Fear (by Rona)

Summary:  Arriving home, Joe is astonished when Adam pulls a gun on him, claiming not to know him. Things go from bad to worse; until the break between brothers seems so wide it cannot be breached.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,714


 

Joe had never been afraid of his brother before; not in the true sense of the word. But he was afraid now. This was not his beloved big brother, the one who had protected him from school bullies and now stood firmly between him and any danger that came along. What had happened to him? Why was he behaving like this? Backing off, Joe knew that this was a fight he was destined to lose. With his hands bound the way they were, there was very little he could do.

With an enraged roar, Adam lunged at Joe, grabbed his stunned brother by the lapel and hammered his fist into Joe’s stomach half a dozen times. Joe crumpled helplessly, groaning as the pain bit into him. He pushed ineffectually at the hands that were picking him up, but his struggles were hopeless. Adam knelt by the ladder and lowered him over the edge of the hayloft. But he had misjudged the height.

With a despairing cry, Joe plummeted down, for a moment catching the ladder in his hands. Then, his hands slipped and he fell again, feeling the awful thump as he hit bottom, but he was unconscious before the pain started spreading through his body.

*****

“Hi, Adam,” Joe said, surprised, as he came into the house earlier that afternoon and seeing his brother standing over by the stairs. “You’re home early. How did the meeting go?” He gasped as Adam turned to face him, for his brother’s head had been bleeding, and dried blood was caked down Adam’s face. “Adam, you’re hurt! What happened? Are you all right?” He began to cross the room to his brother.

“Don’t come any nearer,” Adam warned, his voice hoarse. He drew his gun to add emphasis to his words. “Stay right there! Put your hands up!”

“Adam?” Joe asked, perplexed. He took another tentative step forward, but stopped as the safety clicked off the gun.

“I said, put your hands up!” Adam repeated.

Nervously, not understanding any of this, Joe did as he was told. “Adam, what’s wrong?”

“Who are you and what are you doing in my house?” Adam demanded. His eyes were narrowed with pain.

“Huh?” Joe frowned. “It’s me, Joe, your brother. And why shouldn’t I be here? This is my home, too.”

“Don’t get clever with me, boy!” Adam warned. “Move real slow and take off that gun belt.”

Worried now, as well as puzzled, Joe slowly took off his gun belt. He dropped it on the floor and looked back at Adam again. “Why are you doing this, Adam?” he asked, trying to keep his tone calm. He didn’t feel calm. Everything about this situation made him feel desperately uncomfortable.

Ignoring the question, Adam moved towards the study, still keeping Joe covered. Joe turned with him, so that he was always facing his brother, hoping against hope that Adam would suddenly burst out laughing and tell him it was all a joke. But the still small voice of reason told Joe that this was not Adam’s type of joke.

Adam’s saddle was dumped on the floor in front of the desk, complete with his gear.

“Why have you brought your saddle in, Adam?” Joe asked, “You know Pa doesn’t like it.”

“Shut up!” Adam growled. Crouching, his eyes still locked on Joe, Adam located his rope and straightened again. “I don’t know who you are, boy,” he said, menacingly, “but you’re going to do just as I tell you if you want to live.”

“I’m your brother!” Joe cried, despairingly.

“I don’t have a brother,” Adam replied, coldly and Joe could have wept at his tone.

“I’m your youngest brother, Joe, and we have another brother, Hoss, who’s between you and me in age. Don’t you remember?” His voice was shaking. “He’s a really big guy and…”

“Shut up!” Adam ordered, sharply. “Why don’t you admit you just came here to rob the place?”

“Because I didn’t!” Joe retorted. “I live here!”

“Why persist in lying?” Adam growled. “I know you aren’t my brother! Now, put your hands in front of you and don’t try anything. “

“What are you going to do?” Joe asked, apprehensively. “Adam, please, whatever it is, don’t do it!”

A bullet bit into the floor by Joe’s foot. He flinched, his face paling. “Didn’t you hear what I said?” demanded Adam. “Now, clasp your hands together and put them out in front of you.”

Slowly, Joe did as he was bid. He watched Adam approach, as though he genuinely was wary of Joe, and closed his eyes as he felt the rough hemp slide over his wrists. Adam savagely tightened the rope, binding it around Joe’s wrists until there was no chance of Joe getting free. Only when Adam’s hands let go of his did Joe open his eyes again, and tears were standing in them. He knew Adam had been hurt, but he didn’t understand what was going on at all.

*****

“Now what?” he asked, hoarsely as Adam put away his gun.

“Now I take you into town to the sheriff,” Adam snapped.

“At least Roy will be able to tell you who I really am,” Joe replied. He looked down at his bound hands, and felt a frisson of fear in his belly. Whatever was wrong with Adam had to be serious. His brother would never treat him like this. Joe’s hands were going numb. “Please, Adam, I’m not going to hurt you. Please, take off these ropes,” Joe begged. “My hands are going numb.”

“Get going,” Adam replied, and gave Joe a vicious shove that nearly floored the slighter man.

As they entered the barn, Adam realized, through the blinding headache that was affecting his thinking, that he would need to tie his prisoner to something while he saddled horses. He had deliberately left an end of the rope dangling between the young man’s wrists just in case, and he reached for it now, and dragged the man over to the ladder.

Panicked, not knowing what Adam meant to do, Joe snatched his hands out of the way and swarmed up the ladder to the hayloft. Adam was hot on his heels. Joe glanced around as he regained his feet, realizing at once that climbing had been stupid. He had cut down his options drastically. Moments later, Adam’s head appeared and he gave Joe a tight grin. “Nowhere to run to now, boy,” he hissed.

Joe had never been afraid of his brother before; not in the true sense of the word. But he was afraid now. This was not his beloved big brother, the one who had protected him from school bullies and now stood firmly between him and any danger that came along. What had happened to him? Why was he behaving like this? Backing off, Joe knew that this was a fight he was destined to lose. With his hands bound the way they were, there was very little he could do.

With an enraged roar, Adam lunged at Joe, grabbed his stunned brother by the lapel and hammered his fist into Joe’s stomach half a dozen times. Joe crumpled helplessly, groaning as the pain bit into him. He pushed ineffectually at the hands that were picking him up, but his struggles were hopeless. Adam knelt by the ladder and lowered Joe over the edge of the hayloft, intending him to land on his feet. But he had misjudged the height.

With a despairing cry, Joe plummeted down, for a moment catching the ladder in his hands. Then, his hands slipped and he fell again, feeling the awful thump as he hit bottom, but he was unconscious before the pain started spreading through his body.

*****

The cry that broke from Hoss’ throat was a sound Ben would never forget. Dismounting hurriedly from his horse, he dropped the rein and rushed over to see what was causing his middle son to stand transfixed in the barn doorway.

