without you…you’ll see!”

Joe knew he was on the verge of tears and wanted desperately to get away before the tears began to fill his eyes. He turned as if to walk away but was stopped by his father’s hand pressing onto his shoulder.

“Joseph…”

Joe turned suddenly and fell against his father’s chest, wrapping his arms tightly about Ben’s body.

“You will come back, won’t you, Pa? Promise me, you’ll come back.”

Try though he might, Joe could do nothing to stop the tears. Ben had entwined his distraught son within the folds of his arms, stunned at the childish behavior. His eyes met Adam’s and Ben nodded for Adam and Hoss to leave him alone with their brother. Taking the hint, Adam nudged Hoss and motioned for his middle brother to follow him into the barn. Hoss shrugged his shoulders, but did as instructed, giving Joe’s back a gentle pat as he passed.

Ben carefully pulled Joe back and using his hand, cupped Joe’s quivering chin and tilted the boy’s head up.

“Would you mind explaining to me what all of this is about?” Ben asked with concern.

He had known that Joe had not wanted him to go on this particular trip. Joe had even tried to talk his father into letting Adam go in his place but regardless of how many times that Ben had explained to his youngest son, the reasons why he had to attend to this piece of business, Joe had still seemed to turn a deaf ear to all reasoning. Even after explaining that Adam could not go because he was needed here to see after certain things pertaining to his approaching marriage, Joe had refused to listen to any excuses.

“Joseph? Please, son…I don’t want to leave you like this. I promise, I’ll be back…don’t I always come back?” Ben said gently.

Joe pulled free of the hand that cupped his chin and nodded his head.

“Yessir, but I…I…I just don’t want you to go…that’s all.”

Joe glanced up, seeing the compassion in his father’s eyes that gave him courage to voice aloud his fear. He glanced around to be sure he and his father were alone.

“Pa…I’m…I’m…afraid that…”

“Afraid?” Ben was surprised. “Of what, Joe? That something might happen to me and that you’ll be all alone?”

Ben watched the quivering chin as Joe nodded his head in agreement. His heart melted as he pulled Joe into an embrace.

“Oh Joseph,” muttered Ben. “I promise, I’ll come home. The only thing that would ever keep me away or separated from you would be if something terrible were to happen, and son…” Ben pulled back just slightly and looked down at Joe, “anything is possible. Something might happen, not that I’m planning on it happening, but things do happen, son, you know that as well as I do. But you also know that I would never leave you, not willingly, not on purpose, don’t you?”

“I know, Pa,” Joe murmured.

“Then you also know that if the worst were to happen, you would still have your brothers. They would always be here for you, to take care of you and to…love you. And Joe, Adam’s getting married in a couple of months, he’ll have Rachel and…”

Joe pulled back wiping the sleeve of his shirt across the front of his face to dry the dampness where his tears had run. How could he tell his father that he hated Adam’s intended bride without sounding more childish than he already was?

“I’m sorry, Pa…I know all of that, but it wouldn’t be the same…not without you.”

“No, it wouldn’t Joseph, but you would never be alone. Please, son, don’t worry about me…I don’t like having to go away, knowing that you’re upset. I realize that you’ve never liked it when I’ve had to be away, but sometimes, there’s no other way, I have no other choice but to go. Now, won’t you give me a smile?” smiled Ben hopefully.

It weighed heavy on his heart, seeing his youngest son so upset.

“I know you don’t Pa, and I’m sorry for being such a baby…but…I always miss you, when you’re gone,” Joe stammered.

“And I miss you, sweetheart,” Ben agreed.

Joe smiled then, knowing that it was useless, his father was leaving. There was no way that he could talk Ben out of it, and there was no time left to tell his father what he was really afraid of…and it wasn’t just his leaving…it was…

“Ya best get going, Pa,” Joe smiled brightly. “Be careful and take care of your self,” he added.

Ben placed his hand down on Joe’s shoulder and squeezed gently.

“Don’t you worry, I will, and if I can wrap things up sooner, I’ll come straight home.”

“Promise?” Joe asked, pleased with the idea.

“It’s a promise,” Ben whispered and then swung himself into the saddle.

Adam and Hoss appeared at the barn door and moved over to stand next to Joe.

“Take care, Pa,” Adam called.

“See ya in about a month, Pa,” Hoss said, tossing his large beefy hand into the air to wave as Ben turned Buck around.

“You boys take care of one another, be safe, and God bless,” Ben shouted as he nudged his horse into a trot.

As Ben rounded the corner of the barn, he cast his eyes over his shoulders. Joe was still standing in the same spot, but the boy smiled and waved, relieving Ben of some of the uneasiness he felt at leaving his youngest son. Oh, he knew that Adam and Hoss would care for their youngest brother and would protect him with their own lives if need be, but for some unknown reason, Joe was more upset at his leaving this time, than the times before. Ben could only wonder at the reasons for his youngest son’s insecurities.

The following days were long ones for the youngest Cartwright. He could do nothing to keep the fear at bay, he missed his father and his brothers, always so busy during this time of year, seemed to have forgotten all about him. Joe was lonesome, Hoss was spending more and more time down at the corrals, and Adam…and Adam, thought Joe. His oldest brother was seldom home in the evenings his time was spent in the company of the young woman who had stolen his brother’s heart, Miss Rachel Stanrick.

As Joe lay upon his bed, he wondered what his brother had ever seen in the woman to begin with. Rachel was snooty and stuck-up, always giving him dirty looks when she was sure that Adam or Hoss was not watching. She made no secret at letting him know that she did not like him any better than what the youngest Cartwright liked her.

Joe had just closed his eyes when the sound of a female voice woke him. He hurried to the window, glancing down into the yard below and seeing Rachel being helped from the buggy by his oldest brother Joe let out a low groan. He had barely been paying attention to Adam when his brother had announced that Rachel would be joining them for supper.

Joe hadn’t been pleased with the idea. He had even tried to conjure up several excuses to avoid having to dine with the woman, but they had all fallen on deaf ears. Adam would hear nothing of his excuses and had insisted that he be made to join them. His brother had even warned Joe of certain consequences should he not be on his best behavior. Joe sighed and turned from the window to get ready to meet Adam’s intended.

His brothers and Rachel were already seated at the table by the time Joe joined them. He cast anxious eyes at both Adam and Hoss and then at the young woman who sat across from him.

“Good evening, Little Joe,” Rachel smiled. “What kept you, we’ve been waiting for you for a good five minutes?” she said with a sweetness that Joe considered sugar coated.

“She’s right Joe, I asked you to be on time,” Adam said with an angry tone that only Joe and perhaps Hoss might have been aware of.

Joe looked up at his brother and noted the displeased expression on his face.

“I had to finish cleaning up, you didn’t want me to join you smelling like a horse, did you?” Joe responded with a look of his own.

“Ah…Joe, ya ain’t even been on your horse today,” laughed Hoss, totally unaware of the under current of tension between his two siblings.

Before Joe or Adam could make a comeback, Hop Sing entered carrying a platter full of food and set it down on the table, smiling at Rachel.

“Hop Sing fix plenty for young Missy. You eat up now,” he ordered gently.

Rachel smiled sweetly at the little Chinaman. “Why thank you, Hop Sing, I’m sure it will be delicious.”

Hop Sing bowed graciously and scurried back to his kitchen. Joe watched how Rachel turned up her nose slightly when she thought that no one was looking. It disgusted him, Hop Sing was like a second mother to him and it irked him for the woman to be so rude, even if unsuspectingly so.

Joe reached across the table with his fork beginning to stab at a slice of the baked ham but stopped short when Adam slapped at his hand. Joe turned stunned, dark angry eyes at his brother.

“Why’d ya hit me?” he growled.

“Ladies first, young man,” snapped Adam as he picked up the platter and passed it to Rachel who was scrutinizing the youngest Cartwright from beneath lowered lashes.

Joe jerked back his hand and sat sullenly while the platter was passed around the table. When it was his turn he quickly snatched a portion of the meat and placed it on his plate. Without saying another word, Joe waited, always being the last to be served, and always conscious of the dark eyes that watched him from across the table.

“Where I come from, it’s considered impolite to talk with food in your mouth,” Rachel said softly, drawing everyone’s attention to Joe who had been talking to Hoss.

Joe stopped mid-sentence and looked up at Rachel, she was wearing a mock smile. When she turned to Adam, she suddenly smiled sweetly.

“My father would have taken my brother to the woodshed, for such ill manners,” she said, seemingly unaware of the surprised look on Hoss and Joe’s faces.

Adam glanced over at Joe who was swallowing the last morsel of food that had been in his mouth. He was not unaware of the worried expression on his little brother’s face, and he smiled kindly at the boy.

“Oh, I think I’ll let him pass, this time,” he told Rachel. Adam turned back to Joe. “But consider yourself forewarned little brother. Please, remember your manners,” he advised.

“You know Rachel, I suppose to you, it would seem like…certain members of my family are a bit…backwoodsy. But it would only be natural for a lady to think such, after all we are a family of men, unaccustomed to having lovely ladies among us,” Adam smiled.

“I suppose so darling, but surely your father has taught the boy better. I think…” began Rachel.

“I don’t care what you think…you keep your mouth shut about my father!” Joe suddenly blurted out. He shoved back his chair, tipping it over as he fled from the room.

“JOSEPH!” shouted Adam as he stood to his feet.

“Well, I never!” barked Rachel.

“I’ll be right back,” growled Adam as he tossed his napkin down in his plate.

“Adam…wait a minute,” Hoss called.

He couldn’t help but glare at the young woman on his right.

“Let me go talk to Joe…please,” he practically begged.

Adam stopped and glanced first at his brother and then back at Rachel.

“Okay, Hoss, but tell that boy, he and I will have a little discussion of our own unless he comes back in here and apologizes to Rachel. I’ll not have him speaking to my future wife in such a manner.” Adam went back to his chair and sat down.

Hoss hurried to the door and walked out onto the porch, his blue eyes searching the darkness for his brother. Joe wasn’t to be found, but Hoss noticed that the door to the barn stood slightly ajar. He entered silently into the darkened barn, and listened for any sounds that his brother might make.

“Joe?” Hoss called out. “Short Shanks…where are ya?”

Joe quickly wiped away the tears before stepping into the moonlight that shone through the opened door.

“I’m right here,” he muttered.

Hoss quickly joined his brother, smiling down at the boy.

“Hey Joe, why ya cryin’, boy?” he asked in his soft voice.

“I wasn’t crying…I…I had something in my eye,” lied Joe.

Hoss could barely make out the quivering chin and decided to let the subject drop.

“Why’d ya get so mad at Miss Rachel, Joe?”

