Summary: Pitching brother against brother is a cruel game, but turning father against son is even better. Long buried hatred resurfaces in an unexpected way with devastating consequences for the whole family.
Word Count: 39,834
Prodigal Sons Series:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
“Damn you, Little Joe! How could you do this to Pa?” Adam slammed the palm of his hand against the railing of the corral and watched as the horses within it spooked and ran to the far side. As the animals slowed and began to settle, the one nearest him just served to rile him further. Cochise had sliced his fetlock on a piece of stray fencing wire a few days earlier and Joe had been forced to choose another horse to ride while he healed. Adam wondered if that had added to Joe’s sour mood over the last few days, but he shook his head as he turned towards the house. Joe had been in a sour mood for far more than a few days. He’d been edgy and angry and quick to let fly with both words and fists. Adam had been the butt of most of his foul humour, but it was their father who had taken the hardest blow of all. As he trudged back towards the front door, Adam glanced upwards. The window stood dark and closed and he wondered if there would ever be light in that room again. His brother had pushed the envelope most of his life, but Adam found today’s developments to be beyond anything he could have anticipated. It was just cruel and he would never have considered Joe could be cruel. There were a whole lot of other words he could use to describe his brother, but that was not one of them.
Adam walked back inside and saw Hoss staring into the flames in the fireplace while scratching absently at the back of his neck. His father was nowhere to be seen and Adam guessed he had retired to his room. It was easier to be there than face his other two sons and their possible recriminations. If only his father knew that Adam wasn’t angry with him. He was furious at Joe.
Hoss ignored his entrance and Adam knew that his brother could not have missed the sound of his boots on the wooden floor. Adam frowned, but kept from speaking as he knew that Hoss was slowly coming apart at the seams.
“Damn you, Joe!” He muttered again under his breath as he crossed the floor to his father’s desk. The usually meticulous wooden desktop was marred by one thing. Adam stretched out a hand to pick up the offending piece of paper and slowly opened it out again. He smoothed it out on the desk and leaned over with both hands on either side of it, as if loath to touch it again. The scratchy scrawl was definitely his left-handed brother’s untidy handwriting and there was no disputing Joe had written it. What he couldn’t bring himself to understand was why.
Hoss moved over behind him and Adam felt his brother’s hand clamp down on his back.
“Don’t make no sense, does it?”
Adam straightened up and looked into his brother’s eyes. He read the pain and disappointment there as clear as day. Hoss didn’t have an ounce of guile in him and he often struggled to understand others who behaved in a way he never would. He could forgive Joe most anything as his youngest brother had a way of smiling just so and making anger melt away. At least he did with Hoss. As Adam stared at his brother’s face, eyes brimming with unshed tears, he wondered if Joe had come to the end of his lucky run.
“No, it doesn’t.” Adam felt his fist clenching in anger as he considered the ugly words he had read several times over before they had truly sunk in. “But Joe made his feelings pretty clear.”
“You think he’s serious? He ain’t ever comin’ back?”
“Joe can be pretty stubborn when he sets his mind to it.”
“Yeah, but he ain’t never done somethin’ as …” Hoss stared at his brother, hoping Adam could find the words that he just could not get to come out. For once in his life, Adam seemed to be lost for words as well.
Hours later, Adam sat staring into the flames with a glass of brandy twirling absently in his fingers. Hoss had given up and gone to bed, but he could not get his brain to switch off. His analytical mind kept replaying and rehashing every nuance of every angry clash he had witnessed or participated in over the last four weeks. He knew his father had been tearing his hair out trying to work out what was going on with his youngest son and why it seemed he had suddenly become incapable of following even the most basic order.
Adam took a gulp of the brandy and felt it burn its way down his throat. Joe had stated in his letter that he was done taking orders. Of course he hadn’t phrased it quite so simply and Adam had recoiled as he had watched his father’s face go red with anger. Joe hadn’t even reached his twenty-first birthday and he still chafed at taking direction from his older brothers at times, but he was generally compliant when it came to his father. At least so far as ranch chores went. Some of his other activities skimmed a little close to the edge, but Adam knew that his father sometimes turned a blind eye as he tried to allow his youngest the room to grow up and make his own choices. That also meant living with the consequences of his choices, which was the part Joe seemed to balk at.
