Compass (by dbird)

hoss, joe, adam
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Summary:  The Cartwright brothers lose their way on a dangerous ride home…

Rating:  K+  (11,050 words)

Compass

Adam reached back and gave it everything he had. When his fist connected with his brother’s jaw, the impact was strangely satisfying. It sickened him even as it surprised him. Things were finally happening; the two of them were having it out. Sprawled on the ground, Joe pushed to his feet slowly, all the while mocking his brother with a smile. The night was only getting started, and he was going to make the most of it…

What Joe lacked in size, he made up for in unpredictability. When he stood, he reeled, and Adam moved in instinctively to keep him from falling. But Joe was already pulling back, using Adam’s compassion to his own advantage. He landed a solid uppercut that would swell until morning. Knocked off balance, Adam moved to protect his midsection but was a moment too late. Joe had reached back, and the blow landed, just the way his big brothers had taught him. Adam felt the air strangle in his throat as he landed hard on the ground, his breath knocked out of him.

“Keep out of my business!” Joe bit off the words and made a move to walk away, as if the conversation was over. The surly tone in his voice helped Adam get his breath back real quick, and he launched himself again at his kid brother.

Joe stopped short and turned around unexpectedly, and Adam barreled into him. Joe went down all at once, not surprising considering what he’d been drinking. Yet, Adam felt it like his own body had taken the hit instead.

“Damn,” Adam muttered and dropped down beside his brother.

Breathing came hard, and Joe tried shoving Adam away. Didn’t work. Obviously bone tired, his jaw already swelling, Joe wasn’t in much shape to be pushing anyone around. Black and blue, and Adam realized that not every bruise was a new one. Joe had been doing a fine old job at getting hurt all on his own. His big brother had just helped the process along.

“What in tarnation’s going on?” Hoss came up suddenly behind him. “Who did this to Little Joe?”

“I did,” Adam sighed. Over his shoulder, he returned his brother’s glare with a dark look of his own. “He deserved it, but I am sorry and would appreciate that you don’t look at me like that. Help me get him on his horse.”

Hoss stopped glaring, something Adam was grateful for. Obviously, he figured that Joe must have done something noteworthy if Adam had finally lost his temper. Their little brother had surely been spoiling for a fight for some time. Even as they were talking, Joe passed out cold. Adam doubted it was from the beating but more likely from what he’d been drinking earlier. He’d heard all about it as usual, soon after he ridden into town. Bad news knew how to find its way around.

“All right then. Let’s just get him home.” Hoss sounded old for his twenty three years of life. He hoisted his brother’s legs while Adam got hold of him under the shoulders. “Don’t wanna know what Pa’s gonna say this time. He’s had just bout enough of this foolishness, that’s for dang sure.”

“Amen to that,” Adam muttered, trying not to jostle Little Joe’s ribs any more than he had to and not just because he was the one who might have cracked them. “I’ve had enough of this too, let me tell you.”

They made it to the livery, and together they carefully slung Joe over the saddle, trying to make the ride easier with extra blankets. They’d had plenty of practice at this sort of thing, yet this was the first time another Cartwright was responsible for the need to tie him belly-down to his saddle. Even though he still felt the anger in his gut, Adam also felt the responsibility. It wasn’t like he wasn’t blameless in this. None of them were, except maybe Hoss. It was the truth, but the truth had suddenly gotten a whole lot more complicated.

“Don’t give up so easily,” his father told him just the other day. “You’re only lost if you think you are.”

“Not true,” Adam shot back defiantly. “You’re lost when you’re a hundred miles deep in the woods without a compass.”

“No matter,” Ben told him calmly. “You go ahead and get lost. Lose your compass. I’ll find you anyway.”

It irritated him, his father’s confidence that truth had a way of working itself out. Adam still believed that he’d been right. They should have told Joe the truth about his mother, just like Adam had been saying for years. There was no triumph in seeing how things worked out. And yet, even with the trouble with Joe, his pa had remained so confident, so sure that Joe would find his way back to them.

Adam held off for weeks, watching his brother get into every kind of trouble under the sun, but when he’d seen Eliza Mathers crying like that… Adam hadn’t realized how close he really was to letting it all go. Getting lost in it. Just like Joe.

**********

It had been a difficult summer, hot and intractable, and not just for the weather. They’d had remarkably little snowfall the previous winter, and the last of it was already gone by spring. Scant runoff left the undergrowth tinder-edged by June, the fields poor grazing for the herd that the Cartwrights had recently purchased for its fine bloodline.

They were all on edge with each other, and rightly so, when it happened. The real trouble began in a single afternoon with the “I Told You So” moment that Adam had been warning his father about for years. Hindsight was a poor consolation. Adam had to remind himself not to blame Ben for the bulk of it. Every father wanted to protect his children, and that wanting had simply gone on a little too long. It didn’t help that Adam already knew the truth, as did Hoss. It made Joe feel like a fool kid, deluded by his own child-like beliefs that Pa had encouraged. You see, Joe had always adored his mother…

He should have been told much earlier, when understanding and forgiveness were so much closer at hand. Adam had been saying the same for years.

For years, Ben had responded to his oldest son with, “This isn’t the right time. Truth comes out when it’s good and ready and not sooner.”

Adam disagreed. Vehemently. All to no avail. Ben Cartwright was a man with his mind made up, and no amount of persuading could change it.

When it happened, the details were almost beside the point. It was a sordid accusation, like the others, but not the big bombshell that Adam had feared. It didn’t matter. The damage was done in the course of a single evening.

Like the others before him, the man appeared in town, with little notice. Nothing announced his arrival other than a signature on the International House register. He paid on credit, telling the clerk that he was in town to do big business with the Cartwrights. His clothes were threadbare but genteel, a sign of better days. He’d spent his inheritance on faro and Scotch and had heard from reliable sources in New Orleans that there was easy money to be found out West. That Marie DeMarigny had married well. The man had a story to tell and little concern that it wouldn’t be believed. Marie had paid the first two off herself and then they’d kept coming after her death. From what the man had heard, her still grieving husband would be more than happy to send him on his merry way, pockets filled to gamble away another year of his life. And so it might have gone if he hadn’t met up with Marie’s son.

Joseph Cartwright, seventeen years old and full of the world and his place in it, shared a beer with the charming man at the Bucket of Blood, toasting to New Orleans and its glories. Of Bourbon Street and the joys to be discovered there. The man even insinuated some of those glories, which Joe lapped up like a happy pup. You see, he was seventeen… filled with longings and desires that he didn’t share with his family. The infamous Swamp came to life at that saloon, with all its gilded seductions, the lure of easy laughter and easier love. Joe was there, in his mind if not his body. And then the man mentioned his mother…

All the occupants of the Bucket of Blood weren’t enough to pull Joseph Francis Cartwright off the unconscious body of the gambler from Bourbon Street. He wasn’t dead. Adam and Hoss had gotten there in time, charged with the thankless duty of retrieving their kid brother from the wild nights of Virginia City. By the time they got to town, things had gotten a whole lot wilder.

