Brothers and Friends

A "Here Come the Brides" Story

by Allie

13 chapters, approx. 24,000 words.

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This story takes place after season one, and before season two (because I haven't seen season 2.) I'm not positive it's canon in every area, although I've tried to write the characters in character, as I see them. This story is not just about Josh, but he does play the biggest part in the story.

I hope you'll enjoy reading it and I'd welcome feedback. :)

I am taking suggestions for titles, by the way. :)

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Chapter one

"Bolt!"

"Aaron!"

The two fierce-looking men strode towards each other, furious-looking. Jason Bolt's arms worked as he strode, and his blue eyes snapped indignation and fire. Aaron Stempel's dark hair was neatly combed, not a single hair out of place; his dark eyes seemed to grow darker and harder in anger. Bolt wore his usual green and brown outfit, his light brown hair curly and wild.

"I'll have you know-!" began Bolt.

"If you steal another one of my men, I swear there's going to be hell to pay," said Stempel.

"And WHAT would I WANT with one of YOUR men!" bellowed Bolt, in full orator roar. He flung his arms wide. "And if you don't return MY men…!"

"YOUR men? What would I want with your rag-tag employees? I simply ask that you return mine-unless you'd like to see the price of logs drop dramatically, and soon!"

"Boys, boys!" Lottie swished from her saloon like an elegant ship ready for battle. She fluttered her hands, as if trying to look feminine and weak, but it was soon clear she utterly controlled the situation. She moved between them, and cast her attention back and forth from one to the other. "Might we take this inside, gentlemen? Perhaps over a nice cup of coffee? Or whiskey?"

The men glared at each other, neither wanting to be the first to move.

"Well? Shall we?" She held out an arm on either side. The men both took her one of her arms, still glaring at each other over her short shoulders, two murderous gazes locked.

"I'm buying," said Stempel in a low angry voice.

"No, I am!" said Bolt instantly, voice rising.

"I'm buying, it's my saloon. Honestly, the way you two go at it," she said in an undertone in her husky, whiskey voice. "It's a second fulltime job to keep the peace between you." She tossed her blond curls and led them grandly into her saloon.

Across the street, dark-haired, thin-faced Biddie Clume peered out a window at the top of the dormitory, and watched. She pursed her lips, and then withdrew back inside. "Weeeelll, Mr. Stempel and Jason Bolt are fighting again, and I think I just heard Lottie say she's getting a second fulltime job. What do you think that means?" She turned back to the her friend, Candy, a red-haired girl with a pretty face and striking blue eyes, who was seated on her bed, brushing her hair, counting quietly.

"99, 100." She set the brush down. "Oh, Biddie. I'm sure you heard wrong."

"Weeelll, that's certainly what it sounded like." Biddie sat down with a little flutter of her skirt. "Only I don't see what job she could have. Because all the main jobs in town are taken, and she couldn't become a logger, because she's not a man. She's not a seamstress, and she couldn't be a sailor, or a mill employee or…oh!" Her eyes widened, and a glow of surprise and amazement seemed to overtake her face, making it almost prepossessing.

She stood up with a look of astonishment and amazement on her face. "She's going to get married!"

#####

"Oh, Biddie! I'm sure she's not getting married." Candy was back at the hairbrush, this time tending her hair in front of the mirror, watching herself work. Her hair was all down today, instead of in her usual 'up' do. She wanted it to look particularly nice, as she was going out with her beau later, the youngest Bolt brother, Jeremy. With her hair up, he was only slightly taller than she; but he liked women tall, liked her hair however she fixed it, and so she never made an effort to keep it down, nor to wear only short shoes as some tall girls did.

She'd decided to go for 200 hairbrush strokes today. It couldn't hurt; maybe she could get a glowing look for her hair, in the moonlight…

"I'll bet that's what it is." Biddie slapped her hands down on her lap and gave a big, satisfied sigh. "I wonder which one it is?"

"Hmm?" Miles away, Candy's voice was vague. "What what is?"

"Oh, Candy! Aren't you listening at all?" She got up and walked over to her. "Why, which one of them is Lottie going to marry? Jason Bolt of Aaron Stempel?"

"I can't see her marrying either one of them," said Candy honestly. "I hope you're not going to start another rumor, Biddie, because if you are-I'll never speak to you again."

It was a fruitless threat. Biddie was her best friend, after all, and she never could stay mad at her-but Biddie didn't seem to realize it.

She stepped back, fluttering a little. "Oh, I'd never-I didn't mean-it's not a rumor. I'll just wait and see, before I tell anyone," she said, looking white-faced and anxious in the dim lighting of the dormitory.

Candy took a step towards her. "Biddie, why don't you go outside and get some sun? You're looking awfully pale."

Biddie gave a half laugh. "Oh, well, you know that's popular, Candy. I've been trying to cultivate that look-mysterious, pale. It's really not good for a girl to look too healthy. You know, you're lucky. Your skin always seems to stay pale and smooth." She leaned closer, to regard her friend's clear skin. "When I was younger, I'd have killed for skin that clear. Well, not killed-at least, not a person."

"What would you have killed?" Candy was trying hard not to smile.

"Oh, well, perhaps a-a cow!"

Both girls dissolved into giggles.

#####

"Land ho!" said Captain Clancy. "Ahoy, ahoy. A nice little drink." Rubbing his hands together with glee, he eyed the approaching land.

Seated on a barrel with his arms crossed and a stubborn expression on his face, a young man glanced up at the green, distant, soft-looking edge of land. "Ah, what's so great about it!" he exclaimed.

Clancy sent him a surprised look. "Why, it's Seattle, me boy. Ah, but you'll love Seattle. The whiskey for one thing…" He rubbed his hands together, and positively beamed. "And there's some beautiful young ladies. Proper girls they are, too…'marriageable.'" He pronounced the word with care, and almost correctly.