“Joe!” Ben exclaimed, his voice filled with horror. He pushed past his immobile son and stood looking down on Joe for a long minute, unable to believe his eyes. Joe lay on his right side, his hands bound together in front of him and he was unconscious. Judging by the pool of blood under his head, he had been lying there for some time. Ben could not imagine what had happened to him. Why was he tied up? Who had done this to him?

Kneeling by Joe, Ben reached for him, but Hoss put out his hand and stopped him. “Pa, wait,” he urged.

“Wait?” Ben echoed, looking up at Hoss as though he had lost his mind. “Wait for what?”

A look of pain crossed Hoss’ face. “Pa, we don’ know what happened ta Joe,” he explained. “Maybe movin’ him’s not such a great idea. He could be hurt real bad.”

The sense of that could not be denied. “You’re right,” Ben agreed. “Quick, get the doctor!” He leant over Joe and brushed the curls back from his forehead. “Joe, can you hear me, son?” There was no response.

In a few moments Hoss was back, and while Ben steadied Joe gently and carefully, Hoss hacked away the rope tying his little brother’s wrists. He didn’t say anything to Ben, but the knots on the rope looked all too familiar to him.  “Pa, I think I ought ta go inta the house an’ look fer Adam. His horse is there, but we ain’t seen no signs o’ him. He could be hurt, too.”

“Be careful,” Ben pleaded, fear darkening his eyes. “Whoever did this to Joe might still be there.”

“I’ll be careful,” Hoss assured him grimly, his tone not boding well for the miscreant who had done this, if Hoss caught up with him.

Crossing to the house, Hoss drew his gun and pushed open the door. Joe’s hat lay on the credenza; his gun belt was on the floor by the pier table behind the settee. Hoss frowned. This didn’t make any sense. Why would Joe take off his hat as always and yet drop his gun on the floor? There didn’t appear to be anything out of place. Hoss turned his head and looked towards the study alcove and saw the saddle sitting before the desk. He went over and recognized it as Adam’s.

“Adam?” he called and listened. There was silence.

Warily, Hoss went on. The kitchen was deserted, as he had expected, as Hop Sing had gone into town to visit relatives and pick up some supplies while he was there. He wasn’t expected back until late in the afternoon. Hoss headed for the stairs.

The bedrooms were empty. Joe’s was slightly untidy, as was often the case, with a shirt tossed carelessly across the bed. Hoss’ own one looked exactly as it had when he left it that morning, with his curtains fluttering in the slight breeze coming in the window. Ben’s maroon dressing gown lay on his bed and a faint scent of his bay rum aftershave hung in the air.

His heart in his mouth, Hoss tiptoed across the hall to throw open the door to Adam’s room.

He didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it wasn’t this. The room was deserted, as tidy as ever, with no sign that anyone had been there, including Adam. Slowly, Hoss holstered his gun. Wherever Adam was, he wasn’t in the house.

When he got back to the barn, Joe was groaning steadily as he neared consciousness. Ben was murmuring soothing words, and he looked up anxiously as Hoss came in. “Well?” he asked, his heart in his dark eyes.

“Ain’t no sign o’ him,” Hoss replied, seeing the disappointment and worry deepen on his father’s face. “His saddle’s lyin’ in front o’ yer desk, but I cain’t see anythin’ else out a place.”

“Sport’s here,” Ben muttered, glancing at Joe, who moaned again. “Where can Adam be?”

Looking round the barn, Hoss noticed for the first time that one of the spare saddles was missing. “Hey, Pa, one o’ them saddles ain’t there.” He went outside as Ben glanced over at the saddles. Moments later, Hoss was back. “Someone’s taken a horse from the corral – that grey that Adam liked so much.”

“Do you think it could have been Adam?” Ben asked, perplexed.

“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. “It coulda bin.” He bit his lip. “Ya want me ta go lookin’ fer him, Pa?”

“No,” Ben said, regretfully, after a moment’s thought. “You’d better stay here with me, in case the doctor needs anything. Is Hop Sing back yet?”

“No,” Hoss replied. “Ya want me ta go an’ boil some water, jist in case it’s needed?”

“Yes, thank you, son,” Ben replied, gratefully. “Could you bring a blanket, too, please? Joe feels a bit cold.”

“Sure thing,” Hoss agreed and hurried over to the house to bring back a blanket, before he went to coax a flame in the stove so he could put the water on to boil.

*****

It was a long anxious wait for the doctor and Joe was conscious before he arrived and in great pain. He seemed quite dazed, but Ben wasn’t surprised by that, as he had been unconscious for quite a long time. He kept his hand lightly on Joe’s waist, urging his son to keep still. Joe didn’t say anything, but he seemed to understand.

“What happened?” Paul asked, hurrying into the barn to kneel at Joe’s side. He took in the pool of dried blood on the ground under Joe’s head and the position the young man was lying in.

“We don’t know,” Ben admitted, moving slightly so that Paul had easier access to Joe. Joe’s eyes opened and he glanced at Ben, as he moved, clearly anxious. “We came home and found Joe lying here.” Ben swallowed. “His hands were tied.”

“Has he said anything?” Paul asked, his fingers running through Joe’s hair. Joe winced.

“No,” Ben replied.

“Joe, do you remember what happened?” Paul asked.

“Fell,” Joe whispered. “Ladder.” He licked his dry lips.

Glancing involuntarily up at the ladder to the hayloft, Ben grew pale. Paul patted his friend on the arm, but his eyes never left Joe. “From the top, Joe? Or part of the way down?”

“Part,” Joe replied. “Adam…”

“Don’t worry about Adam,” Ben soothed, but something in his tone made Paul glance at him sharply.

Joe closed his eyes again as Paul began his examination. He winced several times, but Paul’s face began to look less grim as the examination progressed. Finally, he straightened up. “Have you got a board, or an old door that we could use to move Joe?” he asked.

“Somewhere,” Ben responded, glancing around helplessly. “Paul, how is he?”

“I’ll git it,” Hoss muttered and hurried to find the old door they kept ‘just in case’. He took it back in to hear Paul say,

“Let’s get him settled first, Ben, then I’ll tell you.”

