Word Count: 12,937
Love is like a violin,
the music may stop now and then,
but the strings remain forever.
“Why? Just tell me why I have to be the one to go with him? And to Oblivion no less!”
“Because I said so…and because I think it would be good for both of you to spend a few days together…alone…”
“No buts, young man; you will do as I say!”
The young man gritted his teeth and turned his back to his father. His eyes were fiery darts of blazing anger. “I don’t deserve this,” he growled angrily.
“And you think I do?”
Joe Cartwright spun around and glared at the handsomely dark figure of his oldest brother and wished that he could wipe the smirk off his older sibling’s face.
“Personally, I think both of you are getting exactly what you each deserve,” Ben said as he moved from around his desk to stand between his eldest and youngest sons. He put a hand on each of their shoulders and looked from one angry face into the other. “A few days alone together should give each of you time to come to your senses…”
“Great,” snarled Joe as he shot Adam a menacing look and then pulled away from his father’s touch.
He pointed his finger at Adam. “A few days alone with him, and I’ll be ready to leave home…forever!”
Joe turned to face his father. “If that’s what you want, fine. I’ll go…but don’t expect me to come home with him!”
Before Ben could say another word, Joe stomped off, running up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Ben blew a puff of air from his lungs and turned to Adam. Adam held both hands up in front of him and shook his head at his father.
“Don’t look at me; all I did was try to warn him and he turned on me. Now, just because I tried to keep him from getting hurt, or hurting someone else. I get sentenced to two weeks of having to endure his bad moods. Thanks, Pa — thanks for nothing,” Adam said with more calm than what he was actually feeling.
Adam left his father alone and went out to the barn where he could think things through. He had already made plans on making the trip to Oblivion, the furthermost line shack on the ranch, so that had not bothered him, what troubled him was when his father had informed him that his youngest brother would be going along as well. Already Adam was dreading the next few days. Having to spend so much time alone with his hot-headed, bad-tempered kid brother, was exactly what his father had intended it to be — punishment.
“I’m a grown man,” muttered Adam to himself, “and I get punished like a boy — a snot nosed kid — like Joe…damn!”
Upstairs, Joe was just as dissatisfied as his older brother in the barn. Joe paced around the room, gathering his gear and clothing and items he’d need to stay halfway comfortable on the long ride to Oblivion and the stay once they arrived. His brow was drawn into a frown as he flung rather than packed his things into his bedroll.
“Me. It’s always me. I’m wrong; he’s right. Mr. Righteous — Mr. Adam Righteous Cartwright — God…why me?? Why, of all the brothers in the whole wide world, did he have to be mine? It’s just not fair!”
Hoss stood with his father in the yard and watch as his brothers rode away. When they were out of sight, the big man turned and with a half grin on his face, said to his father, “Neither one looked to happy, especially Little Joe.”
Ben could not stop the smile that sprung up unexpectedly. He turned back toward the house, his arm casually draped across Hoss’ massive shoulders. “I didn’t expect either of them to be,” he said. “But let’s give them a few days; they’ll find themselves. By the time they come home, I have an idea they will feel differently,” Ben smiled.
“What do you mean, by that?” Hoss asked, more curious now than before.
“Simple, Hoss. A wise man once said, ‘Love is like a violin. The music may stop now and then, but the strings remain forever’. It’s like that with your brothers, son. They love one another, but sometimes they forget just how much they do care. Like now. They think they can’t stand the other, but like the strings of the violin, the love is still there. They just have to find it again.”
Hoss noted the twinkle in the dark eyes and he couldn’t help but wonder just what it was his father had cooked up for his two quarreling siblings. Whatever Ben thought might happen between his sons, Hoss reckoned it better happen soon before things got so outta hand that one killed the other. Strings, love, violin — whatever Pa meant by that, Hoss knew only one thing, Adam and Joe were at it again, and it had been going on for over a week now and things were quickly coming to a head.
Hoss laughed as he entered the house behind his father. “Say, Pa, ain’t no reason why me and you couldn’t just relax a bit, is there? And maybe do a little fishin’ while them two are off ‘findin’ themselves’? Ain’t that what you said they were gonna be doin’?”
“We should stop pretty soon,” Adam called over his shoulder.
They had traveled in silence for miles, ever since they had left the house. The silence was welcomed at first. Adam had enjoyed it, but as the day passed and Joe remained sullen and withdrawn, Adam had felt the strain between them becoming almost unbearable. “It will be dark soon. Theres a clearing up ahead; we can set up camp there. It’s about half-way. How is that?”
Adam waited so long for a response from Joe that when one failed to reach his ears, he pulled back on Sport’s reins and came to a complete halt. “Did you hear what I said, Joe?” Adam said in a gruff voice. “Or are you purposely ignoring me?”
Adam had thought his bad mood had passed, but with his brother’s rudeness, Adam discovered that he still wasn’t any happier about his plight of having to be saddled with a brooding, bad-tempered, ill-mannered snip of a boy.
“Well?” growled Adam, “I asked you a blasted question!” Adam was amazed at how quickly his younger brother could bring out the worst in him.
“I’m purposely ignoring you. Camp where you like; I couldn’t care less. Just as long as it’s not anywhere near me!”
Joe kicked at his horse’s sides and prodded ahead of his older brother. Behind him, the packhorse grunted and reluctantly followed in tow.
Adam clenched his jaw tightly and ran his hand over his face. “God…why me?” he beseeched softly as he turned his head upward.
Adam stopped in the clearing as planned. Joe had arrived a short time beforehand and had already unsaddled his mount for the night and had begun setting up camp. Adam noticed that Joe had set his bed gear a good ways off from the ring of stones that he had set in a circle for their fire.
Amazed that the boy had accomplished so much in such a short span of time, he started to compliment his brother but decided against it.
‘Why should I?’ Adam told himself, ‘Joe has not said one word to me the entire day except when he was asked about stopping for the night — and then I got my head bit off,’ Adam determined.
Letting the matter drop, Adam quickly unsaddled his horse and took the cooking utensils from the pack on the horse and set about starting supper for the two of them. Once he had the fire blazing, he stood, glanced at Joe and set off toward the creek in search of a fish or two. “I’ll catch us some fish for supper, you keep that fire hot,” he called over his shoulder.
Joe, whose back was to his brother, spun around. “Don’t bother; I don’t want any of your old fish.”
Adam stopped in his tracks and turned back to face Joe. “Suit yourself, but mind if I ask — what are you planning on eating?”
Joe, suddenly realizing the late hour, almost regretted his hasty remark. ‘I’ll be darned if I’ll take it back,’ he told himself.
“Don’t worry yourself about me — not that you would. I’ll snare me a rabbit…maybe even two.”
An hour later, Joe walked slowly into the camp shoulders slumped and with a defeated look on his young, handsome face. The smell of frying fish reached his nostrils and made his stomach rumble. He could almost taste the trout now — not that he had any plans of doing so — but the aroma that lingered in the air served to remind him that it had been hours since he’d had breakfast.
Adam watched from the corner of his eye as Joe fringed being busy. He noted that his brother had come back empty handed, and from the sour look on the boy’s face, Adam knew that Joe wasn’t likely to admit that he had failed at snaring a hare for his supper. The older and wiser one also was well aware of the fact that the younger, less experienced young man was not likely to humble himself enough to ask for one of the fishes that fried slowly in the hot skillet.
Joe silently cursed himself for having spoken too quickly. His back was to his brother and to the crackling fire that burned beneath the iron skillet where Adam’s fish cooked. Willing his gut to stop churning, Joe laid down on his bedroll, keeping his back to the fire and to Adam.
‘Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll fall asleep,’ Joe thought to himself as he snuggled down into the blanket and squeezed his eyes shut.