Roy Coffee agreed not to lock Joe up for assault, although he did lock the stranger up for his own safety. The man seemed to realize that the days of easy payoff money had come to a untimely end. He left before daybreak, most likely off to find less violent families to swindle.

Adam rode home alongside his brother that night on the long ride back to the Ponderosa. His kid brother’s jaw was set, his mind already made up. The man’s words had lodged in his heart. Either the man was a liar or his father was even worse. It was an ugly choice, and Adam felt in his gut that things were not going to be all right.

Up to that day, Joe had been coming into his own. He’d been rising to the occasion more often than not, helping with the work of running the Ponderosa. Remembering to knock on wood, Adam had said just the other day that he believed his brother’s wilder days were over.

“Don’t tempt fate,” Ben had warned, and they’d all laughed about it. Seventeen was too young to tell everything about the character of a man, but it was a good enough start. They all believed that the youngest Cartwright was well on his way.

However, Joe seemed different on that ride home. Harder and older. Moonlight silvered his profile, and he looked lonely, even though he was right beside his brothers. Joe was way too quiet. It was the last thing that Ben Cartwright would have wanted – that the truth be told by a stranger.

They reached the Ponderosa with the moon stalling over their heads. Adam and Hoss exchanged wary glances with each other. They’d hoped to get to bed, but a lamp was burning inside. Their father was awake which meant the confrontation couldn’t be put aside until morning.

Ben met them at the door.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” His face was stark with worry gone to seed with anger. “I was just about ready to saddle up and go looking for you myself!”

Adam tried to slow things down by shaking his head ever so slightly. It didn’t work. Life for the Cartwrights had suddenly taken a turn, yet no one had bothered to let Ben Cartwright in on it.

“Pa, we’ve got something you need to know – ” Hoss said, still standing in the night shadows, but Ben wasn’t listening.

“Fighting again, boy! What sort of trouble did you get yourself in?” Ben had hold of his youngest son’s shoulders, but Joe pulled out of his father’s grasp. It was then that Ben saw it. The difference. The fact that things had been falling apart, while he sat at home smoking his pipe and waiting for his boys to make it back from a late night in town.

“Tell me about my mother,” Joe demanded without even bothering to unsheathe his gun. “I want to know everything. You owe me that.”

Ben stared hard at his youngest and then at Adam.

“What’s happened?” Ben asked.

“A gambler from New Orleans came in,” Adam replied quietly. He leaned against the credenza, slowly unbuckling his own gunbelt. “Roy’s got him locked up for the night, but he’ll be leaving town by morning, Pa.”

Confusion reigned on Ben’s face for only a moment before giving way to a sudden, knowing grief. Another blackmailer come to town… what a surprise… Nothing new under the sun except that the blackmailer had gotten to Little Joe before he had. Adam had been right with all his warnings. It had been bound to happen for years.

Softly, Ben asked “Do you have something you need to talk to me about, Joe?”

Joe swallowed at his father’s gentleness, and for a moment, almost seemed to lose his resolve. Then he stiffened. The stranger was either telling the truth or he was lying. Simple as that. From Adam’s reaction, Joe was willing to wager that the stranger had told him more truth than his own father.

It was a long night’s telling. The details didn’t sound so sordid coming from a man who had loved his wife dearly. Lies had been told about her for years, but some of the lies had been twined with the truth. There was no way around it. Everything was complicated, certainly more complicated than Little Joe Cartwright had been led to believe. Marie Cartwright had been a beautiful woman, who had been pursued and desired by men since girlhood. For Ben, the past was past, even if it did come calling from time to time with an outstetched palm. He had loved Marie, married her, and had given her his name. She had given him a son. Ben Cartwright considered himself a blessed man.

Little Joe didn’t see it that way.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?” he asked quietly, so much pain in his voice that his father had to look away.

“You weren’t ready.” Ben sat heavily back in his own chair. He was exhausted like he could count every bone in his body, but still resolute, sure in his knowing. “I was waiting for the right time.”

“The right time to tell me that my mother – ”

“Don’t.” Ben’s voice was fierce. Granite. “Don’t say something you won’t be able to take back, boy.”

Joe was undaunted and defiant. “You were hoping that I wouldn’t find out my mother wasn’t the marrying kind of woman.”

“Pa, it’s late.” Adam couldn’t help but try and intervene, standing between his father and brother who were standing off to each other, fists clenched. “Joe’s tired. We all are. Let’s all get some sleep and talk about this in the morning.”

“Adam’s right,” Hoss said, almost desperately. “I reckon I could use some shuteye at that. I was sleeping in the saddle all the way back.”

Joe was staring hard at all of them.

“You all knew,” he said finally. He wasn’t yelling. He hardly looked angry. “About all of this. Strangers asking for money to keep secrets… What you told me before was all lies. You all knew the truth about my mother.”

Adam turned painfully and tried not to shoot a look of “I told you so” over at his father. For a moment, he was tempted to blunt his answer somehow. To divert it off course to make it less than it was. But there was no escape from the fact that they all three had known. They had kept it from him. Adam suddenly had the feeling that Joe could have forgiven his mother much easier than he was going to forgive them.

“Yes,” Adam said, tossing down his words like a gauntlet. There was now no other way to deal with the issue but directly by plunging into the conflict. “We all knew.”

It was a good thing that Joe had his gunbelt on, because he was out of the door so quickly he’d have likely left it behind. He didn’t bother taking his hat. They could hear him vanishing into the night, even as they tried to decide whether to follow. There wouldn’t have been much point. As they soon learned, Joe was gone, lost to them, in the ways that mattered.

The next morning they found out he led the pinto out of the barn before Old Blue, their ranch hand, even had a chance to finish currying her. The hand said he’d never seen Joe mount so roughly. The kid had always been in love with that horse. Couldn’t imagine what got into him. Must have really been something to get him that riled…

**********

Another long night in the saddle, and Joe was only starting to stir, still tied to his horse. Without talking about it, Adam and Hoss decided to take the shorter route home, but the road wasn’t nearly as familiar. At night, it was hard to get their bearings, even though they were likely on the far edges of the Ponderosa. Adam tried to keep the path home fixed in his mind, but it kept veering off in his imagination. From where they rode, the moon looked close enough to touch, even though clouds were gathering high over the mountains. They were riding along a canyon next to an edge of pine and cedar. The forest ran deeper and darker on either side of them. It was the kind of night that made a man yearn for a quiet life. Adam had always enjoyed riding at night and would normally be glad for his brothers’ company. However, there was nothing normal about their situation or the past month. Not for the first time, Adam wished they could go back in time – way back – and have the opportunity to do things differently. He could still see up to the cloud-gathering sky and shuddered, feeling the weather change. A stiff wind was coming down from the mountains.