For all his complaining, the young man jumped up and ran to get off the gangplank, almost before it was in place. He pushed his way past two sailors, and shoved past a third. The town was gathering-not a large town, but with plenty of eager-looking people. The men mostly wore flannel shirts, but the women wore surprisingly stylish dresses. There was any number of pretty young women, just as Clancey had said.

The combination of the unsteady gangplank, the pretty girls, and rushing past the sailors on not-quite-steady sea legs brought the worst combination. Into the drink he splashed-and surfaced, dark curls plastered down, as he spat and gasped. He fought his way to the surface and towards the dock.

Above him, shouts of laughter rang out-one rising above the others. He looked up to glare with horrible wrath. A blond young man was looking down at him, laughing and slapping his knee so hard he seemed in danger of falling in, too.

"Help a guy out," rasped David, his throat sore from the saltwater and coughing. He reached a hand up, and obligingly, the blond reached one down. David grasped a firm muscular warm hand, and yanked. The blond landed with a great splash and a shout. David had the satisfaction of laughing, this time.

#####

Kind hands pulled them out, fussed and fluttered. Women swirled, all smooth skirts and soft voices and concerned faces. Blankets were found, wrapped around shoulders, and Jeremy led his brother away. "C-C'mon, Josh. Don't mind him. H-he's just a jerk anyway. I heard Clancy say he's Stemple's n-nephew."

"Nephew? Well, that explains it." He craned his neck to glare again at the curly-headed monster. The monster grinned back evilly. "Boy, what got that guy in such a foul temper?" he muttered.

"He's a S-Stempel. There doesn't have to be a reason." Jeremy got him into the saloon and a whiskey poured down his throat. The pleasant warmth took away some of his foul mood, and Lottie said he could go upstairs and change, instead of walking back home wet; it was a bit cold to be running around like that.

"I'll draw you a hot bath, and you can soak while your brother goes to fetch you some clothes."

"Thanks, Lottie. That would be g-great," said Jeremy enthusiastically, agreeing for his brother. He put a warm hand in the middle of Josh's back. "I'll be r-right back, Josh. I'll get your other shirt and pants, and Jason's other coat." He was up and gone before Josh could think of anything else to ask for.

He was sitting at the table, downing another drink, when the dark-haired guy came inside, sniffling and glaring. He rubbed a red handkerchief under his nose, and frowned all around.

He wore dry clothes already; he'd gone back onto the ship, when Josh had been led to the saloon. He must've had some fresh clothes there, and changed already. Josh watched while Stempel's nephew walked to the counter and pounded on it.

"Shop!"

"Jerk," said Josh. "If you'd wait a minute. Lottie's drawing my bath."

"Ooh, drawing your bath." The nephew turned and arrogantly leaned against the counter, resting his elbows there and one foot back against it. "You wuss. Thought you guys in Seattle were supposed to be tough?"

With neither of his brothers there, and his nearest fellow loggers missing the quick flash of anger in his eyes, there was no one to stop him.

Josh lunged to his feet, and the dark-haired nephew moved forward with an answering flash of anger in his own blue eyes. The two were at each other's throat before anyone could stop them.

#####

Ch 2

Lottie rushed downstairs at the sound of a fight. The sight astounded her. "Joshua! Pull him off-get back! Get away!" The men were closing in like a pack of wolves, cheering them on. She shouldered her way through, grabbed one young man by the shoulder, one by the ear. The curly-headed one yelped, and Josh grunted and shuffled to his feet.

"And let that teach you," said Josh, and aimed a clumsy boot at the boy, then wiped a hand under his nose and sniffed; blood came away on his fingers, which were shaking a little.

Lottie had never seen him this way. The snowy-haired Bolt brother was usually mild, quiet, and self-contained. When his temper got the better of it him, as it occasionally did with each of the Bolt brothers, he was usually restrained by cooler heads, or his rather overpowering older brother.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Joshua Bolt!" said Lottie, hauling him towards the stairs.

The front door burst open, and two tense-looking men strode in, shoulder to shoulder, completely in synch. "What seems to be the trouble here?" said Stempel.

"Someone said there was a fight," proclaimed Jason.

They both stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of the two young men being restrained from one another, both damp and a bit bloody. Then they strode forward again.

"David! What happened?"

"Josh! What's going on?"

"He pulled me in the water!"

"He laughed at me!"

"He made fun of Seattle!"

"He hit me!"

The foolish accusations flew through the air. Other men raised their voices to help explain what they knew of the circumstances of the fight.

"Quiet!" said Lottie. "That's enough out of all of you. I declare. Seattle's becoming a pack of children! Aaron, get your nephew home. Jason-I need to talk to you." So saying, she herded Joshua before her towards the stairs.

He turned once to glare at David Stempel, who was being herded away by his uncle. David stuck his tongue out, just before Stempel grasped his shoulder and wrenched him away.

Pushing the middle Bolt brother up the stairs, Lottie and Jason both scolded him and talked over him, and ordered him to explain himself, then declared they wouldn't listen to a word he said until he could talk reason.

Once they got him shoved into the steam-filled bathroom, with a 'but' on his lips and a towel in his hands, Lottie sat down exhausted in a heap of skirts, on the edge of a bed.

"Yes, Lottie? What is it?" asked Jason, looking concerned. It was not every day Lottie showed fatigue, much less asked to speak with him as if something were wrong.

"Well, it's this, Jason. For the last few months, I've been having trouble covering my bills. I heard from a friend in Jacksonville, Kentucky, and she's been having some success with raffles. Small prizes, either cash or something like a week's worth of free drinks, or for the ladies, a fancy quilt, or a nice bolt of cloth."

Bolt raised his eyebrows at the word 'bolt.' "Lottie, don't tell me you're thinking of starting a gambling establishment?" he said in his best fake-serious oratorical tone of voice.

Lottie let out a sigh. "That's what I'm afraid Aaron will think. I wanted to know if you'd support me? I don't think a small raffle or two is going to turn Seattle into a city of vice."

Jason sat down beside her and put an arm around her shoulder. "Lottie, if there's one thing you can count on, it's that I'll support you against Aaron Stempel, no matter what!"

