Tempted to Steal (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,322


 

 

“FRANK!  Please…oh please, don’t hit him again!”

“SHUT-UP WOMAN!  I’ll stop when I think he’s had enough!”

Blow after blow was delivered to the other man’s mid-section.  The man’s body folded in half, an unconscious move made by sheer willpower to protect himself.

“HOLD HIM UP!” Frank screamed at his two cohorts.

Fingers entwined themselves amid the raven hair and Adam found himself hauled upright as another round of assaults were administered to his middle and about his face.  The body sagged heavily against the two men who struggled to keep the big man upright.

“NO!  STOP!” the young woman screamed as she grabbed Adam’s assailant’s arm and tried to stop the punch already in progress.

The man delivering the punishment stared in anger at the woman and then, jerking free his arm from her grasp, swung back his hand, striking the woman across her finely chiseled features.  The woman screamed in horror as she stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, afraid to get up or say another word to the mad man who deemed it his right to punish her by beating to death the only real friend she had ever had.

“DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” he stormed.

“Bastard,” mumbled Adam through lips that bled.

The beating he had just been made to endure marred his handsome face.  His eyelids were swollen, obscuring his vision.  Blood dripped from his nose; his jaw line was tight with anger and bruises showed themselves in radiant blends of blue and purple.  His mid-section was sore and hurting nearly beyond his endurance and around his side, bruises that matched in color to those on his face accented the golden tan of his otherwise, muscular and powerful body.

The remark earned him another and then another fierce blow to his face and mid-section.  Adam’s knees could no longer hold the weight of his body upright and he slumped forward, his senses no longer able to focus on anything other than the misery that clutched every portion of his battered and abused body.

“Let him go,” the abuser said with a grin.  “He’s had enough,” Frank said, turning to the woman.  “Get in the house, whore,” he snapped, pointing his finger toward the dwelling.  “I’ll see to you in a minute.”

Frank turned back to the two men who stood over Adam.  “Get him on his horse and get him outta here.  And you two disappear for awhile,” he ordered.

“What about her?” one man asked as he used his chin and pointed to the house.

“I’ll take care of her; she’s my wife and she’ll do as I say.  If this man comes around here again trying to steal my woman, I’ll kill him the next time.”

Frank jabbed his toe into Adam’s side, causing Adam to moan softly. “Did you understand that, Cartwright?  You stay away from my wife.  No law in the country will hang a man for protecting what’s his, especially if he catches some man trying to steal his wife. You just remember that.”

Frank turned back to the others. “Make sure he gets home. I want old man Cartwright to see what happens when one of his sons are tempted to steal.”

The irate husband turned toward the house.  The two men in the yard each grabbed Adam by his arms and hauled him to his feet.  They watched Frank making his way slowly toward the porch and when Adam saw his attacker pull his belt from around his waist and double it up, he tried to pull free of the strong hands that were bent on hoisting him up into his saddle.

“Don’t do it, Frank,” Adam muttered.  “I’ll kill you if you hurt her…”

The two men dragged Adam backward toward his horse.  Adam saw Frank enter his home and almost immediately he heard Jolene’s screams echoing loudly over her husband’s angry shouts.  Adam closed his eyes to the sounds, willing himself not to hear the anguished cries for mercy.

Ungraciously, Adam was hoisted unto his horse’s back and then one of the men tied Adam’s hands tightly to the saddle horn to keep him from falling from Sport’s broad back.  Barely able to understand any more of what was happening, his body slumped forward over the horse’s neck.

The man, who had tied Adam’s hands, took the reins and after mounting his own horse, led Sport and his rider away from Frank’s house.

“We’ll take him halfway home and then leave him.  His horse can find the way without us having to be seen by Cartwright.  Come on.”

*****

Inside the house, havoc was being reined upon the woman.  Frank used his belt to beat his wife nearly senseless and when she still refused to admit that anything had been going on between Adam Cartwright and herself, Frank resorted to using his fists.  By the time he’d finished, Jolene lay crumpled on the thick, lush carpet that covered the wooden floors of their modest home.

“Liar…trollop…you good for nothing tramp!” yelled Frank in a rage of anger. “I’ll teach you to go traipsing about the countryside with some man.  You seem to have forgotten that you’re a married woman…or didn’t your marriage vows mean anything to you!” he ranted as he grabbed his wife by the arm and dragged her into the small room off to one side of the kitchen.

The room was void of widows and there was only one way out, the doorway in which Frank stood.  Frank released Jolene’s arm and the woman curled her battered body into a tight ball in the center of the floor.  From under her arm, blackened and swollen, tear filled eyes sought her husband’s face.  Her body trembled both in fear and in pain of her mishandling.

“Two or three days in here and maybe you’ll be able to remember that you’re a married woman…instead of the town slut!”

“No…Frank please,” she pleaded, but her husband turned a deaf ear to her sobs.

Frank jerked the door closed and turned the key in the lock.  With a smile of satisfaction, he tucked the key into his vest pocket and went into the living room where he removed a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet and sat down to drown his sorrows.

*****

Adam’s horse moved slowly into the yard and stopped at the hitching post that was his normal stop-off.  Adam, unconscious, remained tethered to the saddle horn.  His prone body lay slumped over the animal’s long neck in a lopsided position.  Sport snorted loudly and stomped his hoof against the hard packed earth.

Inside and unaware they were needed, Ben, Hoss and Joe sat around the fire, wondering what it was that was detaining Adam and keeping them from sitting down together at the table for the evening meal.

“I’m not waiting any longer,” Ben announced as he stood to his feet and moved into the dining room. “Come on, let’s eat,” he said in an angry tone.  “I’m hungry.”

Joe gave Hoss a quick glance as they stood and moved along with their father to the table.

“I’ll take a one more quick look out the door,” Joe said, already reaching for the latch.

He pulled the door opened wide just as Ben took his seat.  Hoss had stopped behind Joe and peeked over the smaller man’s shoulder.

“Joe…looky there,” Hoss said, squinting his eyes as he peered into the darkness.

Hoss pointed to the shadowy form of a horse standing in the yard.

“JOSEPH! HOSS!  Come to the table, now!” shouted Ben.  “I said we’re not waiting any longer, supper is getting cold and you know how I feel about cold…”

“Pa, come over here and take a look,” Hoss said, following Joe out into the darkness.

“ADAM!” Joe shouted when he realized who sat the horse.  “PA! HOSS!” he bellowed, running toward his brother’s mount.

Hoss was quick to follow.  Ben came from the table as quickly as he could run and joined Joe and Hoss out in the yard.  His anger suddenly vanished as the sight before him unfolded.  Joe was already untying his brother’s hands from the pommel and with the help of his middle brother and their father, the trio lowered Adam gently to the ground.

“Good God,” muttered Ben when he saw the condition that his eldest son was in.

Adam moaned softly and tried to open his swollen eyes. “Pa?” he cried.

“I’m here son, you’re home now.”  Ben brushed carefully at the dark strains of sweat-coated hair that had fallen across Adam’s brow.

“Hoss, help me get him to bed, Joe, ride for the doctor, and hurry, son, hurry,” Ben urged as he and Hoss gathered Adam up and carried him toward the house.

Joe started toward the barn to saddle his horse, but seeing Sport standing idle, decided to ride Adam’s horse into town instead.

*****

Ben and Hoss gently placed Adam on his bed and began to strip away the soiled clothing.  Ben turned to Hop Sing who had missed the family at the table and gone in search of his employer.

“I get fresh water and soap for bath, bring medical supplies,” the Chinese man said, hurrying from the room where he had found them.  One look at Adam’s face and Hop Sing had snapped into action.

“Thank you Hop Sing,” Ben called over his shoulder.

“Pa…” Adam whined.

“Easy son, I’m here…can you tell me boy, who did this to you…and why?” Ben asked as he sat beside Adam on the bed.

“Jolene…she…needs help…Pa…” Adam tried to force the words up from the back of his throat, but they came out garbled and neither Ben nor Hoss could make out exactly what Adam was trying to tell them.

Hoss made a face and glanced at his father.  “Did ya understand what he was sayin’?”

“No…nothing other than Jolene…” Ben looked puzzled for a moment.  “Isn’t that the lady’s name who moved into the old Hogan place about six months ago?”

“Yeah…I think ya right, Pa.  Wonder what Adam has to do with her…I thought she was married,” puzzled Hoss.

“She is.  I saw her and her husband last Saturday when I went into town.  He’s a strange one, that husband of hers,” Ben said as he worked.

Hop Sing returned minutes later with the fresh water and Ben began sponging the dirt and grim from Adam’s face.

“How so, Pa?” Hoss asked while he helped his father.

“Larson, that was his name, Frank Larson.  Joe and I were going into the mercantile when they were coming out.  Joe spoke to the young woman and her husband seemed angry with his wife for acknowledging Joe’s greeting.  I don’t know, I thought it rather odd,” Ben explained.

Adam tossed his head from side to side.  He mumbled words that made no sense to either Ben or Hoss and nothing that Ben said to his wounded son seemed to have an affect on him.

“Jolene…Jolene,” Adam continued to murmur.

*****

It was well after dark before Joe returned with Doc Martin in tow.  They entered the house and hurried straight for Adam’s room.  Joe pushed the door opened and found his father had pulled a chair along side the bed where he could keep a close eye on his son.

“Doc’s here, Pa.  How’s Adam, has he been able to tell you who beat him?” Joe asked, all in one long breath.

“No, he’s tried to tell me something, but his words are so jumbled, I haven’t been able to understand what he’s trying to say,” Ben said.

