Tug of Love (by Rona)

Summary:  Joe and Adam clash over a girl. However, they both find that blood is thicker than water when the girl kidnaps Joe.

Rated:  T
Word Count:  11,358

 

Tug of Love 

 

Hesitating outside his brother’s bedroom door, Joe Cartwright wished he were anywhere else right at that moment, instead of where he was. The one person on earth he would rather not see was his brother, Adam, and the one person hehad to see was Adam.

Lifting his hand, Joe knocked, tentatively. For several long seconds there was no reply, then a deep baritone voice said, “Go away, Joe.”

There was nothing Joe would rather have done, but he steeled himself, and opened Adam’s door. Adam was standing by the window, looking out. His black-clad figure seemed even darker against the bright daylight outside. “Adam, we have to talk,” Joe said.

Turning, Adam cast Joe a bitter look. “Didn’t you hear me? I said, go away!”

Swallowing, Joe shook his head. “I can’t, Adam. We have to sort this out. I didn’t know, I swear I didn’t. Do you really think I’d do that to you? Surely you know me better than that?”

“Don’t bother to explain!” Adam spat. He pushed past Joe and tried to leave the room. He was somewhat surprised when Joe resisted his efforts without too much difficulty. It was all too easy to look at Joe and see only his slimness, and not realise how muscular he was.

“Adam, this is important,” Joe persisted. “We can’t let this get between us.”

“Can’t let it?” Adam echoed. “It’s already between us, Joe!”

“Please, Adam, listen to me,” pleaded Joe. “I wouldn’t have agreed to go out with Carrie if I’d known you were seeing her.”

“Agreed? You make it sound as though she made the first move!”

Frowning, Joe said, “She did. She asked me if I wanted to go to the picnic with her.”

That was the last straw for Adam’s impressive control. He grabbed Joe by the collar, and shook him. “Carrie asked you? I hardly think so! You’re well known around here as a ladies’ man. You couldn’t resist Carrie!”

“I don’t lie!” Joe insisted. He had never seen Adam this angry. “Carrie did ask me!”

Adam let out a roar of pain and anguish, and punched Joe in the face. Joe reeled back across the landing, shocked more than hurt. But Adam hadn’t finished with him. He came after Joe, intent on taking out his pain on the younger brother he thought had betrayed him.

Backing away, Joe was horrified. He didn’t want to fight with Adam, especially not over a girl he was only seeing casually, but Adam was determined. He swung again, and Joe barely evaded the punch. “Adam!” he pleaded, to no avail.

He continued to back away, all his attention focused on his furious older brother. Many times, Joe had wondered what it would take to get Adam really riled up – now he knew, and how he wished he didn’t! Joe was so busy avoiding Adam’s anger that he wasn’t paying any attention to where he was. His foot hit the top step of the stairs, and his heel went down on fresh air. He teetered for a moment, off balance. But his weight was too far back, and with a cry of alarm, Joe toppled backwards down the stairs. He hit the banister with the small of his back, and somersaulted over it.

“Joe!” Adam cried, and made an abortive lunge for him. He missed, and had to watch in horror as Joe crashed to the wooden floor below.

Tearing down the stairs, Adam rushed to Joe’s side, his anger forgotten in concern over his brother. Joe lay still, his eyes closed. There was blood on the floor, but Adam was too scared to move Joe. He dropped to his knees. “Oh, God, please, no!” he prayed, aloud.

 

*****

That was how Ben and Hoss found them when they returned a few minutes later. Both father and son had been concerned when Adam and Joe had left the picnic within minutes of each other, and Joe had left his date behind. Puzzled and concerned, Ben had made his apologies, and followed. Hoss was by his side in moments.

“Adam?” Ben said now, puzzled. “What’s wrong?” He took a step further in the door, and Joe’s body came into view. “Joe?” Ben ran to his side and anxiously felt for a pulse. It was there, reassuringly steady, despite the blood Ben could see pooling on the floor. “What happened, Adam?”  he asked.

Still kneeling there, Adam couldn’t bring himself to speak. He was drowning in shame that he had wanted to do his brother serious injury, and now it seemed that he had. He flicked a glance at Ben, who saw the tears in his son’s eyes, and didn’t press. “Hoss, we have to get him upstairs. Send someone for the doctor.”

As Hoss knelt to pick Joe up, Adam spoke. “No,” he whispered. “He fell over there,” and he indicated the blanket-covered banister at the bend of the stairs.

Ben looked up and his brown eyes were wide with horror. “Adam’s right,” he agreed. “We need to get Paul here before we move him. Pass me that blanket, Adam.”

It was as though Adam was frozen in place. He didn’t move, his anguished gaze fixed on Joe’s face. Completely baffled by Adam’s behaviour, Ben jumped to his feet and got the blanket himself. He tucked it securely around Joe, and stroked his son’s hair. The blood on the floor concerned him greatly.

“I’ll get the doc, Pa,” offered Hoss, and Ben agreed, knowing that Hoss couldn’t bear to just sit and wait.

“Adam?” Ben said, gently. When he got no response, he repeated himself until his oldest son looked at him. “You must tell me what happened, Adam.”

A shudder ran through Adam’s body as he took a deep breath. Tears began to streak his face, and Ben was truly alarmed. “We had a fight,” he sobbed. “I was trying to hit Joe, and he was trying to get away, and he didn’t see the stairs, and he fell. I tried to catch him, Pa, I promise I did, but he fell. Its all my fault.”

“It was an accident,” Ben said, horrified more by Adam’s tears than by his disjointed account of what had happened. “But what were you fighting about? I thought you and Joe were getting on better just now.”

Raising wet brown eyes to his father, Adam blushed with shame. “Pa,” he whispered. “It was… I…” He choked, and stopped. Ben put a hand lovingly on Adam’s shoulder, and squeezed. He waited for Adam to gather himself enough to go on. “Joe took Carrie to the picnic,” he finally said.

“Carrie?” Ben repeated. Whatever else he had expected, this was not it. “Carrie Walker? What of it?”

“I’m in love with her!” shouted Adam. “She’s my girl! She agreed to marry me!”

Opening his mouth, Ben hastily shut it again, as he had no idea what to say. Finally, knowing that he was only making things worse, but also knowing he had to get to the bottom of this, he said, “Then why was she at the picnic with Joe?”

Sniffing, Adam dragged a hand over his face. “Joe says she asked him to take her.” The doubt about the veracity of that statement was clear in Adam’s voice.

“That’s true, son,” his father said, gently. “I was there when she asked him. But, Adam, why wasn’t she going with you, when you are to be married?” Ben phrased his question carefully.

Swallowing, Adam seemed to be getting his self control back. “I was to meet her there. She hadn’t told her parents about us yet. She wanted to wait another few weeks until her 21st birthday. He father is kind of strict with her.”

Not strict enough, Ben thought, unkindly. He had no high opinion of the redheaded girl Joe had introduced him to earlier in the afternoon. However, he couldn’t say that to Adam. “And you thought Joe was stealing your girl?” he asked. “You know he wouldn’t do that, Adam.”

