He battled back to consciousness, struggling against the pounding pain ebbing against him, and Adam's voice, low and rough, was the first thing he heard. Joe felt the soft brush of Adam's lips as his brother's harsh whisper sounded against his ear. The length of Adam's body lay against his, rigid and tense. Beyond that, all Joe knew was that something was ripping, tearing at his side, and he tossed his head in a strained attempt to escape it.
"Stay still! Damn it, Joe, stop fighting me…"
Joe's eyes were shut, but he could hear the desperation in Adam's voice.
"They're right on top of us, boy. For God's sake, don't move, and don't make a sound."
The anxiety in his brother's voice broke through enough for Joe to do as he was asked; he stopped struggling and lay still. He tried to open his eyes, but the effort to do so remained beyond him; he concentrated instead on trying to gather his wits enough to figure out what was going on.
"Don't move," Adam repeated, and this time his voice was so hushed that Joe wouldn't have heard it at all if his brother's mouth hadn't been pressed against his ear.
Adam was frightened; the sound of his fear washed over Joe, chilling him. The very thought that Adam was scared was enough to scare him, too, and it made him try harder to concentrate on what Adam was telling him. But the fire in his side made it hard to listen and hard to think. The pain of that fire was coming in waves, stronger and stronger now that he was awake, drowning out his thoughts, drowning out Adam's urgent whispers. A soft moan moved up in his throat and he tried to swallow it but it came out anyway, and as it did he felt Adam's fingers pressing hard over his mouth.
Somewhere in the back of his mind Joe wondered why his brother's fingers were so cold.
The need for air gradually took precedence over the pain in Joe's side, and he strained to open his eyes. When he did, Adam's eyes were not more than a hand's breadth away, their normal color of moss-laced whiskey now darkened with fear, and they were pinned on Joe's. Seeing that fear drew Joe's mind away from his own pain enough to jerk himself into further awareness of his surroundings.
They're right on top of us.
Danger was all around them. Joe no longer needed Adam to tell him so. He could smell it; he could taste it. He fought to remember what had happened even as he began to struggle out from under Adam's hand. Adam saw the lucidity come back into him, and slowly eased his hand away from Joe's mouth and raised one finger to his own lips in a hushing gesture.
Joe gave a tight nod, and when he did his cheek rubbed against cold, damp earth; the cold dampness enveloped him and pressed tight against his back. A slab of rock hovered inches above his head. Confusion fluttered at the edges of his brain; from what he could tell, which wasn't much, he was crammed into some sort of hole in the ground alongside his brother. He looked past Adam's shoulder and saw a thick wall of weeds and rushes, and through the weeds he could see the sparkle of sunlight on water.
The lake. The two of them were shoved up under a shallow undercut in the rock at the lake's edge, but for the life of him he couldn't remember how they'd gotten here. He turned his gaze back upon Adam; his brother was listening, listening hard, his eyes lifted upwards as though straining to see through the rock which lay so close over their faces. Adam's eyes flickered back to Joe, and the fact that fear still claimed them made Joe's stomach coil in upon itself.
The clawing at Joe's right side grew more insistent, and he carefully pressed his hand against the searing ache. His fingers met with warm wetness, and something else—an arrow shaft, broken off and protruding through his skin.
A fresh wave of pain moved through him, and with it, remembrance.
They'd been driving a freight wagon down through one of the most remote parts of the northwest section of the ranch, he and Adam, on their way back from a high outpost that was being set up as a new timber logging camp. The camp was due to begin operation early next week, and Pa had given them orders to haul in a load of supplies so that all would be in readiness by the time the logging crew arrived.
They'd arrived at the camp without mishap, unloaded the wagon and headed for home in good time.
"We'll be there before the sun sets," Adam had predicted, and Joe had been glad of it. The chill in the air would only increase once the sun set.
Not that the ride home wouldn't still be chilly, sun or no sun, and it had nothing to do with the coolness of the autumn breeze. The words Adam spoke about getting home were the first either of them had spoken since they'd left home that morning. They'd been at odds with each other all week, ever since they'd gone out to Ted Hannigan's place to have a look at a chestnut stud Ted had for sale. Joe was determined to have the horse, Adam had been against it, and the disagreement had escalated until they were both angry and frustrated with each other.
They'd argued all the way home from Hannigan's ranch that day, and it hadn't helped Joe's temper when Ben had sided with Adam that night at the supper table.
"Perhaps it's best that we rely on Adam's instincts on this, Joe," Pa had said gently. "Surely you don't deny that your brother has a lot of experience when it comes to dealing with horseflesh?"
Joe looked across the table at Adam, who let one dark brow rise as though only mildly curious as to what his younger brother's response would be. Joe couldn't help rolling his eyes as he looked back at Ben. "Well, no, Pa, of course I don't deny it. I know Adam knows a good horse when he sees one; that's why I can't believe he's being such a hard-head about this one. You should see the chest on this stud, Pa. He's—"
"Ted is selling him for a reason, Joe," Adam broke in. "He's wild and unmanageable—a rogue animal that probably should've been gelded long ago." Adam gave a pointed look to Pa. "After the horse broke Ted's foreman's leg last week, Ted decided to get rid of him before somebody got killed."
Ben's gaze sharpened. "Oh?"
The tone of that single syllable didn't bode well for Joe's argument, and he knew it. He looked to Hoss for support, but Hoss offered only a tiny, sympathetic smile and went on chewing his steak.
Joe sighed. He turned back to Pa, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. "So he's high spirited. I'll give you that. But it doesn't change the fact that his conformation is what we need to match up with our mares. I admit he needs some work—"
"Work?" Adam spat. "I've told you before, Joe, no amount of work is going to turn that horse around. For Pete's sake, he's not even halter broke; that's what the foreman was trying to accomplish when he got his leg stomped."
"Why don't you let me worry about that?" Joe shot back. "You may be a decent judge of horseflesh, but I can ride anything you can't—"
"This isn't about your riding abilities!" Adam roared. "It's about the best way to improve our herd and you're not—"
Joe's voice rose to match his brother's. "He's going to be used for breeding, anyway. We don't need to be able to ride him."
"Breeder or not, you know every animal on this ranch has to pull its own weight. We have no need for a horse that can't work, regardless of its bloodlines."
"You know what? I'm sick of always having to bow down to your opinion," Joe shouted. "You decided against that animal the instant I said we needed it."
"I decided against that animal the instant I found out what he's capable of!" Adam bellowed.
They continued to try to out shout each other until Pa banged his fist down on the table and thundered, "Enough!"
Silence reigned as they both shut their mouths but continued to glare at each other. Pa took a deep breath to get his own temper under control and gave a hard look to both his sons.
"Now. This conversation will be conducted in a civil tone or not at all," he warned.
"That won't be difficult," Adam said, and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "As far as I'm concerned, the conversation is over. If you'll excuse me, Pa, I think I'll turn in early."
Ben drew his mouth into a thin line, then nodded and murmured an assent. As Adam climbed the stairs, Joe's cheeks flushed with furious heat; he felt his father's eyes on him, but he turned his attention to his plate and proceeded to push his potatoes around with his fork.
Reluctantly, Joe raised his eyes. Pa rested his chin on steepled fingers and sighed. "Joe, this horse—"
But like Adam, Joe found he had no taste for further talk that night. Why bother? The decision had been made. "I know, Pa. Adam knows horses. You told me." Abruptly he dropped his fork with a clatter onto his plate and shoved his chair back. "Excuse me. I've got some work to finish in the barn," he muttered and rose and headed for the door, slamming it behind him and leaving Hoss and Ben staring soberly over the table at each other.
Despite Adam's claim to the contrary, the conversation was far from over. The remainder of the week was spent with Joe and Adam throwing dark looks and even an occasional veiled insult at each other whenever Pa wasn't near enough to hear. Meals were spent either in sullen silence or tense arguments, and those arguments always circled back to Hannigan's stud.