They moved back from the bed to give the physician more room to examine his patient.  Ben watched with worried eyes how Paul Martin used his skilled fingers to slide along his son’s ribcage, counting the fractured and cracked ribs and how the doctor used his eyes to study each bruise and each cut to determine exactly what method of treatment was probable for each wound.  It took several minutes for the doctor to make his determination and when he’d finished, he moved away from the bed, motioning for the others to join him out in the hallway.

“He’s been beaten very badly, Ben,” Paul began.  “I’ve not seen anything like this in quite sometime.  Do you have any idea who might have caused this and why?”

“No, I’m afraid not.  All I can understand of his mumbling is ‘Jolene’,” answered Ben.

The doctor’s expression showed surprise.  “Jolene?” he repeated the name.  “Jolene Larson?”

“I would suppose, Paul.  I’m not aware of anyone else by that name, why?” Ben asked, his concern showing in the deep lines furrowed into his brow.  “Do you know her?”

“I only know of her.  She and her husband bought a small ranch on the other side of Virginia City, the old Hogan place I believe.  She came into the office one day to see me.  She had some bruises on the side of her face and a small cut that required some stitches.  Mr. Larson was with her.  He struck me as being a strange sort of man.”

“How so?” Ben inquired.

The doctor shook his head from side to side.  “I can’t put my finger on it, Ben, but he acted as if he were afraid that his wife might say too much.  When I asked her how she got the bruises, he jumped in to explain.  He wouldn’t let her talk for herself and he said she fell down the stairs.”

“Did she?” Hoss asked.

“She agreed with her husband, that’s all I can assume, that she fell.”

“Is Adam going to be alright, doc?” Joe asked, getting back to the subject at hand.  He kept glancing into the bedroom, watching Adam’s lips moving and knew that his brother was once more trying to make himself understood.

“In time, Joe. He’s going to have to stay in bed for a while; he has a couple cracked ribs and that cut over his eye is going to need stitching.  I’d best get back to work.”

Paul turned to Ben and placed a comforting hand on his friend’s arm.  “Try not to worry, Ben.  He’s strong and healthy…he’ll be fine in time.  I’ll stitch that cut but remember, just keep him in bed and I’ll be back in a day or so to check on him.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Ben said.  He turned to Joe and Hoss. “You boys best get to the table and eat.  Hop Sing will be fit to be tied if his supper is ruined, and then, please, do the chores.  I’ll sit with Adam when the doctor is finished and then one of you can relieve me later.”

“Yessir, Pa.  Come on Little Joe,” Hoss said, taking Joe by the arm and literally pulling his younger brother away from the opened door.

Once downstairs, Joe pulled his arm free of Hoss’ strong fingers and gave him a dirty look.

“What do you think you’re doing, dragging me downstairs like that?” Joe snapped.

“I’m sorry, Shortshanks; it’s just that I wanna talk to ya without Pa hearin’.  Come on, let’s go out to the barn,” Hoss suggested, opening the door and leading the way.

Joe stood where he was.  Hoss paused and glanced back over his shoulder. “Well, ya comin’ or ain’t ya?” he barked.

“Oh…alright…but Pa told us to eat first…”

“This is important. Forget about eatin’; it’s gone cold anyway.”

Joe tossed his hands up in the air and rolled his eyes.  If it was important enough for Hoss to miss a meal, he must have something serious on his mind, Joe decided.

“Alright, out with it Hoss,” Joe said, following Hoss out to the barn.

Hoss gently pushed Joe into the barn and glancing around, Hoss pulled the door closed.  He took Joe by the arm and led him over to a corner.

“What’cha make of what doc said, Little Joe?” Hoss asked.

“I would think he knows what he’s doing, Hoss, he did say that Adam would be fine…”

“No…not about Adam, about that woman…”

“Woman…oh, you mean Mrs. Larson?”

“Yeah…her…what did Adam call her…Jolene?” Hoss said with a thoughtful look on his rotund face.

“That’s it — Jolene…but I don’t get it, Hoss.  What about her?” Joe said, sitting on a crate.

“Joe, don’t ya find it strange that our big brother comes home beaten to a pulp and the only thing he says is some married woman’s name?”  Hoss said, wrinkling up his nose.

“Well,” Joe muttered, “now that you mention it…what would Adam be doing calling out for a married woman?”

Both Joe and Hoss looked thoughtful and then Joe’s eyes widened. “Hoss,” he said, clutching his brother’s arm.  “You don’t suppose…naw…he wouldn’t…would he?”

Hoss looked puzzled, his brow fashioned a deep scowl and he turned to Joe. “Wouldn’t what, Little Joe…Adam wouldn’t what?” he insisted.

“You don’t reckon our big brother has been sneaking around…with…this Jolene woman, do you?” Joe said, almost timidly.

“WHAT!”

“Shh…you want someone to hear us?” scolded Joe.  “Think about it, Hoss.  Adam comes home, battered and broken, and the only word he says is ‘Jolene, Jolene’.  Ya gotta wonder why?”

Hoss stood silent, pondering the idea.

“Hoss, I’ve seen the lady, she’s a knock-out…”

“But Joe, Adam would never…”

“Look Hoss, Adam’s only human…and I’ve heard around town that the lady is very nice…unlike her husband.  Maybe…and I mean, maybe…our older brother was tempted and perhaps…hmm…he got caught.  That would explain both the beating and the reason he was calling for her…don’t you think?” Joe said, eyeing his brother with wide eyes that had grown dark by the doubt and worry that troubled him.

Hoss scratched his head.  “I don’t know, Joe…I can’t see Adam tryin’ to steal another man’s wife…”

“Me either Hoss, but anything is possible.  I think tomorrow morning we oughta ride over and just have a word with Mrs. Larson, and find out what she will tell us.  What do you say, Pa, won’t have to know…it’ll be our little secret…”

“Joe, ya can’t be serious…ya reckon if the lady is havin’ an affair with Adam, she’d own up to it?” Hoss said.

“She might, if she knows that her husband beat the tar outta Adam…”

“But Little Joe, ya ain’t got no proof that Larson had anythin’ atall to do with Adam gettin’ beat up…”

Joe stood to his feet and moved to pick up a rake.  “No, but we haven’t gotten any proof he wasn’t responsible either.  And it was Frank Larson’s wife’s name our big brother was calling out for…” Joe said as he began mucking out the stall nearest to him.

Behind him, Joe heard Hoss sigh deeply.  He glanced over his shoulder at his brother.

“Alright Joe, I say we go have a word with Mrs. Larson, but if Pa finds out what we’re doin’, I’m tellin’ him it was your ideay!”

“He won’t find out, Hoss…I promise,” Joe grinned.

“Wonder where I’ve heard that before?” mumbled Hoss.

Joe giggled.  “I heard that!”

*****

“Please…please, let me out, Frank,” sobbed Jolene.

The young woman’s fists were raw where she had beaten them against the door.  It had been hours since her irate husband had locked her in the closet and the tight space and dark had begun to take its toil on the battered wife.

Again and again Jolene beat on the door, her cries had risen in volume, but still Frank ignored his wife.  He was lying with his head on the table, lost from sobriety into a drunken world of bliss where his senses had lost reason of time.

*****

By morning, Jolene was found lying, semi-conscious on the floor.  Frank had managed to awaken enough to remember that his wife was locked away in the closet.  He stumbled into the kitchen, taking the tiny key from his pocket and unlocked the door.

Jolene was lying crumbled in the floor, her motionless body curled into a ball.

“Get up woman!” Frank growled.

When Jolene failed to respond, her husband jabbed at her with the toe of his boot.

“I said, GET UP!” Frank screamed at her.

Jolene moaned softly and raised her head.  Her face was covered in dark bruises and one eye was swollen shut.  The cut above the right brow had stopped seeping, leaving a small amount of congealed blood showing on her forehead and acting as a glue to leave the loose strands of golden hair plastered to her brow.

Disgusted with what he saw, Frank grabbed Jolene by the arm and hauled her to her feet.

“Please, Frank,” sobbed the woman.

“Shut up, tramp,” he snarled at her.  “Get up the stairs,” he ordered, shoving his wife.

Jolene took a flattering step and stopped, looking back at her husband. “Frank, I swear…nothing happened…Adam Cartwright is only a friend, he…AWW!” she screamed, covering her face with her hands in an attempt to ward off the vicious slaps to her face, handed out by her husband.

“DON’T YOU EVER MENTION THAT MAN’S NAME AGAIN, EVER…DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” he roared loudly.

“Get moving…go to the attic,” Frank ordered.

Jolene, sobbing, did as her man instructed and slowly climbed the narrow curved staircase. “What are you going to do?” she inquired of him.

“What do you think?  I’m going to lock you away until you learn your lesson, now move it!” he said and shoved her again.

By the time they reached the attic, Jolene was beyond crying.  She waited at the top of the stairs for Frank to unlock the door and then, giving in to her fate, walked on her own accord into the musty, hot attic.

“There’s ya something to sleep on, over there,” Frank said, pointing to a dark corner where an old mattress lay.  “I’ll bring ya some food in a little while.  Now, behave yourself, and I just might let you outta here, in a week or so!”

Jolene stood in the middle of the room looking about.  The door behind her slammed and she barely heard the turning of the key. For several long moments she stood, shrouded by the darkness that engulfed her.  When her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she moved to the corner where the worn mattress was and pulled it out, into the center of the room.  Jolene lay down, exhausted and hurting and buried her face in the old blanket she had found and sobbed out her heartache and disappointment she had with both her husband and her life.

*****

Mid-morning of the next afternoon, Joe and Hoss rode into the yard of the Larson homestead.  They stopped at the hitching post, sitting silently and just staring at the house.  All was quiet and the strange stillness was unsettling to both young men.  Hoss turned to Joe with a worried frown.