Hoss had moved to a barrel and sat down. Joe stood facing him, his head hung low as he fidgeted with a piece of straw.

Joe raised his head and studied his brother’s face.

“You heard what she was saying about me…and then she started in on Pa…what was I suppose to do? Stand there and let her get by with bad mouthing Pa? Adam didn’t seem to be bothered…she’s….mean, Hoss…mean, that’s what is she! And…and…I hate her!” he suddenly shouted.

Joe turned his back to his brother, unaware that Hoss had stood up or that he now stood closely behind him. Hoss gently placed both hands on Joe’s shoulders and turned the boy around to face him.

“Ah Joe, ya don’t really mean that…”

“Yes I do Hoss…didn’t you hear her?” Joe cried. “She’s all the time trying to find fault with me, she tries to make me look bad in front of Adam…and he’s so blinded by her stupid smile that he believes everything that she says about me!”

“That ain’t true and ya know it, Short Shanks!”

“Yes it is Hoss…all ya gotta do is listen to what she’s saying. She hates me…anyone with half a brain can see that…”

“Ya better not let Adam hear ya talkin’ like that, little brother or he’ll…”

“He’ll what, Hoss…tan my hide? That’s just what she wants him to do…she…”

Hoss grabbed Joe and pulled the weeping boy into his arms, silencing him.

“Hush now…I’ll not listen to no more foolish talk. I want ya to go back inside and tell Miss Rachel that you’re sorry for…”

Joe jerked free from his brother’s arms.

“No…I didn’t do anything, Hoss…why should I apologize to her?”

“Because Adam said for me to tell you too, that’s why,” Hoss said, worried now that Joe might refuse his oldest brother’s wish and end up across Adam’s knees instead.

Joe folded his arms across his chest and shook his head no.

“Please Joe? I don’t wanna see ya get a thrashin’,” Hoss said worriedly.

“I ain’t afraid of getting a thrashing…leastwise, not much…” stammered Joe.

“Aw…come on Little Joe…it ain’t agonna kill ya. A thrashin’ will hurt a lot worse’n sayin’ I’m sorry,” begged Hoss. “Tell ya what, ya tell the lady that ya sorry, and after she’s gone, I’ll talk to ole Adam and explain to him that ya was just upset and…missin’ Pa, how’s that?” asked Hoss.

Joe looked up at his brother and saw the tiny well of tears that bubbled up into the blue eyes. Hoss was such a softly, thought Joe, ready to do battle for him if need be and he was hard pressed to deny him. He swallowed his own pride, suddenly feeling selfish that Hoss was made to stand between him and Adam, again.

“All right Hoss, just for you. I’ll tell her, but I won’t mean it,” he said and then relieved Hoss by smiling.

“Come on then, might as well get it over with,” Hoss said as he gently guided Joe toward the door.

He feared that the little stubborn cuss might back out before actually offering his apology to Adam’s future wife.

As they walked into the yard, Rachel stood alone in the moonlight.

“There she is, go ahead Joe. I’ll go inside and tell Adam that you’re talkin’ to her now.”

Hoss gave Joe a gentle nudge and when the boy started slowly over to the woman, Hoss went inside to speak with Adam.

“Ma’am?” Joe said softly, hating that he had to apologize for something he felt he hadn’t done.

Rachel turned. The smile that had been on her face disappeared and now she glared at the young boy who stood uncertainly before her.

“Well, young man…I suppose you’re ready to say you’re sorry?” she snarled at Joe.

Joe bit his tongue to keep from making a smart retort. “Yes ma’am,” Joe said softly.

“Well, you just remember one thing, little boy, Adam loves me. You think right now that you can make him listen to you…take your side against mine, but once we’re married, all of that will change. He’ll never believe a word you say, ever again…and Little Joe…you understand this…”

Rachel towered over the boy whose back was pressed firmly against the tree behind him. She bent her head down, her nose practically brushing against Joe’s.

“When your old man dies, don’t think that you will ruin my life by having to live with Adam and I…it won’t ever happen young man. I promise you…you will be sent away…far away…to boarding school, or perhaps military school. I’ll convince your brother that it would be in your best interest…and he’ll believe me. You know what a stickler he is about getting an education…and without your father…whom, in my opinion spoils you, Adam will see the logic in my thinking and you, Little Joe, will be sent away so fast, you won’t even realize you’re gone until it’s too late!”

Rachel brushed her fingers tenderly along the fine lines of Joe’s face until they entwined themselves in his thick curls.

“Don’t you even think about telling your brothers what I’ve just said. I’ll only deny it. I’ll make your life a living hell, little boy, I’ll even work my charms on your father…do I make myself clear?”

She tightened her fingers around the chestnut locks. Joe had no doubt to her meaning and he was just about to say so, when Adam suddenly appeared from out of the darkness. Instantly, he felt Rachel’s fingers release his hair and lovingly cup his chin.

Joe turned startled eyes up to peer into hers, only to see her smiling lovingly down at him.

“I accept your apology, Little Joe,” she cooed sweetly in that fake, honey-coated voice that Joe had grown to hate. “It was quite gracious of you to do so,” she added.

“Well, I see that things have been corrected,” Adam said lightly as he slipped his arm about Rachel’s tiny waist. “Thank you, Joe,” Adam smiled down at his brother.

Joe was unable to say a word. His body quivered slightly as Rachel continued to run her slender fingers through his hair, and he felt as if he might burst into tears at any moment. He was terrified at what this woman would do to him if he failed to do as she had implied.

“I…am…sorry, Adam,” he murmured and then turned, running to the house.

Joe slammed the door to his bedroom and flung himself across his bed. He was no longer able to contain his tears as he buried his face into the pillow and began to cry. He missed his father, he hated the woman downstairs who seemed to want to ruin his life and take from him everyone whom he held dear. He wouldn’t admit to anyone, but the woman’s threats frightened him. She had been correct in what she had said about Adam and his quirks about furthering his education. He had overheard some of the conversations himself that his father and brother had had in regard to Joe attending a good college sometime later on, and he had no doubt that if his father were not around, Rachel could indeed convince Adam that Joe be sent away to one. Joe sighed deeply, she’d probably suggest some high-falutin’ college in Europe, that might be far enough away, he reckoned.

Joe turned over onto his back. His thoughts turned to his father and Joe couldn’t help but wonder how much longer Ben would be gone. It had barely been three weeks and he missed his father something fierce. If only Pa were here, troubled Joe, he could go to him and tell him what Rachel had threatened to do to him. Joe contemplated going to Adam, but he felt sure that Adam would never believe him, and Hoss…well, Hoss blamed everything he did on the fact that he missed his father so badly.

Time ticked slowly by as Joe at last gave in to the sleep that tugged at his weary eyes. He hadn’t been asleep long when Rachel’s candy-coated smile appeared before his eyes.

“No! No! You can’t make me!” screamed the dreaming boy as he thrashed about from side to side.

The covers had been knocked to the floor, the pillows lay in wrinkled piles and still Joe cried out from his night terror.

“Please…don’t make me go…PA! ADAM!” shouted Joe.

The boy’s eyes had opened and he had sat upright in the middle of the bed. His face was covered in a thin sheen of sweat and tiny droplets rolled slowly from the corners of his eyes. Joe’s eyes moved wildly around the room, his mind slowly awaking from the nightmare as he searched for something familiar.

The door opened unexpectedly as Adam hurried to his brother’s side and sat gently on the edge of the bed.

“Hey, Little Buddy,” Adam said.

He saw the tears streaming down the front of Joe’s face and a sudden paternal feeling washed over him. He gently pulled his brother into his arms and held him. He could feel the slight tremors that coursed their way throughout Joe’s body. Something had caused the nightmare and the unknown reason for the haunting dream that had left his brother weak and trembling troubled him.

“Joe,” Adam said in his soft smooth voice as he brushed back the dampened curls with one hand while gently pressing the boy’s head against his chest with his other hand.

“Do you want to talk about what has you so upset?”

Joe seemed to welcome the comforting embrace and clinging tightly to his brother, he shook his head.

“No,” he muttered in a tiny voice.

“Are you sure, Joe? Cause I know something has you upset. Does it have anything to do with what happened at supper this evening?” Adam pressured.

His brother’s words seemed to strike fresh fear in his heart. As much as he would like to tell his brother about what the obnoxious woman had said to him, Joe held his tongue, fearing the consequences. Besides, Joe doubted that Adam would even believe him.

“No,” Joe said. “Just promise me something, Adam…please?” he whispered as he struggled to control his emotions.

“Anything buddy, just name it.”

Joe raised his head slightly so that he could see Adam’s face.

“Promise me that, no matter what, you won’t ever send me away?”

A sob, which Joe had not meant to let slip, did indeed get caught in his throat.

Adam seemed truly troubled by the odd question. He watched his little brother’s face and saw the doubt that clouded the usually dancing eyes.

“Joe, why would ask me something like that?” Adam questioned.

“Just promise me Adam…no matter what happens, or what anyone tells you…just promise, you’ll never send me away.”

Joe was on the verge of a break down and his brother hurried to relieve Joe’s anxiety.

“I promise buddy, I’ll never send you away. Beside, where on earth do you think I’d send you?” Adam forced a smile in hopes that Joe would relax a bit more.

In response to Adam’s promise, Joe pressed his head deeply against his brother’s breast. The sound of the thumping heart beneath his ear acted as a relaxant and slowly Joe stopped crying.

“I don’t know…just…please remember…you promised,” Joe sighed.

“I won’t forget, Joe…ever,” whispered Adam.

Adam gently fingered the soft dark curls and listened to the sound of Joe’s breathing, as it became steady and more relaxed. He felt Joe’s body quiver twice more, and then as Joe fell asleep, his body went limp within the folds of his arms. Carefully Adam lowered his brother’s head back down onto his pillow and sat for several long moments watching the boy sleep.

“Why won’t you tell me what’s bothering you, little buddy?” Adam whispered softly to the sleeping child. “What are you so afraid of?” he wondered aloud.

“Maybe he’s afraid of losing you?” Hoss said from the doorway where he had been silently watching the scene between his two brothers.

Carefully so that he would not wake the sleeping boy, Adam tiptoed from the room. Once in the hallway, he pulled the bedroom door almost closed.

“That’s an odd thing to say, Hoss. What do you mean, Joe’s afraid of losing me?” Adam quizzed as the two walked side by side down the hall.

“He’s afraid that once you marry Miss Rachel, you’ll forget all about him,” Hoss spoke honestly.