"Ain't no horse worth all this belly-achin'," Hoss had finally grumbled one evening after supper, and had stomped up the stairs to bed, leaving the two of them shamefaced but each still unwilling to give in.
Pa, too, had finally had enough. He'd decided that the two of them would make the supply run up to the new logging camp, and Joe wondered if he did it as much to get a day's peace as he did out of hopes that his oldest and youngest sons would come to terms with each other.
Joe didn't care what his father's reasons were for sending them off together; it wasn't going to change how he felt. Adam was wrong about Hannigan's big chestnut horse. It was as simple as that. Joe knew it, and nothing would change his mind, even if—or maybe even especially if—Pa was inclined to lean toward Adam's decision on the matter.
So the horse was a little bad-tempered. Joe was convinced he could gradually work it out of the animal if given half a chance, but both his brother and his father refused to believe in him enough to let him even try. That fact rubbed against him like an ill-fitting saddle, and he found himself as angry at Pa as he was at Adam.
Being sent off in exile with Adam was like rubbing salt in the wound.
If Pa had hoped that they'd talk things over on the long drive to the camp and back, he'd been sorely mistaken. All day long they'd both taken considerable pains to keep from acknowledging one another, and while unloading the wagon, Adam had tossed a sack of oats at Joe with what could easily be construed as unnecessary force. Joe had retaliated by "accidentally" dropping an armload of shovels across the toe of his brother's boot.
Despite themselves, they'd eventually gotten the job done. They were both so worn out that when it came time to share a wagon seat for the ride home they didn't even mind overly much. They still weren't speaking, however, and Adam's comment about making it home before the sun set was more a thought spoken aloud than it was any attempt at making conversation with his brother.
As it turned out, Adam's prediction about making it home had been incorrect, and if circumstances had been different Joe would have gleefully taken the opportunity to tell him so.
This was one time, though, when Joe regretted the fact that his brother had been mistaken. They hadn't made it home at all; in fact, they had still been many long miles from home when a screaming band of Paiutes had come from out of nowhere, painted for war and bearing down on them with astonishing abruptness. The Indians had quickly cut off the wagon trail in front and behind, and when they'd opened fire Joe and Adam had been forced to abandon the team and dash for cover into the thick forest growth surrounding them.
They'd run for what seemed like miles with the warriors crashing through the trees behind them. At one point they'd managed to lose their pursuers by doubling back on their own trail, but the ruse hadn't worked for long. They'd heard the change in tone in the whoops ringing up through the trees and knew they'd been discovered once more, and they'd turned to run westward toward the lake, firing behind them as they ran.
Joe had been firing over his shoulder when he saw one of the braves draw back on his bow. He turned and wrenched his body to the side, hoping to avoid the arrow, and for a moment he thought he'd succeeded. But the next thing he knew he was lying on his back with an arrow sticking out of him, able to do little more than gasp for air. The Indians' cries grew closer, and he knew he was about to die.
Then Adam was there, firing back at the nearest braves and cutting them down one by one. He moved more quickly than Joe, by now only half-conscious, could follow with his eyes, quickly snapping the arrow shaft off and lifting Joe to his feet. He half-supported, half-dragged his brother through pines and brush and rocks; it was all Joe could do to stay on his feet.
That was all. The sound of Adam's whispers in his ear were the next thing Joe had been aware of. And now here they were, huddled under the earth together like a couple of scared rabbits.
He followed Adam's gaze back up toward the rock. The guttural sounds of the Indians' conversation drifted down to them. A scattering of dirt rained down behind the opening at Adam's back; Adam moved nothing but his eyes, catching and holding Joe's as they both held their breath.
They waited. The cold from the wet earth was seeping through Joe's clothes, and he started to shiver. Carefully, Adam passed his arm around him and pulled him closer. The warmth of his brother's body helped somewhat, even though Adam was shivering, too.
There was another rain of pebbles over the ledge above their heads. Over Adam's shoulder, Joe watched a moccasined foot step down into the mud. Another moccasin joined the first, then another, then three more. A quick glance at Adam's face told Joe that his brother knew they were there, even though Adam was faced away from them and couldn't see them. Joe again turned his gaze past his brother…no more than a couple of feet away the moccasins were milling through the mud, turning around, facing them…
If they were discovered now, there would be no escape. They'd be cut down like rats in a hole. Don't move, Adam's eyes warned, his throat working, but their bodies refused to acknowledge the need for absolute motionlessness and continued to tremble.
The warriors were talking in low, grunting voices, occasionally calling back to the Indians still further up the slope. They moved closer, the toe of one's foot mere inches from Adam. Joe let his eyes fall shut; if the sharp bite of a tomahawk was about to enter his brother's back, he didn't want to see it.
They waited, and waited some more, and the pain in Joe's side increased steadily, growing stronger and stronger in great rushing waves until finally it overrode even his fear. He could feel the thump of Adam's heart beating against his chest, and his own heartbeat joined into perfect unison with it. He felt himself begin to lose his grip on consciousness and as he began to slide back into darkness the irony of it struck him; after a lifetime of fighting his oldest brother's lead, even his body knew enough to fall into step with him as they both got ready to die.
… … … … … …
"Joe, come on. Open your eyes."
Joe groaned. A bitingly cold autumn morning, the kind of day when all he wanted was to lie in bed a little longer, and here was Adam making a perfect pest of himself. Joe turned his face away from the sound of his brother's voice. It was too cold to get up yet, anyway—and where had his blankets gone? He was shaking from the cold.
"Joe. I need you to wake up." Adam again, his voice sharper and more demanding. Joe sighed, recognizing the determination in that voice. Adam wouldn't leave until Joe did as he was asked. He tried to open his eyes, but the lids felt weighted. He didn't feel so good, either.
Just a few more minutes of shut-eye, Adam. Then I promise I'll get up.
But it was no good. Adam grasped Joe's chin with his fingers, shaking his head back and forth, and called his name again. Joe tested the weight of his eyelids again and decided he could ignore his brother's calls whether he was yanking his chin around or not; he began to slip back underneath the comforting blanket of sleep.
Adam slapped his cheek, and the shock of it was finally enough to rouse Joe. He forced his eyes open, already halfway angry. Adam's face was hovering over him, looking absurdly relieved, and Joe's anger seeped away with the last vestiges of sleep.
Then the pain hit him again, and with it came the full-blown knowledge that it wasn't morning, and he definitely wasn't in bed in his room. No, he was lying on his back in the mud beside the chilly November waters of the lake. The sun, shining with empty promise, was rapidly moving toward its downhill slide into the mountains, and Joe was miserable, cold and hurting.
"Joe, do you think you can walk? We've got to go. They haven't given up; they'll be back," Adam was saying, his teeth chattering together, and Joe noticed for the first time that his brother was smeared with mud. He wondered if he looked as bad, and decided he probably did.
Could he walk? He wasn't sure. He tried to sit up, jerking in a breath at the pain in his side. He looked down and pulled his jacket back; along with the mud, his side was smeared with blood, both dry and crusted and wet and warm, but the arrow shaft was gone. Beneath his shirt his neckerchief lay padded against the wound, already so soaked that it was no longer absorbing any blood.
"I went after the arrowhead while you were still out," Adam explained. He held up an apologetic hand. "Lousy conditions, but I wasn't sure when we'd get another chance, and you couldn't go on with it still in there."
Joe sighed and nodded. It didn't feel any less painful, but at least he knew the arrowhead wasn't still inside causing more damage.
He felt for his gun; it wasn't there. Adam saw the movement.
"Your gun's back on the trail with mine. Decided we didn't need the extra weight since we didn't have any more ammunition. I shot up what we had."
Dismay settled in the pit of Joe's stomach, but he simply nodded and took Adam's outstretched hand, biting back a curse as his brother helped him to his feet. He leaned heavily on Adam, and was caught by surprise when his brother staggered beneath his weight.
"Adam?" Joe took in Adam's pale face and for a moment he was afraid his brother would fall. "Adam, what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. I'm just skittish after almost having my scalp lifted. Let's go."
