Kate M-T.

First the usual disclaimerThe following is a work of fan fiction and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by Bonanza Ventures, David Dortort, NBC Television, or any other holder of Bonanza copyrights.

Note: My stories tend to "piggy-back", one after another.  Thus far, the story order is: "Restitution," "A Penny for Your Problems," "Defending Miss David," and now "Betrayal." While some of these are readable without knowing what went before, you definitely need to read "Defending Miss David," before "Betrayal," or you'll be clueless as to what's taking place.  All stories are available by emailing the author privately at:


"Hey, Hoss."  Joe Cartwright tossed the coil of tightly corded rope onto the back of the buckboard and dusted his hands together.  The wide brim of his felt hat cast a wedge of shadow over the upper portion of his face, muting the luminous glitter of his green eyes.  He nodded across the wagon at his brother.  "I'm gonna go settle up with Linden while you finish loading the rest of that stuff."

"Huh?"  Hoss frowned as he looked at the small menagerie of items still waiting to be packed into the rear of the wagon: two fifty pound sacks of potatoes; a pile of coarse wool blankets; half a dozen oil lanterns; tack and wire for fencing; an assortment of crates containing various sundries requested by Hop-Sing.  "Come on, Joe . . ." Reaching down, Hoss hooked his fingers through the handles of all six lanterns.  Hefting them easily, he placed them behind the seat, ignoring the metallic clang they emitted, as they jangled together.  "Help me finish and we'll both settle with Linden."

But Joe was already walking away.  With a backwards flip of his hand, he tossed Hoss a smile and quickly sprinted around the side of the General Store.  Dry dust from the alley waffled in small eddies, disturbed by the scuffed soles of his boots.  The powdery substance was tenacious, clinging to his slate gray pants, and creating a splatter-effect over the hem.  With an easy stride, Joe stepped lightly onto the raised boards outside the store and moved towards the doorway.  He was halfway across the threshold when he spied a familiar buggy parked around the corner.  Though the vehicle was empty, Joe felt his pulse quicken.

"Thank you Mr. Linden, I'll wait."

Joe heard her voice before he saw her.  It was darker inside the store, cool shadow blending with the smokey haze of later afternoon.  Sunlight slanted through the doorway at his back, trapping a cluster of dust motes in a beam of mustard gold.  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer surroundings.  His nose crinkled at the musty odor permeating the store--a smell reminiscent of wet leaves and old paper.  Hesitating on the threshold, he watched the woman at the counter.

It had been almost a month since he'd last seen Lorna David.  Her long ebony hair was pulled back in a simple braid, secured by a lavender ribbon. A soft white blouse and fawn-colored skirt completed the outfit.  Though everything about her was sedate and unassuming, Joe found that very aspect oddly beguiling.  As Linden disappeared in the back, he walked slowly forward.  Lorna was half turned from him, idly inspecting a bolt of fabric on the wooden counter.  Joe lowered his eyes as he watched her slim fingers skim over the powder blue material.  "Hello, Lorna."

"Oh!"  Wrapped in her own thoughts, Lorna David gave a guilty start.  "Joseph."  The name tangled on her tongue, dispelled with the shock of being caught unaware.  An awkward moment ensued.  Joe tipped his hat.

"I haven't seen you in a while," he said evenly.

"N-no."  Lorna plucked nervous fingers against the high collar of her pristine white blouse.  A nervous chuckle slipped from her lips.  "I don't get to the Ponderosa much any more, since Adam and I . . ." Once again the words tangled.  She cleared her throat.  "How are you feeling?"

The change of topic was as awkward as the unsettled air between them.  Though Adam and Lorna had ended their relationship on good terms, Joe knew Lorna was still uneasy about the reason for its conclusion.  He also knew that since that relationship had ended, he'd been doing his best to deny his feelings for the woman his brother had almost married.  A woman who was a decade older than him, not to mention the widow of a notorious gunslinger.  At twenty-two, Joe was by no means naive, but he wasn't accustomed to courting women of Lorna's age, nor her somewhat checkered past.

Joe propped an elbow against the counter.  "Lorna, it's been over a month since I took that bullet." An easy grin warmed his lips when he saw her eyes drop.  "Don't look so uncomfortable.  I've been shot before."  Though he could joke about it now, it'd been no laughing matter when Ben had tied him down, and dug Frank McCay's .38 caliber slug from his side.

Lorna looked away.  "I still feel responsible."

"Hey."  Lightly, Joe touched her arm.  She turned her head, glancing back over her shoulder, limpid eyes rising to his face.  Joe swallowed hard.  He could feel the cool linen of her blouse beneath his fingertips; smell the soft scent of rose-water clinging to her silky hair.  Dry-mouthed, he tried to silence his attraction for her.  "I thought we put all this behind us."

Pulling her arm away, Lorna shook her head.  She clutched her blouse where his hand had rested, as though trying to banish the memory of his touch.  "I-I have to go."

Joe heard the distress in her voice. "Lorna, wait."

But she pushed past him, head bent as she hurried out the door.

"Here you go, Miss David."  Ross Linden re-emerged from the back carrying a pair of cutting shears.  His eyes skimmed the store, then settled on Joe.  "Oh.  Hello, Joe."  Linden strode to the counter.  "You didn't happen to see Miss David, did you?  She wanted these shears."

Joe slumped against the counter, trying not to let his frustration show.  "Sorry, Ross, she just left."

"Hmm.  That's odd.  She seemed pretty set on needing them.  Said she lost her old pair."

Joe straightened.  "I'm headed out that way.  Wrap them up and I'll take them for her."

With a sideways glance, Ross Linden tilted his head.  Like most everyone else in Virginia City, he'd heard rumors about the youngest Cartwright and Miss David--quieted now, that the days had grown into weeks and new gossip rose to take its place.  "Sure you want to do that?"

Joe grew exasperated.  "I just said I would, didn't I?  Now, come on--I want to settle my account. Hoss and I have to get back to the ranch."  Reaching inside his jacket, Joe withdrew his wallet.  "How much do I owe you?"

With an envious glance for the wad of paper money fattening Joe's billfold, Ross reached for a pencil and pad.  "Give me a minute."

Frowning, Joe moved away.  The plank boards creaked beneath his feet, protesting like dry timbers in a crisp wind.  Unable to shake the encounter with Lorna David, Joe felt his frustration grow.  For weeks now they'd been avoiding one another, carefully denying their mutual attraction. And Joe was certain it was mutual.  He'd seen the effect he'd had on Lorna.  For his part, ever since he'd defended her against Brian Lancaster, he'd been unable to court another woman.  The
interest just wasn't there.  Every time he tried to flirt with one of the girls he'd sparked before, he found himself comparing her to Lorna. Just admit it, Joe--the woman's got you hooked.

It was an uncomfortable feeling, causing him to squirm momentarily.  Fortunately, Linden's pronouncement that the bill was ready saved him from further discomfort.  Joe settled with the store owner, then had Linden wrap the shears in a sheaf of brown paper and secure the package with string.  Tucking the parcel beneath his arm, Joe headed for the buckboard.

"You settle things?"  Hoss asked, when he saw his brother round the corner of the building.  He'd just put the last crate in the wagon and had been ready to go in search of his younger brother.

Joe answered with a clipped nod. Wordlessly, he climbed into the buckboard.  A moment later, Hoss followed suit, taking a seat beside him and collecting the reins.

"Hey, what's that?"  he asked, with a nod for the package in Joe's hand.

"Nothing."  Joe set the item on the floorboard and shoved it beneath the seat. "Get going, will you?  We've got to get this wagon unloaded before dinner."

The tight tone of Joe's voice made Hoss realize his temperamental younger brother had suddenly shifted gears.  Though he'd been moody and quiet of late, Joe had loosened up on the ride to town, talking easily with his brother.  Now it seemed he was withdrawing once again, re-erecting familiar walls.  Hoss gave the reins a practiced flick and the horse lurched forward, drawing the wagon behind it.  "Sure hope Hop Sing's got somethin' good fixed for dinner," he said conversationally.  "I'm plum starved."

Joe grunted in reply.

Frowning, Hoss ducked his head and hunched down further in the seat. It was going to be a long ride home.


Ben Cartwright glanced up from his plate as he worked his knife through a piece of lean beef. "Did you take care of that telegram to Milo Caine?" he asked his eldest son across the dinner table.  At his side, Hoss plopped a mound of mashed potatoes on his plate and smiled appreciatively at the sound it made.

"Hey, Joe.  Pass me that there bread."

Adam watched as the bread plate exchanged hands. "Sent it off this morning, Pa.  Told him we were interested in bidding--particulary on that black stud horse--and would have a representative at the auction."  Pausing, he glanced aside at Joe who sat quietly, contemplating the mostly untouched food on his plate.  Adam cleared his throat, before continuing.  "By the way--I saw Amos Cutter while I was in town."

"Oh?"  Ben's brows crinkled in an annoyed frown.  Setting the knife aside, he shifted his fork to his right hand.  "What did he want?"

Adam shrugged.  "The usual.  Said he'd up his price on that parcel of land he wants by five thousand dollars."

"I don't care if he ups it twenty, it's not for sale."  Ben's voice was suddenly withering.  Hoss stopped chewing long enough to glance at his father and Ben noted both he and Adam were watching with wary expressions.  Exhaling sharply, Ben sat back in his chair.  "I don't mean to be short, but Cutter needs to learn when I say 'no' to a proposal, I mean no."

Hoss scraped his fork over his plate using his potatoes to sop up gravy.  "Why do you think he wants it so much, Pa?  That land ain't worth nothin'."

"Maybe not by itself," Adam inserted before his father could comment.  "But Cutter's trying to work a deal with the Thistlecreek Mine.  He'd save a lot of time and expense if he had that parcel, rather than hauling timber by way of the Firebox Trail."

"If he can't turn the timber around fast enough," Ben continued, "Thistlecreek will go elsewhere. Unfortunately for Cutter, that section of the Ponderosa supplies the only direct access to the mine, while still bordering his land."

Hoss looked thoughtful, then his eyes flicked across the table to Joe.  "Say, Joe--don't your friend Mitch Campbell work for Cutter?"

Joe glanced up to discover three pairs of eyes watching him expectantly.  He flushed slightly, for he hadn't truly been listening. "I'm sorry, Hoss.  What'd you say?"

"Mitch Campbell," Hoss repeated.  "Don't he work for Amos Cutter on the Circle C?"

Joe nodded.  "Couple months now.  He's one of the cowhands."

"Wages must be good," Adam said dryly.  Picking up his fork he glanced again at Ben.  "Pa, getting back to the telegram--you want me to go to the auction and bid?   I've got a couple days free and--"

"Hey, wait a minute," Joe said, showing the first signs of interest all evening.  "I'd like to do that for Pa.  Besides, if we're going to purchase a stud horse, I think I should have some say in it.  I seem to recall that part of the ranch operation belonging to me."

Ben propped his elbows on the table and laced his hands together.  "He's right, Adam.  It does belong to him."  Ben turned his head slightly and regarded his youngest son. "You'd have to leave tomorrow.  Ridgeville's a long ride with at least two nights on the trail."

"I know that."

"Why don't you take the stage?" Ben suggested gently.

Joe made a face.  "Pa, come on--I can get there a lot quicker on horseback."

"You're going to be there for a few days, Joe.  You're going to need more luggage then you can carry on horseback. Besides, I owe Milo some gear.  You can take it for me."

"Yes, Sir."  Sighing, Joe fell back against his chair.  He knew his father really didn't have anything to send Milo, he just wanted Joe to have the added protection of the stage line.  Though it had been almost six weeks since Joe's encounter with Frank McCay and Kent Rudy, Ben still hovered protectively when it came to his son's safety.  Digging that bullet from Joe's side had effected him more than it had Joe.  Though normally he would have argued the point, Joe let it drop.  He still had the shears to return to Lorna, and he was anxious to see her.

Dropping his fork onto his plate, he pushed back from the table.  He'd barely touched his food. "I've got some things to do in town.  Excuse me."

Ben nodded, resisting the urge to remind him to be careful.  When the front door had closed signaling Joe's departure, Hoss gave a one-shouldered shrug.  "That's about as talkative as he's been since we left town.  I swear, Pa, he's as fickle as a cool wind on a hot day."

"Well, Hoss, he's been through a rough ordeal."

"It ain't that," Hoss scoffed.  "All you gotta do is look at him, and you can see he's actin' like a moonsick calf.  He's done stuck on that Lorna David and he don't know what to do about it.  Mostly because he don't want to admit it."  Hoss glanced sideways at Adam.  "You should talk to him."

"Not me."  Adam held up his hands.  "Lorna and I ended our relationship weeks ago.  He's got to sort things out for himself."

"Yeah, well I hope it's soon."  Hoss reached for the potatoes and plopped another mound on his plate, then reached for the platter of beef.  Ben watched, leaning back in his chair.  A faint sliver of anxiety danced at the edge of his nerves.  Perhaps the trip to Ridgeville would be good for Joe. It would give him a chance to distance himself from Lorna and the things that had happened involving Rudy and McCay.  Though he didn't talk about it, Ben knew that trauma had to have
effected him as well.  The trip might be just what Joe needed to put his emotions in perspective.

Pouring himself a cup of coffee, Ben tried to relax.  His eyes settled pensively on Adam.  His eldest son had broken things off with Miss David, but how would he really feel if Joe started courting her? Ben sighed.

He was convinced no good would come of the situation.


Lorna started at the knock on her front door.  Dinner behind her, she'd just settled down to work on a dress alteration for the Widow Clark.   Frowning slightly, she set the garment on the couch and crossed to the door, drawing it wide.

"Joe."  Lorna felt her heart lurch to her throat.  Joe Cartwright was the last person she expected to see.  He hadn't been back to her home since the incident involving Lancaster and McCay.  Though she'd seen him in town just a few hours ago, the shock of seeing him now--here in her home--left her momentarily bewildered.

"May I come in?"  Joe asked.

Quickly she sought to regain her composure.  Wordlessly she stood aside, granting him room to enter.

Joe stepped past her and removed his hat.  "You forgot these when you left the store."  He offered the package Mr. Linden had wrapped earlier that day. "It's the cutting shears you wanted."

Lorna wet her lips.  "Thank you."  Closing the door, she crossed to the table and set the package aside.  It gave her an excuse to keep her back turned.  Her hands trembled and she realized she was afraid to look at him--afraid she might glimpse the same emotion in his eyes, she felt welling in her heart. "Would you like some coffee?"  she asked.  It was force of habit, nothing more--a courtesy she hoped he wouldn't accept.

Joe tossed his hat on the couch.  She felt him move nearer.  "I want to talk to you."

Lorna glanced down, allowing her fingers to rest on the tabletop.  Strings of darker grain bled through the polished wood like ripples in a stream.  She smoothed her index finger over one undulating wave, needing the distraction to calm her racing heart.  She could feel him hovering at her back, the air crackling between them like dry heat on a summer day.

"Lorna."  Joe caught her arm and tugged her gently about.  Against her will, her eyes were drawn upward to his face.  The ride had left him disheveled and slightly winded, and she realized belatedly, he had yet to regain his full strength.  Sweat-damp curls hung ragged over his collar, begging to be smoothed into place.  Most disturbing of all, his lips were parted, his eyes veiled by soft lashes as he gazed down at her.

"Joe, please."  His touch blistered with heat and she tried to draw away.  Her eyes dropped to his chest and she noticed the top three buttons of his shirt were undone, the open fabric creating a deep "v". "You shouldn't have come here," she said with effort.

Joe's fingers had started a slow, soft massage against her arm.  "We need to talk."

Panicked by the surge of emotion his touch induced, Lorna pulled away.  "Joe, please just leave."

"Why?"  She saw the sudden spark of anger in his eyes; felt her heart thrum against her ribs when he took a step forward.  "Lorna, I'm not going to play this game anymore."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said quickly, but the lie was evident in her eyes. For a moment she was tempted to banish the restraints--he was young and handsome, and there was no denying the effect he had on her.  Yet each time she contemplated surrendering, she flashed back to an image of him tied to her bed, while his father cut into him with a knife.  She could still see the blood, ruby-red on Ben's hands, falling like fat dollops of rain against the milk-white sheets . . . hear the tortured rattle of Joe's breath; the pained plea of his screams.  Overcome by the memory, Lorna fell back against the table, gripping the scarred edge with trembling hands.

"Lorna, what's wrong?"  Stepping forward, Joe touched her lightly on the shoulder.  Mutely, she shook her head.  "Lorna, please."  Joe lifted his hand, cupping her cheek.  A few strands of ebony hair had worked free from her braid and lay clinging to her face. With a gentle sweep of his hand, Joe smoothed the stray tresses into place.  His touch lingered, then fell away, the fiery path of his fingers dipping to her neck.  He lowered his head slightly and she felt his hair brush against her temple.  His arm slipped around her waist, coaxing her nearer, and Lorna found herself obeying.  She pressed against him and felt a delicious warmth cascade through her.

"No . . ." One last feeble plea, and then his lips were on hers, coaxing her mouth apart beneath the velvety intrusion of his tongue.  Lorna gasped and tried to withdraw, but Joe's hands only urged her nearer, melding her body to his.  She could feel the hard plane of his chest, the muscled line of his thigh--the scent of him like desert and pine, tangled with the sweet, heady musk of sweat.  Lorna's head was spinning.  Despite her resolve to the contrary, she wilted in his embrace.
Raising her arms, she twined her fingers in the luxurious curls of his hair, the strands like silk beneath her fingertips.  One hand slid down his cheek, encountering the rough stubble of day-old beard.  Gripping his chin, she moved her mouth against his, the feelings she'd kept restrained for so long, tumbling free. Growing bolder, she skimmed her tongue over the outside of his mouth.

Joe groaned, his breath coming faster as her lips slid across his cheek and dipped to his neck.  Lorna lowered one hand, allowing the fingers to caress his throat before slipping inside his shirt.  She could feel his heart thrum against her fingertips, the rapid pulse an enticement that beckoned her further.  Her hand skimmed across his chest, lightly grazing the nipple.

"God, Lorna."  Joe hooked his arms around her waist and pulled her tighter.  He could feel the growing discomfort in his pants, attesting to how badly he wanted her.   He couldn't recall ever wanting a woman as much as he wanted Lorna. As Adam had wanted her.

The thought came from nowhere, dousing his ardor with a wave of icy water.  Joe gasped, wrenching backwards.  He saw the wounded confusion in Lorna's eyes, and winced inwardly.  His arms were still tangled about her waist.

"Joe, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." He shook his head, vainly trying to quell the image of the woman he loved in his brother's arms.

Lorna tried to pull away.

"Don't."  His voice threatened to crack.  Recovering, Joe bent his head and lightly brushed his lips against hers.

"This isn't going to work," Lorna murmured, but made no effort to withdraw.   Leaning into him, she rested her head against his chest.  "Joe, you're so young."

Propping his chin on the top of her head, he moved his hands up her back.  "That didn't bother you a moment ago."

She laughed softly, then drew back to gaze into his eyes.  "The more fault mine than yours.  Joe, my life is far too complex."

"I know about your life," he said quickly.  "I know about Del.  About the Lancasters.  About how you survived when you left Texas."

She shook her head, a haunted expression in her eyes.  "You don't know all of it."

"I don't care.  I just . . ." Raising his hand, Joe traced a finger lightly against her bottom lip. "Lorna, I've fallen in love with you."

This time she did pull away.  Turning her back, she lowered her head.  She could feel the tide of conflicting emotion within her--the desire to have him near, to feel his warm flesh next to hers, and the reality that it would never work.  Miserably, she knotted her hands together.  "You'd better leave."

Joe stared at her back.  The rebuke was mild, but it stung all the same.  "I'm taking the stage to Ridgeville tomorrow.  I'll be gone for almost two weeks.  We'll settle this when I get back."

"There's nothing to settle."

Joe's eyes narrowed.  "Oh, I think there is."  Leaning forward he hooked his arm around her waist and drew her back against him.  Surprised, Lorna gave a startled cry, both hands dropping instinctively to his arm.  Her fingers curled against his sleeve, her mind careening out of control.  She could feel the rough edge of his gunbelt pressed to her hips, the buckle digging into her lower back.  His hand splayed over her stomach, pinning her in place. "I'll be back by the end of next week," Joe whispered, his voice husky.  His lips dipped near her ear, and she felt the warm trickle of his breath against her cheek.

Lorna closed her eyes, willing herself not to respond. His arm fell away and he released her.  With a guilty flush, Lorna turned and drank in the sight of him, watching as he collected his hat and moved towards the door.

Joe's lips parted in a dazzling grin, revealing the even white line of his teeth.  "'Night, Lorna." A moment later the door closed behind him, emitting a soft swish as it fell into place.

Trembling, she sank into the nearest chair.  "I won't let this happen."  She said the words aloud, as if somehow that would convince her--as if in giving voice to the situation, she would find the will to control it.  Slipping a hand into the pocket of her skirt, she withdrew a folded slip of paper.  The parchment rustled as she smoothed it back with her thumb.  Her eyes skimmed over the scrawled lines in the missive, settling near the bottom of the letter:  . . . stage from Ridgeville on the 19th, should be in Virginia City by the 21st.

Lorna's mouth tightened as the time frame struck home:  the end of next week.  Her visitor would be arriving in Virginia City on the same stage as Joe.


Joe pushed open the swinging doors to the Silver Dollar and stepped inside.  It was a Thursday night, and the saloon was filled near capacity.  A fluctuating mesh of voices and laughter created a comfortable din, as inviting as it was loud.  Stepping to the bar, Joe ordered a beer, then stood back to survey the room.  The usual assortment of cowpokes and miners clustered at the circular tables and bar--some already deep in the oblivion of alcohol, others just beginning the familiar ride.

"Hey, Joe!"

Mitch Campbell was seated at a table to the rear.  With an acknowledging wave, Joe pushed through the thick throng, feeling the jostling press of bodies.  Halfway through the crowd, he felt a feminine hand glide across his stomach, lightly skimming the top of his belt.  Joe grinned crookedly at the flirtatious advance of the red-haired bar maid, but otherwise never slowed his path.

"How's it going, Mitch?"

Mitch shifted uncomfortably.  He was in the middle of a poker hand, and had obviously run out of cash.  Joe glanced from the pot in the center of the table, to the somber faces of the other three players. Lifting his beer mug to his lips, Joe took a swallow of the lukewarm ale.  "Looks like you're running a little low on funds there, pal." He nodded at the glaringly empty space in front of Mitch.

His friend wet his lips.  "How 'bout staking me, Joe?"

"I don't know."

"Come on, Joe, I can't lose."  Leaning back in the chair, Mitch flashed his hand at Joe, revealing a straight.

"You bettin' or ain't you?"  a stocky man with thinning brown hair asked.  Seated across from Mitch, his face bore a high flush of color, indicating he was either intoxicated or growing angry.  Joe glanced at the almost full whiskey bottle at his elbow and decided it was the latter.

"How much you need?"  he asked Mitch, withdrawing his wallet.

"Fifty should do."  Mitch's eyes gleamed at the cash, Joe produced so effortlessly.  Tossing the bills in the pot, he called the hand, and laid his cards on the table.  There were grumbles and grunts, but in the end he took the winnings, raking the money close with a wide grin.  Joe's fifty was returned with a flourish.  "Thanks, pal.  You came by at just the right time."

"One of these days you're going to be too far in the hole, Mitch." Joe caught his friend by the arm, and steered him towards the bar.  "Come on, I'll buy you a beer."

"Hell, Cartwright, you're not the only one with money!"  Mitch grinned as he tucked his newly acquired winnings inside his shirt.  "I'm buying."

"Sounds good to me." As Joe moved away, he was unaware of the two men in the far corner who watched his movements.

"Ben Cartwright's whelp," Amos Cutter muttered to his foreman.  Corn-gold eyes narrowed as he watched the two friends move towards the bar.  "Mitch Campbell's pretty close with that kid, isn't he?"

Wade Anderson shrugged.  "Tight enough that Cartwright's bailed him out of a few scrapes."

"Oh?  How do you mean?"

Anderson downed a shot of whiskey, then reached for the bottle in the center of the table.  Glass clicked against glass as he poured a jigger of the topaz liquid.  "Mitch likes to gamble, but he ain't really good at it.  He's dug himself kind of deep before, and Cartwright's bailed him out." Anderson smirked as he raised the glass to his mouth.  "You can bet old Ben doesn't know his son's done that."

Digesting the information, Cutter leaned back in his chair, neatly steepling his fingers together.  His gaze hovered on the two young men at the bar, his expression intent.  For a moment he said nothing, then a slow, relishing smile spread over his mouth. "I think we should invite Mr. Campbell to a high-stakes poker game.  An evening at home with the regular gents."

Wade practically choked on his whiskey.  "Mr. Cutter, that kid doesn't have the kind of money for that type of game."

"Exactly.  It could be useful to have him indebted to me.  Give him a bonus so his pockets are full, then wait a day and invite him to the house.  And just so it doesn't look odd, invite one or two of the other hands. Tell them I want a better relationship with my crew."  Cutter chuckled and waved a hand in snide dismissal.  "Or make up some tawdry explanation on your own.  Either way, I'll make sure I have a game set up to entertain us."

Anderson blinked, unable to follow the logic behind the move.  "Why?"

Frowning, Cutter shook his head.  "You got rocks for brains, Anderson?  Didn't I just tell you, Campbell could prove useful?"  Disgusted, he blew air through his fleshy lips and reached for his whiskey glass.  "Now what about Shey?  When's he due back?"