Joe moaned from the saddle, and Hoss looked over at Adam, even in the darkness clearly distressed.

“He’s been out for a spell, Adam. You think we should wake him up? See iffen he’s all right?”

“No.” Of this much, Adam was certain. “Let him sleep it off. He’s had enough rotgut to brine a cow. I didn’t hit him that hard.”

“What was this about, Adam?”

What wasn’t it about? Adam sighed and leaned into the curve of the road. Was it about the path of Joe’s rebellion coming to full bloom? The hard drinking? The fights in town… the women who laughed too loud and carried stilettos in their corsets for protection? The string of nights when he didn’t bother coming home at all? The fact that he never sat for supper with them, not even once since that damnable gambler had found his way to Virginia City? Whatever their sins had been, Joe had outdone them all, in his determination to detach himself from his family. Joe had been born with a temper, but this was more than that. It was like he knew they’d been out to protect him, and he was aiming to throw it back in their faces. No matter how much they wanted it, they couldn’t protect Little Joe Cartwright from himself. Truth be told, Adam was sick of trying.

Ben had sent his sons to town after five nights had passed without Joe sleeping in his own bed. They had searched his old haunts, saloons, the endless poker games the drovers had going behind the livery. All to no avail. Joe wasn’t much interested in being found.

Adam was at the point of calling an end to the search, when he heard a soft voice from behind him.

“I hear you’re looking for your brother.”

He turned and to his surprise, he looked into the red-rimmed eyes of Eliza Mathers. Obviously, she had been crying. It had been some time since Adam had seen her. Usually, she stayed close to home. Eliza was a beauty and unusual because she hadn’t married by the age of twenty-two. Rumor had it she was waiting for love, a foolish option for a young woman of modest means who was already well into her marrying years. It wasn’t that she had never been asked. Years earlier, Adam had been one of many who’d come courting. She’d turned him down, as well as the others. It was a sting he’d thought he’d long gotten over, until he saw her crying. She was even lovelier than she had been as a girl. Adam realized with a start that he hadn’t tried nearly hard enough so many years earlier.

“Eliza, what is it?” he asked, forgetting the proper term of Miss Mathers. She turned away, but he persisted. “Are you all right? Can I walk you home?”

She answered firmly, “No, I’ll be fine. You were looking for your brother, Joe?”

“Yes I was,” Adam replied with great wariness, even though he wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t even all that aware that Eliza knew Joe and after all, she was several years his senior. It confused Adam that she’d be talking about him at all, seeing that Joe was still a boy. “Have you seen my brother?”

“I’ve seen him,” Eliza said with intensity that made Adam catch his breath. What had happened between Joe and Eliza? Under normal circumstances, Adam couldn’t imagine anything that would make Eliza Mathers look like she she’d drunk from a wormwood cup. “I’ve been seeing him. And I wish to God I hadn’t!”

Adam felt his panic beginning to rise. “Did something happen, Eliza? Something between you and my brother?”

Eliza turned to Adam sharply. “Anything that happened between the two of us doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not what he was looking for, as it turns out. Tell your brother next time to stick to women who aren’t the marrying kind.”

Adam took her by the arm; he couldn’t help it. He had to know.

“Did my brother hurt you?” he asked, feeling the fear of it catch in his throat.

Her look softened only by a measure.

“Not in the way you’re thinking,” she said, pulling away from him.

“Wait,” Adam gasped, almost frantically. “Tell me please. What did my brother do?”

Eliza looked at him almost with pity.

“He didn’t love me,” she said and shrugged. As she started to walk away, she turned suddenly. “Try looking for him on D Street. Your brother has been spending a lot of time there.”

Adam watched her go, desire and confusion waging war in him. He’d forgotten about Eliza, truth be told. She was one of many good women he’d let get away. And Joe had hurt her somehow. Adam’s anger climbed right over that desire, confusion, and if he was being honest, a trace of jealousy. The look on her face… She’d been hurt badly. Adam didn’t really want to know the details. Joe was taking his own pain and spreading it around. It all had to stop before his life got away from him, and the consequences would haunt him forever. So Adam followed Eliza’s instructions and went to D Street. If he had to beat Joe senseless to bring him to his senses, then so be it…

“Adam? Adam!” Hoss was calling at him, and he’d been so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t noticed. “You sleepin’ in that saddle? What’s wrong with you?”

“Sorry, brother.” Adam tried to sit up, but his back was aching. He reined to a stop to try to make sense of what Hoss had been trying to tell him.

“Storm’s comin’ in, Adam. I can smell it in the air.”

Adam reined to a stop and tried to look through the darkness. The clouds churned in silver moonlight, but he could see they were gathering. Flat for so long, the air had started to whip around them, a sure sign that a storm was coming in rather than just a summer evening disturbance. When riled up, weather moved quickly.

“I see what you mean,” he said. “I can feel it too.”

“Long way home,” Hoss said and gestured toward Joe, still tied to his saddle. “And this one needs to sleep it off. Any line shacks I ain’t thinking bout? Homesteaders?”

“Don’t think so.” Loathe to admit it, Adam had been getting increasingly disoriented for some time. “We might be close to the Jenkins’ place, but I’m not sure of it. I think it’s pretty much you, me, and Pa’s prodigal over there. But we better find a place to hole up pretty soon.”

“Pretty soon” turned out to be a poor description. Almost before Adam was done talking, pea-sized hailstones were barraging them from storm clouds, stinging their exposed faces. It happened so fast that the horses reared in alarm, and Hoss had to hold tight to the lead rope of Joe’s pinto. The situation was changing in seconds rather than minutes, and neither brother had time to talk it over. Instead, they drew back and reined the horses over to a clumping of boulders in the distance.

They had just finished untying Joe from the horse when the lightning started. They heard the crash of thunder almost at the same time as the flash lit shadows around them.

“Get the rope off him!” Adam yelled, his ears ringing.

They’d both seen a man struck by lightning while roping a steer. Wet rope seemed to attract lighting, and unprotected as they were, they couldn’t take chances. The air thundered all at once and then lit up as bright as day. If anything, the last strike was even closer, and the horses spooked and danced around them. Struggling to pull Joe out of the way, the two brothers couldn’t tie them down in time and watched in frustration as the three horses bolted off into the stormy darkness.

