Summary: Adam and Joe both learn that the ties that bind as brothers can never be severed, not by a lying woman, a rockslide or certain death.
Rated PG WC 13,900
Ties That Bind
The sky had grown dark and gray and in the distance one could hear the deep rumbling of thunder. It looked and sounded as if a storm was brewing, both outside and in. Within the barn, a fight was taking place, brother against brother. One brother, furious at what he believed to have happened and the other brother bewildered as to why his oldest brother was taking his obvious anger out on him. Fists were flying; blood had spewed from the younger man’s mouth and nose where his older brother had repeatedly hit him. One last solid punch to his mid-section, sent Joe Cartwright catapulting across the barn and sprawling onto the hard earthen floor.
“GET UP!” The angry shout echoed in the hollow barn.
Joe could barely move his battered body as he withered in pain, his body coiled up into a tight knot.
“I SAID, GET UP!”
Joe shook his head, refusing to obey the heated command. “No…” he moaned, grasping his stomach.
He turned slightly and glanced over his left shoulder, up at his older brother, moisture forming in his hazel eyes. He was stunned when he felt his body jerked from the ground and into the air as Adam forced him into a standing position. Dazed, Joe never saw the balled up fist that connected with his jaw and sent him tumbling backwards, across the sawhorse, landing with a thud against the back wall of the nearest stall. The jolt had knocked the young man unconscious.
Adam stood, swaying slightly from the exertion of the fight until he finally steadied himself and then, dusting off his hands, retreated from the barn leaving his youngest brother laying in the dirt.
Adam walked into the night air, brushing the dust from his trousers and then wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. He stopped and stared at his father and middle brother as they came rushing from the house, worry etched onto his father’s rugged face.
When the pair came near, Adam turned without a word to either and climbed into the buggy where Jessica waited, her gown torn and soiled, her eyes brimming with tears.
“You’ll find him in the barn. I’m leaving, and I won’t be back!” snarled Adam as he grabbed the reins and slapped them against the horse’s rump.
Ben, his eyes wide, shouted out. “ADAM, WAIT!”
He stood in shocked bewilderment at the retreating back of his oldest son so unable to comprehend how an evening that had started out so perfect had ended in such chaos. The small group of guests, having heard the ruckus and the shouting, gathered behind him in the yard standing in silent awe as they watched the scene before them being played out.
Hoss’ shout awakened Ben from his stupor and he turned in Hoss’ direction. His son was running toward the barn and Ben followed with his eyes. Joe stumbled from the dark interior, grasping the door as his legs gave way and falling downward, to his knees still clinging to the doorframe in an attempt to break his fall. Slowly he lost his grip and slumped to the ground, moaning softly.
“Hey, Punkin,” Hoss said as he slipped his massive arms around the sagging boy and hoisted him up, into his arms.
Joe cried out in pain. “Ad…am…”
“Take it easy, now,” Hoss muttered.
“JOE!” his father cried, seeing the damage to the boy’s face.
Ben glanced up at Hoss and noted the scowl that had formed on the big man’s face.
“Ya jist wait ‘til I get my hands on Adam,” snarled Hoss through gritted teeth.
“Hush…not now, son,” commanded Ben, helping Hoss to the house with his precious cargo.
Ben turned to his guest, unsure what to say, when Roy Coffee spoke up. “Looks like the party’s over folks, ya best git ya things and sayin’ ya good-byes.”
As Ben quickly opened the door and allowed Hoss to carry Joe inside, he nodded his thanks to his friend.
“Take him to his room,” Ben instructed. “HOP SING! I NEED WARM WATER AND TOWELS, AND BRING THE MEDICAL SUPPLIES,” shouted Ben, following behind Hoss as he climbed the steps.
Hoss carefully placed his brother down on the bed, and immediately stepped back, allowing Ben to inch his way closer to the wounded boy. Ben knelt down shocked at the bruises that had already transformed the handsome face into a mass of black and blue.
“Ad…am…” sobbed Joe. With his left hand Joe reached out, clutching his father’s larger hand when Ben took hold of his smaller one.
“Shh…son, please…everything’s going to be all right,” Ben said, swallowing the thickness in his throat.
“Pa…I don’t…understand…why…why…why, Pa?” Joe muttered softly as a lone tear rolled from the corner of his eye.
“I don’t know, son…I don’t know,” Ben answered, looking up at Hoss who was leaning over the top of his shoulders in order to see and hear what it was that Joe was trying to tell them.
Joe’s emerald eyes sought his father’s face. His chin quivered and Ben could feel the trembling in the boy’s hands as they each tried to make heads and tails out of Adam’s reasons for taking his anger out on his younger brother.
Ben’s breath was coming in large gulps. The thoughts of what had just happened, Adam’s motives, Joe’s battering, had left him with a terrible dreadful feeling in his gut. Somehow, the young woman Jessica was involved, of that Ben was sure, but as to how and why, the worried father had no idea.
“Here is water and medicine,” nodded Hop Sing as he placed the pitcher and basin on the table next to the bed. The faithful servant stopped and gazed down at the injured boy. He shook his head in distaste and then turned to his boss.
“Number one son…Mis’ta Adam, wrong for hurting brother!”
Hop Sing turned and stomped from the room before giving Ben time to question him about whether or not he knew what had transpired.
Ben began to tend to Joe’s wounds. He wiped away the dried blood from the boy’s nose and around his mouth where the upper lip had split and begun to swell. Carefully he dabbed at the long narrow scratch that ran sideways down Joe’s right cheek.
Joe tried not to cry out, but the uncomfortable feeling that stung his face prevented him from doing so.
“I’m sorry son, I know it hurts,” Ben said as he tended to the cut over Joe’s left eye.
Joe said nothing, but closed his eyes. He was fighting back the despair that kept trying to force more tears into his eyes. We was confused, and hurt by what his brother had done to him, and deep within his heart, he harbored a smidgen of hate for his older brother who had used him so callously and with no concern for the injuries he inflicted.
“Joe, let’s get you out of these clothes, son. Hoss come over here and help me get his boots and pants off,” Ben ordered as he freed Joe from his soiled shirt. He stood to his feet, glancing down at Joe who had opened his eyes and was studying his father’s face.
Ben could see the sad expression in the eyes and the tears that threatened to spill forth. Slowly, he sat back down on the edge of the bed and tenderly brushed back a strand of wayward curls.
“Son…can you tell me what this was all about?” he asked. Ben saw Joe swallow and noticed one lone tear that ran down the side of the battered face.
Joe opened his mouth to speak, but a sob drowned out his words, and Joe closed his eyes, turning his head to the side in an attempt to hide his distress from his family.
“Oh, Joe…” Ben said, as he carefully turned Joe’s head around so that he could see the boy’s face. “Please, don’t.”
“Why Pa…why did he do…this to…me?” sobbed Joe. Joe looked straight into his father’s eyes with a sadness that Ben had never seen there before. “I didn’t do anything…honest, Pa…honest,” cried Joe. “I don’t understand…why…and why did he…leave?”
“I don’t know…”
“But what did I…do?” Joe tossed his head, giving in to his despair and allowed himself a moment to vent his anger and hurt feelings at his brother for what Adam had done to him. “I don’t understand,” he mumbled at last as he fell silent.
Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Joe had turned his head away and was staring out the window. Ben glanced at Hoss and saw that even his largest son was having trouble understanding what had possessed Adam to fight with Joe.
“I’m goin’ to town, Pa,” Hoss said softly, not wanting Joe to hear him. “I’ll see if the doc is back from that call and if so, I’ll have’em come out to have a look at Joe, and then…”
“I don’t need a doctor,” Joe said as he turned toward Hoss. “I’m fine…just sore,” he muttered.
Ben pinched his lips together and then cast wary eyes from Hoss to Joe. “Regardless, son, I think Paul should have a look at those ribs, you may have cracked a couple, and your shoulder needs looking after as well and that cut over your eye might need stitching…”
He looked again at Hoss and nodded his head toward the door, a signal that Hoss understood and he slipped silently out of the room.
“I said, I don’t want a doctor, I’ll be fine,” growled Joe, all the while trying to mask the pain that showed on his face.
Joe glared at his father’s back. When Ben spun around, taken back by Joe’s tone, Joe lowered his eyes, unable to meet his father’s dark ones. Joe turned again toward the window, refusing to look in his father’s direction.
“Joseph,” Ben said softly as he placed himself in the chair next to the bed.