Adam knew exactly what Little Joe was doing, and why, and for a moment, he almost felt sorry for the kid. Grabbing one tin plate and dishing himself out one of the trout he’d caught, Adam sat down next to the fire and began eating. The fish smelled wonderful and tasted even better. He glanced over his shoulder at his brother and saw Joe turn quickly. The boy had been watching him eat. It was too much to bear; Adam could not even enjoy his meal, knowing that his kid brother was hungry, even if by his own fault.
Setting his plate aside, Adam picked up the other tin plate and dished the second trout into it. From the tin can setting on the rock closest to the fire, he added a helping of beans to the plate. “Here, eat — and don’t argue about it,” he said as he set the plate down next to Joe and then walked away.
Joe opened his eyes and turning over onto his back, saw the plate filled with the fish and beans. Hunger over rode his pride, and without a word, he grabbed the plate and began eating. When his hunger had been satisfied, he stood, took a deep breath and walked slowly to the fire where he sat his plate down, next to Adam’s empty one. “Thanks,” he said in a low voice.
Adam had heard Joe coming his way and had waited before looking up. He raised his eyes slowly and peered into the troubled eyes that waited for a response. “You want to wash or do you want me to do it?”
Joe squatted down before the fire, facing his brother. He pursed his lips together tightly and willed himself not to snap back at his brother. “You cooked, I can wash,” he mumbled.
“I cooked and I caught them…”
“Well you don’t have to rub it in, just because I didn’t snare a rabbit!” barked Joe as he grabbed up the dirty plates and stomped off down the embankment to the creek.
Adam was taken aback by his brother’s harsh words. He stood to his feet, facing the younger man, his hands firmly planted on his hips. “Joe, you’ve got to learn not to take everything the wrong way, boy. I didn’t mean anything by what I just said!”
“Stop calling me boy, will you? I’m nineteen years old, and I know what you meant. Once again, you were taking little jabs at me, like you always do.”
Disgusted, Adam shook his head. “Oh for heaven’s sake, grow up,” he muttered, turning away.
Joe tossed the tin plates down onto the ground and grabbed Adam by the arm, forcing him to turn around. “Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you!” he growled angrily.
Adam, his eyes growing dark, glanced down at Joe’s hand that squeezed his arm tightly. With his jaw set, he looked into Joe’s eyes. “Take your hand off me, boy,” he said in a threatening tone.
“I told you not to CALL ME THAT!” Joe said as he took a swing at his brother.
The fist clipped Adam on the end of his chin and sent the older man sprawling onto the ground.
“GET UP!” spat Joe as he doubled up both fists and waved them at his brother.
Adam rubbed his chin and slowly pushed himself to his feet. He stood, steadying himself, glaring at Joe. “I’m not going to fight you, Joe. Stop this right now, before you get hurt!” Adam warned.
“What makes you so sure I’m the one going to get hurt?”
“Because as of yet, little brother, you’ve never taken me in a fight.”
A second fist flew through the air, but this time, Adam saw it coming, and as Joe stepped forward, Adam stepped to the side, letting Joe tumble to the ground just beyond where he was standing.
Joe rolled over, jumping to his feet. His eyes were dark and the angry scowl on his face warned Adam that the fight was yet to be over.
“Damn you, Adam,” Joe roared. He charged at Adam, but again, Adam managed to step aside and as Joe flew passed, Adam used his hands and shoved Joe’s body away from his. Joe stumbled along for a step or two and then landed face down in the dirt.
For a long moment Joe lay still, trying to catch his breath. He turned his head just enough to see his brother standing over him, offering him his hand. The action only served to intensify the young man’s wrath.
“If you weren’t my brother, I’d kill you for that!” snarled Joe.
Adam rolled his eyes and let his arm drop to his side. “Don’t let that stop you, if you’ve got the guts and can live with yourself!”
Unseen by his older brother, Joe’s eyes moved slightly, glancing over the top of Adam’ head. His face was a mixture of shock and fear. In a flash, Joe drew his gun and pointed it straight up.
Adam’s own eyes filled with surprise, and when Joe started blasting the air with bullets, Adam dropped to the ground next to his brother. The shots continued to fill the night air. Loud, high-pitched screaming that Adam recognized as being his brother were added to the rain of blasts that shattered the serenity of the night.
When the blasting and the screeching had ended, Adam, who had laid face down and covered his head with his arms in a protective manner, raised his head and looked over his shoulder. He was just in time to see a big grizzly bear high-tailing it off into the bushes.
Adam glanced back at his brother. Joe sat in an upright position, his arm lying across his lap; Adam could see the rapid rise and fall of his brother’s chest.
“Are you alright, little brother?” Adam asked, peering down into his brother’s face.
Joe swallowed hard, barely able to speak, but he managed to nod his head. “I’m okay. What about you?” Joe said finally.
Both brothers sat side by side, unwilling to move. Adam turned his head to look over at Joe; a smile wiped the anger from his face. “Whew…that was too close for comfort,” he whispered.
“I know,” answered Joe in a wee voice that still trembled.
Adam started laughing, surprising Joe. Joe turned to look at Adam, searching the other man’s face. “What the hell’s so funny?” he demanded sourly.
“Joe…” laughed Adam. He leaned back on one elbow, grinning at his brother. “When I saw you draw your gun and point it up at me, I thought for sure you were going to…shoot me.”
It took a moment for the words to sink into his brain, but when they did, Joe started to giggle. “I saw the wide-eyed look on your face,” giggled Joe.
“Wide-eyed? Hell, kid, you scared the crap out of me!” laughed Adam.
“Sorry,” Joe said.
“Don’t be; you saved my life, kid. I owe you,” smiled Adam.
Adam got up and began gathering up the dishes that Joe had tossed to the side. He was keenly aware of his brother when Joe moved to help him. Joe picked up the tin cups and held his hand out to take the plates from Adam. “I’ll wash,” he said softly, his anger from moments ago, now forgotten.
The fear of what almost happened had sank in and in an instant, he realized that his brother could have been killed — they both could have been — and the thought was unnerving.
Adam glanced up into Joe’s face, saw the serious look and handed the dishes to his brother. As Joe’s hand touched the plates, Adam’s clung to them. Their eyes locked.
“Thanks, Joe,” Adam said in a serious voice, for the same frightening thoughts had raced through his mind as well. A smile spread across his face, lightening the serious atmosphere.
Joe returned the smile and took the dishes. “I won’t be long. See if you can stay outta trouble until I get back,” he muttered and then giggled.
Adam laughed as well. How many times had he said the same thing to the kid?
The afternoon was much more relaxed than the day before. It seemed as if the brothers had put aside their anger at one another and a mutual, but unspoken truce was called. The conversation was light and reminiscent of by-gone days that caused both the brothers to laugh in a friendly and brotherly way at one another. By closer to evening, the talk had ceased and both Adam and Joe concentrated on getting to their destination before the onset of night.
The pair, exhausted by the long ride and cooling temperatures, arrived minutes before the sun sank behind the mountain peaks.
Adam slung his leg over his horse’s back, making a loud groan as his feet hit the ground.
Joe, slower to dismount, cast a weary glance at his brother and grinned. “What’s wrong, big brother? Getting too old for these long trips?” Joe giggled.
Adam made a snickering sound and shook his head. “No, but my back aches from wallowing around on the ground last night, first with you, then that bear and then trying to sleep. Say, I’ve been meaning to ask you, little brother — did you put rocks in my bedroll last night?” Adam quizzed.
His expression was one of caution and when Joe looked into his brother’s face, he couldn’t help but to start laughing. “Who, me?” giggled Joe.
Adam moved around his horse, his eyes had taken on a strange glow that warned the younger man to use caution.