Inching forward, Anderson licked his lips, eager to make up for his lapse.  "The twenty-first. He's comin' in on the stage from Ridgeville right after the auction."

"Good. I understand there's a black stud at the auction that should do the Circle C proud.  My nephew has a keen eye for breeding stock.  If that horse is anything it's rumored to be, he'll make sure we get it." With a savoring glance, Cutter's hooded eyes returned to the bar.  He lifted his glass in mock salute.  "If I can't take land from Ben Cartwright, I'll make damn sure I take everything else."  His lips thinned over his teeth and he drained the glass in a single gulp.  "Including his son."


The noon sun inched ever higher in the sky--a mustard yellow ball, pinned in a field of cloudless blue.  Ben squinted at the shimmering orb, then glanced aside at Joe.  His son had been a knot of tightly leashed energy all morning--unusually anxious to be away, as though something nipped at his coattails.  Watching his young son shuffle from foot to foot, Ben had a fairly good idea of what that something was.

Both men started at the loud rumble of the stage, as it appeared suddenly on the streets of Virginia City.  A team of four horses preceded the massive coach, their harness and reins jangling with each thunderous step.  Clouds of dust spewed in the air, kicked into existence by the resounding strike of shod hooves. For a moment, as the stage rounded the corner, the coach appeared top-heavy--a lumbering box teetering on spindle-thin wheels.  The illusion passed and the vehicle righted itself, coming to halt before the two men.  Ben caught his son's arm and pulled him aside.

"Joseph, I need to speak with you."

The restrained energy tugged visibly at Joe.  He glanced from the stage to his father.  "Pa, I've got to go."

"In a minute.  It'll be a while until they unload, then tie up the new luggage.  You sure you have everything for Milo?"

Joe tried not to appear annoyed.  "Yes, Sir."  He didn't understand why his father was sending so much stable gear to his old friend--except as a convenient excuse to force his son into taking the stage.  Pressing his lips together, Joe brought his restlessness under control.  "What is it, Pa?"

Ben tried not to let his uneasiness show.  His youngest son still tired easily and Ben didn't like the thought of having him so far from home.  He noted almost distractedly that his son had gotten a haircut within the last few days.  Softly shorn locks fell against Joe's neck and collar, still too long for Ben's taste, yet somehow making him seem younger.  "Joe, you're going to be gone for awhile, and it might be a good idea to use that time for matters other than the auction."

Suddenly suspicious, Joe tilted his head.  "I don't follow you."

Ben drew a breath.  The afternoon air was warm and abrasive, scratching his lungs like sandpaper. "You've been through an ordeal recently, and it could be effecting you . . . well, in ways you don't realize.  I want you to think about this situation with Miss David."

"Pa there is no situation."

Ben could see the quick flare of suppressed anger in his son's expressive eyes.  "Joe, there is."

Immediately, Joe grew defensive.  "I'm not going to discuss this.  We've been through it already--weeks ago."

"Yes, we have.  And since then, I think you've come to realize I was right--you do have feelings for the woman."

"What if I do?"  Joe snapped, his annoyance slipping through, despite efforts to curb it.  "What if I told you, I loved her?  Would that be so terrible, Pa?"  Despite the bristling challenge in the words, there remained an uncertainty--a hidden plea for Ben's assurance that Joe couldn't mask. Disgusted, he placed his hands on his hips and glanced away.

"Joseph--" Ben tried to gauge the level of his son's volatile emotions.  "I'm not condemning either of you, but I am saying there's a lot to consider.  She's a good deal older than you--"

Joe's eyes skewed sideways.  "And that should matter?"

"There's more," Ben continued.  "She's been married before.  Her husband was . . . well . . . thus far she's managed to keep her past under wraps, but--"

"Pa, you're not telling me anything I don't already know," Joe snapped, clearly hostile.

"Then what about Adam?"  Ben demanded, his own patience wearing thin.

"What about him?"

"Have you considered how he'll feel?"

"Pa, what was between Adam and Lorna has been over for weeks.  He told me so himself."

"Yes, I know he told you, but that doesn't make the situation any less awkward."

Joe raised his hands and turned away, clearly at a loss.  Ben could see the ridge of muscle constrict across his shoulders; the sudden tick of annoyance in his smooth cheek.

"Little Joe."  The pet name had the desired effect.  Joe's eyes returned reluctantly, his expression still surly.  It was that flinty gaze that made Ben realize he didn't want to part on bad terms.  Stepping forward he laid his hand on his son's shoulder, the fingers tightening in an affectionate grip.  "Let's not argue, Joe.  You'll be gone too long as it is."

"Pa, it's only two weeks."

Ben smiled, sensing the crack in his son's armor.  Behind him he could hear the stage master calling passengers to board.  "Guess that's your cue."

"Yeah."  Joe was suddenly uncomfortable.  He'd been anxious to be away, but the argument made the parting seem odd, as though he left something unsettled behind.  Biting down on his bottom lip, he held out his hand.  "See ya, Pa."

Ben's fingers curled around his son's black-gloved hand.  Raising his left hand, he gave a gentle squeeze to Joe's shoulder.  "Take care of yourself."

Joe nodded, then sprinted quickly for the stage.  Sagging into the seat, he slid across to the far window, and hooked his arm over the rim.  A moment later another passenger boarded and took a seat beside him, effectively blocking his view of Ben.  With a sigh, Joe tilted his head back and stared at the roof of the carriage

Two weeks.

Ben wanted him to think about ending things with Miss David.  Joe wanted to think about marriage.


The three day ride to Ridgeville was grueling.  The lumbering, jostling sway of the coach combined with the dry heat of the bordering desert to make life truly miserable. Narrow and winding, the road was festooned with potholes, each rut a beckoning invitation for the stage's stick-thin wheels.  A punishing afternoon was followed by a restless night at a way station.  The following morning, three additional passengers boarded from a connecting line, and the carriage became cramped for the duration of the trek.  On the second night, Joe endured a tasteless meal and wobbly cot--amenities he could easily have done with out.  By the time the bulky silhouette of Ridgeville appeared on the horizon, early the third day, he was only too thankful to put the stage behind him.

Collecting his bags, he checked into the hotel, then set about locating Milo Caine.  His father's friend was to act as guide at the auction, providing any stray tidbits of information an out-of-town buyer may not have been privy to.  As Joe had suspected, Milo seemed surprised by the amount of gear Ben sent along with his son.   Appreciative over the gifts, Milo went out of his way to provide Joe with a detailed preview of the stock to be auctioned.  The horses were corralled in the center of town, with stats posted on a board nearby.  Milo rattled off a brief history on each, carefully pointing out the selling points of each individual animal.  "The roan's a dobbin, but the buttermilk would make a good peg pony.  That eel stripe's been Indian broke and the California sorrel's, prime for a steer horse."

Joe nodded, listening, as his eyes roamed over the shuffling herd.  The air was thick with the pungent odor of horse and trampled earth; the reek of excrement and the burnt redolence of straw.  As expected, the black was the best of the bunch, but there was a nice claybank Joe judged would make a superior cutting horse, and a dapple, which while raw, might be groomed for range work.

Joe spent the afternoon with Milo, and at his friend's insistence, had dinner with Milo's family.  Alone, later that evening, he wandered to the saloon, intent on a beer or two before retiring.  The auction brought buyers aplenty, and Joe found himself squeezed at the end of the bar.  He had just swallowed the lacy head off his beer, when a voice behind him drew his attention.

"Well, well, well.  If it ain't Joe Cartwright, all the way from Virginia City."

Surprised, Joe turned.  He was greeted by a casually dressed man, close to him in both age and build.  White-blonde hair framed a clean-shaven face, the pale tresses accentuating the whiskey-brown hue of the man's eyes.  As Joe watched, the newcomer's lips lifted in an insolent grin.  "A little far from home, aren't you, pup?"

Joe ignored the jibe.  Taking another swallow of beer, he turned back to the bar.  "I could say the same about you, Cutter.  It's obvious why we're both here."

"Hmm.  Got that right."  Shey Cutter stepped to the bar, elbowing into a spot beside Joe.  "Sure hope Daddy gave you his wallet, 'cause you ain't gonna outbid me on that black."

"Who says I'm interested in the black?"

Shey snorted.  "Come on, Cartwright.  That horse is the best in the string and you know it.  Tell me you've haven't already staked it for a Ponderosa stud?"

Joe rolled his shoulders.  "Maybe."  He could feel Shey's eyes on him, quietly measuring.  It was a game they'd played most of their life.  Only months apart in age, they'd spent their youth in the same circle of friends and peers, mostly as rivals.  Shey's father had owned the second largest ranch in Nevada.   While only half the size of the Ponderosa, the Circle C was nonetheless a formidable holding.  When Shey's father had died four years ago, running of the ranch passed to his brother Amos, rather than Shey, who had been deemed too young at the time.  Content to assume the position of heir--Shey was to inherit full title on his twenty-fifth birthday--the blonde-haired man often brandished his wealth and status like a rooster among hens.  Yet the one person he'd never been able to effectively bully was Joe Cartwright.  Over the years that failure had led to numerous encounters with fisticuffs, continuing a rivalry began in the Virginia City schoolhouse.

"I'm gonna enjoy bidding against you." Shey smiled thinly, obviously fishing for a rise.  When Joe didn't answer, he turned around, bracing his back against the bar and hooking his elbows on the edge.  His beer glass hung loosely in his right hand, the amber liquid inching towards the rim. "Pretty lively place, ain't it Cartwright?  Women, whiskey and cards.  A man could lose his poke right easy."

"If he's a fool, maybe."

Shey Cutter titled his head, his pale hair banner-bright, in the dusty haze of the saloon. Dark brows narrowed over his eyes. "You calling me a fool, pup?"

Joe closed his eyes briefly.  Cutter seemed determined that the confrontation turn ugly.  Setting his beer glass aside, Joe leaned sideways into the bar.  "I'm not calling you anything, Shey, but you sure seem eager to pin that name on yourself.  Must fit pretty good."  He grinned as he said the latter--a small, derisive curl of his lips, as insulting as it was goading.  Joe saw the fierce flood of anger in the other's eyes and knew instinctively that he'd struck a nerve.  It was that furtive flicker of hostility that gave him the warning.  He ducked even as Shey swung.

The stray punch flew over Joe's head and connected with a lantern-jawed miner leaning against the bar.  Joe didn't wait to see what happened.  He barreled forward, hooking Shey about the waist and carrying him to the floor.  With an angry grunt, the miner reciprocated, his fist waffling through the empty air where Shey had stood.  The blow snagged a bearded cowboy, cranking his head sharply to the side.

Joe meanwhile, scuffled with Shey.  He drove his fist into the other's face--once, twice--before being propelled off him.  Joe tumbled head over heels and collided with the wall, his shoulder smacking painfully against the baseboard.  He could hear the sounds of the fracas behind him, as it erupted into a full-fledge melee.  Someone he didn't know grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. Almost immediately he felt knuckles scrape against his cheek, wrenching his head to the side.  Joe
stumbled backwards, colliding with a table, nearly upending it.  Someone else grabbed his collar, but this time he got off the first punch.  He ducked a thrown chair and heard it batter the wall behind him.  An elbow clipped him in his injured side, and he grunted, bending double, as needles of pain skidded across his abdomen.  Drawing a breath, he tried to straighten.  He caught a glimpse of the lantern-jawed miner and then a bottle cracked across the back of his neck, driving him to his knees.  He choked on the overpowering reek of whiskey.  Cold and wet, the spilled liquor trickled over his neck, seeping into his shirt.  The floor rose up to meet him, and he tumbled head first into the darkness.



The hand on his shoulder rattled him again.  Joe groaned, certain his head would roll off.  A blinding pain erupted at the base of his neck, insisting that he silence the abusive hand.  Weakly, he tried to push it away.  Strong fingers gripped his chin and drew his head up.  The pain in his neck traveled to his temples and splintered behind his eyes.

"G'way . . ." he mumbled.

"Come on, Cartwright."

Groggily, he forced his eyes open, wincing as his vision see-sawed.  With concentrated effort, he narrowed a pain-dulled gaze on the owner of that torturous hand.  Shey Cutter exhaled noisily and sat back on his haunches.

" 'Bout time.  It's like near to dawn.  If you wanna make the auction, you gotta bail us out of here quick."

Joe swallowed uncomfortably.  He was lying on a cot, staring at the ceiling.  As his surroundings came into focus, he realized he was in a jail cell, the metal bars slanting long shadows across the dirty floor. Quickly, he sat forward, swinging his legs over the side of the cot in one fluid motion.  The movement induced a throbbing pain at the base of his skull, making him wish he'd stayed still.  Groaning, he dropped his head into his hands.  "What the hell am I doing in here with you, Cutter?"

"I can answer that one," said a new voice.

Joe lifted his head to see the sheriff of Ridgeville standing on the other side of the bars.  A tall man with skin like parchment, he had nut brown hair and a pencil-thin mustache. A glint of lamp-light danced on the five-pointed star pinned to his vest, kindling a glare from the battered tin.

Joe licked his lips.  His clothing reeked of stale whiskey, the scent making his stomach turn. "Sheriff?"

"You boys were in a bit of a scuffle over at the Broken Bow."

"There were a lot of folks in that scuffle," Shey Cutter said heatedly, striding towards the bars.

"True.  But I have it from most everyone there, that you two started it."

Joe hadn't moved.  "And?"  There was a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, telling him he didn't want to know the answer.

"And--what's you're name, son?"

"Cartwright.  Joe Cartwright."

"Hmm.  Ponderosa Cartwright?"

"Yes, Sir."

The sheriff considered.  "Well, you see Mr. Cartwright, there was a lot of damage done, and someone's got to pay for it.  Since you and your friend were the initiators of the whole affair, it seems only just you should foot the bill."

"That's not fair," Joe said quickly, feeling the first kindling stab of anger.

"Not fair, eh?"  The sheriff's face was suddenly inscrutable.  "Tell you what--when you get back to the Ponderosa, you decide what's fair and what's not.  In my town, I make the call, and I say you two are staying put until someone comes up with the money."

"We've got to make the horse auction," Shey protested.  "It'll be starting in a few hours."

"Not my problem."

Frustrated, Joe scraped a hand through his hair, smoothing down the unruly curls.  "What's the damage?" he asked at last.

"Fourteen hundred should cover it."

"What!"  Joe came quickly to his feet.  His face paled as a sharp conflagration of pain erupted in the back of his skull. Ignoring the needling discomfort, he walked stiffly to the bars.  "Sheriff, that's ludicrous.  There's got to be a mistake.  There's no way we could have done that much damage."

"No mistake."

Joe grew quiet.  He knew if he gave up the money, he'd never make the bid on the black. Watching the heavily-lidded eyes of the other man, he suddenly understood what transpired.  With a sigh of understanding, he slumped against the bars.  "I see," he said quietly.  "The Ponderosa can afford seven hundred, is that it?"

The sheriff's eyes narrowed.  "I don't take your point, Mr. Cartwright."

"No I'm sure you don't."  Joe patted his jacket, surprised to find his wallet still on him. He withdrew the billfold and riffled through the money. "At least you don't take to robbery." His gaze was pointed. "Legitimately."

"I'll overlook that remark, Mr. Cartwright, seeing as you're probably not feeling up to par."

Joe smirked.  He withdrew a handful of bills and passed them through the bars.  "Seven hundred dollars--my share.  Now can I get out of here?"

Flicking his fingers through the bills, the sheriff counted silently.  With a satisfied smile he stuffed the wad inside his shirt, then moved to collect the key ring.  Stepping back to the cot, Joe retrieved his hat.

"Wait a minute."  Shey caught his arm.  "What about me?"

 "What about you?"  Joe asked.  "Give him seven hundred and you're out of here."

"If I give him seven hundred, I'll short myself on bidding."

"That's not my problem."

"It is your problem.  You started that fight."

Joe was losing his patience.  "I'm not gonna argue with you, Shey."  Wrenching his arm free, he turned towards the door.  Keys jangled in the lock as the sheriff yanked the barrier open.  Wanting to put the experience behind him, Joe shouldered through--intent on getting a bath and washing the sour stink of whiskey from his skin.  He could feel Shey's eyes on him, boring into his back like molten fire.  As he passed the sheriff he couldn't resist a parting shot: "Thanks for the hospitality."

He heard an appreciative chuckle, and then he was past the man, pushing outside into the early morning haze.  Yellow glare knifed beneath the brim of his hat, forcing him to narrow his eyes.

At the hotel he took a bath, and got a change of clothes.  Fully dressed, he stretched out on the bed and quietly contemplated the ceiling.  The auction was scheduled to start soon, and Joe had no idea how he was going to manage a bid on the black, after giving up seven hundred dollars.  Worse yet, would be explaining the situation to his father, when he returned to the Ponderosa. Groaning, Joe folded his elbow over his eyes.

The long stage ride and restless nights, coupled with the blow to his head, gradually took it's toll. A velvety shroud of sleep hovered over his senses, lulling him to slumber.  Unaware, Joe drifted off, his mind funneling back to memories of Miss David.  Vivid images skirted at the edge of his mind--he could smell her perfume; feel the sensual brush of her silky hair against his arm; taste the sunflower sweetness of her lips on his.

With a sudden start, Joe awoke to an uncomfortable tightness in his pants.  Sunlight slanted through the window, heralding late morning.  Cursing softly, Joe swung his legs over the side of the bed.  A quick adjustment to his trousers and a moment to collect his hat, was all it took before he bolted out the door.  As he feared, the auction was already in progress.

Joe found Milo Caine near the corral.

"The eel stripe, dapple and buttermilk are already gone," Milo said aside, after Joe apologized for keeping him waiting. "But they ain't got to the black yet."

Joe breathed a sigh of relief.  It was a long shot he knew, but he still hoped he could pull off a bid on the stud horse.  Glancing over his shoulder, he glimpsed Shey Cutter on the opposite side of the corral.  The two men locked eyes.  Joe knew that Cutter was going to be at a similar disadvantage when bidding on the black.  There was no way he could have parted with seven hundred and still be competitive.   Yet when the black came on the auction block, Shey stepped to the forefront of the bidding.

"Two hundred," he called.

The auctioneer's gavel banged, coaxing two-fifty from the crowd.  With a sharp glance at Shey, Joe took the bid.  Someone behind him, upped it to three hundred.  Joe's eyes flicked to the corral where the spirited black pranced like a king among the other horses.

"Three-fifty," he called.

"Four hundred," Shey said immediately.

Joe swallowed hard.  He knew he couldn't go much higher; didn't understand how Shey could.

"Five hundred."  It was all he had left.  His mouth was dry.  He knew he was crazy to bid so much on a single animal, but the promise of that lineage on the Ponderosa, spurred him to it.  His father would surely skin him alive for wasting all his funds on one horse.

Shey folded his arms across his chest.  "Five-fifty," he said, staring directly at Joe.

The gavel banged--once, twice.  "Sold!"  the auctioneer cried, "To Shey Cutter of the Circle C Ranch, Virginia City."

With a haughty grin, Shey moved forward, brushing past Joe.  Stepping to the pay booth, he withdrew his wallet and peeled off a string of bills.  When he was through, a wad of money still remained.

Joe felt his stomach sink as he witnessed the sight.  Somehow, Shey had managed to walk away from the jail with most of his funds intact.  There was no way Joe would ever outbid him now.

The claybank was next--the only other horse that held any true interest for Joe.  He hoped to take it for a low amount, thus having money left over to buy a few range horses. Yet as soon as the bidding started, Shey drove up the amount, forcing Joe to bid higher or back off.  When the bid was at two-fifty, Shey withdrew, and Joe saw half his money go for one animal.  He bought a chestnut for one-hundred, plus a bay and a dun for sixty dollars each.  The auction was only half over and he was out of cash.

Joe settled his account and tucked the bills of sale inside his jacket.  "I'll have the stock picked up next week," he told the pay master.  As he started away, Shey Cutter stepped forward, roughly bumping into his shoulder.

"Out of cash already, Cartwright?"  He smiled indulgently.  "Too bad daddy doesn't trust you with more.  I was looking forward to bidding against you.  Taking that black wasn't near satisfying enough."

Joe's gaze was flat.  "It's interesting how you have all that cash, Shey. I seem to recall you saying you wouldn't have enough, if you paid the damages for the saloon."

Shey rolled his shoulders into a liquid shrug.  The smile grew by inches.  "Guess I must have miscalculated."

"Yeah.  Guess so."  It was obvious Joe didn't believe him.  Either Shey had more funds than he originally let on, or he'd never paid his portion of the damages.  Either way, Joe had a feeling the ruckus in the saloon had been arranged for his sole benefit.  He didn't know how he was going to explain to Ben that he'd purchased a total of four horses, while going through almost twelve hundred dollars.

He spent the next two days visiting with Milo, then boarded the morning stage back to Virginia City.  Three other passengers shared the coach with him: Shey Cutter, a young boy about fourteen, and a thin, almost spectral-looking gentleman with a whey face and meticulous appearance.  The boy spent his time scribbling in a notebook, while the man perused the local paper.  Seated across from Cutter, Joe did his best not to meet Shey's eyes.  He was still smarting from the auction and knew the slightest provocation was likely to set him off.  Training his gaze out the window, he watched the scenery roll by, and let his mind drift.

He hadn't done an awful lot of thinking about Miss David, as his father had requested, but what he had done, reconfirmed his feelings--Joe knew he was in love with her.  Hopelessly, utterly, completely in love.  Looking back on the time he'd shared with her, before facing Brian Lancaster, he could see signs of that fondness growing.  He'd been blind to it then, or maybe as Ben indicated, he'd preferred not to face it.  Either way the end result was the same.  Bowing his head, he rubbed two fingers against his temple.  He had to square things with Adam--make sure there would be no resentment on the part of his brother.  More importantly, he had to talk to Lorna.

The coach lurched suddenly, hitting a rut in the road.  Joe banged up against the side of the carriage.  He felt Shey's boot connect painfully with his leg.

"Sorry, Cartwright."  Shey grinned boldly.  "I got jostled.  Foot must have slipped."

Joe's fingers curled into his palms as he fought to control his erratic temper.  It would do no good to start a fight in the confined quarters of the carriage, but he knew Shey was pressing it.  From the corner of his eye he could see the boy watching him, his expression alert and worried.  Joe gave a clipped nod to his antagonizer and glanced out the window.  He heard Shey chuckle.

"Rudy and McCay must have messed you up good."

An icy cold sliced through Joe.  "What?"

Shey slouched back against his seat.  Lifting his feet, he plopped them on the bench beside Joe, crossing his legs at the ankles.  A brazen smile turned his lips.  "You don't rile like you used to, Cartwright.  Time was, you was on a hair-trigger.  I guess those saddletramps changed all that." Lowering his eyes, he feigned interest in his fingernails.  "I heard tell they put three bullets in you, and your old man had to cut 'em out.  Must have been pretty painful, huh, Cartwright--daddy in there, digging around with a knife.  Is it true he tied you down first?"

Incensed by the memory, Joe lurched forward, grabbing a fistful of Shey's shirt in his right hand. With a vicious shove, he slammed him back against the seat.  Shey's head cracked against them wall, and Joe drew his gun, ramming the barrel beneath Cutter's chin.  "How's this for riled?  We can stop the stage and settle it outside--"

"Mister, please!"  Seated beside Shey, the boy squirmed into the far corner, a look of pure terror on his face.

The blood was pounding in Joe's head.  "What do you think you're doing?"  He heard the gaunt-looking gentleman demand.  Only Shey was quiet, the sickening curl of his lips telling Joe he'd succeeded in what he'd set out to do.  Realizing he'd let his temper get the best of him, Joe slumped back in his seat.  Lifting his gun, he scraped his knuckles across his mouth.  The Colt was still clutched in his hand.  His eyes shifted from the stricken boy to the annoyed gentleman.

"Sorry."  Joe shoved the pistol back in its holster.

Shey unwound like a cat.  Once again he plunked his feet next to Joe.  Tipping his hat forward to shield his eyes, he folded his arms over his chest and slouched lower in the seat.  Turning his head, he glanced aside at the boy.  "Now, boy," he instructed.  "You keep a watch on that fella while I sleep--" A nod of his head indicated Joe. "He's a mean one, and he's liable to shoot me while I'm resting.  You watch him close now, and don't you fall asleep none, or he's likely to shoot you too."

Joe scowled.  The boy nodded, his face white and crinkled with fear.  Smoke gray eyes settled on Joe, apprehensive as a hare in a wolf's trap.  For a moment Joe thought to correct the misconception.  But the foppish gentleman gave him a cold, withering stare, and he let the moment pass unchallenged.  With a resigned tightening of his lips, he turned his gaze resolutely out the window.

Day eased into evening as the stage drew near Virginia City.


Mitch Campbell ran a shaking hand through his hair.  Seated on the very edge of a claw-footed chair, he fidgeted nervously.  The elaborate furnishings in Amos Cutter's house made him uncomfortable.  From the rich brocade wing chairs, to the serpentine-backed sofa and filigree framed paintings--everything exuded an opulence that left him dry-mouthed and trembling. With sweat-sticky fingers, he shuffled his hat over his knee.

"Mitch.  There you are."

Jerking to his feet like a marionette on a string, Mitch watched Amos Cutter enter the room.  An imposing man of stocky build, he had salt-and-pepper hair and corn-colored eyes.  Mitch wet his lips nervously.  "Mr. Cutter, about that money . . . I-I'm gonna find a way to pay you back."