He had wondered almost the same thing about Adam and himself, yet he had refrained from asking his brother. It was obvious to all of them just how much Adam loved the beautiful woman who had captured his heart. And it was only right and proper that his brother transfer part of his devotion and dedication that he had for his immediate family to his new wife, once they married. Hoss had no intentions of disrupting his brother’s happiness by acting in a jealous, childish manner, for all he had ever wished for each of his family members was that they be happy, and Adam seemed to glow with happiness.

“That’s ridiculous, Hoss,” Adam laughed softly. “Just because I marry Rachel, won’t mean that Little Joe will lose me…where’d he ever get such a silly notion?”

“It might seem silly to you, big brother, but to Little Joe, it’s real. Ya know, he don’t like Rachel, don’t ya?” Hoss rested his hand on Adam’s arm, stopping the older brother from going on. “He’s afraid of her…don’t ask me why, but he is. I can see it everytime she comes near him. He almost cringes, and it ain’t normal Adam…he ain’t never done nuthin’ to your lady…nuthin’.”

“Afraid of Rachel? Why, she’s always been most attentive to him, she’s always smiling at him and doing nice little things for him. She even baked him cookies the other day, and she said this evening before she left that she wanted to come by and pick him up so that she could take him into town with her and buy him something. She was afraid that she had hurt his feeling by saying what she said and she wants to make it up to him.”

Adam shook his head in disbelief and laughed softly to himself. When he looked up at Hoss, his eyes glowed with happiness.

“I can’t imagine why on earth Joe’d be afraid of Rachel, she’s the kindest, more caring young woman I’ve ever met,” said Adam.

“I don’t know, Adam, I’m just atellin’ ya what I seen with my own eyes.” Hoss ran his fingers through his thinning hair and yawned. “I’m goin’ back to bed.   Night, Adam,” he said as he pushed open the door to his room.

“Night Hoss,” answered Adam.

“No!” shouted Joe, stomping his foot on the hard floor.

“Yes you are, and you are going to be polite about it!” Adam stated firmly.

The two brothers were facing one another. Joe’s arms dangled down at his sides, his fingers folded into tight fitting fists as he glared defiantly at his older brother.

Adam, just as determined that Joe would do as he issued, stood looking confidently down at Joe, his arms folded snugly across his broad chest.

“No, I’m not…and you can’t make me!” Joe shouted back.

He was forced to take a step back as Adam advanced on him.

“All she wants is for you to accompany her into town. She’d like to buy you something nice, to show you that she didn’t mean to hurt your feelings last night at supper,” Adam explained.

“I don’t want her to buy me anything…and she didn’t hurt my feelings…she made me mad!” Joe took another step back but was forced to stop when Adam clutched his shoulder.

“Joseph, I’m telling you for the last time. You will go with Rachel into town. She really felt bad about getting you in to trouble and she wants to make it up to you. It’s her way to say I’m sorry,” Adam said.

He was confused about his brother’s reluctance to accompany his fiancee into town. Adam watched as Joe struggled against the tears that threatened to spill over. Hoss’ words from the night before had stuck in his mind but Adam had brushed them aside. Now he wondered if perhaps what Hoss had hinted at, that Joe was afraid of Rachel might really be true.

“Joe, please buddy, won’t you do this one thing…for me? It would mean a lot to me. I want you to get to know Rachel better and…I’d be pleased if you learned to like her. Give her a chance to prove herself to you…please?”

Adam’s tone had softened and he hoped that Joe would willingly change his mind. It was important to him that Joe learned to like Rachel and accept her as part of the family.

Joe lowered his head; the fight had gone out of him. How could he refuse his brother? Adam was like a second father to him, he had always been there whenever Joe had needed him and Adam had never, not once, broken a promise he had made to him. Joe glanced up, noting the uneasy expression in his brother’s eyes. If he refused to do as Adam asked, his brother might remember this another day and send him away. Joe gulped and then swallowed the knot that had thickened in his throat.

“Okay, Adam,” he said in a tiny voice that was void of all emotion. “I’ll do it, but not for her…for you.”

Adam cupped the back of his brother’s head with his hand and gently pulled the boy into a hug.

“Thanks Joe, you have no idea how much this means to me. Rachel means the world to me…I want you to like her.”

He gave the boy a tight squeeze and then, hearing the sound of an approaching buggy, looked up.

“Here she comes now,” he said.

Joe heard the excitement in Adam’s deep voice and was not the least surprised when Adam dropped his arms from around his body and quickly moved to help Rachel down from the buggy. As Adam held out his arms, Joe scrunched up his face at the sickening smile that Rachel gave to Adam. It disgusted him to watch how Adam became all mushy, holding Rachel in his arms longer than Joe had deemed necessary and how Adam’s lips brushed tenderly at the side of Rachel’s cheek. When Rachel slipped her arms about Adam’s neck and whispered something in his ear and then looked over his shoulder at Joe, Joe turned away. Rachel’s soft laughter rang in the boy’s ear and when Adam’s laughter mingled with hers, Joe glanced over his shoulder to see what was so funny. He was surprised to see both Rachel and his brother looking at him, their arms interwoven and clinging tightly to each other.

“Aren’t you going to come over here and say hello to me?” Rachel laughed lightly. She turned her head slightly, glancing at Adam. “Why darling,” she cooed, “I do believe the boy is blushing!”

Adam’s face showed his happiness as he motioned for Joe to join them.

“Come on Little Joe, say hello to Rachel.”

Joe retraced his steps and stopped in front of the pair.

“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said shyly.

When Rachel reached out at him and gently caressed his cheek, it was all Joe could do to keep from pulling back.

“My, aren’t we on our best behavior?” she said and then moved her hand away, but not before leaving a tiny scratch on the boy’s face.

“Ouch!” cried Joe.

His hand went to the side of his face and he glared at the woman who stood before him.

“Oh, dear, did I scratch you? I’m so sorry Little Joe,” cooed Rachel. She gently cupped Joe’s chin and turned his head to the side. “It’s barely bleeding,” she said with sarcasm in her voice.

Adam had moved away to check the harnesses on the horse, leaving Rachel and Joe alone. Joe felt his body quiver as Rachel’s hand brushed at his face.

“You did that on purpose,” he growled in a low voice.

“But you aren’t going to say a thing…are you?” she whispered.

She stressed her point by clutching the back of Joe’s neck tightly. Rachel smiled down at Joe, giving the appearance that the pair was enjoying their little conversation.

Joe squirmed under the pressure, his eyes sought for his brother, but Adam had followed Hoss into the barn.

“You’d better keep your mouth shut you little brat…or else!” threatened Rachel.

Joe was mad and he made no move to hide that fact. He pulled back from the fingers holding his neck, but Rachel only tightened her grip.

“Or what?” Joe muttered.

“Don’t you dare test me, Joe Cartwright. You’ll lose big time. He’d never believe you…not in a hundred years. You saw how he looks at me, and the way his hands hold me so gently.” Rachel laughed, her timing was perfect for Adam had come from the barn and was making his way over to them.

Rachel smiled again at Joe and then released her hold on his neck. As she turned to Adam, her face held no expression of the hatred she had for her fiancee’s youngest brother.

“We were just about ready to leave, darling,” she told Adam. “Joe’s looking forward to spending the day with me, aren’t you, Little Joe?”

Joe hated the way in which Rachel used his nickname. She made it sound so…so…vulgar.

“Of course,” he said, hiding his own distaste at the turn of events.

Joe climbed into the buggy and waited until Rachel had settled herself next to him. He could feel the excitement that caused her body to shiver when she leaned over and allowed Adam to plant a kiss on her cheek.

“You drive carefully, young man,” he instructed his younger brother.

“I’ll see you this afternoon,” he told Rachel.

Joe could not bring himself to look at his brother for it was taking all he had within himself to keep from crying. The last place he wanted to be was alone with this crazed woman who had somehow managed to convince herself that it was her duty to make his life miserable. He clicked loudly to the horse and headed for town without so much as a goodbye to either brother who stood watching his departure.

They had been riding in silence for several miles. Joe kept the horse at a steady trot, wanting nothing more but to get to town where he hoped he could get away from the piercing looks that Rachel continued to give him.

“I think that you should slow down, just a bit?” she told Joe.

“Why? I thought you were in a hurry to get to town,” Joe snapped.

“Oh, that was just an excuse. Slow this horse down, Little Joe…that’s an order,” she demanded, glaring angrily at the boy beside her.

When Joe refused to do as she had asked Rachel grabbed the leather straps from his hands and yanked back on the reins, causing the horse to nearly stumble in its attempt to stop so quickly.

“Hey, you can’t treat an animal like that!” Joe shouted as he turned to face Rachel.

“It’s my horse and I’ll treat him anyway I please!” she yelled back at him.

Her voice softened as she wrapped the reins around the break lever and began climbing down from the buggy.

“Get down and help me,” she ordered.

Joe refused to move, until he felt the sting of the crop that Rachel held between her hands.

“Do as I say or I’ll beat you with this!”

Joe jumped quickly from the seat and hurried to do, as Rachel had demanded. His shoulder stung from the lash Rachel had rendered.

When Joe’s fingers circled the young woman’s waist, Rachel placed her hands on the boy’s shoulders and allowed him to help her down. Once her feet were firmly planted on the ground, Joe released his hold, but Rachel only tightened hers and taking the boy by surprise, pressed her enticing body against his, which was trapped between the side of the buggy and Rachel’s warm body.

Immediately Joe tried to wiggle free, but Rachel only squeezed herself closer against Joe’s pounding heart. His young face beaded with tiny droplets of perspiration, causing Rachel to giggle softly. Her fingers left his shoulders and moved to either side of Joe’s face, tracing the lines in a loving manner.

Joe felt his body become rigid as he tried to lean his head further back to escape her fervid fingers. He was scared, frightened and very unsure of what this provocative woman was trying to do to him.

“Get away from me,” he muttered between clenched teeth.

“Why Joseph, don’t you like me?” Rachel said in an enticing voice.

She leaned her face down, brushing her lips against his ears and nibbling gently at one lobe.

“No!” she heard the boy say and then laughed when Joe moaned softly.

“Your brother likes it too, when I do this.”

Rachel’s tongue darted into Joe’s ear, nearly taking the boy’s breath away. He tried to turn so that she could not repeat the suggestive move, but his head twisted toward her lips instead of away and when Rachel felt Joe’s hot lips brush her cheek, she reacted by covering the boy’s with her own.

The woman’s lips pressed against Joe’s, sealing their lips as one. Joe closed his eyes to the pleasantness of the kiss, losing himself in the bewitching moment. A voice from deep within, warned Joe that this was wrong, this was his brother’s bride-to-be but Joe was unable, or unwilling, he wasn’t totally sure, to push her away. It was the first time in his life that he had been kissed like that, and his five senses seemed to over rule his common sense. It was only when he was aware of her hands clawing at the buttons of his shirt that he awoke to what was happening to him.

