Note: This story takes place
shortly after "Restitution." It's helpful to read that first, as
some events are referenced, which occur in that story.
The axe head cracked into the soft pine log, splitting the wood cleanly down the center. Hoss Cartwright retrieved the two halves, setting them aside, before reaching for a second log. This was placed upright on the chopping block. With the axe handle nestled against his shoulder, he stepped back and mopped one thick wrist across his brow. At his back, the sprawling ranch home his father had built, offered a cooling sliver of shade, cast by the porch overhang.
"That sun sure is hot," he commented aside to his older brother.
Adam grunted something unintelligible but didn't bother to lift his head. He was bent over a wagon wheel, placed flat across the top of a barrel for support. Hoss knew some of the spokes were broken on the wheel. Craning his neck, he watched as Adam attempted to hammer a piece of splintered wood from its hole.
" . . . should have known better . . . six whole days and not a word . . .wait 'til I get my hands on him . . ."
"Hey, Adam." Hoss wet his lips, realizing his brother was mumbling. Realizing also, that he was not just hammering the wood, but hammering rather violently. He had a fair notion what the mumbling was about. "Maybe we should send a wire to Sunset Draw. You don't think anything's happened to Little Joe, do you?"
"Happened?" Adam straightened abruptly, causing Hoss to take a quick step backwards. Hefting the hammer in a loose grip, he allowed it to slide through his hand until the head butted up against his thumb. "When are you going to grow up and stop being so naive? Nothing's happened to Joe that doesn't involve a pretty blonde and a lot of eyelash batting."
"Yeah, but, Adam--" Hoss shifted, not ready to admit the obvious. "Little Joe knew you needed that birthday gift for Miss David. He wouldn't just--"
He stopped suddenly as the thunder of approaching hoofbeats drew his head around. As Joe's black and white pinto came into view at the corner of the barn, Hoss's face split with a pumpkin-wide grin. Even from this distance, he could see the white haze of trail dust clinging to Joe's familiar green jacket. "Hey, lookee there," he said, giving Adam a nudge in the ribs. His older brother scowled--severely--then stepped forward to meet the rider.
"Hey, Hoss! Adam!" Joe's grin seemed extra bright, the white of his teeth creating a stark contrast against the dirt streaking his face. Drawing rein near the hitching post, he dismounted and quickly looped Cochise's reins over the rail.
Hoss appeared at his side, offering a welcoming handshake and an exuberant clap on the back. "We sure missed you, little brother."
"Sure did," Adam said darkly. Arms folded across his chest, he stared pointedly at Joe. The hammer hung loosely in his grip, the handle butting against his belt. "You were supposed to be back days ago."
Joe's grin faded as though doused by frigid water. "Yeah, well I wanted to talk to you about that, Adam--"
"Where's the necklace?"
"Necklace?" Joe's eyes grew owlishly large.
Hoss frowned, recognizing the look. He knew his younger brother was adept at playing the wide-eyed innocent for maximum effect. At twenty-two, Joe could still look seventeen when he wanted.
Adam's face failed to soften. "The necklace you were supposed to purchase for me. The one I am giving to Lorna David for her birthday, next week." Arms dropping suddenly to his sides, he squared his shoulders and took a menacing step forward. "The one I sent you to Sunset Draw to buy!"
"Oh." Joe gulped. "That necklace." A nervous laugh slipped from his lips, and his eyes darted aside to Hoss before returning to Adam. "Well you see, Adam--"
"You did buy it, didn't you?"
"Sure, I bought it." Joe was indignant now, bristling theatrically, as though his honor had been challenged. Tugging down on his trail-stained jacket, he gave a clipped nod of his head. "You sent me to Sunset Draw to buy a necklace. I bought a necklace."
"Then where is it?"
The corners of Joe's mouth quirked upward in a fleeting grin. "Well . . . that's what I wanted to talk to you about . . ."
Adam bit his lip and nodded. "I should have known. Two days there, two days back. You're to be gone a total of four days, you come back after six. Why do I have a bad feeling about this?"
"Aw, come on now, Adam, you ain't giving Little Joe a chance to explain." Hoss's blue eyes turned on his younger brother and he smiled encouragingly. "Tell him, Joe. Tell Adam where that 'ole necklace is."
Adam's smile was thin and sardonic. "Yes, Joe, tell me."
". . . um . . ." Joe glanced at his feet, taking sudden interest in the ground. "Well, I wanted to keep it safe, you see. I didn't want to lose it, cause I knew how much you wanted to give that necklace to Miss David for her birthday." Joe chanced a glance at Adam, hoping to gain a measure of approval for his efforts. His brother's gaze remained bleak. Undaunted, Joe continued: "So I rolled it in my poke. I mean, a man always keeps track of his poke, right?"
"Yeah, that's right. Ain't that a great idea, Adam?" Hoss was grinning like a nanny goat. He eagerly nodded approval.
Adam remained unimpressed. "What happened to the poke, Joe?"
"See that's the funny part--" Doffing his hat, Joe ran gloved fingers through his unruly hair. "There was this girl--"
Adam was livid. "You're telling me you lost my necklace to a girl?"
"Heck, no! Give me some credit, Adam. The girl just distracted me. I lost your necklace to four kings."
"Huh?" Hoss grunted. The three brothers stood staring at one another--Hoss, clearly befuddled; Joe, ready to bolt like a skittish horse; Adam quietly seething.
"You don't look so good, older brother," Joe inserted mildly.
"And why would that be? Certainly not because I entrusted an important task to a younger sibling, only to find out he's too busy chasing skirts to show any real concern over his brother's property!" As he spoke, Adam's voice rose in volume. He stalked forward, forcing Joe backwards until he bumped up against Hoss's broad frame.
Joe's eyes flitted to the hammer in Adam's hand. " . . . um . . .could you put that down, please?"
"Why?" Adam snarled. "I was just thinking of using it!"
Hoss stepped between the two. One thick hand bumped Adam backwards, allowing Joe breathing room. "This ain't getting us nowhere. Now Joe," Hoss said sharply with a glance for his younger brother, "You quit dancin' around what you gotta say, and just out-and-out say it. And Adam--" The blue gaze, suddenly baleful, swivelled on the dark-haired man. "You just be quiet and let him talk.
Joe sighed. Shoulders slumping forward, he dispensed with the awful truth: "Adam, I lost your necklace in a poker game." Eyes flashing quickly to his brother's face, he hurried on before Adam could comment. "See I'd forgot I put the necklace in the poke. There was this barmaid with beautiful blonde hair and the bluest eyes--" He choked the words off, as a new wave of anger washed over his brother's face. "Anyway, she was so attentive, it just sort of slipped my mind that the necklace was rolled in the poke. I plunked the whole wad on the table. But I had four sixes, Adam! Four of 'em! I was sure I was gonna take that hand!"
"And the other guy?" Hoss prompted.
Joe hung his head. "Four kings."
With a grimace of disgust, Adam set the hammer aside. "You really take the prize, Little Joe, you know that? Didn't you try to get the necklace back?"
"Sure I did!" Joe's indignation returned full force. He took a bullying step forward. "I even went back to the shopkeeper to see if there was another one like it, but there wasn't. When I realized what'd happened, I went to the fellow's home I lost the poker hand to, and explained everything. I even offered to buy the necklace back."
"But he wouldn't sell it?" Adam persisted.
Hoss scratched his head. "That don't make sense. Why would he want to hang on to a necklace that don't mean nothin' to him?"
Joe lowered his eyes. Sensing his sudden reluctance, Hoss scowled. "Something you ain't telling us, little brother?"
"Naw!" Joe gave a quick shake of his head. A guilty glance of his eyes preceded the truth. "Well, just that this fellow--Troy Marsh--he was kinda sweet . . .um . . .on the barmaid I was flirting with, and--"
"But that didn't stop you, did it, Lothario?" Adam smirked.
Joe winced at his brother's frigid tone. "Come on, Adam, it was an honest mistake."
"Sure it was." Adam pushed Hoss aside. "I don't get my necklace because this Marsh fellow wants to make Joe pay. Well, let me tell you something, Little Joe--I'm going to have that necklace to give to Lorna next week, and you're going to get it for me. Two days ride to Sunset Draw and two back doesn't give us a day to spare, but I'll have to take it."
"Us?" Joe's voice jumped up an octave. "But I just got back. You can't expect me to--"
"I expect you to be ready to ride in an hour." Adam's hand fisted in his brother's shirt, drawing the sweat-stained fabric tightly across Joe's chest. Using the little bit of height advantage he held on his younger brother, Adam glowered down at him. "This isn't open for discussion, Joe. There isn't another necklace like that in Virginia City. You know Lorna saw it in Sunset Draw and said it reminded her of her Ma's. Why do you think I'd have you ride two days, if I could buy the same thing locally?" Shaking his head, he cursed softly. "I knew I should have went myself. If Pa hadn't insisted I handle those timber contracts none of this would have happened."
Joe shrunk a little from his brother's agitated tone. Normally he'd go head-to-head with Adam, but he could tell from the expression on his brother's face that Adam wasn't likely to take any guff. "Pa isn't going to let me take another four days off when I've already been gone six," Joe protested weakly.
"I'll handle, Pa."
"Well if you two think I'm lettin' you go alone, you got another think comin'," Hoss informed the duo. "You're likely to tear each other's heads off 'fore you make it two miles down the trail. Pa owes me a week's vacation and Sunset Draw seems as likely a place to take it, as any." As middle brother, Hoss often played moderator between his sibling's frequent squabbles. It wasn't that Adam and Joe weren't close, it was just their personalities were so different they routinely rubbed one another the wrong way.
Joe visibly relaxed. It was obvious he liked the idea of having Hoss along. Adam scowled, but refrained from comment. His dark, penetrating gaze swung back to Joe.
"One hour," he said stiffly and stalked away.
Joe couldn't resist making a face at his brother's retreating back. Mimicking Adam's sour expression, he flicked a disdainful hand across his shirt, smoothing the rumpled fabric.
