Summary: A What Happens Next for ‘The Magnificent Adah’. As Hoss finishes one last beer, Little Joe heads outside to saddle Cochise and wait for him – little knowing the deadly danger that lurks in the dark.
Rated: PG-13 for brutality, violence, and graphic images
Word count: 14770
I’ll See You Outside
Hoss Cartwright frowned and sighed a deep sigh.
The big man ran his finger around the lip of his beer glass, clearin’ it of sweat, and glanced at the door to the saloon, considerin’ whether or not he should step out into the street and head for Piper’s Opera House. He and Adam had come to the saloon together and ended up partin’ after tradin’ words on what to do about little brother. Adam laughed when he told him what Joe said about it takin’ ‘a red-blooded man’ to persuade a woman like Adah Menken and thinkin’ that man was him.
Truth to tell, he thought Adam was just plain old green-eyed. Older brother’d tried to have his way with the actress and she’d turned him down flat. Little brother was a darned good-lookin’ man, ‘specially wearin’ that there brown city slicker suit he had. And he seemed to have a way with older women. There’d been Lota Crabtree who’d been paid right handsome to trap him, and who turned it down ‘cause she didn’t want him hurt. And then there’d been Julia Bulette. At first he’d thought little brother was just courtin’ her to make their Pa mad, but when he saw the look in Joe’s eyes when he heard she’d been knifed and robbed, well, it was clear Joe’d learned the meaning of lovin’ a woman.
Hoss raised an eyebrow as he took another sip of his beer. He hadn’t thought about it before. Miss Menken made three older women baby brother ‘d sparked in about twice as many weeks. With a shake of his head, Hoss leaned in and wrapped his fingers around his beer.
He’d have to caution him to slow down.
All of a sudden there was a tap on his shoulder. Hoss turned to find Little Joe behind him. He’d been thinkin’ so much he’d missed his brother comin’ in.
With a grin he said, “Little Joe, how’d you make – ”
The big man didn’t see the fist flyin’ at him until it took him on the chin. While his head was still reelin’, baby brother snarled, “Now don’t say anything else about Adah Menken.”
He blinked. “Joe, I ain’t even opened my mouth!”
Joe scowled. He had a funny look on his face, like maybe he was mad at himself. “Yeah, well, just don’t,” he said as he shook his fingers. “Go on and finish your beer. I’ll see you outside.”
Hoss watched him go, a smile on his lips.
Dag-burn it, if Joe wasn’t the cutest darn thing!
Joseph Francis Cartwright was one preoccupied man. He felt like an idiot. First of all for what he’d tried with Miss Menken, and secondly, for the reason he’d tried it. First and foremost it was pride, and like Pa had taught them, pride went before destruction. He was so sure he could best older brother Adam in the wooing department that he’d forgotten the woman he’d be trying to woo was a person – a real person with a real life and real problems of her own.
He felt like an idiot for acting just like his pa.
Joe snorted. Now, he loved his Pa – loved him more than anything – and respected him. That love was the reason he’d gotten himself into this mess to begin with, and why he’d tried to get Miss Menken to ‘show her colors’. He – along with Adam and Hoss – was trying to prove that the actress was playing their father for a fool and was only interested in his money. He should have known better. Pa wasn’t stupid or vain. No woman, no matter how beautiful, was gonna fool him. And as to Adah? Pshaw, any woman worth her salt – could you say that about a woman, Joe wondered? – wouldn’t be able to help herself where Ben Cartwright was concerned. She’d just have to fall in love with him! After all, Pa was the best man in the territory – the smartest, the surest, and the most honorable. The young man grinned as he stepped off the boardwalk and into the street. Still, there was one thing Pa wasn’t, and that was someone who kept his opinions to himself. Pa was always butting in, telling him what girl he should date and deciding who was and wasn’t good enough for him….
Just like he’d tried to do to his pa.
Joe halted in his progress. He chuckled as he turned back toward the hotel and glanced up at the balcony he’d just vacated. From everything Adam and Hoss had told him about his own Mama – about her tempestuous nature and quick temper – it seemed to him that Miss Menken would make a right fine match for Pa. The curly-headed teenager continued to stare at the French doors he had escaped through until a shadow passed by. Well, two shadows.
Joe winced as his hand went involuntarily to his back side. He’d better skedaddle quick before his pa looked out that window if he knew what was good for him.
As he started on his way, Joe’s thoughts flew back some five minutes or so to the scene in the saloon. He wasn’t quite sure why he’d taken his own humiliation out on Hoss except that he knew middle brother would understand. There was something in him that was always fightin’ to get out; something deep inside that was like a burning fire that living just kept heaping kerosene on. Everywhere he looked there was injustice, and if there was one thing a Cartwright couldn’t abide, it was something being unfair. It made him furious. Joe glanced over his shoulder again at the hotel. And then, what did he up and do? Something unfair. Accusing a beautiful and intelligent woman like Adah Menken of being…well…the wrong kind of woman. He’d have used that uppercut on himself if he could have…but he couldn’t…and so he’d delivered it to Hoss’ chin and…
He was gonna be dead by morning. Middle brother would see to it.
And if Hoss didn’t, then it would be Adam who’d be standin’ on the porch, arms crossed and toe tapping when he got home, ready to lecture him to death on the right and wrong way to woo a woman.
The pair of them wouldn’t give Pa a chance to take a shot.
Joe let out a sigh as he reached Cochise’s side. His horse blew out a greeting as he tossed the strap up and over his saddle so he could tighten the cinch.
At least she still loved him.
Maybe he’d just sleep in the barn.
For a second Joe thought there was an eclipse. There wasn’t. When he turned, he found a six-foot-seven three-hundred-pound mountain of a man blocking the light. The slight young man swallowed and took a step back out of instinct.
When he became aware the next day, five-foot-nine one-hundred and thirty-five-pound Little Joe Cartwright would wish that instinct had told him to run.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he replied.
There wasn’t much of a moon that night. What light there was, was a hazy sort of glow cast by the meager light spilling out of open doorways, and by the few streetlamps that had been lit. No one bothered to clean the glass in the lamps, so it was a hellish sort of light, all red and ugly. It struck the man’s pugnacious nose, which twisted left like a sidewinder, and sparked in his beady eyes – though how it reached them Joe could never say since the stranger’s eyes were little more than the split between a dead man’s lips.
“The name’s Regan,” the man said. “John C. Regan.”
Joe blinked. So? Did he know a ‘John C. Regan’? He didn’t think so. His pa had plenty of business partners and even more acquaintances in Virginia City, but he was pretty sure he would have remembered one who could have given Hoss a run for his money in fair fight.
Hmm. There was an idea. There was nothing the townsfolk loved more than a good fight. Five cents a head would be a good price for admission.
The man was staring at him.
A thought formed on Joe’s lips. Maybe he should apologize. But then the man spoke again.
“Remember that when your Pa asks.”
Okay. Obviously the guy had had a little too much to drink. Joe hadn’t smelled it at first, but as the mountain of a man moved closer, it became clear as a mountain spring that he was pie-eyed as a Paiute medicine man smoking Devils’ Weed. Joe resisted rolling his eyes and turned back to Cochise.
He’d just beat a hasty retreat….
As a young man John C. Regan had learned that you went in fast and you went in hard. ‘It ain’t a man you’re hitting, it’s a punch bag’, his Tipperary trainer told him. The moment you see your opponent as a man – a living, breathing man with just as much right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever makes him happy as you – you’re done.
In other words, you’re dead.
He’d started life in Ireland and come to California at the ripe old age of seventeen. Even then he would have made two of the scrawny snot-nosed kid he was hammering. Prize-fighting had earned him a living, but it was the bar room fights John C. Regan relished – no rules, no regulations, and no law looking over your shoulder. He always won. Always. It was no tall tale that he could take down the biggest and best of them with one hand tied behind his back. That gave him some satisfaction, but nothing like the satisfaction he felt now. It wasn’t because the Cartwright kid was scrawny as a school girl and twice as pretty, it was because of what Little Joe Cartwright represented.
Everything he represented.
The rabbit punch to the back of the neck was for being who he was – a Cartwright.
The sucker punch that drove the kid into the alley was for the champagne and roses.
The low blow, just below the level of Cartwright’s waistline, that sent him sailing into a trio of barrels masked by darkness, was for Adah saying he was ‘washed up’.
The feint, followed by a kidney punch that drove the kid to his knees was for her trying to buy him off.
The thug paused to crack his bleeding knuckles in preparation for the final blow.
He’d saved the best for last.