Colour flushed Adam’s face again. “I wasn’t thinking straight,” he admitted. “I just saw Joe with my girl, laughing and joking as though I didn’t exist! All I wanted to do was get away. Joe followed me, and said we had to talk.” Tears suddenly shook Adam as the memory came back to him. “I lost control, and I wanted to hurt him.” His shoulders slumped. “How can you forgive me, Pa?”

“Easily,” Ben replied, his heart aching for his son, and gathered Adam into his embrace. “But I genuinely don’t think Joe knew about you and Carrie. That’s not like him at all.” Ben thought back to the picnic, and saw again, in his mind’s eye, Adam stalking away to his horse, and Joe’s puzzled look. Carrie had then spoken to Joe, and he had looked at her, and walked away. Ben had been distracted then by someone else, and hadn’t noticed anything until he saw Joe’s horse gone, too. That was when he suspected trouble, though he couldn’t imagine what kind. “Adam, we’ll get this straightened out as soon as Joe is well again.”

Pushing himself away, Adam gave his father a shattered look. “What if he doesn’t get well again?” he cried. Shoving himself to his feet, Adam fled out the front door. Ben followed, in time to see Adam mount Sport, and gallop out of the yard. Ben longed to go after him, but his youngest son lay bleeding on the floor, and Ben didn’t dare leave him alone.

*****

Shortly afterwards, Joe began to moan, and he was conscious by the time Paul Martin arrived. Ben, still worried by the blood pooling on the floor, had made Joe lie still. He was even more worried by the fact Joe kept still. Paul came into the house with Hoss at his back, and knelt by Joe’s side. He ran his fingers through Joe’s hair, and looked intently into his eyes. Then he ran his hands down Joe’s neck and back, before nodding. “All right, its safe to move him.”

Ben and Hoss waited downstairs while Paul examined Joe. Hoss sat wearily by the fire, while Ben cleaned up the blood, and folded the blanket back over the banister. Paul wasn’t long. “He’s badly concussed, Ben, and he’s displaced his shoulder. I need you to hold him, while I put it back in place. I want to put a couple of stitches in the gash behind his ear. Luckily, there isn’t a skull fracture. He was fortunate.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said. “When I saw the blood…” he didn’t need to finish.

Paul smiled. “The head always bleeds very easily. But Joe is concussed. He’s got a terrible headache, and it could persist for quite a while. He may be dizzy, and lack concentration. He might get bouts of nausea and vomiting. He may well have some short-term memory loss. But don’t worry. It will all right itself, probably within a few weeks, possibly within a few days.” Paul saw that Ben had understood what he was saying. “Let’s go put his shoulder back together.”

*****

Night fell, and Adam was miles from the house. He had run Sport until the horse couldn’t go any further, then he had slowed, cooling the horse out, not wanting to cause any more damage that day. Adam had no idea when he last lost control; he couldn’t remember. To him, that made the day’s events even more unforgivable.

Mechanically, he made camp, but he didn’t attempt to cook. He felt he would’ve choked on the food. He made a pot of coffee, and sat drinking it, not noticing when he scalded his mouth on the hot, bitter liquid. It was an appropriate accompaniment to his thoughts. Normally calm, controlled and logical, Adam’s thoughts were now totally chaotic, touching on one thing before skittering off onto another. He was unable to focus on anything apart from Joe’s broken body lying on the floor, bleeding. When his thoughts did turn to Carrie, he shuddered, able only to see her with Joe.

When he finally lay down to sleep, he was tormented by images of Carrie and Joe kissing, something that he hadn’t seen. At last, he broke down in tears, and as the tears eased his torment, he slipped into an exhausted sleep.

*****

Dawn found Adam, hollow-eyed, forcing himself to eat. The sleep had done him a lot of good, and he was calmer, more in control. He knew, deep down, that Joe hadn’t set out to make a fool of him, but he was still very hurt by his brother’s actions. He was also embarrassed by his own actions. Rarely, if ever, had Adam wanted to hurt anyone as badly as he’d wanted to hurt Joe yesterday. Looking back, it seemed to be part of a nightmare. Unfortunately, it was a waking nightmare. He wondered if Joe could ever forgive him.

Packing up his camp, Adam wondered where he would go now. The urge to return home and seek solace in the arms of his family was strong. Yet, conversely, he wasn’t sure he was ready to do that. He felt he had to come to terms with his outburst before he could face his family, and try and explain. He looked around, and wondered if he ought to visit Carrie. Shaking his head, he decided he wasn’t ready to do that, either.

With Sport saddled and ready, Adam mounted up, and rode aimlessly in the opposite direction to home. The beauty of the sun on Lake Tahoe didn’t touch him at all, though usually this was a sight to gladden his heart. With a jolt, Adam realised he was close to the place where Joe’s mother, Marie, was buried. He stopped Sport, afraid to ride on, afraid he had committed an offence too severe to confess to Marie’s spirit. Afraid he wouldn’t find the comfort he usually felt there.

It wasn’t until Sport began to fidget that Adam made a move. Without conscious decision, he rode to the graveyard, and hitched Sport to the railing. He dragged his feet across to the grave, and stood looking down. “Oh, Mama, can you forgive me?” he gasped, and fell to his knees, sobbing once more. “I promised you I would look after Joe, and look what I did to him.”

It occurred to Adam that he didn’t know if Joe was alive or dead. A shudder shook him. “What am I going to do, Mama?” He lay flat on top of the grave, and sobbed out his confusion.

*****

He was still there when Hoss found him a short time later. By then, Adam was once more in control of his emotions, and was mentally girding his loins to return home. He was profoundly shaken by his loss of control, yet felt better for having let his emotions out. Although he didn’t know it, Adam had been bottling everything up for too long, and had needed an outburst to ‘clear the air’. Joe had caught the sharp end of it, and that was a pity, but it had been good for Adam.

“Adam?” Hoss said, gently. “Are you all right?”

Climbing slowly to his feet, and dusting off his clothes, Adam nodded. “Is Joe…?”

Smiling, Hoss nodded. “He’s gonna be fine. Just a spot of concussion is all. He’s askin’ for you.”

“For me?” Adam said, sharply, a pang of something like fear shooting through his gut. “Why would he ask for me?”

Tipping his hat back, Hoss scratched his head, frowning. “Dadburnit, Adam, you’re his brother,” replied Hoss. “He wants to know where you are. Ain’t it the most natural thing in the world?”

“Not after what I did to him,” replied Adam, bitterly. “He must hate me.”

Heaving a sigh, Hoss put an arm round Adam’s shoulder, and made him sit down. “Joe don’t hate you, Adam,” he said, patiently. “He loves you. If he didn’t love you, he wouldn’t have come after you yesterday. What happened was an accident. Joe don’t even remember it.”

Jerking away from Hoss’s supporting arm, Adam shot him a look. “He doesn’t remember? I thought you said he just had concussion?”

Torn away from his chain of thought, Hoss scowled. “Doc says it ain’t unusual that he don’t remember. But Adam, he’s askin’ for you. You gotta come home.”