*****

Looking at his son’s white face on the pillow, Ben’s heart gave another lurch of fear. Paul gave Joe a painkilling injection and waited for it to take effect before he drew Ben and Hoss away from the bed. Joe’s eyes opened for a moment, but Ben quickly reassured his son that he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Joe has a concussion,” Paul began. “There doesn’t appear to be a skull fracture, and for that we have to be truly grateful. We don’t know how far up the ladder he was, but I have to conclude that he was lucky. As for his other injuries, well, they are quite serious. He has broken his right collarbone and elbow. I can only conclude that having his hands tied protected his wrists and hands. There are a couple of ribs broken, too and his right ankle. His right knee is dislocated. I’m amazed that his legs were not both badly broken, and quite relieved, too. This is going to be hard enough for Joe as it is.” Paul sighed. “Ben, I’m going to put Joe to sleep and reduce these factures and the dislocation. I’ll take a couple of stitches in the head wound, too. You’ll need to keep an eye on him. I don’t usually give much pain relief with an injury like that, but I’m forced to this time. I’m not happy about having to knock him out, either, but for Joe’s sake, it’s kinder.”

“Do what you have to,” Ben muttered. He went back over to the bed, and took Joe’s hand. The right side of Joe’s face was caked in blood, but Ben could see the bruises beginning to show. “The doctor’s going to help you, Joe,” he soothed.

Once more, Joe opened his eyes. They were glazed with pain and the morphine, his pupils contracted, so that the green almost drowned out the black. “Adam,” he whispered.

“It’s all right, don’t worry,” Ben told him. “Adam will be all right.”

“No, you… don’t understand,” Joe protested, his voice weak. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “Adam… did this.”

“What do you mean, son?” Ben asked, leaning in closer. He put up a hand to stop Paul applying the chloroform. “Do you mean Adam did this to you?”

“Yes,” Joe choked, tears welling in his eyes as he heard the stunned disbelief in Ben’s voice. “He was… hurt,” he went on, doggedly, determined to make Ben understand. “His head was… bleeding and he…didn’t know… who I was.”

“Joe, are you sure?” Ben demanded, his voice rising as his fear grew. Adam wouldn’t hurt Joe.

“Yes,” Joe insisted. “He’s hurt.”

Seeing that both Joe and Ben were getting very worked up, Paul stepped in. “Don’t you worry about it, Joe,” he soothed. “We’ll find Adam. You just relax and when you wake up, you’ll feel a bit better.”

The injured youth gave the doctor a cynical look. “Will I?” he asked.

“Trust me,” Paul joked and applied the chloroform. Joe fought it, as he always did, but he was soon fast asleep.

*****

“I can’t believe it,” Ben muttered. He had said the same phrase over and over again since they left Joe’s room.

“Joe don’t tell lies,” Hoss said, heavily. “Pa, he said Adam’s hurt. I think I ought ta go out an’ look fer him.”

Glancing once more at the stairs, Ben nodded. “Yes, that’s a good idea,” he agreed. “Then we’ll find out what happened.” he looked at Hoss. “Thank you, son. I know how worried you are about Joe.”

“Not jist about Joe,” Hoss told him. “But you heard the doc, Pa. Joe’s gonna be all right.”

“Yes, of course,” Ben agreed, but Hoss could see that Ben was not convinced. Until he saw his son, alive and awake, and found Adam and got to the bottom of this whole mess, he would not believe any assurances, no matter who made them.

Putting on his hat and gun belt, Hoss let himself out of the door.

*****

Initially, tracking Adam was quite hard, as all the tracks around the ranch house and yard were mixed up from the comings and goings. However, after casting around in a wide circle, Hoss eventually found the tracks he was looking for and began to follow them towards the lake. After a few miles, he found a horse shoe and a little while after that, he came across the grey gelding grazing peacefully, tethered to a tree. Hoss dismounted and lifted each foot in turn until he found the one that was shoeless. The hoof looked all right and when Hoss gently tested it, he found that the horse was not sore. However badly injured Adam might be, he was sufficiently with it to realize that his horse was in difficulty. Knowing that his brother was now on foot, Hoss set off again.

He had gone less than a mile when he spotted Adam sitting by the road. The older Cartwright son had his head in his hands, but he jerked his head up when he heard the hooves on the road. He rose warily to his feet as Hoss slowed Chub and slowly dismounted.

“Go away!” Adam ordered, but there was a strange quiver in his voice.

“Take it easy, Adam,” Hoss crooned. “I ain’t gonna hurt cha. It’s me, ol’ Hoss. Ya ain’t afraid o’ me, are ya?”

“I don’t know you!” Adam insisted, backing up. His eyes were wild, darting from side to side as though looking for someplace to run. The blood was still clinging to his face, as though Adam was unaware of it, which he was. “Leave me alone.”

“Its all right,” Hoss soothed, talking to Adam in much the same tone as he spoke to a scared or injured horse. “I know this is frightenin’, but I ain’t gonna hurt ya. I’m here ta help ya, Adam.” As he spoke, Hoss edged nearer.

As he spoke, something approaching recognition flickered and then died in Adam’s eyes. He half turned away from Hoss, as though he was going to run away. Hoss took his chance and launched himself at Adam, catching his brother around the waist and bearing him to the ground.

Obviously frightened, Adam fought Hoss, but the other man was taller and heavier and had not had a knock on the head. Hoss soon had Adam subdued. “Come on, big brother,” Hoss panted, climbing to his feet, but not letting go his grip on Adam’s arm. “Let’s get you home.”

Exhausted, defeated, Adam made no more attempts to fight or run away. He meekly mounted Chub in front of Hoss and they headed back for home.

*****

The light was beginning to go when they rode wearily into the yard at the ranch. Hoss slid down from Chub’s broad aback and put up his hands to help Adam. Adam uncharacteristically accepted the help and looked around as though surprised. “Why did you bring me here?” he asked.

“It’s our home,” Hoss replied, patiently.

Adam studied him closely. “Who did you say you are?”

“I’m yer brother, Hoss,” the other replied. “Come on, Adam, let’s git ya inside so’s the doc c’n take a look at ya.” Unresisting, Adam followed meekly.

“Adam!” Ben was on his feet, relief all over his face. Paul Martin rose from the sofa and looked at Adam. What he saw did not reassure him at all.

“Pa?” Adam asked, and he looked surprised.

“Yes, son, I was worried about you,” Ben replied and hurried over to take his injured son’s arm, and guide him to the sofa. “Sit down. Where have you been? What happened to you?”

“Easy, Ben,” Paul urged, in an undertone. “Don’t pressure him.”

“I…don’t know,” Adam responded, vaguely. “I came home and this big boy came in. He seemed to think he knew me and said he was my brother.” His eyes sought Hoss. “But it wasn’t you, yet you say you’re my brother, too.”

“You have two brothers,” Ben reminded him, gently.

“Do I?”  Adam looked surprised. “Pa, I… don’t remember.” He suddenly put his hand to his head and winced. “I tied the boy up, because he was… was… I don’t know. But I was… afraid. Then, I was going to take him to the sheriff, but… something happened.” His brow furled in concentration as he fought to retrieve the memory. “He fell from… somewhere. I don’t remember too well.”