“Joe, so help me, if you did, I’ll pound you into the ground!” growled Adam. He had only been kidding the boy, but the way his brother had looked seconds before and then had started to giggle made him wonder if perhaps he had been correct in his thinking after all. Slowly Adam advanced on the boy.
Joe took a step backward; his smile was gone as he watched the way his brother’s jaw clenched tightly. “You don’t really think I’d do something so…juvenile, do you?”
“Juvenile…you? Of course, Joe. I wouldn’t put anything passed you!”
Adam watched the smile fade and the anger replace the former expression on Joe’s face. He saw Joe’s fingers fold into hard fists and knew instantly that he had pushed too far. Joe was once again ready to do battle, and over what, a few misspoken words. “You better not have,” growled Adam.
His tone was cutting and sharp in spite of the smile that stretched across his face. The look on Joe’s face was surprise, for he had thought that Adam was just kidding around, but apparently he had been mistaken, he decided quietly. His own laughter died and his lips turned downward.
“What do you take me for? I was just as tired as you last night. I don’t remember having time for playing games; I was too busy saving your ornery hide!” Joe snapped back. “I’ll think twice about doing it a second time!”
Angry, Joe grabbed his horse’s reins and led Cochise to the lean-too that had been erected in years past, to serve as a shelter for the wranglers mounts when it was their turn to work from Oblivion.
“Joe, wait a minute,” Adam called after his brother.
Adam grabbed Sport’s reins and followed Joe to the lean-too. “Look Joe, I’m sorry. I wasn’t accusing you, I was only…”
“Your back hurts; guess that was my fault…but what else is new, heh? Just forget it, Adam,” Joe snapped back. He spun around as he hauled his saddle from the horse’s back and tossed it across the stall wall. “I’ll tend to the horses, you unpack the gear.”
Joe’s eyes were dark, and had Adam been better able to see, he would have seen the hurt on his brother’s face rather than the anger that rang loud and clear in Joe’s voice. “I said, forget it!”
Joe snatched the leather reins from Adam’s hand and led Sport into the extra stall next to Cochise’s. Adam stood for a moment, trying to sort things out. The day had gone so well, and then in a matter of a few words, had ended in an argument. Without saying another word to Joe, Adam turned and made his way through the growing darkness to the shack.
The gear had been unpacked and sorted and set on the makeshift shelves, and still Joe had not come in from the shed. Adam poked at the fire and then stirred the kettle of stew that Hop Sing had sent along that was now warming over the hot fire. With the coffee and stew heating, Adam glanced around the shack that would be home to him and his brother for the next several days and sighed.
“I sure hope it doesn’t snow,” Adam muttered to himself. “There’s a draft blowing in between the cracks. Having to be shut up here with that kid is about the worse punishment Pa could have thought up. Damn,” growled Adam, “two weeks — and we can’t even last two days without a fight.”
He rubbed his jaw where a bruise and sore spot reminded him of the disagreement the night before. Adam wandered to the door and pulled it opened, peering into the darkness. He could see the soft glow of the lantern in the shed that had been lit and deemed that Joe was stalling coming inside, taking his time to groom the horses to perfection. Adam noted that the packhorse was gone from the hitching post out front and could only suppose that Joe was tending to her as well.
As he turned to go back inside and wait, a loud, piercing scream, followed by two — no three — shots rang from the shed. Adam, startled into action, quickly withdrew his gun from his holster and ran through the shadows. He slowed down, inching his body along the outside wall until he came to the opening. Cautiously, he peered around the corner. Joe was lying on his back, his gun hand was stretched out beside him and he remained unmoving. Adam glanced quickly around the little shed but saw nothing or anyone that might have been the cause for the ruckus.
“Psst…Joe,” Adam said in a loud whisper.
Joe moved slightly and then pushed up on one elbow as he glanced over his shoulder. Instantly Adam could see the pain in his brother’s eyes and fear filled his heart. His aggravation at the kid had been suddenly pushed from his mind.
“Adam,” Joe said weakly, “A blasted rattler got me,” he moaned. “I didn’t know he was there, until I was right on top of him. He must’va been in the hay, or nearby. Oh…damn, that hurts!” puffed Joe.
Adam holstered his pistol and hurried to Joe’s side. He saw the large snake lying off to Joe’s right, dead from the bullets blasted from Joe’s gun.
Adam helped Joe into a sitting position. “Where’d he get you?” he asked as he began running his hands over Joe’s legs, searching for the puncture wound.
“My right leg, here,” Joe said, pointing to his right calf.
Instantly, Adam used his knife to cut away the material of Joe’s trousers so that he could examine the bite. Joe’s breath was coming in short gasps and his face held a well of fear embedded in his young features.
“Is it bad? Am I going to die? Adam!”
Adam looked up at his brother and shook his head. “First off, I need you to calm down, buddy. Two things you never do when bitten by a poisonous snake: panic and run. So take a deep breath and try to relax.”
Adam had Joe’s trousers leg split all the way up to his thigh. He wiped his knife clean and glanced into Joe’s fearful face. His brother’s breathing was steadier now and he smiled at the boy. “You’re not going to die, Joe; I won’t let you.”
“What are you going to do?” Joe asked fearfully.
“Hold this in your mouth,” Adam said as he handed Joe his neckerchief, “and bite down, hard. I’m going to open this wound and suck the venom out. Grab that pole, Joe; this is gonna hurt like blazes.”
“Adam…wait; you can’t do that. Your mouth…” Joe looked remorseful, “where I hit you…you’ll get poison in…”
“Inside my mouth is fine. Now stop talking and do as I say. I’ll be alright; we both will.”
Joe did as instructed but when the blade of Adam’s knife sliced through his skin, Joe’s muffled cries still reached his older brother’s ears. Gasping aloud, Joe gritted his teeth, squeezed his eyes tightly and clung firmly to his handhold.
Adam took several long drags, filling his mouth with the vile tasting poison as he sucked the venom out and spat it onto the ground. When he finished, he glanced up at Joe, but Joe had passed out.
“Better this way, buddy; you won’t feel a thing for awhile,” Adam whispered as he wrapped the wound and tied a tourniquet above the bite area. He reached up and ran his hands through the chestnut curls and shook his head. “It never stops, does it, little buddy? Somehow, someway, you always manage to steal my heart.”
Tired as he was, Adam hoisted Joe up into his arms and carried him to the shack. Once inside, he laid the boy on one of the cots, choosing the one nearest the fire for more warmth. As Adam spread a blanket over his brother, Joe moaned slightly and struggled to open his eyes.
Adam had a basin of soapy water and carefully began cleaning the puncture site as best he could. Every so often, he glanced up at his brother’s face and watched the expressions that furrowed across Joe’s brow.
At last, Joe opened his eyes. “Hurts,” he muttered, clenching his teeth in a futile effort to ward off the burning pain.
“Here, drink some of this,” Adam said, handing a bottle of whiskey to his brother.
Joe looked surprised that his brother was offering him whiskey to drink but in spite of his pain, he grinned. “Why? So you can have something else to tell Pa about me once we get home?” he said with a lopsided smirk.
Joe turned the bottle up and took a swig, wrinkling his nose slightly at the flavor.
“You’re going to be hurting before long, little brother, but the whiskey will help you to…forget about your leg, for a while and it’ll help you rest,” Adam explained. He took the bottle from Joe after only one swig and said in a soft voice, “Hang on; this is going to burn a little, but it’s the only disinfectant that we have.”
With that, Adam turned the bottle upward and let the whiskey slowly flow over Joe’s leg.
Joe was forced to grit his teeth. “Liar,” he said through clenched teeth. “It burns like hell!”
“Sorry, sport, but we can’t chance an infection,” explained Adam as he handed the bottle back to Joe. “Now drink heartily, I’ll dish you out some of that good beef stew Hop Sing sent along, and I expect you to eat every bite,” Adam ordered.