John C. Regan, who outweighed the semi-concious boy he was beating by nearly two hundred pounds, lifted his victim by the shirt collar and dangled him a few inches off the ground. The sneer that had curled his cruel lips as he meted out his own perverse kind of justice, warped into a devilish smile as he observed the damage he had done. And then, seeing not the boy but the man he wished to kill, the prize fighter raised his right hand and, with a twisting movement that was meant to tear flesh from bone, drove the corkscrew into Little Joe Cartwright’s left eye.
Then he opened his fingers and let the once handsome boy drop to the filthy ground of the alley as if he were no more than a scrap of meat meant for the dogs.
John C. Regan stood where he was, staring down at his victim for several seconds before he stirred. As he raised his hand and regarded his bloody knuckles, he chuckled.
“I told your old man I’d settle this my way,” he said.
Just before he kicked the boy’s near lifeless body with the weighted toe of his boot and walked away.
Hoss paused at the door of the saloon and looked back at the stranger whose name was John C. Regan. There’d been something about the man that set his teeth on edge and it had nothin’ to do with the snub he’d got when he said his name was Cartwright. Regan was as mean a lookin’ cuss as he’d ever see’d and arrogant too – why, his words swaggered as much as he did.
The big man cast his eyes toward the Piper Opera House. Right beside it was where Joe told him he was gonna tether his horse. Hoss grinned. He supposed little brother had done that in case he had to make a quick getaway if Pa showed up. As he stepped off the boardwalk, he squinted against the hellish light that dimly lit the street. Yep. Cochise was there all right. His brother’s paint pony was hard to miss with its patches of bright white on a field of black. Hoss walked over to the horse and reached for it, and was surprised when the animal shied away from his touch.
“Hey, Cooch,” the big man cooed. “What’s wrong with you?” Hoss frowned as he noted Joe’s cinch was tossed over the animal’s saddle like he’d been tightenin’ it and gettin’ ready to ride. Droppin’ the leather strap back into place, he surveyed the street.
There was no sign of Joe.
The big man let out a sigh as he turned toward the Opera House with all of its hustle and bustle and carriages comin’ and goin’. He was just gonna hafta go and find that there woman and ask her what had become of little brother. Maybe Joe had gone back to apologize or maybe….
What was that? The big man paused. He’d heard somethin’…a strange sound…..
Whatever it was, it was comin’ from the alley.
A long time ago, when he was a little boy, he’d heard a noise like that out in the wild. Not knowin’ what it was he’d moved in slow-like, listenin’ and frownin’, until he found the source. Turned out it was a young pup what had been near mauled to death by a wolf. Like he did then, Hoss moved with caution, knowin’ somethin’ was in pain and needin’ help, but takin’ care less whatever made it hurt was still there.
The alley was black as God’s pockets. He couldn’t see nothin’. Movin’ with caution, the big man walked along it, his fingers brushing the wall of the building to his right-hand side. He’d just about decided he was hearin’ things when his foot struck something soft laying on the ground. He used his toe to feel it a bit and realized it wasn’t a some ‘thing’, but a some ‘one’. Reaching down Hoss found a shoulder and then his fingers encountered a mass of thick curly hair matted with somethin’ sticky.
Hoss reeled, uncertain of what to do. The big man hesitated a second before dropping to his knees and feeling along his brother’s slender form. Little Joe didn’t move or make a sound. The big man cupped his baby brother’s face in his hand and sickened when he felt the blood runnin’ over his fingers. Land of Goshen! What had happened? Who could have done this?
He was gonna kill them!
Hoss closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. He had to corral his emotions. None of that thinkin’ was gonna do Little Joe any good right now.
What should he do?
What would Pa and Adam do?
First thing, he needed to get a fix on how bad beat Joe was. Yeah, that was it. He remembered Doc Martin sayin’ it weren’t always the smartest thing to move a man due to the injuries he could have inside.
Maybe he should go for Doc Martin.
But no, he couldn’t bear to leave Little Joe all alone in this dark alley.
The big man opened his eyes and looked down at his little brother. A single solitary beam of light, cast by a distant source, had worked its way into the alley to illuminate his brother’s still form.
He had to put his hand on Little Joe’s chest to know for sure the boy was breathin’.
Coming to a decision, the big man slipped his arms under his baby brother’s battered body and lifted him up. With Little Joe cradled like a baby against his massive chest, he stepped into the street and then halted, unsure of a direction. The hellish glow of the streetlamps struck the boy’s face as he did, revealing the extent of his injuries. What Hoss saw filled him with a deep, unspeakable rage.
Somebody near beat Little Joe to death.
For a second time, the big man was at a loss. He didn’t know what to do. Then his little brother, broken as he was, shifted in his arms and gave him the answer.
Joe’s bruised lips parted and he breathed.
Ben Cartwright’s emotions were in turmoil. He’d known beforehand that Adah would turn his proposal down, and yet held out a slim hope that he was wrong. She was a beautiful, strong, and determined woman; a wonderful woman with a vigorous and expanded mind equal to any man’s. Perfect in every way but one.
Adah was blind when it came to John C. Regan.
The pair’s dalliance had begun years before when Adah was the toast of two continents and Regan, a well-known and respected prize fighter. If you could ‘respect’ anyone who made his living by beating other men half to death. They were married briefly, until it became known that her divorce from Alexander Menken, her former husband and manager, was not what one would call ‘official’. Ben smiled as he turned the corner and headed for the stairs. He supposed his boys were right. Adah was the ‘wrong kind of a woman’. But then that same thing had been said about Joseph’s mother. People’s tongues wagged and women were destroyed because of youthful misadventures that in a man would be overlooked. Life often became for them a ‘school of hard knocks’ which they, in turn, grew hard to survive. Like Marie, Adelaide ‘Adah’ McCord came from New Orleans and was Creole by birth, and like Marie she embodied the free spirit and soul of that great city. Adah would not let others define her.
At least, no one, but John C. Regan.
Ben halted to let a mother and her children pass. The quartet had opened the door in front of him and stepped out into the corridor. He tipped his hat and smiled and let his mind wander, for just a moment, to what kind of a son Adah might have given him.
He laughed out loud.
One Joseph was quite enough, thank you!
As he began to move again, this time nearing the top of the stairs, Ben let out a sigh. Adah’s relationship with Regan was complicated, to say the least. Though he had never seen a bruise – and he doubted the brute of a man had hit her, since he could easily have killed her – Regan had battered her all the same. There were women like Marie who – abused by men and the life they had chosen – never lost their spirit. His late wife’s abusers had sought to break her spirit, but they had not succeeded. Though Adah appeared to have kept her spirit mostly intact, she was to put it brutally ‘damaged goods’. The actress’ response when he questioned her choice to live ‘half a life’ – that maybe ‘half a life’ was all she was capable of understanding – had saddened him, but it had not been unexpected.
Adah Menken believed that John C. Regan was all she deserved.
Ben descended the stairs quickly and crossed to the hotel desk where the manager waited. He was more than ready to leave this place and head home. As the manager looked up, he held out the room key and said, “I’ll be checking out shortly. Would you prepare my bill, please?”
The manager was looking beyond him.
He had the oddest look on his face.
A heartbeat later, his middle son spoke ten words that changed Ben Cartwright’s life.
“Pa! Pa. Somebody mite near beat Little Joe to death!”
He blamed himself.
John C. Regan’s final words rang in Ben Cartwright’s ears even as he sat at the side of his youngest son, holding his hand and staring at Joseph’s once angelic face that was now no more than a Hellish battlefield.
‘I will settle this, Cartwright, my way.’
‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’
The guests in the hotel lobby were giving them a wide berth, unwilling or unable to enter into the drama that was unfolding before their eyes. The wealthy patrons hurried by, pretending they did not see the young boy who lay bleeding on the horsehair sofa; acting as if his labored breathing was as common a sound as the clink of glasses and the chink of silverware against china plates. He’d thought of sending for Adah – of shoving into her face the brutal reality of this man she loved – but decided against it. Adah was an actress. He would never know if her penitence was real. Anyhow, Adah didn’t matter.
What mattered was Little Joe.
Ben shifted and lifted his hand to touch his son’s curls, but hesitated, unsure of whether or not the gesture would bring the boy additional pain. He was no innocent; no novice to the evils of the world, but this…. The anguished father sucked in a breath and held it against his rising anger. Regan did this to his boy because of him; because he had dared to love Adah and to offer her a life lived free of fear. John C. Regan had considered his actions and with cold calculation decided the price he would pay.
The rancher moved that hand to his face to strike back the tears that had formed, but then he let them fall on his boy’s pallid flesh. Little Joe was alive. He thanked his maker for that! But the boy was so broken. Shortly after he’d sent Hoss to find a doctor, he’d gingerly pried his son’s shirt tail free of his trousers so he could examine him. There didn’t appear to be a square inch of Joseph’s torso that was not bruised. The contusions were the deepest and darkest on the back of his neck and on the boy’s lower back just above his kidneys.