“How can I face him, Hoss?” Adam demanded. “How can I face Carrie?”

“How long you been goin’ out with her, Adam?” asked Hoss.

“A couple of months,” Adam answered, defensively. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You kept it pretty quiet,” Hoss commented, keeping his tone neutral. “How’s Joe meant to have known if’n you didn’ tell anyone? ‘Sides, she asked him, according to Pa. He was there.” Hoss looked at Adam’s face. “If’n I loved a filly that much, I reckon I’d be crowin’ it from the rooftops.”

“She doesn’t want her family to know, just yet,” Adam replied, mechanically. “So I agreed not to say anything.”

“Not even to us?” asked Hoss. “We wouldn’t have said anythin’. You know that, Adam. D’you love her?” Hoss’ question was so ingenuous that Adam didn’t take offence.

“I think so,” he replied.

“You think so,” his brother repeated. “You ain’t sure, yet you asked her to marry you, anyway? Brave man, Adam.”

“I do love her,” Adam declared, angrily. “She’s beautiful and spirited.”

Raising one cynical eyebrow, Hoss snorted. “Sounds just like you’re sellin’ a filly,” he said, scathingly. “Beautiful and spirited covers that sassy chestnut mare down in the corral. You know what I think, Adam? I think you liked the idea of bein’ in love with Carrie. After all, she is beautiful, and she’s new to town, and Joe ain’t been out with her but once. I think you weren’t thinkin’ straight. I think you’ve been workin’ too hard, and had your head turned by a pretty little gal who fancied bein’ married to a Cartwright.”

For a moment, Hoss thought he’d gone too far. Adam’s face darkened, and he looked very dangerous in that moment. But then the storm cleared, and Adam began to look thoughtful. “I was flattered by her interest,” he admitted. “I do care for her, or I wouldn’t have been so angry yesterday.”

“But do you care enough to marry her?” Hoss persisted. “Seems to me, Adam, that you ain’t too sure of that yourself.”

“I was jealous,” Adam admitted, though it cost him to say the words. “Jealous of my own brother.” He shook his head.

“Come home,” said Hoss, after they’d sat in silence for a while. “We need you there, Adam. Joe needs you there.”

Too weary to argue, Adam nodded. Together, they mounted up and rode back to the ranch.

*****

His homecoming was easier than Adam had dreamed. Ben met him at the door with a big, relieved smile, and crushed him in his arms. “Adam! Are you all right, son?” Ben held Adam at arm’s length as he looked at his son’s face.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Adam said, quietly. “I’m so sorry about yesterday. I didn’t mean to hurt Joe. I….”

Interrupting, Ben said, “Its all right, son. We know you didn’t mean it. Come inside. Hop Sing will get you something to eat, and you can take a bath and get cleaned up. Joe’s asleep right now, but he’s been asking for you.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Adam replied, and suddenly felt exhausted. He followed his father inside.

*****

Later, bathed, shaved, fed and changed, Adam braced himself to go to Joe’s bedside. He knew his brother was awake, because Hoss, who’d been sitting with him, came down to tell them. Ben, seeing the look in Adam’s eye, climbed the stairs with him, his hand on Adam’s back, lending love and support. At the door to Joe’s room, Ben stopped. “I’ll be right here if you need me, son,” he said, reassuringly.

Taking several deep breaths, Adam opened the door and went in. Joe lay flat on the bed, his right arm bound up across his chest, to allow the dislocated shoulder to heal. He looked about 16 and vulnerable. At the sound of the door opening, Joe opened his eyes. He smiled when he saw Adam, but it wasn’t the usual blinding grin. That alone told Adam how much Joe hurt.

“Adam!” Joe cried, and there was real gladness in his tone. “Where’ve you been?”

Producing a smile of his own, Adam sat down beside Joe. “I had some thinking to do,” he said. “Joe, I’m real sorry about yesterday. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

A spasm of pain passed through Joe’s green eyes as he frowned. “Pa says I fell down the stairs after we argued. I don’t remember it. But I’m sorry we argued. It was probably my fault. It usually is.” He rubbed his nose with the back of his left hand. “What did we argue about?”

“Um,” Adam said, not sure how to tell Joe. “You took my girl to the picnic.”

Those green eyes stayed on Adam’s face, and he felt the colour rise up his neck. Joe could look as guileless as this and still be putting you on. “What girl? What picnic?”

“Don’t worry about it, Joe,” soothed Adam. “We can talk about it when you’re better.” The assurance calmed Joe, but it left Adam unsatisfied. Joe must have sensed that, as he began to look troubled again.

“I’m sorry I took your girl to the picnic,” he mumbled. “Why did I do it?” He reached for Adam’s hand, looking agitated. “Why, Adam? I – I didn’t do it to spite you, did I?”

“No, Joe, you didn’t know Carrie was my girl. I just got angry, and when you tried to apologise, I thought you were rubbing my face in it, and I hit you.” Adam tried to extract his hand from Joe’s grip, but Joe clung on tenaciously.

“Carrie Walker is your girl?” Joe gasped. “Since when?”

Wriggling uneasily on the hard seat, Adam avoided making eye contact. “A couple of months.” Joe’s hand tightened on his, and he looked up. Joe was quite green, and in obvious pain. “Joe, are you all right?” Adam asked, concerned.

The bedroom door opened, and Ben came in. Neither of his sons realised that he’d been discreetly eavesdropping at the door. They just accepted his arrival as fortunate. “I think I’m gonna be sick,” Joe whispered, and shortly thereafter proved himself correct.

Wiping Joe’s sweaty, pale face, as their father cleared up, Adam smiled at Joe. “Maybe you should rest, buddy.”

“Maybe,” Joe agreed. “But, Adam, I don’t want to make you angry again, but there’s something you should know.” Joe looked exhausted, but determined. Adam squared his shoulders, and nodded for Joe to continue. “Carrie has been going out with lots of men in town. I’ve seen her myself, and I’ve heard the talk. I’m sorry.”

It was like a slap in the face to Adam, but Joe was too ill for him to show it. “Its okay, buddy,” Adam assured him. “Don’t worry about it.” He patted Joe’s good shoulder, and bade him goodnight. Walking back to the main room, he felt completely worn out.

It wasn’t long before Ben came back downstairs to join Adam and Hoss. Both looked at Ben as he sat down in his favourite chair. “Joe’s asleep,” he reported. “How do you feel now, son?” he asked, looking at Adam.

Shifting uncomfortably, Adam said, “Better, I think. But tired.” He glanced briefly at Hoss, who was watching him with a concerned frown. “I’m okay, honest.”

“Joe didn’t mean to upset you,” Ben persisted. “He’s been blurting things out like that.”

“I know he didn’t mean to hurt me,” Adam said. In fact, he’d taken the hurt as partial payment for the injury he’d done Joe. “And he was right, Pa. I did have to know.” Adam sighed, and rubbed a hand down his face. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll turn in.

*****

Next morning, Adam felt much better. He had slept soundly, and no dreams had troubled his rest. When he looked in on Joe, his brother looked better, too, although he was still complaining about his headache. Adam knew Joe would be really on the mend when he was telling them all he was ‘fine’.