Joe looked over the rim of the turned up bottle and saw his brother shaking his long slender finger at him. He almost choked on the liquor at the expression on his brother’s face. “Adam, did you know that you are slowly becoming our Pa?”
Adam made a scowl and placed both hands on his hips. “And what’s that suppose to mean?”
Joe giggled. “The way you order me around all the time, the tone of your voice, your expressions, the way you’re standing — all remind me of our beloved father!” Joe snickered.
Adam raised his brows slightly and turned to the fire to dish out the stew. “Is that so bad?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“I don’t reckon so…if you were my father. But you’re only my brother.”
“Only?” Adam said, turning and setting Joe’s plate on the little lopsided table close to the bed. “Sit up; I’ll be danged if I’m going to feed you,” he said, trying to sound stern.
“I didn’t mean that like it sounded,” Joe said, giving his brother a worried look.
Adam stood over the bed and grinned. “I know what you meant, kid — and it’s alright, cause it’s true. I am only your brother but there are times, Joe, that I tend to forget that little fact.”
“I know, but you just can’t help it, can you?” Joe said between mouthfuls of the stew. “You like bossing me around, don’t deny it,” smiled Joe. He swallowed what was in his mouth and took another long swig from the bottle of whiskey.
“If you had half-way raised me — like I’ve had to do you — you’d probably feel the same way as I do.”
“Had to?” tempted Joe, watching the play of emotion that crisscrossed the front of Adam’s face.
Adam turned his back to Joe and was bending over the fire dishing out his own supper. When his plate was full, he sat down at the table that served as a center point in the room. He faced his brother. “Yes, had to. There were times, Little Joe, after your mother died, that Pa…just couldn’t cope with…life, us, you. He was overcome with grief and during those…bad times, it was left up to me to see that you — and Hoss — were cared for.”
“You really had to grow up fast, didn’t you, Adam?” Joe asked softly, slowly beginning to see his brother in a different light.
Adam shrugged his shoulders. “No big deal,” he commented as he filled his mouth. The questioning was beginning to get to him; they stirred such deep emotions and feelings and were beginning to make him feel uncomfortable.
Adam rose from the table and went to the bed. “I’ll take that,” he said to Joe, taking the empty plate from the boy’s hand. “And that too,” he grinned, snatching the bottle from Joe as Joe placed the bottle to his lips.
“Hey!” he said, grinning.
“Much more of this,” Adam held the bottle up and looked at the contents, “and it won’t be your leg that will be hurting; it will be your head.”
Joe giggled as he laid his head back against the pillow and closed his eyes. Within minutes, the whiskey had done its work, for Joe lay sleeping soundly.
For some time, Adam had laid in his cot, listening to the soft sounds of his brother moaning. He had gotten up several times, being unable to sleep, and checked Joe for fever and to redo the bandage that he had applied to the snakebite. Joe was warm when Adam had felt his brow, but nothing so hot that he felt there was cause for worry. For the umpteenth time, Adam closed his eyes, this time, drifting off into a light slumber.
“ADAM! WATCH OUT!”
Adam was jolted from his sleep, making a grab for the pistol he kept close by.
Quickly, Adam lit the lamp and crossed the small expanse of the room and stood over his brother’s bed. Joe was tossing and turning, a cascade of tiny droplets dotted his forehead as Joe mumbled aloud.
“RUN…ADAM RUN!” Joe shouted in garbled words.
Adam hurried to set the lamp down and as Joe bolted upright in his bed, Adam was there at his side to grab the boy to prevent him from tumbling to the floor. “Easy Joe…easy, buddy,” said Adam as he gently gripped Joe’s shoulders. “You’re just dreaming, shh, shh.”
Joe’s eye finally opened and he peered with a frantic expression, into his older brother’s face. He sucked in deep gulps of air, as if he’d been running a great distance that caused his chest to heave up and down. “The…bear…” he stammered, wide-eyed with fright.
“The bear’s gone, Joe; you just had a nightmare. You were reliving what happened to us last night,” soothed Adam.
Joe took a deep breath and swallowed hard. His troubled eyes sought his brother’s face and then glanced around the room. “We’re at the…line shack, aren’t we?” Joe said in a trembling voice, his fear still evident on his face.
“Yes. We came up to make repairs and do a little fencing –but come daylight, I’m taking you home.”
“No…no, please Adam. I’ll be alright…honest,” Joe pleaded.
“Joe, you’re sick, pal. You’ve nearly been attacked by a bear, you’ve been bitten by a snake, you’re running a fever and…” Adam grinned, “You have a hangover!”
Joe chuckled as his hand moved to his head. “My head does hurt…but my leg feels pretty good, considering.” He looked into his brother’s eyes with a deep yearning in his own. “Please, Adam, let me stay. I won’t be able to help much with the work around here, especially the roof repair, but I’ll do the cooking…and I can hobble out to the shed and tend the horses. Just let me stay…please?”
“I don’t know, Joe. We’ll see in the morning, and it depends on your fever.”
“I told you, I’ll be fine, Adam. I want to stay here and help you. I want to be with…” Joe swallowed again and lowered his head slightly. When he looked up, it was with a smile on his face. “I want to be with you, Adam.”
“And for some reason — unknown even to myself — I want you to stay. BUT!” Adam laughed, “Don’t let it go to your head. If you don’t do exactly as I say, home you go…understand?”
Joe snuggled back down into his cot and grinned up at his brother as Adam pulled the blanket up around his chin. Adam pointed a finger at Joe. “Only if the fever isn’t any worse…agreed?”
“Agreed,” smiled Joe, closing his eyes. “Now turn out the lamp and go to sleep; it’s almost dawn now,” he muttered. His left eye opened just enough to see Adam bending over the lamp fixing to blow out the tiny blaze.
Seconds later it was pitch dark in the little shack that the brothers shared. Joe could hear Adam stumbling around, feeling his way back to his own narrow cot.
“OUCH!” mumbled Adam through gritted teeth.
“Hehehehe,” giggled Joe.
Morning came quickly for both Adam and Joe. Grumbling under his breath, Adam forced himself from his cot and stretched. “How’s the leg?” he asked Joe who had risen up on one elbow.
Joe made a face, but quickly wiped the expression away, not wanting to let on to his older brother, just how much his leg really was hurting. “It’s hurting some, but not more than I can bear,” he explained, which to Joe it was the truth; he’d suffered more pain than what was burning in his leg at other times in his life when he’d been sick or injured.
“My head hurts worse,” Joe grinned as he watched Adam jabbing at the fire, trying to rekindle the dying embers.
Adam glanced over at Joe and returned the grin. “I told you to go easy on that bottle,” he snickered. “Damn, it’s cold in here,” he mumbled as he added some wood to the blaze. “I’ll get this fire going, and start us some breakfast; you stay right where you are and rest.”
“Rest?? That’s all I’ve been doing for the last several hours. I feel fine, Adam, honest,” Joe argued as he carefully swung his legs over the edge of the cot and sat his feet on the floor.
“Brr…it sure ‘nough did get cold last night,” Joe laughed. “Want me to start the coffee while you do the…”
Adam stood up from the fire and shook his head at his brother. He pointed his finger at Joe. “I told you to stay put. it’s too soon, Joe, to put much weight on that leg. Give it at least another day.”
Joe grinned brightly at his brother; his eyes sparkled. “Does that mean I don’t have to go home? I can stay here, with you?”
Adam’s eyes grew dark and he had an expression on his face that his kid brother was unable to read. By rights, thought Adam, Joe should be at home, in the bed, under a doctor’s care, but looking at his young face and seeing the expectancy in his emerald eyes, Adam knew before he even said the words that he would not refuse his brother staying with him.