“Dadburnit!” Hoss hollered, which Adam considered the greatest understatement he’d heard.

Joe was rousing from the storm and was on his feet. He stumbled between his brothers, as they half dragged him to the rocks.

Even as he collapsed onto the ground, Adam shouted, “Don’t lie down, Joe! Crouch down like me!”

It would have been best to have moved apart from each other, lest one get struck by the lightning and have it spread between the others, but Joe was still unstable and couldn’t stay upright on his own. They propped him up. Together, the brothers hunkered down as rainfall broke in a sudden deluge over them.

Almost immediately, they were doused to the skin and cold, and Adam could feel Joe trembling between them, his body still working off the effects of the drinking and the fight. From their poor excuse for a shelter, they could see lightning strikes veining the sky in the distance, but the storm was moving away from them.

“Stay put,” Hoss ordered unnecessarily. None of them were about to move from their makeshift asylum, even if the rain and lightning were dying down. They’d all heard of men struck down from a storm miles away, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It didn’t happen often, but in the mountains, it wasn’t smart to take those kinds of chances.

“You could have woken me up a little less dramatically,” Joe grumbled in the darkness, and his older brothers had to laugh. Oddly enough, it was as close to a joke as Joe had managed for a good long time.

“Thought you’d appreciate it,” Adam cracked. “We thought about calling in the fire and brimstone but decided it would be too much.”

“Funny,” Joe bit off. “Where’ve you two landed me, anyhow?”

“We’re trying to get you home, little brother,” Hoss said and turned to Adam. “Sure ‘nough, I think the storm’s passing through.”

And it was. The storm had left them wet and stranded, but moonlight glazed the sky over their heads and stars seemed to pop out in the deep black night, one by one. Thunder still rumbled in the distance but seemed to be leaving them alone. However, to the west of them, Adam could make out a red ominous glow.

“Fire,” Hoss said, grimly. “Too dang close for my liking.”

“Yeah, and it looks like it’s burning in all directions.” Adam could smell the burning of dry timber in the air. The rain had been too short-lived to lessen the danger from the lightning strikes. Given the dry winter, the mountain was a pile of kindling ready to burn. Fire got out of control real quick under those kinds of conditions. Without their horses, they could be in trouble even faster.

“How fast can you walk, Joe?” Hoss’ voice was quiet and dead serious in the dark, but Joe wasn’t awake enough to hear the fear in it.

“Faster than you can run,” Joe retorted. “Don’t go worrying about me. I’m fine.”

Adam reined in his own response, remembering his own part in Joe’s condition. It didn’t matter much that he had good cause. The memory of Eliza Mathers and her broken voice came back to him. His own heart hardened again. No matter how much Joe had been hurting, he had no excuse for dragging a good young woman into the middle of it. Joe had deserved every bruise, every blow Adam had doled out. If his body was battered so be it. The Cartwrights had always cared more about each other’s character than their comfort, and right now, Joe’s character was certainly under question. But that didn’t help their predicament one bit. It was time to get moving.

“All right,” Adam said to his youngest brother. “We need to move fast. You need to keep up.”

Although he sounded more harsh than he’d intended, Adam realized that their best hope rested on getting Joe riled enough to prove that he could keep up. Angering his kid brother was usually pretty easy to do, and Adam could only hope that some of that orneriness would spur him on. They walked quickly, trailing each other in the fading moonlight. Joe was stumbling as much as he was walking but was somehow keeping up just like he said he would. There was a crazy wind, seemingly coming from all directions, and Adam could feel embers fluttering against his face and his neck like angry snowflakes. When he looked back, the red glow had already worked itself up into a newborn fire. It was close enough that he could see flames devouring the dry timber like kindling in a stove. The sun was beginning to rise in the east, but the smoke was mixing with the gray morning, making the new light thin and wobbly. They could hardly see through it.

From there, it all happened very quickly. Choking in the smoke, coughing and gasping for air, they forged through the underbrush down towards the river. Adam could sense the fire behind him. More than the sound of branches and leaves crackling and burning, it was almost a roaring. It sounded alive.

There wasn’t any time left at all.

“Run!” Adam yelled as loud as he could over the raging of the fire. The trees were now burning so fast in the distance they almost sounded like detonating dynamite. Not willing to chance that the other two couldn’t hear him, Adam grabbed Joe’s arm and didn’t let go, dragging him more than supporting him, as they hurtled themselves down the hill.

They ran and ran. Later, they were amazed at how far they’d gotten. Not thinking about where they were going, they knew they had to make it to water. The growth was so thick in that part of the woods that they could hardly see where they were going. Water had to be getting closer. Their surroundings were greening and growing more lush as they put distance between themselves and the fire. Branches and thorny brush mixed it up with bulrushes and reeds, blocking them from the river, and Adam let go of his little brother, trying to bully a path through it bodily. He could almost see it… could hear the promise of moving water. Then they were there, suddenly standing in front of the slow-moving river. The wind was picking up and changing direction, as they dropped into the current, but the water was a cool caress. Relief without conditions.

Half-blinded by ashes and smoke, they dunked their heads in the current, not caring that their guns and boots were completely soaked through. They emerged from the river slowly, wary of drifting embers. The water helped clear Adam’s mind enough that he could come to a decision. First, he appraised his brothers. Hoss was a mess, clothing and face battered by their desperate scramble through the woods. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he was hunkered over, panting and coughing in the smoke. Joe’s breathing was way too shallow; Adam didn’t know if it was from cracked ribs or the smoke, but he didn’t like it, and there wasn’t time to attend to it. The wind had definitely changed direction. Adam prayed that it would push the fire back to the burned section and put itself out which would be the best thing that could happen. Even so, he didn’t want to stand around in case the wind changed its mind.

“Downstream,” Adam managed to croak out, sounding like an old man. “We need to get downstream. Follow the river.”

“Are you sure, Adam?” Hoss asked. “That’s takin’ us in the wrong direction from any help I know about. Don’t know bout you two, but I’m kinda turned around. This looks like the river that runs from the Jenkins’ place, but I ain’t sure of it. Sides, Joe don’t seem so good, and you ain’t looking so good neither, Adam.”

Not understanding what Hoss was talking about, Adam suddenly realized that there wasn’t a part of his body that wasn’t aching and hurting. Joe stood in front of him, and in the thin light, Adam was able to make out bloody handprints all over his brother’s shirt and sleeves. Glancing at his own palms, he realized suddenly that it was his own hands that were bleeding. In fact, blood was also dripping from his forehead into his eyes.

“Just a little blood.” Adam tried dipping his hands in the water, trying to wash them clean. No good. The blood kept flowing. “Nothing to worry about. Come on, let’s get going.”