Over breakfast, Ben discussed his plans for the day, but Adam was barely listening. He felt he had to see Carrie, to get the story of why she had asked Joe to take her to the picnic. He also wanted to find out about the talk Joe had mentioned. He knew as well as anybody else that gossip shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but he wanted to know what was being said.

He simply wanted to see Carrie, to hear her voice and look into her eyes. He wanted to feel how his heart reacted to what she said. He wanted to know if he was in love with her. More than anything, Adam wanted to believe that she was in love with him. He ignored a still, small voice, which suggested that he maybe wasn’t ready to hear what Carrie had to say.

Eyeing his eldest son along the length of the table, Ben realised that Adam wasn’t listening. It worried Ben that Adam was so caught up with this girl. Carrie Walker and her family had only been in Virginia City for a few short months, and none of them was well liked. The father was retired, and obviously had money. They bought a lovely house on the outskirts of town. However, it became clear all too soon, that Mr Walker thought that the ordinary people of the town were too common for him to mix with. He deliberately sought out the richer families, and tried to ingratiate himself on them. Ben Cartwright had no time for that kind of thing, and had been offended by how Walker had treated the family’s maid.

Mrs Walker was a harpy. She had an opinion on everything, and wasn’t slow to air it. She criticised the ‘backward’ shops, the manners of the ladies’ circle, the preacher, the size of the church – in short, everything. Despite having an opinion on everything, she wasn’t at all willing to help out. She liked to play the grand lady, and would send the overworked maid to help serve tea at church socials, rather than do it herself.

It was a surprise that two such unlikeable people had bred someone as apparently charming as Carrie. It was obvious that she was a ‘late’ baby. Speculation was ripe that the Walkers had adopted her, as Carrie was a beauty, and neither parent showed any signs of ever having beauty. Be that as it may, Carrie had become popular with the young men of the town, and was never short of partners at the barn dances.

Before the previous afternoon, Ben had only met Carrie once. He had just come from the bank, after drawing the week’s payroll, and it had been obvious from the way the manager had spoken to him at the door, that he was a good customer. Carrie, who was passing, had engaged Ben in conversation, and it wasn’t long before he became aware that she was eyeing him as a prospective husband. Some of the questions she asked were downright nosy and rude, and Ben had sidestepped them, and taken his leave. Now, he found himself wondering if Carrie had deliberately set out to snare both Adam and Joe, prepared to marry whichever one stayed the course.

This kind of speculation made Ben uncomfortable, because he generally thought the best of people. But he suspected that Carrie was a gold digger, and that Adam was going to get hurt. However, Ben said nothing of that to Adam. If Adamdid love Carrie, repeating a story like that could seem like sour grapes, interference, and would tell Adam that his father didn’t like his prospective daughter-in-law. But from the little Ben did know of Carrie, he was sure that he didn’t like her.

The possibility that he wouldn’t like his sons’ choices of wives was something that he hadn’t given any thought to previously.  But during the past night, he had given it some serious thought, and came to the conclusion that, if it happened, he would simply keep his feelings to himself. The last thing he wanted to do was drive his sons away. It hadn’t made for comfortable thinking, simply because it wasn’t in Ben’s nature to dislike people. And the thought of disliking someone that one of his sons held so dear was totally alien to him.

“I’m going in to town, Pa,” said Adam, breaking into his father’s reverie.

“All right, son,” replied Ben, and quelled Hoss’ unspoken question with a look. “Do what you think best.”

*****

Time develops an elastic quality when the mind is troubled. As Adam rode into Virginia City, it seemed to him no time since he set out, but the journey itself appeared to have taken a long time. He had kept Sport to an easy lope, but he had arrived before he was quite ready. He slowed to a walk as he went along Main Street, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. For a single, craven, moment, he considered stopping at the Bucket of Blood saloon for some Dutch courage. But it was only for a single moment, and then common sense prevailed, and he rode on towards Carrie’s home.

There was no one at home. Adam knocked twice, but there was no answer. Relieved, but hating himself for feeling that way, Adam turned to leave. He stood for a moment, stroking Sport’s nose absent-mindedly. He had no idea what to do next.

“Adam!” trilled a voice, and he turned to see Carrie and her mother approaching from town. They each carried a parcel, and the little maid trailed behind, laden with several more.

Automatically, Adam tipped his hat, and found a smile. His heart was in his throat.  “Carrie. Mrs Walker.”

Mrs Walker found smile for him, but it was a pretty sour affair. She continued on to the house, while Carrie lingered at the gate with Adam. “Don’t be long, Carrie,” Mrs Walker ordered. “You have your reputation to consider.”

“No, Mama,” Carrie replied, and gave Adam a smile. “I didn’t expect to see you today, Adam. You left the picnic so early. Joe, too.” There was a touch of petulance in her voice.

“I wanted to ask you about the picnic,” he said, trying not to admire the way the sun shone on her red hair. “Why did you ask Joe to take you?”

Tilting her head to one side, Carrie gave him a quizzical look. “Well, we agreed to keep our arrangement a secret. So I had to have a date for the picnic. My folks would have thought it strange if I didn’t. I knew Joe had just split up with what’s-her-name, so he seemed perfect. Why? You sound all grumpy about it, Adam.”

“I just didn’t think it was very suitable, that’s all,” he said, trying to keep his tone light. “Carrie, I think I’d like to wait a bit longer before we announce our plans to everyone. I don’t think we’re quite ready to get married yet.”

Drawing back, Carrie gave Adam a distinctly cold, angry look. “You don’t think we’re ready?” she echoed. “You thought we were ready a few weeks ago.”

“I know,” Adam admitted. “But I don’t think so now. It would have been nice if you’d mentioned your plans for the picnic. Joe was hurt, and so was I.”

Obviously petulant now, Carrie pouted. “Joe was hurt? Why should he care? He never settles down with anyone.”

Drawing a deep breath, and reminding himself she was very young, Adam said, “Joe was hurt because you hadn’t told him you were going steady with anyone. He thought he was in with a chance. And he hurt my feelings, too, and that made him feel bad.”

“Oh, who cares about your brother,” she said, crossly. “So what if I hurt him!”

Adam’s heart was aching. “My family is very important to me,” he said, softly. “You hurt Joe, and that hurt me. I told you how close we are.”

“They’re just your brothers!” Carried said, her voice going up as she got angrier. “I’m going to be your wife! I’m much more important than they are!  When we’re married, we won’t ever see them anyway!”

At that moment, Adam knew he couldn’t marry this spoiled child. He hadn’t really been in love with her, but he had been flattered by her attention. Even her spoiled ways had amused him, but he had mistaken amusement for love. In those few short sentences, Carrie had shown him her true colours, and Adam was grateful. He stepped back, and the action wasn’t lost on the girl.

“I’m sorry, Carrie,” he said. “I can’t marry you. I think its better if we don’t see each other again. Goodbye.” He stepped into the stirrup, and rode away, leaving Carrie standing in the street.