#####

Watching through the window, Biddie's brows rose. She put a hand to her mouth, and withdrew. "Well, if that doesn't settle it. I guess we know who she's getting married to now."

She withdrew from the window, and, because Candy wasn't there to remind her not to gossip, she bustled down to the street intent on telling the first person she saw.

She almost ran into Candy, on her way back into the dormitory. Candy's cheeks were pink from a quick word with Jeremy, who'd been on his way to the saloon, carrying some of his brothers' clothes.

"Biddy," said Candy with a warning note in her voice. "I know that look…!"

"Oops." Biddie put a hand to her mouth. "I forgot, Candy, honest. Only if you'd seen what I saw…you'd know I'm right!"

Candy took her shoulders and steered her gently out of the walkway. "Biddie, when they announce it-if they announce it!-then we'll know you're right. And you can be the first to congratulate them while everyone else is still surprised."

"But don't you even want to know which one she picked?" said Biddie piteously.

Candy put a finger to her lips, and shook her head. "Mum's the word, Biddie."

"Ooh!" In frustration, Biddie slapped her hands on her sides. "Oh! Well! I guess I'll just go shopping for a new hat. That's one thing you can't tell me is wrong!"

"Well not if you can afford it!" called Candy, smiling after her friend as Biddie dashed off. She shook her head a little, smiling. Biddie meant no harm, Candy knew that. It was just that her friend seemed to end up in the middle of every mix-up maelstrom and rumor dustup. They seemed to spread through Seattle like wildfire, with Biddie the firebrand. Candy had every hope that one day soon her best friend would fall in love with a good man and find herself too busy to think about, much less spread rumors. Until then, Candy had pledged herself to helping Biddie keep her tongue-even when Biddie didn't want that help.

Candy headed back up to the dormitory, dreaming about Jeremy, and thinking of what she wanted to talk to him about later.

#####

Buying hats worked wonders as a distraction. A distraction Biddie sorely needed from the thought of Jason and Lottie getting married. And who'd have thought, after all these years?

Well, Lottie had picked the right one, certainly. Jason had a big mouth, but he was of a warmer nature, one that seemed to fit better with Lottie. Of course, it would be difficult. Could she still keep the saloon? Wouldn't she want to live with Jason now? And Jason's brothers might have to find a new home…

Maybe this would kick off a wedding spree, and Jeremy would finally marry Candy. Of course, that would mean she wouldn't be there in the dormitory at night anymore, to whisper and share secrets with, but Biddie would be happy for her friend, and after all, then Josh would be the only unmarried Bolt brother, and surely he'd start to feel the pressure, too!

She giggled to herself a little, at the thought of Josh finally being on the market. Oh, not that she ever thought she'd have a chance with the tall, private young man, but a girl could dream! And if there was one thing Biddie was good at, it was dreaming. She'd imagined herself an Indian bride with no difficulty; imagining herself the wife of the third Bolt brother presented no problems at all.

And then there was that new young man in town. Stempel's nephew. She'd heard someone call him David. Well, if he weren't so wild and angry, he'd certainly make someone a fine husband. And after all, if it wasn't a wife's job to settle her man, then what was? Yessir, he'd just need a good woman to help him settle down, that was all, and Biddie might just be the one, especially in this hat! She settled it more firmly on her head, peered in the mirror, and giggled.

#####

Stempel headed into the general store frowning and preoccupied. He addressed the proprietor. "Ben, do you have any cold tonic? I don't want my nephew catching a cold his first day in Seattle. My brother will really think this is a wild town, if I let his son catch cold." Frowning, he almost missed Biddie Clume's quick look of interest.

She moved over with a rustle of her pale blue dress. "Oh! Did you mention your nephew? I can't wait to meet him. Perhaps I could bake him a pie and bring it over later. I'm a really good cook, did I ever mention that?" She laughed in her rather high, grating voice that made Aaron wince inwardly. "Is he at all like you, with a head for business?"

"If he has a head for anything, it would surprise me. My brother sent him out here to me because he couldn't stick to anything back east." Then he realized he might as well have sent up smoke signals; all of Seattle would know this news by supper time.

He grimaced at Biddie, and her particularly loathsome hat. "I hope you're not going to visit us in that thing," he said in a flat, blunt tone. If he had to have his nephew swarmed around by her (and even one Biddie did sometimes seem like a swarm), at least she didn't have to wear that dreadful hat. If anything, it made her sallow complexion look even worse.

"Oh, that's all right." She took it off and set it on the counter. "I thought I'd save it for the wedding." She had a distracted look in her eye, and cast this off in an offhanded remark. It was the first thing she'd said so far that made Aaron sit up and pay attention.

"Wedding?" he said sharply. "Who's getting married now?"

"Oh, Lottie and Jason, didn't you kn-" Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, I wasn't supposed to tell! You mean you didn't know?"

Behind the counter, Ben laughed nervously. "Jason and Lottie? That can't be right, Miss Clume. You must have gotten your signals mixed again."

Biddie reddened a little under these words. "You must be right," was all she said. "If you'll excuse me-I believe I forgot my bag. I'll have to purchase this later. Excuse me Mr. Stempel." With a quick curtsy, she escaped, picking up her skirts and running, looking for all the world-guilty.

Stempel frowned to himself. Jason and Lottie? Nah. He'd have noticed.

Ch 3

"He never listens to me!" fumed Joshua Bolt, sitting in a copper tub of steamy water.

Jeremy, who had been listening to nothing but him for the last fifteen minutes, seated on a stool in the bathroom of Lottie's boarding house, crossed his arms and fought down a yawn. "That's true, Josh, but-"

"'But' nothing! If he'd just listen to a word I said once in awhile-"

"But if you've noticed-"

"Maybe I had a good reason for getting into a fight! Did he ever think of that?"

"True, Josh, but-"

"And Lottie too! Treating me like a child!" He turned away, still fuming, and scrubbed a long-handled brush on his back.