His eyes popped open and he began to struggle against the hands that seemed to be everywhere.

“NO!” he managed to shout.

He forced his body upright and pushed Rachel away with his hands. Rachel, startled by the sudden movement, staggered and fell down into the dirt. When she turned to look up at Joe, who had moved away, and whose body trembled with fear of what he had allowed to take place, Rachel jumped to her feet, swinging the small crop at Joe.

Repeatedly she hit Joe, ripping his shirt and leaving long thin welts across his back where he had been forced to turn to keep the weapon from disfiguring his face.

“HOW DARE YOU!” Ranted Rachel loudly.

She was like a woman driven; her aim was deadly as the whip continued its assault on the boy.

When she stopped to catch her breath, Joe grabbed at the whip, ripping it from her hand and tossing it into the thick growing weeds. Exhausted, Joe dropped to his knees. His back was on fire and he could do nothing to stop the flow of tears that ran unchecked down his face.

He heard Rachel sigh deeply and when she knelt down in front of him, he cringed, covering his head with his arms. Rachel’s hands gently clasped Joe’s arms and moved them away.

“Shh…don’t cry, Little Joe,” she said in a sweet voice. “I won’t tell Adam what you did…honest. But you have to be nice to me, or I might change my mind.”

Joe jerked his head up, staring in disbelief at the woman in front of him. He pulled his arms free of her hands and quickly stood to his feet. When Rachel rose as well, Joe stepped back away from the woman’s flailing arms.

“What I did?” he stammered, “I didn’t do anything…you…you…”

Rachel’s insane laughter caused Joe’s words to falter and he instantly hushed.

“Oh you stupid little boy…I didn’t do a thing to you…it was you who attacked me!”

She laughed again, loudly, wickedly, and took a step closer to Joe. She had placed her hands on her hips and her body swayed seductively in front of the startled, speechless boy.

“No one will ever believe that I tried to seduce you…especially Adam. You silly imp, he thinks I’m perfect…and he knows you are…are…impulsive and wild and most likely to try anything. That’s what I’ll tell him, that you became overly excited when I accidentally brushed up against you and when I tried to push you away, you became enraged and tried to attack me.”

Rachel smiled at the frightened look on Joe’s face and gently brushed her fingers across his cheek. Joe slapped at her hand, knocking her arm away.

“You’re nothing but a bitch,” he whispered.

The slap to his cheek had stung. Rachel had left the impression of her handprint on the side of his face.

“Don’t you ever call me that again!” she practically screamed in Joe’s face.

Rachel moved to the wagon and grabbed Joe’s jacket. When she turned around, she flung it at him.

“Put that on, and get back in the wagon,” she ordered in a husky voice.

Joe hurried to comply, fearing that she might strike him again. When he was seated, she climbed into the seat and sat next to him. She turned, facing him, all the anger and repulsion had disappeared and she looked as if nothing strange had just happened.

“I think today, Little Joe, I will buy you a new shirt. The one you have on is a mess,” she smiled at him. “I can’t have my future brother-in-law going around looking like a street urchin, now can I?”

Joe’s body shuddered and he fought against the sickness that lay heavily in the pit of his stomach. He felt like vomiting, and he wished desperately that his father would come home.

When Rachel pulled the horse to a stop, they were in front of the mercantile store. Joe started to climb down from the wagon but was stopped when Rachel’s sharp fingernails dug into his arm. Joe’s frightened eyes fixed themselves on the long slender fingers with the manicured nails. He looked up into the lady’s face, surprised to see her smiling at him.

“Stay in the wagon, and don’t you dare speak to anyone. I’ll buy you a new shirt and then we’ll be on our way.”

She released her fingers and Joe pulled his arm to him, rubbing at the soreness as Rachel turned, smiled bewitchingly at a passerby who tipped his hat at her and then entered the store. Joe settled himself back against the seat and glanced around. The streets were filled with people, all going in different directions and Joe suddenly wished that he could lose himself in the crowd. He was scared that Adam or Hoss might see the marks on his back and if they did, Joe knew that they would question him and if so, what would he tell them? He was convinced that Adam would never believe him if he were to tell his brother the truth about what had happened. How could he ever make his brother believe that the woman whom he loved, the lady he wished to spend the rest of his life with, had actually make unladylike advances to him.

Joe groaned softly, Adam would hate him if he knew that things such as this had been going on almost since the first day that Adam had brought Rachel to the Ponderosa. It had become a constant battle for him, trying to figure out ways to avoid the temptress and maneuver himself away from her so that he need not be within her reach. He was at his wit’s end and he was lost as to what to do or who to confide in. He wished his father would come home…but above all else, he was frightened.

Joe hung his head, his tears slipped slowly downward and dripped off the end of his chin. He brushed them away with the sleeve of his jacket, unaware that someone had called his name.

“Little Joe? Hey!”

Joe jumped when he felt the hand that playfully nudged him. His head pivoted around at the sound of the soft laughter and when he spied Paul Martin, his father’s close friend, laughing lightly at him, Joe let out a long sigh.

“You must have been a million miles away, son,” Paul smiled.

“Sorry sir,” Joe muttered and then cast anxious eyes around toward the doorway of the store, afraid that Rachel would catch him talking to someone.

“Joe, I said, have you heard from your father?”

Paul had noted the tear stained face and the haunting look but had refrained from asking the boy about why he’d been crying. Paul summed it up to the fact that the boy was missing his father, for it was no secret to him how Joe suffered when his father was away on business. He had no reason to suspect that anything different might possibly be wrong with the boy, so to avoid embarrassing the lad, Paul ignored the boy’s tears.

“Oh, no sir,” Joe said and then glanced back at the door.

Rachel stood midway of the opening, glaring up at him. The anger had returned to her eyes, and when she tossed the package up at him and climbed in next to Joe, she grabbed the reins and without so much as a nod of her head to the good doctor, Rachel slapped the horse’s rump. Joe glanced over at the angered woman and then back at the doctor. Paul had to step aside to keep from being run over and the look that remained on his face was one of total surprise.

About a mile out of town, Rachel turned the huffing horse off onto a narrow path.

“Where you going?” Joe dared to ask.

Rachel said nothing, but urged the horse on. When she finally stopped, they were a good half a mile from the main road. She tossed down the reins and turned her fury on the boy next to her. Several times she struck Joe with her balled up fists, shouting obscenities at him. Joe tried to protect himself with his arms, yet several of her blows struck him about his shoulders and once on the side of his face.

When she’d at last satisfied her rage, she climbed down from the wagon.

“Get down here…now!” she bellowed, “or I might just have to speak to your brother about your behavior!” she threatened.

Joe hurried to climb down. Rachel had grabbed the package from the floor in front of the seat where it had fallen and was ripping away the brown paper that Mr. Cass had so carefully wrapped around the new shirt.

“Take your shirt off,” she ordered the boy.

Joe hesitated but seeing how quickly the lady’s eyes darkened, he began pulling off his jacket and began to fumble with the buttons on his shirt. He didn’t look up, but he felt Rachel watching him and not knowing what she might try next, caused Joe’s hands to shake.

“Hurry it up,” she said buoyantly.

The anger sounded as if it were gone from Rachel’s voice and Joe chanced a quick look at the woman’s face. He shuddered, for her deep blue eyes watched every move. They had fixed themselves on his unsteady fingers and when she stepped closer, Joe backed up.

“Let me help you Little Joe,” she cooed melodiously.

Joe was amazed at how quickly she went from raging fury to pure ladylike fashion, all with one breath. Her actions when her hand covered his and tugged at the buttons on his shirt caused him to suck in his breath. Her touch was gentle, almost loving as she helped Joe remove his arms from his torn and ripped shirt.

Once Joe’s shirt was off, and his chest bared, he had taken several steps backward, trying to distance himself from the prying eyes that raked his body. Joe wasn’t sure what one would call the look in the woman’s eyes. But Joe knew he had seen it before, in his brother’s dark eyes while he had been hiding, watching as Adam’s hand tried to explore Rachel’s body and both, Rachel and Adam had been unaware of his presence.

“Come here,” she ordered the boy.

“No…just give me the shirt so I…” stammered Joe.

“In a minute. I said, come over here,” she said with more force.

Joe refused to move and shook his head no.

“I’ll scream,” Rachel threatened.

“So?” dared Joe. “There’s no one around here.”

“Are you so sure? Or maybe you’d like to find out. I saw some young men a ways back, fishing.”

She snickered softly at the doubt that had sprung so quickly into her future brother-in-law’s hazel eyes. When Joe cast apprehensive eyes over his shoulder as if searching for the mysterious young men, Rachel laughed aloud.

Taking a deep breath, Joe moved closer to Rachel. He couldn’t take a chance on being seen here, half-naked with his brother’s intended bride.

Joe flinched when he felt the long nails rake downward across his exposed chest to his stomach. He closed his eyes, refusing to meet hers. His nose picked up the scent of her lingering perfume and he swallowed hard, for the fingers had gently tugged at his nipples, making them harden with her touch.

When her lips gently brushed against his, Joe opened his eyes, and drew back. As he took a step back, he snatched the shirt from her hands and hurried to slip his arms into the sleeves. The sound of her tittering rang in his ears and he turned his back to the young woman.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Joe,” she said from behind him. “It won’t be much longer until you’re fully grown.”

She placed her hand on Joe’s back but he moved away for the second time. Joe could hear the desire in her voice and it scared him.

“And when you are Joe, I’ll be here…to teach you. It’ll be our little secret, we won’t even have to tell Adam.”

She giggled like a schoolgirl and as she rounded the end of the buggy, she reached out and playfully swatted Joe’s behind.

Joe glared at her but said nothing. When he had his new shirt stuffed into his pants, he climbed back into the buggy and grabbed the reins. An hour later, they entered the yard.

Adam came from the barn and helped Rachel down, giving her a quick kiss. Joe was silent, and sullen as he hurried toward the house and refused to speak when Adam called out a greeting.

“What’s with him? I hope he hasn’t been rude to you again today,” Adam said as he watched his little brother cross the yard.

“Oh no, we’ve had a lovely day sweetheart. Joe is a lovely child, once I got him to talking. Why he’s so flattering, you’d never believe the sweet things he says to me. I must have been imagining things when I said that I felt as if your little brother didn’t like me!”

Rachel smiled lovingly up at Adam and laced her arms through his as he led her toward the house.

Adam smiled, relieved that things had gone so well this afternoon. He had fretted all day that he had made the wrong decision by practically forcing Joe to accompany Rachel into town. But seeing how happy Rachel was now and hearing about how well she and Joe had gotten along, the worry vanished and Adam felt that somehow the future Mrs. Adam Cartwright and his youngest brother had come to some sort of peaceful agreement. He’d have to remember to thank the boy for putting forth an effort.