“What’cha gonna say to’em, Joe?” he said in a whispered voice.

“Don’t rightly know…” began Joe.

“Well, ya gotta have somethin’ to say, otherwise, he’ll think we’re just plain dumb, droppin’ by for no good reason,” fussed Hoss.  “’specially if’n he believes Adam and his wife are…”

“Shh…here he comes,” Joe said in a low voice.

“Howdy, neighbor,” Frank Larson called as he approached the Cartwrights from the barn where he had been working.  He gave no clue to his drunken state of the night before or that anything out of the ordinary had taken place the day before.

Joe gave Hoss a quick glance and then dismounted to shake hands with the man.

“Howdy,” greeted Joe.  “Hmm…I’m Joe Cartwright, and this is my brother, Hoss,” he began.

“Cartwright?” Frank said, his smile suddenly vanishing.

“Yessir,” Hoss said.  “Our pa is Ben Cartwright, we own…”

“I know what you own, boy.  What are the two of you doing over here?  I’ve already warned that brother of yours to stay away from me and my wife!” he barked.

“Oh…you must mean Adam?” Joe said, regretting what they were doing.  “Well…I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Larson.  But…but…” he glanced at Hoss for help.

Hoss took the clue and supplied the needed excuse. “Hmm… our pa sent us over here, sir,” he babbled.

“Yer Pa?  What for?” Frank said, looking at the two younger men with angry eyes.

“Yessir…he…he…Joe, what did Pa send us over here for?” Hoss stammered.

“Why?  Hmm…oh yeah,” Joe laughed in a sickly manner.  “Pa wanted to…to…hmm…invite you and your wife over for Sunday dinner…isn’t that right, Hoss?”

“Sunday dinner?  Joe…are ya sure that’s why Pa sent us over here…I mean…” Hoss stumbled over the words.

“Of course I’m sure…Mr. Larson, don’t pay any mind to my brother, he’s…he’s…been working a lot lately and hasn’t exactly been himself,” Joe said, giving Hoss a warning look.

“Ya sayin’ ya pa wants me and my wife to come to Sunday dinner?” Frank repeated the suggestion.  “Why?” Frank asked, surprising and frustrating the pair of brothers that much more.

“Why?  Cause…hmm…”

“Cause why?” Frank demanded.

“Well, sir, Pa hasn’t had a chance to really make your acquaintance and he said it was the neighborly thing to do…get to know your neighbors, that is.  So…he wanted to have you and your wife over for supper.  How about it?” Joe said meekly.

“No…now get off my property,” Frank growled in a wicked tone.  He turned to go back to the barn, leaving Joe gapping at Hoss in shock.  Frank paused and turned around, seeing the boys still standing there. “I said get off my property,” he informed the brothers.

“Yessir, we’re leavin’ right now.  Get on your pony, Joe,” Hoss commanded.

“Hold on a minute, Hoss.  Mr. Larson,” Joe said, calling out to the man.  “Mind if I ask why you can’t come to supper?”

Joe took a few cautious steps toward the man.

“Psst…Joe,” Hoss whispered in a hushed voice.

Joe waved his arm back at Hoss and proceeded with his questioning.

“Sir…our Pa will be greatly disappointed if you refuse,” suggested Joe, knowing full well that if the man happened to show up at their door on Sunday afternoon, his butt was likely to get a good swatting.

Frank took a deep breath to calm himself.  No need to let these two young bulls suspect him of anything.  It was obvious what the pair was up too, thought Frank, and again obvious that their older brother had yet to name him as his attacker. “Look boys, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve work to do.  You see my wife, Jolene, is out of town for a few weeks…she’s…gone to visit her mother in San Francisco.  So…I just don’t do no socializing without her.  Perhaps when she returns?” suggested Frank.

“Your wife ain’t here?  But I thought…” Hoss realized he was thinking out loud again and quickly shut up.

The blundered statement did not go unnoticed by Frank Larson, but the man let it pass for now.  Perhaps the boys were brighter than he first suspected and knew something more than first thought.

“Perhaps another time?” Frank said.  “Now, if you will excuse me?”  He turned then and disappeared into the barn.

Joe frowned and turned back to Hoss.  He swung gracefully into the saddle and sat for a moment. “He’s lying…she’s here, Hoss,” he said in a low voice.

“Who?” Hoss said, looking puzzled.

“Mrs. Larson.  She’s here and she’s watching us…but I don’t know from where,” Joe explained.  “Come on, let’s get home,” he said, looking around once again in an attempt to locate the eyes he could feel bearing down on them.

Hoss turned Chubb around as well, but glanced over his shoulder.  “I can feel them eyes on me, too, Joe,” he muttered.

From her locked room in the attic, Jolene peered through the crack in the wall, watching as the two young men rode away.  Blinding tears filled her eyes and once the brothers were gone from her sight Jolene laid down on her mattress and cried herself to sleep.

*****

“Where in blazes have the two of you been?” Ben ranted.

Joe and Hoss had tried slipping into the house unnoticed, but just as Hoss closed the front door with a bang, earning a disgusted glare from his younger brother, Ben appeared on the top step. “I asked you a question!” he stormed, marching down the steps. His hands were emphatically placed on his hips, his brow was drawn downward and the usual joyful glitter to his dancing eyes had turned a strikingly dark hue.

“Hmm…we…were…” stammered Joe, swallowing hard.

“Just out for a ride…yeah…that’s it, we just went for a ride,” Hoss quickly added and then smiled broadly.

Joe made a disgusted look and rolled his eyes upward.

“A ride!  Lollygagging would be more like it!” stormed Ben.  “And by any chance, did either one of you do what I asked you to do?”

Hoss looked a bit sickly when he glanced at Joe. “Ya asked us to do somethin’?” he stammered.

Ben pinched his eyes shut and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly through his flaring nostrils.

“OH!” Joe nearly shouted.  He turned to Hoss.  “Don’t ya remember, Hoss? Pa asked us to…to…”

“Oh for heaven’s sake…did you at least get the mail?” Ben groaned.

“Mail?” Hoss stammered again.  “Ug…ya gotta go into town to get the mail,” he said lamely.

Ben’s eyes rounded.  He noticed that Joe had lowered his head, a sure sign that the younger boy had something to hide.

“You two ‘boys’ didn’t even get to town, did you?” Ben roared.

“No sir,” Joe said meekly.  “We…had an errand to do, but…don’t worry, Pa,” he said, grinning like a little boy.  “We’ll do that right now…come on Hoss, let’s go,” Joe said, quickly turning and opening the door.

Hoss all but tripped over himself as he rushed to follow his younger brother.

“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben, stopping both boys in their tracks.  “Please remember to tell Roy Coffee I’d like to speak to him…and make it fast!”

“Yes sir, Pa…we’ll go straight there and then come right back, I promise,” Joe called. He sprung into the saddle and waited another half second for Hoss to mount up and then together, the boys spurred their mounts into a run.

*****

It was later in the afternoon when Adam began to stir.  The medication that Doctor Martin had given him the night before for pain had kept the wounded man sleeping soundly with little to no pain to disturb him.  It was what, the doctor had explained to Adam’s anxious father, that the body needed most to begin the healing process.

Ben was at his son’s side when the heavy eyelids finally pushed themselves up and opened.

“Pa…” Adam murmured.

“I’m right here, son,” Ben assured the young man.  “How do you feel?”

“Like half the trees on the Ponderosa has fallen on me.  What happened?” Adam asked.

Ben pulled a chair along side the bed and sat down. “Don’t you remember, son?” he questioned, surprised that Adam seemed confused about his previous day’s activity.

Adam’s hand moved to his forehead where he rubbed gently.  He appeared to be thinking.  After a moment of silence, he moved his hand away and looked over at his father. “I’m not sure, Pa.  I hurt like blazes, everywhere,” he complained softly.

“Adam, someone nearly beat you to death…don’t you remember who it was, or why?” Ben questioned.

Adam closed his eyes, and when several minutes had gone by, Ben stood to his feet and arranged the coverlet over his son, sure that Adam had gone back to sleep.  Just as Ben moved from the bed, Adam muttered softly. “Jolene.”

Ben spun around, staring down at his son’s face. “What did you say, son?”

“Jolene…he hurt her…he accused her of…” A tightness in his throat prevented Adam from finishing the sentence.  Surprising his father by his sudden burst of energy, Adam tossed back the blanket and tried to rise from the bed.

“Whoa…just where do you think you are going, young man?” Ben demanded, gently forcing the moaning Adam back down into the bed.

Adam was gasping for breath, attempting to ignore the waves of nausea that washed over him.  Tiny beads of moisture dotted his brow.

“Adam, lay down, now!” ordered Ben.

“I…have to get…to her…please…”

“No…you are going to stay in that bed!”  Ben grabbed the blanket and pulled it back up, around Adam’s shoulders.

“She…needs…me, Pa,” Adam proclaimed. He looked up at his father. Ben noted that the hazel eyes had clouded and when Adam shut his eyes, a lone tear dripped from the corner of one.

“Adam, I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me, son.  Who is hurt?  Surely you don’t mean Mrs. Larson, son; she’s a…”

“A married woman…I…already know…that,” Adam said, turning his head to the side to avoid looking into his father’s dark and probing eyes. The unasked questions shown in the chocolate depths and Adam feared an inquisition by his father.

It would be best to wait, wait until he was more able to get along on his own without any help from his father before going to Jolene and seeing for himself if she were hurt or not.  Jolene had finally confessed to him that her husband had on several occasions slapped and shoved her around.  He had never beaten her, but Adam knew that the beautiful young woman was afraid of the man she married and feared that one day the man might snap while in a fit of jealousy and do her bodily harm.