Joe still refused to look his way.
“Joseph, please look at me when I speak to you.” Ben waited and a moment later, Joe did as asked. His eyes had threatened to fill with tears once more and Ben noted the way in which the boy’s chin had begun to quiver.
“I’m…sorry Pa,” Joe said in a wee voice. He quickly wiped the moisture dry with his hands and turned his head.
Ben moved to the edge of the bed, willing himself not to let Joe see the deep embedded anger and confusion he was feeling.
“Tell me what happened when Adam came out to the barn, and you were alone with him inside.”
Joe moved slightly, winced, and then turned to look at his father. “I can’t seem to think straight, but I was …doing something, I can’t remember what it was, when all of a sudden, Adam was standing behind me. I turned around, said hi to him and the next thing I knew I was knocked across the barn. Before I could say anything at all, he pulled me up from the ground and hit me again. I stumbled around and when I turned back to face him, he clobbered me again. By that time, I was mad and I tried to ask him why he was hitting me. But I never got the chance, he pounded me half a dozen more times and then the last time he hit me…I must have blacked out, because when I opened my eyes, he was gone. I managed to get to the door just in time to hear him yell at you that he was leaving and never…never…” Joe had to stop in order to control the deep rooted uncertainty that was surfacing. “He said he…was never coming…back.”
Ben could take no more; his son’s confusion was breaking his heart. Gently he pulled Joe up into a sitting position and pulled the boy into his arms and held him against his breast for several long minutes. The fingers of one hand entwined themselves amid the locks of chestnut curls while the other hand cupped the boy’s head gently against his chest.
Hoss had stopped by Doc Martin’s office and asked that he ride out to the ranch and have a look at Joe. The doctor had been called away on an emergency earlier and had not been able to attend the party that Ben gave earlier that evening and so the good physician had been unaware of the fight that had taken place between the two brothers.
Now Hoss pulled Chubb to a halt in front of the boarding house. He sat for several long moments before dismounting, trying to search his mind for the words that he would say to his older brother. Hoss was still angry, still confused and hurt by what Adam had done to Joe, and Hoss was hard put to keep that anger at bay. Sighing deeply and setting his jaw firm, Hoss climbed down from Chubb’s back and stepped up onto the porch. At that moment, the front door opened and Hoss found himself standing face to face with his older brother. Neither said a word as they stood staring at one another.
Adam’s eyes were dark, Hoss’ jaw twitched and being unable to control himself any longer, Hoss grabbed the front of Adam’s shirt and pulled his brother from the doorway, swung him around and delivered a hard punch to Adam’s jaw.
Adam’s head snapped back, he staggered backwards until he stumbled over his own feet and fell to the ground. Quickly he jumped up and spun around, facing his middle brother.
“Hoss…” began Adam, but stopped short of finishing his sentence when Hoss’ large, massive fist hit him again.
Once more Adam’s body was whipped around coming full circle only to have his jaw struck once more. This time when Adam hit the dirt, he remained where he was. He turned and looked up at his brother, a dark glare glowing in his eyes. Adam rubbed gently at the place on his face that was quickly bruising.
“That’s for what ya did to our little brother,” growled Hoss.
He surprised Adam by stretching out his arm and offering his hand to his brother. For a long minute, Adam stared at Hoss’ hand, not sure what his brother was meaning.
“Let me help ya up,” offered Hoss, his voice softening some.
Adam accepted the outstretched hand and allowed his brother to pull him to his feet. Hoss refused to relinquish the hand he held even though Adam tried to pull free.
“Now tell me what in tarnation possessed ya to lay into Joe like ya dun!” demanded Hoss.
“Hoss…it’s none of your business,” stated Adam with finality.
Hoss’ eyes darkened and he glared at his brother. “Oh yes it is. When ya start beatin’ the boy fur no good reason…nearly killin’ the kid…that makes it my business!”
“I had good reason…but…”
“Tell me, I wanna know!” Hoss tightened his grip on Adam’s hand, making Adam wince softly from the pain.
“All right, I’ll tell you, but you aren’t going to like it,” grumbled Adam who managed to slip his hand free when he felt Hoss lessen his grip.
“Come on, let’s go over to the saloon and have a beer…I’ll fill you in on what’s going on,” Adam explained, rubbing his hand which Hoss had squeezed.
“Adam,” Hoss said in a thick voice, “ya better have a darn good reason for doin’ what ya did…ya plum near kilt Little Joe.”
“He has a couple of cracked ribs, and his shoulder is pretty badly bruised Ben, but other than that, he should be up and about in a few days. Just keep him still and in the bed until the end of the week and after that, there isn’t any reason why he can’t get up and join you downstairs. No heavy lifting and certainly no working…I’ll be back out sometime next week to check on him,” Paul explained.
Paul patted Ben’s shoulder as a gesture of comfort. “I hated to see this happen Ben, Adam and Joe fighting against one another…it’s sad. I asked him why his brother did what he did, but he wouldn’t answer me, just laid there staring out the window.”
“I don’t think Joe knows the reason why…and I’m worried more about his mental condition than the injuries. He’s been hurt emotionally by what happened, more so than from the beating he took,” Ben said sadly. “I wish I knew what started it,” Ben mumbled more to himself than to the doctor.
“You haven’t asked Adam?”
“No, he left here in such a rush earlier, he didn’t give anyone time to ask anything. I think Hoss was going to go find him after he stopped by to see if you were back.” Ben turned and stared at the fire blazing in the fireplace. He glanced up, looking back at the doctor. “I certainly hope the two of them don’t get into a brawl in town. Hoss was pretty angry at Adam when he left here.”
“I saw him going over to the boarding house as I was leaving. Isn’t that where Miss Bryson is staying?” Paul asked.
“Yes.” Ben paused and took a deep breath. “Adam and she was going to make an announcement this evening…that was why we were having a party.”
“Oh, I see…and before Adam could say anything, something happened?”
“Yes…but I don’t know what. I questioned Joe, but all he told me was that he didn’t do anything and that he didn’t understand why Adam turned on him as he had,” explained Ben.
He moved to pour himself and the doctor a brandy. “Brandy?”
“Yes, thank you,” Paul said, taking the tiny goblet from Ben’s hands.
“Miss Bryson had something to do with what happened, I’m almost positive,” Ben said after swallowing a sip of brandy.
“I knew she had gone outside just before Adam got ready to make the announcement. I saw Adam looking for her, so naturally I told him she’d gone out, probably for a breath of fresh air. I had no idea that Joe was even home yet, or in the barn for that matter. I had sent the boy to Carson City this morning and he was running late in getting back in time for the party,” Ben explained and then continued to tell his story to the doctor.
“I waited a few minutes to give Adam time to find Jessica and then someone was rushing inside saying that there was a fight going on in the barn. When I rushed outside, Miss Bryson was sitting alone in the buggy and Adam was coming from the barn. He was mad and dirty but before I could ask him what was going on, he jumped into the buggy with the young lady and yelled that he was leaving and never coming back. Naturally, I was stunned. I had no idea, until I saw the boy, that it had been Adam and Joe fighting.”
Ben’s voice sounded full of sadness as he explained to his friend what had transpired. He downed his brandy in one swig and then poured himself another. As he turned it up, he noticed the doctor watching him.
“Those two will be the death of me yet, Paul. Hoss…now he’s never caused me a night’s sleep, but Adam and Joe…they’re another story altogether!” Ben turned the goblet up and took a sip of his drink.
“Ya cain’t be serious, Adam…there ain’t no way Little Joe dun what ya just said!” Hoss exclaimed. “The boy ain’t like that, atall!”
Adam set his mug of beer down on the table with a thud. “I didn’t think you’d believe me,” he snapped, starting to rise.
Hoss reached across the table, grabbing Adam’s arm and preventing him from rising.
“Sit down,” ordered Hoss. “I didn’t say I didn’t believe ya…I jist said I didn’t believe Joe would do what ya jist said. He’s jist a kid Adam, he wouldn’t treat a lady like…like what Miss Jessica said he dun did. Why Joe’s…plum backward when it comes to knowing about such things…why, he…he wouldn’t even know what to do…I don’t reckon.”
Adam had lowered himself back into his chair. “Are you trying to say that Jessica lied about what happened to her?” His eyes had grown dark and Hoss could see his brother’s jaw line tightening.
“No…I’m jist sayin’ I don’t believe Joe dun it.”