“Take it easy, son,” Ben murmured, shocked by the disjointed way that Adam was talking.

“You look… older, Pa,” Adam muttered, studying his father closely. “Your hair didn’t use to be white.” He looked at Hoss again. “You say you’re Hoss, but…he’s just a little kid.”

Deeply disturbed, Ben said, “Let the doctor have a look at you, Adam.” He moved aside as Paul sat down by Adam.

“I’m going to have to take stitches in that cut, Adam,” Paul told him, when he had completed his examination. He looked at Ben. “Adam’s had a severe blow to the head, and it looks to me like it was done with some kind of weapon. Not a gun butt, but something as hard as that. He’s got a severe concussion, which is affecting his memory. It should all sort itself out, but I’m afraid you’ve got your work cut out for you here, Ben, looking after both Joe and Adam.”

“We’ll manage,” Ben assured him stoutly. “Come on, Adam; let’s get you up to bed so the doctor can stitch your head.”

*****

Checking on Joe while Ben stayed with Paul and Adam, Hoss was relieved to find his younger brother sound asleep. Joe’s face had been washed clean of the blood, but there was a huge bruise spreading all over his right cheek and his head was bandaged. There was a figure 8 bandage swathed around his shoulders holding the broken collar bone in place and Joe’s right arm was in a sling. His elbow was also bandaged.

Further down, the bandages around Joe’s ribs peeked out from the covers, which had slipped down slightly. Hoss adjusted them so that Joe wouldn’t get cold. The blankets were pulled up and tucked around his left leg, leaving his plastered right leg exposed to the air. There was a towel underneath it to protect the bedding until the plaster was completely dry. Hoss touched the plaster tentatively. It was still a bit wet. Joe’s hip, where it was exposed, was black and blue and the bruise ran down underneath the cast. His toes, where they poked out of the plaster, were black and blue, too.  The upper part of Joe’s right arm was bruised as well and Hoss assumed that all of his brother’s right side would bear similar discoloration. He wasn’t wrong.

Sitting down in the chair by the bed, Hoss gazed intently at Joe’s face, trying to puzzle out what had happened. Adam, by his own admission, had tied Joe up. He had lost his memory, and several years along with it. Joe must have seemed like a threat to Adam, bearing in mind that Adam had lost about 20 years of his life.

But what had happened to Adam? Paul said he had been hit by a weapon of some kind, but who had done it and why? Why had Adam and Joe been in the hayloft, and how had Joe come to fall down the ladder?

None of it made sense to Hoss, but he knew that they would have to find the answers and quickly, for everyone’s sake.

*****

Come morning, both Ben’s invalids were awake. Joe was in a great deal of pain, moving restlessly as much as he was able, trying to find a comfortable way to lie. Now that he was in plaster, some of the pain had gone, but not enough. The weight of his broken elbow dragged on his broken collarbone and Ben removed the sling to try and ease the problem. Paul had mentioned it to him the previous night.

“Do you think you could eat?” Ben asked, after helping Joe with his personal needs.

Joe’s face was still flushed from needing help to pee, but he nodded. “I guess so,” he responded, listlessly. He wondered how old he would have to be before he could accept that kind of help without embarrassment. He glanced up as Ben headed for the door. “Hey, Pa?”

 “Yes, son?” Ben asked turning to looked at him.

“Did… did you find Adam?” Joe wasn’t sure what he wanted the answer to be. Whenever he thought of Adam, he thought of the man in the hayloft and fear spiked through his gut. That was not the Adam he knew, and he desperately wanted his brother back.

“Yes, Hoss found him,” Ben confirmed. “He has a bad head injury, Joe and a partial memory loss. He thinks he’s just a boy, still and he was afraid of you.”

“Afraid of me?” Joe gasped. “Why? I never guessed he was afraid of me! I was sure afraid of him, though!”

“He doesn’t remember you,” Ben told Joe, gently. “He thought you were here to rob the house, and he was afraid, because he thought you were older than him. We haven’t been able to find out what happened to him, because of course he doesn’t remember.”

“Oh,” Joe said, in a small voice and snuggled into his pillows. The world seemed to have become an inexplicable place all of a sudden.

*****

Across the hall, Adam was struggling to assimilate the new information he was being bombarded with. He still found it difficult to believe that he had lost about 20 years somewhere. Hoss had been in earlier and Adam could see a resemblance to the child that he remembered so clearly.

But it was when he rose from his bed, against his father’s wishes, and looked at himself in the mirror that he got the biggest shock. The man looking back at him from the mirror was mature. The dark brown eyes regarded his reflection steadily, even if they did look a bit shocked. His face looked serious, and his body was filled out. He looked like the kind of man Adam had always hoped he would become. Looking down at himself for the first time, Adam made the jump to accepting that he was now an adult.

Sitting back down on the bed, Adam rubbed his temples, hoping that the pounding headache would go away. He felt sick. He had been so afraid the previous afternoon when he had arrived home. The house looked different; the furniture was better than he remembered, and there was more of it. He had gazed in confusion at the third picture of a lady on his father’s desk. Who was she, and why did his Pa have a photo of her? His gaze fell on Inger’s picture, the only mother he could remember, and he felt a little comforted.

Deciding that he needed to rest, because he felt strangely tired, Adam had been going to the stairs when the door opened and Joe came in. Adam was shocked when this strange man had walked in like he owned the place and then addressed him by name. Adam had drawn the gun he was wearing, although he knew Pa would be angry when he discovered that Adam had a gun. What was worse, Adam didn’t know where it had come from.

Tying the man’s hands had been one of the most difficult things he’d ever done. The man looked so sad while he was doing it and Adam had almost stopped and begged for forgiveness. Then they had gone to the barn, but Adam didn’t remember that part.

Or did he?

Thinking about it now, Adam wasn’t so sure. He could remember climbing into the hayloft and feeling really angry. Abruptly, the man’s face flashed before his eyes, and he flinched at the fear imprinted on that face. The man had been afraid of him, and as Adam remembered, he realized that he was taller than the man, and, looking at himself, broader, too. Had the man been frightened that he would hurt him?

Closing his eyes, Adam tried to fight off the memories, but they were coming thick and fast now, crowding in on him, not giving him the chance to even breathe, it seemed. He could remember thinking that the man would not be able to manage the ladder, because he had punched him. And as he leaned over to lower him down, he had become dizzy and dropped him.

“NO!” The word burst from Adam as he threw himself down on his bed. His headache was worse than ever as he remembered the cry as the man fell and then the awful, sickening thud as he hit the floor.