Hoss nudged him in the shoulder. "Leave off him, Joe. He's been frettin' a blue streak 'bout gettin' Miss David that necklace."
"What about me? I ride four days out of my way to try and help--"
"Joseph," Hoss warned darkly, sounding much like Ben when he was displeased.
"Okay, okay." Joe lifted one gloved hand in mock surrender. "I'll remember he's um . . .swooning." The word left Joe's lips, followed immediately by a chuckle. Joe bit his lip to try to keep from laughing, but failed miserably. The thought of Adam in a romantic swoon was just too much to bear. A snort of laughter bubbled from his throat.
"Now, Joseph--" Hoss adopted his sternest expression, but it was lost on Joe who was too busy spouting off words like swoon and sourpuss between contagious giggles. Hoss made a valiant effort to remain impassive, but soon succumbed. In no time the brothers were swapping ideas on what they thought a date with Adam would be like.
"I bet he reads her sonnets, then takes her to the saw mill and shows her the difference between cuts of lumber," Hoss guffawed. One large hand slapped Joe's shoulder.
"No, no!" Joe was quick to correct. "I bet he takes her to the saw mill and cuts the lumber while she watches . . ."
" . . . then he reads her them timber contracts, goin' over all that fancy legal jargon," Hoss inserted.
Joe howled. He slung an arm across Hoss's shoulders. "Hey, hey--maybe that's the sonnet--'Ode to a Timber Contract'."
Hoss's throaty guffaw twined with Joe's high-pitched giggle. They were hanging on to one another now, laughing so hard it was difficult to remain upright.
"Oh, boys . . ." a new voice called mildly.
Hoss was the first to recover. The laughter died in his throat, snuffed suddenly short. Straightening quickly, he elbowed his younger brother in the ribs. "Hey Joe, cut it out."
"Come on, Hoss, what's the--" Joe gulped suddenly, as he realized what had dampened Hoss's laughter. Clearing his throat, he straightened his shoulders and tried to appear dignified. "Hi, Pa." He smiled nervously. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
Ben Cartwright forced a stoic glance, though inwardly he chuckled. He had known from Adam's agitated state when he stalked through the front door just moments before, that Joseph had to be to blame. No one on earth riled his eldest son as quickly or as skillfully as Little Joe. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he pursed his lips and stepped forward. "I hear you boys are taking a trip."
Hoss and Joe exchanged glances. Though his youngest son was dirty from head to toe, he managed to appear endearing despite his unkempt appearance. Ben had the notion Joe could pull off charm, after a week on the trail and no soap to spare. There was something just naturally engaging about Ben's mercurial offspring. Whether that was gleaned from Joe's uncommonly good looks or his volatile personality, Ben wasn't sure. Most of the girls in Virginia City were still trying to unlock the secret of Joe's considerable charm.
" We're going with, Adam." Joe admitted, offering his sincerest smile. As quickly as he had grown serious, the impish twinkle returned to his eyes. "After all, we wouldn't want older brother to um . . . swoon . . . while he's on the trail."
Hoss and Joe started laughing
all over again.
Adam had to wait two hours for his youngest brother. It took Joe that long to clean up, change clothes and gobble down a sandwich hastily prepared by Hop-Sing. By the time he met Hoss and Adam out front, they'd already saddled a horse for him. Cochise was permitted a respite after the long trek from Sunset Draw, and a three year old palomino named Ribbon was designated as Joe's mount. Gunbelt looped over his shoulder, jacket slung over his back, Joe sprinted lithely outside.
A black neckcloth fluttered at the open collar of his shirt. Approaching the cream- colored horse, he looped his gunbelt over the saddle horn and grinned up at Adam, who was already mounted.
"Been waiting long, older brother?"
Adam's expression was dour. His eyes were hooded and dark, but he refrained from comment. Ducking his head, Joe allowed a slow smile to spread across his lips. He couldn't resist the devilish impulse of baiting his brother.
Hoss, also mounted, glowered down at him. "Hurry up, Joe," he instructed crisply, once again assuming the role of moderator. Shrugging, Joe slipped into his jacket. Once mounted, the three brothers turned south in the direction of Sunset Draw. Adam remained uncommunicative, saying little, even when they halted for the night. Pushing as far as they were able in the dark, they made camp by a thicket of fir trees. After an unappetizing meal of beans and black bread, Joe felt the first tingling cramp of muscles spent too long in the saddle. Too tired to fret over his eldest brother's sour disposition, he turned into his bedroll and was soon asleep.
Sitting by the fire, Hoss found his eyes straying to Joe's still form. "He's pretty tuckered out," he observed quietly.
Across the crackling dance of the flames, Adam's dark eyes were twin pools of midnight sky. Lifting a battered tin cup to his lips, he took a swig of coffee. "You fret over that kid worse then a mother hen over her chicks, Hoss. If you're fishing for sympathy, you're not going to find any here. Joe knew what he was getting in to, when he volunteered to track down that necklace, and as usual, he fouled up."
Hoss scowled. "Ain't you being just a tad hard on him?" His protective streak was showing, but he didn't care. It wasn't all that long ago that Joe had almost died at the hands of Chet Brecker. Even now, Joe wore a neckcloth to cover the fading bruises on his throat--tell-tale marks left by a hangman's noose. Though Joe had recovered both physically and emotionally from the brutal attack, Hoss couldn't quell the instinctive urge to hover.
Adam sighed. "I know what you're thinking," he said tiredly. "But this ride isn't hurting him any more than it's hurting us. Are you forgetting he was up to his usual tricks--flirting with a saloon girl and throwing around money he can't afford to lose?" Disgusted, Adam pitched the remains of his coffee from the battered cup. "Not to mention, betting my necklace in a poker hand." The last was mumbled in an agitated tone.
Pressing his lips together, Adam rose to his feet. "I'm going to bed, Hoss. I suggest you do the same. We need to get an early start tomorrow, if we want to make Sunset Draw by nightfall."
Silently Hoss watched his
older brother cross to his bedroll. Adam was in a particulary foul
frame of mind. Hoss released a frustrated breath. With any
luck Adam's disposition would change come morning.
"He's sour enough to swallow a horn toad backwards," Joe grumbled, tugging on his gloves.
"Aw, Joe, you know he's just fretting over that dadblame necklace," Hoss returned, as the two watched Adam adjusting the straps on his saddle. Breakfast had been short--more black bread and a few strips of jerky, washed down with lukewarm water. It hadn't done much to improve anyone's disposition. Overhead the sky was still struggling to dawn, more charcoal than gray, threaded with ribbons of peach on the horizon. Early morning dew saturated the grass, and weighted the sodden hems of their trousers.
Joe uttered a short snort of derision. "What about me? I slept with a rock in my back most of the night." To prove his point, he twisted theatrically and groaned. A mischevious gleam brightened his green eyes. "Don't know if I can ride so soon, after such a restless night. I'm pretty sore, big brother."
Hoss pressed his lips together. "That so? Here, I got just the thing--" Clamping a hand on Joe's shoulder, Hoss knuckled him in the back. Joe yelped and lurched free.
"If you two billy goats are done butting heads, it's time to ride," Adam announced crisply. Striding between the two, he trailed his horse by the reins. The animal parted the brothers like wheat beneath the wind. Once past, Hoss and Joe closed the gap, bumping shoulders.
Joe hooked his thumbs over his gunbelt. "He's getting mighty uppity."
Hoss's face was screwed up in cantankerous lines. "Yes sir, Joseph. Our brother Adam is lookin' all horns and rattles. If that's what a gal does to you, I'll take a string of unbroken horses any day."
Joe couldn't resist the
opening. "You'd need a string of unbroken horses, to find yourself
a gal." Laughing brightly, he ducked Hoss's playful swipe at his
It was dark by the time the trio rode into Sunset Draw. Overhead, the sky had blackened with night--the jet-dark expanse broken only by a sickle moon and a scattered handful of stars. The wind was warm and soft, lifting the ends of Joe's neckcloth as he drew rein before the hotel. Sliding to the ground, he retrieved his saddlebags then pulled his rifle from its scabbard. "I'll see about getting us a room" he told his brothers.
Adam nodded crisply. "Hoss and I will take care of stabling the horses." He started to turn away, then thought better of it. "And Joe--try to get us some comfortable beds, huh?"
Joe scowled, too tired for a retort. He would've liked to have secured the best rooms in the hotel, just to show Adam, but it wasn't the case. A fire at one of the neighboring ranches had forced the family and a number of their hands into town, leaving only one room remaining. It had a double bed and a single. When Adam and Hoss returned from the livery stable, the brothers flipped a coin for the single.
"Hey, look at that." Hoss grinned when he realized he'd won the toss. "My luck's beginning to pay off."
Frowning at the thought of having to share a bed with his eldest brother, Joe moved to the double mattress and sat on the edge. Irritably, he tugged off his neckcloth.
"You ain't gonna snore, are you?" he asked, with his back to Adam. He heard the plunk of boots on the floor and visualized Adam, one leg propped on the other, methodically massaging his foot.
"I don't like it any more than you do, Little Joe. Be thankful it's only one night."
Joe shrugged out of his shirt, then stood to pour water into the basin located at the bedside. Hoss had already stretched out on the single bed, his face turned to the wall. Retrieving a towel, Joe flicked it over his shoulder. His bare skin appeared bronze in the muted halo of light, cast by the wall lanterns. Locating a cake of lye soap, he scrubbed at the trail grime clinging to his neck, face and arms. He was patting his skin dry when he saw Adam glance up and grimace. Joe set the towel aside.
"What?" he demanded sharply.
Adam shook his head. "Nothing." Glancing away, he hastily located a book in his saddlebag. With his back propped against the headboard, he stretched his legs before him, pretending interest in the pages. Inwardly, he cursed. He'd seen those damn bruises on his kid brother's neck and was beginning to feel like a heel. He could still recall the horrible gut-twisting fear he'd felt when he thought Joe was dead. Wetting his lips, he turned a page. Joe had tugged off his boots and stretched out on the bed beside him. His eyelids were closed, revealing the thick dark line of his lashes. Involuntarily, Adam's eyes strayed to the ugly bruises on Joe's throat. Though fading, the discoloration was still evident, more yellow now, than black. Adam knew his brother was self-conscious about the marks, and thus wore the neckcloth to conceal them. In time he'd have no further need of the bandana. In time, all wounds healed.