“Then why’d she accuse Joe? And, if what you think is true, then who attacked her, and why?” questioned Adam.
He hadn’t really had time to think about what he had been told. He was in love with the beautiful Jessica Bryson and tonight had been the night that they were to announce to their family and friends that they were to be married. Adam had ventured out into the yard, only to find his future wife lying in a heap on the ground. Jessica was sobbing, her dress was soiled and torn, her hair had fallen free from the pins that held it in place and her face had been dirtied and tearstained. When he had dropped to his knees and reached out for her, Jessica had recoiled, screaming that his brother had tried to take advantage of her and had ripped her clothing. Instantly anger had filled his soul and dulled his sense of reasoning and once he had Jessica safely seated in her buggy he had stormed into the barn to confront his youngest brother.
Joe had been wiping at, what Adam deemed to be a scratch on his face and when Joe turned around and smiled at his brother as if nothing had happened, Adam had lost what reserve he contained and took a swing at the boy. The fact that Joe never once offered to hit him back had not entered Adam’s head, until now as he sat sipping a beer and discussing the incident with Hoss.
Hoss saw Adam swallow hard and noticed how the hard lines began to soften. As Adam turned his way, Hoss noted the doubtful look that entered the troubled eyes. It was several long moments before either of them spoke. Slowly, Adam rose to his feet, pausing as he downed the last few droplets of his beer.
“I suppose I’d better go have a word with Jessica…I’ve just realized Hoss, thanks to you, that I might have made a very serious mistake.”
Without another word, Adam turned and walked from the saloon.
It was well passed mid-night by the time that Hoss returned home. He wasn’t surprised to find his father standing at the foot of the stairs, still dressed, waiting for him. Ben waited until Hoss had removed his gun and holster and hung his hat on the peg behind the door before he spoke.
Hoss walked slowly toward his father, seeing the expectant look in the tired, worried eyes.
“Adam’s stayin’ at the hotel, Pa. I reckon he’s got some figurin’ to do,” answered Hoss.
Hoss stood eye level to his father, his fingers crammed into the front pockets of his trousers and he held the same worried expression in his blue eyes as his father had in his brown ones.
“Resting…though not too well. He’s plenty sore, and he keeps crying out for his brother, though why I’m not sure,” Ben said with a slight grumble. “Come over here and sit down Hoss, I want to know what Adam said about all of this.”
Ben pointed to the blue chair at the foot of the steps and waited until Hoss had sat down before he took a seat on the wide boarded table, facing his son.
“What’s Adam to say for himself?” Ben questioned.
Hoss gulped and eyed his father carefully. “Well, Pa…it’s like this…”
“That’s ludicrous!” stormed Ben, jumping to his feet. “There is absolutely no way that I believe that!” he thundered.
“That’s jist what I told Adam, Pa.”
Ben spun around, his hands on his hips. “And just what did your brother have to say about that…accused you of not believing him, right?”
“Umm…yessir,” stammered Hoss. “I jist told’em I didn’t think Joe was capable of doin’ that to no lady. Adam said Miss Bryson told’em it twas Joe what attacked her and ripped her clothes and tried to…to…well, ya know. And I asked Adam how’s come Joe didn’t fight’em back when he started to punch the boy. That’s when ole Adam dun remembered that Joe never took a swing at’em.”
“Joe didn’t fight back because he didn’t know what the fight was about. At least, that’s what Joe told me,” Ben explained.
He settled himself back down on the table, facing Hoss.
“What do you think happened, Hoss?”
“I cain’t right say for sure, Pa…but to my thinkin’, I think that woman lied about Joe. I don’t think my little brother did what she said. I ain’t got no notion who’d a dun it, but it sure tweren’t Little Joe,” Hoss said.
“Why would she lie about something like that?” Ben pondered aloud.
“Don’t rightly know. I do know that Adam believed her, for whatever reason. He did say that when he went into the barn, Joe was wiping blood from his face and there was scratch on the boy’s cheek…could have been from where Miss Jessica scratched him…if’n he was the one who attacked her.”
Hoss ran his fingers through his hair. “Adam said he was goin’ to talk to the lady, and find out the truth. He’s thinkin’ he’s dun made a big mistake, Pa.”
Ben’s head jerked up and Hoss could see the anger returning to his father’s eyes. “Oh, he’s made a mistake all right, you just wait until I get my hands on that young man, why I’ll….”
The muted cry caused both father and son to turn their attention to the top of the stairs. Joe, dressed only in his nightshirt, clung tightly to the stair railing.
“Adam?” he muttered.
“Joseph,” Ben called as he quickly ran up the stairs.
The concerned father gently gathered the teetering young man in his arms and turned him around, guiding him carefully back up the stairs to his room.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed, son,” Ben gently scolded.
“Why…Pa…Adam, I want…Adam. I need…to…explain…” Joe whined.
“Not now, young man, you’re going back to bed. Hoss, give me a hand,” Ben called over his shoulder.
They managed to get Joe back into his bed and covered up. Ben sat down on the edge of the bed and smiled softly at his son.
“Please son, try to rest. We’ll talk all about this in the morning,” Ben said.
“Put Pa,” Joe cried weakly, “I have to ask him…why…I don’t understand.” Tears threatened to fill the hazel eyes, but Joe refused to allow himself to cry.
“I don’t understand either, son. But I promise you…we’ll work it out. Now close your eyes and try to get some rest.” Ben stood to his feet and arranged the blankets until he was satisfied that his son was comfortable. “I’ll stay right here until you fall to sleep.” With that, Ben leaned down and placed a kiss to Joe’s brow.
“I want to know why you lied!” shouted Adam as he grabbed Jessica’s arm and spun her around so that she faced him.
“I didn’t lie, Adam, honest!” she stammered.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then don’t, that’s your privilege, but it’s the truth. Your brother grabbed me and pulled me into the barn. When he tried to kiss me, I fought with him. You saw the scratch on his face. And then, when he wouldn’t let me go and I tried to scream for help, he hit me with his fists. When I fell down, he pounced on me, ripping my dress!”
Jessica pulled free of Adam’s grasp, turned her back to him and covered her face with both hands and began to cry. “He tried to…to…rape me!”
“Rape? Dear God, Jessie…do you realize what you’re saying? My kid brother could go to prison for the rest of his life for doing what you’re insinuating!” groaned Adam.
Adam placed both hands on the young woman’s shoulders and turned her around. He removed her hands from her face and tilted her chin upward.
“Jessie…are you absolutely sure, that’s the way it happened?” Adam said, trying to swallow the fear that was quickly rising from deep within the back of his throat.
Jessie’s blue eyes opened wide and she instantly pulled back from him.
“You don’t believe me!” she shouted at him.
Adam was at a loss for words, he wanted to believe her, but not of Joe. Though he had jumped to conclusions first without confronting his brother, he did have second thoughts as to whether or not Joe had attacked Jessie, but he’d never, in a thousand years, believe that Joe would be capable of raping a woman.
“I didn’t say I didn’t believe you, Jessie, I’m only questioning you as to whether or not you’re sure of what Joe was trying to do to…”
“Of course I’m sure, you fool!” she screamed in anger.
Adam drew back as if he’d been struck.
Jessie spun around on her heels and moved further away from the angry man, frightened at how the sudden and unexpected questioning had taken her by surprise. She had never thought for one minute that the handsome Adam Cartwright would doubt her.
It was early the next morning when Adam slipped into the house. He was sure that the family was sleeping, so when Ben rounded the corner of the dining room to see who had come in, Adam was caught completely off guard.
Adam swallowed hard, for he had not wanted a confrontation with his father. He had even given serious thought as to whether or not he should return home long enough to collect his belongings.
“Pa?” Adam said, trying to avoid meeting the deep penetrating eyes.
Ben could easily read the uncertainty on his son’s face that Adam tried so hard to mask, and his heart softened somewhat. Several hours had passed since the fight between his two sons, and with the passing of those hours, his anger had lessened as well.
“I’m glad you’re home son…I think we need to have a talk,” Ben said. “Have you had breakfast?” Ben motioned with a nod of his head for Adam to follow him to the table.
“No sir. Pa…you should know that I’m not here to stay, I’m leaving just as soon as I can gather a few things.”
Ben was lowering himself into his chair and paused. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he sat down. “I see,” he said solemnly. “And why is that?”