“I wasn’t going to say that, son.  I was just going to say, that if she needs anything, she has her husband…why do you think she needs you?” Ben asked softly as he sat back in the chair.

Suddenly, a picture was beginning to form in his mind and what Ben saw distressed him and he willed the picture to be gone.

“She…don’t…never mind…forget I said…anything,” mumbled Adam.

Ben saw his oldest son swallow deeply and then close his eyes.  He noted the firm set to the battered and bruised jaw line that flinched every time his son moved ever so slightly.  Ben had seen the action before and knew it to mean only one thing, that Adam was angry about something.  Deciding that now was not the appropriate time for a confrontation, Ben leaned over and gently patted his son’s arm. “You try to rest, son.  I’ll have Hop Sing fix you something light, perhaps a broth…”

“Alright, Pa…you…do that,” Adam whispered.

“I won’t be long…”

“Take…your time…tell Hop Sing…not to rush.  I’m not…hungry anyway,” Adam said as he turned to one side, his back to his father.

Ben stood in the doorway for only a moment before turning and making his way down the stairs.  A new fear about what had happened to his son and why still plagued his thoughts as he made his way to the kitchen.

*****

“It’s about time you boys got back.  Is Roy with you?” Ben asked, as he strained to see over Hoss’ shoulder.

“He’ll be here in after supper, Pa…he had someone in the office with him,” Hoss answered. He hung his big hat on the peg behind the door and removed his gun belt. “Oh, here’s the mail,” he said, handing it to his father.

“Thank you, Hoss.  Where’s Joe?” Ben asked while scanning the return addresses of the envelopes he held in his hand.

“Joe?” Hoss said with a swallow.

“Yes, Joe…you remember him…don’t you?  He’s your younger brother,” Ben said sarcastically.   He paused what he was doing and watched his middle son.  Hoss seemed nervous about something and his actions screamed of guilt.

“Out with it young man,” Ben said in a stern voice.  “I want to know where your brother is.”

“Hmm…he had an errand to do, Pa.  He won’t be long honest…”

“Errand…what kind of errand?” Ben demanded.

“Aw…shucks Pa…”

“ERIC!”

“He took a ride over to the Larson’s place…”

“WHAT!” Ben bellowed.  “What on earth for?”

“Well, ya see, Pa…me and Joe rode over there this mornin’.  We heard Adam callin’ for that woman, Jolene, and we thought maybe Adam was…well…hm…was…shucks, ya know what I mean…”

“I have no clue what you mean!”

“We thought ole Adam might be seein’…”

Ben made a disgusted face and shook his head. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Hoss…surely you don’t think your brother is so low as to take up with a married woman!” roared Ben.

Hoss looked as if he could drop off the face of the earth and inside, he wished he could. “Not when ya put it thata way,” the big man said apologetically.

Ben spun around, his hands firmly planted on his hips. “I certainly hope not.  Now, would you explain to me why Joseph has taken it upon himself to visit the Larson’s?”

Hoss moved to the settee and sat down.  He still wore the guilty look on his face.  Ben sat down on the wide table in front of the settee and faced his son.

“I’m waiting!”

“Yessir.  Well, ya see, Pa…Joe and me got to thinkin’, if…and I say if…Adam was…ya know…maybe Mr. Larson somehow found out and he’s the one what beat Adam up…”

“Oh Hoss!  What ever am I going to do with you two?  And right at this minute, your younger brother is…what…asking the lady if she was having an affair with his older brother?  I can’t believe that he’d have the gall to do such a thing!” stormed Ben, rising and moving to the fireplace where he stood facing the flames. “Well, on second thought, considering Joseph…”

“No, Pa…that ain’t it atall. Joe ain’t gonna ask Mrs. Larson…why, she ain’t even home…”

“How do you know that?” Ben shouted, turning to glare at Hoss.

Hoss swallowed again, his lips twisted into a frown.   “Like I said, we stopped off this morning and spoke with Mr. Larson…and he told us that his wife was out of town.  She’s visiting relatives,” Hoss said, finally smiling.

“She is, is she?  Then why on earth did Joe go over there?” insisted Ben.

“To see for himself,” Hoss said.

Another deep breath and Ben’s anger was evident to his middle son. “To see what for himself?” he said in a low, controlled voice.

“To see if Mrs. Larson really has gone away,” Hoss explained.

“I thought you said her husband told you she was away?”

“He did, Pa.  But Joe and me…we didn’t believe him, so Joe thought that one of us should sneak by and see for ourselves…and since I’m easier to spot than Little Joe, he was the most logical choice…’sides,” beamed Hoss, “it was his ideay.”

“Oh, it was…now I’m beginning to see the light.  The two of you are spying on our neighbors because you don’t believe that the man’s wife actually is away visiting relatives,” Ben said.

“Exactly,” Hoss grinned.  “Well…almost exactly,” he stammered.

“Almost?” Ben said, repeating the word.

“See Pa, Joe said this morning that he didn’t believe Mr. Larson…”

“And why not?  What reason would the man have to lie about his wife being gone?” Ben questioned.

“Cause…don’t ya see, Pa…”

“No I don’t…tell me.”

“If Adam was…and I’m not sayin’ he was, but if he was seein’ Mrs. Larson, then that would give Mr. Larson cause to want to beat Adam up and to send his wife away…or at least that’s the way Little Joe figures it.  And ‘sides, when we left there this mornin’ Joe said that he could feel Mrs. Larson watchin’ us.”

Ben almost laughed outright, though what his son was tellin’ him did, in fact, make good sense.  His anger vanished and he offered Hoss a reassuring smile.

“Son, I hate to admit it, but you’re actually making sense, except for two things,” smiled Ben.

Hoss’ eyes widened in surprise and he beamed happily at his father. “Oh yeah…what two things?”

“One, Adam isn’t carrying on with a married woman, and two, I doubt seriously that under those circumstances, Mr. Larson would have any reason to beat your brother to a pulp.  No, Hoss, someone else, or two someones did battle with your brother.  I know Mr. Larson is a big man, but I doubt seriously if he could do the damage that was done to Adam all alone.  There had to be more than one man,” concluded Ben.

“Mis’tr Cartlite,” Hop Sing said from the landing on the staircase.  “Mis’tr Adam wish to speak to you.”

“Thank you Hop Sing, tell him I’ll be right there.”

Ben turned to Hoss, his anger having left him. “Eat some supper, son; I know you must be hungry. You and that scamp of a brother of yours missed supper entirely last night.  Hop Sing left you a plate in the warming oven,” Ben said as he turned to go.  “Oh, see that Little Joe gets something to eat as well, when he gets home.”

“Yessir, Pa,” responded Hoss.

Hoss waited until Ben had gone upstairs and then went into the kitchen, muttering to himself.

*****

Joe watched from his hideout behind the thick bushes until he saw Frank Larson enter the house.  When he was sure he wouldn’t be seen, he crept silently up to the porch and peeked in the window.  For several minutes he watched, seeing nothing.  As he turned to go, Frank suddenly appeared from what Joe believed to be the kitchen.  In one hand he carried a tray and in the other a small lamp.  Joe watched as Frank opened a door, revealing a dark staircase and then closing the door behind him.

Joe could only wonder where the steps led.  Quickly he stepped off the porch and into the yard, watching for the soft glow of Frank’s lamp to tell him where the man had disappeared.

He was taken by surprise when he saw the light cast its gentle glow from the uppermost section of the house.  It was almost impossible to make out; there was no window, only tiny cracks in the boards that allowed slivers of light to shine through.  Puzzled by what he could not understand, Joe moved further back trying to figure out just where in the house Frank might be.

In the darkness that shrouded him, Joe unknowingly backed up into the chicken coop, setting the hens to squawking loudly.

“Shh…” Joe whispered, trying to hush the frightened chickens.

He glanced up at the house, but the light was no longer distinguishable.  Joe scurried toward his horse, hoping and praying to be gone before Mr. Larson could spot him and then having to make an excuse as to what he was doing nosing around outside in the dark and at such a late hour.

Joe had just swung into his saddle and turned Cochise toward home, when he heard the shot and suddenly a blast of pain ripped through his shoulder.  The force of the bullet sent Joe tumbling from the saddle, landing with a loud groan on the hard ground.  Trying to gather his sense, Joe scooted into the bushes, but was unsuccessful in getting away.

“Hold it right there!” an angry voice called through the darkness.

Joe froze; the pain in his shoulder stung like blazes and blood dripped freely down the front of his shirt.  He lay, dazed, looking up into the fiery eyes of Frank Larson.

“What the…ain’t you that Cartwright kid, what was here this morning?” Frank asked. He kept his rifle pointed down at Joe.

“Yes sir,” Joe said in a weak voice.

“What’cha doin’ nosing around here?” Frank demanded.

“I…” Joe closed his eyes to the ripple of pain that stung his shoulder.

“I know what you were doing,” Frank said in a strange voice.

Joe’s eyes sought to see the man’s expression but in the dark, it was next to impossible.

“Your just like that older brother of yours, ain’t ya?  Sneaking around here, trying to see my wife…”

“No…I wasn’t, just…” stammered Joe.

“Don’t lie to me boy, I know your kind.  Come on, get on ya feet!” Frank ordered.

When Joe failed to move fast enough to suit the other man, Frank jabbed at Joe’s shoulder with the barrel of his rifle.  The move caused Joe excruciating pain and he cried out.

“Get up!” shouted Frank.

This time, Joe forced his body to obey his brain’s command and painfully, Joe managed to get to his feet.  With his left hand, he clutched his shoulder.  His breathing was coming in rapid little gasps and Joe wondered how he’d ever be able to stay on his feet long enough to go wherever it was Mr. Larson was taking him.