Briskly, Adam snapped the book closed. He had problems enough of his own. Joe was a tough kid. He'd pulled through the attack just like he pulled through most things--with a resiliency that left others shaking their heads in wonderment. His younger brother was difficult at times--hot headed and impulsive, touched now and again by a thin thread of arrogance. But he was also free-spirited, blessed by a delightful sense of humor and a highly defined sense of right and wrong.
Adam pursed his lips. Joe could stand a bit of the cold shoulder. Maybe next time he'd think twice about sitting down to a poker game, on someone else's time.
Standing, he dimmed the wall lanterns. He didn't know if Joe was asleep or just pretending, but his breathing had evened to a rhythmic flow. By the time Adam had finished washing up, Hoss had begun to snore and Joe had rolled on to his stomach, stretching an arm and a leg across the bed. Adam hesitated, undecided if he should awaken his younger brother and make him move over. In the end, he retrieved a blanket from the foot of the bed and draped it across Joe's shoulders. Retrieving a pillow, he tried to get comfortable in the bedside chair.
Across the room, Hoss's snore became a loud rattle. Adam sighed.
It was going to be a long
"All right. We're agreed I'm the one who does the talking?" Adam turned a measured glance on each of his brothers. Hoss nodded quickly. Joe rolled his eyes, then offered a one-shouldered shrug. Feet braced apart, thumbs hooked on his gunbelt, he was looking decidedly cocky. A sprig of grass dangled from the corner of his mouth, and the brim of his hat was tugged low over his eyes.
"You're the boss," he said neutrally. Adam knew by the look on his face that Joe was going to give him grief before the day was over. Raising his hand, he rapped his knuckles against the solid oak door fording Troy Marsh's home.
A two story abode with sprawling front porch and painted shutters, the house bespoke a man of wealth. Adam felt certain that such a man could be reasoned with. Marsh obviously hadn't attained his present status by being thick-headed or indifferent to bargaining. Already visualizing a lucrative exchange, Adam planned to be on the road to Virginia City by noon.
The door was answered by a middle-aged man in the attire of a valet. Thick brows crimped into the fringe of his sandy blonde hair. "Yes?" he inquired blandly.
Adam offered his best smile. "I was wondering if we could speak with Mr. Marsh--Mr. Troy Marsh? I'm Adam Cartwright from Virginia City, and these are my brothers." Adam waved a hand behind him. The smile stayed frozen on his face as the valet's eyes flicked between the three. "It will only take a moment," Adam persisted, when the man gave no indication of complying. "If you could just tell Mr. Marsh, it concerns an item currently in his possession."
The valet frowned, but nodded. "One moment." As he disappeared behind the door, Adam exhaled loudly.
"Kind of snippy, ain't he?" Hoss said aside to Joe, who immediately chuckled. The duo received a reprimanding glance from Adam. A moment later the valet returned, and held open the door.
"Mr. Marsh will see you in the parlor."
Adam nodded his approval. He moved to step forward, but Joe shouldered past him, reaching the threshold first. Just as he was about to enter, Adam reached out and plucked the sprig of grass from his mouth, flecking it aside. Affronted, Joe turned. His eyes narrowed, but he remained silent. Acutely aware of Joe's smoldering gaze, Adam brushed by him. He knew his younger brother was spoiling for a fight.
Inside, the trio was shown to the parlor, a sun-drenched room with plush carpeting, circular sofa, and upholstered wing chairs. Wedgewood blue wallpaper and brass lanterns meshed with walnut chair rails and crown molding, lending a refined atmosphere to the room. Joe immediately moved to the farthest corner, where oblong windows unfolded on a view of the rear yard. Propping his shoulder against the wall, he turned his gaze out the window.
All three brothers turned at the tone that greeted them. A well-dressed man in cream waistcoat, white shirt and dark trousers stood on the threshold. Wheat-colored hair framed a high forehead and square jaw. Moving into the room, the man extended his hand to Adam. "I'm Troy Marsh. My valet informs me you wish to speak with me."
Nodding, Adam shook the pro-offered hand. "My name's Adam Cartwright. This is my brother, Hoss . . ." A toss of his head indicated the big man behind him. " . . . and my brother, Joe." Another nod to indicate Joe in the corner.
Marsh's glance was dark. "Yes, I know that one," he informed Adam, as his eyes flicked over Joe. "We met in a poker match. Though I won fairly, your brother seems to think I owe him some kind of a trinket. A necklace, I believe."
"Mr. Marsh--" Adam's hand slipped free. He gave a short laugh and tried to appear congenial. "What I have to tell you is silly, really, but my brother purchased that necklace for me. See I intended to give it to a lady friend, who--"
"I don't care who he purchased it for, it's mine now." Marsh's voice was flat and unrelenting. Moving away from Adam, he walked a short distance to an ornately carved sideboard. The smile slipped from Adam's face.
"Come on, Mr. Marsh." Hoss tried to be reasonable, sensing his brother at a sudden, dreadful loss for words. "What use can you possibly have for a necklace?"
"That's not the point." Turning his back, Marsh located a velvet-lined box, placed on top of the sideboard. Opening the lid, he extracted a shimmering chain, beautifully accented by a gold locket. Draping the necklace across two fingers, he raised it in the air. "I think I could find some use for this bauble. A pretty girl's neck, perhaps? A tithe for the poor box, or a gift for a barmaid." Here his eyes narrowed and he glanced meaningfully at Joe, reawakening the true cause of their dispute.
Frowning, Joe pushed away from the wall. "Look, Mr. Marsh, if you give Adam the necklace, I ride out of town with my brothers. That means it's not likely I'll see Sue, any time soon. But if you insist hanging on to that gee-gaw, then I'm gonna be hanging around town, visiting the saloon. Do I need to be clearer than that?"
"Please excuse my brother," Adam said quickly, casting a murderous glance at his younger sibling. "He's been a little hard pressed for rest lately, and it's wearing on his personality."
"The only thing wearing on my personality is--"
"Joseph!" Hoss snapped. Quelled by the sharp tone of command, Joe rolled his hands into fists. Adam could see from the look on his face, it took every ounce of control he had to reign in his escalating temper.
Unfazed, Marsh slipped the necklace back into the box and closed the lid. "I'm not a difficult man, Mr. Cartwright," he informed. "But you can see my dilemma. If I just give you the necklace, it sets a precedent for others to take advantage of my good nature. I'd like to help you, but--"
Adam nodded. He could see where the conversation was headed. "How much?" he asked.
Marsh blanched. "Oh no, you misunderstand. Monetary recompense isn't the issue here."
"Then what is? My brother's infatuation with a saloon girl?"
Marsh dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. "Don't be absurd. The girl is a passing fancy, nothing more. No, I'm referring to another matter." Raising his hand, he tapped one finger against his lips. "I'd be more than happy to part with the necklace, if you could give me something of value in return."
Adam was suddenly leery without knowing why. He didn't like the sound of Marsh's voice, or the calculating look in his watery gray eyes. "Such as?"
Marsh folded his hands and smiled benignly. "A horse."
Joe's anger was doused by a sudden wave of surprise. "A horse?" he asked incredulously, taking a short step forward.
Marsh tried to explain. "You see gentlemen, I have a bit of a problem. Very silly like yours, Mr.Cartwright--" A nod of his head indicated Adam. "But a problem, all the same. The stable master here in town has an Appaloosa I covet. Unfortunately we've had a misunderstanding of late and he refuses to sell it to me. I've offered him as much as $170, and still he declines. Now, if you could buy that horse--"
"You want me to pay $170 for a horse, to trade on a $40 necklace?" Adam cried indignantly.
"Precisely. But with my money, of course." Marsh smiled thinly and Adam decided he was growing to dislike the man minute by minute "I'll fund the money and you make the purchase. Once I have the horse, I'll give you the necklace."
Hoss cleared his throat. "Isn't that kinda dishonest? I mean, once we buy this horse and give it to you, the stable master will realize we were acting on your behalf."
"He'll be hot enough to wither a fence post," Joe inserted, taking a step closer. The edge of hostility had crept back into his voice. "What's to stop him from going to the sheriff and trying to renege on the deal?"
Marsh gave an indifferent flip of his hand. "What's to stop you from taking off with my $170? No, gentleman, there's a measure of trust to be had on both ends, I think. I entrust you to act on my behalf, and you trust me to worry about the details. By the time the stable master realizes what has transpired, I'll have the horse, and you three will be long gone."
Adam frowned. He
didn't like what he was hearing, but he desperately needed the necklace.
Lorna had made such a fuss about it after her trip to Sunset Draw--going
on about how it had reminded her of her Ma's favorite piece of jewelry.
She'd been dropping hints ever since, that it would make a good birthday
present. Still, Adam didn't like the idea of deceiving the stable
master, and in examining Marsh proposal, that's exactly what his role would
amount to. "What if
we just convince this man--what did you say his name was--?"
"I didn't. It's Floyd Devin."
Adam nodded. "What if we just convince Mr. Devin to sell you the horse? Will that suffice?"
Marsh hesitated, clearly
weighing his options. His eyes skitted about the room noting all
three brothers, in turn. At last he extended his hand to Adam.
"I believe we have an agreement, Mr. Cartwright."
"All right." Adam rubbed his hands together the moment they stepped outside. "This isn't looking so bad. We find the stable master, buy the horse, get the necklace. We can still be on the road back to Virginia City shortly after noon."
"Hey, Adam." Joe drew abreast of him as they walked down the street. "Aren't you even curious why Marsh would be so anxious to own this horse?"
"Yeah," Hoss said, coming abreast on the other side. "And what's this misunderstanding he's got with the stable master?"
"I don't care about the horse, I don't care about the misunderstanding. I've got my own problems." Adam shot Joe a dark look. "I don't want involved in any body else's."