Adam had poured himself a cup of coffee and had started to take a sip. His hand stopped, just short of his mouth.
“Why do you think? Surely you don’t believe that I can actually stay here…not after what I have done?” Adam declared.
“Adam, this is your home…and whatever has happened between you and your brother, can be fixed, I assure you…”
“No Pa, you’re wrong, it can’t be fixed, not this time. I’m sorry,” Adam said sadly, standing to his feet, “but I have to cut all ties with Joe…I have to go…I have…”
Ben rose as well and moved around the table. He stopped and clutched his son’s shoulder, surprised to feel the slight tremors that ran beneath his hand.
“Why Adam…why must you feel that you have to severe ties with your brother…don’t you realize that your leaving won’t change the fact that he’s your brother, that blood binds the two of you together? What good would it do, for either of you, if you run away from this?”
“I’m not running away, Pa. I’m sorry for what I’ve done to Joe…I was wrong, but it’s too late to change that now, I can’t take back what I’ve done and…”
“Adam,” Ben said in a strained voice, “it’s never too late.”
Adam clinched his jaw, closing his eyes tightly and groaned softly. “You don’t understand, Pa…I have to go…for Joe’s sake.”
Ben let a long deep sigh escape from his mouth. “You’re right, I don’t understand, would you please explain it to me?”
“Alright Pa, I’ll explain it to you, and then I’m asking you to let me go, please?” pleaded Adam. He dreaded telling his father what Jessie had told him, and what she believed that Joe had intended to do to her.
“Jessie said that Joe tried to rape her.”
There, he’d said it, plain and simple. Now he watched the color drain from his father’s face and suddenly wished that he had phrased the statement in a milder way.
Ben sank into the chair nearest him. His eyes grew dark and when he turned to Adam, Adam could see the moisture beginning to build in the depths.
“I don’t believe that,” he stammered. “Joe would never attempt to do such a thing. Surely, Adam you don’t…”
“No, of course not. I don’t believe it for a minute. I honestly think Jessie is lying, but I can’t prove it, and neither could Joe. She said that she scratched his face, well, when I went into the barn, sure enough, Joe had a scratch on his face. Her clothes were ripped; she was practically hysterical…what was I to think when she told me Joe attacked her? I know I should have questioned the boy…but I didn’t, and for that I’m truly sorry, Pa.”
“Then if you think she’s lying, why are you leaving?” Ben was confused by his son’s decision.
“I told you…it’s Jessie’s word against Joe’s…who do you think a court of law would believe? Pa, you know Joe’s reputation with the girls…”
“No, Pa…he wouldn’t stand a chance in court if Jessie were to decide to press charges,” Adam stated.
Ben sighed again. “Is she…going to press charges, I mean?”
It was Adam’s turn to sigh and he did. “That’s why I’m leaving, Pa. Jessie and I are going to San Francisco on the noon stage. Once we get there, we’re going to be married, that’s the only way she will refrain from sending Joe to prison for the rest of his life.”
The wind went right out of Ben. His face slowly turned red with anger and he stood to his feet. “That’s blackmail!” he roared.
“Pa, please,” begged Adam, standing as well. “I have to do this, I owe Joe as much.”
“You owe Joe no such thing, short of an apology. You don’t have to marry a woman who you know is a liar, just because you and your brother had a fight, for God’s sake!” stormed Ben.
“You may not think so, Pa, but I do…and I’m going to do this, you can’t stop me.”
Adam stormed up the stairs, nearly colliding with Hoss who had awakened to the sound of shouting and had ventured from his room to see what the ruckus was.
“Howdy, Adam,” Hoss said as his brother brushed passed him.
Adam ignored the greeting and continued to his room. Hoss watched Adam’s retreating back and then turned to his father, who had started pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace.
“Pa…what’s goin’ on? Why’s Adam here and what was all the shoutin’ ‘bout?” Hoss asked in a troubled voice.
“He’s leaving, just like he said he was…and to make matters worse, he’s marrying that…that…woman!” grumbled Ben as he dropped into the red leather chair.
“He’s what? That don’t make no sense. Why Adam dun told me he thought that woman lied to’em about what happened…why’d he want to marry up with her and go away?”
Hoss lowered his massive frame into the blue chair.
“Because Miss Bryson now claims that Joe tried to rape her, and if Adam don’t go away with her and marry her, she’ll press charges against Joe and he’ll end up going to prison for the rest of his natural life…THAT’S WHY!” ranted Ben.
There was a long silence that followed. It was broken by the sound of a door closing upstairs. Both Ben and Hoss stood to their feet when Adam appeared on the steps. Adam paused briefly and then continued downward. In his hand he carried his satchel, packed with his few belongings.
Slowly he walked to the door, and set down his things. As he pulled on his coat, he turned to face his father and brother as a look of sorrow clouded his hazel eyes.
“Would you tell Joe for me that…that…I’m sorry? I was wrong, I know that now…tell him that for me, please Pa?” Adam said softly as he turned to Hoss. “See you Hoss, take care of yourself.”
“Bye Adam,” Hoss said in a quiet voice.
“Pa, please don’t try to talk me out of doing this…don’t make it any harder for me than what it already is. I’ve made a fool out of myself and I’ve hurt Joe this time to the point that things could never be the same between us. He’d never forgive me, not after what I’ve done to him.”
“Adam, you’re wrong…”
“I was wrong…but not in this…don’t you understand? If I don’t leave and marry Jessie, Joe will go to prison Pa…PRISON! He’s only eighteen for God’s sake don’t you have any idea what they would do to a boy like Joe in prison? Well, I’ll not have THAT on my conscious as well! Now, I’m leaving…don’t try to stop me!” shouted Adam.
Adam grabbed up his bag and practically ran from the house, slamming the door behind him and leaving his father and brother staring at the closed door.
Joe, who had slept throughout the day, woke much later that evening. His body ached from the beating he had taken, but more than the pain he felt, the reasons behind the beating troubled him more.
“Pa…where’s Adam?” he asked as Ben sat down a tray of broth that he had carried into the room.
Ben turned to the boy; it was now that he would confront his son about what had happened between him and his brother.
“Joe,” Ben began in a soft voice, “Adam’s gone, son.” Ben arranged the pillows behind Joe so that the boy could be in a more upright position to eat his broth.
“Gone? Gone where…and why, Pa?” Joe questioned in a worried voice. “It was because of me, wasn’t it…it was something I’ve done. But I don’t know what that something was…PA…ANSWER ME!”
“Joseph, calm down, please,” ordered Ben, sitting down next to Joe on the bed. “Yes…Adam is gone, to San Francisco and he’s…”
“He’s not coming back…ever…is he?” stammered Joe, fighting to keep his voice from quivering.
“I’m afraid not, son…unless…”
“Unless what?” demanded Joe. “I want to know what’s going on…I want answers to my questions, Pa. Don’t you think I’ve a right to know just why my oldest brother seen fit to beat the crap out of me and then take off and leave me without even telling me what it is I was suppose to have done?”
Ben took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Joe, why don’t you eat first and then we’ll discuss it?”
“No! I want to discuss it now, besides, I’m not hungry. Please Pa…tell me what’s happened?” begged Joe.
“Alright son, but first I want some honest answers from you, agreed?” Ben dared to ask.
“Sure Pa, I wouldn’t lie to you. What is it that you want to know?” Joe questioned. He had a look of uncertainty on his face that did not go unnoticed by his father.
“What can you tell me about what happened to Miss Bryson?”
“Miss Bryson? Oh, you mean Jessica…I didn’t know anything happened to her. What are you talking about?” Joe seemed truly puzzled by his father’s question.
“You don’t know?” Now it was Ben’s time to be puzzled.
“Nosir…did something happen to her? Is that why Adam went away? I thought they were going to announce their engagement the other night, at the party?”
“They were, but Miss Bryson, Jessica, was attacked…and assaulted before…”
“Attacked? When…where? Is she okay?” Joe said in disbelief.
“Joseph, she says it was…you…who…”
“ME!” shouted the stunned boy. “ME!” he repeated. “That’s crazy, I wasn’t even here…remember, Pa…I was late for the party…how could she claim it was me?”
“Then it wasn’t you?”
Joe’s face drained of color as he sat in stunned silence and stared at his father. He couldn’t believe his ears, apparently his father had believed that he had indeed assaulted the young woman. And if that was so…then Adam must have thought the same thing…and that had to be the reason why Adam had turned on him. The breath went slowly from his lungs as his eyes beaded with tears.