Joe dug in his heels to keep Adam from moving him along. "You don't look so good."
Adam's laugh was short and sharp. "There's a true case of the pot calling the kettle black. I'm fine. Now let's go!" He rolled his eyes in irritation when Joe stuck his chin out in stubborn determination and eyed him suspiciously.
"Something's wrong." He looked Adam up and down, and motioned toward the neckerchief tied around Adam's upper thigh. "What's that?"
"Nothing." Adam tugged at Joe's arm, but Joe held his ground and Adam sighed. "Fine. If it will get you moving, I'll tell you. While I was in the middle of dragging your dead weight to the lake, one of those braves caught up to us."
Joe stared at him. "And what happened?"
Adam shrugged and bent to pull a wicked-looking knife from his boot. He held it up for Joe to see, then replaced the knife and straightened. "At least we got a weapon out of it. Let's go."
A knife. Joe looked pointedly at the smear of blood on Adam's pants. "How bad is it?"
Adam looked at Joe and sighed impatiently. "Not bad. I'm still here. He's not. Now, come on."
Joe started to argue, but stopped himself. Adam's face had taken on that hard look that meant a man could argue all day long if he wanted; it still wouldn't do any good. Adam had said all he was going to. Besides, he spoke the truth. If they were going to live, they had to move.
Joe looked down at the sodden stretch of shoreline as Adam pushed him forward. It was easy to see where Adam had dragged him away from the hole after the Indians had left; a swath of weeds crushed into the mud clearly led back to where they had lain hidden.
Joe shook his head, staring at the crevice under the rock shelf. "How the heck did you get us both in that little bitty hole?"
Adam flashed him a grin. "It wasn't easy. Good thing it was you and not Hoss I had to squash in there, or we'd never have fit."
Joe laughed, and was caught by surprise. After days of glowering at his brother, being able to laugh with him was oddly freeing. He cut the laugh off short, both because of the physical pain the action caused and because he was suddenly uncomfortable. Hannigan's horse suddenly seemed a million miles away, but their argument over it was still tight under Joe's skin. It was just one more disagreement among hundreds where Joe felt Adam had emerged triumphant and his own opinion had been dismissed as if he were nothing more than an untried greenhorn.
The significance of the dispute had paled in light of the day's events, and yet Joe couldn't quite bring himself to let go of it. His stinging pride wouldn't let him.
He turned his attention toward hobbling along at Adam's side, throwing a quick glance back at the hole as they went. He didn't know how Adam had managed to get the two of them to the lake's edge and into that hollow, but he knew it had to have cost Adam something. Even with his own injury making his progress stiff and sluggish, he could feel the jerkiness of Adam's movements, and knew his brother was hurting regardless of his attempts to hide it.
They stumbled through the trees for almost an hour, moving as fast as they could. Adam was soon limping, and the limp was quickly growing more pronounced. After awhile, Joe wasn't sure who was supporting whom. He grimaced as they crashed against a young sapling, snapping off one of the branches.
"We're leaving a trail a drunk could follow," he muttered, gesturing at the broken branch and the ruby droplets of blood sparkling on the ground behind them, and Adam nodded, leaning against him and breathing heavily. Joe stared at the paleness of his brother's face, starkly white in the shadow of the heavy pine growth. "Adam, you look…let's stop," he said abruptly, suddenly more afraid than ever and not sure why.
"We can't. If we stop they're going to catch us. We've got to keep moving." Adam jerked his arm from Joe's grasp and lurched forward—and fell face forward onto the thick bed of pine needles carpeting the forest floor.
He didn't move again.
"Adam!" Joe staggered forward and dropped to the ground beside him. The smear of blood on Adam's leg had grown into a dark, wet stain that even now was spreading across the side of his left thigh. Joe placed his hand against the stain, and his palm came back red with blood, his hand shaking as he stared at it.
He swore softly and bent over Adam's leg. The neckerchief Adam had tied over the wound had loosened. There was a tear in the center of the blood-drenched fabric of Adam's pants leg, and Joe pulled at the edges of the tear, ripping it further apart. He sat back in dismay at what was revealed.
"My God, Adam," he whispered. A three-inch cut, dangerously deep and bleeding freely, gaped up at him like a leering beast.
The implications had Joe reeling. They were in more trouble than they could handle, both of them hurt and bleeding, pinned between a band of scalp-seeking Paiutes and the oncoming chill of what was sure to be a desperate night.
His own pain clawed up his side again, but he pushed it back down, trying to keep his head clear. He looked back again at the trail they'd left; it was only through sheer luck or God's good mercy that they hadn't been found already. Apparently the Paiutes had been searching in all the wrong places, but it was only a matter of time before they came across such a glaringly obvious trail.
When he looked back at Adam's still face, Joe's priorities began to fall into place through sheer hard need. If he didn't get the bleeding stopped, his brother wouldn't last long enough for the Indians to find.
Hands shaking with cold and pain and fear, he hurried to untie the neckerchief from Adam's leg and re-knotted it, thrusting a stick through the knot in order to twist and tighten it further until the fabric stretched tightly just above the stab wound. Joe gave a relieved sigh as the flow of blood began to ebb. Adam never moved.
Joe froze as he heard a distant shout, very distant, drift from somewhere back toward the lake. The Paiutes. They were back, and unless he missed his guess, they'd just discovered Adam's hole at the lakeside.
"Figuring out how you tricked them isn't likely to improve their disposition any," he murmured as though Adam could hear him. "What do we do now, brother?" But of course Adam couldn't hear him.
Joe didn't know how, but they had to hide again. They sure wouldn't be able to run.
He stood up to more carefully survey their surroundings. The pine timber was heavy here, interspersed with a few slender aspens and wagon-sized boulders. He stared at the rocks scattered up the mountainside, considering.
"If we could get up there into those rocks, we might be able to throw them off the trail, at least for awhile," he said, still speaking as though Adam was capable of hearing. He looked down at his brother and then back up at the rocks. What should be an almost unnoticeable climb seemed to tower over him.
He knew he was capable of carrying his brother…on a good day, which this definitely was not. His own wound was sapping his energy, making him lightheaded and queasy; he was barely able to move himself along. He wouldn't be able to wait for Adam to come back around, though; there was no time to spare for that. He shrugged; there was nothing to do but try, and he bent toward the effort with everything he had.
The climb up into the rocks was long and tortuous. He half-carried, half-dragged Adam along, and every few yards he had to stop to lower him to the ground and stand gasping to get his breath back. The hole the arrow had left in his side was steadily seeping blood, but it couldn't be helped. He kept moving.
He climbed steadily on until they were as high into the rocks as he thought he could make it. Then he carefully laid his brother down and propped himself against a rock, looking back at the path they'd taken. He'd have to go back and cover the marks they'd left as best he could.
Adam moaned, and Joe quickly went down on his haunches beside him.
But Adam didn't respond, even after Joe called his name twice more. Joe's brows scrunched in worry as he regarded his brother. Adam's face was the color of a trout's underbelly, and he was shivering. Joe shucked out of his jacket, ignoring the frigidity of the mountain breeze running across his shoulders, and draped it across Adam before removing his tourniquet once more.
He reached out and gently touched the stab wound. It was no longer bleeding, but it was slightly red and warm to the touch. Infection was already raising its ugly head.
"Got yourself stuck good this time, didn't you, brother?" Joe whispered, and he found himself wishing the Indians had attacked before he and Adam had left the logging camp. At least they would've been able to hole up in the tiny cabin there, and they would've had food, ammunition—and medical supplies.
He shook his head. No use wishing for what wasn't. He slid the Indian brave's knife from Adam's boot and moved over to an aspen tree. Using the sharp blade, he peeled several hunks of the white bark from the tree and carried it back over to his brother. He stared at the woody pieces of bark for a moment, considering. From what he had been told, it really should be brewed into a tea, but that wasn't possible under the circumstances.