Joe snorted. It was
obvious from Adam's glance that he thought his present problem, Joe's fault.
Joe was just about to tell his brother what he thought of that sentiment,
when his eye was caught by a familiar sign. "Hey, look there--" A
toss of his head indicted the Redjack Saloon. A crooked smile lifted
the corners of his lips. "All this talk of problems is making me
thirsty. How about a drink?" He was already taking one step in the
direction of the saloon, visualizing a murmured chat
with that pretty blonde bar maid over a cold beer, when Adam hooked him by the arm and yanked him to a halt. Stunned, Joe swung around.
"If you so much as step foot in that saloon before I have my necklace," Adam warned darkly, "You won't be able to sit your horse for a week."
Joe's eyes blazed cold fury. "Is that so?"
Groaning, Hoss lowered his head into his hand. This was just the reason he'd tagged along. The bristling flash of anger in Joe's eyes indicated his younger brother's ability to reason had been instantly squelched by his quick-silver temper. Exhaling a pent up breath, he pushed between the two. "All right, enough of this. Now we're gonna get that horse, and--"
"You stay out of this, Hoss," Joe said sharply. He tried to muscle past the larger man to reach Adam. "This is between me and older brother."
Angrily, Hoss stiff-armed him aside. "It ain't, and you listen. Now I'm warnin' you, Joseph-- you just put your hackles down, 'cause I sure don't wanna make a scene on this street, but I'll turn you three ways to Sunday if I have to. And that goes for you too, Adam."
While Joe seethed, Adam managed mild affront. "Listen, Hoss, the kid's been asking for it. He's--"
"He's done his best to help, after makin' a foolish mistake. Maybe he don't always think straight, but his heart's in the right place. Ain't so sure I can say the same about you lately."
Adam closed his eyes. Lifting a hand, he pinched two fingers against the bridge of his nose. He could feel Joe's eyes on him, menacing as a copperhead. How many times had Ben told him he wouldn't be so miserable, if he didn't always expect Joe to live up to his standards? Joe had his own set of rules to follow. *Or in most cases, break,* Adam thought wryly. Raising a hand to signal surrender, he nodded. "Look, I admit I'm on a short fuse. Can we just forget all this and go to the livery stable?"
Joe squared his shoulders, clearly not appeased, but he nodded grudgingly. Hoss breathed a sigh of relief. It was not entirely a victory, but it was a respite nonetheless and he was willing to take what he could get. Positioning himself between his two siblings, Hoss led his brothers down the street.
Sunset Draw was coming awake as the hour inched closer to noon. More and more people frequented the boardwalks, milling in and out of shops as they exchanged sundries and pleasantries. A few riders on horseback shuffled down the street, and two buckboards ambled by, the creak of their wheels familiar music. As the trio approached the livery stable, they caught a glimpse of a man just inside the doors, speaking animatedly to another. The second man had his back turned, but Joe could clearly see the first.
"That's Devin," he informed his brothers, indicating the heavy-set man just inside the doors. "I boarded Cochise the last time I was here. Watch what you say. He's a little quick in fishing for change."
Hoss scrunched his brows together. "Huh?"
"He'll bilk you for anything he can get," Joe clarified. "Don't ask for information or he'll want to sell it. And don't barter his rates, 'cause they'll just go up, not down."
"We're here to purchase a horse, that's all," Adam reminded him quietly. He halted just outside the door, and placed his hands on his hips. "Though from your description of Mr. Devin, it's no wonder Marsh has had some 'misunderstandings' with him."
They waited for Devin to finish his conversation. Finally the stable master moved away, and his visitor turned to depart. Morning sunlight spiked through the doorway and snagged on the tin-plated star pinned to his left breast. Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. Joe merely inclined his head as the sheriff started past. "Morning, Sheriff."
The lawman halted. Tall and thin with a liverish complexion, he had a graying thatch of carmel-colored hair. "Morning Boys." A dark gaze swept over the trio, settling lastly on Joe. "I've seen you around here before, haven't I, boy?"
"Day before last," Joe clarified. He extended his hand. "I'm Joseph Cartwright, Sir. From Virginia City."
"Now I remember." The hand was shaken. "Something about a necklace . . ."
Joe ducked his head, suddenly sheepish. "I think I've got that figured out, Sir. Sorry to have bothered you about it."
The sheriff gave an acknowledging flick of his hat, then moved past. Hoss glanced into the stable where dusky light mingled with shadow. "Wonder what he was doing here."
Adam clapped him on the back and urged him forward. "Doesn't matter. We're not concerned with anyone's problems but our own, remember?"
"Yeah," Hoss muttered. "I remember--Christian charity."
Adam pretended not to hear. "Mr. Devin," he called, stepping into the stable. Almost immediately, the heavy-set man reappeared, mopping a kerchief across his brow. Pocketing the scarf, he squinted up at Adam.
"Yeah, what is it you need? Horse or carriage?"
"Horse," Adam supplied.
"$2.00 a day, plus tack and saddle."
"You misunderstand. I don't want to rent a horse, I want to purchase one."
"Eh? What's this?" The ferret-like eyes scrutinized Adam. "Purchase, you say?"
"Yes. The Appaloosa you have."
Watching the exchange, Joe stepped to the side and folded his arms across his chest. Leaning back against the wall, he bent one leg at the knee and crossed his foot over his ankle. "Hey, Hoss--" A tilt of his head brought his brother to his side. "We don't want to go getting involved in anyone's problems. Maybe we should just hang out here and let older brother handle this."
Hoss grinned. "Yeah." Almost immediately the grin faded. "Wait a minute, Joe. I thought we was supposed to be helpin'."
"And ruffle older brother's feathers? Naw! He's a master at negotiating, remember?"
"$170, eh?" Devin was saying. "That's a right familiar sum. Right familiar, indeed. You wouldn't have anything to do with that fuss-bucket, Troy Marsh, would you?"
Adam feigned indifference. "A profit is a profit, Mr. Devin, no matter the source."
"It matters to me if it comes from that low-down, blue-pelt jackal. Said I cheated him, can you imagine that? A man should be lookin' up a limb for that kind of slander. Right like to put me out of business."
Adam sighed. "Look, Mr. Devin. I kind of gather you aren't likely to get that much money from anybody else in this town. Now whatever Marsh did--
"--said I put a split shoe on his horse--"
"Whatever Marsh did," Adam repeated sternly, as though speaking to a slow-witted child. "It's still better to have a pocketful of cash, rather than a horse that's only going to cost you money in feed."
"Hm." Devin fell suddenly silent. Raising a dirt-encrusted hand, he rubbed at his chin. Streaks of grime clung to a three-day stubble of beard. "I hadn't rightly thought about it like that."
Adam glanced at his brothers with a triumphant smile.
" 'Course . . . " Devin started walking now, still scrubbing at his chin, still leaving streaks of black the length of his jaw. "I've got my own problems to contend with."
Adam stared blankly. "Problems?"
"Sure. Why, I was just tellin' the sheriff, there's this fella Ricker, won't leave me alone--"
"Mr. Devin, I don't see how any of this concerns--"
"Now if you boys could see your way clear to havin' a chat with him. Maybe convince him to stop harassing me--"
"Whoa!" Adam held up both hands. "Mr. Devin, we just want to purchase the horse."
"The horse ain't for sale."
"Why not?" Adam practically shouted. An unhealthy red flush rose from his neck, signaling he was nearing wit's end. Stalking forward, he towered over the heavy-set man. One menacing finger jabbed beneath Devin's nose. "Now you listen to me, I'm in no mood to play games. I made you a valid offer--"
"And I refused it. Don't have to sell no horse if I don't want to!"
Joe lifted a hand to conceal the grin spreading across his face. It was all he could do to keep silent. Ducking his head, he closed his eyes. His shoulders shook with silent laughter.
Hoss glared at him. "Stow it, Joe," he hissed. "Adam sees you laughin', he's gonna take your head clean off."
Joe bit his lip, vainly trying to comply. With effort he composed himself. "Hey . . . hey, Adam," he said, his voice threatening to crack at any moment. "Maybe Devin could just give you the name of a good jeweler--oof!" The last came as Hoss jabbed him roughly in the ribs. Pressing a hand to his side, Joe gazed up at his older brother. "Watch it will, you? Wasn't so long ago, Doc Martin dug a bullet out of that side." There was no sting in the words, and Joe's eyes were dancing.
Hoss twisted his mouth into a frown. "It's been so long, I don't rightly recall why I ever felt sorry for you to begin with." His attention shifted to Adam and he took a step forward. Behind him, Joe continued to laugh silently. "Maybe chattin' with this Ricker fella won't be all that bad, Adam. I mean--it seems kinda trivial. What's one more problem, anyway?"
"Sure, why not?" Shaking his head, Adam threw his hands in the air. Turning away, his eyes skewed sideways, catching Joe. "Glad to see someone finds this amusing."
Adam glanced back at Devin. "Tell us about Ricker."
The stable master's weather-beaten faced bobbed up and down in eager agreement. Once again his leathery hand pawed at his chin. "He's a big fella. Hangs around here, but don't rightly do nuthin'. He's always in the shadows, lurkin', jest kinda hoverin', lettin' me know he's there."
Adam felt his patience wearing thin. "And this is a problem, how?"
"He's waitin', don't you see? Waitin' for the opportunity to trip me up. He's jest tryin' to wear me down, intimdatin'-like. I know he's workin' for that skinny cadaver, Wheaton. He's breathin' down my neck, Ricker is, 'cause I had a misunderstandin' with his boss."
"Oh?" Adam's voice rose on the query.
"Dang fool said I put a split shoe on his horse."
"I thought that was Marsh," Hoss interjected.
"Him too. Point is, Wheaton's all hot and bothered 'bout it, so he sends Ricker 'round to intimidate me. Figures sooner or later I'll crack from the pressure and fess up."
"Did you put a split shoe on his horse?" Adam asked evenly.
Devin's face mottled with indignation. "I don't rightly recall this being a court room."