*****

It was still before noon when Adam rode into the yard. He led Sport into the barn, and slowly unsaddled him. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say to his family. Adam had never been good at losing face, and he wasn’t looking forward to eating this portion of humble pie. However, honesty was in his nature, but he vowed to say only what was necessary.

Following through on this decision, he went across to the house, knowing the family would be sitting down to dinner. As he expected, Hoss and Ben were both at the table, and he took his seat, mentally girding his loins for the ordeal ahead of him. He bowed his head while his father said grace, then launched into his explanation. “I’ve broken up with Carrie,” he said.

As a conversation stopper, it was a doozy! Neither Ben nor Hoss knew quite what to say. Finally, Ben cleared his throat and said, “I see.” After that, there didn’t seem to be anything else to say, and they applied themselves to the meal with a zeal only usually seen by Hoss. They all ate less than usual, and left the table quickly.

As Hoss climbed the stairs to say goodbye to Joe before he headed back out to work, Adam drew Ben across to the office area. “Don’t you want to know why?” he asked, defensively.

Leaning back in his chair, Ben looked at Adam. “Do you want to tell me?” he countered. “Its none of my business, Adam. Whatever decision you’ve made, I’ll support.”

Sitting down abruptly, Adam realised that this might not be as hard as he’d feared. “When I spoke to her, I realised that I didn’t love her,” he admitted, in a low voice. “She was so – casual – about using Joe. Then she said that he and Hoss didn’t matter, and that we wouldn’t see them after we were married.”

“I see,” Ben said, because he did, all too clearly. “I’m sorry, Adam. Sorry you were hurt by this, and that Joe got tangled up in it, too.” He met Adam’s eyes across the desk. “Let’s put it behind us and start again, shall we?”

“Thanks, Pa,” said Adam, gratefully, and left. Ben remained sitting behind the desk, thinking about the tangles his family got into.

*****

Joe’s recovery from his fall didn’t take very long. He was out of bed within a few days, and assuring everyone he felt fine. The family all knew he was still suffering from a bad headache, which lasted for more than a week. Paul Martin checked him out again, and declared him fit for light duties. Another week went past before Paul gave him the all clear to return to his normal workload. The troublesome headache was finally gone, but Joe still had no memory of the picnic and the fall. He could remember leaving the ranch, and then wakening up in bed. The hours between were a complete blank.

Ben was concerned about this, and rode to town to talk to Paul about it. “Its quite normal, Ben,” Paul assured him. “Joe might regain his memory, but he might not. He might wake up tomorrow, and remember everything. It might be in 20 years, or it might be never. The brain is a funny thing. It may be that the memory is too stressful for him to deal with right now. We just don’t know.”

Partially reassured, Ben returned home to consol his youngest son. The loss of memory was the only blot on Joe’s recovery, but after a while, he stopped trying to remember, and accepted his family’s accounts of the accident.

*****

A few weeks later, Joe rode into Virginia City to collect a package for his father. He had one or two other small items to collect from the general store, and he had to get back to the ranch for supper, as his father was having guests over. The package was waiting at the mail office, and Joe leafed through the other letters as he walked back to Cochise. He stowed the things in his saddlebag, and went into the store. There was only one other customer in there – Carrie Walker.

Hesitating, Joe debated going to the saloon until Carrie had finished her shopping, but the owner of the store spotted him and hailed him. Having no other choice, Joe went on in.

It was the first encounter that any of the family had had with the Walkers since Adam had broken off with Carrie. Joe had been told about it, and warned in no uncertain terms to stay away from her. This encounter made him feel very awkward.

Carrie didn’t seem to suffer from the same problem. She gave Joe a dazzling smile and said, “Hello, Joe,” in a seductive tone.

“Hello, Carrie,” Joe responded, knowing that he couldn’t just ignore her. He began to look for the items he wanted, aware of Carrie’s gaze on him.

Despite dragging out his shopping for as long as he could, Carried was still waiting at the door when Joe at last came out. She had several large packages – mostly cloth from what Joe had seen of her purchases. He tipped his hat to her, and put his own purchases into his bags. Carrie was still standing there. “Oh, Joe,” she trilled. “Could you possibly help me? Our maid was to have met me, but she hasn’t shown up, and these items are rather heavy for me to carry alone.”

It was on the tip of Joe’s tongue to say something rude, but he restrained himself. Glancing around, he couldn’t see anyone else that he could persuade to help Carrie, and he was too well mannered to leave her. “Of course,” he said, and took the parcels from her.

During the walk to her home, Carrie kept up the kind of chatter that young ladies were supposed to excel at to keep men interested in them. It was just unfortunate that Joe wasn’t feeling receptive. Normally, he enjoyed keeping company with a beautiful young lady. However, he listened politely, and responded when he had to, and all the while wished he could just jump on Cochise and ride off for home.

At Carrie’s house, he tied Cochise to the fence, and carried the packages to the door. Carrie gave Joe her best smile, and he couldn’t help but smile back. “Come in for some tea,” Carrie coaxed, taking his arm. Joe demurred, but Carrie was persistent, and he gave in.

Seating him in the parlour, Carrie organised the tea herself, then remembered that the Cartwrights were mostly coffee drinkers, and went off and made coffee, too. Joe looked around the room, which seemed to him too full of useless nick-knacks. Carrie was soon back, and plied Joe with dainty cakes, which he accepted.

Several times Joe tried to make a graceful exit, but each time Carrie overrode him, and he was too polite to simply leave. After a time, Joe found himself getting sleepy, and had to struggle to hide a yawn. He gulped down another cup of coffee, but it didn’t help. Alarmed, Joe rose unsteadily to his feet, and tried to make for the door, thinking that fresh air would help. He managed only one step, and his legs gave way. He slid to the floor, and before the darkness overtook him, he saw Carrie smiling malevolently.

*****

As Joe fell to the floor, Carrie leapt to her feet. She had used her mother’s supply of laudanum to drug Joe’s coffee. Now that he was asleep, she intended to carry out the next part of her plan. Carrie had been humiliated when Adam had broken up with her, for she had intended to marry a Cartwright from the first day she’d heard about them. Ben had rejected her, and anyway, he was too old for her. Hoss she dismissed as not handsome enough, but both Adam and Joe had been candidates. When Adam rejected her, she knew that her chance to get Joe was gone, too. And she determined that if she couldn’t have a Cartwright, neither could anybody else.

There was very little feminine softness in Carrie Walker. She could play the part when the need arose, but Carrie was very predatory. Her parents had bought off several young men who had become involved with her, usually before there was too much trouble. However, in their last home in Kansas, Carrie had become very attracted to a young man who was already engaged to another girl. In trying to force herself on him, she had become angry when he refused her, and she had stabbed him. The man later died.

It had all been hushed up, the Walkers paying a large amount of money to a witness who then swore he had seen the man force himself on Carrie. However, the scandal had been too much for the Walkers, and they had moved away. Carrie was still hunting for a husband, and having driven away her chances with the Cartwrights, she now wanted to avenge herself on them.