Two places where a single blow could kill.
Yes, John C. Regan had decided what payment he would exact.
His son’s life.
Someone cleared their throat. Ben looked up. It was the mustached man who had been behind the desk. The manager of the hotel was in his middle years. His pale blue eyes shone with unmasked sympathy.
“Mister Cartwright, is there anything I can do to help?”
This stranger’s compassion nearly unmanned him.
Ben swallowed over a lump in his throat. “My other son…Hoss…he went to fetch the doctor. Perhaps you could see what’s taking him so long?”
“Certainly.” The man took a step. “Mister Cartwright. Here he is now.”
Without loosing Joseph’s hand, Ben turned and looked toward the door. Another man had preceded Hoss through it. He was on the short side, and wore a gray suit with a white shirt and black string tie. His gray hair was thinning on the top. The newcomer had the look of a man who has witnessed tragedy and become numb to it. His movements were slow and sure – too slow for an anxious father who had feared for twenty long minutes that each breath his young son took would be his last.
“I couldn’t find Doc Martin,” Hoss said by way of apology. “Seems he’s out of town. This here is Doc Fields.”
Paul was not the official town doctor yet – there were others – but he was his friend and the best.
Ben’s nod was curt.
Doctor Field’s gaze landed on Joseph where he lay on the settee. There was a softening of the taut line of his mouth and a deepening of the already profound furrows on his brow.
“How old?” he asked.
It had not been the question Ben expected. It took him a few seconds to respond.
“Savage,” the man said as he came to his side.
Ben looked at his boy, at Joseph’s battered body; at his bruised and bloody face.
Adam Cartwright was enjoying a whiskey in the hotel saloon. He’d decided to wait for his kid brother to finish his pointless attempt at wooing the sophisticate that was Adah Menken by throwing one back and watching the world go by. Adah was quite a woman. He could understand why Pa was attracted to her. She had wit, sophistication, and a keen intelligence – and was a beauty to boot. The problem was, she was also an actress and actresses tended to be, to put it politely, a bit ‘lively’. Generally, they were the kind that had traded the normal affections of a woman for the bright allure of acclaim and applause. Not that he had anything against them. He’d loved a few. But, generally speaking, they were not the type of woman to settle down on a spread in the middle of nowhere and content themselves by running a household and rearing children.
Adam almost spit out his beer.
Egad! Little Joe was seventeen. He was hard enough to cope with. What if Pa remarried and there was a new little brother?
Or little sister?
Adam took another sip and let the liquid slide down his throat. He’d already made his mind up that marriage, if it happened for him, was far in the future. He’d raised one kid and barely made it through that. Every day he looked for the gray hairs. He was sure they were there.
Or maybe they had been and he’d plucked them out along with the rest of his hair that last time Little Joe had decided he was old enough to come to town on his own.
Or that time Joe’d ridden that horse that was too big for Hoss.
Or maybe it had been the second – or was it third? – time he’d had to take a shotgun away from an irate father while his baby brother hung his curly head and gave him that ‘who me?’ look.
Adam sighed, looked at his drink, and tossed the rest of it back.
They’d be lucky if the kid made it to eighteen.
The black-haired man looked at the door, and then at his glass, and then held up two fingers to signal one of the saloon girls – a pretty one named Jenny – that he wanted a refill.
“What’s your poison?” Jenny asked after sashaying over to the table.
He thought a moment and then handed her the glass. “How about a beer this time?”
“And here I thought you were more of a man than that little brother of yours,” she said with a wink. “You Cartwrights and your beer.”
Pa preferred beer. If the truth was known, he did too. Beer was a pleasure. Whiskey was an exercise.
“Now, you don’t want me to fall off my horse on the way out to the Ponderosa, do I?” he asked playfully. When Jenny laughed, he added, “So did Little Joe behave himself?”
“I wasn’t talking about Joe. I meant Hoss.”
The fact that Jenny had referred to Hoss as his ‘little’ brother did not escape him.
But it did amuse him.
“So Hoss was here.” It only made sense. “Was he waiting for Little Joe?”
“He was,” the pretty girl remarked as she placed the empty whiskey glass on her tray. “And he was.”
Jenny laughed again. “It was the funniest thing. Hoss was standing here, minding his own business, when your little little brother,” she grinned, “came in and popped him on the chin.”
“Joe did what?”
“Popped Hoss right on the chin!”
“Did he say why?”
She shrugged. “I was busy, but I heard Little Joe tell Hoss not to say anything ‘else’ about Adah somebody.” Her eyes brightened in the way a woman’s did when someone has just handed her a new hat. “Oh! That’s that actress who’s in town, isn’t it?”
Adam was reeling a bit. “So, let me get this straight. Hoss was drinking a beer and Little Joe just walked up to him and punched him because Hoss said something about Adah Menken?”
Jenny scowled at him. “No, silly. Little Joe popped him because Hoss didn’t say anything.” She cocked her head. “It’s a good thing you didn’t order another whiskey, sweetie. I would have told Sam not to pour it!”
And with that, Jenny sashayed away.
Leaving Adam blinking.
He sat there a moment and then rose to his feet. “Never mind,” he called out, stopping Jenny from pouring the beer.
“Good luck finding those brothers of yours,” she called out. “Your pa ain’t gonna be happy if you lose them.”
Adam let out a sigh and stepped out of the door.
Only to come close to being run down by the Paris Opera hotel manager. The man had a wild-eyed look.
“Are you looking for someone?” Adam asked.
The mustached man looked him in the face. His gaze shifted to his shirt and pants before returning. “Are you Adam Cartwright?”
“Who wants to…?” The black-haired man paused. “What’s this about?”
“If you are Adam Cartwright, your father sent me to find you. Your younger brother….”
Adam felt it this time. It was about a dozen.
Hairs that went gray, that is.
Adam Cartwright stirred. He glanced at the open window before placing the book he held on the chair-side table and rising. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers and let out a sigh. It was almost morning. He’d gotten, maybe, three hours of sleep – in the chair by the table, with the book in his hand. The black-haired man rose and walked to the window and looked out on the near-deserted street before turning on his heel and heading for the corridor outside of his room.
The hallway of the hotel was quiet. It was early enough that the majority of its occupants were still sleeping. Adam grinned. One in particular, for sure. He paused outside his brother Hoss’ room and listened to the big man snore. ‘Sawing logs’, some people called it. Since they were in the timber business he thought that quite apropos.
It had been close to midnight before they took possession of their rooms. Pa already had one, but he’d rented two more for him and Hoss to bed down in. Adam snorted. Two, because Pa knew he’d never get any sleep if he was in the same room with Hoss! Thank God, the big man was doing all right. He was battered and bruised, but had come out of the fight – all things considered – pretty much intact. Middle brother and John C. Regan were just about equal in size and strength, but Hoss lacked the sheer inhumanity of the other man. He shuddered still to think of what might have happened to their pa if the older man had taken the brute on.
What might have happened. Adam puffed out a breath and shook his head. He didn’t have to imagine it – he’d seen it lying in his Pa’s bed.
Joe had made it through the night. They hadn’t been sure he would.
There were so many variables to the beating he’d experienced. According to Doctor Fields. John C. Regan had thrown just about every dirty punch known to man.
It was clear his intention had been to kill Little Joe.
That was another thing that had taken a toll on middle brother. Hoss was a gentle soul wrapped in a solid core of strength. He cared deeply. He loved deeply. And most of all, middle brother wanted to believe that everyone cared and loved as deeply as he did. What Regan did to Little Joe shook him to the core. Hoss’ body would heal within a matter of days.
That gentle soul was another matter.
As for him, there’d been only one thing about what happened that really surprised him. It wasn’t Regan. Oh, no. He’d seen evil in all its incarnations and understood well the base nature of man. No one who took the road west ended it in innocence. No, what surprised him was Adah Menken. The savvy, smart, sophisticated and intelligent woman, whom their Pa loved enough to ask to marry him, had chosen the beast over beauty. She actually loved Regan. John C. Regan, the man who had beaten her down until she believed she deserved only ‘half’ a life.
‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’
It still bothered him, what his Pa had said after Adah came to Regan’s rescue. ‘There are many kinds of love. As many as there are women.’ He was one of the fortunate ones. He’d known love in a great variety. A Father’s love. A mother’s, in Inger and Marie. Brotherly love. There was the love of his land, of his country; of God.
But the kind of a love that drove a woman back to man who had nearly killed a seventeen-year-old boy, and done it out of spite?
That kind of love wasn’t love – it was a sickness.
Adam looked up and found he was standing outside the door to his father’s room. He raised his hand to knock, but before he could, a soft voice spoke.
“Come in, son.”