"You'll have to excuse my brother," Joe said stepping forward, all silk and solicitousness. He'd been silent since arriving, but knew Adam was about to stick his foot in his mouth. Moving between the two men, he smiled engagingly. "Adam's not accustomed to dealing with the finer, delicate points of your truly noble profession." He slid one black-gloved hand onto Devin's thick shoulder. Gently Joe turned him away from Adam and guided him into the barn. He could feel Adam's eyes on his back. "You see," Joe explained in a conspiratorial whisper. "Adam gets hung up on that holier-than- thou stuff, but he's really just plain folk. He doesn't mean anything by his attitude--"
"He's right insultin' " Devin snapped.
"I know, I know." Joe smiled wearily, as if he too bore the weight of Adam's callous remarks. "He doesn't mean to be. He's just, well . . . too educated. Things get all tangled up in that intellectual brain of his. Now, you and I, we know things aren't always black and white. Things happen. We've got no control over circumstance--"
"A fact for sure!" Devin smiled toothily. "Say--you're a right bright, lad."
Joe cast a glance back
over his shoulder. Adam was frowning, shaking his head. Leading
his quarry further into the barn, Joe put on his most attentive smile.
"I think you and I, have the basis for a sound understanding, Mr. Devin."
"Look at him. Just look at him." Adam tipped his beer glass and drained the last swallow. "Not a care in the world, and I'm sitting here with a lapful of problems."
Hoss followed his brother's glance across the saloon. He and Adam were seated at a circular table in the rear of the room, far removed from the congestion at the bar. There, three cowhands swapped stories over a bottle of whiskey, while an old prospector tried to convince the bartender he was good for a tab. At a table in the corner, Joe quietly conversed with the blonde-haired saloon girl that had struck his fancy. Watching his younger brother, Hoss couldn't help but feel a bit of wistful admiration. Joe's curly dark head was bent forward, near enough the blonde to make Hoss blush, were he in his brother's shoes. He'd never envied Joe his looks or his charm, but sometimes he couldn't help wish a smidgen of both. Right now, he was feeling oddly proud of his younger sibling.
"He did his part, Adam. He saved Devin from scratchin' the whole deal."
Adam shook his head. "There you go again, defending him. Are you forgetting, I wouldn't be in this mess if he hadn't lost my necklace in the first place?"
Hoss squirmed in his chair, but said nothing.
"And now, I'm sitting here wasting time, while he flirts with some girl, whose name he probably can't even remember."
"It's Sue. He told me."
"Sue." Adam practically spat the name. "How remiss of me. I stand corrected."
"You know, Adam, you're becoming right cynical."
"Look Hoss, all I want to do is get this mess taken care of and get out of here. Devin said Ricker normally comes to the saloon around 1:00. Once he comes in, we chat with him. We get him to lay off Devin. Devin sells us the horse. We give it to Marsh. He gives us the necklace. We go home. End of story."
"Yeah, but I still don't understand why Devin just doesn't go to the sheriff."
Frustrated, Adam sighed. "He already tried that," he explained patiently, as though talking to a slow- witted child. "But there's no law against . . . lurking . . . and that's all Ricker is doing. He hasn't made any threatening moves against Devin."
"Oh yeah." Hoss's eyes dipped to the beer mug in his hand. He waited a beat, still obviously puzzled. "Then how come--"
"You two just gonna sit there, or are we gonna talk to Ricker?"
Both brothers glanced up at the casual inquiry. Unnoticed, Joe had approached the table. Jerking a thumb over his shoulder he indicated a newly arrived patron. "That's Ricker," he announced smugly. Adam and Hoss followed his direction.
"Dang, Joe, are you sure?" Hoss asked. He swallowed with effort as he noted the big man who occupied a table just inside the door. Hulking and brawny, Ricker was barrel-chested and long-limbed. A narrow nose and slate gray eyes offset a swarthy complexion. Hands the size of grappling hooks rested on the table. Expelling a pent-up breath, Hoss chanced a glance at Adam. His brother was looking more irritable than usual.
"I should have known." Adam said. His chair scraped against the floorboards as he rose to his feet. "No sense putting this off. Let's get it over with."
Joe smiled. "You go right ahead, older brother. I'll just linger in the background and try to learn from those masterful negotiating skills of yours."
Moving away, Adam mumbled something Joe didn't catch. The meaning, however, was clear. Shaking his head, Hoss stood. "You better go easy, boy. He ain't gonna take much more lip from you."
With an elfish shrug of his shoulders, Joe sauntered after Hoss, careful to keep the wide frame of his brother between himself and Ricker.
" . . . talk with you," Adam was saying as Joe drew abreast.
Heavy-lidded gray eyes moved between the three brothers. "What about?"
Adam signaled the bartender for more beers. Turning one of the chairs around, he straddled the seat, folding his arms over the top. Hoss took a seat at his side, but Joe remained standing. "Probably nothing more than a silly misunderstanding," Adam clarified, with an easy smile. The beers arrived and he helped himself to the nearest mug. "We were talking with Floyd Devin and--"
"It ain't like you think," Ricker said hurriedly. A look of acute anxiety crossed his moon-shaped face. Words came fast and furious, riddled by an increasing stutter. "I-I like Mr. D-Devin, I-I-I really do. I-I d-d-don't w-wanna hurt him n-none, b-b-but Mr. Wh-Wheaton, he-he--"
"Slow down." Adam held up his hand to stop the jumbled tangle of words. He shot Joe a glance, surprised to see a look of concern on his brother's face. Just when he thought to find a condescending sneer, Joe surprised him with solicitousness. His gaze swivelled back to Ricker's troubled countenance. Though intimidating in size, Ricker was obviously gentler in spirit. Sort of like a brother I know, Adam thought with a wry grin. "Are you admitting to hounding Mr. Devin?"
Ricker looked at the beer Adam had bought him. A look of misery crossed his face. "Mr. Wheaton, h-he said I-I had to h-hang around and kinda sc-care Mr. Devin." The gray eyes flashed back to Adam's face. "I-I don't really wanna--"
"Then why do you?" Joe spoke up.
Ricker's eyes flashed to the new voice, hesitating a moment on the youngest Cartwright. Hoss followed his glance, and noted the sudden insecurity that crippled his gaze. A man as large and slow as Ricker would surely feel awkward and imperfect next to Joe.
Ricker worked his thick shoulders into a shrug. "I owe Mr. Wheaton money. I-I worked for him, and t-then he-he f-fired me, but I'd already t-taken an advance on my pay." He lifted pleading eyes to Adam. "It ain't right to owe a man money."
"So what you're saying . . ." Hoss spoke up, "Is that, if you had the money to pay Mr. Wheaton back, you wouldn't have to dog Devin none, and you'd leave him be."
Ricker grinned at Hoss as though seeing him for the first time. He'd found a kindred spirit. "It's like you say, but Mr. Wheaton won't take the money. I got some from my Pa, but Mr. Wheaton don't want it none. He says I have to do what he tells me, instead."
"That don't make no sense." Hoss thought it ironic that Ricker spoke without a single stutter when addressing him.
Adam groaned and dropped his head into his hands. Three pairs of eyes followed the movement. After a moment he seemed to come to a conclusion and raised his head. Drawing a breath, he looked squarely at Ricker. "If I get Wheaton to release you from whatever you owe him, will you leave Devin alone?"
Ricker's face lit up like a full moon. "Mister, will I? I w-won't be able t-to thank you enough, if'n you do th-that for me!"
"I won't be able to thank
myself enough," Adam mumbled and pushed out of his chair. Reaching
aside, he snagged Joe by the jacket and pulled him towards the door.
"Sure hope you learned something, Joe, because if you ever get me into
a mess like this again, I will skin you alive."
James Wheaton was bony and small, almost wraith-like in appearance. A pale complexion and jet- colored hair, made the angled lines of his face seem harsher by comparison. Joe thought it odd that a man of such slight stature could get someone as large as Ricker to do his bidding, when Ricker's services were obviously contracted under duress.
Wheaton entertained his visitors in the front room of his house--not quite as opulent as Marsh's shuttered two-story, but lavish enough to hint at money. Joe doubted that Wheaton would feel the loss of Ricker's wage advancement, were it just to be written off. After explaining the reason for their visit, the brothers watched as Wheaton waved aside their concerns.
"It's all very foolish, really." Wheaton leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs almost daintily. Sipping at a cup of cinnamon-laced coffee, he watched the Cartwrights over the brim. Joe had tried the funny-smelling beverage and thought it appalling. Cinnamon was for desserts and breakfast toast, not beverages. "I really don't care about the money," Wheaton explained. "I'm not going to feel the pinch of a couple coins. No, my real reason for forcing Ricker into service was more personal. I don't even care about Devin. That business with the split shoe is in the past. I just wanted Ricker to feel my leash around his neck."
"You sound vindictive," Adam commented, surprised by the sudden maliciousness in their host's voice.
"Perhaps I am, but with cause."
Sitting on the sofa, Hoss turned his large hat in his hands. "May we ask why?"
Wheaton pursed his lips. "A wrong gentlemen, plain and simple. You've heard it before--a heart stolen, a heart broken."
Joe looked askance at his brothers. They were discussing men, after all. He saw that Hoss's and Adam's confusion, mirrored his own, but his brothers remained silent, uncertain how to venture further. Finally, Joe could stand it no longer. "Pardon?" he blurted.
"My daughter," Wheaton explained. "A plain girl, I admit. Not a gent in town to give her the time of day until Ricker took an interest in her. He's not what I'd want for Woglinda, but she was happy when he came courting."
"I take it, it didn't work out?" Adam prodded gently.
Sadly, Wheaton shook his head. "Poor girl took the break-up really hard. I don't think she loved him so much, but she loved the attention. She's been moping around the house, ever since. Now you see why I'm inclined to make Ricker sweat a little."
Adam sighed into his hand. "Mr. Wheaton, sometimes these things just take time."