Adam sighed as he once again read through the contents of the letter. It made no sense and yet there was no arguing that Joe had written it. He finally stood up and dropped the letter back on his father’s desk. As he climbed the stairs to his room, he wondered for the hundredth time what had possessed his youngest brother to break his father’s heart.
Ben paused outside his son’s bedroom door and almost raised a hand to knock, as was his habit. He knew that Joe was not on the other side of it, but for the briefest of moments each morning, as he pulled himself out of sleep, he could believe that his son was still in his rightful place. He reached for the handle and pushed the door open. Sunlight was just beginning to break through the curtains as he made his way across the room. The bed had not been slept in for two weeks and he found himself coming to rest on it anyway. As he reached for his son’s pillow and hugged it to his chest, Ben cursed himself as a sentimental old fool. The faint smell of Joe’s cologne lingered on the linen and he closed his eyes as he inhaled. For the first week after Joe left, he had held onto the hope that his impetuous son would come to his senses and return home. The terse message relayed through one of the ranch hands had come like a slap in the face. Adam had exploded when he’d seen the man’s bruised face and had gotten to the bottom of the matter. Joe had been butting heads with everybody for weeks, but attacking an employee was beyond even him. Adam had managed to calm him down enough to talk him out of pressing charges with Roy Coffee while Hoss had ridden off to find his youngest brother. There was no sign of him in the northern pasture where he’d supposedly been working alone all day and Hoss had ridden into town. Nobody there had seen his wayward brother and Hoss had arrived home hours later with his head hanging low. It seemed that Joe’s threat to leave had finally been followed through on.
That hope that he might calm down and come back had been dashed when the letter had arrived and his son had made his intentions clear. Ben pushed the pillow away and replaced it on the end of the bed. He stretched as he stood up and felt the kinks in his neck. Old age seemed to be soaking into his bones and he frowned as he walked across the room and headed for the stairs. He had once joked that Joseph would drive him to an early grave, but now his own words echoed back at him and they weren’t so funny anymore.
The water from the pump sloshed into the metal bowl as the newest hand poured himself some water to shave with. He knew he’d landed on his feet when he’d been hired on to the Ponderosa. It had been too many months trailing from one town to another looking for work when his horse had dragged itself into Virginia City. The old nag was holding her own, but he knew he needed to find a younger one if he was going to keep up as a ranch hand. Of course, the Ponderosa stock were well known in the area and he hoped to work up the nerve to ask the boss about buying one and paying it off from his wages. It made sense, in a kind of a way. His father’s horse had taken him a long way and she was a faithful old girl, but her age was catching up to her. Some of the other hands had made jokes about her and he’d always defended her. It surprised him when the boss’s son had caught them at it one day and he’d stuck up for her. Said he’d rather have a horse that was a little slower, but could be relied on, than one that rode like the wind, but would bolt at the first sign of trouble. Of course, he was mounted on a magnificent pinto at the time, so Glen wondered if he really meant what he said.
As he pulled out his shaving gear and began to lather up, Glen found another new hand watching him intently. Something about the man unnerved him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. His ma would have said he should listen to those warnings in his gut, but his pa would have slapped him on the head and told him to stop being daft. He sucked in a breath as he felt tears prick at his eyes and he shook himself before starting to shave. He missed them both so much and he would give his right arm to have them back. Family was everything and he couldn’t for the life of him figure how the youngest Cartwright brother had simply thrown his aside. He’d seen Nate’s face when he returned with a tale of how Joe Cartwright had turned on him and he’d been as shocked as any of them. Of course, he’d seen more than his fair share of Joe’s temper over the previous weeks, but still, something chewed at him. Nate would catch him looking his way and Glen felt his stomach twist. Something about him was just not right and he wondered why nobody else seemed to notice. He went back to his shaving and was surprised when he finished up to find that his audience had silently slipped from the room.