Although he could remember nothing after that, Adam was still being assaulted by his memory. Images from the past came to him, even as he heard his father enter the room, demanding to know if he was all right. Adam couldn’t answer, as he remembered his adult life and all that went with it. But most especially, he remembered Hoss and Joe.

Oh yes, he remembered Joe and he thought the guilt would kill him. He had almost killed his little brother. He had tied him up and frightened him and then almost killed him.

“Adam?” Ben was kneeling by his son’s side, not knowing what was going on, but sensing a terrible struggle. His hands were on Adam’s shoulders, giving support and strength. “Adam, what’s wrong?”

Finally lifting his head, almost all his memories intact, Adam replied, “I remember.” His voice was hoarse and his eyes glittered with unshed tears. He couldn’t meet Ben’s gaze. “Pa, I remember,” he whispered wretchedly and collapsed in a faint.

*****

“I don’t know what happened to me,” Adam told Ben, tiredly. He was lying flat on his bed, roused from his faint with some brandy. Ben hadn’t sent for Doc Martin, since he had said he would be out that morning anyway. “All I remember is coming home and thinking that the house looked different. I looked at the picture of Marie and wondered who she was. Then Joe came in and I was afraid. I pulled my gun, but I thought you would be angry if you knew I had got hold of a gun! I decided I had to tie Joe up, so I wouldn’t be so afraid.”

At Ben’s encouraging nod, he went on. “When we got to the barn, I realized that there weren’t any horses saddled. I was afraid that Joe would run away, so I decided to tie him to the ladder while I got the horses ready. Joe, I don’t know why, climbed up the ladder. I went after him and I was angry. So angry, Pa. Joe looked frightened.” He looked away from Ben again. “I hit him. I’m sorry, Pa, but I was so afraid.”

“It’s all right, son,” Ben soothed. “Joe’s going to be just fine.”

“I realized that he wouldn’t manage the ladder alone, and I guess I must have known that I wasn’t a child, because I tried to lower him down. But I had forgotten how high the loft is, or I misjudged the height; I don’t know. But as I leant over, I got dizzy and Joe fell.”

“What happened after that?” Ben asked, when it was clear Adam wasn’t going to say any more.

“I’m not sure,” Adam admitted. “I must have ridden away, and I remember the horse limping and discovering his shoe was off. I tethered him and went on foot. I don’t know where I thought I was going. And when Hoss came, I was afraid all over again. Pa, what does it mean?”

“It means that you have a very bad head injury,” Ben told him. “It messed up your memory and left you feeling very vulnerable. Don’t worry about it, Adam. It’s quite normal.”

“How can I ever face Joe again?” Adam asked. “All those injuries and all my fault.”

“Joe doesn’t blame you,” Ben assured his son. “He knows you were hurt.”

“You know, when I went to tie his hands, he let me, Pa.” Adam closed his eyes. “He was afraid of me.”

“Of course he let you tie his hands,” replied Ben. “You’re his brother and you were hurt. Joe didn’t want you to be hurt any more. Adam, why don’t you get some sleep? You must be exhausted after remembering all that.”

“I am,” Adam replied, and although he wasn’t sure he wanted to sleep, he closed his eyes and made his body relax. And after a time, the pain and the emotions lulled him to sleep.

*****

No less exhausted himself, Ben left Adam’s room when his son was asleep and leant on the wall outside. Small wonder Adam had let out that agonized cry. It must have been horrendous for him to realize what he had done to Joe, even though it was an accident.

Slowly, Ben went across to Joe’s room. As he opened the door, two pairs of eager eyes turned to him, curiosity apparent on both faces. For all that Joe and Hoss were as unalike as brothers could be, they often shared remarkably similar expressions and now was no exception. “What did he say?” Joe asked, in a small voice. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know or not.

Sitting down, Ben sighed. He repeated his conversation with Adam and his other sons listened without interruption. By the end, Joe’s eyes were glistening with tears, and Hoss looked pole-axed. “Poor Adam,” Hoss sighed.

Joe looked away. He wasn’t sure what he thought. Adam’s story answered so many questions for him, but it didn’t take away the fear he had felt, and still felt. He understood intellectually that Adam had been afraid of him, but emotionally, Joe wasn’t ready to make the jump. It was too soon after the event, and he was too shaken to take it in. Plus, he, too had a bad head injury, and his thinking was fuzzy.

Belatedly, he realized that both Hoss and Ben were looking at him. He flushed miserably. “Yeah, poor Adam,” he muttered, but it didn’t sound convincing even to his own ears.

“Surely you don’t blame Adam?” Ben asked.

“No,” Joe protested. “But he’s right – I was afraid of him.” Dropping his eyes and his voice, Joe added, “I’m still afraid of him.”

*****

Over the next few days, as Adam and Joe began to recover, Ben and Hoss made every effort to find out what had happened to Adam. They traced his movements from the meeting he had had with a mine owner in Virginia City, to a beer in the Silver Dollar, to the start of his ride home. But there they lost his trail. Adam had been seen leaving town about mid-afternoon and had not been seen again until Joe entered the house. None of the hands working the ranch had seen anybody around that day, and from careful questioning, Ben could account for everyone’s whereabouts, not that he had truly suspected any of their men. The mystery remained.

At home, Adam was soon ambulatory, but he studiously avoided crossing the hall to go to Joe’s room. Joe was confined to bed, and would be for some time as his injuries healed. Every day he asked about Adam, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted his brother to come to see him or not. He still had flashes of fear as he remembered the hayloft, and sometimes his resentment against Adam grew. At other times, he could understand that his brother had been injured and wasn’t responsible for his actions. Yet, because they had not had the chance to talk, Joe was growing confused as to what he believed. His own head injury had made his memory of events rather patchy and sometimes he would wake from a sleep, convinced that Adam had hurt him deliberately.

“How are you feeling this morning?” Ben asked Adam, as he sat down in his chair by the fire, preparing to do some reading. The bandage was off Adam’s head, and only the dark scab remained to remind them of what happened.

“All right, I guess,” Adam replied. He lifted his book.

“Aren’t you going to see Joe?” Ben asked, his tone enquiring only, not condemning.

“I… well, I…,” Adam stammered, a flush staining his face and neck.

“The longer you leave it, the harder it will become,” Ben prophesied.

“I know,” Adam admitted. He put his book down. “I just don’t know what to say to him, Pa.”

“Start with the truth,” Ben suggested. “Tell him you’re sorry you hurt him, but you were afraid and didn’t know what was happening to you.” He rested his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Joe knows you didn’t do it deliberately, but the longer you avoid him, the more likely it is that he will start believing that.”

“But I wouldn’t…” Adam began and his words trailed off.