“Into the house, boy.”

Frank opened the door, allowing Joe to enter first.  Joe felt another jab of the rifle, this time to the middle of his back.

“Over there, open that door,” his captor demanded.

Joe moved slowly to the door that he had seen Frank open just a short time ago.  Once the door was opened, he glanced upward at the dark stairwell.  Frank grabbed his pistol, set his rifle on the table and picked up the small lamp.

“Move,” he ordered, forcing Joe to climb the stairs ahead of him.

By the time that the pair reached the top, Joe was weakening.  The blood continued to drip, the pain had seemed to intensify and when Frank unlocked the door and shoved Joe inside, Joe took one step and collapsed.

“Here’s ya someone to keep ya company,” Frank snarled at Jolene.

“Who is he?” cried the frightened woman.  “Dear God, he’s bleeding,” she sobbed, moving to Joe’s side and making a quick examination of the bullet wound.

Jolene glanced up at her husband with dark eyes.  “He’s only a boy, Frank.  My God…you’ve shot him!”

“It’s his own fault, nosing around where he ain’t got no business.  Likely he’ll die,” Frank laughed when he saw the frightened expression on Jolene’s face.  “Don’t make no difference to me…he’s brother to that Adam Cartwright…and from what I’ve seen of them, only good Cartwright’s a dead Cartwright.”

Frank slammed the door, leaving Jolene in the dark with the unconscious man.  Trembling with fear, Jolene stood to her feet, staring down at the silent and still body of the young man at her feet.  Quickly feeling her way around the small attic room, Jolene made her way over to the dusty old table where Frank had left her a small pitcher of water.  She ripped her petticoat and dipped the scrap of material into the cool liquid and returned to the spot where Joe lay.

The dampness of the cloth brought Joe back from his darkened world.  He said nothing, but lay still, basking in the refreshing coolness of the water and the gentle hands that tended to his wound. “Who are you?” he muttered at long last.

“Oh…you’re awake,” Jolene said.

“Yeah…but I wish I wasn’t,” Joe said between clenched teeth.  “My shoulder feels like it’s on fire.”

“Just lie still, Little Joe…and try not to move around,” Jolene advised.

“You know my name?” he whispered.  “How?”

“Your brother told me about you…about all of you.  I knew you weren’t big enough to be Hoss, and not old enough to be Adam’s father, so you’re Little Joe,” the soft voice whispered through the darkness.

“Alright, you know who I am, but who are you?  And why are you locked up here in this attic?”  Joe’s voice was low and laden with the pain that burned through his right shoulder.

“My name is Jolene…Jolene Larson…Frank’s my husband…”

“Husband?  Then why…”

“Frank’s a very jealous man, Little Joe.  He listened to some men talking the other day in the saloon.  They told him that Adam and I were…were…sneaking behind his back and…seeing one another.  One of the men even went so far as to suggest to my husband that Adam and I were planning on running away together…”

Joe raised his head slightly to try to get a better look at the woman.  Jolene sat in just the right spot where a beam of moonlight hit her face.  Joe was outraged by what he saw.

“Did he do that to your face?” Joe asked as his fingers gently brushed against the darken bruise that covered her cheek.

“Yes…but…”

“Why?  Was it because of my brother?  Was your husband the man who practically beat Adam to death?”

“Poor Adam, how is he…was he hurt badly?” Jolene begged to know.

“Bad enough,” Joe said, resting his head down on the rolled up blanket that Jolene had fashioned for a pillow.

“Frank had some help; two other men, in fact.  I begged him to stop, but he was like a crazy person.  The other two men held Adam while Frank beat him…and yes…it was because of me, but not for the reasons Frank believed.  Adam and I are just friends, Little Joe, honest.  He’s the kindest, gentlest man I have ever met.  But Frank is a very insanely jealous man, and when he found out that Adam and I had become acquainted, well…he went berserk.  I swear to you, there is nothing going on between your brother and I and…Joe?  Joe?” Jolene suddenly became aware that Joe had stopped speaking and had slipped into unconsciousness.

There was nothing she could do for the boy other than to dig through an old trunk until she found another blanket in which to cover him.  She managed to ease the wounded boy over to the mattress without causing him too much pain and when she was able to make Joe comfortable, she lay down on the floor next to the mattress and fell asleep.

*****

Ben paced the floor, going to the window to peer out into the darkness.  Joe still had not returned; the hour was growing late and his patience was wearing thin.

“Pa?” Adam called from the bed.

He had awaken once again from the affects of the pain medicine that the physician had prescribed and had for the last several moments watched his father pacing the floor in his room.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam said in a drowsy voice.

Ben turned from the window and forced himself to smile as he came near the bed. “Nothing son, I was just looking out…”

“Pa…I may still be suffering from the affects of that drug Doc gave me, but not so much so that I can’t tell when something’s bothering you.  What is it?”

Before Ben could respond, Hoss appeared in the doorway.  He glanced first at his brother and smiled and then at his father, replacing the smile with a frown. “Howdy Adam; how ya feelin?” Hoss asked.

“Sore…but a little better.  My ribs hurt like crazy,” Adam made a sound that resembled a chuckle.  “I understand now why Joe hates to have his ribs bound…say…where is the little scamp?” Adam said, suddenly realizing that his little brother had not stopped in as of yet to say hello to him.

“He’s…um…not here right now, Adam.  Pa,” Hoss called, motioning for his father to join him in the hallway.

“I’ll be back in a minute, son, you try to rest,” Ben instructed Adam.

Ben quickly joined Hoss in the hall and closed the door to Adam’s room so that Adam could not hear what was being said.

“What’s wrong, Hoss?” Ben questioned.

The expression on Hoss’ face forewarned Ben that something was not as it should be.

“Pa…ya ain’t gonna like this…”

“Is it Joe?” Ben said, suddenly more fearful that his younger son had not yet returned from his little escapade.

“More like it isn’t Joe.  Pa, Joe’s horse just came home…alone,” Hoss said in a whispered voice.  “I checked him over…and I found blood on the saddle.”

“Oh, dear God,” Ben muttered.  “What now?  I should have made you go after the little fool,” Ben said angrily.

“Aw…Pa…Joe was only tryin’ to…”

“Stick his nose into something that was none of his business in the first place.  Now listen to me Hoss.  You get our horses ready, I’ll have Hop Sing come sit with Adam while you and I go look for Joe, heaven only knows how badly he’s hurt…”

“Yessir Pa…but Pa, we don’t know for sure that the blood was Joe’s. Could have been…”

“It doesn’t matter, Hoss…we still have to find him.  He’s on foot, and if that Frank Larson believes that Adam and his wife were having…well…if he’s the man responsible for beating Adam, and now he finds Little Joe snooping around his place…Lord only knows what he’ll do to the boy.  Now hurry, I’ll join you in a moment.”

Ben turned back to the bedroom and opened the door.  Adam was still awake and waiting for his father.  He could tell instantly that whatever Hoss had told his father it had upset the elder Cartwright a great deal.

“Adam, Hoss and I are going to take a little ride; Hop Sing will be up shortly to sit with you.  He’ll get you whatever you need.  I want you to stay in this bed…”

“Ride…at this hour?  What’s wrong, Pa…is it Joe?”  Adam asked. He knew it had to be; Hoss was here…it couldn’t be anyone or anything else.

Ben moved to the bed and sat down.  His expression was serious, causing Adam to wonder. “Adam, I have to ask this…”

“What, Pa?  You look disturbed about something.”

“I want the truth…”

Adam’s battered face formed a scowl and his eyes were dark. “I haven’t lied to you since I was a kid,” he said.

Ben let the air expel from his lungs. “I know that.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you would,” Ben said apologetically.

“Alright then, what do you want to know?”

“Is Frank Larson the man who beat you?” Ben said as his eyes focused directly on his son’s face.

Ben saw Adam swallow and then turn his head away, avoiding him.  Ben waited for several moments before speaking again.

“Adam, I have to know because if he was, your younger brother could be in danger…”

Adam turned back to Ben, the surprise showed in his painful expression. “Joe?  What in God’s name does Joe have to do with any of this?” he beseeched of his father.

“It seems that late yesterday, Joe got it in his head that you and…Mrs. Larson…were having a…”

“It’s not true!” Adam said adamantly.  “Jolene is a good, decent woman…a married woman, I might add,” he growled.  “Joe had no right to assume such a thing…”

“Adam…when you were delirious, you mumbled only one word, ‘Jolene, Jolene.’  What was the boy to think? You know how Joe gets,” Ben said softly. He could see the hurt in his son’s eyes and knew without Adam having to say the words that his son was in love with Jolene Larson.

“Tell me about it, please?” Ben said.

Adam took a deep breath, and looked away again.  “We were just friends, Pa; honest, nothing more,” Adam said, glancing at Ben.  “We met at church just after she and her husband moved here.  I liked her immediately; she was warm and gentle.  She liked to laugh and we talked about several different things.  Come to find out, we had a lot in common.”

Adam stopped for a moment, as if thinking back.  His lips curved into a smile. “I kept bumping into her, every time I’d go into town, she’d be there.  After a while, I started making excuses to go to town, just hoping I’d run into her.”

Adam’s eyes sought his father’s face and the silent plea for understanding showed in the dark depths. “I know it was wrong of me…and when I realized what was happening…I tried to stay away from her.  But I couldn’t help myself, Pa…I was…I am in love with her.  I didn’t mean for it to happen, it just did.  But we never…I’ve never even been alone with her…there have always been people, wherever we were.  Honest, Pa…I’d never compromise her in any way.”