Jeremy glared at him and got up. "Well, maybe if you'd stop acting like a child, Josh! The l-last thing we need is another reason to fight with Stempel-any S-Stempel! And if you've noticed, you haven't listened to a word I've said since I g-got here either. And by the way, it's n-not just you Jason doesn't listen to! Jason d-doesn't listen to anybody, so there!"

He stormed from the room in a huff of indignant, righteous wrath. Joshua stared at the door, mouth open.

A moment later, the door eased open again and Jeremy stuck his head in.

"And if y-you'd get out of there before you're w-wrinkled up like a p-prune, maybe I could take a quick dip before I see Candy tonight!"

Joshua laughed and threw the scrub brush at the door-which Jeremy yanked shut just in time.

#####

He got back to the logging camp (dried, dressed, and only a little prunish), in time to be razzed by Jason (who threw an arm around him and still didn't let him get a word in edgewise), and then the men, and finally put on one of the harder jobs by Jason 'to take the edge off his energy.' When supper time finally rolled around, he was almost asleep before he could scrape the last of the beans from his plate. Jeremy had disappeared somewhere-his date with Candy no doubt-and Jason was busy talking with Corky, setting out plans for the next day.

When Joshua's plate and fork slipped from his hand and clattered to the ground, they both stopped talking and turned to stare at him, Jason rather reprovingly. "Josh, what did we say about wasting food?" He looked at the beans that had spilled. "I think you'd better head to bed!" He pointed to the tent, their 'home' at the logging site.

Joshua ground his teeth together, and went. He didn't try to say anything. Didn't try to explain that he'd been planning to already, that it was only a few beans and Jason didn't have to act so high and mighty, as if he'd never spilled any food in his life. He just went, and fell face-down into his cot (his thin, lumpy cot).

Just before the tidal wave of sleep hit him, he flashed to a quick image of the angry David Stempel in the water, of reaching down to help him, and then the lost feeling of falling. He jerked, and his eyelids fluttered, and then he was well and truly asleep, dreaming only unawares, with little jerks of his legs, like a dog having nightmares.

#####

"It's just not like Joshua, that's all," said Candy, wearing her 'concerned, I'm going to ferret this out' look.

Jeremy sighed loudly. "I d-don't want to talk about Josh right now," said Jeremy. "I want to talk about us!"

Candy turned to look at him with a smile in her eyes. She held his arm. "Or maybe not talk?"

"Or maybe not talk." He smiled at her, his whole day brightening, and leaned closer for a kiss.

#####

Aaron Stempel had thought himself immured to Biddie's endless stream of 'news,' but he found himself watching Lottie and Bolt the next day at the saloon. Sure enough, they were in collusion about something. What, he couldn't tell. But the collusion itself was a fact. They might as well have shouted it. The little sparkle in Jason's eyes; the looks and words that were only for each other; the communication they obviously meant to keep from him.

He slammed his mug down and started over. "If you two are up to something…I'd appreciate if you'd spit it out now!"

If there was one thing Aaron hated, it was being ignored. It there was another, it was being left out of a good thing.

They both turned their best innocent faces on him.

"Why, Aaron, I don't know what you mean."

"Stempel, let me buy you a drink." Jason slung an arm around his shoulder and turned his con-man grin on Aaron.

"Oh no you don't," said Aaron, backpedaling. "I know that look. You're up to something, Jason Bolt!"

He got away from them, leaving them staring after him, rather dashed.

When his feathers unruffled, when his fluster died down, he began to wonder…it couldn't be just about a wedding, could it? They wouldn't want his blessing…whatever for? But then again, if he made a fuss in the town council, why, it might be difficult for them…and especially about the saloon. If they did get married, then Jason would own that, too! He could put up prices, or kick out Stempel's men, and then what trouble there would be. It was the only place in town for a drink and a bit of decent atmosphere.

He frowned, and paused to think about this, then turned around and headed back to the saloon. Not on his watch, they weren't. The last thing this growing town needed was a monopoly. Unless he had it, of course. And come to think of it, if he owned the saloon, why, then he could kick Jason's men out!

He sat and watched them, and had another drink. They couldn't get too friendly with him watching, and anyway, he needed time to think of his own approach.

#####

Still fuming over being ignored by his older brother yesterday, Josh got up early. He decided to use being ignored to his advantage. He'd take a day off, and Jason would probably never notice; he never seemed to notice anything else unless it was pushed in his face. He just expected Josh and Jeremy to always be there, silently backing him up and doing his bidding.

Well, Jeremy was going to get married and probably disappear one of these days, and Josh wasn't going to be the one stuck obeying Jason for the rest of his life.

He got his fishing rod and went down to do some fishing by the stream, by the best spot he knew, where there was lots of shade and the fish sometimes congregated. If he got there early enough, he could catch some nice fish and have a good supper (instead of beans).

To his surprise, the spot was already occupied by three scruffy-looking men. "Landis?" He recognized one of the men as the missing man Jason had been complaining about, but the other two were strangers to him. "What are you doing here?"

Landis stood up and dusted off his pants, looking decidedly grumpy. "I guess our little vacation is ruined, boys."

The other two stood as well. "Might as well head back, before he sticks Stempel on us," said one of them.

"What are you- Oh, you're the men Stempel's missing. Well, why did you all decide to come out here?"

"We knew each other back east. He's my cousin, and Landis is our friend. We decided to take a few days off without getting in trouble. Everyone knows how Stempel and your brother love to fight. We just dropped a few hints that we'd been offered more money by the competition, and then all disappeared at the same time. They'll be glad to get us back when we each return to our jobs, but in the meantime, they'll just fight and not look for us," he explained. "I suppose you'll give us away now, though." He seemed philosophical about it, but his dark cousin glared, and Landis crossed his arms and frowned rather speculatively.

"Give you away? Nah, I'm not too thrilled with Jason myself right now. Let him stew. As for Stempel, well-" He shook his head and sat down. "How are the fish biting, boys?" He shook his line out.