“You tell him,” Ben suggested. He watched as Adam slowly rose to his feet and resolutely began to climb the stairs.

*****

Turning his head upon the pillow as Adam came in, Joe wondered if he could believe his eyes. He knew Adam had been up and around for several days now, but as each day had passed without his brother coming to see him, Joe had begun to believe that Adam would never come. Now, here he was, hesitating in the doorway as though nervous. A slightly hysterical desire to laugh swept over Joe, but he managed to quell it. Adam was nervous? At least he could get up and leave if things got too heavy!

Walking over to the bed at last, Adam continued to look at Joe in silence. He was seeing his brother from a new perspective. He’s always seen Joe as the youngest and smallest of the family, someone in need of protection. Yet, when he’d seen Joe from the perspective of a child, he had seen him as a powerful man, someone who could do Adam harm. Looking at Joe now, Adam saw him with fresh eyes.

Although Joe was the youngest and smallest of the family, he was also a man grown. He was slender of build, but his leanness disguised the impressive musculature of his upper body. Seeing Joe for the first time in a long time without a shirt on, Adam was astounded at the amount of muscles that were in evidence on Joe’s chest. By comparison, Adam felt quite puny. No wonder the child Adam of his mind had been afraid.

“I’m so sorry, Joe,” he blurted, just when Joe had decided that neither of them would be able to break the silence that held them both captive. “This is all my fault. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I know you didn’t,” Joe assured him, huskily. “You were hurt.”

Relief flooded Adam and he sat heavily in the chair by the bed. His hands were shaking, he noticed. “How are you feeling?” Adam asked, reaching for Joe’s hand, as he often did when sitting with his brother when he was sick.

To his immense horror, Joe flinched away from his touch. Adam raised puzzled eyes to his brother, not understanding. Joe looked appalled, and after a searing moment when he met his brother’s gaze, he dropped his eyes to his wrist and Adam, following the direction of his brother’s gaze, saw the not-quite-healed rope burn on the skin there. And then he understood. Joe had reacted instinctively to the movement – because the last time Adam had taken Joe’s hand, he had tied his brother up. With a sound, Adam pushed himself to his feet and began to back away.

“Adam, wait! I’m sorry!” Joe cried, reaching for Adam now. “I didn’t mean it, Adam! Adam, please!”

But it was too late. Adam had fled, and Joe could only stare at the door through burning eyes.

*****

“Did your brother speak with you?” Ben asked Joe as he helped his son settle for bed that night.

“Yes, he did,” Joe replied, hoping Ben wouldn’t want a blow by blow account of the meeting. Joe had spent the whole day trying to forget the look on Adam’s face as he fled the room, but he had failed. He yawned widely, exhausted, although he had had a long sleep that afternoon.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Ben prompted, as he arranged a pillow for Joe’s elbow.

Wincing as his father lifted his arm gently onto the pillow, Joe shook his head. He gritted his teeth for a moment until the pain subsided again. When it did, he looked up into Ben’s concerned face and found a smile. “I’m all right, Pa,” he replied.

“Are you sure, Joe?” Ben asked, puzzled, for Adam had not wanted to talk about their meeting either.

“Quite sure,” Joe agreed. His eyelids were drooping as his nightly pain medication began to kick in. He was no longer taking anything through the day, but Ben always insisted that he take something at night. Joe didn’t have the energy to fight him. “G’night, Pa.”

“Night, son,” Ben answered softly, brushing a hand over his son’s head. He tiptoed from the room, although he couldn’t help pausing in the doorway to look back. He was convinced that Joe was not telling him the truth, but he could see no way to force the truth from his son.

*****

As Adam regained his health, he began to ease back into the working life of the ranch and was soon out working from dawn to dusk. There was plenty to be done, and they were all tired at night. To Ben and Hop Sing fell the nursing duties, although Hoss did what he could. Adam went in every night to speak to Joe, but there was usually another member of the family present at the time, and to begin with, nobody noticed that the oldest and youngest Cartwright sons were not talking to each other. About the time Ben noticed that there was a distinct lack of communication between them, Adam had headed off for a meeting in San Francisco, which would occupy him for several weeks. His leave-taking of Joe had been short and casual.

“Is there still a problem between you and Adam?” Ben asked, anxiously. Joe had been subdued for weeks, now that Ben thought about it, but he had put it down to the fact that Joe was bedridden. And that was indeed part of it, but the main part was the distance between Joe and his brother.

Slowly, with many pauses, Joe finally related the conversation he and Adam had had, and his reaction to Adam reaching for his hand. “I didn’t mean to do it, Pa!” he cried, as passionately as a child. Tears stood in his eyes as the memory smote him once more. “I was as surprised as he was!”

“I know that, Joe,” Ben soothed. “And I’m sure deep down Adam knows that as well.”

But Joe was not to be soothed. Now that this was out in the open, he was not going to accept platitudes meant to calm him down. “Are you?” he challenged. “Well, I’m not! If Adam understood, then why has he been avoiding me, Pa?”

“Don’t shout at me, Joe,” Ben warned him. He sighed. “Why didn’t you mention this before?”

“What would you have done?” Joe asked. “The only people who can sort this out are me and Adam, and we can’t do that until I can go after him when he runs away.” Joe looked ruefully at his plastered leg. His collarbone was healed and his elbow wasn’t far behind, but his ankle was taking its own sweet time and Paul had refused to put on a shorter plaster, in case the weight of it pulled the knee out of its socket again.

“I would have talked with you both,” Ben insisted. “I could have sorted everything out.” He looked upset that he hadn’t realized that there was a problem, and now Adam was gone and would not be back for a while. Would the breach between the brothers be that much wider when he returned?

“Pa, we’re not children anymore,” Joe snapped. “You can’t tell us to kiss and make up! We’re grown men, and you can’t sort out all our problems for us, no matter how much we may want you to,” he went on , his voice softer now. “Some things we just have to sort out for ourselves.”

For a long moment, Ben just looked at Joe. He was right. He couldn’t force his sons to talk to each other. “Are you still afraid of Adam?” he asked, quietly, dreading the answer.

Ducking his head, Joe nodded. ”Yes, he admitted, almost inaudibly.

*****

“What am I going to do?” Ben asked Hoss, after relating the tale to him.

“I don’ see what ya can do, Pa,” Hoss admitted. “Ain’t nobody able to make ‘em talk ta each other. Not talk proper, like. I know it’s hard, Pa, but we jist gotta let ‘em sort it out themselves, like Little Joe says.”

“It’s so hard,” Ben lamented. “I can’t bear to see them like this. Why didn’t I notice before?”

“It ain’t easy ta tell what’s bitin’ Joe,” Hoss reminded him wisely. “An’ he is fed up o’ bein’ in bed all the time. I cain’t say as I blame him fer that.”