The black-haired man shook his head.
How did Pa do it?
Ben Cartwright glanced at his youngest son before placing the bloody rag he held on the bedside table and rising to greet his eldest. Adam looked as he imagined he did – exhausted, anxious…troubled. They’d all been in attendance the night before for the doctor’s prognosis. Joseph’s eye would heal – thank God! – but it would be days if not longer before they knew if the boy himself would be all right. There were bruises around Joe’s waist, dark as any cavernous hollow and tight as a fist that could be a sign of internal bleeding. The blow Regan struck to the back of the boy’s head – known a ‘rabbit punch’ – could have injured his spinal cord or shaken his brain from side to side so violently Joseph would be left partially paralyzed. Doctor Fields remarked that, had the blow been any harder, it was likely the brain stem would have been completely severed from the spine. In that case, it would not have been a bruised and battered Little Joe his brother found in that alley.
But a dead one.
The rancher ran a hand over his eyes, curtailing the tears.
“How’s Joe doing?” Adam asked from the doorway.
Ben went to meet him. “Your brother is holding his own. Joseph was in a lot of pain this morning. The doctor’s been by. He gave him a dose of morphine.”
Adam’s gaze moved from Little Joe to him. “Was that wise with the head injury?”
He’d asked that as well. The doctor had shrugged and admitted it was a toss-up.
He really missed Paul.
“I felt it best to let the boy sleep,” Ben answered. In truth, it had been more than he could bear to listen to his almost grown son whimper like a child whose soul as well as body had been wounded almost beyond comprehension.
Adam nodded. “I just checked on Hoss. He’s sleeping too. Did the Doc give him something?”
The rancher nodded. “A mild sedative for the pain.”
His eldest was watching him. “What about your pain, Pa? I’m…sorry about Adah.”
Ben raised one eyebrow. “Are you?”
Adam drew in a breath and let it out slowly as he considered his answer. “Why…how could you love a woman like…that…enough to marry her?”
He knew his son was not being disrespectful. Adam didn’t care that Adah was an actress or that she had been married before, or even that she’d shown her body off to the entire city. What his eldest meant was – how could he love a woman who did not love herself?
Ben thought a moment. “You remember the trip out west?”
The boy snorted. “I remember it well.”
“Then you remember the face of desperation.” Ben gestured with his head and the two of them stepped into the hall where their conversation would not disturb Joseph. “Women…men…anyone can be driven to desperation by circumstances.”
“So you’re saying Adah chose Regan over you out of desperation? I don’t see that, Pa.”
“Did you see any resemblance between Adah and your stepmother?”
His son looked uncomfortable.
“Women like Adah, like Marie, are delicate creatures. All it takes is one man using or abusing them – and telling them that it is their fault – for them to believe it. They take on the belief that they are unworthy.”
“But why choose Regan over you? You would have loved her and made her feel that she was worth something. You would have given her everything.”
Ben pursed his lips. “Ah, there’s the ‘rub’ as your Shakespeare is wont to say. Such women don’t believe they deserve anything. They long for a good man, a man they can trust, but they are afraid to trust him. They fear that, if they trust him he will betray them and break their heart. And that, Adam, they cannot survive.”
“So it’s safer to choose a man they can’t trust?”
Adam was silent a moment. “Marie trusted you.”
“Yes, by God’s grace. Your stepmother chose to take my hand and pull herself out of a hellish existence. But it was hard, Adam. Marie never felt she was good enough. Though, when Joseph came along, I believe she almost forgot her fear.” He clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I should get back to your brother.”
Adam’s troubled gaze shot to the partially open door. “If you think Joe is going to be…okay…I’ll head out to the spread. The ranch won’t run itself.”
“You do that, son.” He understood. Adam needed solitude to deal with his own grief and rage. “Hoss and I will stay here with your brother until he is well enough to travel.”
“When did Doctor Fields think that would be?”
Ben’s aspect darkened. “It depends on your brother and how he heals. There’s some…concern…about the bruising around his hips.”
Adam nodded. He, like any educated man, knew what that meant.
His son covered is hand with his own. “Joe’s a tough kid, Pa. He’ll be okay.”
It flashed before his eyes again – the vision of Marie’s slight, slender, curly-haired, bright and beautiful boy facing death at the hands of a monster nearly three times his size.
It was the West.
They all had to be tough.
Ben Cartwright hurried up the hotel staircase. His fear mounted with each step he took toward his middle son, who was standing at the top. Hoss had insisted on sitting with Joseph while he went downstairs to get something to eat. He had no appetite, but hunger paid no attention to a man’s desire to wallow in rage and grief. He’d stood up and nearly swooned and known he had to go.
It was odd, sitting in the hotel dining room with the chaos of normal life swirling about him. There was a couple sitting at one of the tables, and a family of six who were obviously heading out as soon as they finished eating. They were in their travel clothes and had several valises on the floor by their chairs. Behind him three businessmen were holding a meeting. He knew them, though not well. They’d greeted him as they passed by and asked how he was doing.
He hadn’t know what to say.
To say nothing seemed…wrong…somehow. To say anything seemed…wrong…somehow.
So he simply nodded.
Just after the waitress delivered his plate, the hotel manager came over to inquire about Joseph. His answer was pat. ‘He’s holding his own and the doctor hopes for the best.’ To say more would have been to open a floodgate that he had neither the will to handle, the energy to cope with, or the capability to close. The man seemed to understand. Though a stranger, the manager briefly rested a hand on his shoulder before moving on to the next table.
After that he sat there, lost in thought; picking at his food and pushing it around on the china plate – until he heard a familiar voice. It was evocative, arousing in him both desire and disgust.
Ben’s jaw grew tight and his fingers gripped the edge of the table as he continued to listen. He heard Adah speak to the concierge, inquiring about the stage and asking that her trunks be taken to the station. Those who occupied the tables around him had no notion of the war that was being waged in their presence. His first impulse had been to rise to his feet and march into the lobby and confront her. What kind of father would he be if he allowed her to climb onto the stage and disappear without so much a word, free of consequences? Adah would tell him he was making a scene and he would tell her that it was nothing compared to the scene of the night before – to the tragedy of a beautiful young man who had been beaten to within an inch of his life and left in a filthy alley to die! People would stare. Tongues would wag. But that wasn’t what stopped him.
What stopped him was the fear that John C. Regan could be with her and he would kill him.
And he would have killed the bastard.
So he’d sat there, unsure of what to do, for a full minute before tossing his napkin onto the table and rising to his feet. He crossed deliberately over to the doorway and stepped to the side, where he would have a view of the lobby but no one would have a view of him. Adah was just leaving the desk.
She was alone.
Ben watched the actress move, noting the elegant turn of her foot, her slender figure and girlish waist; unable to miss how the dawn light spilled in through the open door to strike her rust brown-walking suit and brunette hair, turning both to bronze. She was breathtaking. Beautiful. Adah held herself like a queen.
Few knew of the wretched pauper inside.
He’d had a lot of time to think as he sat throughout the night watching over his wounded child. Time to figure out just why he’d thought he loved this women enough to propose. The answer came to him just before dawn as he changed the bandage on his son’s head for the second time. Adah was a wounded creature, just as Marie had been. A woman as battered and bruised by life as his son had been by John C. Regan. There was something within him that drove him to bind up such women’s wounds and to set them free to live the lives God intended. He’d loved Marie and that love had freed her to love herself.
He only wished he could have done the same for Adah.
As she stepped out the door, the actress turned back to give an instruction to the concierge who was near the dining room and their eyes met. Adah’s lips parted. She took a step forward.
And then fled out the door.
‘Magnificent’. That was what people called her. Magnificent she might have been, but – for him – her effervescence had waned and the limelight gone out.
The weak and trembling voice jolted Ben awake. He glanced out the window, noting the time, and then shifted onto the bed beside his hurting son. Hoss had come to get him because Joseph was awake. By the time he arrived, Little Joe had lapsed back into silence, and so he had taken a position in the chair beside the bed and sat there as the day wore into night. Up until this moment the boy had slept as one dead.
He had slept too as he was finally at peace with the choices he’d made.
Paul Martin had returned to Virginia City with the sun and, after stopping at his office, hastened to the hotel to check on the young man he called his ‘favorite patient’. The first thing the physician did was assure him that, though gruff, Doctor Fields was an excellent diagnostician and Joseph had been in good hands. Paul roused Little Joe long enough to ask him a few questions and poke a few places before giving him a potion so he could sleep. He’d watched his friend as he worked and seen him scowl when he examined the bruising on Little Joe’s abdomen and back.
Paul had seen him watching and told him it was simply too soon to know.
After the doctor left, he’d returned to his chair to keep a silent vigil and fallen asleep.