“You don’t honestly believe that I’d do something like that…do you, Pa?” stammered Joe, his chin quivering.
“No…of course not and I said as much to your brother. But I had to hear if from you, son,” Ben explained as he took Joe’s hand into his. “There’s no way that you are the type of young man that could rape a woman…”
“RAPE! Is that what she told you?” Joe’s eyes were wide, fear began seeping into his voice and when he blinked, a lone tear rolled down from a corner of one eye. “Pa…I ain’t…I mean…I’ve never…you know. I…I…” Joe looked pleadingly at his father for understanding.
“That’s what the young woman claims, is that you assaulted her in the yard and then dragged her into the barn and tried to rape her. She promised Adam that if he would take her away from here and marry her, she wouldn’t press charges against you,” Ben explained.
Joe made a face and shook his head from side to side. “Lies, all lies, Pa. I wasn’t even here…like I said I was late getting back and…”
“Joe, what about the scratch on your face, this one,” Ben gently ran his finger down the long ugly scratch that Jessie had claimed she had done to Joe while fighting against him.
“This?” Joe fingered the scratch. “Why?”
“Because she claims to have scratched your face while trying to get away from you,” Ben told his son.
“When I got home, I took Cooch straight to the barn. It was dark and as I was putting him in the stall, I heard something. It spooked him and he jerked his head around and his harness brushed against my face…that’s how I got the scratch. She didn’t do it…honest Pa, I didn’t even see her when I rode in…in fact, I didn’t see anyone, but I heard the party going on inside.”
“Alright, son. Now, what about that noise you heard, what was it?”
Joe looked thoughtful for a moment and then shook his head. “I don’t know what it was, Pa. It sounded like the back door, but after Cooch scratched my face, I forgot all about the noise and started cleaning the blood. That’s what I was doing when Adam came in and started taking punches at me.”
Ben stood from the bed and walked to the window. He brushed back the drapes and stared out into the night. He remained deep in thought for several minutes before turning around. When he looked at Joe, he smiled slightly and returned to the bed.
“Joe, I want you to know that I do believe you son. And just so you know, Adam doesn’t think you are capable of doing what that woman suggests you did…he asked me to tell you that…”
“Then why he’d jump me…and why is he gone?”
Ben sat back down. “He jumped you because he was angry…angry at you for what he thought you had done. He made a very big mistake, son. He acted first without thinking and then, by the time he realized what he had done, it was too late, or so he thinks. Jessica later told him that you tried to rape her…that’s why he went away with her to San Francisco. He plans to marry her once he gets there, so that she will not press charges of attempted rape against you…”
“But I didn’t do anything!” Joe declared loudly.
“I know that son, but it’s as Adam says, if the woman decides to press charges, you could end up going to prison for the rest of your life, or at least for a very, very long time,” Ben said regrettably.
“Why can’t I just explain to the sheriff what happened? Roy would believe me…wouldn’t he? Besides, like I said, Pa…I didn’t know she was anywhere around.”
“Joe, Roy would believe you, naturally, but a jury in a court of law might not. They tend to believe a woman before believing a man…and besides, what proof do you have, other than your word against hers?” Ben asked.
He watched Joe’s face as the boy lowered his head in defeat. The sight tugged at his heartstrings.
“So Adam’s marrying her to keep me out of prison, is that what you’re saying?” Joe asked. His voice had begun to quiver and when he looked up at his father, Ben could see his son’s chin quivering as well.
Ben’s jaw locked tightly and he nodded his head. “That about sums it up son.”
Joe grew very quite and leaned his head back against the pillows. He swallowed and brushed his hand across the front of his face in an effort to dry the moisture that had collected in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” he muttered softly.
“Sorry? For what son?”
“For a while I was mad at Adam…I think I even hated him a little for pounding me like he did…and now I find out that he’s willing to marry some woman who’s a lair, just to keep me from going to prison.” Joe hesitated and then started to toss back the covers. “I have to go find him, I have to tell him…”
“Oh no you don’t!” Ben snapped into action and forced Joe back down in the bed.
Quickly he grabbed the blankets and pulled them back across the boy’s lap. “You are not getting out of this bed, do you understand?” growled the determined father.
“No buts, young man, you will do as I say, and I say, stay in this bed! You are in no condition to go anywhere!” ordered Ben, shaking his finger in Joe’s face.
Joe slumped back against the pillows in defeat. “Yessir,” he muttered. In his mind he was already devising a plan to sneak out of the house and go in search of his brother.
The house had grown extremely quiet by the time that Joe determined that his father and Hoss were sleeping soundly. Slowly he crept from his bed and ignoring the pain in his ribs, he dressed as quickly as he could and sneaked from the house. As he entered the barn, Cochise, sensing his master’s presence snorted softly.
“Shh…don’t want to wake the household ole friend,” whispered Joe as he struggled with lifting the saddle onto his horse’s back.
Joe worked quickly and when he had finished, he silently led his mount from the barn and walked the horse a short distance, until he was out of sight of the house. Once he mounted up, he dug his heels into the horse’s ribs and took off at a full gallop in search of his brother.
Joe rode until the sun finally put in an appearance, rising slowly over the tops of the jagged Sierra Mountains. By the time that he pulled his mount to a stop for a long needed rest, his entire body ached from the continual jolting of the horse’s movements. Joe longed to dismount, but feared that once he had, he might not be able to pull his achy body back up onto the horse’s back.
“Sorry, Cooch, this is as good as you get,” muttered Joe, pulling a strip of jerky from his saddlebags and taking a bite from the tough leather-like strip of dried venison.
Joe knew he was on the right trail. Adam had used the old road that led to Virginia City, where he had planned on meeting the stage, rather than the other. This road was less traveled and for whatever reason Adam must have had, it was apparent to his younger brother that he had not wanted to encounter too many folks along the way.
“Come on, let’s get moving.” Joe nudged his horse into a trot, watching the road, least the buggy tracks ventured off course.
The free time that Joe had as he rode along in silence gave the boy plenty of time to concentrate on all that had happened in the last couple of days. He knew that Adam and Jessica had several hours head start, but he never doubted that he wouldn’t be able to catch up with them. And when he did, Joe determined to himself that he would have answers to his disturbing questions.
Who had assaulted the young woman, why had she pointed the finger of guilt at him and what were her motives? Those were the three main questions that haunted Joe’s thoughts. What was she to gain by accusing him…money reasoned Joe as he rode along. Or could it be that all she wanted was his brother, knowing that a marriage to a Cartwright would guarantee her future, both financially and through business dealings that included his older brother? An inheritance, such as Adam would leave, if something unexpected happen to him, would make his widow a very rich woman. Joe jerked back on the reins.
“That’s it Cooch…she’s after Adam’s money…and the Ponderosa!” he exclaimed aloud. “It has to be…I can’t think of any other reason!”
“The only thing I can’t explain is, why blame me for what happened to her? It doesn’t make any sense,” he muttered and then urged his horse on.
Two hours later and much hard riding that had begun to take its toll on Joe’s battered body, Joe pulled his horse to a complete stop. He rested his mount atop a small rise that overlooked the road below. He had cut his traveling time in half by taking a short cut through the steep incline but now, as he gazed at the buggy parked in the shade of an ancient oak tree, Joe smiled to himself.
After giving his tired horse time to catch his breath and keeping an eye out, least Adam and the lady decided to move on, Joe kicked gently at Cochise’s sides.
Joe wasn’t surprised that Adam and Jessie were nowhere to be seen. Even under the tree, it was still hot, for the sun was at its peak and the hot rays had yet begun to cool. Joe dismounted, groaned as a wave of pain surged through his chest, making him to grasp his arm tightly around his bounded ribs.
He paused, allowing himself time to catch his breath and then tied the reins around the wheel of the buggy.
“ADAM!” he shouted. “HEY, ADAM!” he called the second time.
Slowly, he began walking towards the base of a large rock formation that lay just ahead of him. He stopped to search the ground for tracks and was pleased when he saw two sets, a small dainty pair following behind a larger set of boot tracks, obviously his brother’s.
“ADAM!” Joe called, pleased with himself that he had at last caught up with his brother. Now, he’d be able to set the record straight and alert his brother to the young woman’s scheme, if in fact, that was what it was.