The dark eyes danced with amusement as Adam turned to look directly into Joe’s eyes. “Only as long as you do exactly as I tell you, understood?”
Giggling sounds bubbled up inside and Joe could do nothing to stop them. “Don’t I always?”
“Yeah, right,” groaned Adam, as he turned to the old black stove and began preparing breakfast for the two of them.
Joe stayed on the cot, though he didn’t relish the job. For most of the morning, Adam tended to little chores inside the cabin in order to keep Joe company, but once Joe had fallen to sleep, Adam hurried outside and began repairing some of the decayed and fallen boards in the walls of the shed.
Adam was so intent on getting the job finished so that he could get back inside before Joe woke up, that he failed to notice the three men that rode up to the front of the cabin. Two of the men slid down from their horses, handed the third man their reins and looked around suspiciously. Satisfied that they had not been seen, they opened the door of the shack and slipped inside. The third man quietly moved the horses to the back of the shack, out of view of anyone approaching from the front.
Joe had awakened and was standing with his back to the door when it opened suddenly. Knowing that Adam had warned him to stay in the bed, Joe whirled around, thinking he’d been caught doing exactly what his brother had advised him not to do, and that was to get up.
“Adam, I was only… What the…??” stammered Joe, seeing the two strangers standing in the middle of the room.
Before Joe could collect his senses, a man’s fist slammed into his face, sending him plummeting across the room. Joe fell across the table, onto his back and slid down into the floor in a heap. Blood dripped from his nose and Joe swiped his hand across his face and tried to get on his feet. The second man grabbed Joe by the front of his shirt, hauling the dazed boy upright. Again, Joe felt the force of the blow as the man hit him on the other side of his already bruising face. A solid fist into his mid-section doubled Joe in half. The man released Joe’s shirt, allowing the battered young man to fall to the floor for the second time.
“Find some rope and tie him in that chair. Make sure he’s facing the door. I want him to be the first thing that Adam Cartwright sees the minute he steps into the room,” one man said to the other.
Within minutes, Joe was tied tightly with his arms stretched behind him and bound to the rungs of the wooden chair. His ankles were secured as well to the legs and a gag was stuffed into his mouth, knotted firmly at the back of his head. Joe could feel the burning pain in his right leg that sent stinging darts upward into his thigh. He gritted his teeth in an effort to ward off the throbbing ache. Joe watched the two men move about the room, rummaging through their belongings as if they were searching for something in particular.
Joe made a grunting sound, trying to voice his disapproval of the two men. The man spun around, glaring with dark, ebony eyes, at Joe. He raised his hand, as if to strike the boy, but paused when the door was thrown opened and the third man entered.
“I got the horses hid out in the bushes. Where’s Cartwright?” he asked, glancing around and seeing Joe bound and gagged. The man started laughing. “Guess this here kid is Cartwright’s brother, heh?”
“Yeah, stupid; it sure ain’t his mama,” the older of the three men said in a sarcastic tone.
“Aw…shucks Nate, I knew that,” the man said.
“Cartwright’s headed this way, boss,” the man, who had been watching out the window, said to the others.
“Alright, Lester, get behind that door. Zeke, get over here. When Cartwright comes through the door, you two nab him.”
Nate turned to face Joe, slipping his arm about Joe’s neck in a headlock. His pistol was cocked and the long barrel was pressed into Joe’s temple.
“You move, and you’re dead,” Nate muttered softly to Joe.
The door swung opened and Adam stepped into the room. His eyes instantly took in the horrifying scene in front of him. Joe was tied in a chair, his face battered and bloody. A tall dark stranger stood next to Joe, his arm squeezing tightly about his brother’s neck. But the pistol that the man held firmly in place at Joe’s temple was what stopped Adam in his tracks.
Behind him, the door slammed shut. Adam glanced over his shoulder at the two men behind him. He lifted his right arm out of the way as one man reached for his sidearm and removed it from its holster. Once he was freed from his gun, the man to his left grabbed his arms and penned them behind his back.
“Tie his hands,” Nate ordered.
“What’s the meaning of this? What do you want?” Adam asked. He was watching his brother’s face, seeing the pain in the depths of the green eyes that glowed with anger. Adam glanced down at Joe’s right leg and saw that the bandage was stained with bright red blood and knew instantly that the snakebite wound had been reopened. Adam’s eyes sought Joe’s face and then the man’s face that held Joe’s life in his hands. “Why don’t you leave the kid alone? He’s barely able to breath,” Adam demanded angrily.
Adam was ushered to the other chair and forced to sit down. Nate released his tight hold on the younger Cartwright. Joe’s head slumped forward and Adam saw that Joe struggled to pull air into his lungs, but that the gag was preventing him from breathing properly.
“He needs air,” Adam warned as he nodded his head in Joe’s direction.
Nate saw the struggle that Joe was making and reached down, jerking the gag from the boy’s mouth. Instantly, Joe sucked in a chest full of air to fill his lungs.
“He’ll live,” Nate said, “just as long as you do what I tell you to do. Otherwise, the boy’s gonna die,” he smirked.
Nate sat down on the table, facing Adam. He had holstered his gun and swung one leg casually as he began explaining to Adam what was going to happen. “Listen up, and listen good, cause if you don’t, the boy over there is going to die, understand?” Nate said as he glanced over at Joe and then at Adam.
Adam’s eyes darted in Joe’s direction noting the suffering on his brother’s face and then turned his attention to the man facing him. He nodded his head. “I understand,” Adam said gruffly.
Inside, the older Cartwright was seething with anger. His younger brother’s face was covered in blood from his nose, his lip was busted and already his face had begun to swell and bruise. “I’ll do what you say; just don’t hurt the boy.”
“That’s up to you, Cartwright, what happens to your brother. Oh yes, I know that he’s your kid brother,” laughed Nate when he saw the look of surprise that Adam wore. “I know all about you rich Cartwrights — and I know that your old man will pay hundreds, thousands even to get his kid back. That’s where you come in. Here’s what you’re going to do,” Nate instructed. “I’m giving you until this time tomorrow to get me and my boys there, one hundred thousand dollars.”
“What?” exclaimed Adam, his eyes flashing with anger.
“That’s right, one hundred thousand. I want you to ride back to that big, fancy ranch of yours, have your papa give you the cash and bring it back here, to me. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll come alone,” Nate got up from the table and walked over to stand before Joe. “If you double-cross me, your brother dies — and it won’t be quick.” Nate spun around, grinning wickedly at Adam. “I’ll kill him nice and slow like, he’ll suffer, and it’ll all be your fault — get it?”
Adam took a deep breath to still his anger. He glanced over at Joe and saw that his brother was just as angry as he. Adam looked up at Nate and his two cohorts. He sensed a bit of sadism in all three and had no doubt that Nate would do just as he promised. “It’s a long ride, almost two days.”
“You heard the boss; you got until this time tomorrow. I suppose you’ll have to ride fast,” snickered Lester who stood behind Joe, watching the hate grow dark in Adam’s eyes.
“It’s impossible,” argued Adam. “No man or horse can cover that much ground in such a short time. And besides, Pa will have to gather the money. We don’t keep that kind of money at the ranch.”
Lester pulled his pistol from his holster and pressed the barrel into Joe’s temple, indicating his meaning. When Adam heard the cocking of the weapon, his eyes widened.
“Alright, but I’ll need two horses.”
“Take what you need, but remember what I said. If you’re more than ten minutes late, the boy there…”
“Yeah, yeah…I know,” growled Adam.
“Alright then, Zeke, untie him.”
Zeke did as instructed and freed Adam from the ropes that had his hands bound behind him. Adam rubbed the soreness in his wrists and gently flexed them to bring the blood flow back into his hands.
“Can I have a word with my brother, first?” Adam asked Nate. “In private…if you don’t mind,” he added.