Ben reached out to touch his son’s cheek. It was one of the few places where Joseph’s handsome face remained undamaged.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” he said.
His son looked puzzled, and then frightened – and then panic entered Little Joe’s eyes.
“Take it easy.” He placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You’re fine.”
“Pa….” Joe wet his lips. His voice was robbed of all strength. “I…can’t see!”
“Son. Take a deep breath.” Little Joe obeyed as he did the same. Doctor Fields had feared for the boy’s sight and said Joe could be blinded.
Was that to be the case?
His son’s fingers clawed at his wrist. “Pa…!”
“It’s dark in here, Joseph, and you’ve been sleeping.” The sun had gone down only a moment before. “Let me turn up the light.” Without removing his son’s hand, Ben lit the lamp. It was a challenge, but he managed it one-handed. “Can you see anything?”
Joe’s grip tightened. He shook his head.
Ben thumbed the wheel, bringing up the light. “Now?”
The boy’s fingers were digging into his flesh. They relaxed slightly. “I can see…something, Pa. It’s….” Little Joe sucked air in through his swollen lips. “There’s orange…red….”
He turned the lamp up a bit more, so the light filled the room. “How about me? Joseph, can you see me?”
His son turned his battered face toward him. Fully revealed by the light the sight was enough to sicken not only Ben’s stomach, but his heart. Overnight the bruising had intensified, and what wasn’t bruised was torn and swollen. Still, the anguished father held still.
Joe’s beautiful, pain-filled green eyes fastened on him. A heartbeat later the tears overflowed.
He so wanted to hug him. Joseph, like his mother, was a tactile creature. His youngest boy lived for touch. Still, the rancher was terrified that the action would bring his son more pain, so he remained where he was.
As if reading his mind, Little Joe’s fingers shifted to his sleeve. They urged him closer.
“Joseph, no. I don’t want to….”
More tears fell.
There had been a time, when Joseph was young and before his mother died, that the boy had climbed a tree. They’d been on a picnic and he and Marie had become otherwise…occupied. By the time he looked up, the tiny boy was twenty feet in the air. When Joseph looked down and saw him, a brilliant smile had plumped his chubby cheeks and he had let go, knowing he would catch him. He had, but the boy’s weight knocked him from his feet. They had rolled – his greater weight tumbling over and over the child. When they stopped, he’d been afraid to touch his son for fear something was broken and he would injure him further.
As he was afraid now.
Joseph’s lip trembled. “Pa…please….”
Words came to him. Spoken long ago, by someone he could not remember. ‘What a grand and beautiful force, the immense and wildly unappreciated power of human touch.’
Fear be damned!
Ben reached forward and gently slipped his arms under his son’s ravaged form and began to lift him. Little Joe whimpered as he did it, but sucked in the sound so he would not stop. Just like the time when the boy had been four, he gingerly and gently began to pull Joseph to his chest and, just as the boy had done at the time, his son flung himself into his arms and gripped him tightly.
His tears fell as well.
They sat there for some time, quietly weeping but saying nothing. Joseph was the first to stir. His son’s face had been buried in his shirt. Little Joe turned it and rested his cheek on his arm.
The fingers of one hand were buried in the boy’s matted curls. The other surrounded his slender waist.
“I want to go home.”
“Joseph. I don’t think that’s wise. Paul said –”
The boy straightened up. He bit back a groan and then sat for a moment with his eyes closed before speaking again.
“Please, Pa. I…want to go home. I’ll…heal…better at home.”
His son’s fingers bit into his arms. “Pa. I need to…go home. I don’t…” Those wide green eyes grew wild. “He’s….” Little Joe’s gaze shot to the window. His voice fell off to a whisper. “He’s out there.”
“Who? Joseph, who?”
Ben sucked in a breath at the boy’s look. Then, the truth dawned.
The rancher’s jaw grew tight as a the love of a father and the need for justice warred within him. Still, Ben fought to keep his voice calm. “He’s gone, Joe. Regan ran like the coward he is.”
Joe’s face was once again buried in his shirt front. The boy’s fingers clutched the fabric. Joe was shaking. His vibrant, strong, and proud son’s voice was hushed with fear.
No, with terror.
“No, Pa. He’s there. He’s…waiting for me.”
“Joseph, look at me.”
Little Joe’s head shook against his chest. “He told me…Pa. He told me…if he didn’t…kill me….” His son sucked in air. “He’d…come back.”
“Regan was just trying to frighten you, son.” Ben stroked the boy’s curls and spoke soothingly. “He’s gone. He and Adah left.”
The boy’s head came up. A pale hope entered his eyes “He’s…really gone?”
Ben nodded. “Yes, son,” he assured him. “John C. Regan is gone.”
At least, he hoped he was.
To protect his son’s dignity, they left for home after dark.
Joseph was soon to be eighteen; not a boy, but not quite a man. The only way he would agree to his older brother carrying him out to the wagon was if they did it when no one was around to see, and the only way Paul would agree to them taking Joseph back to the Ponderosa, was if Hoss carried him down the hotel steps.
He doubted the boy could have made it on his own.
As was often the case, the day following an injury was twice as hard and a hundred times more painful. Thankfully, the bruising on his son’s abdomen had eased. That was the only reason Paul agreed to their scheme. Of course, Paul brought the boy into the world and had tended him since birth, so he well knew Joseph’s disposition. The boy was high-strung and easily upset just like his mother. Once the physician understood the nature of Joseph’s fears, he agreed that taking the boy home could very well prove the best medicine.
As for him, Ben was concerned that his boy’s physical wounds would prove the least of their worries.
His youngest was a study in contradictions – fearless in order to overcome his fears, prone to riotous laughter that often led to tears; extremely talkative – so much so that his older brothers had been known to tie him to a stake and gag him while playing a ‘game’ when young, just for a moment of peace. And yet Little Joe could be quiet. Intensely quiet.
As he was now.
Hoss gave him a nod as he cast an anxious look at his baby brother. They’d stepped a few yards away from the wagon after settling Joe in. Paul was talking to him now, giving the boy a few last minute instructions.
“Little Joe ain’t said nothin’, Pa. You think he’s just tired?”
He gave out a little sigh. “I think he’s holding everything inside.”
“About bein’ beat, you mean?”
Ben placed a hand on his giant of a son’s arm. There were a few fading bruises here and there, left over from his fight with Regan, but for the most part, his middle boy was entirely recovered and he thanked God for that.
“In part,” he replied. “As you know, Joseph holds himself up against you and Adam.”
His son scowled. “You mean, Little Joe thinks he ain’t a man ‘cause Regan whupped him? Pa, I’m surprised he didn’t kill him!”
They were all surprised – and thankful.
“You know your brother. The fact that the man outweighed him by nearly two hundred pounds and was nearly a foot taller means nothing. But that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Hoss was looking at his brother again. Paul was stepping down out of the wagon and Little Joe had turned his face so it was hidden beneath the covers.
“There’s something else?”
Ben hesitated. If he mentioned Joe’s fears about Regan returning to Hoss, then Hoss would tell Adam. He preferred to inform them both at the same time, so they could work out a strategy.
The rancher nodded. “But now is not the time to go into it. It’s a long ride out to the Ponderosa and it’s going to be hard on your brother. We’ll get Little Joe home and get him settled and then you and Adam and I can talk.”
“Has this got somethin’ to do with that there monster what did this to him?” Hoss asked, his tone more a growl than an inquiry.
Ben patted his son’s arm. “We’ll talk about it later. First, let’s get your brother home.”
Adam met them at the door. He had no idea how his eldest son knew they were coming, other than the fact that he might have heard their approach – although the fact that Adam was dressed seemed to indicate that he had been waiting and some sixth sense had alerted him to their plans.
Or perhaps it had been Providence.
It was very early in the morning when they arrived. So early not even Hop Sing was up. As they rolled in, the shadows departed and the golden glow that heralded the new day topped the mountain peaks and spilled over into the yard. As he’d predicted, the ride to the spread had been extremely hard on his wounded son. Though they’d tried their best to keep the wagon level and traveled at a snail’s pace, Joseph had moaned and cried out as it bumped along the road, jostling his battered and broken form. The boy bit his lip through in an attempt to stem the tears, but they’d fallen anyway, trailing down his cheeks to wet the collar of his bloodied shirt.
He still wore the remnants of his fine suit. They’d had nothing else to change him into.
Hoss had unhitched the team and was putting the animals in the barn. Joseph had fallen asleep just as they wheeled into the yard and he’d decided to let the boy be for a few minutes before rousing him and taking him inside. Adam watched Hoss go and then walked over to the wagon where he stood now, staring at his younger brother.
It was early and the light was sketchy at best, but Ben recognized the look on his eldest’s face. He recognized it, because it had been written on his own not all that long before.