By the early afternoon, he knew the names of everyone. Landis's friends were named Cortney (the talkative one with lighter hair), and Johnson (swarthy and un-talkative, but a good fisherman).

Josh laughed at their jokes, told a couple of his own, and altogether enjoyed getting out of Jason's shadow for a little while.

Ch 4

#####

"Now, David, I don't want to hear another word about it. You're going to apologize to Joshua Bolt. I won't have you wrecking my good name just because you feel you have to get into a fight. Don't you know you can't go around arguing with your neighbors all the time if you want to get ahead in this life?"

Aaron Stempel was glad he was indoors as he gave this speech. You couldn't get hit with a bolt of lightning in the house.

His nephew frowned horribly-Stempel was getting used to that stubborn frown-and said, "I don't want to get ahead in 'Seattle.'" He said the word as though mocking it…mocking Seattle!

Aaron shook his shoulder. "That's enough out of you, boy. You're lucky your father sent you out here. It's a fresh start, doing whatever you want."

"As long as what I want is to be in the sawmill business, right?" said David sarcastically.

"No," said Aaron, nettled. "You can also become a logger, if you so prefer! Now come on. You're going to apologize." Aaron grabbed the boy by the scruff of his collar, and hauled him out the door, ignoring his stubborn silence, which was almost worse than complaints.

#####

"What's this? Your nephew wants to apologize, you say?" Jason struggled to keep the smile off his face, and mostly succeeded. Stempel was looking at his grimmest. He hated apologies, and obviously stood here as a man doing his duty, and nothing more-or rather forcing his nephew to do his duty.

The boy's coat was wrinkled as if he'd had to be hauled here, and he had a scruffy look about him, as if he were a little boy who had to be forced to shove a comb through his riotously curling hair, then washed his face as little as possible.

Jason smiled at the boy, willing to be magnanimous. "Well, I'm sure Josh will want to apologize to you, too. I'll just go get him," he told the boy, and nodded to Aaron and left. Really, Stempel's nephew wasn't that young-he was probably about Josh's age, or maybe Jeremy's. It was hard to tell, when you didn't know someone. And truth be told, he thought of his younger brothers as boys, not men, most of the time, too. He had to remind himself constantly how old they were getting-and the fact that Josh had actually run one-third of the mountain himself. Done a fine job, too, quite competent-until a slick lawyer in Stempel's pay had helped Stempel nearly steal his land from under him, breaking up the mountain in the process.

But, as Stempel's machinations had ultimately brought the Bolt brothers back together as a family, and the evil lawyer and Stempel had been soundly trounced by the Bolts, it did no good holding a grudge. Stempel had done some pretty shady things in his life, and outwardly, that was one of the worst-using the law to steal Josh's third of the mountain-but inwardly, Jason was almost grateful to him. If Josh hadn't been so soundly beaten, hadn't desperately needed his brothers' help, why, the Bolts could be in two different camps to this day, two moderately successful logging operations in competition with each other, and the brothers still at odds and not talking to each other.

Truth be told, he'd felt relieved when Josh's profit-sharing idea had failed. He'd been so sure it wouldn't work, and then Josh seemed to be making it work, and Jason was not sure how he'd ever get his brother back in the family business, or if he even would.

At the time, the way he understood it was that Josh failed. His experiment didn't work, and he'd had to come crawling back to the family-not that they'd ever make him crawl, of course. They were just glad to get Josh back, the quiet, bookish brother, the one who handled the finances and kept his thoughts to himself most of the time. He'd been terribly missed by his brothers, when they were all three on the outs. Even Jeremy, the usually calm, go-between youngest brother, had managed to get upset with Josh, angry enough to punch him.

For what it was worth, Josh hadn't punched his little brother back, although Jason was sure he must've wanted to. Jason respected Josh for that. Unlike some older brothers, Josh had never pushed Jeremy around, or taken advantage of his size. (He was almost a head taller.)

But as he understood it now, and the more he thought about and reviewed the facts in his mind, the more Jason realized that Josh hadn't actually failed. He'd failed because Stempel, with the help of his lawyers, had cheated. If not for Stempel's machinations, who knew where they would be today? Josh's plans could very well have worked.

To admit this to Josh, though, was not something Jason was eager to do. For one thing, he rather liked it that Josh was back to being his little brother, not quick to challenge his authority or insert plans of his owns into the gears. It was much easier this way, with his brothers backing him up instead of threatening to strike out on their own.

By the time Jeremy got to the age when he felt the need to do that, he would probably already be married to Candy, and she was sure to be a settling presence for him. He smiled at the thought. Candy was too smart for her own good sometimes, but she was a good match for his brother. They were both thoughtful, rather gentle people, and they seemed to connect on levels that Jeremy wasn't able to do with most people.

Josh and Jason were apt to stumble and blunder through situations that Jeremy handled with finesse. When he was a little older, and more confident-and if he could someday get rid of his stutter-why, he could probably be a politician if he wanted. He was that good with people. Not that Jason had ever told his brother as much. He was no more eager for Jeremy to move away and leave the family fold than he was for Josh to.

Thinking these rambling thoughts, he wandered back to the tent, and pushed it open. No Josh. Of course. He'd gotten up early and gone to work.

He strode out to ask Corky, and then the other men, if they'd seen Josh this morning. No one had.

"Well, he must be on the North side." Jason gave Stempel and David his patented Bolt grin. "Gentlemen, on behalf of Joshua Bolt, I'd like to accept your apology." He held a hand out to the young man and smiled.

"His apology," said Aaron, to set the record straight.

"I'm well aware of that, Aaron." He kept his eyes on the young nephew, smiling, willing to give this stranger a chance, despite his relatives, despite his getting off on the wrong foot with Josh.

In the grouchy, unhappy-looking boy's eyes, he saw a spark of something in return. He stuck his hand out impulsively. "All right-sorry, I guess. Shouldn't have pulled him in the water. Although he shouldn't have laughed," added David in an undertone.