Nate seemed to be thinking it over and after a long moment, agreed. “Alright, five minutes — not a second longer. Lester, you and Zeke step outside and fetch some more firewood. Cartwright, I’m going to be standing in the door. I’ll have my gun aimed at the boy’s head, should you decide to try something.”
Nate moved to the door and turned to watch as Adam squatted down in front of Joe, resting his hands on the boy’s knees.
“Joe…listen to me. I’ll be back…I promise,” Adam said.
“It’s impossible and you know it, Adam,” whispered Joe.
“I can do it, buddy. I have no intentions of letting those bastards kill you.” Adam grinned up at Joe. “I know I’ve said it a dozen times, kid, that I could kill you, myself, with my bare hands. But I’ll not let the likes of those three do it for me!”
Joe forced a tiny smile. “Gee, thanks,” he laughed lightly.
Joe’s face took on a serious expression. “Adam, whatever happens, I know you tried your best. I won’t hold anything against you.”
“Hush talking like that, Joe. I’ll get you out of this mess, I promise…you’ll see,” Adam swore. “Just do as they say and try not to make them mad. Your face is already a mess, and that leg isn’t looking to good either.”
“Time’s up,” Nate called from the doorway. “Better get going, Cartwright,” he advised.
Adam gave Joe’s leg a gentle squeeze, “See you, little buddy,” he said, forcing a smile.
Adam turned to Nate. “My brother’s been bitten by a rattler; he needs to lie down and rest. The wound is bleeding again and I think…”
“I don’t care what you think; the kid stays right where he’s at. Now get moving!” snarled Nate as he shoved Adam through the door. “Zeke, make sure he gets his horses saddled and then ride as far as the creek with him — just to be sure he gets headed in the right direction. I wouldn’t want him to get lost!” laughed Nate.
The hours passed slowly for Joe. The pain in his leg had become almost unbearable and with his arms still tied tightly behind him and his legs bound to the hard wooden chair, his entire body had taken on an enormous ache. To add to his discomfort, he had not been offered so much as a drop of water or one bite to eat. The three men had made themselves at home, partaking of the supplies that he and Adam had brought along. They had even found the remains of his whiskey bottle and were well on their way to becoming more than just slightly drunk.
Their laughter was loud and as Joe watched their movements and listened to their idle chatter, he learned that the trio had been watching the house for several days. They had learned of the Cartwrights’ movements, the times of day that certain things were done, who was home and who had ridden off, either to tend to some ranch work or had ridden into town for supplies. They seemed to know all there was to know about the family, even what time they retired at night and rose in the mornings.
Nate had laid his trap well, waiting until he knew that Joe and Adam would be gone for several days. The time would give him just enough leeway to fulfill his scheme. With Adam and Joe gone, Ben Cartwright would not have an inkling as to what was taking place, until Adam returned home without his younger brother, to demand the ransom money from his father and return it to he and his two cohorts.
Zeke took a long swig on the near empty bottle of whiskey. For several minutes now, he had been watching Joe, who had been watching him and his friends.
“What you lookin’ at?” Zeke demanded of Joe.
Joe eyed the man but refused to answer.
“I asked you a question, boy!” Zeke growled as he rose from the chair where he was sitting.
Nate and Lester grinned at one another. They watched Zeke approach the boy.
Zeke stood over Joe, his eyes dazed by the liquor. He wobbled slightly. Without warning, he raised his arm and with his opened hand, slapped Joe hard, across his already battered face. Joe’s head was jerked to one side. A bright red handprint appeared instantly on his left cheek. Joe could feel the stinging sensation as he raised his head slightly and glared at the man.
“Cat got your tongue?” Zeke shouted.
“Go to hell,” muttered Joe, knowing his remark would bring the other man’s wrath down upon him.
He was right, several times Zeke’s hand connected with Joe’s face. The boy’s head lolled first to one side and then the next. Joe’s head reeled from the forceful blows. In his mouth, he could taste blood where he had bitten into the flesh of his cheeks. Joe struggled to breathe, gasping for each breath that he sucked into his lungs. By the time that Zeke was spent, Joe was nearly unconscious.
“That’s enough, Zeke,” laughed Nate. “The boy can’t take much more.”
“He’s a smart-mouth, rich kid. All he’s good for is killin’,” grumbled Zeke as he staggered back to his chair and sat down.
“You’ll get your chance, once his big brother gets back here with the money,” Nate assured his friend.
Zeke grinned broadly. “Does that mean I get to kill ‘em?”
Nate grabbed the whiskey bottle out of Zeke’s hand and took a long swig. When he sat the bottle down, he grinned at Zeke across the table. “You didn’t think I’d leave them two boys alive, do you? What do you take me for, a fool? Of course, we’re gonna kill them. If they ever caught up to us, they’d send us to prison for the rest of our lives. Well, I’ve been in prison, and I ain’t got no hankerin’ to go back!”
“Then that settles it; I get the older boy,” Lester said with a grin. “He don’t remember me, but I sure as hell remember him.”
“What do you mean?” Nate said, turning around to look at Lester who had gotten up and moved to add wood on the stove.
“Back about five years ago, I worked for the mighty Adam Cartwright — down in one of his mines. There was a cave in; some of the men blamed me, but no one could prove that the mine had been sabotaged. Cartwright fired me for no good reason. I nearly starved to death before I met up with you. T’weren’t no one here abouts would hire me; they all believed I was responsible for that mine accident,” snarled Lester.
Nate’s face twisted into a deep frown. “Well, I reckon that’s reason enough to kill the bastard. He’s yours. Zeke; you can kill the boy,” Nate said, looking Joe’s way and seeing the hideous bruises and welts on the once handsome face.
“What about you, Nate? Don’t you want in on the fun? I got some great ideas as to what to do to Adam Cartwright,” laughed Lester.
Nate tossed back his head and laughed. “I’m gonna kill the old man’s other son, the big one, the one they call Hoss — and I’m gonna make Ben Cartwright watch,” leered Nate. “And when I’m finished with the ox, I’m gonna kill the richest man in the Nevada Territory,” he laughed.
“You got somethin’ against, Mr. Cartwright?” Zeke inquired.
“Nope, I just don’t like rich people, that’s all.”
Dawn was still more than an hour away. The sky had not yet started to lighten, and there were cast among the shadows, a lone figure of a man who crept along silently. He had been watching the old shack now for several hours, biding his time…for time was everything, if he planned on saving his younger brother’s life and keep from getting himself killed as well.
He had quickly given up the thought of riding for help. The Ponderosa ranch house lay too many miles away and Adam knew before he had ever been forced to leave Joe alone with those three hooligans that he’d never be able to ride that far and back in the allotted time that Nate had given him. Adam had ridden off with his escort to satisfy the boss man, but had determined by the time they had reached the creek and he’d gone only a short distance further alone, that there was no way that he intended to ‘buy back’ his own brother. Joe was his flesh and blood, and no matter how angry he became with the boy, Joe was, in a sense his…his responsibility — his friend, but more importantly, his brother.
Adam smiled to himself; he glanced upward toward heaven and muttered softly. “I understand now, Lord, why I’m his brother. You knew as far back as the day the boy was born that he’d need looking after — and you assigned the job to me.”
Right then and there. Adam made himself a promise, for what he suddenly realized was just how important the boy had been to his own life and to those of his father’s and his middle brother, Hoss. Joe had been like a son to him; he, Adam, had watched the boy grow and develop into the young man he had become, and regardless, Adam was proud of the kid.