"Hmm."  Cutter struck a match to a cigar, puffing thoughtfully.  The room was filled with the rich, dark smell of tobacco.  Easing into a chair, he motioned for Mitch to sit.  "Guess inviting you to the house for that poker game, was kind of unlucky.  Two thousand dollars is a lot of money to owe."

Mitch swallowed.  His head bobbed up and down in agreement. "I know it is, Mr. Cutter, but if you'd just give me some time, I'll find a way to make it good."  He could feel the sweat seeping from beneath his hairline; the smoke of Cutter's cigar clogging his throat.

Cutter sat back and crossed his legs.  "I don't know Mitch.  That's an awful lot of money for a cowpoke to come up with.  Why it would take you years, with the wages you're making here."  Cutter paused a beat and Mitch's eyes darted nervously to his face.  " 'Course there's always other work."

Mitch licked his lips.  "Other work?"

Cutter drew on the cigar.  In the velvety shadows of the room, the tip glowed bright red.  "From time to time I have jobs that require special handling."

Mitch's interest was piqued.  "Could I make enough to pay you off?"

"Probably."  Cutter twirled the cigar between his thick fingers.  "Probably even have some to spare."

Mitch didn't hesitate. He knew it was unrealistic to think he could manage the debt on his own. Even if he borrowed some from Joe, which wasn't too likely--his friend had been frowning on that lately--he'd never have the funds to pay it back.  "What do I need to do?"

"Nothing now."  Cutter's lips thinned in an almost-smile.  "We'll let the debt rest until I need you, then we'll square it."

"Mr. Cutter, it's a deal."  Mitch sprang to his feet, eagerly offering his hand.  Two nights ago when he'd been asked to Mr. Cutter's invitation-only poker game, he'd been too excited to think about losing.  It wasn't until he'd found himself two thousand dollars in the hole, that he'd realized his situation was dire.  Cutter could take what little he had, then have him jailed to work off the debt.  The solution offered by his employer seemed a lifeline.

Only later when Mitch had left the house, did he begin to wonder what a special job might entail.


The sun had sank beneath the cradle of the treeline by the time the stage reached the way station. A meal of bacon and collard greens, with a side of Boston brown bread was served to the passengers shortly after arrival.  Later, attempting to sleep, Joe lay on a cot, and listened to the sound of Reginald Kale snoring.  Mr. Kale--the gaunt-looking man from the coach--had pointedly ignored him all evening, but his air of superiority made it clear, he disapproved of Joe's "rough edges."  Across the room, Shey Cutter and the boy slumbered on cots opposite one another.  Joe folded his arms behind his head and contemplated the darkness.

He realized abruptly that he missed his brothers and his father, and longed to see Lorna.  A slow smile touched his lips as he remembered the fire she had kindled in him at their last parting.  In the past, he had never considered pledging himself to one woman.  Now, he couldn't imagine doing anything less.

He started suddenly at an unexpected shiver of sound.  Across the room, the boy sat forward on his cot, breathing heavily.  After a moment he stood, then padded barefoot from the room.  Joe heard the front door open and close, the swish of air as it fanned over the floor.  He lay still, wrapped in shadow, listening to the sound of his own breathing.  When the minutes wore on and the boy did not return, Joe began to grow worried.  Tugging on his boots, he trudged after the child.

A draft of cool night air caressed his skin as he stepped outside.  The boy stood at the edge of the porch, his face upturned to the black bowl of the sky.  A full moon hugged the horizon, painting the ground with ripples of silver.  Joe stepped forward and the boy gave a startled jump.

"Couldn't sleep?"  Joe asked.

The boy's face was a disembodied shell in the darkness--an ivory mask offset by soot-black hair and pewter eyes.

Joe gave a reassuring smile.  "Kevin, isn't it?"

The boy nodded faintly.

Stepping forward, Joe propped a hip against the railing and let his leg dangle free.  He could feel the boy's eyes on him, nervous and wary.  They'd gotten off to a bad start in the coach, and Joe wanted to correct it.  There was still another day of traveling and he didn't want Shey using the boy to needle him.  "I always find it hard to sleep at a way station," Joe said conversationally.  He tilted his head slightly and glanced out over the flat terrain.  "I'd rather be on the trail, with a bed roll and the open sky, then a strange roof and a cot."  When Kevin made no reply, but continued watching him, Joe leaned back against the post support and stretched his leg over the railing. "Are you staying in Virginia City, Kevin, or taking another stage through?"

"Staying," came the soft reply.

"Family or friends?"  Joe asked.

The boy hesitated, uncertainty etched on his face.  "Family," he managed at last.  He seemed to want to say more, but was unsure how to proceed.  Storm-colored eyes dipped to the porch before returning to Joe's face.  "Would you really have shot that other man in the coach?"  he blurted abruptly.

Joe might have laughed, but for the seriousness on the boy's face.  "Heck, no, Kevin.  Shey and I have known each other since we were kids.  That's how we play--egging each other on, seeing who's gonna trip up first.  It's kind of a game between us."

 "You looked pretty angry."

"Yeah, well, I was at the time."  Joe chuckled.  "My Pa says I've got a real short temper. Sometimes it gets the better of me.  I'm sorry if I scared you."

Kevin shrugged, obviously not wanting to admit to his earlier fear.  Though he clearly did not trust Joe, he appeared to relax slightly.  Leaning against the railing, he stared out into the darkness.  A soft breeze lifted the fringe of his ink-black hair, feathering it gently from his face. For a moment, watching his profile, Joe thought there was something vaguely familiar about him.

"Have you been to Virginia City before?"  he asked.

Kevin shook his head.  A look of acute anxiety flitted over his features.  He swallowed hard.  "I ain't seen my . . ."  he wet his lips  " . . . family . . . in a long time.  I've been living with an aunt."

Joe didn't want to pry.  "There's nothing to be nervous about, Kevin.  I'm sure your family's missed you.  Look--" he pushed away from the railing, "--it's getting late, and the stage rolls out pretty early tomorrow.  Why don't you try to get some sleep now?"

"'kay."  The reply was soft--a whisper-thin wraith that the breeze swirled away.

As Kevin stepped past, his face turned to the side, Joe again felt that niggling sense of familiarity.  Disturbed by something he couldn't place, he followed the boy inside.  In the darkened room, he pulled off his boots and rolled into the spindly cot.  Across the room, Kevin was a lumpy shadow, silhouetted by a pale halo of moonlight. The celestial glow streamed through an oblong window above the boy's bed, puddling on the floor with the icy sheen of silver.  As Joe watched, the
moonlight faded, obscured by the passing cloud.  It was the last thing Joe remembered before drifting to sleep.


"Dang, but you don't look like you rested much."  Once again, Shey Cutter lifted his legs and plunked his feet on the seat beside Joe.  As the coach jostled, he let his heel slide sideways and bang against Joe's thigh.  Clumps of dirt crumbled from the sole of his boot.  "Uh, Pardon me, Cartwright.  Looks like I dirtied your pants."

Lowering his eyes, Joe scraped a gloved hand over the dirt clinging to his trousers.  As he swept the debris aside, he let the forward momentum carry his hand.  His forearm collided with Shey's legs, pushing them unceremoniously to the floor.  Joe smiled thinly.  "Sorry, Shey.  That was careless of me."

Kevin watched the exchange silently, while Reginald Kale made a scoffing sound before taking interest in his newspaper.  Chuckling softly, Joe turned his gaze out the window.  Shey bored of the game quickly.  Tipping his hat over his eyes, he slouched in his seat and was soon snoring softly.  A second night spent at a way station brought Joe a little closer to home.  On the third day, the coach made good time and arrived early in Virginia City.

Joe stepped from the carriage and stretched.  Pressing his hands to the small of his back, he tried to work the cricks from his stiff muscles.  The luggage handler tossed his bag at his feet, followed by those of the other passengers.  Shey was the first to retrieve his, pointedly bumping into Joe as he shouldered past.  With a frown and carefully restrained comment, Joe watched his rival depart. A moment later,  Reginald Kale collected his suitcase and left.  That left Kevin and Joe standing
beside the empty stage.

Joe glanced down the street.  Ben was supposed to meet him, but the stage was early, leaving Joe with time to kill.  He turned a longing glance on the saloon, then gazed back to the dark-haired boy at his side.

"Don't you have someone meeting you, Kevin?"

Sullenly, the boy nodded.  "I'm early.  I'll just wait."  Holding the strap of his travel bag in both hands, he moved away to sit on a bench outside the stage depot.  With a sigh, Joe scrubbed a hand over his chin. He didn't feel right leaving the boy alone, but the thought of a cold beer was awfully appealing.  His gaze swivelled between the saloon and the boy.  Eventually he strode to the latter.

"Want me to wait with you?"

Kevin shook his head.  "I traveled from Texas by myself.  I can wait by myself."

"Texas, huh?"  Joe smiled.  "That is a long way."  When the boy made no reply, merely lowered his head, Joe released a sigh.  "Okay, look Kevin--I live on a ranch southwest of here, called the Ponderosa.  Maybe when you get settled with your family, you'll come visit."  He didn't know why he was bothering with the child, just sensed there was something terribly morose about him, and that didn't seem right in one so young.  He gave the boy a gentle clap on the shoulder.  "You take care of yourself now."

Once again the response was minimal--the barest hint of a nod.  Collecting his bag, Joe walked across the street to the saloon.  It was where Adam found him almost forty minutes later.

"You're supposed to be at the stage depot," the elder Cartwright complained, joining his brother at the bar.  He motioned for a beer.

Glancing, aside, Joe grinned crookedly.  "You've outdone yourself with that greeting, older brother.  Missed you too."

Adam swallowed the head off his beer.  "Well don't go getting sentimental.  I missed that extra pair of hands around the ranch.   Who do you think's been doing your chores?"

"My guess is nobody.  I'm sure they're all stacked up, waiting for me."  Joe laughed and clapped Adam on the back.  "Hey where's Pa?  I thought he was picking me up."

Adam frowned.  "Yeah, he was supposed to, but things got out of hand at the ranch."

"What do you mean out of hand?"  The frivolity slipped from Joe's tone, replaced by concern.   "Is something wrong?"

"Not really."  Catching his brother's arm, Adam steered Joe aside to a table.  He could feel Joe's gaze on him, worried and uncertain.  When both had settled into barrel-back chairs, Adam took another swallow of beer, then leaned forward, hooking his elbows on the table.  "How'd you do at the auction?"  he asked.

"Forget the auction," Joe said, and this time his tone was clipped.  "Is something the matter with Pa?"

Adam shrugged.  "Nothing that a little cool-down time won't cure."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just Amos Cutter up to his old tricks."  Removing his hat, Adam plopped it on the table beside him.  He finger-combed his hair, wiping sweat from his brow.  "Cutter showed up at the house with another proposal on that bottomland.  He was pretty persistent this time, even going so far as to make some veiled threats."

Joe's mouth tightened in a rigid line.  "What kind of threats?"

"Nothing specific.  The gist of it was, Pa should part with the land before it ends up costing him something more valuable."

Joe gave a low whistle.  "What did Pa do?"

"What do you think?  He showed Cutter the door--none too gently.  By then he was pretty riled, so I told him I'd pick you up."

Joe nodded, suddenly pensive.  He thought back to the Ridgeville auction and how Shey had maneuvered him into a situation that required a costly fine.  Was his loss at the auction planned as a thorn in Ben's side?  Joe swallowed hard, realizing he was going to have to own up to his father about his failure in Ridgeville.  He had wanted so much to come home with a string of horses the Ponderosa could be proud of--yet more importantly, he'd wanted his father to be proud of him for a job well done.  Disgusted, Joe shoved his beer mug aside.  "Guess we'd better go," he muttered and pushed from his chair.

Adam nodded, failing to note his brother's sudden shift in mood.  "Don't worry, Joe.  By the time we get home, Pa will be back to his old self."


Ben was still silently fuming over Amos Cutter's audacity when the front door opened on Adam and Joe.  The sight of his youngest son, his hair bedraggled, his clothing soiled with prairie dust, quickly squelched any remaining threads of anger.  A broad smile spread over Ben's face as he pushed from his chair.

"Joseph."  Ben gripped his hand, then pulled him close and clapped him on the back.  "It's good to see you son.  We missed you."

 "It's good to be back, Pa."  Joe withdrew, almost awkwardly.  "I heard you had some problems here this morning with Amos Cutter."

"Oh?"  Ben's eyes flicked behind Joe, to Adam, then returned to his youngest son.  "It was nothing.  Why don't you go get cleaned up and we can talk about it after dinner?  Besides, I'm sure we all want to hear how you did at the horse auction."

"Right."  Joe practically mumbled the word.  He felt his throat tighten at the prospect of the forthcoming conversation.

"I'll take care of the horses, Pa." Adam said as he turned towards the door.  "Then I'm heading over to the south pasture."

Ben nodded in distraction.  As the door clicked shut on Adam, he placed a hand on Joe's shoulder. He could sense his son's sudden reluctance.  "Something wrong, Joe?"

A fleeting smile touched Joe's lips.  "Nothing, Pa.  Just a little tired, I guess.  I'm gonna get cleaned up now."

As he moved to the stairs, Ben's face creased in a frown.  It seemed lately he was always walking on eggshells around Joe, never able to gauge his son's erratic moodswings.  He longed for the days when Joe's bright step could be heard on the stairs; his infectious giggle echoing throughout the house. Only then did Ben realize that his son rarely smiled anymore--that one thing or another always seemed to be weighing heavily on him.  With a frustrated sigh, Ben folded into the nearest chair.

Perhaps he was simply still irritable over his exchange with Amos Cutter.  Perhaps he had misread Joe entirely.  It never failed to amaze him that he'd raised Joe for twenty-two years and was still unable to anticipate his shifts in temperament.

His musing was interrupted by the front door banging shut with a loud crack.  Ben flinched, then sighed.  Only one man on the Ponderosa opened and closed a door like that.

"Hey, Pa," Hoss called, striding into the room.  "I seen Adam out by the barn.  Little Joe back?"  Hoss's gap-toothed smile was on high voltage, tucking dimples into the corners of his mouth.  His blue eyes glittered with jaunty warmth, easily dispelling the touchy edge from Ben's disposition.

"He's cleaning up, Hoss."

"That so?" With a mischevious twinkle in his eye, Hoss headed for the stairs.  "Sounds like a good time to stick my head in the door."

Ben felt a wheedling stab of uncertainty.  "I don't think that's such a good idea, Hoss.  Joe seemed a little out of sorts."

Hoss gave a snort of dismissal.  "You leave it to me, Pa.  I'll get that boy in sorts."

Hoss disappeared up the staircase.  A moment later Ben heard his heavy tread down the hallway.  A door opened and closed followed by a brief moment of silence.  The peace was shattered by a resounding crash and Joe's angry voice decrying Hoss's intrusion.  That too, was but a brief interlude.  Hoss's hearty guffaw rolled down the stairs, joined shortly by Joe's light-hearted giggle.

Sighing contentedly, Ben leaned back in his chair.  No matter the circumstance, Hoss was usually able to soften Joe's mood.  With an envious glance for the stairway, Ben wished, not for the first time, that he had the same gift.


Adam was heading back to the ranch, having finished his work in the south pasture, when he glimpsed the buggy moving down the road.  Veering from his intended path, onto the public throughway, Adam hailed the driver.

"It's good to see you, Lorna."

Lorna David pulled rein as Adam drew abreast of the buggy.  She blinked, surprised.  It had been some time since they'd spoken.  A ready smile warmed her lips, lighting the depths of her sea-green eyes. "Hello, Adam."  An uncomfortable silence ensued.  Lorna lowered her eyes momentarily, before lifting an awkward glance.  "I was just returning from seeing Mrs. Chandler.  I finished an alteration for her."  She fingered the reins nervously, lacing the sleek straps through her gloved fingers..  "I-I . . . have a house guest, so I really should be going."

"House guest?"  Adam's dark brows crimped beneath the rim of his hat.

"Yes," Lorna clarified.  "A relative."

Adam nodded.  He shifted in the saddle and the leather creaked with his movement.  "I see. Lorna--" The name hung in the air as he struggled to leash his suddenly chaotic emotions.  He had thought he'd dispensed with his feelings where this woman was concerned, but seeing her now, rekindled a buried flame.  It took him by surprise, leaving him momentarily speechless.  Adam cleared his throat.  "Joe's back from Ridgeville."  He said the words mainly as a means to fill the silence, but the betraying sliver of interest in Lorna's eyes told him he had struck a nerve.

"Why are you telling me?"  she asked.

Adam's gaze was level.  He knew he should end the conversation and ride back to the ranch. But something inside kept him glued to the spot.  Some sick, twisted desire to torment himself with the truth.  "Lorna, I have to know something.  I have to know if you love my brother."

Lorna's eyes dipped to the road.  A flush of color washed over her smooth skin--a blush of rose on flawless porcelain.  For a time it seemed as though she wouldn't answer.  Adam held his breath and waited, silently counting seconds into minutes.  Slowly, her eyes returned to his face.  "I imagine I owe you that at least, Adam."  She swallowed, her gaze contrite.  "I didn't mean for it to happen.  Neither of us did.  But I do love him, Adam."

Adam closed his eyes, the words like stones, sinking to the bottom of his heart.  He didn't understand the pain, anymore than he had his insistence on asking the question.  Hadn't he told Joe he didn't love her anymore?  Or were those feelings merely dormant, buried somewhere deep inside.  Adam smiled--a wan flicker of his lips.  "I understand.  Take care of yourself, Lorna."

Wheeling his horse away, Adam headed back to the Ponderosa--and the brother he suddenly had mixed feelings about.


To celebrate Joe's return, Hop-Sing prepared an unusually splendid repast.  Game hens cooked to achingly tender proportions were complimented by an assortment of side dishes, including butter-drenched peas, candied carrots, parsley-rolled potatoes and honey-laced bread.  Hoss ate like he hadn't dined for three days, but Joe found his appetite lacking. The thought of having to tell his father about the money he'd lost in Ridgeville, left his stomach uneasy.  He ate enough to please Hop-Sing and not draw attention to his nervousness.

Afterwards, the four Cartwrights retired to the living room for coffee and cherry cobbler.  Too nervous now, to even think about eating, Joe declined the dessert.  Hop-Sing fussed, but relented with a mumbled garble of Chinese.

"I think you done hurt his feelings, little brother," Hoss commented, as Hop-Sing retreated to the kitchen.

Joe was sitting on the couch, close to the arm.  Leaning forward, he laced his hands between his knees.  He hadn't really heard Hoss's comment; was thinking instead of the four horses waiting for pickup in Ridgeville.  By now, Shey would have told his uncle about the black, and Amos Cutter would be gloating over the victory.


Joe jerked, realizing abruptly his father was addressing him.  With a small, sheepish smile he raised his head.  "Sorry, Pa.  What is it?"

Ben cleared his throat deliberately and set his dessert plate aside.  Seated in the large comfortable chair adjacent to Joe, he turned slightly sideways to better study his son.  Joe's nervousness was radiating off him in waves.  Ben decided not to make an issue of it.  He knew that eventually, Joe would get around to revealing whatever was bothering him.  "I asked how you did at the auction."

"Um . . ." Joe wet his lips uneasily. Beneath the veil of his lashes his eyes were moss-green  "I'd did make some purchases, Pa.  I've got the bills of sale."  Rising hastily to his feet, Joe walked to where his jacket hung, just inside the front door.  Fishing in the pocket, he withdrew four slips of paper, then returned to Ben.  "Here you go, Pa."

Seated in the blue chair at the bottom of the steps, Adam took a sip of his coffee, before setting the cup aside.  "How'd that black look?"

Joe's eyes flickered to Adam, then to Hoss who was standing behind him.  He could hear the crinkle of paper as Ben leafed through the bills of sale.  "The black looked good," Joe admitted reluctantly.  "Milo was right--he was the best of the string."

"So how much did you have to pay for him?"  Hoss asked.

"Well, I--"

"He must not have been that good," Ben interrupted.  He cast a curious glance at his son.  "Joe, there's only papers here for four horses.  A claybank, chestnut, gray and dun."

Joe nodded.  His throat was tight.  "The claybank will make a good cutting horse, Pa."

"I see."  Leaning forward, Ben slid the papers onto the square hearth table.  "You didn't think the black was worth bidding?"

"It's not that, Pa."  Joe shifted, clearly uncomfortable.  Curling his fists against his hips, he glanced at the floor.  "It's just . . . Shey Cutter drove the bidding really high and I didn't have the funds to match."

Ben could feel the mounting tension in the air.  Joe's growing nervousness crackled through the room like leashed lightning.  "Joe, from what I can tell, you spent under five hundred dollars for those four horses.  Are you telling me, Cutter paid over seven hundred for the black?"

"No, Sir."

"Then what are you saying?"  Adam pressed.

Joe shot his brother a withering glare.  Sensing the hostility, Adam raised a brow, but otherwise remained silent.   Joe's eyes returned to Ben.  "Um . . . you see Pa . . . when I first got to Ridgeville, I got into kind of a scrape."

Hoss and Adam exchanged a glance.  Ben's gaze remained carefully neutral.  "What kind of scrape?"  he prodded.

Joe sighed.  Turning away, he laced a hand through his hair.  "It's just that . . . Pa, I got into a fight with Shey Cutter in the saloon.  It got out of hand, and there were a lot of damages.  The sheriff was pretty insistent I pay. "

Ben exhaled noisily.  "What you're telling me is, the money I gave you for buying stock, you used to bail yourself out of jail?"

Joe was clearly miserable.  He hung his head.  "Yes, Sir."

A blanket of silence fell on the room.  Into the tension-riddled stillness, the dulcet chimes of the grandfather's clock, struck the hour.  Joe flinched, his eyes darting guiltily to his father's face.

Ben's gaze was unreadable.  "Joseph, how much?"

Joe wanted to sink through the floor.  "S-Seven hundred dollars."

"Seven hundred!"  Adam came instantly to his feet.  "Joe, that's robbery!  You let them--"

"I didn't let them do anything," Joe snapped, clearly antagonistic.  "There was no choice in the matter.  If I wanted to make the auction, it was the only way I could get out of jail."  His gaze returned to Ben, his eyes suddenly listless.  "I'll work off the money, Pa," he said quietly.

"I knew I should have went," Adam muttered.

Joe curled his hands into fists and bit down on his tongue.  Ben rose to his feet.  He could sense his son's increasing belligerence, tangled with a thread of depression.  He knew Joe was more hurt than angry, but he also knew it was Joe's nature to react combatively, while concealing his misery.  "That's an expensive lesson, Joe.  Not only for you, but for the Ponderosa.  That money was tagged to buy us breeding stock."

"I know that, Sir.  I'm sorry I let you down."  Joe's gaze was so earnest, Ben didn't have the heart to lecture him.  Especially since he'd experienced his own unreasonable fit of anger earlier that day, when he'd come within inches of striking Amos Cutter.

Ben nodded. "We'll talk later about how you can work it off."

Joe's eyes flickered to the floor and for a moment Ben saw the hurt more than the anger.  "I'm gonna go check on Cochise," he mumbled.

When Ben let him go without another word, Adam sighed in exasperation.  "Pa, how can you just let him walk away like that?  You know what that money cost us.  You know what it should have bought us."

"Adam, you think Joe don't know?"  Hoss asked at his side.  He frowned, surprised by his brother's unwillingness to let the matter drop.  Though Adam and Joe routinely disagreed, there was rarely anything vindictive between them.  This reluctance to let Ben handle the matter seemed almost personal.

Ben waved Adam's comment aside.  "We've had enough unsettled air for one night, Adam. Joseph is my son.  I don't need instruction on how to handle him."


There was something almost condescending in the muttered remark, but Ben chose to overlook it.  He had a fair idea what may have spurred it.  Settling back into his chair, he retrieved his coffee cup.  "Hoss, how did the branding go today?"  Though his tone was sociable, the question clearly signaled an end to the previous topic.

"Um . . ."  Hoss glanced from his father to Adam.  His brother remained ill-disposed, his expression surly.  Stalking across the room, he opened the door and slammed it behind him.  Hoss sank into the blue chair.  "Pa, it ain't always gonna be like this with Adam and Joe, is it?"

"Of course not."  Ben studied the swirl of dark liquid in the china cup.  Despite his wishes to the contrary, he knew what was at the heart of Adam's attitude towards his younger brother.  As much as he might deny it, Ben was certain Adam resented Joe's attentions towards Miss David.


"Hey, Cooch."  Joe ran a brush over the glossy coat of his prized mare.  There was something soothing in the motion; a further calm induced by the sweet redolence of straw and horse in the musky quarters of the barn.  Leaning forward, Joe rested his forehead on Cochise's sinewy neck. Affectionately, he scratched his fingers behind one velvety ear.  "Did'ya miss me, girl?"

The horse snorted softly.

"I want to talk to you," a gruff voice demanded.  Joe jerked, startled by the intrusion.  Pulling away from Cochise, he stepped around the stall.  Adam stood in the center of the barn, his arms folded over his chest, a decidedly truculent expression on his face.

Joe sighed and set the brush aside.  "What do you want, Adam?"

"An explanation.  I want to know how a reasonable man lets himself be swindled out of seven hundred dollars."

"Don't know.  Guess I'm not very reasonable."  Joe could hear the edge of hostility creeping back into his voice.  He didn't know why Adam provoked him so easily. Perhaps it was merely a poor sense of self-worth on his part.  Measured against his brother's numerous accomplishments, Joe often felt a failure.  This latest debacle in Ridgeville only helped to reinforce that sentiment.  "I don't want to talk about it."