He shrugged and put a chunk of bark into his mouth and chewed, pulling a face at the bitter taste. When the bark was a mushy mess in his mouth, he spit it out into one hand, and then chewed on another piece. He kept on chewing and spitting until he had a good-sized pile of wet, spongy bark collected.
He plastered the entire pulpy mess across Adam's wound and wrinkled his nose at the unappetizing mound. "You might not approve of the treatment, brother," he murmured. "I'm not sure I'd want you spittin' pieces of chewed up bark on me, either. It's not exactly something that Doc Martin would do, I don't reckon. 'Course, since you ain't awake to argue about it, you'll have to take it up with me later." He retied the tourniquet to hold the wet, mushy bark snugly against the wound.
He sat down to cut a strip off the bottom of his own pants leg to use as another bandage for his side; he couldn't afford to leave more of his own blood to lead the Indians back to them, and he hoped the fabric would continue to absorb long enough to let him finish covering signs of their passing. He changed the blood-soaked neckerchief out with the strip from his pants leg, and then stood to hover once more over Adam's pale, shivering form. "I've got to go cover our trail, Adam. I'll be back," he said, but then he hesitated. Leaving his brother lying alone ripped at his gut, and yet he knew it had to be done. Murmuring a prayer that Adam would be watched over, he turned and scrambled over the rocks and headed back down the slope.
Backtracking along their trail ended up taking more time than he had been gambling on. Blood from both him and Adam was sprinkled liberally across the ground; Joe had to stop and painstakingly sift dirt and pine needles across every spot he saw, praying to God he didn't miss any and being careful not to leave any new droplets behind. Where tufts of needles had been disturbed by their awkward passage, he stopped and soothed and fluffed. When he came to the sapling they had damaged, he took a stone and scraped bark from the trunk. With any luck, if the Indians came across it they would think a buck had done it while rubbing its antlers. Or so he hoped.
He kept going until he came to a small creek. He crossed to the other side, and then he very deliberately tramped his boots solidly along the damp bank, removing his makeshift bandage from his side and letting the blood drip steadily onto the ground as he moved along.
He listened for more sounds from the Paiutes, but heard none. That was to be expected; if the braves thought they were closing in on their prey, they would be prone to keeping quiet. The very silence made his nerves clang.
He walked for a half mile or so downstream, and then stepped back into the icy water and began to wade back upstream as fast as he could. He knew his pace was slow, but his injury was making him stiff and clumsy. Several times he stumbled and fell, and the frigid water left him gasping.
Still a considerable distance from where he had first crossed the stream, the earthen bank gave way to a steep cascade of fallen rock; there he climbed out of the water and started to climb, careful to clamp the bandage, now cold and wet, tightly against his side.
The position of the sun told him he'd been gone from Adam for at least a couple of hours. His arms and legs shook as he climbed, and he knew it wasn't just from the cold. He was tired, and he was weakening. Night would be coming on soon, and he had no idea what to do next. And beyond all that, he was afraid for his brother, afraid of what he would find when he finally made it back to him. A vision of Adam's dead body stiffening in the rocks wedged its way into his mind, and bile rose into his throat. He stopped and leaned against a boulder, inwardly cursing at his inability to move faster. Giving his head an angry shake, he wiped the back of his hand over his eyes as if to clear away the bitter image.
"Just stop thinking," he muttered to himself, and continued in his diagonal climb across the rocky face of the mountain.
When he finally made it back to where he had left Adam, the first thing he saw was his brother sitting propped against a rock and gazing steadily back at him. The relief of it brought hot tears to sting the back of Joe's eyelids.
He collapsed in a heap at Adam's feet and tried to regain his breath.
"Where you been, kid?"
Adam's nonchalant tone made Joe raise his head off the ground to stare incredulously at him. "Where've I been?" he squeaked. "I've been running myself ragged trying to save your hide, that's where I've been!" Too late, he saw the edges of Adam's grin sneak along his face and realized that his older brother had gotten the reaction he was looking for. He rolled up onto his side and looked at Adam, offering him a reluctant grin of his own. "How're you feeling?" he asked softly.
Adam shrugged. "Lightheaded. Sick. Cold. Guess that brave got his knife in a little deeper than I thought." He stared at Joe and shook his head. "I can't believe you got me up here." His eyes narrowed as he looked at Joe more closely and noticed his damp hair and clothing. "What the hell—have you been swimming?"
Joe rolled his eyes and sat up. "Yeah. I got so hot lugging you up here that I thought I'd cool off after I went back to cover our trail." He wrapped his arms around his knees. Now that he had stopped moving, he was starting to shiver again.
Adam's lips tightened. "We're going to have to get your clothes dry or you'll be dead of pneumonia by this time tomorrow."
"How? Even if we had time to wait, we can't build a fire. The smoke would give us away."
"It'll be dark soon. Maybe we could get a fire going then—"
"No." Joe shook his head. "We can't spare the time. As soon as you feel up to it, we've got to move again. The Paiutes must've swung back in our direction; I heard them back down by the lake earlier."
Adam's eyes fell shut and he leaned his head back against the rock. He whispered something that could've been either a curse or a prayer; Joe couldn't quite make it out.
"I set up a decoy trail," Joe offered.
Immediately Adam raised his head again, his expression intent. "Tell me," he prodded, so Joe did. When he finished, Adam's eyes glinted with new hope. "It might give us some time."
"Some, maybe," Joe allowed. "Not much. They'll figure it out eventually. We'll rest up, let you try to get some strength back, and then we've got to get out of here."
Adam nodded in resignation, knowing they had no choice. "Probably best if we wait until nightfall, and then make a run for it. Less chance of them spotting our trail that way."
Less chance of him and Adam seeing the Indians sneak up behind them, too, Joe thought, but he didn't say it. Instead he leaned against a rock and slid down to sit on the ground. Despite his relief, he was suddenly feeling a lot worse now that Adam was awake and alert again. Joe's head ached, his stomach was roiling, and the fire had come back to stake its claim on his side with new-found force. It was as if now that he was once again in the company of the brother who always knew what to do, his own mind was telling his body to just let go. While he had been hurrying to hide their trail, he had barely been aware of how bad he felt; now it was all he could think of.
Joe watched his brother chew thoughtfully on his bottom lip, and he knew Adam was thinking hard to find a way to get them both out of danger. Joe found himself taking a childlike comfort in the knowledge, and he leaned his head back and shut his eyes. He didn't want to think any more; he was happy to let Adam make the decisions. Whatever his oldest brother decided, he'd go with it.
"Joe? What was this stuff you put on my leg?"
Joe opened his eyes and grinned. "Nasty looking, isn't it?"
Adam smiled back and nodded. "Pretty nasty. It seems to be working real well at taking some of the heat out of the cut, though. What is it?" he asked again.
"Aspen bark. Indians use it for fever and infection," Joe explained, wanting to laugh at the incredulous look on Adam's face.
There was a moment's silence. "You learned that from Blue Wolf, I take it?"
Mention of his former Apache friend pulled the smile from Joe's face. Joe's relationship with the Indian had never set well with Adam, and Joe himself had a confusing mixture of both bitter and pleasant memories from it. Their friendship had ended with murder and heartbreak; he had never been able to talk to Adam about what had happened, and he had no desire to try now. He simply nodded and shut his eyes again.
More silence. Then, "Joe…Hannigan's stud. I want you to know—"
"For heaven's sakes, do you have to bring that up?" Joe snapped. He opened his eyes once more to glare at Adam. "You can stop worrying about that darn horse. I'm done fighting you over it."
"You don't have to keep telling me—I know I don't know as much about horses as you do, Adam. Hell, I don't know as much about anything as you do, and I never will. I know it, you know it, and Pa knows it, so you can stop rubbing it in," he sighed. He shut his eyes once more and reached up to pull his hat down over his face.