“Adam…”

“Let me finish, please. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this…I have to get it off my chest.  That day…the day I got beat, I went over to the Larson place.  I was going to tell Jolene that I was going away for awhile…”

“Is that why you wanted to go to San Francisco?” Ben asked, realizing how the pieces were fitting together.  He had wondered why his son had been so insistent that he be the one to go meet with the logging company in San Francisco instead of himself.

“Yes…I had to get away from her before I let something happen.  I had found out that her husband was a vicious man; he was prone to striking her, slapping and pushing her around.  She was afraid of him.  Before they came here, Frank killed a man…oh, it was self-defense, but he accused another man of having an affair with his wife.”

“And he found out about the meetings in town, between you and Mrs. Larson?” Ben persisted.

“He came home that day, he and two other men.  Frank wanted to know what I was doing there…I made up some lame excuse.  It was the only time that we were ever alone.  But he knew I was making it up and he started accusing Jolene and calling her vile, nasty names.  I hit him…the rest is history.” Adam said, lowering his head.

“He’s a bastard, Pa,” Adam looked into his father’s face and Ben could see the deep emotion his son was suffering.

“He slapped her to the ground,” Adam added. “ I tried to fight them off, but I was no match for three grown men.  When the other fellows put me on my horse, Frank went into the house after Jolene; I could hear her screaming…”

Adam gritted his teeth together and tossed back the covers.  “I’m going with you…”

Ben jumped to his feet and forced Adam back into the bed.  “Oh no you’re not!” he ordered sternly.  “You’re going to remain right here, Hoss and I will find Joe…Mrs. Larson is out of town visiting relatives…”

“No she’s not, Pa…”

“Hoss said that’s what Larson told him and Joe…”

“Well, it’s a lie…she was there, he beat her.  For all I know, he may have killed her.”

Adam tried rising from the bed, but stopped as a wave of pain took his breath away.

“Adam, you can’t be moving around like that, now please, stay in the bed.  With what you are telling me, and with what Joe suspects, then Joe’s in trouble and probably needs us.”

Ben stood to his feet and quickly arranged the blankets. “Stay in the bed,” he said, pointing his finger at Adam.

“Pa, the horses are ready,” Hoss called from the doorway.

“Be careful, Pa…that Frank Larson’s a mean one,” Adam called after his father.

*****

Frank grabbed the bottle from the cabinet and moved with faltering steps into the sitting room where he found a seat in one of Jolene’s satin upholstered wing back chairs.  He pulled the cork from the top and turned the whiskey bottle up to his lips and took a long swallow.  When he finished, Frank used the back of his hand to wipe away the droplets that lingered on his lips. “Liar,” he muttered to himself.

The bottle was returned to his lips and Frank guzzled another long swig. “Trollop…that’s what you are woman!” he swore softly to himself.

His eyes sought the door that hid the stairs to the attic.  His expression was dark and he downed another long drink.  For several long minutes, Frank sat in silence and stewed about his wife and the affair he believed she was having with Adam Cartwright, the man he had come to hate with a passion.

When the bottle was empty, and Frank so deeply inebriated that he could barely walk, Frank picked up the small cat-of-nine tails that lay on the table next to his chair, and opened the door to the staircase.

“I’ll teach you both a lesson,” he grumbled.  “My loving wife and her lover’s brother!”

Frank stumbled several times before reaching the top of the steps.  He dropped the key twice before being able to place it in the keyhole and unlock the door.  When he pushed opened the door, and set the lantern down on a crate, all he could see was his wife, bending over the young man on the old mattress.  When he moved closer and looked, it was Adam’s face that glared with angry eyes into his face.

“Bastard!” Frank screamed, raising his hand and striking Joe across the chest with the miniature whip.

Joe had his eyes closed to the pain and heat that penetrated his body.  The bullet was still lodged in his shoulder but the bleeding had finally stopped.

“FRANK!” screamed Jolene, “NO!”

Joe snapped from his dazed condition.  The whip ripped his shirt, baring his chest, now covered in red welts that threatened to start bleeding.  Again Frank raised the whip and directed it at Joe. Joe had seen the movement and managed to curl his body into a protective ball to ward off the blow.

Jolene screamed again and as Frank prepared to strike the third time, Jolene threw her body across Joe’s in a protective fashion.

Her movement angered her husband.  Frank’s nostrils flared and he staggered forward, grabbing at his wife.  His long thick fingers entwined them selves amid her hair and when he yanked the poor woman to her feet and shoved her into a corner, she began screaming at the top of her lungs. “NO! NO!  YOU CAN’T DO THIS…FRANK! PLEASE…HE’S BEEN SHOT…NO! NO!”

With his fury quickly rising and his wife’s shrill screaming that caused his head to begin pounding, Frank turned his wrath on the hysterical woman.  Time and time again he hit her with the cat-of-nine-tails.  Her screaming rattled the walls and caused the hateful man’s head to throb viciously with every beat of his heart.

Joe struggled to his feet, and threw himself at the man.  Frank, too drunk to realize what was happening, fell to the floor, bringing his attacker down with him.  Joe groaned as his fevered body hit the hard wooden floor and he lay dazed.  Frank took advantage of his prisoner’s disability and lashed out.  With the whip still clutched tightly in his hand, Frank began to scourge the wounded boy.  Joe’s screams of agony matched the high-pitched screams of the woman who stood paralyzed with fear in the far corner of the attic.

Jolene’s hands covered her face, unable to watch the beating.  After what seemed like forever to the terrorized young woman, everything within the slanted walls of her prison suddenly took on an eerie stillness and dulled silence.  Jolene moved her fingers from her face and looked around.  Her eyes sought the boy lying motionless in the floor.  She quickly looked about; Frank was nowhere to been seen.  Gasping, Jolene knelt at Joe’s side and slowly turned him over.  Shocked by what she saw, Jolene screamed again.  The boy was dead.

Jolene’s breath came in gulps as she rose to her feet, trembling in fear.  Giving one last glance down at Joe, Jolene bolted from the room, fearing that at any moment, her crazed husband would find her and kill her as well.  Running wildly down the narrow steps, Jolene raced from the house and into the yard where she stopped momentarily to check her surrounds.  There was no sign of her husband.  Jolene took off running, not caring which direction she went.  Her only thoughts were to run for her life, as far away from her murdering husband as she could get.

Jolene had only run a few yards when she felt herself being hauled to the ground by rough hands.  She tried to scream, but the hands covered her mouth and nose.  The frightened woman fought against the handhold in an effort to remove them from her face.  The breath that she struggled for was denied her and after putting up a valiant fight for her life, Jolene slipped down to the ground, unconscious.

Frank stood over his wife’s body, staring blankly at the limp form.  Suddenly he tossed back his head and laughed.  The sound was ghostly and strange, sounding as if it came from the supernatural.  It sent chills racing up and down the spines of the two men, who had ridden, unobserved up to the front of the Larson’s barn.

Ben reached out and grabbed Hoss by the arm, preventing him from dismounting. “What the blazes?” he muttered.

“It sounds creepy, Pa…whatever it is!” Hoss said in a hoarse whisper.

“Come on,” Ben said, dismounting and drawing his gun.

Hoss did the same and together they crept along in the shadows toward the house.  It was dark and only the soft glow of a lantern near the door lit their path.  A movement off to one side caused Ben to hold out his hand, warning Hoss to stop and remain silent.

From the darkness, Frank emerged, carrying the body of his wife as tenderly as if she were a small child, in his arms.  The pair watched as Frank entered the house before proceeding any nearer.

When Ben and Hoss stood on the porch, watching from the door, they saw Frank place the body onto the couch.  It was when the man disappeared into the back room and then emerged carrying a can that he began emptying the contents all about the door, did Ben suddenly realize what the man was about to do.  He recognized the smell; it was crude oil, used to start fires.

“Hold it right there,” Ben ordered, his pistol pointed at the man’s mid-section.

Ben stepped into the house, Hoss followed behind.  Frank teetered slightly and then dropped the oil can.  He stood in total surprise of the two men who had entered his house.

“Who are you?” he said drunkenly.  “And what are you doing in my house?” Frank demanded.  “Get out…leave me alone,” he shouted, his voice rising.

“I’m Ben Cartwright, and this is my son, Hoss.  Hoss, check on the woman,” Ben ordered.  “You, back up against that wall,” Ben said to Frank.

Frank scowled deeply, his eyes were dark with hate, but he did as Ben ordered and backed up slowly, close to the fireplace.  Hoss bent over the woman to check on Jolene’s condition.

“She’s been roughed up some, Pa; she’s out cold,” Hoss said.

Hoss hurried into the kitchen to fetch water. As he did so, Jolene moaned softly, causing Ben to turn his head.  When he did, Frank took advantage and quickly pulled a burning stick from the fire and tossed it toward the puddle made by the crude oil he had poured throughout the room.  Instantly the oil ignited into flames.

Taken totally by surprise by Frank’s action, Ben holstered his gun, shouting for Hoss.  “HOSS…THE HOUSE’S ON FIRE!” he bellowed, grabbing a throw blanket from the back of the couch and using it to stamp out the fire.

Frank began to laugh uncontrollably.  He seemed as if in a trance as Ben stopped momentarily and grabbed Frank’s arm and shoved him against the wall. “Where’s my son?” he roared.

Frank continued to laugh, undaunted by Ben’s ferocious voice.

Ben grabbed Frank by the front of the shirt and shook the man hard. “Answer me!” he demanded.  “Where’s my son…Joseph!”

Still Frank continued to laugh, angering Ben further.  He shoved the man toward the door.  It was obvious that the man had lost his senses and would be of no help to him.