"That's always your answer, isn't it Joe--avoidance.  That, and knowing how to manipulate Pa."

"What does that mean?"

"It means Pa's been coddling you like a newborn calf ever since he dug that bullet out of your side.  And you know just how to play that, don't you?  Seven hundred dollars, Joe, and he didn't even raise his voice!  I remember a time when you wouldn't have been able to sit for a week, if you'd done something like that."

Joe flushed.  "I told Pa I'd work it out."

"Oh, and that makes it all right."

"No that doesn't make it all right."  Joe's temper flared with a suddenness that left him trembling.  He took a jerky step forward, his hands white-knuckled into fists.  "Do you think I planned it?  Do you think I walked into that saloon, intent on losing seven hundred dollars?"

"I think you did just like you always do," Adam intoned darkly.  "You thought only of yourself."

"Adam--" Joe was truly bewildered.  He felt the sting of the parting shot as Adam stalked from the barn.  The anger washed away, leaving a glaring emptiness in its place.  Dejectedly, Joe turned back to Cochise.  He groomed the horse long into the night, but the action no longer brought the solace it had before.

The house was dark, a single light burning in the empty Great room, by the time Joe thought to return to the others.  Extinguishing the lamp, he moved through the velvety shadows, his light tread barely heard on the steps.  Once inside his room, he undressed in total darkness.

Stretching on the bed, he turned his face to the ceiling.  Cool night air snaked through an open window and funneled across the bed.  Joe rolled onto his side and buried his face in his arm.  A string of goosebumps beaded his bare shoulders, induced by the shivery caress of a pine-fragrant breeze.  Lulled by the scent, as much as the satin-smooth touch, Joe fell asleep.


The hour inched near two in the afternoon, when Joe left the post office, a stack of mail in his hands.  Stuffing the letters in his saddlebag, he glanced across the street to the saloon.  Adam would probably say he was only thinking of himself, but he had time to spare and a beer sounded appealing.

He found Mitch Campbell leaning against the bar, and greeted his friend with a clap on the back.  "Things that slow at the Circle C, that Cutter's letting you waste your afternoon here?"

"I'm waiting on an order of grain," Mitch explained, with an answering smile.  "Buy you a beer?"

"Sure."  When the glass arrived, Joe accepted with a nod of thanks.  He took a swallow and pushed his hat back on his head, revealing a disarray of chestnut-dark curls.  "Guess you heard about that black horse Shey purchased at Ridgeville, huh?"

"Yeah."  Mitch looked momentarily surprised.  "Kinda shocked that you let him outbid you, Joe.  I figured you'd want it for a Ponderosa stud."

"Hmm."  Joe's answer was clearly non-committal.  It didn't really surprise him that Mitch was in the dark about what had truly happened in Ridgeville.  Shey might brag about besting him at the auction, but he wouldn't explain how that victory was possible.  Joe shrugged.  "Things don't always work out as you plan, Mitch."

"Yeah," his friend muttered sullenly.  "Don't I know that."

"Sounds like personal experience.  You haven't been gambling again, have you?"

"Now what makes you go and say that?"  Mitch snapped indignantly.  Turning to face Joe, he plunked a finger in the middle of Joe's chest.  "You know what your problem is, Joe Cartwright?  You're too damn nosy for your own good--"

"Hey Mitch--"

"--and you ain't got a lick of sense when it comes to understandin' others.  Not everyone's had a charmed life, my friend.  We don't all got rich papas, fancy clothes and a big house to live in.  Some of us got to struggle just to get by.  But don't you worry none, Joe, 'cause if I was in the hole, I wouldn't come beggin' you for charity."

Dumbfounded, Joe watched his friend stalk from the saloon.  Like Adam's caustic outburst, Mitch's sudden hostility left him stunned and confused.  With a shake of his head he finished his beer, then left to collect Cochise.  He was only a few miles past town, when impulse made him swing the mare around and head in the direction of Lorna David's small ranch home.

Sunlight dappled the ground at his feet, bleeding through the leaf-heavy canopy of the oak tree beside the front porch.  Joe dismounted and looped Cochise's reins over the hitching post.  At the sound of footsteps on the porch, he glanced up to see Kevin standing at the railing.

Joe blinked, surprised.  "Kevin.  What are you doing here?"

Before the boy could answer, Lorna appeared in the doorway.  Her hair was loose today, tumbling free over her shoulders in lustrous waves of black silk.  She wore a pale green blouse and a dark gray skirt, the blouse accentuating the seawater hue of her eyes.  Joe felt his throat constrict as he gazed up at her.

"Kevin, why don't you take Mr. Cartwright's horse to the trough out back?" Lorna instructed.

Kevin nodded and scrambled from the porch.  Claiming Cochise's reins, he glanced up at Joe.  "It's good to see you again, Mr. Cartwright."  Though the words were pleasant, the boy's expression remained stony.

Joe nodded.  "Good to see you too, Kevin."  He stepped onto the porch and followed Lorna inside.  A ponderous web of questions skidded uproariously through his mind. Removing his hat, he tossed it on a nearby table.  "Lorna, is Kevin--?  He said he was visiting relatives."

Lorna wet her lips and twined her hands together.  Seeing her now, Joe was suddenly struck by the uncanny resemblance she shared with the boy.  "Joe . . . Kevin's my son."

"Your son!"  Joe felt the floor lurch beneath him, the words echoing hollowly in his ears.  Silently he berated himself for not making the connection when he'd first met Kevin.   A fool would have noted the resemblance, but he'd been too distracted by the auction and Shey.  "That can't be," he mumbled.

She smiled sadly, the gesture oddly apologetic.  "I told you my life was complicated."

"But I thought--" Joe was at a loss for words.  He folded into the couch.  His hands dangled loose between his knees.  "Lorna, I--"

She sat beside him and lightly touched his arm.  "I'm sorry, Joe.  I wanted to tell you, but I didn't know how.  Kevin's been with my aunt the last four years.  I didn't want him with me, when there was a chance Brian might find me.  The whole time I was married to Del, I kept my mother's family a secret from the Lancasters.  When I left after Del died, I took Kevin there.  We've been apart ever since."

Joe closed his eyes.  He rubbed at the growing ache in his temple.  "You could have told me.  You want this to change things between us, don't you?"

"Joe, I don't want it to do anything!"  Lorna's reply was immediate and stringent.  "But the fact remains I have a thirteen year old son.  I don't think you're ready to be a father, when you're barely more than a boy yourself."

Glancing aside, he watched the play of emotion on her face. "Is that how you see me?"  he asked quietly.  It would have been a simple matter for her to rebuke him yet again.  Mild reproach, coupled with her earlier comment would have been enough to drive him out the door, and they both knew it.  He waited tensely, giving her the choice to end it or leave matters open.  With a frustrated sigh, Lorna glanced aside.  It was all the opening Joe needed.  Catching her arm, he drew her about.  "Lorna, I love you."

She closed her eyes.  "God help me, Joe, I love you too."

The declaration sent a thrill dancing through his spine. Folding Lorna in his arms, he pressed his lips to hers, hungry for the nectar of her kiss.  Her hands rose and tangled in his hair, her body arcing against his, in mirrored desperation of his own relentless need.  Cupping her cheek, he feathered his thumb over her moist bottom lip.  He heard Lorna moan softly and the breath quickened in his lungs.  "Lorna, say you'll marry me."

"No."  She tried to pull away.  "It's too soon.  Kevin--"

He kissed her again, hungrily this time, drawing her tightly against him as his tongue tasted the inner sweetness of her mouth.  His lips trailed over her neck, his hands seeking the silken cloud of her hair. "I want to spend my life with you, Lorna."   Joe's voice was throaty and seductive.   "Tell me yes, angel.  Tell me you want me, as much as I want you."

Lorna felt her composure crumble.  His hand was on her shoulder, gliding slowly down the front of her blouse.  Lorna felt the gentle graze of his knuckles across her breast and gasped aloud. "Joseph--" Her hands tightened around his neck.  She had thought herself experienced in the art of lovemaking, but his very touch sent her mind spinning out of control.  It was staggering to think that one so young, was so well-versed in the craft of passion.

Joe continued to kiss her neck, her lips, the smooth arc of her cheek.  Gently he cupped her breast, his thumb coaxing the nipple to a hard peak through the cotton of her blouse.  "Tell me you love me, angel."

"Joe, I love you!"  She gasped the words aloud.

"Then marry me."

"No."  With effort she pushed away from him.  Lorna struggled to her feet and straightened her blouse.  Her hands were trembling.  She heard Joe move behind her, and then she felt his touch--gentle and uncertain--on her arms.

"Lorna, what is it?"

She turned to face him, disturbed by the thread of distress in his beautiful green eyes. She was the cause of that anxiety, just as she was the cause of his misdirected passion.  How could she have made such a muddled mess of one man's emotions?  Looking at him now--his thick curly hair tousled over his brow; the flush of passion still high on his angled cheekbones; his lips full and moist from their kisses--Lorna knew her heart would never again be her own. She leaned against his chest, drinking in the scent of him--the whisper-thin hint of soap that clung to his shirt; the sun-warmed fragrance of his hair. "Joseph, I need more time."  Lightly, she brushed the edge of his jacket, feeling the gentle scrape of corduroy against her fingertip.  "I need to work things out with Kevin first.  He and I . . . it's been four years, Joe."

Joe tightened his arms around her waist.  "You're asking me to wait."

"I suppose I am."  Lifting her head, she gazed up at him, uncertain what she'd find in his eyes.  "I want you to get to know Kevin too.  Marrying me means accepting my son."

"I know that, Lorna."  Joe traced a finger down her cheek.  "I love you, angel.  I'll wait."

Lorna buried her head against his chest.  She'd never dared dream his reply would be so positive.


Over the next few days, Joe visited frequently with Lorna and Kevin.  He spent the days working at the Ponderosa, and evenings with Lorna and her son.  Initially withdrawn, Kevin gradually grew more talkative, though it was obvious a certain melancholy remained.

"I don't know what to do with him," Lorna complained to Joe, three days later.  Kevin had retired for the evening, and the two sat on the front porch Lorna in a spindle-back rocker, Joe in a chair pulled close to the railing.  "I thought he would be happy living with me, but he's been sullen ever since arriving."

"Lorna, four years is a long time to live apart."  Joe tilted his chair back on the rear legs and propped his feet on the railing.  "He has to adjust to you, plus a strange town."  A wry smile lifted the corners of his lips.  "Not to mention an ardent suitor who won't take no for an answer."

"Hmm."  Lorna glanced sideways, her expression pointedly calculating.  "Yes, well . . . I guess all those rumors I heard about you from the girls in Virginia City are true."

Caught off guard, Joe stared blankly.  "What rumors?"

Feigning nonchalance, Lorna glanced away.  "Oh . . . how you like a chase, but tire quickly of the prize."

Joe's chair hit the floorboards with a thud.  "Lorna--"

"I suppose that means if I want to keep you around, I have to continue saying 'no'."

He saw the twinkle in her eye and grinned crookedly.  Wrapped in the steely shroud of twilight, her raven hair was woven with silver threads.  It hung loose about her shoulders, the way he liked it best.  Contrasted against that cloud of black silk, her skin appeared cameo-white, almost translucent.  Standing, Joe caught her wrist and pulled her to her feet.  He wrapped his arms around her waist, delighted when she responded by placing her own arms about his neck.  "Lorna, a man can only hear 'no' so many times." Bending his head, he kissed her gently.  With a soft moan, she pressed against him.  Joe tightened his embrace and deepened the kiss.


The softly inquiring tone jerked Joe and Lorna apart with a suddenness that was startling.  Lorna's long black hair slid over Joe's arm as she turned to face her son.  Kevin stood in the doorway, his dark hair tousled, his cheeks flushed with the pink cream of sleep.  "Ma, I had a dream about Pa.  He was coming after us Ma . . . cause you, cause you--" he swallowed hard and looked at Joe.  "--cause you wanted to be with him."

Lorna's face crumbled.  "Kevin--" Hurrying forward, she ushered her son back inside the house.  Joe could hear her voice, soft and melodious, quietly shushing the boy's fears.  Suddenly feeling the interloper, Joe closed his eyes and slumped against the railing.  Lorna hadn't told him much about Del Lancaster, but what she had said, led Joe to believe he was an unkind father and jealous husband.  Twenty minutes later when she reappeared from the house, Joe was sitting quietly in the rocker, staring into the thickening darkness.  Wordlessly Lorna approached and knelt at his side.

Joe glanced down at her and felt his heart constrict.  Misery glittered in her eyes, meshed with the clear, precious gift of her love.  He understood her dilemma; wanted to walk away, but found himself rooted to the spot.  Lifting his hand, he stroked his thumb over her cheek.  "I need to go away for awhile.  I need to give you and Kevin more time together."

Catching his hand, Lorna turned her face into his palm.  "Joe, I'm so tired . . . I'm tired of being alone."  Keeping her fingers twined with his, she stood and tugged him gently from the porch. His boots crunched against the high grass, bending soft supple blades back to the earth as she led him to the barn.  The night drew closer, wreathing the sky with gem-dark ribbons of charcoal and blue.  A scattering of stars peeked through the lacy veils of low-lying clouds, their sheen like ice in the heavens.

Lorna pulled open the door of the barn and led Joe inside.  A tiny thrill raced through her as she turned and leaned into his embrace.  It was dark inside, the only light coming from the crack by the door and gaps in the walls, where the boards didn't quite meet.  Joe's face was half in shadow, the glimmer of his eyes muted by the velvety umbrage clinging to the walls and floors.  Leaning against him, Lorna traced a finger over his lips.  She could feel the rapid beat of his heart, the restrained quiver of his breath. Her hand fell to his chest and she began to unbutton his shirt.

Joe caught her fingers.  "Lorna, this isn't right."

Gazing up at him, she saw the conflict in his eyes--raw desire warred with the instinctive need to do what was honorable.  "I thought you were tired of hearing me say 'no'," she returned quietly.

Joe chuckled, the sound bridled with restrained passion.  "Dear lady, you've no idea--"

One button eased free--two, then three.  Lorna slid her hand inside his shirt.  Her fingers contoured his side, then slid over the flat plane of his stomach, her nails dipping lower to inch just beneath the edge of his belt.  Joe closed his eyes. Did she touch Adam like this?   The thought came from nowhere, forcing a choked gasp from his throat.  Ducking his head, Joe buried his face in her hair.  The scent of rose-water surrounded him, washing the image away before it could take root.

"Joe, what's wrong?"

"Nothing, angel."  Slipping an arm behind her knees, he lifted her easily.  Lorna wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him hungrily as he carried her the short distance to a beckoning pile of hay.  Surrounded by the musky sweet fragrance of straw, he lowered her to the soft bed.  Instinctively, she pulled him closer and he allowed his leg to fall between hers, pinning her beneath him.  Black hair created an inky nebula on the golden field of hay, as Lorna lay looking up at him. Gently, Joe stroked her cheek.  "You're so beautiful, Lorna."  His fingers trailed over her neck, stringing a blistering trail of fire down her throat.  Lorna moaned softly and arched her body beneath the touch, coaxing his fingers to the soft globe of her breast.  Joe bent his head and kissed her, moving his mouth against hers as he loosened the buttons on her blouse.  The soft material fell away and he slipped his fingers beneath the edge of her camisole.  At the touch of his hand on her bare flesh, Lorna gave a startled gasp.  Concerned, Joe tried to withdraw.  "Do you want me to stop, angel?"

"No."  The word was a soft plea. Lorna clung to him, trembling, as his hand stroked her sensitized flesh.  Drawing her forward, he slipped the blouse from her shoulders and helped her ease free of the lacy camisole.  His own shirt joined the tangled pile of clothes on the ground.

Joe stopped and drank in the sight of her--her hair a dark wreath around the creamy knob of her shoulders; her face upturned to his, lips parted and waiting for his kiss.  Groaning, Joe folded her in his arms and pressed her back into the bed of straw.  "Tell me you love me, angel."

Her hands fumbled at his waist until they located the double-pronged buckle of his belt.  Joe felt the leather strap ease free.  "I love you, Joseph."

Hungrily, he sought the beckoning bow of her mouth--the words as heady as the sweet taste of her lips on his.  Slipping his hand beneath her skirt, he pushed the heavy material up along her thigh.  "Lorna, I want you so badly."  Impatiently, he fumbled with the buttons at her waistband.  Lorna shed the skirt, then lay back, clad only in a pair of white bloomers.  Kissing her neck, Joe splayed his hand flat over her stomach.  He heard the sudden hitch of her breath as his fingers scraped beneath the frilled waistband of the cotton trousers.  "I love you, angel.  Say you'll marry me."

Lorna's arms were wrapped around his neck, her breath coming hard and fast as he pushed down the waistband of the cotton underpants.  "Joe, please--Joe, I can't."


"NO!"  She clung to him, shaking her head, unwilling to release him, unwilling to grant the concession.  "I can't marry you, Joe.  Not now."

"Oh, God!"  He fell against her, burying his face in her hair.

She kissed his temple, her fingers fumbling with the hook on his pants.  "Joe, please--Joseph, don't stop."

He rolled away from her.  "I can't do this.  Not like this."

Stunned, Lorna sat up.  Her long hair fell forward over her shoulders, cloaking her bare skin in an ebony shroud.  "Joe what's wrong?"

"Nothing, I--" The words tangled in his throat.  Drawing one leg to his chest, he dropped his head into his hand.  "Lorna, you don't understand.  I don't want to hurt you."

"And you think this will?"  Surprised, she inched nearer his side.  Joe tensed almost immediately, feeling the luscious brush of her rose-scented hair against his bare skin.  "Joseph.  I brought you out here."

"Yes.  I know."  Turning his head, Joe met the probing gaze of her gem-bright eyes.  She was sitting so near he could feel the warm trickle of her breath against his shoulder--the touch oddly sensual.  Moonlight seeped through the cracks in the walls, wrapping her body in cold white light.  Haloed by the luminous glow, she seemed more wraith than substance--a sylph-like creature resurrected from the world of Faerie.  Despite his efforts to resist, Joe found himself leaning forward.  He kissed her gently, moving his mouth softly against her own.

"Stay with me tonight," Lorna pleaded, and Joe felt his resistance unravel.  Her hand skimmed up the inside of his thigh, lightly dusting the crease of his leg.  Groaning, Joe ducked his face into her hair.  He was used to being the aggressor when it came to romance, the girls he courted too shy or proper, to touch him so boldly.  Her fingers slid up the front of his pants and he shivered.

"Dear God, Lorna.  Do you have any idea what you do to me?"

This time when she moved to unhook his pants, he didn't stop her.


"Little Joe up yet?"

Ben cast a questioning glance between his two older sons as he smeared a pat of butter over a thick piece of grilled toast.  The table was set with breakfast foods--heaping platters of eggs, steak, potatoes and ham--all complimented by the rich smell of freshly brewed coffee. Behind Ben, morning sunlight streamed through the dining room window, casting a lemon-yellow square on the food-laden table.  Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance, Adam looking decidedly sullen,
Hoss somewhat uncomfortable.

"Well, you see Pa--" Hoss speared a piece of ham and forked it onto his plate.  Working his bottom lip between his teeth, he carefully considered his answer.  "It ain't that Joe ain't up--"

"He didn't come home last night," Adam inserted flatly, without preamble.

Hoss pressed his lips together.  He shot Adam a venomous glance.

"I see."  Setting the toast aside, Ben reached for his coffee cup.  He allowed his eyes to rest on each son in turn, making sure each was acutely uncomfortable--Hoss for his obvious nervousness; Adam his dour disposition.  "And do either of you boys know where your brother is?"

Adam snorted shortly.  "Doesn't take a genius to figure that out," he muttered.

"Adam."  Ben spoke sharply, clearly annoyed.  Before he could dispense another clipped word, the front door yawned open, and Joe appeared.

"Morning, Pa."  Tossing his hat on the sideboard, he stepped into the dining area.  "Hey, brothers."  His eyes skimmed over Adam and Hoss.  "Something sure smells good.  I'm starved."

Joe shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair.  Sliding into his seat, he began to pile food onto his plate.  Only then did he become aware of three sets of eyes watching him intently.  "What?"

Ben cleared his throat and laced his hands together.  "Where were you last night, young man?"

Joe chuckled.  Setting the platter of eggs down, he picked up his fork.  "Come on, Pa.  I'm twenty-two.  I was out with some friends."

"Friends or a friend?" Ben queried.

Joe shrugged, surprised by the questioning.  "Does it matter?"

"Yes it does."

"Excuse me."  Scowling, Adam pushed from the table and cast his napkin over his plate.  He glanced at Joe, his eyes narrowed in undeniable antipathy.  "I've got work to do."

"What's his problem?"  Joe asked as Adam stalked from the room.

Ben sighed and glanced at Hoss.  "Will you excuse us, Hoss?  I need to talk with your brother alone."

"Sure thing, Pa."  Hoss's gaze was sympathetic as he brushed past Joe.

Still oblivious to the emotions tumbling around him, Joe swallowed a forkful of eggs.  "Something the matter, Pa?"

"I'm not sure."  Ben leaned back in his chair and studied his youngest son.  There was something different about Joe today.  He'd been dispirited, even pensive of late, yet this morning there was a vibrancy in his green eyes that had long been lacking.  As Ben watched, his lips parted with a heart-stopping smile--the one that usually left women simpering at his side.  Looking at him now, Ben had to admit he was an astonishingly handsome young man.  Not for the first time, Ben was sure those remarkable good looks would lead his son to trouble.  "Joe, you didn't answer my question.  Where were you last night?"

Sensing that it wasn't just a passing inquiry, Joe turned his full attention on his father.  "Pa, I . . .it's kind of personal."

Ben glanced down at the table momentarily.  "I see."  He knew exactly where his son had been.  He could smell Lorna David's perfume clinging to Joe's clothing, just as Adam had no doubt scented it.  Though Ben knew Joe had surely long past lost his innocence, he nonetheless found the prospect of Joe spending the night with Lorna disconcerting.  It had been a lot easier when his son wasn't so skilled in the art of romance.

He was quiet for a time, during which period Joe resumed eating.  Ben could sense his son's burgeoning wariness; see the uncertainty mirrored in the clear glass of his green eyes.  Pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee, Ben leaned back in his chair.  "Interesting thing," he announced conversationally.  "I was in town yesterday, and I saw Mrs. Chandler at the bank.  She tells me Lorna David has a young boy staying with her."

Joe tensed.  His fork stilled on his plate.  "What else did she say?"

"Nothing.  She didn't know anything else."  Ben titled his head, hoping for a glimpse of his son's eyes, but Joe's lashes were lowered, effectively blocking his gaze.  "Joe, do you know who the boy is?"

Joe wet his lips.  Absently he rubbed his thumb over the edge of his fork, his eyes fixed on a distant spot on the table.  After a moment he glanced at his father.  "Um . . . his name's Kevin.  He's . . . um . . . he's her son."

Ben exhaled sharply.  The tension radiating from Joe was now thick enough to cut with a knife.  "Is he very young?" Ben ventured.

"He's thirteen, Pa."  The green eyes betrayed a flicker of annoyance.  "And before you say anything--yes, I've already thought about what that means.  About the responsibility.  But I've asked Lorna to marry me, Pa.  You should know that.  I want her to be my wife."

Ben raised his coffee cup to his lips and swallowed a mouthful of the warm liquid.  With effort, he kept his expression neutral.  "What did Lorna say?"

Relinquishing his fork, Joe slumped back in his chair.  He glanced away.  "She says it's too soon.  She needs some time with Kevin first.  They've been apart the last four years."

"That sounds sensible, Joseph."  Ben kept the relief from slipping through in his voice.

With a small, resigned smile Joe shook his head.  Propping his elbow on the table, he rested his forehead against his hand.  "Somehow I knew you'd say that."

"If you want me to act disappointed, I can't."  Leaning forward, Ben rested his hand against his son's arm.  "Listen to me, Joseph--raising a child, especially another man's child, is no easy task.  I know you love Lorna, and I know you believe that love is stronger than any obstacle you'll face, but are you really ready to be a father?  A father, Joe?  Are you truly ready to have that child depend upon you--solely and completely.  You love Lorna, but do you love her son?"

"Pa, I've already thought about all this."  Joe's voice was flat and final.  Through the cool, combative edge, Ben saw a sliver of doubt enter his son's expressive eyes.

Knowing he had struck a nerve, Ben retreated, content to let the seed blossom on its own.  He knew his son well enough to know that any unsettled thought would gnaw at him mercilessly, until he'd worked it through.  "Then I think you should invite Lorna and her son to the house for dinner."

Joe blinked, surprised.  "Pa?"

Ben allowed himself a small smile.  "If she's going to be a future daughter-in-law I'd like to spend some time with her, and I'd certainly like to meet her son."

Joe was reluctant.  "Um . . . Pa, that could be awkward . . . with Adam . . ."

"It could be," Ben agreed.  "I think it's time you talk with your brother and resolve once and for all, where your feelings lie regarding this woman."

Once again Joe's reluctance was evident, but he nodded.

Ben smiled and patted his arm.  "Good.  Now that that's settled, there's something else I want you to do for me."

"Yes, Sir, what is it?"

"I want you to send a telegram to Milo Caine.  I've arranged for Hollis Noonan and two of the hands to pick up those horses you purchased.  I want to alert Milo, when they'll be arriving."