Upstairs in his room, Joe had thrown himself across his bed. He wanted to cry, but he refused to allow himself the right for he was too ashamed of what he had allowed to happen. He wasn’t totally sure how all of it had come about, or how he had permitted his brother’s bride-to-be to kiss him, nor the sensuous feeling that he had felt when she had. The one thing that Joe was sure of, and that was his feelings of guilt and betrayal. For wasn’t that exactly what he had done, betrayed his brother? Rachel had made it plain to him that Adam would never believe him, nor would his brother ever forgive him for destroying the love that he so deeply felt for her.

Joe crossed the room to peer out from the window. Adam and Rachel stood in the shade of the trees speaking softly with one another. Whatever the beautiful woman had just said to him, Adam tossed back his head and laughed. Even from where he stood behind the drapes, Joe could see the happy smile that his brother wore and once more his heart broke for what he had committed. Unable to hold back his tears, Joe turned and dropped back down on the bed and began weeping.

He was so wrapped up in his own anguish that he failed to hear the gentle knock at his door, or the silent pitter-patter of soft footed steps that stopped at the side of the bed.

“Why little boy cry?”

Joe raised his head and spun around, nearly knocking the kind, soft-spoken servant to the floor in his haste to get up.

“I…I…wasn’t crying, Hop Sing,” stammered Joe as he wiped away the dampness from his face.

“No? Then why face all wet…and nose dripping?” Hop Sing quizzed. “Is boy sick? No feel well?”

Joe turned his back to Hop Sing and acted as if he were looking for something on the dresser.

“I…I…”

Joe was at a loss for words, he hadn’t counted on anyone coming into his room and catching him crying, let alone asking why.

Hop Sing moved silently across the room and stopped just inches from the boy and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was startled when Joe flinched and moved away from his tender touch.

“What wong, Lil’tle Joe? You frightened of Hop Sing?” Hop Sing asked with compassion, for it troubled him that his favorite son was so downcast and distant.

Joe faced his friend, hoping that his agony was not showing on his face, for he felt miserable, both inside and out. He tried to force a smile, but it looked to Hop Sing more like a grimace.

“Please lil’tle one, you tell Hop Sing what troubles you…perhaps Hop Sing can help!”

Hop Sing smiled and moved back to the bed where he sat down on the edge and patted the spot next to him.

“Come now, sit, we talk.”

Joe felt the constriction in his throat and fought to keep the tears at bay. He needed desperately to talk to someone. He wanted and needed his father, but with Ben gone and not expected back for at least another week, possibly two, Joe had no one in which to turn to. He had thought about going to Hoss, but knew that if he told his middle brother what Rachel had done to him, Hoss would go straight to Adam and then once his older brother had been made aware of things, all hell would break lose. Joe had no doubt that he would come out the loser…Rachel would see to that.

Joe studied the face of the little Chinaman, the compassionate almond shape eyes, the expression of love that he wore so openly on his oval face and Joe instantly knew that here was someone in whom he could confide. Slowly he moved to the bed and sat down. He lowered his head, afraid to meet the dark eyes that searched his face.

“Lil’til Joe now ready to tell Hop Sing why he so sad…and why Hop Sing find favorite son crying?” whispered the servant.

Joe’s shoulders began to heave and minutes later he was sobbing out the entire story, leaving nothing out. Hop Sing was appalled by what the youngest Cartwright was telling him, and to say that he was shocked would be an under-statement. He said nothing, gathering all the facts as Joe continued to blurt out his story of how Adam’s love interest had beaten him with a riding crop and then had tried to seduce him, only to turn her fury once more on the young boy while having him strip down to the waist.

Hop Sing had to swallow several times to keep from crying out in anger of what Joe had been made to suffer. By the time that Joe had finished, Hop Sing’s arms were wrapped tightly about the boy, cradling the sweat drenched head against his rapidly beating heart.

“Shh…Lil’tle Joe no cry now. Hop Sing take care of boy until father returns.”

Hop Sing continued to hold Joe and rock gently back and forth, waiting until the boy could stop crying.

“Hop Sing tell Mister Adam, and he…”

Joe jerked his head back, fear written plainly on his face.

“NO! NO! Hop Sing, you can’t tell Adam…please…ya gotta promise me!” Joe stammered.

“But Mister Adam must know…he must know what kind of woman Missy Rachel really is so…”

Joe stood up; his expression had turned to near panic as he began pacing the floor.

“NO!” he repeated.

He turned back to Hop Sing, tears beginning to gather once more.

“You don’t understand Hop Sing,” began Joe as he sat back down next to his friend.

“Adam loves her…he’s planning on marrying her…I can’t ruin that for him. Besides…he’d never believe that it wasn’t my fault. Rachel swore that she would make sure Adam would never believe me…please Hop Sing…you can’t tell him.”

Joe had begun to sob and had leaned against the kind family servant and clung desperately to the man’s clothing.

“He’ll send me away…he’ll hate me…and…and…”

“Shh…do not cry…Hop Sing will keep lil’tle one’s secret,” began Hop Sing.

Joe raised his head, relieved. “Honest? You promise…you won’t tell him?” cried Joe.

“I not tell…I promise…but you must make promise.”

“Anything…just ask Hop Sing…I’ll promise you the world if that’s what you want!” cried Joe as he wiped away the fresh batch of tears.

“Hop Sing want Lil’tle Joe to promise that he will tell brother what Missy Rachel has done…”

“NO!” shouted Joe as he rose from the bed. “I told you…I can’t…and I won’t…I can’t hurt him like that!”

“Then I will tell…”

“No! Please Hop Sing…listen…I’ll tell him…I’ll do it…honest…but not now…later, in my own way and time. Okay?” begged Little Joe.

He began pacing back and forth in front of Hop Sing as the man just sat with folded hands and watched for several moments.

At last Hop Sing rose and walked to the window and pushed back the curtains. Down below Adam was giving Rachel a kiss and then helped her into her buggy. When she was gone, Hop Sing turned back to Joe and rested his hand on his back. Again Joe flinched.

“Take off your shirt,” he said in a soft voice.

Joe spun around, his eyes wide.

“Why?” he muttered, his voice beginning to tremble.

He was afraid of what Hop Sing would say and do when he saw the bright red welts and the bruises where Rachel’s riding crop and fists had disfigured the flesh on his back.

“Either you remove your shirt, or I go now to speak with your brother.”

When Joe continued to hesitate, Hop Sing turned to leave.

“Wait…please. Okay, okay, I’ll do it,”

Joe grabbed Hop Sing’s arm and pulled him back into the room and closed the door. Quickly he began to unbutton his shirt and when he reached the last one, his eyes began to water.

“You ain’t gonna like what you’re about to see, Hop Sing,” Joe said in a tiny voice as he slowly turned around so that Hop Sing could inspect the damage.

Joe heard Hop Sing inhale deeply. Seconds later he felt the man’s gentle fingers lightly touching the sore places and Joe looked over his shoulder into the face of the man who had always been there for him. The anger that had washed all color from the oval shaped face had caused the eyes to fill with tears.

“Lil’tle Joe,” Hop Sing said in a wee voice, “Mr. Cart’lite, not be happy when he finds out what bad lady do to his little boy.”

“Then we aren’t going to tell him, are we, Hop Sing?” Joe said.

He had started to slip back on his shirt, but Hop Sing stopped him.

“First we clean back and then we put on medicine so that back will heal. Then we go talk to Mr. Adam and show him what vile, nasty woman do to little boy,” Hop Sing said in an anger-filled voice.

“Hop Sing, no, you promised that I could tell Adam…and I will, but not now. You’re not going to break your promise, are you?” Joe pleaded.

“But she cause you much pain…it is wrong for grown person, even a woman, to hurt young boy like this. Adam must be told…”

“I know and I’ll tell him, please Hop Sing…you see how he acts when she’s around, if I tell him, it will break his heart. I don’t want to be the cause of that and besides, she’d only lie about what happened and in the end, Adam will believe her and not me.”

The tears had filled the hazel eyes again and Hop Sing could see that Joe was on the verge of crying. He had heard the front door open and close and knew that either Adam or Hoss was in the house and might at any moment, come looking for him or Little Joe. He had to decide, and though he wasn’t happy about being forced to go against what he knew was right, one look into the sad face of his favorite son, and Hop Sing made up his mind.

“I will not tell Mr. Adam, but you must promise me that you will…and soon,” Hop Sing said. “Put your shirt back on and I will go get the medicine. Do you promise me?”

“I’ve already promised you Hop Sing,” Joe reminded his friend. Joe dabbed at his eyes.

“I will give you twenty-four hours, no more…if you have not told Adam by then, I will,”

Hop Sing said from the doorway where he stood.

“Wash face and hands, I will bring medicine for back,” he ordered and then was gone.

When Hop Sing returned, he tended to Joe’s sore back. Each and every time that his gentle fingers dabbed at the welts, Joe flinched and fought against the urge to cry out. It took over half an hour for the job to be completed and when Hop Sing was finished, he ordered Joe into bed.

“But Hop Sing, if I don’t go down for supper, Adam will think I’m up to something and come up here and…”

Hop Sing pulled the blankets up to Joe’s chin and smiled down at the boy.

“Hush…Hop Sing will deal with Mr. Adam and Mr. Hoss. They no bother you. Drink this and do not worry. Now, you sleep, I go make supper for hungry boys.”

Hop Sing waited until Joe had drank the mixture from the glass that had been handed to him and once Joe had finished, Hop Sing slipped from the room. Minutes later, Joe slept soundly.

When Joe finally made it to the table the next morning, he was totally shocked to see that Rachel had joined his brothers for breakfast. He felt his stomach begin to churn and suddenly lost his appetite. Slowly he sat down, avoiding looking at the woman across from him, though he could feel her eyes watching him. The knowledge that she was taking in every move that he made, unnerved him and his hands began to tremble.

“Joseph,” Adam said.

Joe glanced up at his brother, surprised to see the concern on Adam’s face.

“Are you feeling better? Hop Sing said last night that you weren’t feeling well…something about a stomach ache, I recall.”

Joe swallowed and then nodded his head.

“I feel fine now, thanks,” answered Joe as he glanced around the table.

“Hey short shanks, wanna ride into town with me and fetch the mail?” Hoss asked with a wide smile. “That is, if big brother doesn’t mind.”

“Well, I do mind. Have you forgotten Hoss, the list of items that I need you to take up to the mining camp? Joe can ride into town to get the mail, that is if you feel up to it Joe?”