With assistance from the terrified maid, Carrie bound Joe hand and foot, and got him slung over the saddle of his horse. Going back into the house with the maid, Carrie extracted her stiletto from her reticule, and stabbed her. A few minutes later, Carrie rode out of the city by a back road, with no witnesses.

*****

As he bid his guests good night, Ben Cartwright was absolutely furious. Joe had been gone for hours, despite his father’s explicit instructions. There could be no excuse for such behaviour, and Ben vowed to tan Joe’s hide when he returned, grown man or not! There was a thread of worry running through the anger, because although Joe was thoughtless, and often tardy, he was seldom rude.

Adam came from the kitchen as his father came back into the house. “Still no sign?” he asked.

With a sigh, Ben replied, “No.” He sat down by the fire, and Adam sat opposite him. Hoss came from the kitchen and stood by his father’s chair. “I don’t understand this,” admitted Ben. “Its not like Joe.”

“Not like Joe to be late?” Adam said, sarcastically. He caught the dark scowl from his father. “Sorry, Pa,” he said, contritely.

“D’you think somethin’ happened to him?” inserted Hoss. “He wouldn’t miss dinner with the Millers. It ain’t like him.”

“If he was in jail, Roy would’ve ridden out to tell us,” agreed Adam. “Do you want us to look for him, Pa?”

Rising restlessly, Ben shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, its dark now. We should wait for the morning.” Ben found himself by the door again, but resisted opening it. “Let’s get some sleep while we can.”

Both his sons rose and bid their father goodnight, knowing that he wouldn’t sleep a wink until he found out what had happened to Joe.

*****

As dawn broke, the Cartwrights mounted their horses and rode towards the city. They found no trace of Joe, and their concern grew. The first stop they made was at the sheriff’s office, and there they found Roy Coffee dozing over a cup of cold coffee. Roy told them about the stabbing of the Walker’s maid, and the disappearance of Carrie. “She was last seen with Joe,” Roy concluded.

“Joe is missing, too,” Ben told his friend.

Rubbing a hand over his tired face, Roy said, reluctantly, “The Walkers are insisting that Joe has kidnapped Carrie. They say he’s going to force her to marry him.”

“I don’t think that’s likely,” retorted Adam. “Come on, Roy, you know Joe better than that!”

“Of course I do, Adam,” snapped Roy, tiredly. “I’m just telling you what they said. But if they have both vanished, then something’s suspicious. I just don’t know what to think.” He shook his head. “Sorry to snap. But the whole attitude of that family is odd. When you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you get a nose for the truth, and I’d swear they weren’t telling me the truth.” He rose. “I think I’ll go ask a few questions about the Walkers.”

As the door closed behind Roy, Ben looked at his sons. “I suggest we split up and see if we can find any trace of Joe ourselves. Meet back here in an hour.”

*****

The first rays of sunlight penetrated the barn where Joe Cartwright hung painfully by his arms from the roof. He had wakened from his drugged sleep to find himself hanging from the rafters, his legs closely bound together, his feet barely touching the floor. He had been desperately nauseous and dizzy for a while after wakening. Carrie had come in when he was finally feeling a little less deathly. She looked just as she had when he’d seen her in the parlour, but something on her face made him afraid.

“So you’re awake at last,” she sneered. She ran her hand down the side of his face, and he had pulled away. “Ah-ah!” she chided him, and he’d gasped as a line of fire ran down his left side. Looking down, uncomprehending, he saw a knife in her hand. Blood welled up along the cut.

“Carrie, please,” pleaded Joe. “Why are you doing this?”

“You Cartwrights have decided I’m not good enough to marry any of you, haven’t you?” she hissed. “Your father turned me down, Adam rejected me, and you stayed away too! Well, if I can’t have you, no one can!”

Appalled, Joe couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Carrie smiled at him, but the smile had a feral quality to it. She looked dangerous. Joe felt a flutter in his gut as she began to unbutton his shirt. She pushed the fabric away from his chest, and ran her hands down his torso. With the knife, she slit the material until it fell away from his body. Shamelessly, she pressed herself against him, and taking his head in her hands, kissed him deeply.

Joe was no novice with women, but he had never come across a woman like this. He twisted his head, to try and get away. Carrie dug her teeth into his lip, and held on. Joe struggled briefly, and Carrie dug her teeth in harder. Blood ran from Joe’s mouth. After a minute, Carrie let go. Joe’s lip was bitten nearly all the way through. “Lesson number one,” she purred. Joe fought to control the sickness he felt.

After that, Carrie had left, and he was alone for the night. It was cool in the barn, and he was soon shivering. But his biggest problem was his hands. The longer he hung there, the less feeling he had in his hands. By dawn, Joe feared his hands would be permanently damaged. He was fairly sure Carrie intended to kill him. Joe squeezed his eyes shut and said a prayer.

When the barn door opened, it was almost a relief. Joe said nothing, but watched warily as Carrie circled around him.  “You’re quite well built, Joe, did you know that?”

Saying nothing, Joe kept his eyes on her face. Her eyes were wild. “Oh, like that, is it?” She moved her hand, and another bleeding slash appeared on Joe’s body. The gasp of pain escaped before he could prevent it. “Kiss me,” she whispered, and fastened onto his mouth.

*****

Listening to Roy’s account of the report from Kansas, none of the Cartwrights could keep the shock off their faces. “I’m afraid we have to assume that history may be repeating itself,” Roy finished.

“Is there anything we can do?” Ben asked, his face ashen.

“Keep looking for them,” Roy replied. “I just wish we knew where to look.”

Lifting his head, Hoss said, “I dunno if its any help, but some of the boys in the saloon talked about this ol’ place where Carrie liked to go for… well… you know….” He blushed furiously.

“Where is this place, Hoss?” Roy demanded.

“It’s the ol’ Jackson homestead. Nobody ever took it on after the Jacksons died of cholera.” He shot Adam a shame-faced look. “But some of them boys, they was sure talkin’ about goin’ there with Carrie.”

“It won’t hurt to check,” Adam stated. “What else do we have to go on?”

*****

The abandoned homestead looked deserted as they drew closer. Riding out of town, all the men realised that Carrie could have got to it from her house without being seen. They slowed their pace, and warily rode on. Suddenly, they spotted Cochise in the corral, with another horse. Instinctively, they drew rein, and dismounted.

On foot, they closed the remaining distance. Cochise, smelling familiar scents, whinnied loudly as they got closer. Cursing, Hoss dashed over to silence him, but it was too late. There was a shout from the barn. “Don’t come any closer!”

Looking up, for the voice had come from above them, the four men saw Carrie at the window of the hayloft, and behind her was a shadowy figure that they recognised as Joe. “Carrie!” Ben shouted. “Its Ben Cartwright. We want to talk to you!”

“I don’t want to talk to you,” Carrie called back. “Go away! I have Joe, and that’s all I want!”

Exchanging a horrified glance, the Cartwrights wondered if they’d heard correctly. “She’s plumb loco,” Hoss whispered.

“Carrie, its Adam,” Adam called.

“I can see you, Adam. Do you want to come up, too?” There was a coquettish tone in her voice. “I’d let you come up.”

“I’ll come up if you let Joe come down.”