Joe paled.  He still perceived the events in Ridgeville as personal failure on his part.  With a barely perceptible nod, he lowered his eyes to the table. "Pa, about that seven hundred dollars . . . I have some money set aside, and I put a deposit on a new saddle for Cochise.  It's not much, but--"

"We'll talk about the money later, Joe."

"But I want to make arrangements--"

"I said we'll talk about it later."

The bristling edge of his father's voice drew Joe up short.  Bewildered, he studied Ben.  "I don't understand why you're getting so angry. I just want to--"

"I am not getting angry."  Ben practically spat the words.

Stunned, Joe fell silent.  He could hear the blood rushing in his ears, the sound a gentle roar that matched the shrill intensity of his father's eyes.  Slowly, he leaned back in his chair.  "Adam was right," he said softly.

Ben frowned, clearly annoyed.  "Right about what?"

"About how you've been treating me."

"And how is that?"

"Like I'm made of glass.  Like I might break if you press too hard."

Ben waved the statement aside.  "Little Joe, any other time you'd be thrilled I'm not harassing you about that money.  Everyone makes mistakes.  I just happen to think yours was orchestrated by Amos Cutter."

The logic was hard to dispute.  The same niggling thought had rooted in the back of Joe's mind, ever since leaving Ridgeville.  Shey had been a little too quick to pick the fight in the saloon, and the sheriff had been a little too quick to recognize his name.  If Joe's suspicions were correct, the lawman probably wasn't the first badge ever bought with Cutter money.  A slight smile flickered over his lips.  "Thanks, Pa."

Ben gave his arm a swat.  "Go send that telegram.  There's plenty waiting for you to do when you get back."


Adam was still in the barn when Joe appeared to saddle a horse.  He'd already decided to give Cochise a rest.  The mare had just carried him from Lorna's and he wanted her fresh for later, when he made his rounds on the ranch.  Moving to the stall of a three year old chestnut named Rye, he glanced over the intervening divider to where Adam saddled Sport.

"How's it going, older brother?"

Adam grunted in return.  He already had the saddle on Sport and was tightening the cinch strap.  Joe watched the tense play of muscles across his back, uncertain if Adam's coldness was anger or distraction.  Briefly, he thought of what Ben had said, and knew he needed to clear the air with his brother.

"I . . . um . . . I saw Lorna last night," Joe ventured into the silence.

Adam whipped around, his heavy-lashed eyes hooded and dark.  "You mean you stayed with Lorna last night," he corrected.  The words were bitter, almost malicious.  Surprised, Joe stepped from the stall and hovered near the opening of Sport's pen.  Turning away, Adam continued to work on the saddle, tightening the straps with crisp efficiency.  "I don't want the details, Joe.  Suffice it to say, Lorna's old enough to make her own decisions.  I don't know what you've got kid, but I guess it's enough to make her forget you're ten years younger than she is.  Or maybe that's exactly what she finds so appealing."

"Wait a minute!" Joe hooked his brother on the shoulder and spun him roughly about.  Stung by the comment, he could feel a quickening surge of anger.  "A few weeks ago you told me it was over between the two of you.  Now you're acting like you still have feelings for her.  Which is it, Adam?"

"Feelings?" Adam snorted.  Shoving past Joe, Adam pulled Sport from his stall.  "The only feelings I have are hopes that she doesn't make a fool of herself mooning over some love-sick kid, who's barely old enough to grow a beard, let alone spend the night in her bed."

Joe blanched.  "Yeah, well you don't need to worry about that, do you brother?"  he snapped spitefully, hurt by Adam's uncharacteristic cruelty.  "Lorna's my concern, not yours--and that includes what takes place in her bed.  She's going to be my wife."

"What?"  Adam's face clouded, then paled.  His mouth pressed into a white line, the rigid scrawl accentuating the brittle edge of his eyes. "You're a fool, Joe."  Whirling away, he mounted Sport, hastily urging the horse forward.  Joe watched as steed and rider lurched from the protective shade of the barn, the rumbling thunder of  hoofs gradually muted by distance.

Turning away, he leaned aganist the nearest stall, bracing his arm against the wood and lowering his face to his sleeve.  He could feel the scrape of corduroy against his cheek; smell the fresh-cut boards of the stall, the slats replaced only earlier that week.  Suddenly tired, Joe closed his eyes.  He'd spent a delicious night wrapped in Lorna's arms; her body nestled against his--the touch of her bare flesh like warm satin against his skin.  When dawn was still a distant veil on the horizon, they'd emerged from the barn.  Hand-in-hand, they'd crossed the dew-sodden ground--the wet grass, cold and shivery against their bare feet.

Joe had found the ride to the Ponderosa invigorating.  The brisk chill of early morning, coupled with the memory of their lovemaking, left him feeling better than he had in weeks.  That disposition had slowly eroded however, weakened first by the conversation with his father; bludgeoned now, by the harsh sting of Adam's words.

It isn't fair.  He said it was over between them.  He can't make me choose.

Adam or Lorna.

Joe groaned and buried his face deeper into his arm.  There was no easy way out of the mess he'd made.


Later that day as Joe was leaving the telegraph office, he encountered Amos Cutter and Wade Anderson on the boardwalk.

"Mr. Cartwright--" Cutter flashed a jerky smile as he stepped from beneath the overhang of the building.  "I hope you don't mind, but I saw you go inside and thought I'd wait for you.  I'd like to speak to you, if you have a moment."

Joe glanced from Cutter, who was doing his best to appear ingratiating, to Anderson.  The latter watched him pointedly, his eyes narrowed in wolf-like appraisal.  Joe frowned.  While he routinely tangled with Shey, he knew he and his rival were on equal footing.  Amos Cutter was another matter entirely.  Corrupt and unethical, the older man cared little about the necessary means to achieve his goals.  Unlike Shey's father, he had forced a number of competing ranches into bankrupcy, while developing the Circle C into a top-notch spread.

"What do you want?"  Joe asked.

Cutter's smile grew silky, his fleshy lips sliding back over slightly protruding teeth.  "I want to talk to you about that black stud horse.  Shey told me how much you wanted it."

"Did he?"  Joe's jaw was clenched.  He could feel himself growing antagonistic and deliberately kept his response  brief.  "I repeat Mr. Cutter: What do you want?"

Anderson snorted.  "Kind of short-fused, ain't you boy?"

"Now, now."  Once again Cutter's smile turned velvety. There was something almost perverse about that fish-white grin and Joe felt his stomach turn.  Cutter gave him a slight pat on the arm.  It took all of Joe's control not to wrench away from the lingering touch of the sausage-thick fingers. "I thought maybe I could give you that horse, boy.  That is, if you did something for me."

"Such as?"

"Talk to your Pa.  I'm a reasonable man, Joe.  I'd pay handsomely for that scrap of land.  If he thought you favored the deal, your Pa just might give it fair consideration."

"He has given it fair consideration, Mr. Cutter, and I don't favor the deal.  You'd raze that land and we'd lose a watershed essential to the Ponderosa."  Joe started to turn away when Cutter caught his arm and drew him back.  A flicker of rage passed through the older man's corn-gold eyes, but was quickly squelched.  Once again, eager solicitousness took its place.

"Be reasonable, boy.  There's a representative from Thistlecreek Mine in Virginia City this week.  I need to close this deal, no matter what it costs.  You understand me?  You name your price and I'll take care of you.  You cross me, you'll wish you'd never heard the name Cutter."

Joe wrenched his arm free.  His eyes were cutting, with an edge like glass.  "I understand you, Mr. Cutter.  Now you understand this: Neither I nor my family kowtow to threats. You know what you can do with your deal."  Turning on his heel, Joe stalked away.

Quietly seething, Wade Anderson smacked his fist into his palm.  "You aren't gonna take that, are you Mr. Cutter?.  You let me at that kid and--"

"No."  Cutter's face was mottled with rage, but he quickly brought his emotions under control.  "I'll deal with Ben Cartwright's whelp.  When I'm done with him, that kid will rue the day he ever heard my name."  Glancing aside, he smiled thinly.  "Let's get back to the ranch.  It's time to collect on Mitch Campbell's debt."


Later that day, Joe packed fishing rods and gear in the buckboard, then drove out to see Lorna.  He'd finished his chores and ranch work early, and thus had the afternoon free.  Ben's questions regarding Kevin continued to plague him, making him realize, he barely knew the boy.  Though Kevin had grown more talkative over the last few days, he was still shy and reserved, somewhat apprehensive of Joe.

Upon arriving at Lorna's home, Joe extended Ben's dinner invitation, then announced he was there to take Kevin on a fishing expedition.  At the mention of fishing, a flicker of excitement passed through the boy's pewter eyes.  With an easy grin, Joe jerked his thumb over his shoulder indicating the buckboard.  "Come on Kevin, the gear's all stowed.  What'dya say we see if we can't catch dinner for your Ma?"

A slow smile spread over Kevin's face.  He glanced shyly at the ground.

Later, relaxing beneath the leafy bough of a shade tree, Joe watched his fishing line bob on the shimmering surface of Bow Creek.  Grape-purple shadows hugged the bank, feathering the water with plum-dark threads where tiny ripples rolled to shore.  Cat-tails and whisper-thin reeds vied for room among heartier clumps of sawgrass and muskmallow.  The air was fragrant with the sun-dusted scent of the creek--a tangle of brown grass and moss-covered stones.  It was a potent scent--rich and dark like the underbelly of a log.  Folding his arms behind his head, Joe reclined on the bank and hooked his ankle over his raised knee.  The fishing pole was tucked beneath the edge of his boot, pinned in place by his heel.

"Hoss and I come here a lot," he said conversationally to Kevin.  The boy was seated a short distance away, his fishing pole held in a two-fisted grip, eyes glued to the sun-beaded surface of the creek.  Joe plucked a blade of grass and slid it between his lips.  "Relax, Kevin.  You're too tense.  You'll jerk the bait and scare the fish away."

Kevin glanced over his shoulder, a small furrow creasing his brow.  "Ain't never gone fishing before," he said matter-of-factly.

"Really?"  Joe pushed up on his elbows.  It seemed a near cruelty to have been deprived of such a simple boyhood pleasure.  "Didn't you . . . didn't you fish with your Pa?"  Uncertain of Kevin's relationship with Del Lancaster, Joe almost feared broaching the subject.

Kevin shrugged and glanced away.  "Pa was busy a lot."

Belatedly Joe wished he'd talked to Lorna before taking the boy fishing.  He wasn't even certain if Kevin understood his father's somewhat notorious past.  Del Lancaster had died four years ago, killed in an attempt to rob a Wells Fargo way station.  Prior to that, he'd put enough notches on his gunbelt to earn him the reputation of a cold-blooded killer.  Joe plucked the grass from his lips and sent it spiraling to the ground.  The child before him seemed the opposite of his father in
every aspect--quiet, polite and withdrawn.

"Pa would have said this was a waste of time," Kevin announced suddenly, his eyes still riveted to the sparkling water.

Joe slid forward on the bank, settling beside him.  With an easy flick of his wrist, he drew his line parallel to Kevin's.  "I hope you don't feel that way."

Kevin shook his head, clearly bewildered.  "No, Mr. Cartwright, I--"

"I thought we agreed, you were gonna call me Joe."

"Um . . . Joe . . ." Kevin lowered his eyes.  Nervously he tucked his hair behind his ear--the dark ebony tresses so much like Lorna's.  Watching, Joe grinned.

"Looks like you could use a haircut, Kevin."

The boy made a face.  "You sound like my Ma.  She wants to scalp me."

"I'm not too fond of haircuts either."  Joe scraped a hand through his own chestnut locks.  Beneath the gilded glow of the sun, his hair was highlighted with a multitude of gold threads.

"Joe, do you like my Ma?"  Kevin asked suddenly.

Joe tensed, unprepared for the direct question.  "Sure I like her Kevin."

"Do you like her a lot?  Do you love her?"

Joe wet his lips, uncertain how to proceed.  He had planned this time as a means to get to know Kevin, not define his relationship with Lorna.  At thirteen, Kevin was certainly old enough to recognize the intimacy between Joe and his mother.  He was also old enough to realize Joe's age made the youngest Cartwright an unlikely candidate for step-father.

When Joe didn't answer, Kevin grew concerned.  Glancing away, he tugged on his fishing pole.  "I didn't mean to pry," he mumbled.

Startled, Joe snapped from his reverie.  "You're not prying," he assured quickly.  "You have a right to know how I feel about your mother. It's just . . ." Joe struggled for words.  "Your Ma's real concerned that the two of you have some time together.  I do love your Ma, Kevin, but you shouldn't let that worry you."

"I ain't worried, Mr. Cart--Joe."  Kevin flushed at his slip, then paused.  He drew a breath before continuing. "I remember how it was when Pa was alive.  He didn't treat her good.  You wouldn't do that, would you?  I mean--you wouldn't hurt my Ma?"

"Kevin, never!"  Joe felt his throat constrict at the frankness of the question.  The boy's eyes were wide, studying him with earnest appeal.  Gently he slid his hand around the boy's back, gripping his shoulder.  "You and your Ma have had it pretty rough, Kevin, but that's in the past.  If you let me, I'll take care of both of you."

Kevin glanced down at his hands.  Joe waited, feeling the muted thunder of his heart as it pummeled against his ribs.  The seconds stretched into minutes, each passing sliver of time like a spike in Joe's chest.  A barely perceptible nod was Kevin's only reply.  His eyes skimmed back to the water and he took sudden interest in his fishing rod.

Joe released a pent-up breath.  The silence grew comfortable and he found himself relaxing once again.  Though the fish they caught were minimal, it was enough to present Lorna with a stringer of small trout.  By the time the catch was cleaned and boned it amounted to a small mouthful for each, but Kevin proclaimed it the best fish he'd ever eaten.  Later, after the boy had gone to bed, Joe and Lorna sat on the couch--he with his arm over her shoulders; she curled against his chest.

"Thank you for today."  Closing her eyes, Lorna rested her head against the hard plane of Joe's chest.  She could feel the warmth of his skin radiating through the coarse fabric of his shirt. Idly, she fingered the button beneath his throat.

Joe stirred slightly.  "Today?" he queried.

"For Kevin," Lorna clarified.  "For spending time with him.  I know you didn't plan on a ready-made family, Joe."

He smiled against her hair.  "Hmm.  I didn't plan on a lot of things.  I remember when Adam first brought you to the Ponderosa, I thought you were um . . . extremely proper."

Lorna eased the button free.  Her fingers dropped, locating the next one.  "And I thought you were somewhat of a libertine--though admittedly a handsome one."  One after another, Lorna freed the buttons on Joe's shirt, until the material gaped at his waist.  Pushing the fabric from his chest, she slid her fingers over his stomach, delighting in the feel of the tight muscle beneath her hand. "Do you still think I'm extremely proper?" she asked.

Joe chuckled.  Slipping a finger beneath her chin, he titled her face up to his.  "That would depend on what you intend to do next."

Lorna leaned into his embrace, eagerly responding as his mouth descended on hers.  Gently, he stroked her breast, coaxing a soft moan from her lips.  Joe drew back and pulled her from the sofa.  Catching her hand, he tugged her outside into the cool night air.

Moonlight dappled the porch, the shimmery luminance fragmented by the leaf-heavy branches of the tree just off the corner.  Shadows scrolled across the plank boards--pencil-thin images sculpted by the pale celestial glow.  Joe drew Lorna down into the yard, beneath the fragrant bower of the tree.  Pulling her against him, he wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her deeply.

Lorna could feel her head spinning; her knees growing weak.  When she'd first met this man she'd considered him little more than a boy, now his very touch left her trembling and aching for more.  "Joseph . . ." The name slipped from her lips, as much a plea for his continued caress, as it was an endearment.  Moonlight silvered his dark hair, weaving glittering threads through the thick chestnut mane. Beneath the heavy black veil of his lashes, his eyes were jewel-bright, almost opalescent.  She felt the fire of his kiss, turning her body to pure liquid heat, as his mouth moved against hers.  With skilled fingers he loosened the strings on her bodice and pushed the restrictive material aside.  His hand slid beneath the cloth, cupping her breast, kneading the soft flesh until she whimpered with pleasure.

"Do you like that angel?  Do you like when I touch you?"  She could feel the husky thread of his breath against her ear; thought she would melt with pleasure.

"Yes!" she panted, arcing her body to better feel his fiery touch.  A stray thought pinged through her mind, and she realized she wasn't acting very "proper" at all. Wrapping his arm about her shoulders, Joe led her around the side of the house.  She could hear the hissed swish of her skirt against the soft grass as he led her behind the barn, into a small cluster of trees.  Here the shadows were thick, the ground slippery and cool.  A pile of hay was mounded at the entrance of the copse
and Joe drew her down onto the soft bed.

Gently he kissed her.  "This isn't right . . ." His finger trailed down her cheek, ghosting a shiver up her spine.  " . . . the barn . . . here in the trees.  Lorna if you were my wife, I wouldn't have to worry about your son waking up and finding us."

She closed her eyes.  His hand left her face and settled on her stomach.  He was lying beside her, raised on one elbow.  She could feel the weight of his leg hooked over hers; the delicious protrusion in his pants, betraying how badly he wanted her.  Turning on her side, she burrowed against him.  Her hands knotted in his open shirt as he gathered her close to his chest.  Tears burned the corners of her eyes.  "Please, Joe," her voice broke.   . . . I need you."

"It's all right, darling."  He kissed her temple, her brow.  "I'll stay with you.  I promise." His mouth descended on hers, tenderly coaxing her lips apart.  Lorna wilted in his embrace and surrendered herself to oblivion.


Joe was tightening the cinch strap on Cochise's saddle the next morning when Lorna appeared at his side.  Dawn was still inching over the horizon, spreading streamers of coral and peach through the blue-black sky.

"Do you have to go so soon?"  she asked hesitantly.  His eyes were masked beneath the crisp brim of his bone-colored hat.  Reaching for the stirrup hooked over the saddle horn, he eased it into place.

"It's better if I do, Lorna--before Kevin wakes up."  Turning to face her, he leaned forward and brushed his lips against hers.  A slight smile flirted at the corners of his mouth when he drew back.  "I'll come by in the wagon around three o'clock, to pick you up for dinner."

Lorna nodded.  Her throat was tight.  It suddenly occurred to her that she didn't want him to leave--not now, not ever.  After the closeness of last night, even this brief separation brought a sharp pang to her heart.  She had never felt so safe as she had last night, wrapped in his arms.  Never  felt so loved as when he touched her, whispering sweet endearments in her ear.  "I don't want you to go," she said as he turned back to Cochise.

Joe blinked, surprised by the uncharacteristic proclamation.  "Lorna, I have to."

"No.  You don't understand."  Moving nearer, she glanced up in to the jewel-bright glow of his eyes.  "I don't want you to go--ever.  Joseph, I'll marry you."

The words were spoken so matter-of-factly that for a moment Joe wasn't certain he'd heard correctly.  He stared at her blankly.  "Lorna--?"

Her fingers tightened on his sleeve and she smiled. "Did you hear me, Joe Cartwright?  I said I'd marry you."

Only then did the words penetrate.  All the days of asking, of pleading, of hoping . . .  With a whoop of delight, Joe lifted her off her feet and spun her through the air.  His lips descended on hers in a long, lush kiss, as he set her gently on her feet.  Lorna placed her hands on his chest and drew back breathless.

Joe's eyes were dancing, bright as she had ever seen them.  "We have to tell Kevin," he said.  His hands caressed her shoulders, that simple touch sending a delicious infusion of warmth all the way to her toes.  Joe's gaze grew suddenly earnest.  "It isn't right to decide this without him."

Lorna pressed a finger to his lips.  "I'll talk to Kevin when he wakens," she assured.  "This afternoon, when you come to pick us up, we can both tell him."  Even as she planned the event, a flicker of uncertainty caused a momentarily sadness to enter her eyes.  "Joe, you're sure . . . you're really sure, this is what you want?"

"What do you mean am I sure?"  A look of incredulity crossed his face.  His grip tightened and he gave her a gentle shake.  "Lorna, I love you."

"You're so young," she protested, all the while striving to convince herself the pairing was right.  As long as she lived, she knew there would never be another man for her, but she worried if the responsibility came too soon for Joe.

Lifting his hand, he traced his thumb down her cheek.  "Age has nothing to do with this, Lorna.  I love you.  I want you to be my wife."

Wrapping her arms about him, she leaned into his embrace.  With her cheek pressed to his chest, she could feel the rat-a-tat beat of his heart--a warm, vibrant cadence that made her snuggle closer.  "Joe, I've never wanted anything more," she whispered.

His arms tightened around her.  "Lorna--" the name left his lips on a sliver of air.  Slipping a finger beneath her chin, he tilted her head up and pledged his love with a kiss.


"About time you found him."  Amos Cutter scowled at his foreman, then let his gaze sidle aside to encompass Mitch Campbell.  The latter stood in front of Cutter's mahogany desk, nervously shuffling his hat through sweaty hands.

"He was holed up with a saloon girl," Anderson explained his lapse.

Cutter grunted.  Strolling in front of the desk, he hooked his thumbs in the pockets of the brocade vest stretched taut over his ample belly.  A puff of oyster-gray smoke spiraled from the fat cigar clenched between his teeth, the thick vapor curling to the ceiling like a disembodied string.  Stubby fingers located the stogie and jabbed it at Mitch.

"Time to pay off that debt you owe me, Campbell.  I have a job for you."

"A job?"  Mitch Campbell licked his lips nervously.  Now that the moment had arrived, he found himself oddly apprehensive.  "What kind of job, Sir?"

"Nothing too difficult."  Cutter waved a hand in the air, brandishing the cigar like a trophy.  He strolled behind the desk, his boots muffled by the plush burgundy rug covering the hardwood floor.  Off to the side, Wade Anderson watched silently, his ferret-like eyes narrow and bright.  "I want you to write a note to your friend Joe Cartwright," Cutter instructed.  "Tell him you're in trouble and need his help.  Ask him to meet you by that outcropping of rock just off Firebox Trail."

"J-Joe?"  Bewildered, Mitch looked from Cutter to Anderson.  "I don't understand, Mr. Cutter.  Why do you want me to write Joe?"

Cutter tapped a forefinger against his lips.  His eyes were calculating and steadfast.  "It's very simple, Mitch.  I have a business proposition to make young Mr. Cartwright, but after that debacle with the black horse, Shey bid out from under him, I'm afraid he has no inclination to speak with me.  Now, if he thought he was meeting with you . . . why, I could just step right in  and make my offer before he had a chance to get upset."

Mitch hesitated.  It still didn't sound right.  "I-I don't know, Mr. Cutter."  He gnawed on his lip doubtfully.

Cutter straightened his shoulders, his demeanor suddenly crisp.  "Need I remind you about your two thousand dollar debt, Mr. Campbell--and that it's only my generous nature that keeps you out of prison?"

Mitch swallowed hard.  His eyes darted aside to Anderson, who smiled thinly.  Reluctantly he nodded.  "All right, Mr. Cutter, I'll do as you ask--long as you promise, you just want to talk to Joe."

Cutter's smile was pure velvet.  "Of course, Mitch--a talk, that's all."  The smile crooked to the corners of his mouth, revealing the tip of his gumline.

Staring at that insidious grin, Mitch Campbell rued the day he first looked at a deck of cards.


"I'm sorry Adam couldn't join us."  Ben made the excuse for perhaps the sixth time as Joe led Lorna to the dinner table.  Hoss had taken Kevin under his wing, and seated the boy beside him, tossing his hair affectionately as the child eased into a seat.  "He had some business in town that just couldn't wait another day."

"I understand perfectly, Mr. Cartwright," Lorna returned, as Joe held her chair for her.  Against his will, Ben's eyes traveled to his son's face, expecting to find a glower of displeasure, but Joe's eyes were soft as he looked down on the dark-haired woman.  Joe had to know Adam's absence signaled discord, but he was reacting quite amicable.  The response was so out of character for his quick-tempered son, that Ben found himself growing concerned.  Settling back in his chair, he
cleared his throat.

"Joseph--you've been preoccupied all evening.  Is something troubling you?"

"Hmm?"  Sliding into his own chair, Joe collected his napkin and placed it on his lap.  He glanced up as though waking from a fog.  "Oh no, Pa.  I'm sorry, it's just . . ."  Trying to find the words, Joe reached beside him and took Lorna's hand.  "I thought I'd wait 'til later to tell you. We thought we'd wait 'til later--"

Ben tensed, not sure he liked the sound of that opening.  A heavy black brow arched into the sleek fringe of his white hair.  "Joseph?"

A crooked grin spread over Joe's face.  "Pa, Lorna's consented to be my wife."

Ben was thankful he wasn't drinking or eating at the moment, because he was certain he would have choked.  A stunned silence settled on the group, to which Joe was blissfully immune.  The smile on his face was infectious.  It soon spread to Hoss, who never took the time to envision the resulting complications of most circumstance.

"Well, I'll be!  Dadburn, little brother, but you are a sly one."  Rising to his feet, Hoss reached across the table and clasped Joe's arm in a two-handed grip.  "Congratulations!  And you too, Miss Lorna.  Welcome to the family."  Vigorously he pumped his brother's arm.  Sliding back into his chair, Hoss hooked his arm around Kevin's thin shoulders.  "Guess that's gonna make me your uncle, huh?"

The boy was beaming; Hoss was smiling; Joe looked as though he'd just discovered the most wonderful thing in the world.

Ben wanted to sink through the floor.

"Pa, aren't you going to congratulate me?"  Joe asked.