‘Kid,’ he thought, ‘I have to stop thinking of Joe as a kid, a boy; he’s a young man. I promise, Joe, if we get out of this alive, I’ll try to stop thinking of you as just my kid brother and I’ll try to…’
Just then the door to the shack opened and Lester stepped out unto the porch. Adam sank into the shadows and watched as Lester walked to the end of the porch where he pressed himself against the wall and waited while Lester relived himself. When Lester turned to go back inside, Adam, his pistol drawn, slammed the weapon down, onto the back of Lester’s head, rendering the man unconscious.
Adam grabbed Lester’s sagging body and quietly pulled him into the edge of the woods hurrying to bind and gag the man. When Adam was certain that Lester was secure, he eased silently back onto the porch. He stopped at the window and peered inside the cabin, but no light was burning. It was only from the soft glow of the embers in the fireplace that he could make out his brother still bound to the chair. Adam searched Joe’s face, appalled by the number of dark bruises that discolored the boy’s fine features. Inside, Adam seethed with anger at what had been done to his brother.
As Adam stood outside the door, he heard the sound of footsteps. He pushed himself up against the outside wall, next to the door. Seconds later, the lamp inside was lit and a warm glow of light filtered through the dirty window onto the porch.
The door opened slowly as Zeke, lantern in hand, stepped outside. The lantern was held high, spreading light across the expanse of the porch, nearly blinding Adam with the brightness. He heard the other man shriek in a startled voice and try to dart back inside the shack, but Adam moved quickly to silence the man. In his attempt, the lantern was knocked from Zeke’s hand and shattered across the porch. The lamp oil quickly ignited, sending a showering hot blaze across the wooden portal. Adam was fighting with Zeke, trying to gain control of the man, but Zeke was a powerfully built man and it took all of Adam’s strength and determination to overtake his opponent.
From the corner of his eye, Adam could see the flames engulf the cabin. Zeke had been out mastered and lay in a heap near the porch. As Adam made a mad dash for the door, Nate, coughing, stumbled out into the darkness, nearly colliding with Adam.
Caught off guard, Adam stumbled, shoving Nate clear of the entrance as he plowed his way into the shack. Nate ran across the yard, tripping over Zeke who was just coming to his senses. The two men stood watching the front of the shack, waiting for Adam to burst through the flames with Joe following behind him. Nate pulled his gun free of his holster and turned to Zeke.
“When they come out, start shooting!” he ordered. “And shoot to kill!”
“JOE! JOE! Where are you?” shouted Adam through the roar of the fire.
The smoke was so thick, seeing was impossible. Adam felt his way around the cabin, grasping with his arm stretched out in front of him for anything that he could put his fingers on. The thick smoke was overpowering and Adam began to cough while trying to keep his mouth covered.
The temperature inside was soaring and Adam knew that if he didn’t get out soon, he would surely die.
“JOE!” he screamed again as he felt his way toward the door.
He had almost reached the doorway when something in his way caused him to trip and tumble to the floor. Beneath him, Adam could hear soft moaning. He had found his brother! Quickly Adam fought with the ropes that bound Joe to the chair and within seconds, had the boy free. Joe was coughing violently.
“Come on, buddy, let’s get out of here,” Adam called as he hauled Joe to his feet and ran for the door.
The instant that he and Joe were free of the flames, Nate and Zeke began firing at them. Adam grabbed Joe by the arm and flung him to the ground alongside himself. Adam rolled over and over, away from Joe who had remained where he had fallen. The action served to draw the other two men’s attention to himself, which was what Adam had hoped would happen. He began firing back, taking careful aim. After several rounds of steady fire, Nate and Zeke lay side by side; both men were dead.
Adam swiftly ran to Joe who had yet made a move. Taking Joe by the arms, Adam moved Joe further away from the now destroyed shack nearer to the shed and the water trough.
“Joe!” Adam cried as he bent over his brother and carefully turned the boy over. He cringed at the abuse apparent on the boy’s young face. The dark bruising that had fashioned an array of blues and blacks, pinks and purples were now covered in soot and ashes as well.
Gently Adam wiped the muck from Joe’s face. “Joe…open your eyes…come on, that’s it.”
“Wa…ter,” muttered Joe weakly.
Adam grabbed the dipper from the nail at the pump where it hung and filled it with water. “Here you go, easy now,” Adam cautioned as he gently helped Joe to sit up. He held the dipper to Joe’s lips and waited until the boy had quenched his thirst.
Joe coughed several times. “My chest…burns,” muttered Joe.
“I know, buddy…my does too,” Adam answered.
Adam glanced over at Nate and Zeke, turning again to Joe. “They won’t hurt you any more, Joe; they are dead.”
Joe’s eyes moved slightly. “Adam, look out!”
Joe surprised Adam by knocking him to the ground. The brothers rolled over and in so doing, Joe managed to grab Adam’s gun from his holster and began firing over their heads.
When it was over, the third man lay dead as well. Adam pushed himself up to his knees, his eyes dark and glaring at his brother. His hands were firmly placed on his hips and the expression on his face was one of anger. “That was a foolish thing to do!” he snapped at Joe.
“I couldn’t think of anything else to do; he was fixing to shoot you in the back!” Joe retorted angrily. “Look!” Joe said, pointing to the lifeless figure.
Adam turned to see Lester lying in a heap near his two cronies. Adam shook his head in disbelief. “I’d forgotten about him. I had him tied up in the bushes; guess he must have managed to get free.”
Adam grinned at Joe while getting to his feet and offering his brother a hand up. “I guess you saved my life…again,” smiled Adam with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Well, it’s the least I could do, big brother; you saved mine first,” laughed Joe.
“No, you saved mine first.”
“No, you saved mine.”
Joe looked thoughtful for a moment. “Oh yeah, but you fed me the fish, remember, so saving you from the bear was the least I could do,” Joe said with a boyish grin.
“Yes, but I saved you from dying of snake bite, and then I was forced to save you from those three thugs. And let’s not forget the burning shack.”
Adam paused, glancing at the smoldering remains of the old line shack. He shook his head from side to side.
Joe followed Adam’s line of vision, taking in the same sad sight as his brother. He too shook his head. “How are we going to explain this to Pa, Adam?”
“Beats me,” Adam said.
They were standing side by side, both looking the worse for wear and covered in dirt and ashes from head to toe.
“You know something, big brother?”
“Pa probably won’t believe us when we tell him everything that happened. I mean, how I saved you from a bear and you saved me from the snake and then you saved me from the burning shack and then I save you from being shot in the back.”
Adam looked worried as he turned to Joe and helped the boy to his feet. “Yeah, he’ll probably think we just got into another fight, especially with the looks of your face. And then he’ll no doubt think we burned the shack because of our…””
Adam started laughing. “It does sound unbelievable, wouldn’t you agree?”
Joe started giggling but stopped suddenly. He groaned and held his face between his hands. “Ouch…that hurts,” he said. “So does my leg.’
Adam’s laughter died as he saw Joe begin to sway. Grabbing the boy by the arms and lacing his through his brother’s, he led Joe to the shed where the horses were stabled. “Let’s get you settled and cleaned up, then I’ll take care of those three.”
Just as soon as he had Joe comfortable, Adam took care of the bodies, wrapping them in their own bedrolls and preparing them for the long ride down the mountain later on that day.
“How are you doing?” Adam asked Joe when he returned.
Adam squatted down next to his brother, making sure the Joe had no fever. He checked the wound in the leg and then gathered some water to clean the cuts and scrapes on his brother’s face.
“I feel like I’ve been run over by a freight wagon,” Joe said as Adam dabbed at his face.
“You look like you’ve been run over by a freight wagon,” snickered Adam.
Joe took Adam’s hand and gently pushed it away from his face. “Adam, tell me something.”
“Anything, Joe,” Adam responded.
“How did you get back so fast? I know it’s at least a good solid two days ride from here back home.”
“Simple. I didn’t go home,” grinned Adam.
“You didn’t?” Joe asked, surprised.