He waited until Adam glanced his way and then signaled him over. After greeting him, quietly, speaking as much to himself as to his son, he said, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Adam’s jaw was set. His whiskey-colored eyes locked on his and he quoted back, “I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother and I found all three.”
He was deeply touched – and deeply concerned – by the fervor of his eldest’s emotion.
Adam drew a breath and let it out slowly. “I’m going to kill him, Pa. For what…for Joe. I swear I’m going to kill Regan.”
Ben nodded slowly. “I want to kill him too.”
For a moment, his son’s face registered surprise. Then he nodded.
“Adam, Regan is gone.”
The boy considered that a moment. “You’re sure?”
“Yes. Adah left tonight. I saw her go. She was alone.”
“I’m sorry, Pa. I know she meant a lot to you.”
Ben shook his head. “If she did, it’s over now.”
“But how can you be sure Regan is gone?”
“Because he is a coward.” Ben’s fingers formed into a fist. “Only a coward could do what…that monster…did to your brother. Regan knows I would set the law on him. He’s done this before – broken that law…killed men. He would have gone to jail. He will go to jail if he ever dares to set his foot in Virginia City again!”
Ben noted Adam was looking behind him. He turned to find Hoss standing at his shoulder. “You want me to get Little Joe and take him up to his room, Pa?” the big man asked.
“I suppose he’s slept long enough. Hoss, be….” Ben turned to look at Adam. His son had placed a hand on his arm. “Yes?”
“I’ll get Joe.”
“I can do it, Adam. Little Joe’s dead weight….” Hoss winced,
Adam looked his brother in the eye and then him. “I’ll get Little Joe.”
Hoss started to speak, but Ben stopped him with a nudge. Before he could say anything further, Adam turned on his heel and went to the wagon.
“You want I should drop the back for him, Pa?” Hoss asked.
“That will be fine.”
The big man took a step. “Pa? What’s wrong with Adam?”
Marie had been exhausted. In order to allow her to sleep after Joseph’s birth, he had taken his tiny and rather vocal newborn son to the next room and laid the baby in the middle of the guest bed. He’d returned then to his wife’s side and, without knowing it, fallen asleep as well. When he woke, he dashed – with great guilt and fear – to the other room to check on his third child and found Joseph wasn’t alone. Twelve-year-old Adam was there. His eldest son lay on the bed with his youngest in his arms.
Adam was singing.
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby boy.
When you wake, you shall have,
All the pretty little horses.
Blacks and bays, dapples and greys,
Go to sleepy you little baby,
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby,
When you wake, you shall have,
All the pretty little horses.
Adam leaned over and kissed his brother’s curls, for Joseph had them even then.
“I will always be there for you,” the boy said with an intensity that had almost frightened him. “No one…no one will ever hurt you, I’ll keep you safe, little Joseph. I promise.”
And Adam was a man of his word.
Ben Cartwright placed the book he was holding on the fireside table and rose to his feet. As he did, there was a noise at the top of the stairs. He looked up to find Hoss coming down.
“Is your brother sleeping?” Ben asked.
He didn’t say anything. He just…nodded.
“Is everything all right?”
It had been two days since they’d brought Joseph home. The boy was getting better. It turned out his eyesight was fine, though Paul said the vision in Little Joe’s injured eye would remain blurry until the optic nerve recovered. The bruises on his son’s body had run the gamut from red to a deep purple and were beginning to fade. It was only a matter of time before they changed to yellow-green and disappeared all together. Still, as the outward signs of the beating disappeared, Joseph’s inward bruising deepened. At first he was sullen and spoke little, and then Joseph’s mercurial temper made an appearance – so much so that Hop Sing refused to take the boy’s meals up, leaving that to Hoss.
Who held Joe’s supper tray.
“I ain’t sure, Pa. You know how Little Joe’s been mad as a rattler on a spit.”
Ben chuckled. An apt description.
“I took his tray in and he didn’t say a word. I opened his window curtains and stoked the fire ‘cause the room was cold and he didn’t yell at me to leave things alone.” Hoss shook his head. “Since he wouldn’t talk, I went and did a few things upstairs that needed doin’. When I came back….” His son indicated the tray in his hands. “Joe didn’t eat nothin’, Pa.”
“Did he react badly when you told him he should have eaten something?”
“No, sir. He was sittin’ up in the bed, starin’, and he just kept sittin’ there starin’.” His son paused. “You don’t think, well…. You don’t think Joe still thinks he ought to have been able to take Regan on, do you? Like he’s mad at himself for getting’ beat up?”
He’d had that talk with his youngest son. Joseph seemed to accept the fact that he – as most other men – was no match for John C. Regan; a man who was not only bigger than Hoss, but a trained prize fighter as well. Still, there had been something – a look in the boy’s eye, the way his lips tightened into a line –that told him the subject was not closed.
“What should I do with the food?” Hoss asked.
Ben let out a sigh. Hop Sing had already threatened to return to China – twice – if Joseph didn’t alter his behavior and develop an appetite.
“How about we take it out on the porch and eat what we can between us?”
Hoss grinned. “Just what I was thinkin, Pa.”
It was a glorious day. The night before had been chilly, but the risen sun had warmed the land, decrying the advent of winter. They were without jackets, but comfortable as they took their places at the porch table. Ben watched the men coming and going for a moment before turning to his son.
“How are you, Hoss?”
The big man looked startled. “Me, Pa? I’m fine.”
Ben held his gaze for a moment. “Are you?”
The big man hemmed and hawed and then said. “I ain’t hurtin’ if that’s what you mean.”
“And here I thought you were the honest one,” the rancher answered.
His son was startled, for an instant. Then he snorted. “Adam always says you’re just like one of them mediums at the circus what can see things other folks don’t see.”
The rancher smiled but sobered quickly. Adam. It had been two days since he’d seen his eldest and he was concerned.
No. He was frightened.
“What I mean is this – have you come to terms with what happened to your brother?”
Hoss stared hard at him before rising to his feet. He shoved his hands into his pocket, leaned against the porch post, and looked out toward town. “When I found him, I thought Regan had done killed Little Joe. I ain’t never see’d a man so broken, and to know it was Regan what done it….” Hoss sucked in air. “I felt them fists, Pa. I was nearly done – would have been if it hadn’t been for Adam tellin’ me to give that good-for-nothing a hug.” He hung his head. “I can’t get the picture out of my head – Regan comin’ out of the darkness, beatin’ on Little Joe, and then leavin’ him lyin’ in that alley all alone.”
None of them could get that picture out of their head.
It was the reason Adam was gone.
Hoss swung around to face him. “Have you ‘come to terms’ with it, Pa?”
Ah. Hoist by his own petard.
He thought a moment before he answered. “Your brother is alive. I thank God for that and…try not to think of anything else.”
The big man looked up toward his brother’s window. “You think Joe’s gonna be okay?”
He hoped he would be.
His youngest son was complex, to put it mildly. He often thought he would gladly trade the wisdom of the old man he was for the energy of the young man he’d been, just so he could cope with him. Ben considered what his own reaction would have been; how he would have come through such a beating and what would have been the aftermath. He’d been young once and, though he’d never been as slight as Joseph, it had taken him some time to grow into his present height and bulk. He knew what it was to be intimidated. Once, as a young lieutenant, he’d been surrounded by a group of older, much larger, and very angry seamen. They hadn’t beaten him, but they’d scared the living daylights out of him by threatening to throw him overboard. Everywhere corner he turned, he expected to find them waiting. He lost sleep. And weight. Each day he grew angrier at his own impotence. In time his captain caught wind of it and put an end to the rebellion, but it took young Lieutenant Cartwright months to ‘come to terms’ with what had happened and to overcome the fear that it would happen again.
“Your brother will be fine, in time,” he said at last. “We just need to give Joseph time – and space – to work through it.”
Hoss nodded toward the road to town. “What about my other brother? You heard anything from Adam, Pa?”
Ben frowned. He and his eldest son had engaged in a heated ‘discussion’ the night Adam informed him he was riding off in search of John C. Regan. Adam wasn’t a small man, but Ben was all too aware of what Regan had done to Hoss – who was a good one hundred pounds and at least three inches taller than his older brother. He’d confronted his son as he saddled his horse, telling him that Joseph needed him at home and reminding him of how he had stopped him from taking on the prize fighter. He outweighed his eldest by a few pounds but, in truth, they were about the same size.
All Adam said was, “I made a promise, Pa, and I mean to keep it.”
Then, he was gone.
Adam and Little Joe were a study in contrasts. The one energetic, talkative, excitable and rash. The other calm, cool, and calculated. The irony was, they were more alike than they thought. Both loved deeply. Both were fiercely independent.
And both, fiercely protective.