"Of course!"  Ben's smile was bright, but forced.  Fortunately, no one noticed the feigned levity.  Walking around the side of the table, he placed one hand on Joe's shoulder, the other on Lorna's.  "Miss David, I couldn't imagine a finer daughter-in-law.  I'm very happy to welcome you to the family."

"Thank you, Mr. Cartwright."  A faint blush tinged Lorna's cheeks as she lowered her eyes.  Ben's gaze shifted to his youngest son.  He offered his hand.

"Joseph."  Somehow the words wouldn't come.  His son's eyes were so bright, his gaze so earnest, that Ben felt his heart constrict.  Joe's emotions lay bare in his eyes for the world to see-- a desperate tangle of love for the woman at his side, and a plea for acceptance by his father.  Buried deeper still was the knowledge that his marriage would wound his oldest brother, and the burden of carrying that guilt alone.  Looking at him now--seeing the complex snarl of emotion on his face, Ben's eyes shone with pride.  "Congratulations son," he said softly.

Joe smiled and shook his hand.

Much later when dinner was over, Hoss interested Kevin in a game of checkers, while Ben, Lorna and Joe shared coffee in the living room.  Eventually the conversation slowed and Joe took Lorna outside for fresh air.

"It's beautiful here," she said, wrapping her arms about her and gazing up at the sky.  They'd strolled from the porch and stood near the small corral by the barn.

Joe folded his arms on the top rail of the fence and followed her glance to the heavens.  The moon was mostly obscured, blanketed by a tattered strip of clouds.  What little light bled through, meshed with the icy shimmer of starglow, slivering the ground with patches of cold, white light.

"It isn't just the surroundings," Lorna continued softly.  "It's the feeling I have when I'm here--how very much a family all of you are."  She turned to look at him, her eyes almost black in the lacy veil of moonlight. "Joe, why isn't Adam here?"

Startled, he flinched.  His eyes skitted aside to the ground.  "I don't know what you mean."

Lorna sighed.  "I don't want to cause a problem."

"You're not."  Joe gripped her hand.  His eyes returned and she saw a plea for understanding in his gaze.  "Adam and I will work it out.  It might take some time, Lorna, but we'll work it out."

Even as he said the words, he heard the drum of hoofs that announced his brother's return.  Joe turned as horse and rider rounded the corner of the barn.  Adam drew rein at the corral and dismounted.  Only the tightness of his mouth betrayed the awkwardness of the situation.  "Lorna," he tipped his hat to her, then glanced aside at Joe.  "Saw Mitch Campbell in town," he announced tonelessly.  "He asked me to give this to you."  Adam passed Joe a folded slip of paper, then started to turn away.

"Adam--" Joe touched his arm.  When his brother halted, he wet his lips, hoping to find something to bridge the growing chasm between them.  The flinty stare of Adam's dark eyes told him the task was near impossible.  Joe's gaze dropped to the ground.  "Thanks," he mumbled.

Adam grunted and moved into the barn, trailing his horse.

Lorna sighed and closed her eyes.  "Joe, I don't want to be the cause of this."

"You're not."  Hooking an arm around her shoulders, he led her back to the house and the inviting glow of yellow light.  Confronting Adam must come later, Joe knew.  For now he would do his best to convince Lorna the future was like that beckoning glow of lamplight--warm, comforting and bright.


"Married?"  Adam scoffed.  He stood with his arms folded across his chest--a clearly defensive posture, signaling his refusal to reason.  After taking Kevin and Lorna home, Joe had returned to find Hoss and Ben retired for the night, but Adam quietly reading in the chair by the hearth.  Knowing he wouldn't be able to sleep without talking to his brother, Joe announced his plans to marry Lorna.  Setting the book aside, Adam had risen to his feet.  "Married?" he proclaimed again.  "A wife and a thirteen year old son, when you're barely past puberty yourself?"

Joe felt the first rankling stab of anger.  Though he'd told himself he'd get through this without losing his temper, the slur cut deep.  "Adam, I'm not telling you this to be insulted--"

"Then why are you telling me, because you certainly can't expect me to take you seriously.  Pa's out of his head if he's consented to this--"

"Pa doesn't have anything to do with this.  There's no consent involved.  The decision is mine alone."

Adam's lips curled thinly.  The flicker of firelight from the hearth danced on his face, sculpting the planes of his cheeks with shadow and amber.  "Well Joe, I hope you know what you're doing--"

"You still love her," Joe said sharply.  He wasn't sure where the words came from; regretted them the moment they were past his lips.  Somewhere inside he knew they were true, even as he struggled to deny them.  He saw the thread of betrayal in Adam's dark eyes--a flicker like lightning, so brief he wasn't certain it had ever crested those stormy skies.

Adam laughed shortly and turned away.  "Don't flatter yourself, kid.  I just don't want to see you mess up her life."

Joe's chest rose on a tight breath.  "Then congratulate me, Adam, because I intend to take care of her.  And Kevin."

Adam glanced over his shoulder.  Joe met his eyes, his own gaze bridled with challenge.  For a time Adam held that heated glance, then his eyes fell away, a grimace on his lips.

Wordlessly, he strolled from the room.


Ben found the mood at the breakfast table restrained.  The night before, Joe had been full of enthusiasm, if slightly apprehensive over his family's reaction to his proposed marriage.  This morning he was glum, barely touching the food on his plate.  Adam had eaten earlier, preferring to be gone before the family arose.  Ben feared that early departure might become habit in the days to come.

"Pa, I've got some things to do this morning."  Setting his fork aside, Joe glanced at his father.  "I was hoping you'd give me until the afternoon to start on my chores."

Taking a sip of his coffee, Ben considered his youngest son.  "What kind of things, Joe?"

Joe shrugged, clearly unwilling to discuss the matter.  "I need to meet a friend.  I won't be long."

"I see."  Ben glanced at Hoss, who preferred to remain neutral by studying his plate.  "Very well, Joseph.  Be back by noon."

"Thanks, Pa."  Without another word, Joe pushed from his chair and headed for the door.  A short time later, he was riding for the Firebox Trail, bent on meeting his friend, Mitch Campbell.  Joe hadn't taken the time to read Mitch's note until he'd been ready to retire last evening.  Though there'd been nothing ominous in the tone of his friend's letter, Joe sensed a degree of desperation.  No doubt Mitch had dug himself into a financial hole and was hoping for a loan to see his way clear.  The situation allowed Joe to refocus his thoughts off Adam and Lorna, and he found himself almost thankful for the diversion.  As requested, he rode to the small outcropping of rock just east of the trail.  Mitch was already there when he arrived.

"Hey, Mitch."  Joe looped Cochise's reins on the branch of a nearby tree, and strolled the short distance to his friend's side.  The other appeared uncomfortable, his face pale and sheened with sweat.  "Hey, pal, you don't look so good.  What's wrong?"

Mitch wet his lips.  "J-Joe, y-you gotta understand, this wasn't my idea."

"What wasn't?"

"This--" a new voice said, and Amos Cutter stepped from behind the outcropping of rock.  Sunlight glinted off the bluing of the pistol in his hand.  Two other men appeared, their own  weapons drawn. Joe heard the ground crunch behind him.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Wade Anderson appear at his shoulder.

Raising his hands in the air, his eyes swung aside to Mitch.  His gaze was steely and dark, as cold as it was cutting.  "Thanks, friend."

Mitch took a step forward.  "Joe, you don't understand.  They just wanna talk."  An eager smile danced nervously over his lips.  "It ain't what you think.  It ain't--"

"Shut up," Cutter snarled.  With a nod of his head, he motioned to Anderson.  That brief signal was the only warning Joe had before the butt of Anderson's gun came crashing down on his head, sending him into merciless oblivion.

Anderson toed the limp body at his feet.  "Sealed and delivered."

Cutter gave a snort of contempt.  Striding forward, he slipped his gun beneath his jacket, tucking it into a shoulder holster.  "You hit him pretty hard, Anderson," he said to his foreman.  Already he could see the bright ribbon of blood against the boy's curling hair.

Anderson toed him in the side, rolling him onto his back.  Joe gave a slight groan, but didn't regain consciousness.  "He'll live," Anderson decided.

"You told me you was gonna talk!"  Mitch Campbell cried abruptly.  His face was the color of milk, his skin like cabbage left too long in the sun.  Panicked blue eyes darted between Cutter and Anderson as he staggered forward. "You didn't say nothin' about hurtin' him."

"Now, you listen here, you little weasel."  Cutter caught a fistful of his shirt and hauled him close.  "You're in this as much as we are, you hear me?  Cartwright's going to make us all a lot of money.  If you know what's good for you, you'll keep your mouth shut and enjoy the cash when I stuff it in your pocket.  Otherwise I'll stuff it in your grave.  Do I make myself clear?"

Mitch gulped.  His eyes rolled like those of a panicked horse.  Fear radiated from him in sweat-slick waves, so strong it was almost tangible.  Cutter could smell it; taste it.  And while he enjoyed that mastery, it sickened him to know the boy had no back-bone.  Repulsed, he pushed the cowhand away.  His attention returned to Anderson.

"Take Cartwright's gunbelt and go to the Ponderosa."

Anderson shrugged.  "All I need's his pistol."

"Take the holster," Cutter instructed.  "That's a fancy Colt revolver he's got, but there could be other's like it.  The kid's left-handed and that belt ain't cheap.  Combined with the pistol, Ben won't have any doubt we got his boy."

Anderson nodded.  He motioned for one of his cohorts to remove the belt.  While the man moved forward, the foreman's attention returned to his boss.  "Shouldn't take me too long.  You still planning on that line shack?"

Cutter nodded.  "One of the men is having Shey meet me there."

Anderson couldn't mask his surprise.  "Shey?  But he don't know anything about this, Mr. Cutter."

"I know that, but I think it's time I educated him how business is done."  With a smile, Cutter glanced back at his captive.  The gunbelt had been removed and transferred to Anderson's keeping.  "Throw him on his horse," Cutter instructed his two henchmen, with a nod for Joe.  As they moved to obey, Cutter's glance shifted to Mitch Campbell.  The copper-haired man stood silently, gnawing on the corner of his thumbnail.  "We might have to do something about that one," Cutter told his foreman in a low voice.  "Later, when you get back.  Either that or I'll find a way to buy him off.  In the meantime . . ." a savoring smile touched his lips.  "I think I need to reacquaint young Mr. Cartwright with the proper respect due his elders."


When the group of men broke and rode in different directions, a small form stepped tentatively from a tangle of interlocking spruce.  Shaken by what he'd witnessed and overheard, Kevin Lancaster stood for a moment, undecided what to do.  He'd been on his way to Bow Creek, with the fishing rod Joe had given him, when he'd happened upon the men just off the trail.  Returning to his house would take too long, even on the small pony still hidden in the thicket.  The Ponderosa was closer, but Kevin knew Wade Anderson would be headed in that direction as well.

He debated a moment longer, then realized his only alternative was to try to reach Ben Cartwright, ahead of Anderson.  Swinging onto the back of his pony, Kevin wheeled the animal around and cut off in a different direction than that taken by Anderson.  He prayed he remembered the way to the sprawling house and the kind man with silver hair.


With an aggravated sigh, Adam drew Sport to a halt and reached for his canteen.  He could feel the sun on his back, already intense despite the early morning hour.  A slight breeze scuttled from the south, warm and dry with the dust of the bordering desert. The heat did little to improve his disposition, still soured by Joe's impending marriage to Lorna.  Adam was partly to blame, he knew.  He'd told his brother weeks ago that his relationship with the dark-haired woman had ended amicably.  Could he really fault Joe for pursuing her, when he'd gone out of his way to indicate the path was clear?

Disgusted, Adam took a swallow of water then corked the canteen.  It gave an unsettled gurgle as he let it slide back against his saddle.  "Come on, Sport."  Adam tugged on the reins, prepared to pull the horse around.

"Mr. Cartwright!  Mr. Cartwright!"

Startled, Adam glanced up as a horse and rider barreled over a nearby ridge.  The rider was young, unsettled in the saddle--his lack of skill easily distinguished by the way his body jerked with the horse's movements, rather than flowing with its steps.  Adam could see the tip of a fishing pole jutting from the rear of the boy's saddle.  As he drew abreast, Adam recognized the pole as one having belonged to Joe when he was younger.

"Kevin?"  Adam wasn't certain of the boy's name, but he knew the child was Lorna's son.

The dark head bobbed in hasty agreement.  "An-and you're Joe's brother.  You gotta help him, Mr. Cartwright.  Those men . . . I think they might have hurt him bad."

"What men?  What are you talking about?"

Quickly, Kevin related all that he had seen and heard.  Adam's face grew darker with each spoken word, his hands tightening into fists over Sport's sleek reins.  "Can you show me where you saw the men and my brother, Kevin?"

Again the dark head bobbed.  "This way."

It took nearly forty minutes for Adam and Kevin to reach the outcropping of rock where Joe had been taken prisoner.  Adam dismounted and examined the ground, looking for a trail he could follow.  Unfortunately the tracks split in three separate directions.  A lone rider headed towards the Ponderosa--Adam took that to be Anderson--but there were two remaining sets of tracks, with multiple riders in each.  Squatting on his haunches, Adam pushed his hat back on his head and gazed up at Kevin.  The boy was still mounted, fidgeting nervously, his face a frightened mask.

"Did you see which direction they took Joe?"  Adam asked quietly.

Kevin bit his lip, crestfallen.  Sadly he shook his head.  "I just heard what they said, Mr. Cartwright.  After Anderson hit Joe, I was too afraid to look."

Adam nodded reassuringly.  "It's okay, Kevin.  You did hear something about a line shack though?"

Kevin nodded.  "Someone named Shey--I guess he's the man from the coach, Joe and I rode in with from Ridgeville--is supposed to meet them there."

"All right."  Adam stood and scrubbed a hand over his chin.  "Here's what I want you to do, Kevin.  I want you to go back to the Ponderosa--use the trail you were on, not the main road, and tell my father everything you've told me.  By the time you get there, Anderson will have already dropped off the holster and made whatever demand they're planning to make.  Tell my Pa I went after Little Joe.  He'll take things from there and he'll get you home to your Ma."  Adam's dark eyes measured the boy.  "Can you do that?"

"Sure."  Kevin's expression was painfully genuine.  "Joe's gonna be my Pa, Mr. Cartwright.  I'd do anything to help him."

Adam swallowed.  Hard.  He gave a mute nod and watched the boy head off in the distance.  Some strange twisted part of him told him that Kevin might have been his son . . . that he might have slipped a wedding band on Lorna's finger, if things had only gone differently.  If he hadn't been so blind to his own feelings, and if he'd just been honest with his brother when asked.

Cursing softly, Adam mounted Sport.  None of it mattered now.  Joe was in trouble, and no matter what else lay between them, nothing would stop him from seeing his brother to safety. Once again Adam's eyes shifted between the sets of tracks leading off in separate directions.

A line shack.  A string of Cutter's cabins lie to the east, the Ponderosa's to the west.  Adam thought for a moment, carefully considering Cutter's arrogance and audacity.

Gambling, he headed west.


"Pa!"  Hoss Cartwright bellowed for his father as he strode through the front door, Joe's gunbelt held loosely in his hand.  "Dadburnit, Pa, where are you?"

"What's all the commotion about?"  Ben Cartwright rounded the corner from the kitchen, perturbed to be summoned so rudely.  "Hoss, for heaven's sake, haven't you any--" He stopped suddenly, the words bludgeoned to sudden silence at the grim look on his son's expressive face.  Ben's eyes dropped to the belt clutched in Hoss's thick fingers, the tip of the pearl-handled Colt protruding from a left-handed holster.  "What are you doing with Joe's gunbelt?"  He could feel a prickle of warning dance along the back of his neck, the reaction as instinctive as it was unsettling.

"I found it Pa.  It was left by the barn."  Hoss reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded slip of paper.  "Along with this."

Quickly, Ben confiscated the missive, his eyes rapidly scanning the scrawled lines.  "The fool!"  The words exploded from Ben's tongue like bullets from a gun.  "It's from Cutter.  He wants the deed to that parcel of land signed over to him, or he says he'll kill Joe.  Is the idiot stupid enough to sign his name to this and think I won't turn him over to the law?"

"Pa, from the sounds of that note, I don't think Cutter's concerned about he law.  He's bought enough gunmen, including badges in his day, to think he's above it.  Besides--if it came to that, he'd just say someone else wrote it.  With him holding Joe, I don't see how we've got a choice."

Ben crumbled the paper in his fist, the rage in his eyes so deadly, it chilled Hoss to the bone.  "If he harms that boy, I'll kill him.  Hired guns or no guns, badge or no badge, I'll kill him."  Stalking to the sideboard by the front door, Ben retrieved his gunbelt and strapped it around his waist.

"I'm going with you," Hoss said grimly.

"No.  The instructions say I'm to come alone.  I'll go to the land office and have the title transfer drawn up.  I'm sure they'll have someone watching me.  This evening when it's dark, see if you can slip into town and let Roy Coffee know what's transpired."  Ben stalked across the room and grabbed a rifle from the cabinet at the bottom of the steps.  He pocketed a box of shells, then started back towards the door.  "Hoss, the note says once I have the deed, I'm to wait at that box canyon off Blackbear Pass.  If Cutter's got any kind of sense, he's not holding Joe anywhere near there.  I'll insist on seeing Joe before signing the transfer.  They'll have  to take me to him, and I'll try to leave a trail for you to follow.  Catch up when you can."

Hoss nodded, his expression bleak.  "Pa, be careful."  He ducked his head.  "And take care of Little Joe."

Ben clapped his shoulder.  "Don't worry, I will."


The room see-sawed through the murky lense of a fish-eyed bubble.  Joe blinked, but the fog clung tenaciously to his senses, refusing to dissipate.  His reactions sluggish, he attempted to move and was immediately rewarded by a blistering spike of pain at the base of his skull.  Nausea ripped through him in alternating waves of hot and cold, leaving him shivering, even as sweat sprang alive on his brow.  He could feel dried blood caked at the back of his head; the sticky substance clotted in his hair and streaked over his neck.

He was lying on his back, arms tied in front of him and secured to his belt by a length of rope.  The needling ping of restricted circulation lanced up his arms, as blood fought to flow through his tightly bound wrists.  The heady scent of earth clogged his nostrils and he knew by the dirt floor and sparse surroundings, he was in one of the Ponderosa line shacks.

" . . . just plum crazy . . . never gonna work . . ."

Joe narrowed his eyes, trying to focus on the speaker of those words, as disjointed parts of a conversation funneled through his mind.  Eventually his vision cleared and he was able to distinguish Shey Cutter across the small cabin, engaged in what appeared to be a heated discussion with his uncle.

" . . . you're talking murder, Uncle and I ain't beholding to that.  My father would never have resorted--"  The words cut out as a buffeting wave of dizziness sent Joe tumbling back into oblivion.  He surfaced almost immediately, moaning as he struggled from the brink of unconsciousness.  The sound drew the attention of his captors.

"Be quiet.  He's waking up."  Amos Cutter's boots clumped across the dirt floor as he approached his prisoner.

Through the muddled haze in his mind, Joe heard the heavy footsteps.  A moment later a hand reached down and gripped his chin, turning his face roughly to the side.  The unexpected motion sent a bolt of pain slicing through his neck.  " . . . God . . ." he couldn't stop the choked cry that tumbled from his lips.  Cutter grunted and the merciless hand released him.  Joe lay panting, his breath whistling through his teeth, as the conflagration of agony gradually subsided.

"You don't look too good, boy." Amos Cutter's reptilian eyes glittered with satisfaction.

"Go to hell," Joe mumbled.

Cutter chuckled.  "Trussed up like a prize turkey and still no manners."  His fleshy lips thinned in a goatish smile.  "Guess we'll have to see what we can do to correct that."  With a glance aside at his nephew, Cutter nodded towards the door.  "Go see if there's any word from Anderson yet."

Nervously, Shey wet his lips.  His face was gray, the skin bleached of color.  "What are you gonna do with Cartwright?"

Cutter shrugged expansively.  "Not that it concerns you, but if you must know--I intend to instruct our young guest on the finer points of cooperation."

"Uncle--" Shey grew alarmed.  His eyes flitted to Joe then back to the stocky man at his side.  "You said he was just bait.  Anderson hit him too hard, Uncle Amos.  That head wound's gonna put him under if it doesn't get some attention.  You go hurting him any further and--"

"If you've got no stomach for this work, boy, I suggest you ride back to the ranch and leave it for those who do."

"Yeah, Shey," Joe interjected, "Or just close your eyes.  Either way, I'm sure your Pa would be proud."

"Shut up!"  Cutter booted him in the ribs.  Jostled by the movement, pain rippled from the base of Joe's skull, driving nails behind his eyes and tightening a constricting band around his throat.  He choked, floating disembodied in a sphere of blackness.  Total disorientation sent his head reeling as the torment washed over him, making him gasp for air.  He was distantly aware of retreating footsteps--the sound meshed with the deeper bass of coarse laughter.

The darkness cleared and Joe lay gasping, staring at the scarred wooden beams strung across the ceiling.

" . . . can't have you slipping away like that."  The words sliced through the mud in Joe's mind.  Shey was gone and Amos Cutter was squatting beside him, his snake-like eyes steady and direct.  Joe tried to focus, but the pain was unrelenting, ricocheting around the inside of his head like a stray bullet.

"What . . . do you want?"  He forced the words despite the unwieldy weight of his parched tongue.

Cutter's mouth thinned.  "You disappoint me, whelp.  What have I been haggling with your old man about for the last two months?"

Joe shifted, inching his shoulder up against the wall.  Cutter permitted him the luxury of sitting up, clearly amused when he winced with the effort.  "My father isn't gonna sell you that land," Joe said thickly.

"Oh, I think he will when he realizes your life is at stake.  I've got two more days to close this deal, then Mr. Kale of Thistlecreek Mine returns to San Francisco.  With a deadline like that I can be a mighty persuasive player, Mr. Cartwright.  Your father knows I mean business.  Let's hope he values your pretty face more than he does that parcel of land."  To orchestrate his point, Cutter reached out and stroked one thick finger down Joe's cheek.  Repulsed by the mocking caress, Joe recoiled.  Laughing softly, Cutter let his hand drop to his side.

"I'd wager you wouldn't pull away from your father like that.  In fact, I'd bet you'd do just about anything to keep your Pa healthy and well."

Joe's shoulders sagged against the wall.  It was growing difficult to concentrate and the darkness was returning again, hovering at the edge of his vision.  Blinking, he fought back a wave of dizziness.  "You hurt my Pa and I'll--"

"You'll what?"  Cutter challenged.  His hand cracked across Joe's cheek, brutally driving his head into the wall.  Joe groaned as the pain knifed into his temples and split across the back of his skull.  He could feel fresh blood on the back of his neck; felt himself sliding into darkness.  He passed out, the respite brief, before Cutter's rough grip dragged him back to consciousness.  Flesh-heavy fingers closed on Joe's neck and shook him roughly.  "Stay with me now, whelp."

Joe opened his eyes to find Cutter's frog-like face pressed within inches of his own.  He could smell the sour reek of cigar-scented breath; feel the touch of it, hot and acid against his skin.  Joe tried to pull away, but Cutter restrained him.  "You're a pig, Cutter," he spat.

The squat man drove his fist into Joe's stomach, doubling him over.  Cutter slammed him back against the wall and struck him again.  "Pig is it?  I'm gonna kill you and your old man anyway once he brings me that deed, so I might as well have some fun first."  This time the blow clipped Joe's chin, flooding his mouth with blood.  He crumbled to the side and Cutter stood, driving his foot into the tender area below Joe's ribs.  "You little fool, I eat runts like you for breakfast."

As Cutter moved to strike him yet again, Joe somehow managed to catch his foot and throw him off balance.  Arms saw-milling through the air, Cutter crashed to the floor.  Joe had only a moment to gain his feet and he did it quickly, choking back bile as a new wave of pain sent his stomach lurching to his throat.  Knees bent, he slumped against the wall, bracing himself with a shoulder.  Cutter struggled to his feet, huffing out air, his face mottled by strawberry blotches.  Foam-flecked lips drew back in an enraged snarl, exposing blocky teeth.  "I'm gonna kill you for that, boy."

Cutter launched himself across the room, driving his shoulder into Joe's ribs, bearing them both to the ground.  His hands restrained, there was nothing Joe could do but fold beneath him.  Grunting at the impact, Joe struggled to lodge his knee between himself and Cutter, but the darkness was threatening again, making his reactions sluggish and awkward.

" . . . kill you, boy . . ."  Spittle flew from Cutter's lips, his meaty fists brutally pummeling Joe's ribs.  " . . . then I'm gonna kill your Pa."

"No!"  The threat to Ben brought a sudden rush of adrenalin to Joe's bruised body.  Lifting his leg, he drove his knee sharply into Cutter's midsection, thrusting the other man over his head.  A rush of stale air flooded his lungs, and he lay gasping, plastered to the dirt floor by tremors of white-knuckled pain.  Rolling onto his side, he forced himself onto one elbow.  He could hear Cutter swearing violently as the older man clambered to his feet.  Joe blinked sweat from his eyes and tried to get his legs under him. He was still struggling when a hand gripped him and pulled him to his feet.  He was held steady as the room swayed around him.  Gradually, the face at his side settled into stable focus.

"Joe?"  Mitch Campbell ventured.