“Wait a minute,” Joe said, with more sobriety than Adam had given him credit for earlier. “What if you’re making the wrong decision? If Hoss is right about where we are, then going upstream will take us to the Jenkin’s ranch. Downstream takes us nowhere. I’m not sure we’re where we think we are anyway. I’m starting to think we might be lost.”

“We’re not lost!” Adam snapped, his sense of direction soundly insulted, although he did have to admit that his head ached like nobody’s business, and nothing in the scenery looked familiar… However, he pretty was sure that Hoss was incapable of leading them astray. Hoss always knew where he was going…

Adam shook his head and looked back at his little brother. With mounting irritation, Adam realized that Joe was taking his typical rebellious stance: feet apart, arms crossed, eyes narrowed defiantly. Suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to punch him again, Adam had to tamp down on his rising anger. It wasn’t the right time. For once, having Joe unconscious would be a lot more trouble than having Joe awake and fighting. Whether from smoke or exhaustion, he was having trouble keeping his thoughts in line. One memory was clear enough to bully its way in front of all the others. Adam couldn’t stop thinking about Eliza, red-eyed and crying. He remembered finding Joe in the gilded parlor on D Street…

*****

“You hurt her,” he accused his little brother in as quiet a voice as he could manage. Adam pushed the bottle off the bar, the sound of breaking glass sounding strangely satisfying. “How dare you, you selfish -”

“Mind. Your. Own. Business.” The way Joe said it, each word was a declaration of independence, defiance, and just about everything in between. “The way I see it, Adam, you’re in no position to be teaching me right from wrong.”

“Boy, there’s a hell of a lot more you need to be taught right now,” Adam fired back, and Joe reached back and slammed his fist hard into Adam’s jaw. The other customers drew back but didn’t disperse, instinctively knowing that the show would be a good one. The Cartwright brothers never disappointed their audience.

However, the barkeep pulled his Winchester out from behind the counter, ordering, “Take it outside, the two of you! I just restocked the bar, and I ain’t about to reorder!”

Even with the whole side of his face hurting like the devil, Adam considered that he’d never heard such a practical reason for ending a barroom brawl, but Joe was already holding the door open for him.

“After you, big brother…”

Gathering his dignity, Adam stumbled toward the swinging door. He felt almost nauseous with the blow he’d taken. It shocked him really, more than Joe’s rebellion. Even drunk, the kid had learned to fight back…

******

“Adam, what’s wrong with you?” Hoss was frowning at him. “Ain’t you gonna answer? We gotta get a move on. This one here’s slower than chilled molasses, and I ain’t so sure that fire’s as put out as you think.”

“Give me a minute,” Adam said and closed his eyes.

The lack of sleep and the fight with Joe was seeping into his brain, befuddling his thoughts. He needed to stop worrying about Joe and his mother, and more importantly, about Joe and pretty Eliza Mathers. He tried to force his memory from the fact that she had looked so heartbreakingly sad when Adam had left her… It had been a good half decade since the last time Adam himself had kissed her; she had looked young yesterday but had been a lot younger back then. “Apple-cheeked,” as the widows like to say…

Joe was saying, “I say we go upstream. By the time Adam gets himself decided, we’ll be brushwood for that fire.”

Adam opened his eyes at the testiness in Joe’s voice. It was more than simple defiance. His brother sounded almost desperate, and it wasn’t all about the fire. Grey morning had come for better or worse, but Joe had landed on the far side of worse. Adam had been right the night before; his brother must have been fighting all night. The seventeen year-old’s face was a glory of bruises and abrasions, each more florid than the one before it. He was favoring one side, and from his thin breathing, Adam figured his ribs needed to be bound up pretty quick. Behind them both, Hoss was coughing again, and Adam knew he had to make up his mind. His brothers needed help and fast, before the wind decided to change direction again and the fire be a newly kindled threat. Adam felt like he was riding drag on the situation, but he didn’t have a choice. He decided the best he knew how.

“All right.” Adam said. “We’ll go upstream, the way Joe wants. With any luck, we’ll make it to the Jenkins’ ranch by nightfall, and the fire will put itself off. You sure we’re not lost, Hoss?”

“I ain’t sure of nothin’ exceptin’ I’m dang hungry, and it hurts when I breathe. One direction’s as good as another, so long as we’re movin’..”

If Joe looked surprised that his brothers went the way he wanted, he didn’t show it. They tramped upstream along the edge of the river, thoroughly ruining their boots, a circumstance that went against their upbringing. Riding boots shouldn’t get wet, but life was more important than good leather. Hopefully, Adam thought with a rueful smile, his father would agree with that assessment by the time they made it back home.

Smoke veiled the branches that bordered the stream, the air so heavy they wheezed and coughed as they walked. Adam’s legs felt like felled logs, and he wanted nothing more than to sit down and rest them. It hurt to breathe, and he figured if he felt that way, his brothers must feel the same. He didn’t look back at Joe. The last time he tried, Joe fired back with a glare that let Adam know he’d better look away or get ready for another fight.

“Hoss, what do you say we take ourselves a break? I’m beat, and the way the wind’s died out, I think we’re safe slowing down a bit.”

“Older brother, I’ve been waiting for you to say that for a real long time.” Hoss took a long, careful glance at Joe who was bracing himself against the graceful trunk of a cedar. “How bout you, little brother? You look half drowned.”

“I’m fine,” Joe said flatly, though he did sit down. He pulled off his ruined boots, one at a time, and dangled his feet in the cool, moving water. Pooling water in his hands, Joe let it run over his face. It was like he could get in his own world, just by closing his eyes. His brothers could watch him all they wanted. It didn’t matter. Adam crouched and drank from the river. It was glacier-cold yet tasted vaguely of ashes. Normally, Adam relaxed in the presence of his brothers, became more of himself with them than anyone else. The whole landscape of the relationship had changed. For the first time in a longtime, he honestly didn’t know what the coming day would bring.

“Pa’ll be on his way, don’t you worry none,” Hoss was declaring to no one in particular. He had dunked his entire head under the water, his eyes looking less red and worried than they had before. “After he gets word of that fire, he’ll be fit to be tied when we don’t come home. I reckon there’ll be a search party on us before the sun’s half way across the sky.”

Sighing, Adam replied, “That may be, but we’re headed in the wrong direction. Pa will be expecting us to head away from the fire, not into it.”

“Sometimes heading into a fire’s the only way to make it through.” Joe mumbled, but his voice was so hoarse, his brothers weren’t sure that they heard him right.

“What?” they chorused, but Joe was splashing away, carrying his boots and wading upstream.

Adam glanced over at Hoss and shrugged. They might as well follow. What choice did they have?