"On behalf of my brother, I'd like to apologize for that laughing. I know my brother didn't mean any harm."

"Mm. Well, if you say so, Mr. Bolt. Thank you." David gave his hand a firm shake, and gave him a slightly crooked smile. It made his face look much nicer when he wasn't frowning. "I'll see ya around, Mr. Bolt. You seem like an okay guy."

"Well, thank you, David. I hope that you'll have a better experience with Seattle when you've been here longer. And I'll buy you a drink the next time we're both in town."

"Thanks." The boy gave him a quick nod, and then actually grinned.

"All right, Bolt." Stempel gave him a frowning nod, and turned abruptly away with his nephew. It had been nice of him to make the effort, even if his heart wasn't in it.

"And I'll buy you a drink, too," suggested Jason, willing to go the extra mile and extend an olive leaf of his own. After all, the loss of one or two employees to Aaron Stempel would hardly be the worst thing that had ever come between the two businessmen-and at some point, they were going to have to get along again. Why not now?

They always did end up working together again, somehow or other. In fact, when the town was in jeopardy, there was no one he'd rather turn to than Stempel. The man had a smart head on his shoulders, not unlike Jason himself, although of course, unlike Jason, Aaron Stempel was stubborn as an old mule, along with being pig-headed and controlling.

He kept the smile plastered on his face, and waved, till they were gone. Then he let it drop, and turned to Corky. "Tell the men-be on the lookout for Josh. If anyone saw him this morning, I need to know, pronto." He kept his voice low, hoping the worry didn't reach his eyes.

But, if something had happened to Josh…

It was no good telling himself that lie about the north side. Because he knew very well Josh wouldn't have gone there; they'd already logged that area recently. And everywhere else was accounted for.

He headed back to the tent, to look for clues, dreading the thought of what he'd tell Jeremy, and how they'd ever survive if something had happened to their quiet brother.

Ch 5

They made a fire and roasted the fish. By evening, Josh was pleasantly rested, cheerful, and full of tasty, fresh fish. He returned home, carrying his rod and the extra fish he'd caught. If Jason didn't appreciate them, he'd give them to Lottie as a gift.

He came home to the mountain camp swinging his fish on a string and whistling.

Several men stopped chopping and hewing to stare at him.

"Uh, Josh, you might not want to go in there like that," said Langton, catching his arm on the way past.

"Oh? Why not?" Josh gave him a smile.

"Jason's…"

"Jason's Jason, as usual. Bossy, you mean." Josh kept walking, but a hard edge had entered his face, and he stopped whistling. So, it was going to be like that, was it? Well, let him. Let him scold and holler. It was about time they had this out. Josh wasn't going to be an unpaid slave forever.

He gripped his pole a little more tightly, and swung his string of fish, a set look on his face.

Jason stepped out of the tent before he reached it, wearing his tense, "I've got to fix things and conquer the world" look. He stopped when he saw Josh, and simply stared. His mouth even dropped open.

Josh went and put his pole away, and slung the fish out, proud of how many he'd caught.

Finally Jason spoke. "Joshua Bolt, do you mean to tell me you went fishing-fishing!-this morning, and I've been worried sick about you all day?"

"Yeah-worried sick. I wasn't getting enough work done, you mean. I'm surprised you even noticed I wasn't here. Normally you don't notice where I am unless you want something." He took off his jacket, hung it up, and turned back to face his older brother coldly.

Once, when they were younger, Jeremy had been angry with Joshua, and called him The Ice Prince, in anger. "You're so cold. Maybe your hair's really made of ice," he said. "Ice Prince!"

He'd apologized when they both cooled down, but that insult had stuck with Josh. Maybe he was cold sometimes, slow to make up after a fight, keeping his feeling inward until he was really mad, in a way that seemed downright cold-but right now he felt like he had a right. Jason stared at him, and he turned to face Jason, almost arrogantly. "You know I'm right."

Jason stepped nearer and grasped his shoulders. "Joshua, the only thing I know right now is that if our parents were alive, they would be ashamed of you." He spoke in his quietest, most serious voice.

Josh drew back, blinking. How could Jason pull that card? He wasn't fighting fair. "I'm right and you know-"

"They worked hard for this mountain, and to have you neglect your duties and run off to play like-like a child-when you were needed here in camp. We three brothers share this mountain equally. Jeremy's filling the orders in town. I've been working all day with the men-and worrying myself sick about you, wondering if you'd gotten lost, gotten hurt-"

"If you were so worried about me, why didn't you look for me?" There, he'd gotten a whole sentence in.

Jason grasped his shoulders harder. "But I did, Josh! I looked all over this mountain for you-but you weren't there. You weren't with any of the men. You know, I almost wish you had been hurt. At least it wouldn't have been your fault, when you didn't-"

Josh wrenched away from him, interrupting the flow of hurtful, self-satisfied words. "If that's how you feel-" he began.

Now Jason's soft, guilt-inducing tone turned stern. "Josh, I won't have it. I simply won't have you neglecting your duties to your brother and I, and this mountain. Why, even if you were a common hired hand-"

"Yeah? Well at least then I'd get paid," flung Josh.

Jason stared at him, his blue eyes shocked and piercing. "Joshua, I never thought I'd hear the day. You get paid. You get paid! You'd rather be a hired man than have one third of a mountain. We work just as hard as the men-at least most of us do-and for what? For our own land. We reap the profits. We share the job and the responsibility. We're Bolt brothers! How do you put a price tag on that?"

Josh's voice rose, higher than his brother's. "Well I dunno, but it seems to me that you're the one who reaps all the benefits, and-and Jeremy and I are the ones who work for free!"

"For free?" Now Jason was shouting too, puffing out his chest and pulling himself to his full height. "You work for free? When you're running around constantly drinking beer at Lottie's-leaving the tab for me to pay off-and taking fishing days without giving me any warning at all-" He swept a hand aside, knocking over a lantern without meaning to. They both heard it smash but ignored it. "And eating us out of house and home, spilling your food and wasting it, getting into fights with Stempel's nephew…!"