“Nor me,” Ben muttered, but he was listening closely.

“An’ this must be a new experience fer Adam, too,” Hoss went on. “He ain’t hardly afraid o’ nuthin’, Pa, and it must’ve shaken him ta his roots.”

“Yes, of course, you’re right,” Ben agreed. Looking back, Adam had volunteered to take on the most dangerous jobs that had been going. Most of them weren’t that dangerous, but there was always a risk of injury working on a ranch. Adam hadn’t shirked any one of them. “Why didn’t I see that?”

“Don’ be sa hard on yerself, Pa,” Hoss comforted him. “You’ve bin right busy, what with Joe laid up an’ all. An’ ‘sides, which o’ us can see anythin’ ‘ceptin’ what Adam wants us ta see?” Hoss shook his head. “That big brother o’ mine can sure pull the wool over our eyes when he don’ want us knowin’ he’s hurtin’!”

“Should I send for Adam?” Ben asked. “Ask him to come home?”

“Na, Pa, that wouldn’ do no good,” Hoss argued. “When he gits back, Joe’ll be on his feet agin an’ the two o’ ‘em can fight it out a tween ‘em.”

“Not literally!” Ben protested, aghast at the idea.

“It might be what they need,” Hoss remarked, philosophically.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Ben declared. “All right, Hoss, I’ll take your advice.” He smiled. “It must seem odd to you, that I’m asking your advice.”

“Aw, shucks, Pa,” Hoss replied, blushing. “Everyone needs a little advice sometimes!”

*****

At last the great day came when Paul Martin removed the cast from Joe’s leg. His collarbone was healed, but the elbow still gave him a little trouble and Joe was still wearing his arm in a sling. “Come on then,” Paul coaxed. “You’ve been dying to get walking around, so now’s your chance.”

Joe, his face alight with laughter, was already shoving his way up from the bed. Paul slipped an arm under his to help him, careful to stand on the left, should Joe need help. It was difficult for Joe to begin with, as the leg felt very odd and was stiff and weak. But Paul knew, with Joe’s determination, he would soon be going around as though nothing had happened.

“Let me have a look at that elbow, Joe,” Paul said, as Joe sank down into a seat, victorious that he had hobbled the length of his bedroom.

“Sure, doc,” Joe agreed, and watched with interest as Paul gently felt all around the joint, pressing here and there, noting Joe’s reactions. Finally, he straightened the elbow, again watching for Joe’s reaction and feeling the joint while he did it. “I gather that’s not too sore then?” he asked, as he finished.

“No, there’s not much pain at all,” Joe agreed. “It’s a little sore when you straighten it, but that’s all.”

“Well,” Paul straightened up. “I don’t see why you can’t go without the sling. Just be careful not to put too much weight on it for a while. Let me see it in another month, and we’ll see how you’re doing then. All right?”

“Fine,” Joe nodded. “When can I go riding again?”

Ben made a disapproving noise, but Paul was grinning broadly. “Joe Cartwright, push, push, push!” he chided, laughing. “Give it another couple of weeks and see how the ankle is. And I mean a couple of weeks!” He waggled a warning finger under Joe’s nose, but he could tell that Joe wasn’t taking him seriously right then. But Ben would keep him under control. He hoped!

It was good to see Joe smiling again, Ben thought as he came back into his son’s room after seeing the doctor out. It was as though the sun had come out at the end of a storm. He found himself relaxing for the first time since Adam had left home. Joe was going to be all right. They could put this whole mess behind them.

*****

His optimism did not survive the next day. A wire arrived from Adam, saying that he was coming home at last, his business in San Francisco completed at last. As Ben read out the good news, Joe’s face lost its animation and he had back the quiet, sullen son who had inhabited the sickroom for the past weeks. Only yesterday, Joe had been on top of the world.

“When d’ya think Adam’ll git here?” Hoss asked, excitedly. He hadn’t noticed Joe’s stillness.

Gathering his scattered wits, Ben muttered, “Well, the wire is dated yesterday, so I’d say at the start of next week.”

“Hot diggety!” Hoss exclaimed and got up to get a snack from the kitchen.

“Are you all right, Joe?” Ben ventured, at last.

Blinking, as though coming back from a place far away, Joe smiled and nodded. “I’m fine, Pa,” he replied. But the smile lacked its usual wattage and his voice was expressionless. He got to his feet and limped after Hoss, calling loudly, “Don’t eat all them cookies, Hoss!”

Watching him go, Ben realized that the ‘whole mess’ was not behind them after all.

*****

“What ya doin’, young’un?” Hoss asked, and Joe almost leapt his own height in the air. Turning he looked at Hoss.

“What does it look like I’m doin’?” he demanded angrily. “I’m goin’ riding!”

“No you ain’t!” Hoss stated, positively. “Joe, you only got out a bed three days ago! You ain’t ready ta go ridin’!”

“I’m ready,” Joe said, defiantly. “Give me a hand with this saddle!”

“If’n ya cain’t lift yer own saddle, ya ain’t fit ta go ridin’!” he declared flatly. Hoss crossed his arms and glared at Joe, who glared back, undaunted by his brother’s ire.

“Fine, I’ll do it myself,” Joe muttered, and slid his left arm under the saddle. He picked it up easily enough, but when it came to swinging it onto Cochise’s back, it really needed two hands. Joe faltered and almost dropped the saddle. Hoss stepped in to help, unable to just stand back and watch his younger brother struggle.

“Where are ya goin’?” Hoss asked. “What’s the all-fire hurry about it? Pa ain’t even up…” He hooked Joe with a look. “Ya thought ya’d git away afore Pa was up ta stop ya,” he accused. Joe didn’t deny it. “But, Joe, why? What’s happenin’ that you have ta go out today?” He stopped, for he suddenly knew what was happening. “Adam’s comin’ home.”

“Yeah,” Joe muttered. “Adam’s comin’ home.” He lifted his head and looked Hoss in the eye. “I gotta go and meet him, Hoss. We ain’t gonna get this sorted out between us if we don’t do it alone. If I wait till Adam gets home, Pa will want to interfere and then nothing will get sorted. We’ll still not be speaking to each other when we’re 70!”

“You be careful out there!” Hoss warned his brother. He knew Joe was right. As much as he longed to go with Joe to make sure he was okay, he couldn’t do it. Joe and Adam had to sort this out between them. It had been hanging over their heads for more than long enough. “Cochise ain’t bin out much, ‘ceptin’ in the corral.”

“Cooch’ll look after me,” Joe replied, with assurance. His eyes sparkled with tears. He stepped into the stirrup and swung onto the horse. “Thanks, Hoss,” he whispered before he rode slowly out of the barn and disappeared.