They continued like that for a while, holding their soaked boots and guns above water. In all likelihood, they were waiting to be rescued more than they were trying to save themselves. The fire had evidently put itself out, and the smoke in the air was simply lingering. Adam believed it was probably ten miles to the Jenkins place, while Hoss reckoned it was twenty. Joe simply stated that he had no idea where the hell they were, earning himself two pairs of lifted eyebrows for his word choice. On a good day, they would all know where they were, and the youngest Cartwright might have received more than raised eyebrows.

This was not a good day.

Adam’s head was throbbing with fatigue and an ache that was threatening to turn on him. He wasn’t sure if it was the smoke, the sleepless night, or his kid brother’s left hook that had got to him, but he knew one thing. He wasn’t feeling very good. The events of the past day and night were blurring together in his mind. Eliza Mather’s tears seemed somehow less important than they did before. She did say that Adam shouldn’t concern himself, that Joe hadn’t hurt her. Maybe Joe was right. Maybe Adam should have minded his own business and let it go. Perhaps the whole mess arose from the fact that everyone had been protecting Joe from circumstances he very well could have weathered on his own. Ben had insisted that they protect Joe from the sordid stream of blackmailers, and in the end, Adam had gone along with it. In the details, if not the big picture, they’d lied to him his entire life. Sins of omission, but sins nonetheless. Joe had every right to be angry. He even had a right to indulge in his own sins if he chose to. Joe Cartwright was a man, if not fully grown, and his family would have to let him find his way.

“I’m sorry,” Adam said suddenly to all of them, and Hoss and Joe looked at him, startled. “I had no right to come after you last night like that, Joe. I met up with Eliza – with Miss Mathers – she was upset, and I lost my temper.”

Joe stopped and stared at his older brother. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. Picking up an oblong stone, he considered it and flicked it into the water, tracking its obligatory splash. Something was different. Joe looked sad and defeated in a way that Adam hadn’t seen before.

Finally Joe sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Adam. You were just doing your duty, making sure I didn’t do anything that was going to get in the way of the Cartwright name.”

“Now what do you mean by that?” Adam could feel his temper kindled again. Nobody could make him angrier than Little Joe.

“Trust me and leave well enough alone. Eliza Mathers is better off. Don’t take a college education to know that, big brother. Just give her some time to figure it out, and she’ll know it, the same as you.”

Cautiously, Adam said, “She said that you should stick to girls who aren’t the marrying kind. Do you want to tell me what that means?”

“Not really,” Joe answered. “I reckon you’ll figure it out on your own, just like you and Pa figured out things for me.”

“Adam wanted to tell you about the trouble with your ma.” Hoss had been so quiet that both had forgotten about him. “It was Pa’s decision to keep some of the… problems your ma had to deal with, until you was old enough to know them.”

Joe picked up his boots and started walking along the banks of the river. Without looking where he was going, he stumbled over a clump of milkweed and fell bodily onto a current-swept pile of rocks. Instead of getting up, he groped to the side, suddenly retching so violently that his brothers hurried over, looking away until it was over. The rotgut from D Street, mingled with all that smoke, was finally catching up with him…

Roughly, Hoss said, “You sit down now. I’m about half tired of everybody telling me how fine they is when anyone can see it ain’t true.”

“All right, I’m not fine,” Joe growled at him, his voice as raspy as an eighty year old tobacco smoker. “But I can make decisions for myself, and I don’t need you two telling me what to do.”

“Obviously not,” Adam said dryly. “Because you’re doing such a good job of that yourself.”

Joe snapped. “I breathed in some smoke, same as you, and it made me sick. One has nothing to do with the other. Why won’t you two leave me alone?”

“Because that’s not what we do.” Hoss shook his head. “Now you can put your jaw in a sling, before you step on it. I’m gonna get mad if you two don’t stop fighting. Little Joe, folks been tip-toeing around like you’re a mud swamp for at least a month now. Pa’s worried sick over you, and we’re plumb sick of him worryin’.”

“Amen, brother.” Adam settled back bodily against a tree. For himself, he was glad that all the moving had stopped. His vision had been veering in and out for some time. He could understand why Joe’s stomach was unsettled. He expected Hoss to appreciate being agreed with, but to his surprise, Hoss simply glared at him.

“And for you Adam,” Hoss said quietly. “I reckon you got no call tellin’ Little Joe how he should be feelin’. I feel bad enough, knowin’ some of the things his ma had to go through. Don’t you think he deserves to feel it even worse?”

“Why did you say you feel bad for her?” Joe asked. Even as he joined his brothers in coughing, it was the first time he’d sounded curious about anything in weeks.

“Marie didn’t have the easiest life,” Adam said, reaching to brace him. “Are you breathing okay? Hoss, we’re going to have to bind his ribs. I don’t like the way he’s sounding.”

“I’m fine.” Joe pushed his brother away. “Tell me about my mother.”

“It’s not our place,” Adam said awkwardly, still standing nearby. “Pa’s the one who should tell you.”

“I’m not asking Pa anything,” Joe said and started coughing again. “All right, go ahead and wrap up my ribs, but not too tight, will ya?”

After Joe had his shirt off, his brothers were able to see the extent of brawling that he had been doing over the past weeks. The bruises that Adam inflicted were nothing compared to the injuries he’d been getting into all by himself.

“Black and blue and your head is bleeding,” Adam said dryly, after the job was done.

“So is yours,” Joe replied, matching his tone perfectly.

“Should we keep going?” Adam asked Hoss. The sun was overhead through the remaining drape of smoke that hung in the air. The trees around them were still. Adam couldn’t even hear birds singing in the branches. If he called his father’s name, his voice might echo for miles and miles.

“Adam, Pa’s gonna find us if we walk all the way to the Jenkins or if we sit right here and call it a day. I’m thinkin’ that maybe we sit and call it a day. I don’t think we could get lost enough, without Pa finding us by supper.”

“I’m not lost,” Joe interjected, insisting when his brothers started laughing. “I’m not!”

Adam looked at his youngest brother and had to wonder. Joe had been lost for weeks now, or at least that’s the way they’d been thinking of him. With his ribs bound like that, Joe looked like a hurt kid, but he wasn’t as young as they’d been thinking. Adam tore off an extra patch of fabric and soaked it. He began to swipe it across the gash on Joe’s forehead that had opened up when they were running. Joe started to push away from him, but Adam held onto his shoulder.

“Let me,” he said, and to Adam’s surprise, Joe sat back and actually did as told.

Hoss watched the two of them for a while. “I’m gonna go and see if there’s any berries left in those brambles. Ain’t hardly enough to fill a man’s belly, but I reckon it can’t hurt.”

“Be my guest,” Adam smiled wearily.