"What does that have to do with anything?" shouted Josh.

"It makes more trouble for me, that's what! Stempel brought his nephew over today, and I had to accept his apology for you."

"YOU DID WHAT?"

"I said, I ACCEPTED HIS APOLOGY FOR YOU! And if you'd had the decency to be here this morning, I wouldn't have had to give him yours as well!"

For a moment, Josh sputtered like Jeremy. When he got the words out, they were very quiet. "Y-you had no right, Jason."

"Josh, I had every right. As the older brother, I'm responsible for this whole family."

Josh stared at him, hard. He wanted to punch Jason in the face more than he'd ever wanted to before in his life. But he never had hit one of his brothers and he never would. That wasn't the way to end it. Not like that. Clean, clear-a pure break from the damn mountain and the slave-driving, selfish older brother.

"No, Jason, the way I see it, you take the word 'responsible' and turn it around to mean 'in charge.' You think you're in charge of the whole family-the whole mountain-and practically all of Seattle too, don't you?" He spread an arm out, gesturing. "Why not admit it?"

"All right. I admit to a certain feeling of responsibility, for you and Jeremy, and the town-"

"And?" said Josh, almost unable to keep the disgust from his voice.

"And that means certain rights, yes. I simply ask that you let me know when you're going to take a day off. I wish you'd treat me with the same courtesy and respect…"

"No, Jason. That's not true and you know it."

"…with which I treat you."

"That's-that's-" He was sputtering again. "You treat me? What would you do if I apologized to Stempel for you? And accepted his apology for you-assuming he gave one. Or maybe you just accepted a pretend apology. What do you know about what happened, anyway?"

"David informed me you laughed…"

"Did he tell you he pulled me in the water on a cold day, and made fun of Seattle, and gave me a good punch in the nose when we fought? Did he tell you that? And you apologized to him." He glared at Jason, up and down. "You know what you are? A hypocrite."

He turned on his heel, grabbed the bag by his bed and started shoving his few possessions into it.

"Joshua, if you leave this tent again like this…" threatened Jason.

"You'll what? Treat me like a child? Boss me around and refuse to give me any share in the profits?" He cast a glare back over his shoulder.

"Joshua you know very well whenever we have a profit you, me, and Jeremy share and share alike!"

"Well maybe we'd have one already if you weren't too stubborn to listen to anyone else's ideas to run the place." He flapped the top of the bag shut and slung it over his shoulder.

"Joshua, is this your profit sharing scheme again? Would you sit down, and listen to me? We can talk about that again sometime. But not like this. Not with you yelling and demanding your own way."

"Isn't that what you do?" said Josh. He turned to his brother, looked him seriously and angrily in his eyes. "Can you honestly tell me that you ever don't get your way?"

"Sometimes Jeremy…"

"Oh, that's right, Jeremy. He talks us-meaning you-into changing your mind about something, and you'll go along with it, because he's the little brother, and it makes you feel magnanimous."

"Josh, where is all this hostility coming from?" Jason blinked at him, looking actually hurt for a second.

It was just another act. Josh steeled himself to it. Jason was too good an orator, too good an arguer to ever get sidetracked from his goal, and just this once, Josh wasn't going to either.

"Well, tell me this, brother dear, when have I ever been right? When am I ever the one that you listen to? That changes anybody's mind? Can you think of one instance?"

"Well…I…"

He was taking too long. Josh turned around and rolled up his blanket from his bed.

Jason snapped his fingers. "Aha! Now I remember. When you talked us into gambling your way, with the professional gambler. We took your way, and it even won us back Clancey's ship. Now, how's that for listening to you?" He gave Josh his most ingratiating, white-toothed grin.

For a moment, Josh stood there, feeling drained. The exception that broke his argument. He tried to remember what else he'd meant to say-his other fool-proof arguments for why Jason wasn't treating him fairly. But they'd fled, they'd escaped, and Jason was right yet again. Jason won; he always won.

"Now, Josh," said Jason, in a patronizing, big-brother voice, taking his shoulders and turning him around. "You just spread that blanket right back out, and put your things away. We'll forget all about this. You lie down and have a little rest. You're tired, from all that fishing. I'll have the cook fix those nice fish you caught for supper, and after that, we'll have a nice talk. You can help me decide where to send the men to log tomorrow."

"I-I guess that would be okay," said Josh, shaken to his core. Jason was going to consult him about something? Voluntarily?

"Good boy." Jason gave him a pat on the shoulder. "And I'll clean up that lantern." He hurried away with a flop of the tent's flap, before Josh could change his mind.

He lay down on his bed without remembering to take his boots off, or spread out his blanket. He stared blinking at the white of the tent, trying to figure it out. How had Jason done it? He hadn't let Josh walk out again, which he'd most certainly been meaning to do (and still halfway wanted to do).

Exhausted from the fight, he closed his eyes, trying to figure it out. Sleep crept up on him, as he'd never thought it could, during the middle of the day after a huge argument. But he was worn out completely. Arguing with Jason took more energy than any one human could spare, surely. No wonder Stempel often looked so grim and drained.

He frowned again. Jason really shouldn't have accepted an apology in his place, or given one for him, either.

As his eyes drifted shut, he wondered for a moment if Jason really did always know what was best. If maybe listening to him about everything was the right way to live, after all. It made him feel suffocated and heavy thinking that, but if it was true…

Sleep caught him, with nothing resolved, but glad to be in his own bed.

Ch 6

#####

"Jeremy, would you talk to your brother?" said Jason in an undertone. He'd caught Jeremy by the wagon, before he could enter the tent. "He and I got into a huge argument."

"What, again?" Jeremy looked really worried, as well he might. They'd nearly lost a third of the mountain, and a brother's company, last time that had happened.

"I could barely get him to stay, and only by agreeing to some of what he said and promising to consult him this evening about where to log."