Joe stopped suddenly, surprised to see the opening of a cave amid the rocks. He was even more surprised to see that the tracks he had been following led right up to the mouth of the cave and then had been joined by a third set of tracks.
Confused by what he was reading in the dirt, Joe pulled his pistol from his holster and crept cautiously into the cave. It was dark, cold and damp within the interior and Joe couldn’t stop the shiver that passed through his body. He had walked for several minutes before stopping to listen.
Deep within he could make out the sounds of soft murmuring. Silently, Joe crept forward, stopping within yards of his brother and the young woman. Jessie had her back to Joe and was unaware that he stood so near. Adam had both hands raised high in the air, and it was then that Joe noticed the gun that Jessie held in her hands, pointed straight at his brother’s chest.
“I don’t want to kill you Adam,” Jessie was saying. “But Matthew says it’s the only way.”
“The only way for what? To collect my inheritance?” demanded Adam. “Just because we’re married now, doesn’t mean that everything I have will be yours!”
“But it does, that’s the law, Matthew told me so!” Jessie declared.
Adam laughed. It was a cold, taunting laugh. “That fool doesn’t have the sense of a goose. What he failed to tell you, Jessie, is that man who supposedly married us last night, was not a real licensed minister. He’s an old friend of the family’s…just a God fearing cowpoke that works for us.”
“WHAT!” screamed Jessie as she frantically waved the pistol around in front of Adam’s face. “Then why did he act like he was performing a marriage ceremony?”
“Because I asked him too. Remember when you excused yourself? Well, I took the liberty of asking him to go along with me, act like he was a minister and marry us. I wanted to find out what game you’re really playing…and it worked,” Adam explained in a smug tone of voice.
“You bastard!” stormed Jessie as she slapped Adam across the face.
Adam refrained from snickering at the woman’s frustration. “Just tell me one thing, who roughed you up? I know it wasn’t my kid brother.”
Adam saw the lady’s blue eyes grow round and fill with tears. Her hand was shaking and Adam had to keep one eye on the gun she held.
“Matthew…I told him I wouldn’t stand for his killing you. We got into an argument and he hit me a couple of times. Then that kid brother of yours came riding into the yard and Matthew pulled me into the barn and we hid in the shadows while Little Joe stabled his horse. We slipped out the back door and Matthew told me that I’d better think of something quick cause he knew you would ask about my face, and my torn dress,” Jessie explained.
“That explains just about everything, except one, and I admit, I’m very curious about this,” stated Adam, who had inched deeper into the cave to distance himself from the woman.
“What about the scratch on my brother’s face?”
“I’ll answer that one for you, big brother,” Joe said as he stepped from the shadows.
Startled, Jessie spun around, giving Adam the time to snatch the pistol from her hands. “Good work, little brother,” smiled Adam.
He grabbed the woman’s arm and forced her to sit down on a large rock. Once he was sure she would stay, he turned to Joe, taking the boy by the shoulder and pulling him into a quick hug.
“Thank God, you’re alright,” smiled Adam.
“Sore, but I guess I’ve had worse,” responded Joe with a small smile of his own.
“About that scratch…what happened?” questioned Adam.
“When I was in the barn unsaddling my horse, I heard something…guess I know what it was now, anyway, the noise spooked Cooch and when he jerked his head his harness brushed up against my face, scratching it. I was wiping away the blood when you came in and started to…”
The smile on Joe’s face died as he glanced at Adam’s face.
“DROP THAT GUN!”
The deep roaring shout came from the shadows, taking Adam and Joe unprepared as the man stepped into view. “I said, drop those guns, NOW!”
Adam let the pistol he’d been holding slip from his hand, watching Joe slowly do the same. When both guns were on the ground, Matthew turned to Jessica.
“Get their guns and toss them over there,” he ordered.
Jessica was quick to do as she had been told and gathered the two guns up and tossed them far over to the other wall out of reach. She returned to stand at Matthew’s side.
“Matthew, did you hear what he said? He said that we weren’t really married, that the minister was only a cowboy that…”
“I heard! But it doesn’t matter, once I take care of these two, we’ll go on to San Francisco. Later you can write old man Cartwright and tell him that his son met with an unfortunate accident and that you are coming back to claim what is rightfully yours,” smiled Matthew. “You’ll see, it will all work out just fine. Now, you two, get moving!”
Matthew waved his gun at both Adam and Joe, motioning for them to go deeper into the cave. Joe glanced up at his brother and waited until Adam made the first move and pointed with one finger.
“Come on, Joe,” he ordered softly, waiting for Joe to move ahead.
They walked a good distance before Matthew ordered them to stop. “This should be far enough. It’s not likely that anyone would ever find them, not in here,” he said with a sneer on his face.
“Turn around, both of you!” Matthew ordered.
“Mat, darling…you aren’t really going to…kill them, are you?” Jessie said in a voice that quivered with fear.
Matthew turned angry eyes on the young woman. “I’ve got too…I’ve already explained to you why…we can’t just leave them here. They will get away and then…”
Matthew had been so preoccupied with explaining things to Jessie that neither one had seen Adam turn and jump on Matthew’s back. When they hit the ground, Joe quickly grabbed Jessie by the arm and held on to her while Adam and Matthew fought it out. The fight lasted several minutes, with Matthew ending up on the losing end.
“Now get to your feet,” growled Adam as he pulled on the man’s arm and forced him to his feet. “Move,” he ordered, giving Matthew a shove to the middle of his back. “You too,” he demanded of Jessie.
Adam stepped aside to allow the woman to fall into step ahead of Matthew. He glanced back at his brother, concern written on his face.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Adam,” Joe said with a twisted smile.
They had only walked a short distance when all four stopped in their tracks. A loud rumbling outside of the cave warned that danger was very near.
“That sounds like a landslide! RUN!” shouted Adam, urging the two people in front of him to move faster.
The four ran as fast as they could, until Adam stumbled and fell. Joe stopped so suddenly that he nearly tripped over Adam, who was trying to get to his feet. Matthew paused just long enough to look over his shoulder and laugh and then continued running for the entrance.
“Hurry Adam, get up,” urged Joe, taking his brother’s arm and trying to hoist him to his feet.
“I can’t, my ankle, I’ve twisted it. Joe, go on, hurry!”
“NO!” Joe shouted, ignoring the pain in his ribs as he helped his brother to his feet.
They ran together for several more yards before the dirt and dust that spewed forth from the opening stopped them in their tracks. Large rocks rolled into the cave, the dust was so thick that they were forced to turn their heads to keep the smoke-like particles from getting into their eyes. An extra large rock rolled toward them, seen only by the youngest brother. His eyes wide, Joe stared in astonishment at the rolling obstacle until he at last found his voice.
“ADAM, LOOK OUT!” Joe shouted, shoving Adam from the path of the boulder that was just feet from overpowering the brothers.
Adam was caught off guard by his brother’s forceful move and stumbled backwards out of danger’s way. He caught himself on the stone wall of the cave before falling and used his arm to cover his face from the flying pebbles and dust that followed after the boulder.
Adam heard his brother’s scream but could not see through the thick dust fog that hung in the air between them.
“JOE!” bellowed Adam, fear filling every pore of his body.
Adam waited only seconds until the dust settled and then moved forward, searching frantically for his younger brother. “JOE!”
“Aww…Adam,” Joe cried out in agony.
Adam located the boy just feet away, Joe’s left arm reaching out, groping the air for a handhold.
“Joe!” muttered Adam, appalled by what he saw.
“Ad…am…hurts…oh God…my leg, it…hurts!” whimpered Joe.
“Take it easy, Joe, I know it hurts,” Adam tried to soothe the frightened boy whose leg was bent at an awkward position beneath the heavy boulder. Adam clutched his brother’s hand and tried to reassure the boy.
“I’ll get you out, Joe…just hang on.”
Adam glanced again at the position of Joe’s leg and scrunched up his face. He could see the bone protruding through the skin just above the knee. The leg was twisted backward from the hip and forcing the ball of the leg to snap from the natural cup where the ball joint naturally fit into the socket. There was no doubt as to the fact that Joe’s leg was broken and the hip disjointed.
“Aww…Adam…” moaned Joe through gritted teeth.
Adam could barely contain his rising panic and he wondered how on earth he could keep his promise to the boy and free him from the huge rock that claimed half his body.
“I’m here, Joe,” he whispered, brushing the dirt gently from his brother’s face.