Adam didn't take the hint to drop the subject. "That's not what I mean, and you know we don't believe that. You're angry over—"
Joe didn't bother to raise his hat. "You're wrong, Adam," he murmured. "I'm not angry at all. I really don't care about it any more." As he drifted off to sleep, he realized that he spoke the truth. He was so dog-gone tired and felt so blasted sick that he had no energy left to spend on being mad.
It was a sure sign of just how bad off he was.
… … … … … …
He wasn't sure how long he dozed, but he awoke to Adam gently shaking his shoulder.
"Come on, Joe. Time to head out."
Joe blinked his eyes open, and saw pinpoints of light fluttering over his head. Awfully cold out for fireflies—no, they were stars. Only they didn't behave as stars ought to, swirling around like that.
"Joe? Are you alright?"
The concern in Adam's voice pulled his attention off the wandering stars and onto his brother's face, barely visible in the darkness. Heavy, thick darkness. Lots of nervous stars, but no moon to light the earth. Blue Wolf had sworn to him that Apaches could see in the dark; Joe had laughed at him, but now he wondered abruptly if it was true, and if it was a trait shared by Paiutes as well.
Joe blinked again. "What?"
"Are you alright?" The concern in Adam's voice was growing, and Joe shook himself.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." He was stiff with cold, even though he suddenly realized that his jacket had been draped back around his shoulders while he slept. He struggled into a sitting position and shrugged his way into the jacket, managing to bite back the hiss of pain that the movement caused. He looked up at Adam's silhouette standing dark against the night sky. "Good to see you on your feet again, Adam. Can you walk?" Joe asked the question matter-of-factly, but inside he was already worrying, wondering how he would ever be able to conjure up the strength to carry his brother any further.
But Adam nodded. "Yeah, I can walk, more or less. While you were asleep I made myself a crutch from a pine branch. I can lean on that. Hopefully it'll help me keep up the pace a little." He bent low over Joe again as if to peer into his eyes. "How's the arrow wound?"
"Hardly feel anything at all," Joe lied, and he was glad the darkness kept Adam from seeing the fib on his face. Adam was in as bad or worse shape than Joe was, and it would do no good to worry him. In removing the arrowhead, Adam had already done everything he could do, anyway.
With an effort, Joe got his feet back under him and stood up. The ground pitched, and he steadied himself against a rock, again thankful for the cover of darkness. For a moment he thought he might retch, but he gritted his teeth and the moment passed. When he was sure he could speak without giving himself away, he asked, "Which way do we go?"
"North across the slope, I think, and then east. I heard a shout off to the west just as the sun set. I'm pretty sure they were following that trail you set." Adam paused. "It was good thinking, Joe, setting that false trail. Likely saved our lives."
Joe couldn't help smiling in self-conscious pleasure. His oldest brother didn't normally go around handing out compliments, so one from him was like gold. Joe dropped the smile then and shrugged. "Our lives aren't saved yet, brother. In case you haven't noticed, we're huddled in the middle of a bunch of rocks with a band of murdering Paiutes on our tail. Seems to me we're both still in danger of losing our hair."
The dim starlight was enough for him to catch the flash of Adam's grin. "Then let's make sure that doesn't happen. Come on."
For the next hour, they moved in the direction Adam had indicated, their progress painfully slow. With every step he took, Adam let out a tiny grunt of pain, and Joe began to have serious doubts about just how much longer his brother would be able to go on. Just as he had said to Adam, they were a long way from safety.
Maybe rescue was on its way. Joe clutched Adam's arm to help him over a rough section of trail. "Do you think Hoss and Pa are looking for us yet?" Joe asked hopefully.
"Most likely. If not, they will be soon. It's a long ride up here, though. We can't depend on them to get to us before the Paiutes do. And we're so far off the main trail that they'll have to hunt for us once they get here."
"Shouldn't we try to get back to the main trail, then?"
Adam grunted again as he maneuvered his way over loose rock with Joe close behind him. "We can try to get closer, but we'll have to be careful. The Paiutes may be expecting us; if they do, they'll have guards posted on the wagon trail. We'll have to—damn!" The curse came out as a harsh whisper, and Adam backed up, bumping into Joe.
"What is it?"
"They must've figured out we're up here somewhere," Adam whispered. "They're down there on the other side of this ridge." He sat down, breathing heavily. "We're cut off."
Joe joined him on the ground. "Do we veer south?"
Adam shook his head. We'll run straight into Marble Bluff. No way to climb up it, and we'll be out in the open. They'll reach us before we can get around it."
"North will bring us back down to the wagon trail. If they know we're here, they'll be expecting us to try to move that direction."
Joe sighed in exasperation. "Well, we can't head west."
"We have to. It's the only way out of these rocks."
"The only way out—you can't be serious! If we head west, we'll run right back down to the lake."
"I realize that."
The defeat in Adam's voice set Joe's heart to pumping. "Then what do we do?" Joe asked urgently, and moved close enough to see Adam's face in the starlight.
Adam heaved a sigh and shook his head. "Joe—I don't know what to do. We're trapped."
I don't know what to do. The words chilled Joe down to his very bones. In all his life, he didn't think he had ever heard his oldest brother utter those words, and the fact that he heard them now threw his entire world out of kilter.
"What do mean, you don't know what to do?" he blurted. "We've got to do something."
"I mean I—don't—know!" The last three words were ground out and emphatically spaced, and, coming from Adam, undeniably angry. They hung in the air like stones, and Adam dropped his head for a moment. Then he looked back at Joe, staring through the darkness at him as though searching for something. "I don't know," he said again, very softly this time and with shame tingeing the words. "We're in trouble, Little Joe."
Joe sat back, flabbergasted. He was suddenly put in mind of the time when, as a child, he had snuck downstairs on Christmas Eve, determined to catch Saint Nicholas in the act of putting gifts in their stockings. He had caught Pa instead. The disillusionment he had felt at that moment was strikingly close to what he was feeling now.
Adam, the brother who always knew what to say, what to do, was stumped. He was the one who always had all the answers, and now he was telling Joe he had none. The revelation sapped the remainder of Joe's energy. Even in the dark he could see the tired, discouraged set of Adam's shoulders.
Joe's head pounded. He ran his sleeve over his forehead to wipe away the perspiration, and then stood up, even though the pain in his side bade him to stay where he was. Carefully, he clambered up to the point where Adam had seen the Paiutes at the bottom of the ridge. The landscape was a muffled blur of black and grey, and at first he saw nothing that resembled another human being. Then he saw movement down to his right, and his breath caught. "Oh, hell, here we go," he breathed.
Joe was already moving, grasping Adam by his arm and heading him down the slope out of the rocks. "They know we're up here, alright. They're coming up," he said.
Adam didn't waste time asking more questions. He lurched along beside Joe as they scrambled down, skidding and stumbling as they went. They leaned on one another for support; three times Adam went down, taking Joe with him.
By the time they reached the bottom, they were both gasping for breath. "Which way?" Adam asked.
"You said it yourself. West is the only option. Let's go."
They struggled along in the dark, Adam still letting out a soft, tight grunt with every step he pushed his left leg to make. Adam's involuntary admittance of pain was hard to take; Joe did his best to block out the sounds, with little success. When the sound of triumphant Paiutes began to drift up behind them, he tried to block that out as well.
Adam heard it, too. "They're on us," he noted grimly. Joe didn't bother to answer. He was too busy trying to stay on his feet. The ground seemed to be swaying beneath him, and he had the uneasy feeling that he was starting to lean on Adam much harder than Adam was leaning on him.
Suddenly the quiet surface of the lake was looming before them, shining like dull, dark pewter in the starlight. They stopped at the shoreline and stared out at the water, then back into the timber where the Indians' cries were growing ever louder.
"It must be true; they can track even in the dark," Joe murmured.
"Nothing." He stared down the shoreline as it stretched away from them on both sides. "Should we try to head around the lake?"
"We'll never make it." Adam's voice was quiet.
"I know." But they turned and started along the rocky beach anyway, hurrying as fast as they were able.