“Get out!” shouted Ben.

Hoss rushed from the kitchen to help, but the flames were already running along the puddle line and leapt onto the drapes.  The material burst into flames and within minutes the house was an inferno.

Coughing, Ben grabbed Hoss’ arm and pointed to Jolene who was coming around.  She began to cough; panic filled her as she took in the scene and loudly began to scream.  Hoss scooped the hysterical woman into his arms and followed Ben from the house and out into the yard where he carefully held the woman in his arms.

“Are you alright, son?” Ben asked.

Hoss nodded his head.  The young woman pointed to the house. Her eyes were watery from the smoke as she coughed.

“He’s in there…he’s in there…” she sobbed.

“No…your husband’s out,” Ben tried to explain, but Jolene insisted by shaking her head from side to side.

Ben glanced around, looking for Frank.  He was standing to one side, watching the blazing house as it burned.

“Hoss, I have to find out where Joe is,” Ben said as he turned to walk toward Frank.

Jolene began to struggle against Hoss until the big man was forced to stand the woman on her feet.  She brushed her hair from her eyes and looked into Hoss’ face.  Tears streamed from her eyes.  Jolene inhaled deeply and ran after Ben, grabbing him by the arm and spinning him around until Ben was facing her.

“You don’t understand…Mr. Cartwright…listen to me…Little Joe’s in the attic!” sobbed Jolene.  “He’s dead…Frank killed him,” the woman cried as she collapsed against Ben. “He’s dead,” she muttered again.

“WHAT!” Ben said, stunned.  “Are you sure…are you positive?”

“Yes, yes…he came here tonight and Frank shot him in the shoulder and then locked him in the attic with me.  Just a while ago, Frank came upstairs and began beating him…he’s dead…”

Ben turned frightened eyes up at Hoss, whose own eyes blazed with tears.

“I’m goin’ in after’em,” Hoss shouted as he turned to run.

Ben grabbed his arm, stopping Hoss from going any further. “I’ll go; you stay here with the woman.  If what she says is true, I’ll not lose two sons this night.”

Before Hoss could put up an argument, Ben was gone.  Hoss saw his father enter the house and disappear behind a wall of flames.  Hoss was so intent on watching the front of the house and praying that his father would emerge with his younger brother that he failed to see Frank slip up behind him.  In his hand, Frank carried a club, which he was intent on using to hit Hoss.  When Jolene screamed, Hoss twirled around, just as Frank lowered his arm.  Hoss reacted quickly and grabbed the other man’s arm.

Driven by his hate for the Cartwrights, Frank stood his ground as Hoss tried to free the man’s hand of his weapon.  Somehow, Frank forced Hoss backwards until he stumbled and tripped.  Frank raised the club another time and moved in for the kill.  Just has he swung his arm back and began the downward descent toward Hoss’ head, a shot rang out.  For a fraction of a second, Frank froze, giving Hoss just enough time to scoot away.  Frank tumbled forward, face down onto the ground.

Hoss hurried to his feet, staring through the darkness at the lone rider who slumped over his mount’s neck.

“ADAM!” Hoss shouted, running toward his brother, leaving Frank behind.

“What in tarnation are you doing out of bed?” Hoss fumed as he helped Adam down from his horse.

“I couldn’t stand it anymore, brother…I had to know what was happening,” Adam said weakly.

Jolene stood over her dead husband.  Her eyes were no longer filled with tears; she had none left to cry over the man who had used and abused her and her friends in such a savage way.

“I’m sorry, Jolene,” Adam said softly as he came up behind the woman.

Jolene turned, her anguish showed on her face.  The unhappiness had robbed the crystal blue from her eyes and replaced them sorrow.

Adam slipped his arm about the trembling shoulders and pulled Jolene to his breast and held her.  He turned to Hoss, keeping his arm about the young woman.

“Where’s Pa…and Joe?” Adam asked and then felt the lady’s body stiffen.

Hoss said nothing, but turned toward the now nearly destroyed house.

“Hoss…you can’t be serious…they can’t be in there!” Adam said as panic filled every fiber of his being.  He lowered his arm from around Jolene’s shoulders and moved stiffly toward the burning house.  Adam could feel the heat of the blaze stinging his face, his knees suddenly felt weak and had it not been for his brother and the young woman taking him by the arms and forcing him back, Adam might have charged forward into the inferno.

“NO!” Adam screeched into the night.  “IT’S MY FAULT…NOT PA, NOT JOE!”

Adam continued to shout until overcome with grief and despair he sank to his knees and buried his face in both hands.

Hoss choked back his tears and knelt down next to his brother.  He wrapped his massive, strong arms about the trembling shoulders and clung to his older brother.  His words were broken by the empathy in his voice. “Hush talkin’ like that, Adam…it ain’t nobody’s fault but that varmint’s,” he said, glancing at Frank’s dead body.

“Hoss!”

The cry came from the thick smoke billowing from the burning house.  Hoss turned to see his father stumbling from the ruins, coughing and gagging.

“PA!  JOE!” shouted Hoss.  “Adam, looky…there they are!” he squealed delightedly.

Hoss ran forward to meet his father.  Ben carried Joe across his shoulders; his arms were wrapped tightly about Joe’s legs in an effort to keep from dropping the boy.  As soon as he cleared the house, and was a safe distance from the flames, Ben placed Joe carefully onto the ground.  He quickly began pulling off the charred remains of clothing that clung to his son’s body. “Get me some water!  Hurry,” he issued.

“Is he alive?” Adam asked, kneeling down opposite his father.

“I thought I told you to stay in bed?” Ben snapped.

“I’m sorry, Pa…I had to come…is he alive?” Adam repeated the question.

“Yes, barely!”

“Here’s the water, Pa,” Hoss said, handing Ben the canteen from Adam’s horse.

Ben popped the cork from the top and turned the cool water up to Joe’s lips.  The boy swallowed hungrily and then began coughing.

“Easy son, easy,” Ben warned.  “He’s been shot and beaten,” Ben told Adam and Hoss.

Ben looked up and saw Jolene standing behind Adam.  “Where’s your husband?” Ben asked.

Jolene lowered her head shaking it from side to side.  “Dead.”

“What happened?” Ben asked as he helped Joe take another drink from the canteen.

“He tried to kill me, Pa.  Adam was forced to shoot him.  Reckon it was him or me,” Hoss explained.

“Pa?” Joe said weakly.

“What is it Joe?”

“I was right…she was here…” Joe muttered as he closed his eyes.  “My shoulder…hurts.”

“I know, son. We’re all going home, and I’ll have one of the men fetch the doctor…”

“I’ll do it, Pa. You and Mrs. Larson take Joe and Adam back to the Ponderosa and I’ll ride into town and bring the doctor back.  Hey, look,” Hoss said, pointing to a group of men who were riding into the yard.

Charlie Devlin quickly dismounted and hurried over to Ben.  The other men began grabbing anything that would hold water and began tossing it onto the flames.

“Ben,” Charlie proclaimed.  “We saw the glow from the flames off in the distance and figured something must be on fire.  What happened here?”

“I’ll tell you later, Charlie.  I have to get Joe to the doctor’s; he’s been shot and Adam needs to be in bed.”

“Alright Ben, you take care of the boys. I’ll help my men get this fire out and I’ll come by later,” Charlie promised.

*****

“Ben, I promise, both boys will be fine…if you can keep them in bed,” Paul Martin, the family physician and old friend of the Cartwrights, laughed.

“Joe’s shoulder will take a while to heal, but the bruises and the welts will fade in a few days.  Adam’s biggest problem right now besides the ribs is worrying about his family and about the young lady.  Keep him in bed…that’s a must for a full week, understand?” Paul said, donning his hat and coat.

Ben walked with the doctor to the door. “I’ll do my best, Paul, but you know those boys of mine…they have minds of their own,” Ben chuckled softly.  “Thank you for coming out, Paul,” Ben added seriously.

“Anytime Ben…just remember what I said…oh…and Mrs. Larson should be fine in a day or so,” the physician added.

“I’m sorry about her husband…I suppose one never really knows about people.  Frank Larson was a strange man, Paul,” Ben said thoughtfully.

“I wish I could tell her what happened to her husband, what caused him to snap as he did, but…I just don’t have any answers for her.  Perhaps someday Ben medical science will discover more about the human mind and how it works.  I suppose until then, we’ll just have to wait for our answers.”

Ben had walked to the doctor’s buggy with him and waited until Paul had settled himself on the seat.

“I’ll be by to check on everyone in a couple of days, Ben.  If you need me, just send word.”

“Thank you again, Paul.” Ben tossed his hand up in the air, waving good-bye.

“Pa,” Hoss called from behind.

Ben turned, smiling at his middle son.  “It’s been quite a day, hasn’t it, son?”

“Sure ‘nough has. I reckon I’d better get started on the chores…I gots plenty to do what with Adam and Little Joe both laid up.” Hoss snickered as he headed for the barn.“Oh, say, Pa…I meant to tell ya. Joe’s sleepin’ and Adam asked me to tell ya he wanted to talk with ya.”

“Alright son, I’ll see what he needs and then I’ll give you a hand with the chores,” Ben called, heading for the house.

As Ben entered the great room, Jolene was just coming down the steps.  She paused as Ben went over to her and smiled.

“You really shouldn’t be out of bed, Mrs. Larson,” Ben said cordially.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, Mr. Cartwright; I’m fine really,” Jolene said. She had a hint of a smile on her face that was over-powered by the unhappiness she carried deep in her heart. “Mr. Cartwright, I’ve arranged for one of your men to take me into town in the morning…no, please, don’t say anything,” she said, putting her fingers to Ben’s lips and silencing the words that lingered on the tip of his tongue. “I really want to go…I mean, I’ve caused so much trouble, so much unhappiness…”

“Mrs. Larson,” Ben began, placing his gentle hands tenderly on the woman’s shoulders.  “None of this is your fault…why even Adam said that.”