*****

As he had expected, Ben went off in spectacular fashion. “I’m going to skin that boy alive when he gets home!” Ben bellowed. “He was told not to ride for two weeks and you helped him saddle his horse? What were you thinking of?”

“He an’ Adam need ta do this alone, Pa,” Hoss replied, miserably. He’d known he would bear the brunt of Ben’s anger and worry to begin with, but it didn’t make it any easier. “Joe’s right, Pa. If’n you’d stepped in, Adam would’ve agreed that they was all right, an’ then they’d never have bin all right. Ya gotta let them sort it out alone.”

“I know,” Ben whispered, subsiding suddenly onto a seat. “But I can’t help worrying. Joe isn’t fit to be out there riding.”

“He’ll be all right,” Hoss assured him. “Joe can take care o’ himself.”

*****

By the time he’d reached the point in the road where he’d chosen to wait for Adam, Joe was exhausted. He slithered down from Cochise, tethered his horse so it could graze and sat down with his back against a tree.

From here, Joe could look out over the lake. The road was high at that point, and Joe wasn’t very keen on heights. But this was the place where all the roads met, so one way or another, he would meet Adam, and if Adam decided to avoid the roads, Joe could see for miles around.

He wasn’t disappointed. About an hour after he had arrived, Joe heard hoof beats and rose unsteadily to his feet. Adam emerged from the trees a few moments after and drew rein as he saw Joe standing there waiting for him. His horse stopped and sidled around restlessly, until Adam heeled it into a walk and closed the gap between himself and Joe.

His brother looked like hell, Joe thought, studying Adam closely. He was unshaven and his black clothes were dusty from the trail. There were dark circles under his eyes which told Joe that his brother had not been sleeping any better than he had.

“What are you doing here?” Adam asked.

“We need to talk,” Joe told him. “Adam, please get down so we can talk?” He hadn’t meant to beg, he thought bitterly, but whether it was the pleading note in Joe’s voice or not, Adam slowly dismounted and tethered his horse beside Cochise.

“What do you want to say?” Adam asked, looking out over the lake and walking a bit closer to the edge of the rampart.

Following him, Joe walked round in front of Adam so he could see his brother’s face clearly. “I don’t want to be afraid of you any more,” he said, softly. “And I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Adam replied, his voice remote.

“But you are!” Joe cried. “I saw it in your face that day. And I was afraid of you, but I didn’t want to be!”

“You, afraid?” Adam scoffed. “You’re not afraid of anything, are you, Joe?”

“Yes, I am,” Joe denied. “You know I am, Adam.”

“The fearless Joe Cartwright,” Adam went on, as though his brother had not spoken. “That’s how you’re known, you know. Everyone thinks you’re not afraid of anything. We all have that reputation, because our pride doesn’t allow us to back down from anything. It’s a hard thing to live up to, you know, because we’re all human.”

“I know that,” Joe replied, quietly. “But you’ve always seemed so sure of everything, Adam. You always seemed to know what to do and if you were afraid, you didn’t show it. I wanted to be like you!”

At that, Adam’s eyes focused on Joe’s face. “But that day showed me something, Joe. I still thought of you as a kid, but that day I realized that you were a man grown; strong, confident and a threat to someone smaller and weaker than you. I hit you in the barn because I was afraid, you know. I attacked to hide my fear. And I felt good when I saw you were afraid of me. Good, do you hear?”

Ashen faced, Joe said nothing. He just looked at Adam as all the pent-up feelings spewed out.

“And when I remembered, I felt so ashamed,” Adam went on, his voice dropped now to a whisper. “And when I finally plucked up the courage to come to see you, you flinched away from me, and I realized that I had hurt you so badly!” Adam suddenly sounded angry again.  “It felt like your fault!” he shouted and Joe took an involuntary step backwards.

The ground beneath his feet shifted and the next moment, Joe was sliding down the rampart. He reached out wildly to save himself, and managed to catch hold of a scrubby bush growing there tenaciously. He scrambled for a foothold, but the ground just crumbled away.

“Joe!” Adam was kneeling above him, his face chalk white. “Hang on, I’ll help you!”

Panting, Joe hung on with both hands to his lifeline, which was slowly moving under his weight. His right arm began to ache. Sweat was making his hands slick, and Joe could only hope that he would hang on until Adam somehow managed to rescue him. Below him, the slope turned into a sheer drop and Joe knew he would not survive that fall.

“Give me your hand, Joe!” Adam called, appearing again above his brother. Joe didn’t know what he had been doing, but he wasn’t sure he could do as Adam asked.

“I’m… afraid,” he panted.

“I know,” Adam soothed. “Its all right to be afraid, Joe. That’s what I was going to tell you. It wasn’t your fault I was afraid. It happens to everyone! I don’t blame you, Joe, honestly.” There was desperation in Adam’s voice now. He could see that the little bush was coming out by the roots. “Joe, please, take my hand! Please!” he begged.

Glancing up, Joe saw the fear on his brother’s face and realized that Adam was afraid that he would die. “I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I know that,” Adam replied, still stretching his hand down towards Joe. “Please, Joe, take my hand!”

Summoning all his courage, Joe let go of the bush with his left hand and reached to grab Adam’s hand. He gripped Joe tightly, sliding his other hand up his brother’s wrist. Joe did not flinch this time. He let go of the bush with his right hand and wrapped it around Adam’s forearm. Slowly, oh so slowly, he was hauled up the rampart to safety.

For a time, they just lay there, panting fiercely, trying to catch their breaths, neither able to speak. It was Adam, inevitably, who recovered first. “Are you all right, Joe?” he asked, for his brother was frighteningly pale.

“Hmm,” Joe nodded. His whole body hurt, but he knew none of the hurts were serious. Just scrapes and bruises and a few strained muscles. “Thanks, Adam.”

Roughly, Adam threw his arm around Joe and hugged him close. Joe reveled in his brother’s warmth and closeness, throwing his own arm around Adam’s shoulder in response.

“Let’s get home,” Adam suggested, as Joe began to shiver. The ground was damp, and Joe was done in. He helped the younger man to his feet, seeing that Joe really and truly was over his fear. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“A bit sore, but all right,” Joe assured him. “Don’t worry, after Pa has chewed my ears off, he’ll likely get Doc Martin out to check me over. I’m not supposed to be riding yet.” He gave Adam his insouciant grin.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Adam asked, untangling the rope he had tied around his waist and secured to the horn of his saddle. He helped Joe to mount, although Joe didn’t need the help.

Together, they rode home. They both knew that they would never forget the incident that had led to their misunderstanding, but it was now in the past, and that was where it would stay.

***End***

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