“Adam! No!” protested Ben.

“What choice do we have, Pa?” Adam whispered back. “Hoss said it, she’s crazy!”

“You come up, too, Adam, “ Carrie called. “Joe stays where he is.”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Adam objected.

Carrie moved back from the window, and there was a cry of pain. “Know what I just did?” she yelled. “I cut him! So you come up, too, Adam, or I’ll cut him some more!”

*****

They had a whispered consultation, but Carrie had the upper hand and they all knew it. Adam removed his gun belt and gave it to Ben. Carrie had partially closed the loft window, and they could no longer see Joe. But she could still see them, and that was something they had to keep in mind.

With one last clasp of his father’s hand, Adam began to walk across to the barn. He had no real plan in mind. The best he could hope for was that he and Joe both came out of this alive, and relatively unharmed. Adam knew how slim a hope it was.

Climbing the ladder, Adam could feel Carrie’s eyes on him the whole time. As his head cleared the hatch, he couldn’t contain a gasp when he saw Joe. His brother was hanging from the roof, and his hands were badly swollen and discoloured. Dried blood was on his face, and Adam noticed that Joe’s lip was swollen. There were several knife cuts on his body. His legs were tightly bound together. “Joe,” he said.

Lifting his head, Joe’s eyes opened. They were dulled with pain, but Adam saw hope charge across the green orbs when he saw Adam. He even tried for a smile, but it ended in a wince. “Adam,” he croaked.

“How touching,” Carrie said, sarcastically. “A family reunion.” She sashayed across to Joe and ran her hands over his chest. Adam saw Joe shudder. He instinctively took a step towards them, but Carrie brought the knife up, and he stopped. “Don’t try anything, Adam,” she warned.

“Why are you doing this, Carrie?” Adam asked, trying to keep his voice reasonable.

“I wanted to marry you, Adam. You asked me,” she said, in a little girl voice. “Then, because of him, you changed your mind. It wasn’t nice of you, Adam.”

“I didn’t change my mind because of him,” corrected Adam. “I changed it because of what you did, with Joe. I changed my mind because of what you said about my brothers. I told you my family was important to me, and you dismissed that.”

“Not entirely,” she hissed. “I did hear what you said. After all, I got you here by using one of your brothers didn’t I? But, you know, Adam, I rather like Joe. He’s good looking, don’t you think? And he’s rich, too. I could just as easily marry him, as you.”

“You aren’t going to marry either of us, Carrie,” he said, steadily. “The man has to be willing, too.”

For a moment, Adam feared he’d gone too far. The knife came up, and rested lightly against Joe’s stomach. Adam tried to keep his gaze still on the girl, and swallowed the fear in his throat. “Get over here, Adam,” Carrie ordered, as the moment passed.

Warily, Adam did as he was told. Carrie looked him up and down, licking her lips. Adam fought to control the shudder that wanted to run down his spine. He’d seen wild cats on the hunt make the very same gesture. With a swift movement that caught him off guard, Carrie sliced through the rope binding Joe’s arms to the rafters. Joe, unprepared, crashed to the dusty floor. Adam ignored the girl, to kneel by Joe’s side.

“Easy, fella,” Adam whispered, touching Joe’s shoulder.

A ghost of a smile crossed Joe’s face, and was gone. He groaned as the returning blood reached his fingers, despite the ropes still round his wrists. His face was chalk white with pain. Adam was close enough to see the bite marks on Joe’s face, and to see his youngest brother’s valiant efforts to keep his cries under control. His own, carefully controlled temper flared. He half turned, to say something to Carrie, and from the corner of his eye, he saw her moving.

Fearing for Joe’s life, Adam dived forwards, covering Joe with his body.

His action probably saved his life. The stiletto, instead of plunging into his kidney, went into the back of his thigh, missing all vital arteries.

The injury was more than painful enough. Adam let out a yell, and grabbed for Carrie’s hand. He missed, but the movement caused him to over balance, and he fell backwards to the floor.

Darkness beckoned to Adam, but he shook his head to fight it off. Joe was calling his name, and worming his way across. Twisting his head, Adam looked for Carrie, fearing her next move, now he and Joe were both disabled. He saw her across the loft, scrabbling in the ancient dry hay for something. With a thrill of adrenalin, he guessed she was trying to light a fire. He had to stop her!

Afterwards, Adam never knew if he shouted to Carrie or not, but Joe seemed to realise what was going on, too, and rolled across the floor towards her. Adam dragged himself after his brother, knowing neither of them would be in time to prevent her. He called Joe’s name, trying to stop his brother, but all he did was alert Carrie.

Looking round at them, Carrie reached inside the bodice of her gown, and drew another dagger. She threw it at Joe, with surprising speed, and stunning accuracy. Although it didn’t impale itself in Joe, it did slice a deep gash across his back. The knife skittered across the floor, and came to rest by Adam’s outstretched hand.

There was a sudden ‘whoosh’ as the flames took hold of the old dry hay. Carrie stood up and laughed aloud. She looked completely mad. Adam didn’t hesitate. He snatched up the knife, and threw it at Carrie.

It missed. Carrie glanced after it, as the knife whizzed past her shoulder. Joe continued his desperate rolling, crashed into her legs and knocked her down. With a scream of anger, she kicked and fought him, managing to kick him in the face as she freed herself. She scrambled backwards, oblivious to the flames, and looked round for the knife. “Joe!” Adam yelled, but his brother was unconscious.

Intent on reaching Joe, Adam was startled to hear a piercing scream. Looking up, he saw Carrie’s dress was on fire. The flames licked up her clothing quickly, and she screamed and screamed. Horrified, Adam was unable to drag his gaze away as her hair caught alight, too.

With one final, agonising scream, Carrie fell backwards into the flames. Adam worked desperately to control the contents of his stomach as he dragged himself, bleeding across the floor to try and save his brother. Joe was far too close to the flames. Adam knew he wouldn’t get there in time. He was sobbing as he tried to increase his speed, but his hold on consciousness was waning.

As he slumped to the floor, hands grabbed him under the arms, and he found himself being helped back across the floor, away from Joe. He made a gargantuan effort, and opened his eyes, and realised that it was his father and Roy Coffee who were helping him. “Joe,” he gasped.

“Hoss has him,” Ben replied, panting. “Its all right, son. Hoss has Joe.”

*****

Leaving the Cartwrights behind, Roy Coffee galloped to Virginia City to fetch help. Some time later, Adam and Joe were both in Doc Martin’s office, and he was preparing to operate to remove the knife from Adam’s thigh. Ben, Hoss and Roy had all inhaled large amounts of smoke, and were coughing. Adam and Joe hadn’t escaped, either. Paul was worried about giving Adam ether, but he was reluctant to remove the knife without an anaesthetic. Adam had lost a lot of blood, and Paul knew he didn’t have time to hesitate. So, encouraging Ben to sit with Joe, he operated at once.