“Joe, your leg’s broken buddy, and it looks like your upper leg has separated from the hip,” Adam explained.
“Hurts…like hell,” Joe met his brother’s eyes and he tried to smile. “It’s bad…ain’t it?”
Adam pinched his lips into a fine taunt line and nodded his head. “I’m afraid so, buddy.”
Joe stifled a sob, refusing to let fear take control of him. “What about the others? Did they get out?”
Adam glanced upward, where the opening had once been and then back down at his brother.
“I don’t know, Joe…it’s hard to tell.”
Joe strained his head around trying to see where he knew the opening had been. “They had a pretty good head start on us, maybe they did. Reckon they’ll send help back for us?”
Adam’s dark eyes watched the fear grow in the hazel, pain filled eyes that looked back at him. As bad as their plight was, there was no way that Adam was going to lie to his brother. He cleared his throat and tried to explain to Joe why he doubted that Matthew or Jessica would send them help, if they had been able to get clear of the rock-slide.
“Joe, they were planning on killing us…I seriously doubt that they’d be so kind as to want to save our hides, not now. This mess we’re in, works out just fine for them, if they did manage to get out. They’re hands are spotless, we’re presumed dead, and they get off scott free!” Adam scowled.
“Yeah…guess you’re right. I suppose that means, if we’re ever going to get out of here…it’s up to us…ere…you.”
When Joe saw Adam look down at him, he forced a smile. His smile vanished quickly.
“Sorry? For what, you didn’t do anything to be sorry for, buddy. It’s me that’s sorry, and I am Joe…I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions without speaking to you first. I hope someday, you’ll forgive me, I was wrong, sport…I made a horrible mistake in misjudging you.”
Adam hung his head and turned away. It was hard for a man like himself to admit he was wrong, especially when it came to admitting it to his brother. He had always tried, throughout his life, to set a good example for his younger brothers, especially Joe who at eighteen, was still impressionable and easily influenced.
“Adam?” Joe said in a tired voice.
“You just gonna sit here all day stewing, or are ya gonna get this rock off my leg like ya promised?”
Adam cut his eyes over to Joe’s face and noted the way that his brother strained to smile for him. Lovingly, he rubbed the top of the boy’s thick mass of curls.
“Whatever shall I do with you kid?” Adam grinned.
“How about just getting this rock off my leg?” Joe grinned and then lowered his head to the ground, moaning softly. “It sure hurts like the blazes.”
It took Adam several hours of tossing aside the loose rock that blocked the entrance to the cave and still he had not reached the opening. He paused, trying to catch his breath, for the air inside was thin and Adam knew that it was just a matter of time before their air supply ran completely out. He glanced down at Joe, surprised to see his brother watching him.
“How you doing, Joe?” he asked as he made his way over to his brother.
Adam had covered Joe with his coat for Joe had complained of being cold. Adam knew that Joe had spiked a fever and that he was having a hard time breathing as well. He had made several attempts to move the rock from his brother’s leg, but all had been in vain. After the last failed attempt, he was forced to admit to himself, as well as to Joe, that it would take more than just one man to move the heavy stone.
Joe tried to be brave, but the excruciating pain in both his leg and his hips had finally gotten to the boy. Joe tossed and turned his upper body, trying in his own way to free himself and thus relief the agony, for so long that he had finally worn himself completely out. Now he lay still, either unable or unwilling to fight the boulder that held his leg pinned tightly to the ground.
“Hurts…bad…” Joe groaned.
Joe’s eyes clouded with tears, but he somehow managed to will them away.
“We’re…running out of…time, aren’t…we, Adam?”
“Naw, we’ve plenty of time, kid, don’t worry yourself. Didn’t I promise to get you out of here?” Adam knew Joe was correct in what he was saying, but Adam also refused to give up and he returned to his rock pile.
Another hour passed and Adam was nearly to the point of admitting defeat. His brow was beaded with perspiration and his handsome features were covered in a thick layer of dirt and dust. He heard the soft moaning coming from the opposite side of the rock where Joe lay trapped. He had been listening for several minutes to the pitiful sounds and had cursed himself for having led Joe into the trouble that he found them in now. Adam blamed no one, other than his self and for not having more faith in the boy than what he had displayed the night of his engagement party.
Adam scooted around to Joe’s side. His brother’s face was damp with sweat and Joe tossed his head gently from side to side. Adam wished he had some water to wipe Joe’s brow and to refresh the boy’s dry lips but everything that he had brought with him, had been left in the buggy when Jessica had forced him to the cave.
Joe was looking up at Adam’s face, but the face that he saw was not the one to whom he called out for.
“It’s me Joe, Adam,” his brother said tenderly. “I’m the only one here with you, pal.”
Adam pulled his neckerchief from around his neck and dabbed at the moisture on Joe’s brow.
“Adam…how…much longer? I…want Pa…” Joe cried.
Adam could tell that Joe was beginning to fade in and out of consciousness, either from the pain that ripped his body apart or from the lack of air inside the cave, Adam wasn’t sure.
“I know buddy, I know,” Adam said in a voice that sounded less than convincing, even to his ears. “It shouldn’t be much longer.”
Adam glanced up at the opening and sighed.
‘We’re doomed to die, here, I’m afraid,’ his heart whispered to his head.
Adam looked down again at his brother. Tears had formed in the hazel eyes and though Adam knew that Joe tried, he could do nothing to stop the tears that rolled unchecked down his face.
“Adam…I have to tell…you something,” Joe said in a near inaudible voice.
“Joe, please, save your energy, don’t try to talk right now, it…”
“No…I have…to tell you,” pleaded Joe, clinging loosely to his brother’s arm.
“Alright, Joe, what is it?” Adam asked.
He took hold of Joe’s hand and held it securely within his own. Flashes of bygone days danced before his eyes as he recalled other times, when the same hand had clung to his. Without a warning, tears washed into Adam’s eyes, but he brushed them away before Joe could see them.
“I was…mad…really mad, at you. I even thought…I hated…you,” Joe said, barely above a whisper.
“You had a right to be mad…and to hate me, Joe…for what I did to you,” agreed Adam.
“No…no…not for that,” Joe strained to say. He shook his head slightly, arching his body and gritting his teeth to the pain that threatened to claim his life.
“I don’t understand.”
“For…leaving…I hated you…for leaving me,” cried Joe. “Don’t you…remember when you…came home from…college? You made…me a promise…that you’d…never leave me…again, and you…broke that…promise.”
Joe had begun to breath deeply, trying desperately to fill his lungs with much needed air. It was several moments before he was able to speak again, and his next words cut Adam to the core, for they were the truth, plain and simple.
“It was…the only promise…you’ve ever…made to me…that you broke.”
Joe’s eyes closed and Adam felt the boy’s hand relax it’s hold on his. Joe’s fingers opened slowly as Adam placed his brother’s hand across his chest. A sob caught in Adam’s throat as he tried to digest his brother’s words, praying that they were not the last that Joe would ever utter.
More determined than ever, Adam arranged his coat around Joe and returned to his rock pile. With a fervor that surprised even himself, Adam hauled rock after rock from the pile that barred his path to the world beyond their prison cave. He forced himself to ignore Joe’s muted cries, for there was nothing, absolutely nothing that he could do to give aid or comfort to his brother, other than to hold the boy’s hand.
The air had grown dry and stale inside the cave and Adam sucked in deeply to fill his burning lungs. Time was swiftly running out for Joe and himself. Joe had grown quiet and more than once Adam had climbed down from his pile of rocks to check on his brother. Joe’s features were drained of any color; the boy was barely breathing and had at last stopped his continual whimpering and given himself over to the world of obscurity. For that, Adam was grateful, for once locked securely within the world of total aloneness, there was no pain.
Adam swallowed, trying to push the muck from his throat. His mouth was dried out and he could barely make salvia enough to be able to clear his throat. He tried speaking aloud, but was unable to form any words and what sounds did spew forth, sounded more like an injured animal caught in a trap.
Adam heard himself laugh; it was a rough and coarse sound to his own ears. Trapped like animals, he thought, that was what he and Joe were, animals caught in a trap. Adam leaned his head down, across his folded arms and shut his eyes. He was too tired to move, too worn out to keep plugging away at the pile of endless rocks. He couldn’t keep his promise to his brother, they were going to die, of that, Adam was certain. The weary man raised his head just slightly and seeing his brother’s still form, dragged his own weary body next to Joe’s and lay down, shutting his eyes for the second time. His arm, he slung across his brother’s chest, holding himself as close as he could to the boy whom he loved with all his heart. He sighed deeply, if they were doomed to die, then at least they’d die together.