“No. I haven’t heard anything from your brother.”
Hoss nodded. “A man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, I guess.”
Hoss had wanted to go as well. His middle son was just as protective, but the argument that Joe needed him here carried more weight.
“Well, I better get about my chores, Pa. They ain’t gonna do themselves,” Hoss said as he stepped off the porch. “You gonna go up and see Little Joe?”
Ben rose to his feet with the breakfast tray in hand. “Here. If you don’t want it, feed it to the pigs. Just so we take an empty tray back to Hop Sing.”
The big man grinned. “Sure thing. I might even eat a bite myself as I work.”
Ben was glad his son wanted it. He had no appetite. Two of his sons were in turmoil.
So, he was too.
He’d spoken to Little Joe and it had not gone well.
The boy’s anger had turned inward and he’d sunken into depression. His son’s monosyllabic replies to his questions gave him little more than the assurance that he was not in too much pain and that he didn’t need anything to sleep. He’d tried to draw him out, but Joseph steadfastly refused. In the end he’d turned down the light and kissed his son on the head like he had when he was a little boy and headed for the door. Joe asked one question, just as he reached it. Of course, it was the one he could not answer.
Where was Adam?
Hoss had gone to bed by the time he came down to the great room, worn out by doing his chores plus those of his two brothers. He’d leant a hand during the day, but had to return to the house to do paperwork and so the bulk of the heavy work had been left to the big man. It was after ten and he couldn’t sleep, so he’d decided to pour himself a brandy. He was halfway through a new novel. He thought he’d see if he could concentrate enough on it to know what he was reading.
Somehow, he doubted it.
He’d just stopped the decanter and sat down when the front door opened and his eldest son blew in along with a cold wind. Adam doffed his heavy coat, hung his hat on the rack, and then proceeded to unbuckle his gun belt and lay it and the weapon on the credenza before turning into the room. The boy hesitated and then stepped into the light cast by the dying fire.
One side of his face was bruised. He limped as he crossed the room to his chair.
Ben swallowed a sip of brandy before speaking. “I take it you found Regan?”
Adam nodded slowly.
“Did you fight him?”
One side of the boy’s mouth twitched. “Not exactly.”
“But your face…your leg….”
“It’s a long story.” Adam’s eyes went to the decanter. “I’d like a drink before I tell it.”
Ben flushed. Here was his son, safe and sound. Adam had ridden hard to and from the Ponderosa and obviously been through something.
“Certainly. I should have thought of it,” he said as he poured the drink and handed it over.
Adam sipped the liquor slowly, savoring it. When the glass was empty he put it on the table.
“He got away,” he said at last.
His son nodded. Adam drew a breath and leaned forward, dangling his hands between his knees. “I went to town first. I wanted to see if Robert and Roy knew anything.” His son shook his head. “I can’t believe we didn’t set them on Regan that night.”
“We were too concerned about your brother. I spoke to Robert the next day before we left, but I knew it was fruitless. Regan was already out of his jurisdiction.”
“Robert sent word to the sheriffs in the surrounding towns, with a description. No one saw him or Adah.”
“I don’t know how Regan got out of town, but Adah took the coach. He probably met her at one of the way stations.”
Adam nodded. “He did.”
“How did you find out?”
“I went from station to station. Knowing Adah and her penchant for comfort,” his son glanced at him, as if weighing his reaction, “I figured she would take the stage, so I followed it. I did a little asking – and a bit of greasing palms – and found they were headed for Short Creek and the port there.”
The quickest way out of the territory would be by riverboat.
“So, you caught up to them there?”
His son pursed his lips. “I went straight to the sheriff and told him what John C. Regan had done to Little Joe. He didn’t believe me.”
Ben couldn’t believe what he heard. “Didn’t believe you?”
“It seems Regan had spent some time in the area. Did you know after retiring from prize fighting that he made his living by being a strong-arm man? That he hires himself out to businessmen for enforcement and protection?”
“Adah never mentioned it.”
“Well, it’s true.” Adam scoffed. “The sheriff of Short Creek thinks very highly of him. Seems Regan helped him once to take down an illegal mining ring.”
Ben’s head was spinning. “So, what did you do?”
“Well, I left the sheriff’s office post-haste, I can tell you, before he tossed me into a cell for defaming Regan.” Adam let out a sigh. “I found out what hotel he and Adah were staying at and went to confront him. When I got to their room, Adah came to the door. Pa….”
“Did you know he beat her?”
The rancher stiffened. He’d suspected it. Such treatment – and the acceptance of it – was part and parcel of the sorry soul Adah was.
Adam reached up. “Her eye was blacker than mine. She was pretty scared to see me, but finally told me Regan was in the next town at a saloon. So I went there.”
“He wasn’t alone. Seems that, along with beating women and teenagers, Regan is mixed up in illegal gambling. His cronies weren’t too happy when I came storming in.”
“Son. Don’t tell me you took them on by yourself?”
“I was enraged, Pa.” His son’s fingers knit together. “I was seeing red. I went for him and threw the first punch.”
In his mind’s eye, Ben could see John C. Regan in his battle with Hoss and remembered his fear that the prize fighter would hurt him badly.
“Did he strike you?”
Adam looked chagrined. He shook his head. “I went down under a pile of his men and woke up in a jail cell. By the time I was released, Adah and Regan were gone.”
They sat in silence for some time before Ben spoke.
“God forgive me, I wish the man was dead. What he did….” Ben swallowed. “Your little brother may never be the same.”
Adam was silent for a moment. Then he rose.
“I’ll talk to him.”
“It’s late, Adam. Leave it until morning.”
“It may be late, but Joe’s awake. I saw his silhouette in the window.”
“He’s out of bed?” Ben rose as well. “That boy…!”
Adam had come to his side. His son rested a hand on his sleeve. “Little Joe feels he’s lost all control, Pa. Getting out of bed isn’t a rebellion, it’s a necessity. He has to reclaim something of what he had.”
“I’ll let you know how it goes in the morning,” Adam said as he headed for the stairs.
The boy turned back. “Yes, Pa?”
“Do me a favor?”
Adam shrugged. “Sure. What?”
“Tell that young scallywag to get back into bed when you leave.”
Three knocks. A pause. And then three more.
It was sort of a secret code between them. Translated it meant, ‘I’m coming in whether you want me to or not.’ Adam lifted an eyebrow and drew in a breath as he gave his brother the agreed upon thirty seconds, and then he opened the door.
Pa would have been happy. Little Joe was in bed.
“What do you want?” was his cheerful greeting.
He decided to take the least…prickly…path. “Pa said you asked where I was. I thought I would come in and tell you.” He nodded toward the window. “I saw your light was on when I pulled in.”
Joe sat up at that. “Pulled in? Where have you been?”
Nothing like the truth.
“I went to find and kill John C. Regan.”
Little Joe’s eyes went wide. There was a spark of deep satisfaction in them, but it was quickly replaced with fear.
He indicated the chair by the bed. “Mind if I sit down?”
Joe shook his head. Then he nodded. “No…yeah…I mean…sit down.”
He was tired. Way too tired for this conversation, but he’d feared if he let it go that Little Joe might up and sneak out of his window and go looking for Regan himself. His little brother had been far too quiet in the days before he left.
A thinking Little Joe was a dangerous Little Joe.
After adjusting his seat, Adam looked directly at his brother. Joe was sitting on the bed in an awkward position, as if everything he owned hurt. Baby brother was undoubtedly tired as well – too tired to keep up the pretense he needed to keep up in order to keep Pa from hovering. Joe looked terrible. Even though the yellow-green bruises meant he was getting better, they leant his complexion a sallow sickly color. Little Joe’s lower lip was swollen as was much of his face. The lid of the eye that had been struck so hard drooped. Joe’s many female friends would appreciate that wound. It gave little brother a rakish air.
“I thought you came up here to talk,” Joe said.
He broke out of his reverie. “Sorry. Sorry I was staring. It’s just…I haven’t seen you in two days.”
Joe made a face. “I look awful.”
Appearance was of paramount importance to his brother. “You’ll heal,” he said. “I’ll tell any young ladies that come calling you have the plague until you’re ready for visitors.”
Joe’s lips twitched. “Thanks.”
“What are older brothers for?”
Gingerly – and with great care – Joe shifted back until he was supported by his pillows. Once there, he closed his eyes and bit his lip. A little moan escaped him.
“Are you okay?” Adam asked. “Do you need anything for the pain?”
His brother glared at him and then, slowly that look changed to one of gratitude. Joe nodded. “It’s over there on the dresser. I didn’t want to ask Pa….”
Adam held up a hand. “Completely understand.” As he rose to cross the room, the black-haired man asked, almost casually, “So do you want to know what happened with Regan?”