Adam stopped suddenly and pointed out at the water. Some distance out from shore was the dark shape of a tiny island, a jumble of jagged rocks rising from the water, with four or five scraggly pines standing sentinel.
"Could you swim out there, do you think?"
Joe looked, considering. He bent to put one hand in the water; it was so cold it hurt.
"Joe, I need an answer," Adam barked. "Can you swim to that island or not?"
Joe stared at the dark pile of rocks marring the lake's smooth surface. "I think I'd rather die by drowning than by having some Paiute brave sawing on my forehead," he admitted.
A loud shout rang out as the Paiutes burst out of the timber only a few hundred yards away.
Joe looked at Adam expectantly. Adam looked out at the tiny island, then back at Joe, and then he shook his head regretfully. "You're a strong swimmer. I think you can make it—but I can't. My leg won't give me the kicking power I'll need to get across." He hesitated. "You go. I'll take off around the lake. Take your boots off." He ignored Joe's protests, pushing him down into a sitting position and tugging at his boots himself.
Swimming out to the island was a long shot, Joe knew, but staying pinned against the shore was sure suicide. If Adam couldn't swim, he was finished.
The Indians were running toward them; Adam was pushing him into the water, pulling his jacket from him at the same time.
"It won't do you any good wet, and it'll only weigh you down," Adam said, flinging the jacket toward shore. He walked into the water himself, continuing to push at Joe.
Joe felt the sting of the icy water against his legs. "Adam, you can't—" But then Adam was already moving away, galloping along the water's edge with a lopsided lurch that would've made Joe laugh had the circumstances been different.
Something tore loose inside Joe's chest. The burden and blessing of his entire existence was based on the fact that everything he'd ever done, everything he'd ever tried, had been done under the watchful eyes of his pa and brothers. It seemed that he had spent his whole life working to either struggle up to their level of manhood, or climb out from under their shadow, Adam's in particular. In this moment, a moment when death moved toward them with terrifying swiftness, Joe watched as Adam played the role of protector one last time. The Indians would see Adam running; they'd be too busy running him down to notice Joe in the water. Joe's path was being ripped away from his brother's against his will, and he knew without a doubt that he'd never see him again.
He glanced toward the island. Could he make it? He thought he could.
But he wouldn't.
If Joe had to die tonight, it would be at the side of the man he'd often fought and argued bitterly against—and yet loved all his life.
He splashed back out onto shore and quickly caught up to Adam, who threw him an astonished glance and skidded to a stop.
"What the hell are you doing?" Adam was infuriated.
Joe grabbed his arm and began to pull him along. "Shut up and run, Adam."
But Adam was having none of it. "You damn fool! If you don't make a try for that island, you're going to die. Don't you understand that?"
"I understand perfectly." Joe's words were quiet but unwavering.
Understanding and sick resignation crossed Adam's face. "You're insisting on staying with me." It was a flat statement, not a question. Adam shut his eyes briefly, and then painfully lowered himself to the ground and started to pull off his boots.
Now it was Joe's turn to be astounded. "Adam—what are you doing? They're coming!"
Adam flung his boots to the side, threw off his coat and waded into the water, still holding onto the crutch. "You'd better come on, then."
Joe shut his mouth and splashed out to his brother. "I thought you said you couldn't kick—"
"We'll do the best we can, Joe. Both of us. Nobody can ask more."
Joe swallowed and nodded. Side by side, they waded quickly out into the icy water. By the time it lapped at their waists, they were both shivering violently.
Then Adam grabbed his arm to stop him. "Joe. I want to tell you something. Hannigan's horse—"
Joe's eyes widened in disbelief. "You're bringing that up now? Oh, for crying out loud, Adam—"
"No. I want you to know—" Adam shook his head. "I need you to know. The reason I didn't want the horse--"
"Adam, we don't have time for this. Tell me later, after we make it to that island. Because we are going to make it." Joe pulled away, but Adam grabbed his arm in a grip so tight it hurt.
"No. I'm telling you now." Adam's tone was hard and determined. He took a big breath and his eyes were large and dark as they stared into Joe's. "The reason I was against buying Hannigan's stud was because you were so determined to tame the thing. I wanted him for the herd as badly as you did, but I was so afraid that you'd get yourself killed on him that I decided it wasn't worth the risk." Adam loosened his grip, and his voice faded until it was almost too soft for Joe to hear. "You're fearless, Joe, and it scares me to death. Every time you climb onto the back of some jugheaded bronc, every time you take on some drunken cowboy in the saloon—hell, every time you walk out the front door and fly headlong into whatever chaos you happen to be chasing that day, you act as though nothing could possibly go wrong. One of these days your luck is going to run out, and you're going to—" Adam sighed. "I didn't want to lose you to some fool horse. I didn't want to watch Pa go through that kind of suffering again…" He looked back up at him. "You're not invincible, Joe."
Joe stared at him, and then a lopsided grin spread across his face. Even though they could both very well be breathing their last, Joe's heart was suddenly light. Somehow, things were right again between him and Adam, and that alone was enough. Joe reached for the reckless courage with which he faced every dilemma, hopeless or not. "And you're not always right, older brother," he said, still grinning. "I reckon now's as good a time as any to see what wins out—your philosophizing or my luck. I'm putting my money on my luck. Ready?"
Adam stared at him, and then gave him an answering grin. "Ready."
"All right, then. Let's find out just how bad a bunch of Paiutes want to catch a couple of skinny cowboys." With that, Joe dove forward into the water.
The cold was stunning in its power. It took his breath away and shocked him into total numbness. He floundered and sank before finally forcing his limbs to move, and hard kicks thrust him back to the surface.
He sucked in air and looked around for Adam just as his brother's head broke the surface beside him.
"God—it's—cold!" Adam gasped. He grabbed the crutch floating beside him and held on.
"Yeah." Joe could hardly force the word up out of his throat as he made a concentrated effort to keep treading water. His insides seemed to be as paralyzed as his outside.
"Start—swimming. It'll help—keep the blood—pumping," Adam panted, striking out for the dark lines of the island—an island which suddenly seemed impossibly far away. Joe followed his lead. They didn't talk any more; they couldn't afford the energy, and anyway, their violent shivering made it hard to form words. Instead of speaking, they put everything they had into pulling stroke after stroke.
Surprisingly, they heard no sounds of splashing Indians behind them. Joe spared a second to look over his shoulder, and could just make out a line of braves standing shoulder to shoulder along the shoreline, laughing and pointing toward them.
Damn Paiutes. They thought they were watching a couple of idiots trying to drown themselves. No reason to get cold and wet doing what dark lake water was sure to do anyway. Anger surged through Joe's veins, and he struck out with new determination.
They swam on, and the Indians' whoops grew fainter behind them. The island grew slowly larger. So slowly. Using the crutch to help stay afloat, Adam kicked and swam the best he could; several times Joe had to stop swimming and tread water so as not to get too far ahead of him. Joe had no idea how long they'd been in the water. It felt like hours. He was aware that the water no longer seemed quite as cold, and he wondered how that could be.
He tried to keep his concentration on the rocky outline of the island. They were going to make it; he refused to entertain any other conclusion. He turned his head to shout a word of encouragement to Adam—and watched his brother's head slip beneath the black surface.
He swam back to where he'd seen his brother disappear and dove under at the spot where the pine branch bobbed on top of the water. Once under, however, he could see nothing but inky blackness. He came back up and cried out his brother's name again, spinning around and frantically wiping away the water streaming over his eyes.
Suddenly Adam's head broke the surface. Joe threw out an arm, grasping wildly for his brother and missing entirely. Adam went down again. Joe dove, reaching out—and his hand brushed against his brother's hair. He clenched his fist, feeling the wet locks twining around his fingers, and he jerked upwards with all his strength, kicking hard for the surface at the same time.
Adam came coughing and gasping into his arms, and Joe held on to him for all he was worth.
"I've got you, Adam. Just hold on. It's not much further."
"I'm finished, Joe," Adam choked out. His teeth were knocking together so hard that Joe could barely make out the words. "You've got to let me go. You'll never make it otherwise."