Adam had turned his attention back to his little brother.

Joe was quick to answer; he’d be willing to ride to hell and back if it meant putting distance between himself and the horrid woman across the table from him.

“I’m up to it, I’ll leave right now,” Joe said quickly and then started to get up.

“Whoa!” laughed Adam. “Sit down and eat something first, and then you can go.”

“Oh, sorry,” Joe laughed softly and then hurried to fill his plate.

“Well, if you will pardon me, I have to ride over to talk to Matthew Talbot on a business matter. Rachel, you don’t mind, do you?” Adam asked as he placed his hand over hers.

Rachel smiled sweetly at Adam, batting her long lashes.

“Of course not, I think I can find something to keep me busy while you’re gone…as long as you aren’t gone too long,” she said in a flirting manner.

Joe almost choked on his bacon as he watched how the conniving woman taunted and teased his brother and wondered why in the world that Adam could not see through her fake persona.

“I won’t be,” Adam whispered and then stood up.

As he came around the table, he stopped behind Rachel and leaned down, kissing her cheek.

Joe tried to avoid the scene, but Rachel, though responding to Adam’s caress, was watching the boy’s reaction. She smiled at Joe, causing the boy to blush and look down at his plate.

“I’ll ride part of the way with ya,” Hoss said as he pushed back his chair and stood up.

“Good, I’ll enjoy the company,” smiled Adam as he headed for the door.

“Joe, you go straight into town and come right back. If you’re feeling up to it, the tack room could use a little straightening up,” Adam called as he strapped on his holster.

“I will Adam,” Joe promised. He rose quickly, avoiding looking at Rachel. “Adam…” he said hesitantly.

“Yea buddy?” Adam pushed his hat down on his head and faced Joe.

Rachel had quickly hurried to Adam’s side and slipped her arm around his. Adam’s attention was momentarily drawn to the lovely young woman at his side who smiled lovingly up at him.

Joe pinched his lips tightly, shaking his head as he did so.

“Never mind…it was nothing,” he muttered and went back to his breakfast.

Joe felt as if the weight of the world lay on his shoulders. He picked up his fork and stabbed at his food, unable to finish what was in his plate. When he heard the door close he looked up, Rachel had returned to the table and sat down, picking up her napkin and laying it across her lap.

Joe felt the tiny beads of sweat pop out on his brow and he started to rise. He wanted to avoid being alone with the unpleasant woman, whom he had grown to fear as well as hate.

“You were going to tell him, weren’t you?” she said in a low voice that startled Joe.

Slowly he raised his head and looked at her.

“So what, if I was?” he challenged.

Rachel leaned across the table. Her lips had turned up, as if she were snarling.

“I warned you what I would do to you if you said anything to your brother!”

Joe gulped, when he moved, his shirt rubbed against the inflamed flesh of his back and he was instantly reminded exactly what the woman was capable of doing.

“I have to go to town,” he said quickly, trying to change the subject.

Joe pushed back his chair and stood to his feet. Before he could reach the door, Rachel was around the table and standing very close to Joe’s back.

She tapped him on the shoulder, causing Joe to turn. Without warning, her arms wrapped around his neck and pulled his head down, closer to hers. Joe’s hands tugged at the woman’s arms, trying to free his neck from her grasp, but Rachel had woven together her fingers behind his head, making it impossible for him free himself.

Rachel’s lips found Joe’s and she kissed him deeply. When she pulled back, she noted the tears that had filled the boy’s eyes, and she giggled.   Her fingers toyed with the soft curls at the back of Joe’s head, near his neck.

Joe felt his body shudder and he tried to back away but Rachel had him pinned against the door.

“HOP SING!” he shouted loudly, suddenly remembering the cook whom Joe knew would still be in the kitchen.

When she heard the soft patter of footsteps, Rachel instantly released Joe and stepped back.

“You call, Lil’tle Joe?” Hop Sing asked.

His eyes moved from Joe to the woman who stood as if frozen to the spot.

“Yea…I did…hmm…I’m…leaving now. I…hmm…just wanted to tell you, so you’d know I was gone,” Joe muttered.

Hop Sing had seen the fearful eyes and knew that Joe had called for him to intervene in some situation. He glanced at the woman and saw the anger that she tried so hard to hide.

“Good bye…you hurry home, Hop Sing be here when you return. Maybe Missy Rachel go home before long?”

Hop Sing made no attempt to hide the animosity that he felt toward Rachel and when she turned to glare at him, he never lowered his eyes, but instead met her dark scowl with one of equal intensity.

Joe opened the door and hurried outside. Rachel followed, aware that behind her, Hop Sing was still there.

“You’ll be sorry for this,” she whispered in a low voice that only Joe could hear.

Rachel spun around on her heels nearly colliding with Hop Sing and practically ran back inside. Hop Sing followed her with his eyes and when she slammed the door, he turned and smiled at Little Joe.

“Thanks, Hop Sing,” Joe smiled weakly.

He had been relieved that Hop Sing had come so quickly and it showed on his face.

“Hop Sing hear what Missy tell you. She verily bad lady…you must not wait long to speak to brother. Mister Adam no can marry such a nasty lady.” Hop Sing shook his finger at Joe. “Twenty-four hours almost gone, no more time!” he reminded Joe.

“I…will,” Joe muttered.

Hop Sing nodded his head and disappeared around the corner wall and into the kitchen.

“Hey, Little Joe.”

Joe turned at the sound of his name being called out. Billy Logan came hurrying down the street toward him, waving a white paper in his hand.

“Here,” he huffed, “it’s a telegram from your father in Angeles.”

“Thanks,” smiled Joe.

It was the first real smile he had felt like giving in several days. He hastened to rip open the envelope and quickly scanned the words. His smile vanished as he read over the words more slowly the second time.

Sorry to inform you…stop

Have been detained…stop

Do not know for how long…stop

But will try to come home…stop

By middle of next month…stop

Pa

Joe wadded the paper up in his hands and fought against the urge to cry.

“I hope everything’s okay, Little Joe,” Billy said when he saw the smile disappear from the boy’s face.

“Yea, everything’s just great,” he mumbled and then took off down the street.

When Joe arrived home, he had hoped that Rachel had taken Hop Sing’s unsubtle hint about going home, but Joe wasn’t so lucky. As he entered the barn, Rachel stepped from the dark shadows looking somewhat as if she had been caught doing something that she should not have been doing. Joe stopped, startled by her presence. He was just about to question her as to why she was hiding in the barn when the sound of the door at the back of the barn closed.

Joe’s eyes grew dark and he tried to step around the woman to see who had slipped out the back, but Rachel blocked his path with her body.

“Who was that?” he demanded.

“What do you mean?” she snapped, nervously glancing back across her shoulder.

“Who was in here with you?” Joe growled as he glared at Rachel who had moved to the other side of the barn and began backing one of the riding horses from her stall.

Rachel slipped the bridle over the mare’s head and then turned to face Joe, her face red with anger.

“There was no one in here with me! Just what are you implying, that I was being unfaithful to your damn brother?”

Joe’s eyes widened, that was exactly what he had been thinking. He took a daring step toward Rachel. She could see the fire burning in the boy’s eyes and knew that Joe had guessed the truth. Without thinking, she reached out and slapped the boy’s face.

Joe’s head spun backward, his senses reeled from the blow and his hand automatically went to his cheek.

“You were with someone else…you just wait until I tell Adam!” he blurted out.

Joe started toward the door but was stopped when Rachel grabbed at his shoulder and spun him around to face her.

“You aren’t going to tell the high and mighty Adam Cartwright a damn thing, do you understand?” she shrieked as she dug her nails into the tender flesh of Joe’s shoulders.

He groaned as he felt her nails rake his skin. His knees gave out as she squeezed unmercifully and he dropped to the soft earth beneath him. Rachel clung tightly to his shoulder, never once lessening her powerful hold. She placed her lips close to his ear and began whispering.

“I warn you, if you utter one word of anything…anything at all about what you, think you know about me…I’ll…I’ll…see to it that you are sent so far away, you’ll never find your way home. I have connections and friends that would do anything I ask them to do, even ridding the world of one annoying little boy. Do I make myself clear, or would you rather die?”

Rachel began laughing wickedly at the expression of sheer terror on the boy’s pale face. She released her hand from his shoulder and allowed Joe to stand to his feet. Joe was frightened, for he believed this mad woman capable of doing what she had threatened. His hand rubbed the sore spot on his shoulder as he backed slowly out of the barn. When he reached the door, his breathing labored, he turned to run, but collided smack into his oldest brother.

Adam had to grab for his brother to keep Joe from toppling over. His laughter was soft as he helped Joe regain his footing.

“Hey buddy, what’s the hurry?” he laughed. “You were running like the devil was after you!”

“Who are you calling a devil, my dear?”

Rachel’s voice held none of the venom that it had moments ago when she’d been making her threats to Little Joe.

Adam tossed back his head and laughed even louder.

“Well, I dare say little brother, had I known it was Rachel after you, I wouldn’t have stopped you. You do know, don’t you, that, that is exactly how she caught me…by chasing me!”

Joe stood silently, unable to move for Adam had slipped his arm about his brother’s shoulder and was holding him firmly but gently in a brotherly fashion.

“Adam! Really, whatever will the boy think of me if you keep telling him lies like that?” giggled Rachel. “I hope you’re ready to go riding with me, you did promise?”

“Yes of course my dear. Your wish is my command, anything for my lovely bride-to-be,” teased Adam.

He turned his attention to Joe. “Would you mind saddling Rachel’s mare for her, please?”

Joe wanted only to separate himself from the woman’s presence and quickly backed away from his brother as Rachel moved to his side.

“Why? She’s capable of saddling her own horse!” he barked in anger.

“JOE! What’s the meaning of this?” Adam turned.

He had been caught off guard by his brother’s rude attitude.

“Do as I asked, now!” he ordered the boy.

“No,” Joe defied his brother.

His eyes had filled with tears and when Rachel gently put her hand on his trembling shoulder, Joe flinched and yanked free.

“Don’t touch me!” he shouted.

Adam quickly stepped between his brother and his intended. He turned dark angry eyes down at Joe and when he spoke in a deep voice, that coated his anger, Joe knew he was in trouble.

“I’m not sure what is going on here, little brother. We’ll discuss it later, but not in front of Rachel. Now saddle her horse like I asked you too, and then go inside until I come back.”

One look at Adam’s face and Joe knew better than to argue with him. He swallowed his pride and his fear and returned to the barn to do as his brother had asked. He grabbed the saddle from the rail where Rachel had been standing when he first had entered the barn and flung it over the mare’s back. The tears that had filled his eyes caused his vision to be blinded until he wiped them away. When he looked down, the mare was holding one foot up and Joe stooped to see what was wrong. Instantly he spied a tiny stone beneath the rim of her shoe and taking his knife from his pocket, he dug the stone out.