For a moment there was silence. Then, a ‘Sure,” with a little bravado.
Adam picked up the bottle and the spoon and headed back. He nodded toward the glass and pitcher on the table. “Do I put it in water?”
“Yeah. A tablespoon in a glass.”
The older man halted. Then he laughed. “Should I add a teaspoon of sugar to help it go down?”
Joe laughed too. He held his side when he did it. “You know, Adam, if I have to be honest….”
“And you do.”
“It would be nice to be four-years-old again. You know, to let everyone take care of you without –”
“Feeling like it demeans you?” he asked as he handed his brother the glass.
“Demeans. Debases. Humiliates you.”
“I get that last one.” Joe sighed as he looked at the glass in his hand. “I wish you would speak English.”
“I do. I just speak a different English from you.”
Joe made a face as he swallowed the potion. “I speak American.”
“Yes. Well.” Adam cleared his throat. “So, Regan. Do you want to talk about him?”
Joe leaned back and closed his eyes. He was silent a moment before he said, “I thought I was gonna die.” His eyes popped open and he looked at him. “Really.”
It took a second. “I wasn’t so sure myself that you’d pull through when I rounded that corner and saw you lying on the hotel settee.”
Joe nodded. Again, he was silent and then he simply asked. “Why?”
“Why did Regan attack you? You know why, Joe. To get back at Pa and to make him pay for offering Adah a better life.”
His brother made a face. “Which she turned down.”
Joe shifted so he was facing him. “I don’t get it, Adam. Miss Menken was smart and really beautiful. She could have any man she wanted. Why…?”
“Why would she want John C. Regan?” Adam snorted. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Joe was frowning. “Who’s Horatio?”
“Bear with me. It’s classical.”
“Meaning ‘not’ American.” Joe shifted further down as if seeking to get comfortable. “So, Regan. Did you…?”
“He got away. It’s a long story, Joe, and it will wait for tomorrow. Suffice it to say he had friends in town and they ran interference for him.”
Joe glanced at him. “That where you got that shiner? One of Regan’s friends?”
“Uh huh.” Adam touched it and winced. “Think that group that took you on in the street for supporting Tukwa.”
Joe winced. “Ouch.”
“The truth is, Joe, I’m glad someone stopped me. I was so angry I would have killed Regan if I had the chance.”
Baby brother was staring at him, his mouth partially open. “Because of what he did to me?”
“Because of what he did to you.”
Joe blinked. “Adam…I….”
“You don’t need to say anything, Joe. You don’t remember, but I do. The night you were born I took an oath to protect you, and protect you I will until you are old enough to look out for yourself .” He paused and added with a grin, “Whether you like it or not.”
Joe dropped his eyes. His voice was soft.
“I…like it, Adam. Thanks.”
Adam nodded and then he rose. “I’m beat. I’m going to get some sleep. You do the same. I promised Pa I’d make sure you did.”
“Okay.” His brother fell silent for a moment and then, just as he reached the door, called him back. “Adam?”
“Is he…?” He swallowed hard. “Is Regan really gone?”
“He’s gone, Joe. I doubt he’ll ever darken the streets of Virginia City again. And if he does….” Adam put his hand to the latch. “You can be sure, I’ll be waiting.”
The sun rose on the fifth day since his youngest had been beaten to within an inch of his life. Ben Cartwright had expected to spend the morning in the house catching up on paperwork. Instead, he was on the road and riding toward the lake. Hoss had come down early and headed out to do chores. Adam followed about an hour later. They exchanged pleasantries and then his son told him about his talk with his younger brother – not the details, but enough to fill him in. Adam admitted he had given Joe some of the pain killer Paul left behind, mostly so he wouldn’t be worried when the boy slept in. And so he had let Joseph sleep until almost noon before going up to check on him.
And found his bed empty.
He admitted he’d panicked. Joseph was impulsive at best and reckless at worst. He often acted before thinking things through. From what Adam told him, he didn’t think the boy had gone to find John C. Regan and so it had stumped him just where he had gone.
Until his heart took over from his head.
Ben drew his mount to a halt and ground tethered the animal before pushing his way through the overgrowth that led to the high plateau upon which the love of his life was buried. Marie had loved the view of the lake from the raised knoll and it had been her wish to be laid there for her eternal rest. When Joseph was troubled – when his young son’s emotions overcame him – this was where he would come.
He was here now. Kneeling beside his mother’s grave.
Ben paused. The boy seemed to be in prayer and so he waited, unwilling to disturb him. It was obvious even the short journey had taken a toll. Joseph was pale. He was breathing hard. He should be in bed. Not kneeling in the wet grass on a winter’s morning.
“I know you’re there, Pa. You can come on out.”
The rancher smiled.
Of course, he was there.
Ben moved to his son’s side and stared down at the stone that bore his beloved’s name. He drew in a breath and let it out before placing a hand on his son’s shoulder.
“I’m all right, Pa. I just…I just needed to talk to Mama.”
He bit back any chastisement. “I understand.”
Joe looked up at him. “Do you, Pa? Do you really?”
Ben stepped past his son to look at the vista spread before him – the blue sky and even bluer waters of the lake.
“Yes, I do,” he said softly. “I’ve come here quite often myself seeking your mother’s guidance.”
“Do you hear her, Pa?” his son asked, his tone hushed. “I do.” Joe paused. “Am I crazy?”
The rancher turned back. “No. No, you’re not crazy. You’re mother is with us. I feel it every day.”
Joe was staring at the tombstone again. “I remembered something. That’s why I came out here. I needed to ask Mama if it was real.”
“Remembered? Something about your mother?” His son had very few memories, having been just under five when his mother died. ‘Is it personal, or would you like to tell me?”
Joe remained silent for a moment. Then he smiled. It was a shy, self-effacing smile that reminded him of Marie in one of her rare contrite moments.
“I would love to hear it,” the rancher said.
“You remember when I fell out of that tree?”
“Do you? You were very young.”
“Oh, I remember it, Pa. I really do, and not because you told me about it.” Joe rose to his feet and came to his side. “I remember being up in that tree and looking down and seeing you.”
Ben let out a sigh. “Do you remember letting go?”
“Yeah. And you know what, Pa? For the first few moment I felt like I was flying and I wasn’t afraid. And then….”
“I saw your face and I realized that something was wrong. I realized I could…die.”
Ben placed a hand on his son’s arm. The boy was trembling. “But you didn’t.”
Little Joe nodded. “Just like I didn’t die when Regan beat me,” he said quietly.
His eyes teared up. “Yes.”
“Do you remember that night?” the boy asked.
“What night? Oh, you mean the night after you fell out of the tree? Yes.”
“You came in and told me goodnight with Mama.” Joe paused. “Did you know she came back”?
“It was late. I woke up and she was sitting there by the bed. It’s what I remembered, Pa.” Joe was excited. “I remembered something new.”
“Would you like to share it?”
His son nodded.
“Well?” he asked after a bit of time elapsed.
Joe walked to the edge of the grassy knoll and stared out at the lake. “I woke up and she was there. The morning light was coming in the window and Mama looked just like an angel. I saw her and I started crying. I was…afraid, Pa. Afraid I would die.”
His son struck away a tear. “I told Mama I never wanted to go outside again. I never wanted to climb another tree or take another chance or do…anything.” Joe hesitated. “Do you know what she said?”
He shook his head.
“The fears we don’t face become our limits. Fear, mon petit, does not stop death.” Joseph looked at him. “It stops life.”
Ben circled his boy’s shoulders with his arm. “A very wise woman, your mother.”
Tears were streaming down his son’s cheeks. “I miss her so much, Pa.”
“I know, son. I miss her too.”
They stood as they were, and then Joseph turned and threw his arms around him. This precious boy – all that was left of his beloved Marie – wept until he could weep no more. Ben held him, grateful for the chance to do so. John C. Regan could so easily have killed his son. This was a gift and a precious one.
After a minute, Ben let him go.
As he let his fears go.
‘Fear does not stop death. It stops life.’
“Are you ready to go home, son?” he asked as he assessed the pale and shaking boy, noting the wrinkles of pain around his eyes. “I think you should.”
Joe ran his sleeve under his nose and then nodded. He looked up at him. “Adam told you, didn’t he?”
Ben smiled. “About the pain you’re in? Yes.”
What else were older brothers for?
Tagged: WHN, SJS, Family
Inspired by: The Magnificent Adah
Directed by: Christian Nyby
Written by: Donald S. Sanford
Other Stories by this Author
- The Devil’s In the Details (by McFair_58)
- Wet Bottom, Warm Heart (by McFair_58)
- Bootless Cries (by McFair_58)
- The Ultimate Wound (by McFair_58)
- The Blows of Sound (McFair_58)