Hoss disappeared into the thicket of growth, leaving Adam and Joe alone together for the first time since the fight. Sitting together on a fallen log, they were quiet but not awkward.

“Do you really think Pa will find us?” Joe asked suddenly.

“He always has before.” Adam cocked his head and regarded his brother. “What makes you think he won’t this time?”

“I don’t know what I think,” Joe replied, looking him straight in the eye. “How can I when I’ve been lied to all my life?”

Joe’s words hit him almost physically. Adam remembered telling his father exactly the same thing – that Joe was owed the truth as his due. It came back to him, the conversation he’d had with his father, some two years earlier…

“When are you going to tell him?”

Adam was sorry he asked the question as soon as the words were out of his mouth but didn’t take them back. His father did not answer, reaching instead for the decanter of brandy he kept stored in the cabinet. Ben poured drinks for two and slid one across the desk toward his son. It surprised Adam, although it shouldn’t have. He was twenty-seven years old and well past the age when sharing a drink with his father might have made him feel important. He declined it all the same. He needed to keep a clear head for the argument he really didn’t want to have. People called Little Joe the stubborn one, but really they had no idea.

“I’m not going to tell him,” Pa said and downed his brandy.

“Then I will,” Adam said, reaching for the drink after all. He was going to need it and only wished it was a whiskey instead. None of what he had to say was going to go down easy.

He shrugged off his father’s glare but not his authority. It felt like a mutiny for good reason. Yet Adam knew he was right this time, and he planned to stand his ground. He knew he was on solid enough ground, and it would hold him just fine. She would have wanted it that way; Marie had always been up for a little insurrection.

“No one is telling Joseph a thing,” Pa said quietly. “Adam, she’s gone now. None of the past makes the least bit of difference to her. But it makes all the difference in the world to Little Joe. She tried to protect him while she was still alive. Can you see that I have no choice but to do the same?”

“It will come back to us,” Adam said evenly. “There’s a cost for this, Pa. A cost for deceiving Joe, and it has nothing to do with the money you just paid that piece of rubbish. Marie knew that. She knew she had made a mistake by paying them off.”

“How would you know that?” Ben asked.

“She told me,” Adam said. “I found her crying once. She knew she was wrong. If she’d let the truth come out, they wouldn’t have any way to hurt her or any of us. She never wanted to do was to get us tangled in her mistakes. She would have wanted her son to know the truth about her!”

“Your brother does know the truth about his mother,” his father insisted, his voice barely contained above a whisper.

Startled, Adam realized they’d both risen from the desk and were staring at each other, eye to eye. It wasn’t a comfortable position, but he had no plans to back down.

“You just told me that you weren’t going to tell him!” Adam shouted, his own anger rising to match his father’s. “You raised us to value honesty above everything else, and now you’re telling me that you intend to keep lying to that boy until he finds out from someone else!”

“I’m telling you he knows the truth,” Ben thundered. “He knows all the truth that matters.”

“Then explain to me how that can be!”

Ben took a hard look at his oldest son and forced himself to soften his voice.

“You’re not a father,” he said, “and I don’t think you’ve ever really been in love. Am I right about that, Son?”

He waited for an answer, until Adam found himself nodding.

Ben continued, “The things Marie did before I knew her don’t concern me. They had nothing to do with who she really was. I loved her, and that was enough to change her past. All the important things… the way Little Joe sees her, the way he thinks about her…. that’s who she really is. I admit I’ve kept things from him. I know I’ve protected him more than I should. But not in the way he sees his mother. She was more than the worst she might have done. Love covers a multitude of sins. Son, that’s the truth that matters…”

Adam looked hard at his brother. A breeze was astir, ruffling the reeds and blowing his hair into his eyes. Joe picked off a wide blade of grass, drew it to his lips, and blew. A piercing whistle sounded over the burble of the river.

Adam had to smile. “Not bad, but here’s one that’s longer.”

Joe shrugged, took the blade of grass from his brother, but didn’t try again.

“Tell me about my mother,” he said.

Adam sighed but knew somehow that it was the right time, even though that didn’t make much sense. There was so much he could say, but he wasn’t sure where to start. Taking a deep breath and trying not to choke on it, Adam began to tell his brother about Marie Cartwright…

Adam could still remember the commotion whenever Marie breezed down the street. Most of the time, she’d be smiling to herself and humming a French ditty that the gossips were sure wasn’t proper. Marie Cartwright was never popular among the churchgoing women of Virginia City, although she never missed a Sunday service. She loved going to church. If she’d had her way, the church bell would never stop ringing. All that intensity had go somewhere.

“Don’t judge them so harshly,” she’d tell her husband, who’d often been outraged at the snubbing of his lovely, penitent wife. “The church is just a corral for sinners, the two of us included. I’ll never stop attending, not in my life. They can sin in their way, and I in mine, thank you very much.”

Marie was funny and liked to have fun. Adam could tell his kid brother about how his mother once laughed so hard at her husband’s bad joke that she fell right out of her chair and onto the floor in an undignified sprawl. Since Adam had watched his own little brother do the same, it was a memory that made him smile.

There were other memories that were more painful and private, ones that were harder to share with Joe. Adam could tell stories about the way she’d been more than willing to jump into the fray with her fifteen year old stepson, matching his obstinacy with fierceness all her own. Once, she’d slapped him hard enough across the face that the bruise lasted for days. It was surprisingly dainty – the black and blue outline of her hand. He’d deserved it and more, and he pitied the blackmailers if they ever tasted a morsel of her righteous anger. She wasn’t someone to underestimate, that Marie Cartwright.

She was no saint.

Marie’s girlhood had evidently been a tragedy of errors and lapses in judgment so serious, the consequences lasted a lifetime. She had made many of the mistakes that a lovely, young woman could make. And those “mistakes” kept coming back with outstretched palms, again and again and again…

How could Adam talk about her in a way that did her justice? Marie was more than the mistakes she made. She was lovely and proud and flawed. She was Joe’s mother. What more could Adam offer but that?

“I’m sorry,” Adam said gently. “Pa was wrong to keep it from you, and I was wrong to let him.”

Joe was very quiet, thinking it all over.

Then he asked, “Was it so bad, what she did? This is what I’m thinking, Adam. I’m thinking that maybe what my mother did was so bad it was unforgivable. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Pa tell me? If I was in that sort of trouble, would he see me like her? Would he lie about me, try to make me go away if I did the sorts of things that she did?”

“This ain’t about you, Little Joe, and ain’t nobody trying to make your ma go away.” Hoss stepped back in the clearing, holding a hatful of berries. He dumped them on a smooth gray stone and sat between them. “It aint bout any of us. Your ma was good to me and Adam both. She might have made mistakes, but she ain’t alone in that. Little Joe, seems to me you’ve been making enough mistakes, you don’t need to be draggin’ your ma into it for an excuse.”