Joe didn't bother answering. He wrapped one arm around Adam and struck out through the water with the other.
He swam on, and time lost all meaning. He thought of nothing other than telling himself to swim, to swim, to swim. It was as though his entire body had forgotten how to do things on its own. He had to keep sending mental messages to his legs to keep kicking, to his left arm to keep stroking, to his lungs to keep pulling in air. The only part of him that didn't need to be told what to do was his right arm; it curved around his brother's body with a fierceness that made his bicep bunch and cramp.
Several times he went under, choking and sputtering along with Adam when he managed to fight his way back up to the surface. Every time Adam demanded that Joe let go of him. Joe ignored him, even when his brother swore at him.
And then Adam stopped speaking completely. Joe looked at his face once and then refused to allow himself to do so again; Adam's eyes were closed, his face white, and the sight of it frightened Joe so badly that he found it even harder to breathe. He kept kicking and kept paddling with his left arm over and over again, his mind blank and his eyes fixed on the black water in front of him.
When his foot finally brushed against gravel, he was so exhausted that it didn't register. He swam until he was able to crawl out, heaving Adam along beside him. Pulling his brother from the water took the last bit of his strength, and he collapsed beside him, trembling from fatigue.
Again he thought about how odd it was that he was no longer all that cold. But his shivering brother obviously was, and he needed a fire. There was nothing to do for it, however; even if Joe could manage to get a fire started, the tiny island would provide little in the way of dry fuel.
He sighed and scrunched up on the rocks next to his brother's body, trying to provide what little warmth his own body had to offer. He pillowed his head on Adam's chest, and the last thing he was aware of was the faint thumping of his brother's heart against his cheek.
… … … … … …
He thought he heard Adam calling to him, but he couldn't even begin to pull himself out of sleep…restless sleep, disturbed by odd dreams…such odd dreams. Gunshots echoing like distant thunder. Adam calling his name again, then the voices of Pa and Hoss looming over Adam's. The blessed warmth of someone's coat being wrapped around him before he was lifted and carried. The faint sensation of being rocked like a baby in a cradle, with noises of creaking wood and splashing water sounding dimly in his ears.
Adam calling his name again.
Then the jangle of a team's harness, more creaking wood, and the rumble of wagon wheels. Men talking in clipped, urgent tones. Pa, then Hoss, then Pa again, hovering over him, speaking to him, even though he couldn't make himself concentrate enough to figure out what they were saying.
And over it all, Adam's voice again, agitated and fearful, calling his name out over and over and over.
Time stretched out endlessly before and behind Joe, and then all sound ceased.
… … … … … …
It was so quiet. He was hot, and everything hurt—his throat, his chest, his side. Blankets were piled on top of him, and he wanted to push them away, but couldn't seem to garner the strength to do it. Even trying to open his eyes didn't seem worth the effort. He thought he heard someone speaking, and he tried to listen, but he slid back into sleep before he could even decide who was there.
He jerked awake, gasping. "Adam?" He forced his eyes open, but couldn't focus. His vision swam with blurred lights and shadows. Someone—Pa?—murmured something to him and placed a cool hand on his brow.
"Don't do it…Joe, come back!"
It was Adam—and something was wrong. Adam's voice was muffled and sounded far off, but there was no mistaking his fear. Joe tried to sit up, his heart slamming hard in his chest. "Adam!"
The Paiutes—were they coming? He struggled to get his bearings, blinking his eyes hard. The shapes around him shimmered and merged and parted again. The face hovering over him coalesced slowly into view. Pa. And beyond Pa's anxious face, the familiar trappings of Joe's bedroom.
"Joseph, it's all right, son." Pa's voice, soothing yet troubled. He pushed Joe gently back down onto the pillow. "Shh, just take it easy now."
"Pa?" Joe whispered.
Then Adam's shouts came again, louder, more insistent, and more frightened, and Joe's head whirled with confusion and fear.
"Adam?" He fought his way up off the pillow and tried to swing his legs off the bed. "Adam!" He struggled, but Pa held tight to him and began to shout for Hoss.
He continued to try to fight his way free. Couldn't Pa hear that Adam was in trouble?
Hoss's big form filled the doorway, and his appearance distracted Pa just long enough for Joe to push past him; he plowed off the bed, only to land in an undignified heap on the floor. Hoss was immediately bending over him, picking him up and placing him back on the bed as easily as if he were a child. Hoss and Pa were both calling to him, but Joe didn't want to listen. Tears of frustration sprang to his eyes; he had nothing left in him—he couldn't even summon the strength to speak, and Adam was still calling his name in that frightened, awful voice.
Pa was pulling the blankets back up to his chin. Against his will, Joe's eyes began to drift closed. Adam's pleading calls continued to come, and one hot, bitter tear of defeat escaped to slip down Joe's cheek.
"Joe…son, it's all right," Pa insisted, but his voice shook, and Joe was left with the rare consternation of wondering whether his father's words were true.
"Ben! I need one of you in here!" With a start, Joe recognized Doc Martin's voice. Usually calm and matter-of-fact, his voice was strained as it rang from the other room.
"Stay with Joe, Hoss." Pa's voice was rough and weary. "I'll go help Doc Martin with Adam."
"Are you sure, Pa? Adam, he's—"
Adam was...what? Adam was what? Joe struggled to open his eyes to ask the question, but couldn't manage to do it. Pa gave brusque instructions to Hoss.
"Doc and I can handle Adam for a few minutes. The laudanum is bound to be taking effect soon. Just stay with Joe. And for God's sake, let's keep the doors closed until they're both asleep."
Joe heard the click of the latch as the door to his room was drawn closed. A few seconds later he heard the soft thump of another closing door, then the muffled voices of Pa and Doc Martin. Beside him, Hoss gave a long, shaky sigh, and then started talking to him softly about such mundane matters as the weather and how many new calves they'd had this week—talk calculated, Joe knew, to calm him as he drifted back off to sleep. In the background, behind Hoss's low voice, the November wind blustered through the trees and against the window pane.
And still, rising above it all, was the terror-stricken sound of Adam calling for him.
As Joe relinquished himself to sleep, he knew it was a sound he'd hear in his nightmares for years to come.
… … … … … …
Joe came awake to the sound of sparrows trilling outside his window. Foolish birds; they sounded deliriously happy. Didn't they know spring was still a long way off?
Joe sighed and rolled over. He knew he'd overslept—again. These days nobody seemed inclined to complain about it, though. His family was still worried about him pushing too much, too fast.
"It's not just the wound from the arrow—pneumonia is nothing to trifle with, young man," Doc had told him sternly. "You'll have to watch yourself for some time or you'll suffer a set-back, mark my words. You may be young and strong, but you're not invincible…"
You're not invincible.
The bittersweet memory of Adam saying the exact same thing came to mind, and Joe immediately sat up and put his bare feet onto the floor. The events of that day weren't anything he cared to dwell on.
He quickly dressed and began to make his way downstairs, pausing when he heard Hoss and Pa conversing quietly at the table.
Hoss was shaking his head. "Are you sure this is such a good idea, Pa?"
"No, I'm not at all sure. As a matter of fact, I think it might be a huge mistake," Pa grumbled. He sat back in his chair and sighed. "But it's what Adam wanted."
Hearing that, Joe continued down the stairs and stood at the end of the table. "What did Adam want?" he asked. The looks Hoss and Pa threw each other made him think they weren't going to tell him.
"What did Adam want?" he repeated.
Joe watched Pa's eyes soften as they fell on him. He stared at his father's face, taking in the newly etched lines webbing around the corners of his eyes. The last couple of months had been rough on Ben Cartwright. It hadn't been easy on any of them.
"Sit down and have some breakfast, Joseph," Pa said gently, and Joe chafed at having his question left unanswered. But he dutifully sat down and began to fill his plate. His appetite had finally picked up over the last few weeks, and with it his strength had begun to come back as well. He dug in earnestly, only to slow down when he realized that Pa and Hoss were watching him. He looked from one to the other, unable to discern what they were thinking.