Wrenching his arm free, Joe staggered back against the wall.  The sudden movement buckled his knees, and he slid to the ground, unable to support his weight.  "Stay away from me," he snapped.  His eyes skewed to the side, where Shey Cutter attempted to reason with his uncle.  The door to the cabin yawned inward, revealing a square of almond-colored light just beyond the threshold.  Apparently the duo had heard the commotion and entered to investigate.

"Anderson's back," Joe heard Shey tell his uncle.  "Cartwright isn't going anywhere.  You'd better go talk to Wade.  He's down at the treeline with the boys from the ranch.  Take Mitch with you and I'll stay here with Cartwright."

Joe closed his eyes.  He didn't hear Cutter's reply, but he heard the guttural tone indicating displeasure.  "You must be feeling awfully proud right about now, Mitch," Joe spoke aloud, not bothering to open his eyes.  He could feel Campbell hovering at his side.  There was a shuffling of movement and Mitch squatted near him.

"You don't understand, Joe.  I owe him--I had to do what he asked.  At first I thought he just wanted to talk to you, but now I'm in too deep.  I owe him two thousand dollars--"

Joe opened his eyes.  His gaze was cutting and cold, his face a bleak mask.  "So that's the price of friendship these days," he observed quietly.

Mitch pressed his lips together.  "Easy for you to say, when you've had money all your life.  Cutter's gonna cut me in for a share of the profit on the deal he makes with Thistlecreek Mine.  He told me so, just 'afore you woke up."

Joe's smile was wan.  "You're a fool, Mitch.  He's using you, and when he can't gain anything else from you, you'll be expendable--a liability."

"You're a liar!"  Mitch spat.

"Campbell get away from him."  Amos Cutter moved to the door, his face set in a stone mask.  Motioning for the cowhand, he hovered on the threshold. "Anderson's back and I need you to relieve Brooks.  Hightail it out to the Ponderosa and make sure everything's on schedule.  You're in this up to your neck, and if you think your friend there isn't gonna want you to hang, you're wrong.  Now let's go."

His expression glum, Mitch Campbell moved out the door.  Cutter hesitated, then stepped back into the cabin and squatted beside Joe.  "I'm not gonna forget what you did," he said softly, his voice deadly.  Lacing his fingers into Joe's hair, he pulled his head to the side.  "If you think we're through, you're wrong.  You and I are just getting started, boy.  Once I'm done with Anderson, I'll be back, and you and I will continue your education.  When I'm through with you, your Pa won't even recognize you, you'll be so banged up."

Joe's lips thinned.  "Someday Cutter, when the odds are a little more even, maybe I'll get to educate you."

 "Doubt it."  Cutter pushed to his feet. "You'll be dead before the day's out."

Joe glanced away, listening to the retreating footsteps and the solid click of the door.  His eyes dipped shut of their own accord as sheer exhaustion washed over him.

"Cartwright."  A hand jostled his shoulder and Joe jerked abruptly awake.  The darkness had caught him unaware, funneling him back into that blissful bed of oblivion.  He blinked, uncertain how long he'd been out.  Shey Cutter was squatting beside him, his face inscrutable.  "You've gotta stay awake.  That gash on the back of your head is pretty deep.  You fall asleep with a wound like that, there's no telling when you'll wake up."

Joe sighed.  "You wanna kick me around some too, Shey?"

Shey grunted.  "Where's the challenge in that?  If memory serves, I've done it already, more times than once."  Slipping a knife from his boot sheath, Shey held it between them, the tip angled slightly towards Joe.  After a brief hesitation, he slipped it through the rope binding Joe's wrists.  "Come on."  Reaching forward, Shey snagged Joe's arm and pulled it around his shoulders, hauling the other to his feet.  Joe immediately tried to recoil.

"What are you doing?"

"Saving your scrawny hide."  Shey practically dragged him towards the door.  "Now shut up.  They're down by the treeline.  If we time this right, I can get you out of here."

Joe blinked, surprised. He was half leaning against Shey, too weak to stand on his own.  He could feel fresh blood saturating the collar of his shirt and jacket, and knew the reopened wound was partially responsible for his inability to focus.  "Why are you doing this?"  The words came out thick and unwieldy, heavy with molasses.  "Why are you helping me?"

Shey opened the door a crack and peered outside.  Joe could see the sweat lining his brow; the nervous glint of his whiskey-colored eyes.  "Because whatever else I am, I'm not a killer."  His gaze slid sideways, encompassing Joe.  "Because you were right about my father.  He didn't operate like this, and neither do I."

Before Joe could sputter a protest, Shey dragged him outside, tugging him around the rear of the cabin.  Joe stumbled along in his grip, his breath coming in short, harsh rasps.

"Wait here."  Shey eased him against the corner of the small shack, then glanced worriedly between the trees.  "I can only get one horse.  The rest are down with Anderson at the edge of the treeline."  He paused and bit his lip, seeming to consider.  "Uncle Amos is like to kill me for this, Cartwright, I hope you know that."

" . . . just let me go," Joe muttered.  It took everything he had to remain upright.  His knees wanted to buckle, and his surroundings were growing foggy again.  He pressed his hands back against the wall, trying to still the tremor in his fingers.

Shey cast a disdainful glance over his shoulder.  "You wouldn't make it five feet in your present  condition.  Just wait here, like I told you."  Shey darted between the trees, his lean form quickly swallowed by sun-dappled puddles of blue shade.  Joe closed his eyes.  He could feel the caress of sunlight and wind on his bruised face; hear the gentle hum of nearby honeybees--the hypnotic drone acting like a sedative on his pain-wracked body.  His knees buckled and he began to slide down the wall, wanting only to curl in the grass and fall asleep in the golden haze of warm, inviting light.  His head slumped forward on his chest and the drone in his ears became a loud rushing noise.  Sunlight whirled into shadow, and cool velvet blackness claimed it's place.

"Cartwright."  Joe groaned as the pain spiked in his head and a resulting wave of agony rippled through his battered body.  He twisted his face to the side as the hand on his shoulder rattled him yet again.  "Cartwright!  Come on, Joe, snap out of it."

Someone caught him below the arms and hauled him to his feet.  He stood swaying drunkenly, his stomach in his throat as he fought down nausea.  He was prodded forward until his hands collided with warm leather.  Joe blinked, trying to make sense of his distorted surroundings: a saddle . . . Shey's horse.  His foot was urged into the stirrup, and somehow with Shey's assistance, he managed to drag himself onto the sorrel's back.  Slumping forward he pressed his cheek to the horse's coarse mane.  Shey mounted behind him, and drew him back against his chest, collecting the reins.  Joe was vaguely aware of the steed moving forward; of the flickering lace of sunlight filtering through wind-rippled trees; the pinch of the raised buttons on Shey's leather vest digging into his back.  Time ceased to have meaning.

"Stay awake," Shey said sharply against his ear, and Joe blinked back the darkness once again.

After a time Shey drew to a halt and helped Joe from the saddle.  They had reached the bordering edge of Bow Creek, and Shey let his horse drink it's fill.  After settling Joe beneath a gnarled oak, Shey removed his bandana and soaked it at the water's edge.  Returning to Joe, he squatted at his side.

"Better let me have a look at that gash on your head," he said evenly.  Shey thought it an odd role, to be acting as protector to Joe Cartwright.  They'd spent their entire childhood as rivals, engaged more often in fisticuffs then conversation.  Shey tilted Joe's head to the side, pressing his lips together when the other made no protest.  He knew Joe too well.  Knew that he had to be hurting severly to permit the handling he normally would have shrugged away.    Joe's eyes were slitted, his breathing low and heavy.  A dark bruise marred the chiseled arc of one cheek.  His bottom lip was torn, and a cut above his eye oozed a vermillion trail down his jaw line--the snake-thin ribbon glistening wetly in leaf-diffused sunlight.  Gently, Shey pressed the wet rag to the back of Joe's neck.

"ohgod!"  Joe jerked upright, crying aloud as the pain sliced through him.  One hand clamped down on Shey's arm trying to push him away.  The touch of cold on the wound brought a whole new crippling sensation of agony to his battered body.  " . . . don't!" he gasped.

Shey placed a hand in the center of his chest and pressed him back against the ground.  "You gotta keep still, Joe.  You gotta--"

"What are you doing to my brother?"

Shey whirled around, taken aback to be caught so completely unaware.  He swallowed nervously as Adam Cartwright emerged from the trees, trailing his horse by the reins.  His eyes dipped lower still and he saw the revolver clutched in Adam's hand.  "All right, Cutter.  You've got about four seconds to get away from him, before I pull the trigger."

"Adam, no!"  Joe pushed Shey aside and tried to rise.  "He saved my life.  He--" But the blackness rushed up to greet him, softly mocking as it pulled him down into the pillowy debts of oblivion.

Joe crumbled against Shey.


He couldn't think anymore, couldn't reason.    His only reality was pain--a kind of surreal prison that kept him shackled in a limbo between coherency and unconsciousness.  Joe felt a touch on his face--the caress warm and soothing, coaxing him back from the gray paste of that other world. He opened his eyes and sunlight knifed beneath his lashes.  His throat was dry, parched like chalk and lizard skin.  A few drops of cooling water passed between his cracked lips and he swallowed greedily.  More of the blessed liquid followed.  He drank his fill, then lay back against the softness cradling his head.  He felt the touch on his cheek again, and looked up into his brother's face.

"Adam?"  The name tasted strange on his tongue, tangled somewhere between love and remorse.  Joe realized he was lying on his back, his own jacket pillowed under his head.  The surroundings appeared different, the trees taller and thinner, less frequent among the clumps of shrub and shale.  Joe wet his lips.  "I--wh-what happened to Shey?"

"He's gone for help.  I got you further away from the line shack, but you're in no condition to travel.  It's been hours, Joe.  I was afraid you'd never wake up."  Adam set his canteen aside and moved nearer, crossing his legs, Indian-style.  "Shey told me what his uncle's up to--he's trying to make Pa sign over the deed to that parcel of land, then he was going to stage an accident, killing you both.  That's why he picked one of our line shacks to hold you captive."

Joe tried to concentrate, but everything was just a swirl of words.  Only one thought penetrated.  "Pa.  He doesn't know what he's riding into.  Adam--"

"Shey, will head him off."  Adam pressed a hand to his brother's shoulder when he saw Joe start to rise.  "And I sent Kevin to the Ponderosa, Joe.  He was hiding when Cutter and Anderson took you captive.  Between Shey and Kevin, Pa will know exactly what he's riding into."

Joe closed his eyes.  The assurance brought a sense of relief that left him weak and trembling.  He began to shiver despite the warm haze of sunlight soaking the ground.  Frowning, Adam stood and walked to his horse, where he retrieved his soft leather coat.  Returning to kneel beside Joe, he draped it over his brother's slender form.  Immediately Joe snagged the material and dragged it close, his eyelashes fluttering as he fought off sleep.  "I'm tired," he mumbled.  His eyes were
round pieces of black glass, the pupils dilated and ringed by a thin sliver of green.

"You stay with me, Joe, you hear?"  Concerned, Adam gripped his shoulder.  He knew better than to let his brother drift off again with a head wound as severe as Joe's appeared to be.  "You can't fall asleep, you understand me?"

Joe swallowed with difficulty.  He thought he might be sick, as the nausea returned to pummel his midsection.  It happened so suddenly, he gasped--flushed from head to toe in a sweat-sticky wave of stomach-churning agony.  Weakly he rolled onto his side, a soft whimper slipping from his lips.  His fingers knotted in Adam's sleeve and he bowed his head against his brother's arm.  His breath came hard and fast as the movement awakened the slumbering pain in his head.  For a moment the agony was so intense he couldn't see.  He felt Adam's hand on his shoulder--his brother's long fingers firm and comforting, as Adam held him through the white-hot spasms that rocked his body.

"Easy, buddy."  Adam bent his lips close to Joe's ear, his voice like an anchor in a turbulent sea.  His knuckles grazed over Joe's cheek in a soothing caress.  "Easy now . . . take slow breaths.  You're going to hyper-ventilate.  I got you, Little Joe.  You trust me . . ."

Joe felt his brother's arms encircle his quaking shoulders; felt himself pulled back against Adam's chest.  He fought to get his breathing under control; tried to concentrate on the feel of his brother's heartbeat against his battered cheek.  He could feel tears in his eyes; blinked and sent the hot cascade of liquid rippling across his torn skin.  The breath hitched between his teeth--faster with each sharp intake of air.  He thought his head must surely explode beneath the torturous onslaught that held him captive.

Adam pulled him closer still, wrapping his arms around him.  "Joe, please.  You've got to stop breathing so fast.  Come on, buddy, concentrate."

Joe barely heard the words, but the protective circle of his brother's arms comforted him.  Though the pain remained a constant factor, he gradually got his breathing under control.  Adam touched his face, gently brushing away tears.  Beneath his fingers, Joe's skin was cool, with a texture like wax.  "You stay awake now," Adam admonished.  "You talk to me, buddy, okay?"

Joe shivered, thankful for the blissful warmth of Adam's embrace and the extra comfort of his coat.  Long shadows slanted across the ground as the sun moved higher between the trees. With the shadows came a cooler breeze--it's touch like spider's silk against Joe's tear-damp face.

"Talk to me," Adam said again.

Joe struggled to find his tongue.  "You don't want me . . . to marry Lorna."  He didn't know why he said the words.  He could have talked about anything:  Hoss's birthday next month; the claybank Hollis Noonan had brought back from Ridgeville; how badly it had hurt to have been betrayed by Mitch Campbell.  But he had to pick Lorna.  Like the love-sick fool he was, he had to go right for the gut, twisting the knife, even while Adam comforted him.

Joe felt his brother stiffen, the muscles along his arms bunching into tightly corded knots.

"I'd rather not discuss her," Adam said guardedly.  The last conversations they'd had, had been hostile, governed by emotion rather than reason.  Adam was still too twisted up inside, to really understand what he felt.  He surely didn't want to examine those feelings now, with his brother lying all but helpless in his arms.

Joe was stubborn.  "I think you still love her."

Adam felt himself growing restless.  He wanted to argue with Joe, but there was just no way he could do it now.  He shifted slightly and his movement awakened a ripple of pain at the base of Joe's neck.  The younger man flinched, sucking in his breath.


"I'm all right."  Weakly, Joe laid his head against his brother's chest.  Exhaustion crept in, and he felt himself floating, thoughts of Lorna forgotten in the muddled tangle of his pain-numbed mind.  His eyelids fluttered shut.  "I can't stay awake, Adam.  I just can't."

"You've got to."  Alarmed now, Adam gripped Joe's chin and drew his head up.  His brother grunted, but otherwise failed to respond.  "Joe!"  Adam spoke sharply, but the acknowledgment was minimal.  Options quickly deserting him, Adam rose to his feet and pulled Joe up beside him.  He slung Joe's arm across his shoulders, and slipped his own arm around his brother's slim waist.

 Joe moaned as the pain brought him back to consciousness.  His knees started to buckle, but Adam caught him, supporting his weight.

 "Okay, Joe, you've got to walk now."

" . . . no . . ."

Ignoring the weak refusal, Adam tugged him forward.

Joe gasped, buffeted by the pain.  "Please don't," he begged.

"Come on, Joe."  Adam hung on to him.  "Buddy, I can't let you fall asleep.  Just take a few steps over to that fallen tree, then we'll sit down again.  I promise."

Joe tried to follow Adam's direction.  A few paces away was the remains of a wind-blasted pine. The tree lay on its side, split one-quarter up from the base.  Jagged pieces of wood protruded where the break had taken place, leaving the trunk with the appearance of a broken crown.  Joe blinked as the image see-sawed.  "Adam, it hurts.  I-I'm all messed up inside."

"I know."  Adam drew a breath, feeling much like a sadist. Through the intervening sleeve of Joe's workshirt, Adam could feel the unnatural chill of his brother's flesh.  He fretted over the pallor of his brother's skin--the cast almost gray; somewhat bluish near the lips.  He could feel Joe's breathing growing shallow and rapid again.

Adam groaned. He's going into shock.  I never should have moved him.

Adam had Joe lay down by the fallen tree, then gently elevated his legs, placing them on the moss-covered wood.  "Easy now, buddy . . ."  Kneeling beside him, Adam loosened Joe's collar, unbuttoning his shirt to midbreast.  Retrieving both his own coat and Joe's jacket, he slipped the jacket beneath Joe's head, then draped the heavier coat over him.

"C-Can't stay here," Joe mumbled, barely coherent now.  He was shivering uncontrollably, the violent tremors setting his teeth chattering together. "C-Cutter w-will find us . . ."

"No," Adam soothed.  He stroked his hand over Joe's cheek.  "You're safe, buddy.  I won't let him hurt you.  You try to stay awake.  Listen to my voice."

Joe's fingers coiled around Adam's wrist.  A soft sound escaped his lips--a tangle between a whimper and a sigh.  "I-It's dark, Adam. Pl-please don't go."

"I'm not going anywhere, Joe."  Adam's voice cracked as he struggled to master his emotions.  Joe's hand was so cold in his; his voice so thready and faraway, that Adam feared him slipping beyond help.  Gently he threaded his fingers into his brother's curly hair.  "Just a little longer, Joe.  Please try to stay awake.  Help will be here soon."

A sliver of a smile touched Joe's lips.  "You know me, b-brother . . . always impatient.  C-Can't wait around . . ."

Adam choked on the bitter snarl of laughter in his throat.  He watched his brother's eyes drift shut. Joe's head rolled to the side as the breath wheezed between his cracked lips.

"Joe!"  Gently, Adam shook his shoulder.  His brother's body rolled like liquid beneath his hand.  "Joseph!"  The name was strident this time, clipped with urgency.  Adam's hand gave a second harder shake to the limp form.  Still no response.  "God, Joe!"  Panicked, Adam gripped his brother's throat, frantically feeling for a pulse.  The flutter was weak and stringy beneath his questing fingertips, but it was enough to make him exhale a pent-up sigh.

Adam sat back on his haunches and wiped a hand across his sweaty brow.  The sound of hoofbeats drummed over the horizon, drawing his eyes to the nearest ridge.  Adam tensed, ready to draw his gun, when he saw the blessedly familiar sight of his father's blazing white hair.  Ben Cartwright and Shey Cutter rode on either side of a wagon driven by Hoss.

Adam felt himself go limp.  Seated next to his younger brother, was Doc Martin, black medical bag in hand.


Adam paced, his bootheels clicking softly against the floorboards as he struggled to calm his frazzled nerves.  A glance at his father revealed Ben sitting at his youngest son's bedside, head bowed, white hair spilling forward as he clutched Joe's limp hand in his own.  The day had lengthened into evening; evening into the heavier cloak of night, and still Joe had not awakened.   Doc Martin had tended to his bruises, including one cracked rib, then cleaned and stitched the gash on the back of his head.  As feared, Joe had slipped into the initial stages of shock, and Doc Martin pronounced his concussion severe.   The three Cartwrights took turns sitting with him as the dark sky grew lighter to the east, bleeding charcoal threads into the ebony canvas.  Dawn approached silently--a herald of hours that accumulated like barbs in Adam's heart.

He hesitated by the bed, draping one arm over the headboard as he glanced down on his youngest brother.  Joe's face was pale and drawn, the only color to his skin, the dark bruise staining his cheekbone. A heavy white bandage encircled his head, soft unruly curls peaking out from beneath the pristine wrapping.  Adam wet his lips.  His eyes traveled reluctantly to his father.

"Pa, why don't you try to get some sleep.  You haven't left his side since we brought him home.  I'll stay with him for a while."

Ben shook his head, not bothering to glance up.  "No.  I want to be here when he wakes up."

Adam frowned.  His fingers tightened on the polished wood beneath his hand.  "Pa, you heard what Doc Martin said.  It--it might be awhile before Joe regains consciousness.  Pa--we have to face facts.  It could be days." It's my fault.  I never should have let him fall asleep.  The thought pinged on the tail of Adam's words.  Quickly he dismissed the accusation, silencing it before the guilt consumed him.

Ben seemed not to have heard him.  A muffled grunt was his only acknowledgment.  Adam watched as his father bowed his head to the bed, drawing Joe's hand against his brow.  "I just got him back Adam.  First Rudy and McCay, and now this.  It's Cutter's doing--"

"The posse's after him," Adam said quickly, disturbed by the underlying tone in his father's voice.  He knew what almost losing Joe to Rudy and McCay had cost Ben.  He didn't want to see his father suffer anymore, fretting over his youngest child's welfare.  Joe would recover.  He had to. "Roy's already caught Anderson and the other men Shey named.  That only leaves Cutter and Campbell."

With a heavy sigh, Ben sat back in his chair.  "One a demon, the other supposedly a friend."  His eyes traveled to Joe.  Gently he touched his son's cheek.  "Hoss should be back soon with Lorna."

Adam's mouth tightened and he glanced quickly away, lest his father see the stab of uncertainty in his eyes.  Nodding, mutely, he began to pace again.


The next three days passed in much the same way with the Cartwrights and Lorna taking turns sitting by Joe's bedside.  Occasional trickles of water were offered to Joe, and although he swallowed when impelled to do so, he never regained consciousness.  Eventually even Ben was compelled to relinquish his seat.  Like the others, he forced bits of a tasteless meal past the ever-present lump in his throat, and dropped dreamless, into exhausted sleep.  On the fourth day, Adam entered Joe's room to find Lorna occupying the chair by the bed.

"How is he?"  the dark-haired man asked.

Lorna glanced up, her expression pained.  Gently, she brushed the back of her knuckles down her lover's cheek.  "The same."  Sighing, she let her hand rest on his shoulder.  "Looking at him now, I'm reminded how terribly young he is."

Adam hovered near the window.  Propping a shoulder against the wall, his eyes drifted back to Lorna.  "Age and maturity are two different things."

"Yes, I know that."  Quietly Lorna stood and crossed to his side.  "Adam, when you first introduced me to Joe, I thought he was extremely reckless and cavalier--a fun-loving, high-spirited boy.  How could he have changed so drastically in so short a time?"

Adam shrugged, uncertain what she was driving at.  "Maybe you only saw one side of him.  Maybe he hasn't changed at all."

"Or maybe it's me that's changed."  Lorna laid her hand on Adam's arm.  He was surprised to see tears in her eyes.  "I thought I wanted marriage--a home with Joe.  Dear God, Adam, I love him--more than life itself--but he has so much living to do." And I won't come between the two of you .  Though she did not say the last, it was the driving force behind her feelings.  She had thought about it often these last few days.  She had seen how Adam responded to Joe when he thought she wasn't present, and how his mannerisms changed when she was.  He was no less concerned for his brother, but his emotions became guarded.  It was a pattern she knew would continue should she marry Joe.  Adam would grow more and more aloof, distancing himself from the younger brother he loved.  She had never meant for Joe to choose.

She would do it for him.

Blinded by tears, Lorna fled the room.


"Pa?"  Joe opened his eyes to a sense of overwhelming darkness.  Confused and disoriented, he lurched up in bed.  "Pa?"

"Joe, I'm here."  Ben Cartwright caught his son's trembling arm in his strong, capable hand.  At his touch, Joe instantly relaxed, falling back against the pillows.  It was the fourth day since Joe's return to the Ponderosa; the hour well past midnight.  Reaching for the bedside lantern, Ben turned up the wick.  With a soft smile, he brushed the hair from Joe's forehead.  The bandage had been removed, and his son's luxurious curls glinted with threads of gold in the warm glow of lamplight.  "You had us worried, Joseph."

"I--" Joe tried to find his tongue.  "H-how'd I get here?  I can't remember.  Adam--"

"Shey got to Hoss and then the two of them caught me on the way out of town.  We got Doc Martin, and found you and Adam out by Canyon Road.  Anderson's been caught, and Roy has a posse out looking for Cutter and Mitch Campbell."

Joe's face darkened.  He turned his head on the pillow, his eyes clouding at the mention of Mitch. "I thought he was my friend, Pa.  I bailed him out of so many scrapes . . . I never told you.  Guess he was using me . . . my money."

Ben stroked his son's brow, trying to ease away the crinkled lines of worry.  "Sometimes friends betray us, Joe.  Other times we find them where we least expect."

"Like Shey Cutter?"  Lifting a hand, Joe raked trembling fingers through his hair.  "He saved my life, Pa.  All these years we've been fighting one another--beating each other up, and he saves my life."

"Guess he must have saw someone worth saving," Ben said softly.

Joe closed his eyes, suddenly tired.  Ben was almost frightened to let him rest, fearful that he wouldn't awaken again.  Touching his son's cheek, he forced himself to let go of the fear.  "Go to sleep, Little Joe.  I'll stay here with you."  His hand fell to the bed and Ben felt his son's fingers curl around his wrist.

The touch--warm and sweat-slick--was heaven.


It was another three days before Joe was allowed to venture from his bed.  Chaffing at the restraints forced on him by concerned loved ones, he grew increasing surly until even Hoss lost patience with him.  "Ah, Pa, let him fall on his face and see if that don't knock some sense into that thick-skinned head of his."

Though Ben would not have termed Joe's discharge from bedcare in quite the same manner, he had to agree it was time for his high-spirited son to regain some freedom.  Joe dressed and joined the family for dinner.  Afterwards he played checkers with Kevin, then took Lorna for a stroll in the moonlight.

"God, I've missed you," Joe whispered, drawing her near. They had moved beyond the perimeter of the porch, and stood in the velvety shadows of the tall pines.  Tucking a finger beneath Lorna's chin, Joe titled her head up and pressed his lips against hers.  Almost immediately she stiffened, turning her head slightly to the side.  Perplexed, Joe drew back.  "Lorna, what's wrong?"