For a moment, Joe looked angry enough to go after Hoss for that last comment. Adam could just see their father riding up and finding the bodies of his three dead sons, done in by fratricide, when ordinary lightning strikes and forest fires couldn’t do it. Yet, just when Adam thought could predict the rest of their day, Joe confounded them all by nodding.

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe said ruefully. “I’ve made enough mistakes lately to fill a molasses barrel! You think Eliza Mather’s pa’s gonna come after me?”

“Should he?” Adam asked pointedly.

“Not in the way you’re thinking,” Joe said, “but maybe he’d have a right to. I haven’t exactly treated her the way she deserves…”

“Mind your mistakes, boy,” Hoss said and gave his brother a hard enough wallop on the back as a reminder, forgetting all about his hurt ribs. “That Eliza’s a good little gal, and she don’t need the likes of you dragging her heart through the dust you’re stirring up. You been throwing too much dust around, Little Joe, that’s for dang sure. Need to do some growin’ up first, I reckon.”

Miraculously, Joe didn’t argue the point. “I reckon I’ve been doing a lot of things I shouldn’t…”

Neither of his brothers disputed that fact, but they didn’t lay into him either. It wasn’t that kind of day.

“Then stop doing them things,” Hoss said, and Adam added, “We really should be getting a move on, if we’re planning to live through today.”

They were probably going to live but were too oddly relaxed to care. They’d already given it everything they had. Literally, they had no idea where they were going. In all the confusion, they’d gone and gotten themselves good and lost even though they were likely somewhere on the Ponderosa. With their minds all smoke-muddled, they weren’t even sure they were following the right river. Hoss admitted that he had no idea if they were five or fifty miles away from the Jenkins place, and none had the gumption to start walking far enough to find out. There wasn’t much left to do but wait it out. Rescue was likely on its way.

“Pa will find us,” Hoss said confidently and tipped his hat over his face, drowsing a little in the sun.

“I expect he will,” Adam said, giving in to the complacency that was settling over all of them. “Then he’ll let us know what he thinks about us getting lost in our own woods.”

“Pa’s going to find us,” Joe echoed and for the first time in a long time, he sounded like he meant it. He yawned. “Pa always knows where he’s going.”

The sky was blue and clear overhead. Most of the smoke had drifted away. If anything was hurting, Joe wasn’t saying, and nobody was asking. The sun warmed his bare shoulders, and he lay back sleepily, between his brothers.

Epilogue

Much later in the day, the Cartwright brothers were found by their father and a veritable posse of ranch hands and curious neighbors. Ben found his boys sleeping by a river on the far reaches of the Ponderosa, some good seventy miles from the Jenkin’s homestead which was the nearest settlement around. He had no idea what they were thinking or where they’d been heading. However, none of the three seemed terribly surprised to see him. His sons had inhaled a worrisome amount of smoke and were chafed by the wind, lightheaded, and coughing in a way that Ben found disturbing. Adam and Joe sported bruises on top of the bruises they’d inflicted on each other, and Joe had his shirt tied around his ribs. As was typical, Hoss had fared the best of them all, but even he seemed a little off in the head, reminiscing affectionately about Marie like she was standing right next to them and hadn’t been dead for a dozen years. As was often the case, the real story unraveled itself slowly. It began in the way Joe opened his eyes to his father’s worried face.

“Predictable,” Joe said, but there wasn’t anger in it. Just a bittersweet maturity that hadn’t been there before. Then Joe said his father’s name and smiled.

Ben had ridden across miles of burnt out woods to find his sons. The fire had moved furiously and providentially. His boys were very fortunate to be alive, even though they would likely take a while to recover from breathing in so much smoke. Ben was still somewhat puzzled. His sons seemed at peace with each other and with him as well. It was as if he’d been forgiven when his back was turned. It certainly seemed like he’d gotten off too easy. It was the kind of gift that never failed to humble him. Love knows all things, forgives all things, and then stops short and does it again. Ben mulled over that kind of love, as he helped his youngest son back to the buckboard.

Adam was also thinking about it, as he and Hoss wearily followed behind. He thought of pretty Eliza Mathers, with her apple cheeks and her righteous anger at his brother. Taking his father as an example, Adam dared himself to not pass her by the next time he went to town. Perhaps, she’d have forgiven Joe by then and be ready to embark on something entirely unexpected and even a little reckless.

It wasn’t something Adam understood completely. Ben had known all about Marie and had loved her anyways, back when they had their whole lives ahead of them. In the same way, he loved her son. It took a different kind of nerve, to love someone who was likely going to hurt you. To do it again and again. His sons leaned against that courage. What choice did they have? It was like their pa always told them. They’d know to take the chance when the right one came around. Ben had known it the first time he saw Marie and every time after. You see, Joe’s mother had been the marrying kind…

The End

 

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Author: DBird

One of the most prolific of Bonanza fanfic writers, Dbird has 56 of her wonderful stories here in the Brand Library.

12 thoughts on “Compass (by dbird)

  1. Never a dull moment for these Cartwright fellas! Lessons learnt especially for Ben, to listen to his oldest son more!! I love,the way he guys lose and find each other so well. Brotherly love and understanding.

  2. I can’t be sure if I’ve read this before or not–but with a dbird story, it doesn’t really matter, since there’s always more to find on every rereading. Thank goodness this treasure is in the Brand library now, or again, or whatever the case may be, and thank you to the person who put it there (or back there) for reminding me to spend more time with dbird’s Cartwrights!

  3. A perfect, brilliantly written story from someone who really knows the minds of her Cartwrights, and what makes them tick. Great interaction between the brothers and very real too – we get the rough and the smooth, both sides of the coin, etc. Simply superb.

  4. It’s good to see imperfection and what it might’ve taken to pull the Cs back together. Just in for a reread, Debbie. Great story. Great writing. A joy to read.

  5. So many perfect lines and images. In dbird’s rendering, the Cs are never flawless, but always, always, they find their way back to each other with humor, honesty, and love. Grace and forgiveness are consistent themes, here as in so many others. Brava, my friend.

    P.S. Deb, if you ever come back to this library, please let me know; I miss you. You can message me here or send me an email (the address hasn’t changed.)

  6. There is so much packed into this wonderful story. Love is amazing in all its forms, and the strength of the Cartwright men.

  7. How grateful am I that this jewel has been returned to the library? Brought to life with such warmth, depth and understanding, the Cartwrights are honed to perfection in a story about secrets and dealing with them. A joy to read and I loved it. Thank you.

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