"What?" he mumbled through a mouthful of eggs, earning him a momentary look of disapproval from Pa.
Hoss shot a look at Pa, and shrugged at Joe. "Nothin', Joe, nothin' at all. Don't mind us. You just keep on with your breakfast."
Joe stared at his brother. A smile twitched at the corners of Hoss's mouth; he looked as if he could barely contain himself. A quick glance at his pa caught the same smile, although Ben quickly tried to hide it.
Joe put his fork down. "All right, what's goin' on?"
Before either of them could answer, a knock sounded on the front door. Joe pushed his chair back, but Ben waved him back down. "I'll get it."
The voice at the door belonged to one of the hands. "We need some help out at the barn, Mr. Cartwright. That mare is trying to foal."
"Oh, yes—right. Get your coats, boys."
Joe groaned, thinking about the heavy mantle of snow that lay over the yard outside. He had always loved winter, but he had been cold almost continuously over the past two months, almost as if he might never be warm again. The thought of tramping through the snow to get to the barn didn't appeal to him at all.
He sighed. He should be thankful. While he'd been snoozing in a warm bed, Hoss had most likely been out to the barn a dozen times already, taking care of both Joe's chores and his own.
Resolutely, Joe stood and moved toward the door. Hoss and Ben already had their coats on, and Hoss grabbed Joe's off the hook and tossed it at him. Joe put it on, looking down to button it up as he followed Pa out the door. He didn't dare leave the coat hanging open as he normally would have—Pa would have a conniption fit.
"Why do they always pick the coldest mornings to foal?" Joe grumbled, fussing with a contrary button. "Just like that heifer the other night during the blizzard—why can't it ever be easy?"
"I reckon that's because nothin' worthwhile is ever easy, Joe," Hoss said.
"Hoss is right. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy."
Joe jerked his head up. Adam stood in the middle of the snow-covered yard, dimples framing a wide grin. He held a lead rope in his hand, and at the end of the rope stood Ted Hannigan's big chestnut stud.
Joe stared at the horse, then at Adam, then at Hoss and Pa, who both simply grinned back at him. He turned again to Adam and found that, for once, he could think of nothing to say.
"Ain't you gonna say somethin', Joe?" Hoss asked. "You keep standing there with your mouth open and you're liable to let your tongue get frost-bit."
They all laughed at that, Pa, Adam, Hoss, the row of grinning ranch hands standing off to the side. Everyone but Joe.
"I…I don't understand," he whispered.
Hoss moved up beside him. "Well, uh…see, it's a horse, Little Joe."
This time Hoss's wisecrack earned him a hefty wallop in the arm. "I know what it is, you muleheaded…" Joe sighed and looked back at Adam, who still smiled as he watched him. Joe walked slowly through the snow until he stood face to face with his oldest brother.
"I don't understand," he said again, and he searched his brother's face.
Adam shrugged. "It's a good horse," he said.
"Yeah. A really good horse. But that didn't matter back in November," Joe said quietly. "What changed your mind?"
Adam glanced down at the snow and rubbed one hand over his mouth. Then he looked back up at Joe. "A lot of things," he said. "You. Me." He cleared his throat and turned his head slightly to look up at the mountaintop where the new logging camp sat. "You handled yourself real well out there, Joe."
Joe fidgeted, suddenly uncomfortable. "All I did was try to save our hides. And you were right there beside me." Just as he'd always been, Joe thought. "I'd be dead right now if you hadn't killed that brave."
Adam nodded, still looking out at the mountaintop. "I take my responsibilities seriously, Joe."
Joe frowned, unsure of what his brother was getting at. He looked back at Pa and Hoss for answers, but they looked as perplexed as he was.
Adam continued, speaking slowly as if even he weren't quite sure of what he was trying to say. "When you were a little kid, you were like a small cyclone, always charging off in a thousand different directions. It took all of us to keep tabs on you. By the time you were thirteen, you were pulling stunts that had Pa tearing his hair out. I did my best to help him by keeping you out of as much trouble as I could."
Joe blushed; he knew very well what stunts his brother was talking about. Why, though, was he talking about all that now?
"By the time you were fifteen," Adam went on, "we began to seriously wonder if you'd live long enough to make it to manhood."
Some of the hands chuckled, but Joe kept his eyes glued on Adam, who still stared up at the mountain.
"You were always rash and foolhardy, and again, I did my best to try to make sure that you stayed alive long enough to become a man." Adam paused. "While you and I were up on that mountain, I thought I had failed you. I thought I had protected you from a rogue horse only to lose you to a scalping. Then, when I woke up on that hellish iceberg of an island, and you were so cold, so still…" He shook his head. "I didn't know what else to do to keep you in this world, so I just kept calling to you. I called as long as I could, until I lost consciousness again." He glanced at Hoss and Pa. "I'm told that I still called during all those days when I was out of my head with fever." He sighed and stared down at the snow. "I remember dreaming about you. Terrible things, things I couldn't protect you from no matter how hard I tried…"
The anguish in Adam's voice was as fresh as if he had just awakened from one of those dreams. No one said a word, but the look Ben gave Adam said that he knew what those dreams, those feelings, were like. Wanting to protect the ones you love and being helpless to do so. Joe, too, could understand the terror to be found in that.
Adam swung his gaze back up to Joe. "When I finally woke up, and they told me you would be all right, it finally occurred to me—my job is done. Has been for some time. You are a man, in every sense of the word—the kind of man I'm proud and glad to have at my side regardless of the situation we're in."
At a loss for words, Joe simply kept looking at him, his throat working. Finally he smiled and asked softly, "Does this mean you're through trying to tell me what to do?"
Adam smiled back. "Absolutely not. You may be a man, but you're still a rash and foolhardy one."
Joe laughed, and suddenly everything was bright and fresh and new. The sun broke through the clouds, sending a million sparkling diamonds skittering across the snow.
Grinning, Joe turned toward the horse. "How'd you get him to stand so nice on the halter?"
Adam rolled his eyes. "Hours and hours of hard work and frustration, that's how. I thought for sure one of us, either me or the horse, wasn't going to make it."
"Nothing worthwhile is ever easy." Joe repeated his brothers' words and moved near the horse to rub its neck.
"I worked him up to the halter, but the rest of it is up to you, Joe. I know horseflesh, but you—you're the one who's got the instincts and the ability to turn him into something."
Another compliment from Adam; another pearl. Joe tucked it away along with the others, where it could be taken out and polished and admired when he was alone. When he could trust his voice, he asked, "What's his name, anyway? I never asked Ted."
Adam chuckled. "Well, Ted called him a lot of things, none of which Pa would appreciate being hollered out across the yard. So I took the initiative of naming him."
"Well, what is it?" Hoss asked. He and Pa had moved close, faces full of the peaceful joy that comes from almost losing something precious and having it handed back.
Adam patted the horse's nose, but his eyes were on Joe. "His name is Invincible." He smiled and shared a look with Joe that only they understood.
"Mighty high-falutin' name for a horse, if you ask me," Hoss grumbled. He stroked the horse's sleek side. "I'll be callin' him Vince if it's all the same to you two."
Joe moved to stand in front of Adam once more. "Thanks, Adam," he said softly, and then he threw his arms around him in the same exuberant way he had done since he was a small child, breaking through Adam's natural reticence as he always did, causing the horse to snort and throw his head back in nervous reaction. His kid brother in his arms, Adam relinquished the rope to Hoss.
Pressed chest to chest, Adam and Joe pounded each other hard on the back, exulting in the kind of boisterous, turbulent love that only men can delight in, and through the noise and laughter and Vince's nervous snorts, neither one was aware of the steady, sure synchronization of their hearts falling into step with one another once again.
Author's note: The reference to Blue Wolf, Joe's Apache friend who taught him about the aspen bark, is from my story 'Blood Bonds'.