The sun was well above the horizon when Stacey pulled herself from the chair she’d slept in. It was the first night that she hadn’t been woken by her patient’s wild rambling and for a brief moment her breath caught in her throat. Had he slipped away in the night and she’d been too tired to notice? As she leaned over towards the bed, she watched with relief as his chest was still rising and falling. It wasn’t even and his breath hitched every so often, but he was still breathing. Trying to get up quietly was not so easy as she had tugged a blanket around herself and it snagged against the bottom of the rocker as she leaned forward. She awkwardly tumbled forward from the chair and managed to catch herself against the dresser. As she straightened up and steadied herself again, she was surprised to see she was being watched.
“Well, hello there.” She self-consciously pushed at the messy bun of hair that trailed down one side of her face and realised she must look a terrible mess. It had been days since she had bothered to actually check herself in a mirror and her dress was crumpled from having slept in it.
The eyes that tracked her move towards the bed were hazy with pain and she smiled to reassure him. As she settled on the side of the bed, she reached out a hand and brushed it against his forehead. The skin was cooler than it had been, but the fever was not done yet and she knew she’d have to keep an eye on it.
“I’m Stacey. You are in my home.” As she moved to wring out a cloth with soothing water, she smiled again. “You are safe here.”
The stranger watched her movements and turned slightly into the cooling caress of the cloth, but did not respond otherwise. She watched as his eyes slid closed again and she continued to wipe his face and neck. Even though she had done it several times each day for the past three days, she was still hesitant to peel back the bandage that wrapped around her patient’s right shoulder. She had never liked the sight of blood and it still made her shudder to think about her first glimpse of the stranger, covered in dried blood with his face swollen and misshapen. The bruising across his torso and legs had turned a spectacular range of colours as it darkened, but it seemed to have stopped spreading. Whoever had done that much damage had been vicious. She paused before tugging at the bandage, almost afraid that it would provoke a new round of muttered curses. As she lifted the bandage she was relieved to see the skin losing some of its angry red puckering and the crusted blood that pulled away did not provoke much more than a trickle of fresh blood. If she had been stronger, or had some help to lift the man’s dead weight off the bed, she would have wrapped a fresh bandage around the wound. Instead she smoothed it back into place and sat back to look at him again.
The man’s features looked almost peaceful in sleep, but she knew it was just an illusion. As the fever had raged, so had his torment. Each time she had struggled to hold him down as he seemed intent on climbing out of the bed and chasing after whatever it was that threatened him in his nightmares. Her whole body would tremble from exhaustion when he would finally succumb to the pull of sleep and her hands shook as she looked down at them. Something about the strange man who had stumbled onto her front porch scared her. She didn’t know if it was the thought of what had happened to him or the fear that something still stalked him.
Nate sat astride his horse and watched the movement of cattle across the valley below him. He leaned back in the saddle and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his back, but that was not the cause of the smile on his face. No, that came from the haggard look of the man in front of the group of hands. His black-clad shoulders were held stiff and staunch as if he could carry whatever weight was resting on them. But Nate knew better. He’d seen the man cross the yard the night before and race off on his horse as if something was chasing him. It wasn’t the first time he’d left the ranch and ridden his horse to who knew where. Nate had listened intently for any snippet of information that came his way that his plan was working. Of course, the best part was that nobody knew that Mac was his brother and not just another cowpoke who rode into town with him. That part was definitely the best part. Pitching brother against brother and son against father was proving to be more fun than he’d expected. Of course, getting the youngest Cartwright brat to write that letter before he died was the clincher. Nate had to rein in a laugh as he recalled the fury written across his face. He’d held the pen and dipped it in the ink while Mac held a loaded shotgun to his head. He’d issued multiple threats while he wrote what he was told, but Nate had just laughed at him. There wasn’t much a dead man could do to him really.