“Adam is blinded by what he believes to be love, Mr. Cartwright,” Jolene said sadly. Her tear filled eyes lingered on Ben’s face and then she slowly turned away, unable to face him any longer. “I…Mr. Cartwright,” she said, looking back at Ben.  “I wanted Adam to love me…oh, I know it was wrong, but…from the very moment I bumped into him at church that day…and I looked into his eyes, I saw something right then that I’d never seen in Frank’s eyes.”

Jolene paced around the room, stopping in front of Ben. “I always wanted Frank to look at me like your son looked at me.  I wanted Frank to be the kind of man that Adam is…but instead, Frank was a jealous and bitter man.  Every time that a man smiled at me, or spoke to me, or even looked at me, Frank would go crazy, screaming and yelling at me, blaming me for ‘encouraging’ them…but it wasn’t so, honest.  That is until I met Adam.”

Jolene moved to the blue chair and sat down.  Her dainty hands were folded in her lap and Ben could see how tightly she clenched them, for her knuckles were already turning white. “I begged Adam to take me away.  I promised him if he would, I’d divorce Frank and…”  A sob cut short her next words as she broke down and began to weep. “I’m so ashamed, Mr. Cartwright…I played the tempest and look what it got me!  My husband’s dead, I’m left all alone, and I’ve brought shame to the only man whom I know loved me.  Oh yes, Mr. Cartwright, Frank loved me…in his own sick way.  But he wasn’t always like that. When we first married, he was the kindest, most gentle man I had ever known…until one night, he came home and found his brother and me alone in the house.  He’d been drinking that night and though Nick and I both tried to tell Frank that nothing was going on, he didn’t believe us.  Frank attacked his brother and beat him to death.”

Jolene got up and crossed the room, standing behind the settee. “I’ve already said good-bye to Adam,” Jolene made a mockery of the smile that played at her lips.  “He didn’t beg me to stay,” she said quietly.  “I don’t blame him…I’ve hurt him, I’ve hurt his family…I nearly got his brother and his father killed…no, I wouldn’t have stayed even if he had begged me to do so.”

The tears ran slowly down the woman’s face as she turned to go to the downstairs guest room. She paused at the door, her hand already on the doorknob. “Adam told me that for the first time in his life, he had been tempted to steal.”

Jolene’s pretty face wrinkled in a frown and she glanced sadly up at Ben. “He said that he loved me…but not enough to steal another man’s wife and to bring shame to his father’s name.”

Jolene made a sniffing sound.  “You’re a lucky man Mr. Cartwright, to have raised such a son, such a gentleman…I hope someday my own son will be as fine as yours.”

“Son…I wasn’t aware that you had a son,” Ben said, coming to stand next to the young woman.

Ben watched as Jolene lovingly placed her hand on to her abdomen. “I don’t,” she muttered, “at least not yet…but maybe in six or seven months I will,” she said, glancing up at Ben.  “Frank didn’t know, but Adam did.  That’s what I wanted to tell him — about the baby I mean — and ask him again to take me away…”

“Mrs. Larson…the baby…it’s not…Adam’s…is it?” Ben said. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Jolene laughed softly.  “No…I told you, Mr. Cartwright, Adam was always the gentleman. The baby’s Frank’s.”

Jolene saw the look of relief that the senior Cartwright tried to hide and she reached out and touched his arm. “I wish it were Adam’s baby.  I wish I had a family like yours, I wish Frank had been more like Adam…I wish a lot of things, Mr. Cartwright… thank you for what you’ve done.  I’m sorry for…”

“Shh…you don’t have to say anything Mrs. Larson.  It’s over and in time perhaps you’ll be able to find whatever it is you are looking for,” Ben said in a fatherly manner.

“I hope so.  Good night.”

Jolene closed the door behind her, leaving Ben pondering the things that the young lady had told him.  He had been right in his assumption; Adam had been in love with her.

“Misser Cartlite,” Hop Sing said as he approached Ben.

“Oh, Hop Sing…do you need something?” Ben said, pulling his thoughts back to the present.

“Misser Adam, he wish a word with you.”

“I almost forgot…thank you Hop Sing,” Ben said as he hurried toward the stairs.

Ben stopped at Joe’s room and pushed the door open enough so that he could peek in.  Joe was sleeping, just as Hoss had said.  Quietly, Ben entered the room and moved to the bed.  After checking Joe’s brow for fever, he arranged the covers and slipped out, leaving Joe to sleep in peace.

“It’s opened,” Adam called after Ben tapped softly on the door.

Ben smiled as he entered the room and pulled a chair close to the bed. “You wanted to see me?” he asked.

“Yes sir, I did…I wanted to talk to you,” Adam explained.

“Alright, son.  What’s on your mind?”

Adam had turned his head away and seemed to be studying the picture on the wall.  There was a long lapse in the conversation before he spoke again. “Is Joe alright?”

Ben nodded his head.  “He’s sleeping right now.  The doctor said that he’ll be sore for a few days, but that he should be up and around by the end of the week.”

“Good,” Adam said, pausing to take a deep breath.  “I’m glad he wasn’t hurt any worse…I’m glad you’re alright too, Pa.  You and Joe both might have died in that fire.”

“Yes…but we didn’t, son.”

“It would have been my fault, too,” Adam said. He seemed not to have heard what his father had said. “I don’t think I would have been able to forgive myself if anything had happened to you and Joe…I…”

“Adam,” Ben said, leaning closer and placing his hand on his son’s arm. “Joe and I are both fine; a little hoarse, but fine nonetheless.  Don’t worry yourself about…”

“Pa…” Adam interrupted his father.  “Whatever possessed Joe to go over to Larson’s in the first place?”

“Adam, you know as well as I do that once Little Joe gets something in his head, it’s impossible to get out.  Joe was angry…with Larson.  He heard you calling Jolene’s name and I guess between he and Hoss, they put two and two together.  They figured out that Frank Larson was the one who beat you, or had you beaten.  Those two went over there to have a talk with the man, and ended up inviting both Mr. and Mrs. Larson to Sunday dinner…”

“WHAT?”

“That’s what Hoss said.  Anyway, Frank told the boys that his wife was away visiting with relatives.  Joe didn’t believe him, so they cooked up this plan of sneaking back and seeing what was really going on.  Joe left Hoss here to cover for him…and you know Hoss, Joe hadn’t been gone more than an hour and Hoss had already spilled the beans.  Well, when Joe didn’t come home, Hoss got to worrying and so…we went looking for him.”

“It’s a good thing you did.  How’d he get in the attic?”

Ben sighed deeply.   “I guess from what Mrs. Larson said, Joe was nosing around and Frank clobbered him, and then locked him in the attic with her.  At some point there must have been a struggle, that’s when Joe got shot,” Ben explained.

Adam turned away for the second time, but Ben saw the sadness in the dark eyes.

“Adam…”

“I’m in love with her, you know.”  Adam turned back to face Ben.

“Yes…I know you are, but…”

“I was tempted to steal her away from her husband, I could have too.  I was ready to take her to San Francisco with me and…but I couldn’t go through with it,” Adam said in a thick voice.

“What stopped you, son?”

Adam shrugged his shoulders and gave Ben a small smile.  “You…Hoss…Joe.  You raised me too well, Pa.  I realized that I couldn’t turn my back on everything that you taught me…not for stolen love.  I couldn’t walk away from my family, leaving my brothers to believe I’d become…” Adam sighed again and lowered his head, unable to face his father any longer.

“She loves you, too.”

“I know, but even so, it can never be, Pa.  I killed her husband; she’s having his child.  How would she or I for that matter, ever be able to tell that child that I killed their father?  No…it’s better this way, better for Jolene and her baby at least.”

“What about for you?  Is it better this way, for you as well?” Ben asked.

“It has to be.  I’ll get over her in time…time heals all wounds, isn’t that what you’ve always told us?” Adam said with a tiny smile.

Ben laughed lightly.  “Yes, time and love…and you will love again, son.  Oh, you may find that hard to believe right now, but trust me, I know.”

For a moment their eyes locked and an understanding passed between the father and his son.  Adam smiled at last. “Love hurts, doesn’t it, Pa…even when it’s right.”

“Yes, son, it does.  But it’s better to love and be hurt than to never have known love before.  I’ve experienced both sides of love and hurt.  It’s something that stays with you for a very long time, Adam.  But God always gives us grace to move ahead with our lives, to look for that perfect love…and someday you’ll find her son, I did…three times.”

Ben stood to his feet and gave his son’s arm a gentle squeeze.  “You rest; I need to go help Hoss with the chores.  We’ll talk some more later.”

Adam returned the smile and snuggled down against the soft bedding.

“Alright, Pa…and…thanks for understanding,” Adam said.

“Adam, please remember that with everything there comes a price, nothing is never really free, even love, especially love.  When you love someone, you give them your heart; it’s the core of who we are, so that means we give the one we love, all of ourselves.  Love is a two way street, not just a 50-50 arrangement, which is why your love for Jolene would never be what you wanted it to be.  Love between a man and a woman should be 100-100 per cent of themselves.  Think about it. Why would you only put half of yourself into something so important and so sacred as loving someone and being loved in return?”

Ben smiled as he pulled the door closed, leaving his son to ponder his words.

Adam lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes.  “I will, Pa…I will give it some thought, I swear.  And I promise never to be tempted to steal again.”

***End***

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