“Adam…Adam…can you hear me, boy?”
Adam tried to open his eyes, but he was so weak that even that small effort seemed to drain all his strength. He pinched his eyes tightly, but the voice would not go away, nor would it stop calling his name.
“Adam…open your eyes, son…Adam!”
“Pa? Is that you?” Adam said, forcing his eyes to obey his brain’s command. His long lashes fluttered and then slowly, his hazel eyes were visible to the one who held his head tenderly in his arms.
“Yes son…it’s okay now, your Pa’s here,” Ben said, smiling up at Hoss who hovered over the top of his shoulder.
Adam squeezed his eyes tightly and then re-opened them so that he could better see his father’s face. He then tried to push himself into a sitting position. He glanced quickly around him, searching frantically with his eyes and then twisted his head back around to face his father.
“JOE! PA, WHERE’S JOE?” Adam cried out in a hoarse voice that was barely above a whisper.
His voice bordered on hysteria and Ben was quick to calm his son.
“Joe’s being seen after, son. Paul’s with him…”
“He’s hurt Pa, badly,” stammered Adam as he stretched his neck around trying to catch a glimpse of his brother. “I have to get to him…I promised him…”
“You can’t, not just yet son. In a little while you can see him, I promise, now lets get you to the wagon. Can you walk?” Ben asked as he and Hoss helped Adam to his feet.
“I can walk, but I need to see Joe…please Pa…I have to tell…”
“Alright Adam, but for just a minute, Joe’s not very coherent and he’s in a lot of pain right now,” explained Ben.
“I know, Pa…I know, I saw his leg, he saved my life,” Adam said in a serious voice.
Hoss and Ben guided Adam to the wagon where Paul was working at making Joe as comfortable as he could for the trip home. He glanced up when he saw Adam approaching.
“Good, he’s been asking for you, Adam,” Paul smiled and then moved so that Adam could crawl into the back of the wagon next to Joe.
“Hey little buddy,” Adam smiled as he gently brushed his fingers along Joe’s cheek. “How you doin’?”
“Hey…Adam,” Joe tried to smile, but wasn’t too successful. “We made…it.”
Adam could see the pain that Joe could not mask shining back at him from his brother’s eyes and it caused a huge knot to form in his throat. He tried swallowing several times to remove it, but it seemed to only make matters worse.
“Course we did, you didn’t doubt me now, did you?” Adam managed to say in a strangled voice.
Joe had closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. “Never,” he muttered.
Adam noted a lone tear that rolled freely down from the corner of Joe’s right eye and he touched it with his finger.
“Joe…look at me,” Adam whispered lowly.
Joe opened his eyes as instructed and looked up at his brother. Adam smiled, causing his dimple to deepen the tiny crease in his cheek.
“Joe, about that broken promise…no…don’t say anything until I’m finished. I mean it Joe, I’m sorry about leaving you, but I did come back. I shouldn’t have acted so irrational, and I shouldn’t have taken someone else’s word about something so important without talking to you first. I’ll promise you now Joe, it won’t ever happen again. I’m so sorry that I hurt you, both physically and emotionally. Can you ever forgive me?”
Adam’s dark eyes glistened with unshed tears as he gazed down into the pain-ridden face of his youngest brother. He saw Joe swallow and then try to smile up at him.
“Adam,” he said softly. “Pa once told me that I was bound to you and Hoss not just because we share the same father, but because blood binds us together, making us brothers, and nothing that could ever happen to us could ever change that. We’re family, and what happens to one of us, happens to all of us, because we are bound to one another. So when you’re hurting, I’m hurting, and vice versa. You made a mistake Adam, God, who hasn’t? For sure, I’ve made my share and you’ve always forgiven me, who am I that I should hold this against you? I can’t and I won’t…so forget it, big brother.”
Joe’s voice faded away softly as the medication that the doctor had given him began to dull his senses. His hand still clung tightly to his older brother’s and as he slipped into a deep drug induced sleep, he muttered softly.
“I love ya, Adam.”
Adam’s head dropped low as the tears he fought so hard to control slipped slowly and silently from his eyes. What more could he have asked for? He had beaten his brother to within an inch of his life, yet this same boy had nearly died saving his, Joe had forgiven him and then declared his devotion to him. Adam wept silent tears of remorse for what he had committed and then those same tears turned to tears of joy for the forgiveness that Joe had so graciously given to him.
It was two days later before Adam had a chance to question his father about how he had known where to find him and Joe. They were sitting outside on the side porch, Joe, still bedridden from his long surgery that repaired his broken leg and rejoined his hip, was napping. Hoss came from the barn and joined Adam and his father, taking a chair across from his older brother.
“Pa, you never did get around to telling me how you found us,” Adam said as he sipped his lemonade that Hop Sing had served them.
Ben set his glass down, smiling slightly. “It was Miss Bryson.”
“Jessie?” Adam looked from his father to Hoss.
“Yep, sure was. She came runnin’ up to us screamin’ like a Banshee. Took Pa and I both to calm her down, ain’t that right, Pa?” Hoss grinned.
“Yes, that’s right. I suppose she must have had a bout of conscience, she began blurting out how she and this Matthew fellow planned on getting you to marry her and then they were going to kill you. This woman was then going to claim everything you had. But she couldn’t go through with it because she didn’t want to be party to murder. Then she ranted on about how Joseph kept getting in the way and ruining their plans. The woman is nuts Adam, you do realize that, don’t you?” Ben said in a serious tone.
“Yes…I found that out…that hard way, mind you,” Adam smiled.
“Anyway, once we calmed her down, she told us where you and Joe were. It was lucky for us that some of the hands went along, and Paul too. He had stopped by that morning to check on Joe and when he went upstairs, we found that the scamp had sneaked out of the house. I knew right away that he went looking for you, he had wanted to the night before and I wouldn’t let him.”
“What about Matthew?” questioned Adam.
Ben shook his head sadly. “We found his body crushed beneath a pile of rocks near the entrance of the cave. I don’t know how Miss Bryson managed to get out, but thank God she did. If we had not happened upon her when we did, we would never have found you; we had absolutely no idea that you and Joe were buried in that cave.”
“I’m glad she made it out…where is she now?” Adam asked.
“Gone…when Hoss and I and the others started digging you out, she must have seen her chance to get away and she took it. The buggy and the horse, both were gone and no one has seen hide nor hair of her since,” explained Ben.
“Good riddance, I say,” muttered Hoss with a toss of his head.
“Well son, she couldn’t have been all bad,” Ben scolded, “she did tell us where to find your brothers.”
Hoss bobbed his head in compliance. “’Pose ya right, Pa, but I’m glad she’s gone any how.”
“She made a mistake, son…we all do, isn’t that right, Adam?”
Ben glanced up at this son, a twinkle in his eyes.
“Yeah, Pa…that’s right. We all make mistakes Hoss, but fortunately for some, myself included, we have a chance to right our wrongs.”
“How so big brother?” Hoss inquired.
“Like Pa said, and Joe reminded me, some of us are fortunate enough to be bound to one another. Like us, you and Joe and myself. The blood that flows in our veins and the love and respect we have for each other, even though at times we forget about them, bind us to one another, making us brothers. They’re still there, always, for our entire lives…they are the ties that bind.”
“Yeah,” snickered Hoss, “I see what’cha mean. We’re brothers, now and forever and nothin’ we do will ever change that. Hmm…ain’t that sumthin’?”
Hoss snickered again. “Hey Adam, I think someone’s yellin’ for ya.”
“Don’t remind me,” he groaned in a gentle, teasing manner. “Doesn’t that boy know anyone else’s name other than mine?”
“Aw…shucks, Adam, the boy loves ya, that’s all,” laughed Hoss, turning to see the smile that spread apart his father’s face.
“That’s today Hoss, tomorrow it might be different, one can never tell with Joe,” Adam said as he strolled toward the door.
“I’m coming Joe, I’m coming,” muttered Adam in a whisper that he was unaware his father and brother had overheard.
He stooped over the edge of the porch and snatched a Daisy from the flowerpot and slowly made his way to the door, tossing petals along the way.
“Joe loves me, Joe loves me not, Joe loves me, Joe loves me not…Joe loves me!”
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