“Aren’t you finished yet?” Rachel called from the doorway where Adam had left her momentarily while he ran into the house.

Joe snapped closed his knife and led the mare from the barn and across the yard to where Adam’s horse was tied. Adam emerged from the house, smiling and joined Rachel. He turned and studied his little brother’s face. For whatever reason, Joe had been crying but before he could ask Joe what was wrong, Rachel called for him.

“Adam, dear, are you ready?” she smiled sweetly at her beau.

“Sure am, I won’t be long, Joe, and then we’ll talk,” he said to his brother who had moved to sit in the rocker on the porch.

“Mount up,” Adam called to Rachel.

He swung his long leg over the top of his saddle and lowered his behind onto the soft leather seat.

“OHHHH!”

Joe jumped to his feet; Adam’s head swirled around toward Rachel’s scream, shocked to find the beautiful woman lying in a heap on the ground.

Instantly Adam was at her side, helping her to sit up. Long strands of dark curls had fallen free of their pins, her face had smudges of dirt and her eyes glowed with anger. She pointed her long slender finger over Adam’s shoulder and began to shout.

“YOU!” she shouted. “YOU DID THIS ON PURPOSE!” she screamed at Joe, who stood stunned.

Adam twisted his head around to see Joe standing behind him. He quickly spied the half grin on the boy’s face and then just as quickly, turned to see the tearful expression on his beloved’s face.

“He did this on purpose!” accused Rachel as Adam helped her to stand.

“Don’t be silly, why would Joe want to hurt you?” Adam asked while he wiped the smudges of dirt from her face with his handkerchief.

Rachel was livid. “Because he hates me…ask him…just ask him…look at him, he’s laughing!”

Adam turned and though he tried to wipe the smile from his face, he had not been quick enough. Seeing the grin, Adam became angry himself.

“JOE!”

“I didn’t do anything…honest Adam,” Joe said in defense of himself.

He really hadn’t, but he couldn’t say he was sorry that her stirrup had broken, dumping her in the dirt and dust.

“Yes he did, look at this.” Rachel flung the stirrup at Adam, who caught it with one hand. “He cut the leather!”

“That’s a lie!”

Joe was beginning to get worried for Adam had advanced on him, holding what was left of the stirrup in his hand.

“Look in his pocket…I saw him closing his knife just as I was going into the barn. He’s lying to you darling,” Rachel sung sweetly.

“Joe,” growled Adam between clinched teeth.

Joe’s eyes were wide with dread; she was actually making him out to look like a liar. He gulped, his eyes filled with frightened tears and he began inching back from his brother. Adam’s arm swung out as fast as lightning and before Joe could escape, Adam grabbed him.

Joe began struggling, trying to pull his arm free from his brother’s fingers.

“I didn’t do anything…honest Adam…honest!”

“Joe be still,” snapped Adam. “Is your knife in your pocket?” he asked as Joe finally gave up fighting and stood rigid before his brother.

Joe’s chin was quivering; he glanced at Rachel who wore a smug expression on her face.

“Joe, I asked you a question.”

Adam gave Joe a slight shake to draw his attention and then surprised the boy by sliding his long fingers into the pocket of Joe’s trousers. When he felt the knife, he withdrew his hand, bringing the knife out of the pocket.

Adam’s eyes turned black with anger and he glared at the trembling boy.

“Why Joe? What has Rachel ever done to you?”

“Adam…I didn’t…”

“What he needs is a good thrashing with a strong leather strap!” suggested Rachel as she stood next to Adam and glared at Little Joe.

Adam glanced at Rachel and then back at his brother whose arm he still held tightly.

“That might not be such a bad idea!”

Adam slipped Joe’s pocketknife into his own pocket.

“I’m very angry with you Joe and disappointed to think that you would actually do something like this. This act of total disrespect has hurt me deeply; you know how I feel about Rachel. Now go to your room and stay there, I’ll be back later and I’ll deal with you then.”

Adam released his hold on his brother’s arm and watched as Joe turned and ran toward the house. He watched the boy’s retreating back, confused by the audacity of his brother’s act. When Rachel touched his arm, he turned and seeing her tears gathered the lovely woman into his arms.

“Rachel dear, I apologize for my brother’s misconduct…I can’t imagine what inspired him to do such a thing. I assure you, he will answer to me for it,” Adam whispered as he consoled the woman that he loved.

“I’m sorry too, sweetheart. I’ve tried over and over to be nice to that boy, but he’s so…so…wild and impetuous.”

Rachel gently pushed herself away from Adam and with sad eyes, looked into his.

“You know what the boy needs, Adam? Discipline…strict discipline, not like what your father gives to him. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but Little Joe is spoiled rotten, any fool can see that. He needs guidance, like they can furnish in boarding schools or even military schools. Your father would do well by the boy to consider sending him to one,” she suggested gently.

Adam glanced back toward the house. He shook his head remorsefully.

“I hate to admit it, but after this little incident, you are probably right. I may just speak to my father about it, once he gets home.”

Rachel leaned against Adam’s breast, slipping her arms around his waist. She smiled in satisfaction; the brat would soon be long gone. One down, one to go, she giggled softly to herself.

“What do you mean, he’s not in his room?” stormed Adam. “I specifically told him to wait there for me!”

“I know ya did, big brother, and I thought that was where he was, but he ain’t!” Hoss tried to explain. “He’s gone Adam…his bedroom winder is opened too,” he added softly.

Rachel watched from where she sat in the red leather chair. Her face wore a frown of disapproval but inside, where no one could see, she was gloating. The boy had disobeyed his brother and would, for sure this time, get the thrashing of a lifetime, once Adam found where Joe had taken off to.

Adam paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. One hand was folded into a tight fist and was pounding the opened palm of his other hand.

“I’ll wear that boy out,” he grumbled.

“Adam, why’d he run away?” Hoss questioned, his face drawn up into a tight frown.

Adam spun around, “Because he knew he was going to get punished, that’s why!”

“That don’t make no sense, even for Joe,” Hoss commented.

Adam paused in his pacing, “Why?”

“He knew he was already in trouble, why’d he wanna go make it worse by runnin’ off? Joe’d never do that, unless somethin’ bad was wrong,” Hoss said as he plopped down on the settee.

“Maybe he thinks that his running away would cause Adam to worry and then when he’s found, Adam would be so happy to have him back, the thrashing would be forgotten. Well, I won’t let Adam forget, it was my behind that got tossed to the ground…and it still hurts,” grumbled Rachel.

Rachel rose and stood before Adam. Gently she caressed his face with her fingers.

“He’s a bad seed Adam, best see to it that your father sends him to school somewhere before he ruins the family’s good name.”

Adam gazed down into Rachel’s blue eyes. He was speechless. Yes, sure his little brother could be a handful, but a bad seed?

“Rachel, that’s an odd thing to say,” he said softly.

She spun around; her patience was beginning to wear thin.

“Well, what am I suppose to think? He’s rude, his manners aren’t fit for a pig sty, he has no idea how to treat a lady, he’s defiant and…and…now he’s run away, just to gain attention from you! Can’t you see…he’s jealous…of me…and you, darling! That’s the reason he’s run off and if I were you…”

“Well, lil’tle Missy, you are not Mister Adam. You are a wicked and vile woman who is not good enough to kiss the ground of either Mister Adam or Lil’tle Joe…”

“HOP SING!” barked Adam, stunned by the family servant’s out burst.

“It is true Adam, Missy Rachel verily bad to Lit’le Joe, she beat him with small whip and leave bad welts on lil’tle boy’s back…she try to seduce boy with beautiful body and then beat boy with fists when Lil’tle Joe try to get away from her. That not all, she tell boy that you not believe him if he try telling you, she say, ‘Adam only believe me, not you”, that what she tell lil’tle brother. He frightened, he think you no care about him and he no tell you, he not want to hurt you…she say she make you send boy away! That reasons why Lil’tle Joe run away…not because he afraid to be punished! He afraid of breaking big brother’s heart!”

Hop Sing was raving mad and he spewed out the entire story of what Rachel had been doing to his favorite son. His dark almond eyes had turned a strange shade of ebony and had filled with tears.

Rachel had seen the dark look that washed into Adam’s eyes and she stepped back from him. She could feel the tremors that coursed through his body and it scared her, for she had never seen him so angry.

“Rachel?” Adam said.

His voice was deep and brooding, his jaw line was tight as he turned to face the woman he loved.

“It’s a lie, darling…all of it. You’ve seen how hard I’ve tried to be nice to Little Joe and make him like me!” she said sweetly.

Inside she was terrified and her stomach began to rumble and she feared that Adam might hear the ferocious sounds.

Hoss had stood to his feet, speechless. His eyes moved from Adam to Rachel to Hop Sing and then started over again.

“Oh Adam, surely you don’t bel…”

“I don’t know what to believe…but something’s going on here and I aim to find out what it is!”

Rachel moved closer to Adam and laid her hand on his arm.

“Look at me darling…do I look like the type of lady who would do as this…this…common servant would suggest?” she smiled slightly.

“Looks are deceiving,” Hop Sing said as he moved to Adam’s opposite side. “You are no lady…you are wolf in sheep’s clothing,” scowled Hop Sing.

“You ask lil’tle brother, he tell you now. He not lie to you, not about something so important, Adam…you are his idol, he treasure your respect of him, that why he cannot tell you of these things. He afraid of what young Missy will do to him.”

“Hop Sing’s right, Adam,” Hoss said.

He’d found his voice at last and hurried to tell Adam what Joe had told to him.

“The other day, in the barn…you know that night when he took off from the table. I talked to him and he told me that she hated him and had it in for him.”

Hoss paused and shook his head.

“I passed it off to the kid missin’ Pa, but now, I ain’t so sure, Adam. Joe did sorta act like he was afeared of Miss Rachel…”

Adam’s lips were pressed tight together.

“Rachel, so help me if you have…”

“Why Adam! Whatever are you suggesting, that I did what they are saying? Okay, so maybe I’m not overly fond of the kid, but seducing him, and beating him…come on…how can you believe that?” stormed Rachel.

“In fact, it was your brother that came on to me. He got mad that day we went into town because I wouldn’t let him kiss me…he…he started making advances at me and I had to fight him off, that’s why the welts and bruises and his ripped shirt. I had to protect myself against him. But I bought him a new shirt and promised not to tell on him if he’d just stay away from me. He even suggested that we…that we get together sometime and let me teach him…hmm…”

Suddenly Rachel began to cry. She covered her face with her hands and wept loudly.