"No. No, it's been too long. If there were another gent showed interest in her, maybe she'd snap out of it. Nothing serious mind you, just enough for her to get her confidence back." As he talked, Wheaton's eyes sidled back to Joe. He seemed to consider something, then leaned forward and set his coffee aside. "There's a dance tonight at the church. They're probably already stringing the lanterns, and there's going to be fiddles and food. Lots of baked dishes from the ladies. My Woglinda sure would like to go to that dance."
Adam sat up straight as he realized what Wheaton was proposing. A slow smile spread over his lips. "Mr. Wheaton , if you're suggesting what I think you're suggesting, and we're agreeable, will you call off Ricker?"
Wheaton nodded. "I'll tear up the IOU on the advance he owes me. But it's got to be him--" Wheaton motioned to Joe. "I want the pretty one to take her."
It took every ounce of
control Adam had to maintain a straight face. He watched as Joe's expression
ran the gamut from puzzlement, to sudden realization, to abject horror.
Before Joe could sputter a protest, Hoss moved in front of him and shoved
him down in his seat, even as he struggled to rise
"I think we can accommodate you," Adam said.
"Now wait just a minute--" Joe tried.
Smiling, Mr. Wheaton stood. "I'll fetch Woglinda," he told Joe, "So you can ask her."
"I am not taking anybody named Woglinda to a dance," Joe snapped the minute Wheaton had left the room. Rising to his feet, he glanced from one brother to the next, sheer panic evident in his gaze. "Th-this isn't fair. You can't seriously expect me to date a girl named Woglinda. It sounds like something dredged up from the bottom of Indian Creek." His voice bumped up an octave, a trait that only kicked in when he was excited or worried.
Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance--Adam looking terribly smug, Hoss a trifle guilty. Honing in on the weaker of the two, Joe moved quickly to Hoss's side. He'd rarely had problems getting his soft- hearted brother to side with him in the past. A little coercion, some smooth talk and just the right amount of guilt, and he'd have Hoss seeing things his way in no time.
"Come on, brother--" Joe closed his right hand over Hoss's shoulder and leaned in next to his ear. "I wouldn't do this to you, Hoss. I mean, dating a girl that the whole town's rejected. A brother would have to be pretty low to put his own flesh and blood in that kind of predicament." He could see Hoss growing indecisive, his broad face scrunching into a look of frustrated shame. Quickly, he pressed the advantage. "Besides, how fair can it be to the girl, using her this way? Don't you think she'd feel terrible if she knew what was really going on?"
"Yeah, but Joe, her own father--"
"Hoss, Hoss." Joe tapped his left hand against his brother's chest. Hoss's brows were folded together in a bewildered knot above his nose. "What does a father really know about a love-lorn daughter? Think about it--if you were nursing a broken heart, would you want some stranger courting you with false affection?"
"Hold it right there." Joe jerked at the hand that clamped down on his shoulder. Turning his head, he found his eldest brother watching him with thinly concealed amusement. Using one hand, Adam backed Joe away from Hoss. "Now you see," he said, canting his head aside to Hoss, "this is why you're always in trouble. You're just about as gullible as a day-old fawn. If I weren't here to intercede, our silver-tongued little brother would have you playing matchmaker between that girl and Ricker. You're as dew-eyed as a lop-eared rabbit, Hoss. When are you going to wise up?"
"Yeah, but Adam--"
"Matchmaker!" Joe snapped his fingers. "Hey Adam, that ain't a bad idea."
"Isn't a bad idea, and it is." Adam's dark eyes swung about to skewer Joe. "And as for you, Romeo--it was your flirting that got us into this mess to begin with, so you can just employ those considerable charms of yours to get us out."
Joe bristled, immediately defensive. "Now look here! I am not spending my evening at a dance with some frigid stick-in-the-mud!"
"Oh, yes you are," Adam retorted, suddenly menacing. Face set in a stern mask, he took a quick step forward. "And let me tell you why, dear brother. Because the woman I have grown very fond of, is expecting a particular necklace for her birthday, and the only way for me to get that necklace is for you to be handsome and charming. Now you've got one of those qualities in abundance--though for the life of me I'm not sure which--and the other you'd better adopt quickly." As he talked, Adam continued forward, until he'd backed Joe up against the wall. Casually he unbuttoned one sleeve then the other, rolling them back on his forearms. "I'd sure hate to mess up that pretty face of yours, but I'm not above taking a swipe or two at your head, seeing you've caused me so much grief."
"Yeah, b-but, Adam." Joe raised his arms just above waist level, as though prepared to block a blow. The half-crooked grin that got him out of most scrapes with his father, sprang easily to his lips. "Th-think about it. If I . . . um . . . t-take this Woglinda to the dance, t-then we won't be able to leave until tomorrow and you might not get back in time for Miss David's birthday."
"I'll take my chances," Adam said flatly. Joe's eyes darted beseechingly to Hoss. He was just about to try another plea, when a voice at the front of the room drew their attention.
"Gentlemen, I believe one of you wanted to meet my daughter."
Three sets of eyes turned to James Wheaton and the chaste-looking girl at his shoulder. Woglinda Wheaton was short and small-featured, with an oval-shaped face and pale blue eyes. Her mud-brown hair was coiled into a bun so severe it drew lines at her temples. She wore a shapeless, high-throated dress of olive green with a hint of lace at the collar and cuffs.
Smiling, Adam shoved Joe forward. "Miss Wheaton, may I present my brother, Joe Cartwright."
Joe nearly tripped but managed to catch himself at the last minute. Recovering quickly, he forced a weak smile.
"Miss Wheaton." Taking her hand, he raised it briefly to his lips. His eyes rose to hers and he found her gaze cutting and cold. Releasing her fingers, he straightened and cleared his throat. In the back of his mind, a welcoming thought sprang suddenly to life: maybe she won't want to go to the dance with me. Joe smiled, abruptly comforted. The look in the girl's eyes made it clear she didn't like games and wasn't easily fooled. She'd obviously seen through this sham of a date within seconds. Feeling better already, Joe's smile grew by inches. "Miss Wheaton, my brothers and I are here in town for the evening, and it would be my great pleasure to escort you to the church social. Your father's told me so many wonderful things about you, I can only hope you'd do me this honor."
There. He'd said it. Now all he had to do was wait for her to realize what her father was up to and--
"That's most kind of you, Mr. Cartwright. Please pick me up by 7:00."
"I'd be happy t-t--Miss Wheaton!" The self-satisfied smile died on his face as the impact of her words struck home. Surely, he'd heard wrong. Surely, she misunderstood. "B-but, Miss Wheaton--"
"Yes, Mr. Cartwright?" Her brow arched meaningfully as though daring him to say what was truly on his mind. The pointed look in her eyes told him she was perfectly aware of what had just transpired. He'd been right the first time--this woman was no fool.
Feeling suddenly sick, he lowered his eyes to the carpet. "Nothing. 7:00 will be just fine."
After Woglinda and her
father had left, Joe remained staring at the carpet. He didn't raise
his eyes even when he heard Adam approach. His brother exhaled a
savoring breath and clapped him firmly on the back. "There, you see--and
you thought you weren't going to have any fun on this trip!"
Adam took a long swig of his beer and leaned back in his chair. Though the beverage was lukewarm, he didn't think a beer had ever tasted so good. For the first time in days he felt relieved--no, he felt genuinely happy. A wide smile crept over his face. Seated across the table in the Redjack Salon, Hoss scowled.
"Ain't you got no remorse, Adam? You're sittin' there grinnin' like a hobgoblin while Joe is . . . is . . . well, you know--"
"Yes, I do know what Joe
is up to, and I'm going to savor that thought awhile longer if you don't
mind." Draining the last of his beer, Adam motioned to the bartender
for another mug. "Drink up, Hoss. Most everyone in town's at
that social. We got this whole place to ourselves, and I intend to
take advantage of it." Rocking his chair back on the hind legs, Adam
propped his feet on the table and folded his arms behind his head.
His eyes danced to the ceiling. "Sure feels good
knowing that kid brother of ours has his hands full."
"Adam--" Hoss was clearly perturbed. "What we did to Joe was inexcusable--forcing him into a date with that . . . that . . . she-creature."
Adam chuckled. "Hoss, are you forgetting Joe thrives on exercising his boyish charms?"
Hoss snorted. "He tries to exercise anything on her, and she's liable to slap him for the effort. Did you see how prim and proper she was? Almost frigid, like an old-maid schoolmarm." Hoss shuddered at the memory. "Like to give me the willies, just thinkin' about it."
Adam's beer arrived and he dropped his chair to the floor with a thud. "Then don't. Joe's a big boy. He can take care of himself. Besides--all he's got to do is make nice to her for one night and we're in the clear. As puritanical as she looks, he'll dance with her at arm's length, pay her a couple of compliments, then escort her home. Tomorrow we can collect the necklace, and be out of here by noon." Retrieving his beer glass, he motioned for Hoss to do the same. "Now drink up. We'll wait another hour, then go see how our beguiling little brother is faring."
Scowling, Hoss did as he
Adam's elation did not last long after arriving at the town social. Inside the church, the pews had been shoved aside, creating a large area for dancing. The rear had been curtained off, blocking both altar and pulpit from the path of any stray party-goers. Two men on fiddles, a third on banjo, and fourth on bass, provided a lively spray of constant music. Couples both young and old reeled across the dance floor, their bright laughter mixing with the gay chatter of those sitting along the walls or gathered by the punch bowl.
The crowd spilled over outside, where brightly lit lanterns were strung between ribbon-bedecked poles. Having already scouted the interior of the church for their errant brother, Adam and Hoss moved back outside. Almost immediately Hoss was drawn to a trio of long, narrow tables laden with food. His eyes gleamed as he glanced over the many delights prepared by the town's ladies. "Maybe we should look for Joe out here," he said, his eyes never straying from the food. He was already reaching for an empty plate, when Adam's comment stopped him.
"Leave that for later. If Joe's cut out on us, we're in trouble."
"He ain't cut out. You heard them girls inside droolin' about the handsome stranger Miss Wheaton was with. Who else would that be but Joe?"
Adam pressed his lips together. "Then why isn't he here?"