It was touch and go for a while. No arteries had been damaged, but the knife had gone in several inches. However, Paul finally had the wound closed up, and Adam resting comfortably. Then he could turn his attention to Joe, who for once was less seriously injured. Paul was concerned about the damage to Joe’s hands, and turned his attention to them. There was very little he could do, bar give pain relief, but Joe was even more reluctant than usual to accept it. He became so distressed, that Paul gave up. He gave Joe a whiff of ether and then stitched up the numerous cuts on his chest and back.

Finally, with both his chief patients asleep, he examined the sheriff and Ben and Hoss. Admonishing them to go easy, he passed them fit. Roy left immediately to talk to the Walkers. Ben and Hoss went to sit with Adam and Joe.

*****

It was quite a few days before Adam and Joe were fit enough to return home. Adam’s leg was healing quickly, and he was soon on his feet. Joe had many small injuries, of which his hands were giving the most concern. The pain of the returning circulation kept Joe awake, and Paul finally forced laudanum on him, to make him rest. On the third day, Paul said there was no permanent damage to Joe’s hands, though it would be a while before he had full use of them again. Ben had stayed with them in the town, while Hoss took charge of the ranch. Neither son had spoken much, but Joe had finally told them that Carrie had drugged him. After that, Ben had been content to allow them to rest, before he probed their feelings any more.

Virginia City was in an uproar. There had never been anything like this before, and the Territorial Enterprise had managed to get several good stories out of it. Carrie’s past had been raked up, and the Walkers had fled the city. Carrie’s remains had been buried in a pauper’s grave, as her parents had left before the funeral. The Cartwrights received many visitors, but Ben always prevented them from seeing his boys, and everyone left disappointed.

To get home undisturbed, Ben arranged with Hoss to bring the buggy to the hotel, where they had been staying, before dawn broke. The ploy worked, and they arrived home shortly after 6 am. Adam was recovering more quickly than Joe, who dozed on his father’s shoulder for most of the way. Adam didn’t have much to say for himself either, so it was a quiet journey.

Back at the ranch, Ben left them to get re-acquainted with their rooms, while he and Hoss attended to some things outside. “They’re awful quiet, Pa,” Hoss commented, as he put grain in Chubb’s manager. “D’you think they’re all right?”

“They will be, Hoss,” Ben replied. “We just need to give them time and space. A lot happened to them, and they have to think it through.” He clapped his big son on the shoulder. “You’re doing the right things, son. Don’t press them. They’ll talk when they’re ready. We just have to listen.”

*****

Limping across the landing, Adam knocked on Joe’s door. After a few seconds, Joe’s voice said, “Go away, Adam.”

Opening the door, Adam went in anyway. Joe was sitting listlessly on the bed. “I thought I said go away,” Joe commented.

“We have to talk,” said Adam, sitting down on Joe’s bed.

The words gave Joe an odd feeling, one he couldn’t quite pin down. A shiver ran down his spine. Suddenly, like a light going on, he remembered why the words seemed so familiar. He remembered knocking on Adam’s door, and insisting he had to talk. He remembered Adam’s anger, and the punch his brother had thrown at him. He remembered backing away, and the horrible moment when his foot hit air, and he over balanced on the stairs. He remembered flying through the air – but mercifully, there his memory stopped.

“Joe?” Adam repeated, his concern growing. Joe was pale, his eyes unfocused, his breath coming in uneven gasps. “Joe, what’s wrong?”

As suddenly as it had come over him, the memory left, but he was still shaken and pale. With an effort, Joe looked at Adam. “I remember,” he whispered. “I remember our quarrel, and the fall.”

Stricken, Adam could only stare at Joe. After a moment, he swallowed and said, “I’m so sorry, Joe. So sorry.”

Shaking his head, Joe blinked back the tears welling in his eyes. His brother’s tone had been so remorseful. “Adam, there’s nothing to be sorry for. I fell, and it was an accident. Its not like you pushed me.”

“I shouldn’t have lost my temper,” protested Adam.

“How many times have I had to say that?” wondered Joe. “Everyone loses their temper sometimes, brother.” He smiled at Adam, and after a moment, Adam smiled back.

They were still sitting together when Ben reappeared a little while later. He smiled at them, and they both smiled back. Ben was relieved to see there was more life about the smiles. They didn’t seem forced any more. “Is everything all right?” he asked, sensing something in the atmosphere.

“Joe’s regained his memory,” offered Adam.

“I see,” noted Ben, sitting down in the chair. He could see that his sons had made peace with one another. “How do you feel about it, Joe?”

His youngest son looked thoughtful. “It answers a lot of questions I had,” he admitted. “I couldn’t remember the picnic, so I couldn’t remember what Carrie had said to me, and to Adam, that caused all the trouble. But I can now, and it explains so many things. If I’d known those things, I wouldn’t have helped her the day she kidnapped me.”

“I know what she said to me,” Adam commented, “but what did she say to you?”

This was an interesting development to Ben, as he hadn’t heard what Carrie had said to Adam. So he stayed as still as he could, not wanting to distract either man.

Looking at Adam, Joe winced.  “When she told you that you weren’t the only Cartwright interested in her, and you walked away, I asked her what she meant by that. I only took her to the picnic because she asked me if I would. Carrie laughed, and said that she had agreed to marry you, but now she wondered if she’d picked the right brother. She said I was nearer her age, and perhaps she’d marry me.” Joe gulped. “Sorry, Adam, but she said she didn’t really love you, but you’d do as a husband.”

“Its okay, Joe, I know she didn’t love me,” soothed Adam. “Go on.”

Drawing a deep breath, Joe continued. “I was horrified. If I’d known how you felt, obviously I wouldn’t have gone with her. As it was, I left her there, saying that I didn’t want to see her again. I got on Cochise and came home after you.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to get into a war over your woman. I didn’t want you to think we were in love with the same woman. It wasn’t one of those – you know – triangle things. Not a tug of war over her.” Joe shook his head again. “Do you know what I mean?”

Unable to say anything, Adam simply nodded. His dark eyes were shining with tears. Joe had laid his soul bare before them. Ben moved to hug both his boys. Joe’s green eyes were wet, too, and he rubbed away the tears with a hand still sore, but on the road to full recovery.

“It wasn’t a tug of war,” Ben said, softly. “What you boys felt was the tug of love.”

Frowning, both sons looked at their father, perplexed. He laughed. “The tug of love between the two of you, not between either of you and that woman. The tug of love that told Adam that this girl wasn’t for him. The tug of love that made Joe come home after you, Adam, to ensure you weren’t hurt by his actions. And it was the tug of love that made you fight to save each other in that barn.”

There was a thoughtful silence. “I like that,” Joe commented. “A tug of love. I would never have thought of that.”

Looking askance at both father and brother, Adam said, dryly, “Its amazing what you can think of when you use your brains, little brother.”

Glaring back at Adam, Joe retorted, “We aren’t all egg-heads, you know!”

Ben began to laugh. “Back to normal then,” he commented, and rose to his feet, still laughing.

Eyeing their father, Adam and Joe cautiously looked at each other, then realised what they were doing – bickering. As Ben went down the landing, he heard the laughter coming from the room he’d just left. Yes, things were indeed back to normal.

*****End*****

 

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