“Of course not. I knew I’d never make it back here in time, and that Nate fellow swore to kill you if I didn’t, so I just rode off a ways and waited,” Adam explained. “Besides, he was asking way too much for you.”
Joe’s eyes widened as he jerked his head around to stare in awe at his older brother. He wore a serious expression. “What do you mean by that?”
“Nate. His bounty for you was way too high. After all, Pa don’t keep a hundred thousand dollars in his safe and you know it. Five, maybe ten thousand at the most, and then only on occasion. But a hundred thousand? No way, kid!”
Joe’s face formed a scowl and he glared at his brother. “I wouldn’t let Pa hear you talk like that,” he said seriously and then grinned. “Pa happens to think I’m priceless!”
Adam burst into laughter, causing Joe to start giggling as well. After several minutes, Adam stood to his feet. “Reckon you can ride?”
Joe glanced down at his leg, touching it gently with his fingers.
“I don’t know, but I’ll give it a try; it hurts,” Joe answered.
“Well, I’ll get you home and then Pa can take a look at it. He’ll probably put you to bed and send for the doctor. Doc Martin will no doubt come out, tell you to stay in bed for…hmm…a week or so, and…oh yeah, he’ll have to give you a shot in the rump too, I bet. And stitch up that cut over your eye…”
“Adam?” Joe said with no expression in his voice.
“Yeah, buddy?” Adam said, trying hard not to smile.
“Just shut up and help me get on my horse!”
By the next afternoon, the brothers stopped on the rise overlooking the ranch house. Joe was tired and it showed on his battered face and in the way he sat his horse, but he straightened when he saw the house. “It’s good be home, isn’t it?” he asked Adam.
Adam grinned and nodded. “It’s good to be alive, Joe.”
“I’ll say. Say, Adam, did I tell you thanks for pulling me out of that burning shack? Cause if I didn’t, I’m saying it now — thanks.”
“You don’t have to thank me, Joe. You’d have done the same for me.”
Joe was studying his brother’s face. “How can you be so sure?” he asked casually.
Adam turned to look into Joe’s eyes. It was there — as it had always been — the love between them. They didn’t let the other see it very often, but it was there just the same. Briefly Adam wondered why they didn’t, but decided it didn’t really matter; they knew it was there, though they sometimes forgot. But then a gentle reminder would take place and there it’d be, shining in their eyes. Adam grinned in that knowing way that had so many times in the past irked his kid brother.
“We’re brothers, aren’t we? Didn’t Pa once say that it’s ‘only when we give joyfully, without hesitation or thought of gain, can we truly know what love means’. Well, Joe, I think the last few days proved that point.”
“I know what the words mean, Adam. I’m not sure about what happened and how it applies to the words, though,” Joe said.
“It’s easy, Joe. Did you think twice about knocking me to the ground when you ran that bear off — or again when you shot Lester before he could shoot me in the back?”
“Well, I didn’t give a second thought, either, when I sucked the poison out of your leg, or when I ran into the shack to pull you out of the fire. I did it, Joe, not just because you’re my brother, but because I…I…” Adam hesitated. He turned and grinned at Joe, but for him the words were hard to say. He swallowed deeply. “You know what I mean, don’t you, Joe?”
Joe’s lips were pressed firmly together as he nodded his head. He too had a thickening in his own throat. “Yeah, Adam, I know what you mean. I feel the same way about you. And I’m sorry for being such a worry-wart all the time, and making you mad.”
“Forget it, Joe, I’m only hard on you cause I expect too much out of you, I reckon,” smiled Adam.
“Maybe we expect too much out of each other,” Joe snickered.
“Perhaps. Come on, let’s get home. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry!”
“Now you sound just like Hoss; he’s always hungry.”
Both young men laughed as they headed down the slope toward the house. The three men — Nate, Lester and Zeke — they had left in town with Roy Coffee with a promise that they would come back later and give the sheriff a fully detailed account of what happened.
Ben and Hoss had heard the sounds of thundering hooves in the yard and hurried out to see who had stopped by. Both were stunned to see Adam and Joe crossing the yard, arms draped over the other’s shoulders and both laughing.
Ben grinned at Hoss. “Well, I’m not sure what happened — look at Joe’s face. And he’s limping. I hope to goodness that Adam didn’t do that!” Ben said with some doubt.
“Aw…Pa, Joe wouldn’t be laughin’ if Adam had done that to ‘im. But what do you think did happen?”
Ben’s thick brows rose slightly. “I don’t know, but I have an idea we’re about to find out!”
“Howdy, Pa…Hoss,” grinned Joe as he took his father’s hand and shook it.
“Welcome home; you’re back early,” Ben said as he eyed the way his two sons exchanged glances. “And what happened to your face, Joseph?”
“My face? Umm…well, you see, Pa, there was a little trouble…”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?” Ben asked.
“Oh, well, first there was a bear…” stammered Joe.
“And then Joe got bit by a snake…” added Adam.
“A snake!” Ben practically shouted.
“Yeah, but it’s okay; Adam sucked the poison out of my leg,” grinned Joe.
“Then there were those three men…”
“What three men?” Ben quizzed.
Joe’s brow moved upward and he swallowed, glancing at Adam.
“The ones who did that to Joe’s face,” Adam explained.
Ben turned to study the bruises, noting the assortment of colors.
“It don’t hurt…much,” Joe said in a weak voice. “Not as much as these rope burns,” he added, holding out his hands for his father to see.
Ben reached out and touched the burns on Joe’s wrists lightly.
“I got him free just as soon as I could…”
“He sure did, Pa. For awhile I thought I was a goner, what with the fire and all…”
“Fire?” Ben muttered, glancing around at all three sons.
Hoss was standing to the side, arms folded across his massive chest, obviously enjoying watching Adam and Joe squirm, relieved that for a change, he wasn’t involved.
“The line shack,” Adam said. “They set fire to it, with Joe in it.”
“WHAT? WHO SET FIRE TO IT!”
“Those three men. They wanted a hundred thousand dollars or they were going to kill me.”
“But I saved him; I had to kill a couple of them.” Adam said, filling in the information.
Ben’s eyes roll upward, his patience was beginning to wear thin. “Just a couple?” he said with a touch of sarcasm.
“I killed one,” Joe said, holding up one lone finger. “He was going to shoot Adam in the back; I had no other choice.”
“He’s right, Pa; he saved my life.” smiled Adam.
“The line shack is gone, Pa…sorry,” muttered Joe.
“It wasn’t our fault, honest,” Adam added.
Ben, his face unreadable, looked from one to the other, studying their expressions closely. He wasn’t sure about everything he was hearing, but one thing he was certain of; his sons had found their way back to one another.
‘Love, it’s like a violin, the music might stop for awhile, but the strings remain forever,’ thought Ben.
“Adam, Joe, I want both of you inside…RIGHT NOW!” Ben bellowed. He pointed to the house with his long slender finger. He almost laughed out-right when he saw the expressions on his son’s faces change so suddenly. The pair didn’t waste any time, they practically ran for the door.
Ben chuckled. Hoss stepped over to his father and grinned.
“What are you gonna do, Pa?”
“What am I going to do?” Ben smiled up at Hoss. “I’m going inside and have a brandy — a nice tall brandy. I have an idea that my head is going to be pounding by the time that those two rapscallions get finished giving me all the reasons that they should never be allowed to…well… Let’s just go inside, Hoss, and get the facts, then I’ll decide what I’ll do about them!”
“Whatever you say, Pa, but you reckon they mended any fences while they was gone?” Hoss said doubtfully.
“Oh, I’d say they mended several!” laughed Ben.
It was obvious to him. Adam and Joe had mended their fences, and he wasn’t referring to the wooden fences either! They had found the music too — the music of love, unselfish, devoted love between brothers.