Hoss shrugged. "Maybe they went for a walk or something."
"Maybe he took her home to get rid of her."
"That's awful cynical of you, Adam."
"It can't be helped. We're talking about Joe, remember?"
"Adam. Hoss." Both men cringed at the sound of a familiar voice. Adam was the first to turn, a frozen smile already in place. He extend his hand.
"Mr. Wheaton. How good to see you again."
Wheaton's grip was warm and firm, but his own smile dimmed. "I haven't seen your brother, Joseph, or my daughter for some time. Do you know where they might be?"
"Uh, well . . ." Hoss worked his big shoulders into a shrug and kicked at the grass. "They, um . . .they probably just went for a walk, Mr. Wheaton."
"Hmm . . ." Wheaton appeared thoughtful. "Probably. Well--" He brightened momentarily. "Woglinda seemed to be enjoying herself, when I saw her earlier this evening. If you stop by my home after the dance, gentlemen, I'll take care of that pesky IOU belonging to Mr. Ricker."
Adam's grin magnified. Capturing Wheaton's hand a second time, he pumped it vigorously. "Thank you, Sir. We'll be certain to do that."
With a wave of his hand, Wheaton moved away.
Hoss grinned like a billy goat. "Say, Adam--that's grand, ain't it?".
"Sure is. Now all
we've got to do is find Joe. Looks like our younger brother did his
part, after all."
"You smell like honeysuckle and gardenia," Joe murmured huskily, nuzzling the creamy arc of Woglinda's neck. "Soft and sweet, like a summer breeze on a field of wildflowers. You weren't wearing that perfume when I met you earlier today."
Woglinda laughed softly and Joe felt the muted rumble of laughter travel up her throat. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips against the tickling vibration. "Earlier today I didn't know I was going to have a handsome young man ask me to the dance," she responded coyly. "I'm surprised you did, considering I was wearing that wretched sack of a dress."
"Hmm . . ." Joe's lips traveled upward and he nibbled slightly on her earlobe. One finger lightly traced the scooped neck of her form-fitting gown. "I like this one much better." Raising his hand, he cupped her chin and turned her face to his. Their lips met briefly with a flicker of flame, before Joe drew back. Leaning his head against the high back of the porch swing, he studied Woglinda's face.
She had been wearing the same hair style when he'd arrived earlier to take her to the dance--that severe bun that drew aging lines on otherwise smooth skin. Though her snug violet dress had been more appealing than the shapeless one he'd seen her in originally, the pinched lines of her face had failed to yield. It wasn't until after a few dances, and the attention he'd lavished on her, that her steely demeanor began to soften. In little time he'd coaxed a smile from her, and soon after a blossoming change to her personality. When he'd suggested a walk, she was only too happy to comply.
Companionable conversation gave way to holding hands, and before Joe knew it, he had walked Woglinda to her house. The front porch was draped in shadow, the corner swing beckoning and inviting. Once seated, Joe had managed to ease the pins from her hair, releasing the wild cascade of nut-brown tresses she'd kept so effectively tamed. With the hair tumbled about her shoulders, her pale blue eyes were almost smoke-gray, shifting hue even as she tilted her head. Joe couldn't believe the transformation, from the priggish looking girl of this afternoon, to the lush beauty who occupied his arms this evening. Bending his head, he pressed his mouth to hers, gently exploring the heady nectar of her tentative kiss.
He felt her hands slide onto his shoulders, a slender index finger lifting the edge of his neckcloth. Pressing her back against the swing, he urged her hands higher around his neck, so he could draw her closer. The shyness was gone from her kiss, and he took advantage of that opening to fully explore the welcoming bow of her mouth. His finger ghosted low on her neckline once again and she shivered in delight. "Lindy . . ." Joe breathed. Bending his head, he nuzzled her neck, pressing his lips to her heated skin. Reflexively, she arched against him. Groaning, Joe covered her mouth with an eager kiss.
Joe jerked upright at the angry exclamation that intruded on his romantic interlude. Half turning, his arms stilled wrapped around Lindy, he saw Adam and Hoss stepping onto the porch. Self-consciously he pulled Lindy to her feet, fussing quickly to straighten his rumpled clothing. "Adam. Hoss. I . . ."
"Excuse me, gentlemen." Head bent, Woglinda brushed by all three, the shimmering banner of her disheveled hair bouncing behind her as she slipped inside the house.
Shaking his head, Adam placed his hands on his hips. He had the look of a man, who knowing he's drowning, deliberately wades into deeper water. "You're determined to foul this up, aren't you, Little Joe?"
Joe fell back on owl-eyed innocence. "What?"
"You were supposed to dance!" Hoss snapped.
"Uh-huh," Adam said sarcastically. "That's why your lips are all puffy--from dancing?"
Self-consciously Joe scrubbed a hand over his mouth. "Well . . . one thing kind of led to another, and--" He stopped, suddenly angry at himself for explaining. A niggling prick of irritation made his temper flare. "You're the one that wanted me to take her to the dance, Adam! Can I help it if we find one another attractive?"
Adam suppressed his own temper. "What about Sue?"
Joe's face was blank. "Who?"
Throwing his hands in the air, Adam turned away. A second later he spun back, one finger leveled beneath Joe's nose. "I swear, kid, if you mess this up for me, I'll--"
"You'll what?" Joe challenged.
Adam pressed his lips together in a tight grin. He'd taken all he could stand. "This!" Drawing back his fist, he hit Joe squarely on the jaw. Unprepared for the blow, his younger brother stumbled backwards, falling into the porch swing and setting it rocking violently. Shaking his head to clear the fog, Joe ducked his chin down and gave a throaty laugh. Launching himself from the swing, he plowed into Adam, sending both men tumbling to the plank boards of the wide porch. Almost immediately, Joe was swinging. He felt two punches connect, before an arm wrapped around his throat and hauled him backwards to his feet. Arms sawmilling the air, he teetered precariously.
Once again he was shoved into the swing. This time it was Hoss who towered over him. "Now you listen to me, Joseph--"
Legs sprawled wide before him, curly hair tumbled over his brow, Joe looked about as threatening as a day-old colt. "No, you listen to me, Hoss--" Appearance and fact were two different matters. Though he might have looked harmless, Hoss knew Joe had the fiery spunk of a wild stallion.
"Get out of the way, Hoss," Adam barked behind him.
Scowling, Hoss glanced over his shoulder at his older brother. "You ain't helpin' any."
While Adam readied a colorful retort, Joe scrambled to his feet. He plowed into Hoss, sending both men crashing backwards into Adam. In short order all three brothers were sprawled on the porch. A tangle of arms and legs ensued as each struggled for leverage. Still trying to remain neutral, Hoss made one last vain attempt to separate his squabbling siblings. An uppercut to the jaw destroyed the last of his patience, and his own temper kicked in.
"Dadburn you, Little Joe." With a backwards sweep of his arm, Hoss sent his younger brother crashing against the railing. The wood buckled and Joe tumbled off the porch, landing three feet down in the grass. Dazed, flat on his back, he stared up at the concerned faces of his older brothers. Both stood looking down at him through the hole in the wood.
Realizing Joe wasn't seriously injured, Adam doubled over and burst out laughing. At the stunned expression on Joe's face, Hoss followed suit.
"Why, you--" Joe reached through the hole and knotted both hands in the front of Adam's shirt. Rolling backwards, he brought his foot up, lodging it in Adam's midsection, and propelled his brother backwards over his head. There followed a whuff of air as Adam's body connected with the ground. Wasting little time, Joe bolted to his feet, prepared to defend himself.
"Boys? Is there a problem here?"
Stunned, Joe glanced to the figure standing at the end of the sidewalk. A glint of lantern-light reflected off the tin star pinned to the man's breast. Rushing forward, Joe hooked a hand beneath Adam's arm and hauled him hastily to his feet. For good measure, he was rougher than he needed to be. "Evening, Sheriff." Joe flashed his most becoming smile. Though it worked wonders on girls, he wasn't sure what effect it would have on the sheriff.
Like his Pa, the sheriff seemed immune.
"Joe Cartwright, isn't it?" The older man narrowed his eyes as he drew abreast of Joe and Adam. Joe kept the smile plastered on his face and enforced it with a nod. "Sorry about the ruckus, sheriff. We were just um . . ." he glanced behind him and realized there was a gaping hole in the Wheaton's front porch.
"Um . . . that is . . ." He looked helplessly at his older brother. "Tell him, Adam."
Wrenching his arm from Joe's grip, Adam cast his brother a withering glance. He brushed a hand over his shirt, sending clinging bits of grass waffling to the ground. "A little family disagreement, Sheriff. We'll repair the porch."
The sheriff considered, then nodded. "Tonight."
Adam squared his jaw. "Tonight." he confirmed.
As the lawman moved away, Hoss ambled down off the porch. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he approached his brothers. "I heard what you said, Adam. Ain't much light to see by. We'll have to get some lanterns."
Adam sighed. His temper had cooled, leaving him feeling somewhat resigned. "All right," he said. "We might as well get to it. When we were here earlier, I noticed some lumber out back. With the three of us working--"
"--two," Joe inserted.
"Two," Joe repeated. Smiling, he held up his hands and started to back away. "In case you've forgotten, I have a date. I've got to get Woglinda back to the dance before her father changes his mind, and reneges on our deal." His smile grew to savoring proportions. "After all--we wouldn't want Miss David to lose her necklace, would we?"
Swearing softly, Adam lowered his head. Hoss simply sighed in acceptance. He'd learned long ago it was impossible to stay one step ahead of his younger brother. Clapping a hand on Adam's shoulder, he gave him on the only advice he could: "You might as well let him go, Adam. Joe's like a slippery 'ole eel. The harder you try to catch him, the more he just slips through your fingers."
Behind him he heard his younger brother's delighted giggle.
Hoss shook his head.
Joe was enjoying himself entirely too much.