His eyes were liquid gems, fringed by the licorice-black line of his lashes.  Looking into those impossibly gorgeous eyes, Lorna felt her resolve melting.  It would be so easy for him to convince her to remain.

"I didn't want to tell you. Not now."  Her eyes dropped, unable to meet his probing gaze.

"Tell me what?"

"Joe--I-I've decided to take Kevin back east.  I have an aunt in Baltimore--Clarice."

"What?"  Joe drew back as though he'd been slapped.  "What are you talking about?  I thought we agreed to be married.  I thought--"

"That was before this thing with Cutter."  Lorna turned away, unable to meet his eyes as she spun the lie.  "I love you, Joseph, but I won't put Kevin through losing another father.  You almost died when Frank McCay shot you--now again at the hands of Amos Cutter."  She twined her hands together, hating herself as the lie continued to build.  "This land is just too unsettled.  I've only now gotten my son back, Joe.  We're still learning to grow together.  He can't do it here under the name of Lancaster."  While almost all of that was true, Lorna knew her love for Joe could surmount all those obstacles.  What couldn't be surmounted was the rift she'd caused between this man and his brother.

Incensed, Joe caught her arm and swung her sharply about.  His eyes were blazing, his chest heaving.  "What about the name of Cartwright?"

Lorna shook her head.  "It won't work, Joe.  It just won't work."

"Then I'll come with you," he said quickly.

Lorna blinked. She hadn't expected that.  "No. You belong here, Joe."  That was no lie.  "On the Ponderosa--where the land's as wild and free as you are.  You're heart's here."

"I'm not going to lose you," he said fiercely.  She could see the determination in his eyes; hear the conviction in his voice.  Inwardly she struggled to maintain her resolve.

"I'll always love you, Joseph."  Lorna brushed her lips against his, eager to feel the delicious warmth of his kiss one final time.  When he moved to draw her nearer, she turned away, unshed tears shimmering like moonlight in her eyes.  "Kevin and I will be gone in the morning."

"Lorna, no!"  Joe tried to catch her arm, unable to believe what he was hearing.

"I'm sorry," she cried.  And then she was gone--fleeing into the house, tears streaming unheeded down her face.  Joe took two steps after her, his throat tight with emotion.  He heard the front door open, and for a moment there was a glorious blaze of yellow light.  Then the barrier swung shut once again and the darkness blossomed, sealing him in a tomb of despair.


Joe tried to see Lorna the following day, and again the day after that.  Eventually his persistence paid off, and she conceded to speak with him.  By then her plans had been finalized and most of her belongings packed.  Joe's attempts at reasoning got him nowhere.

"I have to do this," Lorna insisted.  " For Kevin." For you.

Joe drew her close.  He kissed her long and passionately, every ounce of his love poured into the pledge he placed on her lips.  Lorna trembled in his embrace.  Gently he stroked her back, his lips pressed close to her ear.  "When things change . . . when you feel differently . . . I'll still be here," he told her huskily.  "I love you, Lorna.  Distance won't change that."

He pulled away, steeling his heart against the separation that would surely bring him nothing but misery in the days and weeks to come.  Once outside, he hesitated, collecting his breath.  Moving to Cochise's side, he braced his arms on the mare's saddle.  The stroke of afternoon sunlight was warm on his neck, a touch barely felt through the love-sick shell of his depression.

"Joe?"  The voice was hesitant, reed-thin.  Startled, Joe turned to find Kevin standing at his elbow.  The boy's face was upturned, his expression morose.  Tears glittered in Kevin's eyes.  "I know I ain't supposed to feel this way, Joe, but I-I don't wanna go.  Why's she's making us?  Why--" His voice cracked.  Dropping to his knees, Joe gathered Kevin close to his chest.  The boy wrapped his arms around his neck, clinging to him.  "It's my fault.  I shouldn't have been so quiet.  I should have told her that I liked it here.  That I wanted us to be a family--with you."

"It's all right, Kevin."  Joe smoothed his hand through the boy's black hair.  "Your Ma needs to do this.  It'll be better for the two of you.  Least ways for a while, till things get settled."  Joe drew back, smoothing his thumb down Kevin's cheek, striking away the tears that seeped from his eyes.  "You gotta take care of her, Kevin.  I'm counting on you to do that for me."

Kevin sniffled.  Reluctantly, he nodded.

Joe's lips turned with a flicker of a smile.

"Will we ever see you again?"  Kevin asked.

Joe wet his lips.  "If I can help it." Hugging Kevin to his chest, he stared over the boy's head.  His mind was filled with the image of a slender woman with raven-black hair and seawater eyes.  "If I can help it," Joe whispered, the words a pledge he locked away inside his heart.


Like the rest of his family, Adam avoided Joe, leaving his brother to his misery. Uncommunicative at best, Joe retreated into a shell, making it clear he preferred to nurse his bruised feelings in private.  For the most part his family respected those wishes, leaving him to unravel his emotions on his own.

Three days after Lorna's departure, Adam found him in the barn, carefully grooming Cochise. The mare had been found the day after Joe's rescue, when she'd wandered into the yard, her reins hanging limp and trailing in the dust at her feet.  Adam watched for a moment as his brother smoothed a brush over Cochise's glossy coat.  He knew the pride Joe had in his beloved horse--thought it ironic that while he avoided his family, he sought the mare's company.

"Morning, Joe."  Adam stepped through the doors and into the sun-dusted interior of the barn.  He hefted a coil of rope from his shoulder onto a sawhorse, then swept the back of one arm across his brow, mopping up sweat.  "Hot already, huh?"

Joe grunted in reply, never lifting his head.  The brush glided smoothly over the mare's marbled coat, emitting a soft swish with each downward stroke.  Adam walked in front of his brother, folding his arms across his chest, as he leaned back against Cochise's stall.  He waited a moment, sure his silence would force Joe to speak, but his brother remained implacable, changing neither stance nor demeanor.

Adam bit his lip.  "I'm sorry she left," he said at last.

Swish.  The brush looped downward.  Joe ducked his head as he followed the stroke, his jaw set in a rigid line.  "Doesn't matter," he answered briefly.

"I think it does.  I think you're hurting pretty badly."

Joe stopped what he was doing.  His eyes flicked to his brother's face, his gaze sharp with challenge.  "Any worse than you would have been, if I'd married her?"

Adam considered.  On one hand it would have been easy to lie.  On the other, he wasn't so certain it would be a lie.  He'd never truly resolved what he'd felt . . . wondered now if that frustrating knot of emotions wasn't due in part to the fact that his younger brother had taken the woman he'd once loved--had held her in his arms . . . made love to her.  How much of that twisted web was ego and how much was true feeling?  One thing was for certain--Adam held no doubt Joe had
loved her.

He bowed his head, suddenly ashamed.  "I'm sorry, Joe.  I acted like a fool.  If it helps at all, I know Lorna loves you."

Joe turned away.  He dragged his thumb through the stiff bristles of the brush.  "Adam, I--" The words wouldn't come.  They twisted in his throat, choked with thorns of emotion.  Tilting his head back, he gazed at the ceiling, watching the shadows swirl high overhead.  "I thought I'd been in love before.  I thought I knew what it meant.  But not like this."  Turning, Joe regarded his brother, his eyes steady and sincere.  "If . . . if this is what you felt for her, then I'm sorry.  I wouldn't wish this pain on anyone."

Adam pressed his lips together. He had his answer now--he'd never loved Lorna like that.  He thought it odd that his brother, so young and carefree, could be so captive to love.  Lorna was right--Joe had far too much living yet to do.  Stepping to his brother's side, Adam slipped his hand onto his shoulder.  "You've nothing to apologize for, Joe.  I know it doesn't help, but the hurt will heal in time."  He tugged gently, prodding his brother towards the door.  "Come inside, huh?  It's not too late for breakfast."

Joe managed a weak smile.  "In a minute.  I just want--" He drew a breath.  "I just need some time, okay?"

Adam nodded.  "Sure, buddy."

"Hey--" Joe touched his arm as he started to move away.  "I never thanked you . . .I mean for out there . . . after Cutter.  You saved my life."

Adam nodded.  When Joe had been sick and in pain, it had been natural to hold and comfort him. Now all Adam felt was awkwardness.  Old barriers were slowly returning--the distance that comprised so much of their unique relationship.  Try as he may, Adam couldn't halt the progression of that distance.  Briefly he recalled how it had felt to cradle his brother against his chest . . . how dependent Joe had been at that moment; how detached he was now.

"You would have done the same," he said simply.


Ten days after Joe was rescued by Adam, Amos Cutter resurfaced.  Both he and Mitch Campbell had been able to hold the posse at bay, and after a week of failure, those in pursuit finally gave up, figuring the duo had headed for the border.  The Circle C fell into the hands of Shey Cutter, who at twenty-two years of age, suddenly found himself responsible for one of the largest ranches in the territory.  Joe visited long enough to thank Shey for aiding him, but the meeting was awkward and he left quickly, leaving much unsettled between them.

Returning to the Ponderosa, he settled Cochise in the barn.  Both Sport and Chubb were missing from their stalls, and Joe recalled belatedly that his brothers were overseeing branding in the south pasture. After unsaddling the mare, Joe made certain she had plenty of fresh feed and water.  With a final pat to his beloved horse, he stepped outside.  He'd taken only two steps when he heard a brisk shuffling behind him.  Almost immediately something prodded him in the back.  Joe grunted,
only too familiar with the distinctive feel of a gun barrel wedged against his skin.

"We're gonna go in the house now, boy." Amos Cutter's cigar-scented breath burned hotly against Joe cheek, resurrecting vivid images of the line shack and the abuse Joe had suffered.  Cutter confiscated his gun and tossed it aside.  Raising his hands to signal compliance, Joe took a step forward.  He felt the barrel ease, and in that instant he whirled, catching the stocky man's arm in a brutalizing grip.  He heard Cutter gasp as the gun slipped from fat-girdled fingers.  Joe kicked the weapon aside and slammed his fist into Cutter's face.  The other man's head snapped back, bobbing on his thick neck like the float on a fishing line.  Flecks of blood dribbled beneath his nose.  Before he could recover, Joe followed the blow with a power-punch to the midsection.  Cutter oofed as the air was sucked from his lungs.  He folded in half, his expression--were the circumstance different--might have been dubbed comical for its obvious disbelief.  Pressing the advantage, Joe threw another punch, sending the big man backwards to the ground.  He started to move forward when the tell-tale click of a gun drew him up short.

"Hold it right there, Cartwright."

Joe half-turned.  Mitch Campbell stood behind him, a silver-plated pistol clutched in his hand. Joe's eyes shifted from the weapon to his former friend.  Campbell's expression was watchful, marked by an underlying edge of hostility.  "Thought maybe you'd surface with Cutter," Joe remarked coldly.

Behind him, Amos Cutter struggled to his feet, grunting with the effort.  A flesh-heavy hand clamped on Joe's shoulder and spun him around.  Cutter cracked him across the face--the force of the blow driving Joe's head to the side and breaking open skin across his cheekbone.  Blood flowed down his face.  "I need you alive for the moment, or I'd kill you boy."  Gripping his arm, Cutter propelled him towards the house.  "Now walk.  We're gonna go see your Pa."

Joe dragged his feet, biding time, trying to think of a way clear.  He knew Ben was in the house alone.  Hop-Sing had gone to town to visit friends within the Chinese community.  The cook had left early that morning and didn't plan to return until later in the evening.  Ben would be working through the books--calculating end-of-month expenditures versus anticipated profits for the coming quarter.  The thoughts swirled through Joe's head like a broken kaleidoscope of abstract images.  He could feel Campbell hovering at his back, gun drawn; Cutter close at his side, sausage-thick fingers clutching his arm.  Joe's boots struck echos from the plank boards of the porch and before he knew it, they had reached the front door.  Cutter pushed it open and shoved him inside.

"Joe, is that you?"  Ben's voice came from the direction of his study.  The door slammed.

"Pa, it's Cutter. It's a tr--" The final words never made it past his lips.  Cutter clubbed him across the head and his world erupted in chaos and pain.  Joe crumbled to the floor with a loud groan.  His shoulder struck the wooden boards.  He rolled limply onto his back, staring up at the ceiling as it reeled drunkenly overhead. Distantly he heard the crisp strike of bootheels against the floor. . . . heard his father's angry voice denouncing Cutter; felt Ben suddenly appear and hover at his side.

"Joseph."  Ben touched his face.  Strong, supportive arms gripped him and aided him up.  Joe made it only so far before a paroxysm of pain sent him slumping back against his father's chest.  The wound on his head had reopened and was streaming blood over his collar.  He could feel the sticky flow as it tracked down the side of his neck.

"Aw.  Now ain't that sweet."  Cutter stood looking down at father and son, a malignant grin curling oyster-pale lips.

Ben ignored him.  Helping his son to stand, he aided him to the couch.

Joe collapsed weakly, leaning heavily on the armrest.  " . . . couldn't stop them," he mumbled to his father.  " . . . caught me at the barn."

"It's all right, Joseph."  Ben straightened.  He turned a withering gaze on his nemesis.  "What do you want Cutter?"

The other feigned surprise.  He pulled a cigar from his jacket pocket, then casually struck a match against the wall.  The flame caught with a loud hiss and the sharp tang of sulfur.  Idly he puffed on the rolled tobacco, coaxing a cherry glow from the smoldering tip.  The match was finger-snapped to the floor.  "Don't get too many of these anymore.  A man on the run can't afford luxuries."  A gray plume of smoke coiled into the air, climbing lazily to the ceiling.  Cutter contemplated the vapor, his yellow eyes distinctly reptilian.  "Campbell can tell you about that, huh boy?  He's well acquainted with poverty."

Ben's stance remained rigid, his eyes baleful.  "You didn't come here for sympathy you won't find."

"No, you're right about that."  Cutter tapped ashes off the cigar.  "You've made a mess of things for me.  The way I see it, you owe me. I couldn't do anything with that land now, even if I wanted to, since you've branded me a criminal.  Hell, I couldn't even go back to running the Circle C.  That means I need money.  Enough to make me go away and forget all about you and your pretty-boy son."

"Is that what this is?"  There was contempt in Ben's voice now and he made no effort to mask it.  "A robbery?"

Cutter sobered.  "Partly."  His eyes dropped to Joe.  The younger Cartwright was slumped in the corner of the couch, one arm draped over the backrest, the other over the side.  His eyes were half-lidded, his breathing low and rasp.  A sweat-beaded tangle of hair hung over his brow, and blood soiled his collar, turning the soft linen rusty and dark.  "Move away from your son, Ben."

Ben jerked, the disdain he'd felt a moment ago squelched beneath sudden apprehension.  His eyes shot from Cutter to Campbell, lastly to Joe.  When he failed to respond, Cutter's voice cracked like a whip.  "Unless you want Mitch to shoot him, I suggest you move quickly."

The protest snagged in Ben's throat as Mitch Campbell stepped forward, the barrel of the revolver acting as a perilous obstruction between them.  Ben glanced at the stony set of Campbell's face and decided it was unwise to test his loyalty.  Reluctantly, he moved to the edge of the sofa, his eyes like a magnet returning to Joe's ashen face.  Hastily, he wet his lips.  "I'll get you the money," he told Cutter, hoping to divert the big man's attention.  But the other had moved forward, a savoring gleam in his corn-colored eyes.  His fingers slipped through the soft curls of Joe's blood-damp hair.  Roughly he yanked the younger man's head back, exposing the vulnerable arc of his neck.  From inside his vest, Cutter withdrew a slim knife.

"No!"  The word left Ben's mouth at almost the same instant it left Mitch Campbell's.

Joe heard the double protest crack through the air like shot from a cannon.  Dazed, he glanced up, spying the cold tip of the knife hovering inches shy of his exposed throat.  He could feel Cutter's hand in his hair--tried to pull away, even as he raised his arms to ward off the descending blade. It scraped over his forearm, laying open skin, slicing a blistering path from wrist to elbow.  Joe balked at the pain, rolling away as blood streamed freely down his arm.  From the corner of his eye he saw Ben lurch forward and heard the sharp report of a gun being discharged.   Cutter's fingers ripped from his hair.  The big man grunted and slumped forward.  The couch lurched with his weight as he fell against it, pushing Joe to the floor. A second later, Cutter crumbled as well.

"Joseph!"  Ben rushed to Joe's side, his only concern, that for his son.  Gathering him into his arms, he pulled him back, easing him into the leather chair by the hearth.  Distracted, Joe's eyes shifted past his father--past the unmoving form of Amos Cutter, who lay sprawled on his back, staring lifelessly at the ceiling.  Bewildered by the sudden turn of events, Joe's eyes settled on Mitch Campbell, who stood white-faced and trembling by the door.

"He-he was gonna kill you."  Mitch looked at the gun in his hand as though seeing it for the first time.  His eyes were dark, almost black, the shock of having killed Cutter draining his face of all other color.  "H-he said t-to play along.  Make believe I was gonna s-shoot you, so y-you'd give us money.  Th-that was all.  I-I'd never let him kill you, Joe.  God, I never thought . . . he lied to me . . ." The words trailed off as he pressed his fists against his temples.  The gun slipped from his quivering fingers, tripping end-over-end before striking the floor with a dull thud.  Campbell leaned back against the sideboard and slid to the floor.  Drawing his knees to his chest, he buried his face in his arms.

Joe turned away.

Ben looked from the young man by the door to his son.  Joe's face was upturned, his gaze unusually clear despite his injuries.  The knife wound bled profusely.  His sleeve was saturated with blood, the torn fabric clinging tenaciously to his lacerated arm.  Blood puddled onto his thigh, soaking into his pants and staining the material a dark garnet hue. "Take care of him, Pa,"  Joe said weakly.

Ben heard the tremor in his son's voice.  His fingers clamped over Joe's arm, trying to stop the bleeding.  Lifting his free hand, he stroked comforting fingers across his son's cheek.  "After I take care of  you, Little Joe."  He watched his son's eyelids flutter shut, soft lashes dipping against pallid skin, the startling contrast like jet on marble.  Ben knew his son's surrender signaled a sense of security.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Ben bowed his head, and sent a silent prayer to heaven.


Joe stood with his arms folded over the top rail of the corral fence.  He was in the northwest quadrant of the ranch, observing the four horses Hollis Noonan had brought back from Ridgeville.  Once again Joe's eyes went to the animal that had drawn his attention at the auction.  With a little work, he knew the claybank would make an excellent cutting horse.  Watching it now, he was reminded of all that had transpired since the day he'd first bid on the animal.

It seemed a lifetime ago that Lorna had left him, yet in reality it wasn't even a week.  The wound was still raw, piercing his heart with every bramble and thorn lovesickness could muster.  Work and family helped him focus his mind elsewhere--the former on a limited basis due to his injuries; the latter both comfort and sanctuary.

Joe scrubbed a hand over his chin.  A thick bandage padded the skin beneath his sleeve, protecting the slender gash Cutter's knife had left in its wake.  His eyes lingered on the horses in the corral, watching their movements in distracted fascination.  For a moment there was only the wind and sun, and the soft whicker of restless animals.  Then the sound of hoofbeats drew his attention, and Joe turned to see a rider approaching.

Shey Cutter drew rein beside him and dismounted.  Joe glanced from the blonde-haired man to the horse he led in tow.  Shey pulled the black stallion forward and looped its reins over the fence. "Your Pa told me I'd find you here," he announced matter-of-factly.

Joe leaned against the fence, giving Shey his full attention.  The brim of his hat slanted a dusky wedge of shadow over his face, muting the luminous glitter of his long-lashed eyes.  "I'm sorry about your uncle," he offered sincerely.

Shey wet his lips, clearly uncomfortable.  His shoulders rolled loosely into a shrug.  "Don't know what I'm supposed to feel, Joe--sorry . . . ashamed . . . haven't figured that one out yet."  With a nervous laugh, he thumbed his hat back over a disheveled lock of moon-pale hair.  "Look--I think I owe you an explanation."

Joe was confused.  "I don't understand."

With a frustrated sigh, Shey propped his shoulder against the fence.  "Back in Ridgeville--the fight in the saloon--I planned the whole thing.  I paid the miner, the ranch hand, plus one or two others.  Hell, I even bought the sheriff.  The whole thing was a setup to part you and your money, so you couldn't outbid me on the black horse."  Shey nodded over his shoulder to the animal tethered behind him.  "My uncle thought it would give us some kind of leverage on getting that land from your father.  When it didn't work--when you spurned the idea, he became obsessed with making you pay.  I never thought . . ." he swallowed uneasily.  "Let's just say I was blind to a lot of things for a long time."   Shifting, he folded his arms over the fence, watching the horses in the corral.  Sensing the black, the other animals began to grow agitated, moving fitfully through the confined space.  "I hear you're dropping the charges against Mitch Campbell."

"Yeah."  Joe leaned beside him.  "He, um . . .if it hadn't been for him, I would've . . .um . . ."

"Just say it, Cartwright.  Campbell saved your life, when he shot my uncle."

Joe glanced away, narrowing his eyes against the effulgent glare of afternoon sunlight.  For a time he didn't say anything.  For a time the two men stood side-by-side, listening to the muted shuffle of restless hooves against soft earth; the splinter-thin sliver of wind through the grass.  Finally: "I remember when your father died," Joe observed quietly.  "I wanted to tell you I was sorry, but I didn't know how.  Since we were kids, all you and I have ever done is fight."

Shey snorted.  "We do that pretty well, Cartwright.  I wouldn't wanna change a good thing."

Joe grinned.  "Me either."

Turning away, Shey mounted his horse.  He gave a parting nod for the black, still tethered to the fence.  "Figure I owe you that stallion, Joe.  You would have outbid me in Ridgeville.  'Course next season is fair game, so don't go thinking I've grown soft.  Buy you a beer Friday night?"

Joe nodded.  "As long as it doesn't come with a pre-planned fight."

Shey gave a flip of his hand as he swung his horse around.  His lips curled in a crooked grin.  "There you go again, spoiling all of my fun."

Joe watched him ride away, his own smile thinning as his eyes shifted to the black.  Odd how time changed all circumstance.  Smoothing his hand over the satiny coat, he marveled at the sleek lines of the animal.  He could feel the flow of muscle and sinew beneath his fingertips--a rippling torrent, as graceful as it was strong; smell the musk of the animal--like dark earth and sweet clover, snarled in a bed of desert sand.

With one backwards glance for Shey Cutter, Joe opened the gate of the corral and led the horse inside.


Moonlight streamed through the trees, pearlizing the ground with soft eddies of pale light.  Shadow infringed upon the glow, reshaping its edges into images both fantastical and grotesque.  Oblivious to his surroundings, Joe rode Cochise down the narrow trail that wound in front of Lorna's home.  The small cottage was dark--the windows empty and black.  Joe felt the tug on his heart--the re-opening of a wound he continued to prod and examine.  He'd had one too many beers with Shey Cutter, and while the alcohol had tasted good at the time, it now left him swimming in melancholy.

"Damn it, woman, why'd you leave me?"  There was no answer to the words he voiced aloud.  No whisper to float back to him, pleading an error in judgement.  There was only the emptiness;  the all-consuming pain he thought would never end.  He'd stood up to Amos Cutter.  To Kent Rudy and Frank McCay.  Even to Chet Brecker, but nothing compared to the pain inflicted on him by one dark-haired woman and her thirteen year old son.

Ben was still up when he returned home.  Joe found his father sitting in the fireside chair, quietly contemplating a book by the glow of lamplight and hearth.  He smiled at seeing his son.  Slipping a finger between the pages to mark his place, he closed them over his hand.  "You're back kind of early for a Friday night."

Joe slumped heavily to a seat on the couch.  Leaning back, he propped his boots on the edge of the table, until a pointed stare from his father made him drop them to the floor.  "Tired, I guess," he mumbled, his voice barely above a whisper.  Lacing a hand into his hair, he raked a tangle of unruly curls from his brow.  The soft tresses sprang into place the minute his fingers slipped free.  "Pa . . ." Joe wet his lips.  His eyes skewed sideways through a veil of lashes.  "Do you think .  . .do you think I would have made a good husband and father?"

Ben's breath caught in his throat.  Setting the book aside, he leaned forward in his chair, crossing his legs at the ankles.  "Joseph, I think you would have made a wonderful husband and father."  Ben placed his hand on his son's knee.  "But there's nothing wrong in waiting a while longer to find out."

Joe closed his eyes.  The gash on the back of his head was throbbing, reminding him that he'd probably overdone it today.  He was suddenly tired, the exhaustion as emotional as it was physical. How long does it take to get over one woman?  "Thanks, Pa." Joe stood, ready to go upstairs, when Ben's voice stopped him.

"Little Joe?"

Halfway to the steps he turned. His eyes were luminous, gem-bright, in the flickering sheen of firelight.  "Yes, Sir?"

Ben smiled.  "It's just good to have you well, Joseph."

Joe nodded.  Across the room he made eye contact with his father and the fatigue seemed to diminish just a little.  Perhaps that was how he would survive Lorna--a slight lessening day by day, until the pain eroded, dwindling into a manageable ache.

"Goodnight, Pa."  Joe climbed the stairs to his room, comforted by the familiar shadows slanting down the hall.  More so, the thought of his father downstairs, silently keeping vigil; his brothers asleep in their rooms.  He'd lost a chance of making a family of his own, but his father and brothers had never stopped supporting him.

Joe stepped into his bedroom and closed the door behind him.

For the moment, that support was all he needed.

----End Betrayal----

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