“Get out!”

Rachel lowered her hands and raised her head slightly, caught off guard by the harsh, demanding words.

“Excuse me?” she sputtered.

“You heard me…I said to get out…and don’t ever come back,” Adam said.

“But…but…why, darling? Why?”

“I might have believed you, until you accused him of the things you’ve just said. My God, Rachel, Joe’s just a boy. Sure he’s wild, and free-spirited and spontaneous. And he’s irresponsible at times, I’ll admit to all of that, but first and foremost, he’s my kid brother and I love him just the way he is. He’s honorable and honest and above all else, he’s a gentleman, totally incapable of doing what you’ve suggested,” Adam explained in an angry voice.

“No…NO! Please darling let me explain…”

“There’s nothing to explain…you had just better be glad that you’re a woman, for if you had been a man, I’d kill you for what you’ve done to my brother. Now leave and do it quickly or I might just change my mind and kill you anyway!”

Adam turned his back on the shocked woman and began speaking to Hop Sing.

“Do you have any idea where Little Joe might have taken off to?”

“Angeles,” Hop Sing said quickly. “Here read this.”

Hop Sing handed Adam a crumbled up ball of paper. With fingers that trembled, Adam undid the tight ball and quickly read the words of the telegram that his father had sent. He glanced up worriedly at Hoss.

“The boy’s gone to find Pa,” he explained to his brother. “I’m not surprised,” he added sadly. “I’ve treated him wrongly…all because of…” Adam spun around. “I thought I told you to leave!”

Rachel flung back her head and snarled at Adam. As she reached the door, she whirled around.

“I hope you never find the little bastard!”

Adam, furious, made a dash for the woman but was halted by Hoss’ strong hands on his arms.

“Let her go, brother, she ain’t worth it,” he said softly.

Adam swallowed the knot that had tightened his throat.

“How could I have been so blinded?” he muttered.

Joe’s trail wasn’t hard to follow. His little roan gelding had one shoe missing and the track that he left was as easy to read as an opened book. Adam knew that Joe would soon have to stop, or his horse would come up lame and knowing his little brother, Joe would never allow that to happen. He continued to follow his brother’s trail until the sun began to melt behind the mountain peaks and the day turned slowly into night. When he stopped at last, he was tired, and worried, not sure if Joe would welcome him or not. Adam shook his head as he dismounted, he reckoned he couldn’t blame the boy, not after all he’d been through. Adam wondered just how long the abuse had been going on. Had it begun even before their father had left to tend to business in Angeles and if so, was that the reason why Little Joe had been so distraught by his father leaving? Adam reckoned it all to be so.

“I’m sorry kid,” he murmured to Sport. “Guess I let you down, big time.”

Adam rubbed the velvety end of his horse’s nose and climbed back into the saddle.

“Come on pal, let’s find that kid…tonight.”

Joe was mad, and he was tired, sick to his stomach and wishing more than anything else that he could just go away and never come back. He was heartsick, just knowing that his brother had doubted him and had believed that witch, broke his young heart. His intentions had never been to hurt Adam; he loved his brother far too much to ever want to hurt him in the way that Joe knew he would, if he told Adam about Rachel, and all the nasty, cruel things she had been doing to him. And yet, he was mad at Adam too, for not trusting him and for falling in love with a woman like Rachel Stanrick.

It had grown dark and he had stopped. His horse had lost a shoe and now he’d be unable to ride. His father was not coming home for at least another three weeks and Adam was mad at him, Rachel scared him, Hop Sing had pressured him into promising to break Adam’s heart…at least to Joe, that’s what the promise amounted too. He sat down with his back against a tree, feeling miserable and as if he had lost everything in his world that meant the most to him. Joe couldn’t help himself; he drew his legs up to his chest and rested his head on his knees. Moments later a flood of tears sprang forth and Joe began to weep. For several long minutes the boy sobbed, his shoulders heaved and the sound of his weeping broke the heart of the young man who had happened upon the boy unnoticed.

Adam silently knelt in front of his brother and gently placed his large hand on top of the boy’s curly head.

“Joe?” he said softly.

Joe, startled by the unexpected touch and the sound of a voice so near, jumped to his feet. He was breathing heavily as he backed away from Adam, his eyes wide with fright.

“Hey, take it easy, little buddy, it’s only me,” Adam said as he reached out to touch his brother’s arm.

Joe took another step back. His chin quivered, his hands, when he glanced down, shook.

“What…what…are you doing here?” he stuttered.

Adam seemed puzzled by the reception.

“I’m here to take you home, Joe.”

“Then you came for nothing…I’m not going back with you…I’m going to Angeles to be with Pa,” Joe tried to explain.

“Joe…listen,” began Adam.

“No Adam! It’s no use…I already know how you feel about me.” Joe’s eyes watered and he began crying. “I didn’t mess with Rachel’s saddle, I didn’t try to hurt her…I didn’t do anything to her…I just wanted her to…leave me alone,” sobbed Joe. He brushed at his tears with one sleeve. “You didn’t believe me…Adam…she said you wouldn’t…and you didn’t!”

Joe had backed up several paces to put distance between himself and his brother.

“I’m sorry Joe…I was wrong, okay? But what was I to think, you’ve been acting so strangely lately, I wasn’t sure…I’m sorry buddy. I know differently now…Hop Sing told me what…”

Joe stopped crying; his eyes grew wide.

“Hop Sing told you! He promised me, he wouldn’t!” Joe shouted.

“Calm down Joe, he was forced into it. Rachel began telling how you tried to seduce her and…”

“I did no such thing, Adam! Honest!”

Joe began to panic, he feared that Adam would do to him just as Rachel had claimed. His sobbing began to grow in volume and he turned, running blindly into the forest.

Taken by surprise, Adam shouted. “JOE! STOP!”

Adam started running after his brother. He had to stop the boy before Joe got hurt or lost in the thick woods. It was dark and hard to see as Adam raced after the boy. He could hear Joe thrashing about through the woods and then suddenly it fell silent, all was still, and then Joe moaned softly.

“JOE!” Adam called out, frightened that his brother had been hurt.

He took several steps, unsure of his footing and then when he was no more than a yard away, Joe, silhouetted by the moonlight, could be seen limping haphazardly away.

Adam rushed to catch up with Joe and when he was in arm’s reach, grabbed the boy and spun him around. Joe lost his footing and tumbled to the ground. Adam knelt down and when he made to help Joe, Joe cringed.

“Don’t hit me…please…don’t hit me,” sobbed the hysterical boy as he covered his upper body with his hands to protect himself.

Adam felt his heart stop. The sight of his little brother cowering before him brought new anger and suddenly he hated the woman whom he thought he had loved so deeply. Adam’s hands moved to gather the sobbing boy into his arms.

“Joe…shh…don’t cry little buddy, I’m not going to hit you.” Adam felt the sting of tears in his own eyes but he willed them away. “Please Joe, stop…you have to listen to me.”

Adam pulled Joe tightly to his breast, one hand cupping the boy’s head against his beating heart.

“Joe, you have to believe me…I didn’t know, until Hop Sing told me…he had too, Joe. She was standing right there in front of all of us, trying to make me believe you did those things, and Hop Sing couldn’t stand to hear what she was saying about you. He had to tell me…Joe…are you listening?”

Joe had stopped fighting against his brother’s restraint but continued to whimper.

“When she said that you tried to seduce her, I knew it was a lie…Joe, I know you aren’t capable of doing that…you’re too much of a gentleman…I didn’t need Hop Sing to tell me it was a lie, honest.”

Joe’s whimpering began to subside as the words began to take meaning. He nodded his head, so that Adam would know he had heard.

“Joe, I sent her away, for good…she’s gone…”

“For good?” muttered Joe.

“Yes Joe, for good. She’ll never be able to hurt you again, I promise,” whispered Adam.

“Then you aren’t going to marry her?”

“No…” Adam’s voice trailed off.

Joe glanced up and saw the tiny tears that had filled his brother’s dark eyes.

“I’m sorry, Adam,” whispered Joe softly.

Adam glanced down, as he did so, a lone tear escaped and rolled slowly down the front of his face.

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry for, little buddy.”

“I’m sorry that she wasn’t like you believed her to be…I’m sorry that you’re not getting married. But I’m mostly sorry that you had to make a choice, Adam. I just wanted you to be happy.   I’d gone away for good, it you’d married her, so that you would never know what she did to me and then you could have been happily married and…”

“No Joe, sooner or later the truth would have come out. If it had not been you, it would have been someone else. Listen little buddy, there was no choice to make.”

Adam smiled down into the cherub like face.

“The woman that I do marry, better understand one thing, want to know what that is?”

Joe nodded his head.

Adam grinned. “If she’s ever going to be Mrs. Adam Cartwright, she’d better love me…and my kid brother…or take a hike.”

Joe giggled and then just a quickly turned serious.

“Adam, what are you going to tell Pa, when he comes home?”

“The truth Joe, the plain and simple truth…that things just didn’t work out between us,” explained Adam.

“And are you going to tell him about…about the things that…she did to me?” Joe stammered.

“Don’t you think that Pa has a right to know?” Adam questioned.

“I suppose so…” he began and then looked up at Adam.

Adam was studying his face intently.

“Okay, I’ll tell him…”

“No Joe, I brought Rachel home to meet my family, she damn near destroyed my kid brother’s life, and mine, I’ll be the one to tell him,” stated Adam.

“We’ll tell him together, how’s that?” smiled Joe.

“That’s fine with me kid, now let’s get you back to the horses, build a fire and take a look at your ankle. I don’t think it’s too bad. Think you can walk?”

Adam got to his feet and helped Joe to his. Joe was a might wobbly and leaned against Adam’s body for support. He looked up at his brother’s face. The sad expression that had fathered the lone tear was gone now, and Adam appeared as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. But Joe knew better, he knew Adam well enough to know that deep down inside, his brother had died, just a little…and Joe blamed Rachel and her deceptive ways for shattering the love that Adam had so freely given to her.

Joe swallowed the thickness in his throat.

“Adam,” he said calmly.

“Yeah, kid?”

“I’m sorry she hurt you,” Joe muttered.

His chin began to quiver and his eyes filled with tears.

“I know it ain’t the same, but for what it’s worth, I want you to know…I love you.”

Adam almost choked; he didn’t know what to say, the boy had seen through the outer, exterior wall and straight into his broken heart. He wrapped his arms about Joe and pulled the boy into an embrace, holding Joe for a long time before he could bring himself to speak without breaking down. He swallowed one last time and took a deep breath to steady his voice.

“That means more than anything in this world to me Joe, and so do you…thank you, I needed to hear those words!”

***The End***

August 2003

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