Adam watched as Troy Marsh moved to the wooden box on the sideboard. He was one step away from having Lorna's necklace in his hand. As promised, Wheaton had torn up Ricker's IOU, and Ricker had apologized to Devin, vowing never to trouble him again. Devin had taken the $170 for the Appaloosa, if somewhat grudgingly--he'd tried to hold out for $180, but Adam had been firm-- and Marsh had agreed to return the necklace. Now, in the parlor of the blonde-haired man's home, flanked by his brothers, Adam was within moments of retrieving his precious gift. He could already visualize Lorna's appreciative reaction to the bauble. A little moonlight, a little poetry and that appreciation could be channeled into something more. He felt so good, he was even ready to forgive Joe, for getting him into the mess in the first place. Heck, the kid's just high-spirited.
"Here you are, Mr. Cartwright. As promised--"
Adam's thoughts scattered as Marsh turned around, necklace in hand. The fine mesh chain was hooked over his fingers, allowing the locket to dangle free. He dropped it into Adam's outstretched palm, giving him his first good look at it.
Joe gave a wink. "Pretty nice, huh?"
Adam stared dumbly, seeing but not seeing the locket in his palm. A strange expression crossed his face, followed by a look of utter calm. At last he cleared his throat. "Mr. Marsh, could you please excuse us for a moment?"
Marsh looked surprised, but nodded. "I'll be outside if you need me."
As he left the room, closing the doors behind him, Hoss peered over Adam's shoulder. "Say Adam, that's a right fine piece of jewelry."
Adam's fist snapped shut over the necklace. "No. It isn't."
"It isn't a right fine piece of jewelry because it isn't the right piece of jewelry!" Whirling on Joe, he practically snarled the next words: "You bought the wrong necklace!"
Joe's face twisted, running the gamut from confusion to uncertainty, settling finally on denial. He shook his head. "No, I didn't."
"You did." Thrusting his fist under Joe's nose, Adam shook his hand. The mesh chain dangled free, slapping against his wrist. "This locket has a rose etched on the cover. The necklace Lorna wanted had a lily on it."
"No." Joe shook his head, disgusted. "The one with the lily was the one she didn't like. It reminded her of her aunt. The one she can't stand--what's-her-name--"
"Clarice," Adam spat.
"I was there, Joe. At dinner. When she told us."
"So was I," Joe reminded.
"You weren't listening."
Joe arched a brow. "I always listen when a woman talks about what she likes." The innuendo didn't go unnoticed. Fearing the worst, Hoss moved between them.
Adam shoved him back. "So now you're an authority?"
"At least I pay attention."
"I was paying attention."
"Fellas--" Hoss tried again.
Joe shoved him back. "You were too busy paying attention to Pa and Mr. Watson discussing those timber contracts. I was listening to Lorna--"
"Miss David, to you."
"And probably to you too, if you try to give her a locket with a lily on it."
"I give up!" Throwing his hands in the air, Adam turned away. "I can't believe I spent two days in this wretched town, solving everyone's problems but my own-- just to get a necklace, I didn't want to begin with! Damn it, Joe, but you better pray that jeweler has the right one, or so help me--"
Unable to finish the sentence, Adam spun on his heel and stalked from the room. The door clattered behind him, echoing through the room with a resounding bang.
Disgusted, Hoss shook his head. "Come on," he said, hooking Joe beneath the arm.
"Wait!" Joe sputtered, still seething, uncertain if he was angry or affronted. He settled on frustrated. "Where are we going?"
"To the livery stable.
If that jeweler don't got Adam's necklace, there ain't gonna be a horse
fast enough to save your hide."
Adam buried the axe head in the pine log, splitting it cleanly down the center. Two halves tumbled from the chopping block, landing belly-up on the dew-saturated ground. He'd been back at the Ponderosa for two days now, and already the work was getting behind. Bending, Adam retrieved both pieces and neatly stacked them on a rapidly growing wood pile. Squinting against the haze of early morning sunlight, he reached for another log.
"Hey, brother. Getting an early start, aren't you?"
Suppressing a scowl, Adam glanced over his shoulder. Joe had wandered from the house, a cup of coffee clutched in his hand. One corner of his mouth curled faintly in an almost-grin, warning he was at his most irritating.
Thwack! Adam split another log. Joe had refined the art of devilment to sheer torture.
"What do you want, Joe?"
"Oh, nothing much." Joe tugged at his neckcloth and took sudden interest in his coffee. His smile inched upward, still not revealing teeth. "I was in Virginia City kind of late last night." A theatrical yawn. "Guess I'm still waking up."
Adam grunted. He knew what was coming, but couldn't figure out the angle. Joe moved to his side and stared down at the neatly stacked kindling.
"Nice wood pile. You chop all that this morning?"
Adam reached for another log. "Yeah."
"Hmm. Would have thought you'd slept in. I mean, with yesterday being Miss David's birthday and that romantic evening you had planned . . ." He let the sentence hang. The smile inched into a grin, revealing a hint of dazzling white teeth. Joe snapped his fingers and pointed at Adam. "I bet she was so taken with that necklace, she sent you home early 'cause she wanted to show it off to her friends."
Thwack! Adam stayed silent.
Joe walked around the wood pile. "In fact, I bet the reason you're up so early is to get all your work done, so you can rush into town and spend the day with her."
Adam sighed. He plunked the axe into the chopping block, and propped a foot on the edge. "Hoss told you?"
Joe's smile was smug. "Hoss told me."
"I bought the wrong necklace. The one with the lily--"
"--and the one I gave back--the one you bought, with the rose--that was the one Lorna wanted."
Joe made a soft clucking sound and shook his head. Taking a sip of coffee, he glanced at his brother over the rim of the cup. "She really doesn't like Aunt . . . what's her name?"
"Clarice," Adam supplied.
"Clarice," Joe repeated. "So what did she say when you gave her the necklace that reminded her of --"
"It wasn't pretty." Heaving a frustrated sigh, Adam scrubbed at his temples. "Damn it, Joe, I was so sure! How could I have fouled up like that?" Dejectedly, he slumped to a seat on the edge of the chopping block. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I am too busy worrying about timber contracts and legal jargon. Maybe I've forgotten what it's like to be young and in love. Sometimes I just feel so old."
Joe's smile faltered. "Hey, Adam--" Rarely did his brother admit to shortcomings. Though he liked to needle Adam, Joe secretly thought he had few faults. He was proud of his older brother. Prouder than he'd ever admit. Though their personalities often clashed, Joe respected Adam for his shrewd business mind, keen intellect and the ability to act responsibility, no matter the circumstance. To see him like this . . .
With a flick of his wrist, Joe tossed the remainder of his coffee from the cup. Squatting in front of his brother, he lifted his head to meet Adam's eyes. "Miss David is awful sweet on you, Adam. I've seen the way she looks at you. Women like to stir up a fuss when their vanity's been wounded. Giving her the wrong necklace, makes her think maybe you were paying more attention to those timber contracts then her--and no woman wants to think that. What she needs now is a lengthy apology, intermingled with some of that romantic poetry you like to read."
Adam tapped a knuckle against his lips. "And you would know this, because--?"
Joe's grin came naturally. "I'm an expert, remember?"
Adam shook his head. Standing, he pulled the axe from the block and reached for more wood. "I don't know."
Hands on knees, Joe pushed to his feet. "You could sweeten the apology with the right necklace."
Thwack! The axe cleaved through a fat log. "You're forgetting--it's in Sunset Draw."
Joe shrugged. "I might be persuaded to take another trip."
"Oh, no. I'm not going through that again. Besides--I happen to be a little light on cash at the moment."
Joe looked thoughtful. He turned away briefly, then swung back, a smile on his face. "Tell you what I'll do. The other necklace--the one with the lily--I'll buy it off you for $20."
"$20?" Adam cried. "I paid $40."
"Sure you did, but giving Lindy a necklace that was bought for another girl is like second-hand love. If she found out, she'd never forgive me. I'll give you $20 for the lily, you add your own $20, and there's your $40 for the rose. All you have to do is--"
"Whoa! Whoa!" Adam waved an arm in the air. "Who the heck is Lindy?"
Joe's expression was blank. "Woglinda," he clarified, as though the answer was obvious.
Adam gaped. "Woglinda Wheaton?"
"Joe, are you telling me you really find that girl attractive?"
Joe's grin grew flippant. "Adam, there's more to life than business deals. She wasn't so frigid, after all."
"Apparently. I seem to recall a certain brother doing more than dancing. What I want to know is how you managed to walk away with the girl, while I end up in the hole?"
Joe shrugged. "Lucky, I guess." He held out his hand. "So what do you say? Is it a deal?"
Adam hesitated. Every instinct in his body told him to decline, but Joe's grin was wide and infectious. Sliding his hand into his brother's palm, he nodded. "Deal."
Joe winked. "Just don't go planning anything for the next few days. I might run into problems."
"I'll tar-and-feather you, if you do."
Grinning, Joe tugged his hand free. He started to turn away when Adam reached out and caught the edge of his neckcloth. The material inched down, revealing the bruised skin beneath. Almost gone now, the discoloration would be completely invisible in a few more days. Adam's eyes touched on the faded bruises, then rose to Joe's face. A shadow passed over his features, and was quickly banished. He released his grip.
"Where are you going? I need some help with this."
As quickly as the ugly reminder of Chet Brecker surfaced between them, it passed. Joe cocked his head. "Help? You're doing just fine, brother. What do I get out of it?"
Adam tossed him the axe. "A penny for your problems."
"Only a penny, huh?" Moving to the chopping block, Joe backed Adam out of the way. He stationed a log upright on the surface, then glanced wryly at his brother. "In that case, guess I've only got one." Thwack! "See, I've got this annoying older brother who *thinks* he knows everything--"
"Correction: Who does know everything."
"You see there--that's part of the problem."
Adam laughed. "It all depends on your perspective, Joe." Stooping down he handed his brother more wood. He couldn't wait for the day when Joe dispensed with that wretched neckcloth for good. As he placed the wood on the block, he allowed his left hand to rest briefly on Joe's arm. He needed to touch his brother, but couldn't vocalize why.
Joe smiled warmly.
He knew all the same.
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