Jeremy's face reflected pure astonishment-and incredulity. As well it might. Jason was always the one to decide that. He'd use others as sounding boards, but he was the one to decide. He knew this mountain best, and he was the oldest Bolt. It made sense. But he could at least pretend to let Josh help decide.

"He's sleeping it off right now," said Jason. "I think he must've had too much to drink. Anyway, see if you can get him to calm down before suppertime."

"N-no, Jason, I don't think I ought to. I don't like getting caught between you two. J-just let him calm down on his own. Besides, I've got to see Candy this e-evening," he added, using the ultimate excuse.

"Jeremy." Jason gave him a stern, scolding look. "Candy is no excuse to neglect the family, or work."

"She's g-going to be your sister-in-law someday, and then she won't be an excuse-she'll be family. She'll be my wife!" he flung back, and turned to unhitch the horses from the wagon.

Jason stared at him and blinked. What was going on today, a revolution?

#####

"Lottie." Stempel's voice was at his most grim as he approached the saloon owner. She wore a pink dress today. Funny, she had never intimidated him before. He'd always thought of her as a nice woman and a good friend. It was true that she was pretty-had probably been gorgeous in her younger days-but he'd never really thought much about marriage, and certainly not to Lottie. She was a businesswoman; he was a businessman. They understood each other in that way.

And in a way, that would make this easier. At least it ought to.

He leaned against the bar with one elbow. "Lottie, I have a business arrangement to make you."

#####

Biddie was humming as she carried the pie, pleasure on her face, excitement in her heart. A new man in town! It was enough to make a girl giggle.

She headed towards Stempel's home, and nearly collided with the man himself, Aaron Stempel. He was walking fast, from the vicinity of Lottie's Saloon, his head down slightly, like an angry bull, his face dark with something like anger.

"Why Mr. Stempel…" she began, but he continued past and shut the door, slamming it almost in her face.

Biddie jumped back and blinked. "Well. I never." She pursed her lips momentarily, and then decided to try the other door. Perhaps the nephew was home, and would answer, and she and David would bond over apple pie…

"Hello? Anybody home?" She suppressed a giggle and knocked again on the back door. Stempel had a nice home, she thought. It was a pity he didn't have a wife to make it even homier. But somehow, she never could picture Aaron giving up his fierce independence to marry. At least, she didn't think he would marry a woman that would stand up to him. But it would be a shame for him to marry someone too meek; he'd end up hating that, she somehow thought. He'd rather fight with someone than just have them agree brainlessly with him, even if he didn't seem to realize that. Weren't he and Jason almost best friends, when they weren't fighting like two angry cats?

"Yeah? Who's there?" The door was pulled open and she saw the curly-haired nephew, David. He had a fascinating blue pair of eyes that didn't seem to match the rest of his coloring, and something about his face, his build, and his stance intrigued her. But then, there never was a man alive that Biddie couldn't find something of interest about.

She went into the sweet and silly routine, and fluttered a little bit. "Oh. Well, I made an extra pie, and I thought…welcome to Seattle!" She giggled, then held the pie out. "Here you go!"

He stared at her for a moment, as if wondering if she were real. Then he held his hands out and accepted the pie. "Thanks." He looked down at it, rather wonderingly. "Thanks." He looked up again at her, his blue eyes reflecting puzzlement. "What kind is it?"

"Apple. Like from the Garden of Eden." She giggled nervously at his blinking expression.

The whole way walking back to the dormitory, she could've kicked herself for saying something so utterly stupid.

#####

Lottie leaned over the counter towards Jason. Her eyes were twinkling in a way that told of an especially good secret. "Jason. You'll never guess the rumor that must be going around."

"Oh?" Jason put down his drink and leaned nearer.

She nodded. "Aaron Stempel thinks you've asked me to marry you—and I've accepted!"

"No!" Jason drew back, his voice loud enough to make Lottie wave her hands, frown, and say, "Shush!"

"Aaron Stempel thinks…" He rolled the words, and the image around lovingly. Such a great joke. Anything that made Aaron look absurd made Jason smile. "What did he say about it?"

Lottie drew back with a few indignant blinks, and a frown. "Well it's not that ridiculous…!"

"No, of course not." He covered her hand on the counter with his. "You're a lovely woman, a fine figure of a woman. But you know I'm not the marrying kind," he added, to soften the indignation in her eyes. After all, Lottie was still a woman, and you couldn't be as abrupt and forthright when speaking to women or you'd insult them with words that a man would just laugh at and not mind a bit.

Lottie's offense retreated, and she smiled again. "Well, he tried to ask me—it was all very awkwardly done—but I think he was trying to ask me to marry him, instead."

"If that doesn't beat all." Jason shook his head slowly, a smile playing on his lips. "Is there anything he won't do to try to beat me?"

"The thing is, I never let him finish—I'm afraid I laughed—and he stormed out of here in a snit. I'm afraid I may have insulted him."

Jason's mouth twitched in a smile. He smirked. He threw back his head and roared.

Lottie gave him a very indignant look. "I was going to ask you to help me explain to him…"

Jason laughed harder.

"Well I hardly think it's that funny, Mr. Jason Bolt!" She swished past him with a toss of her curls, head held high, shoulders thrown back in full Lottie indignation mode.

Jason stopped laughing, and reversed course after her. "Lottie… Of course I didn't mean you were funny, or a figure of fun…"

#####

"C-c'mon, J-Josh," said Jeremy, tugging on his brother's sleeve. "It's r-ridiculous to sit out here and pout in the wagon just because Jason didn't end up taking your advice."

Josh frowned. "It's not that he didn't take it. He didn't even listen." He was alternating between frowning at the floorboards and frowning off into the distance. Jeremy didn't like to see his brother so taciturn and depressed. It was kind of scary when Josh got like this—thinking more than he should, and not talking.

And getting angry with Jason. He remembered the last time that had happened…

"C'mon, Josh," he said, renewing his tug on his older brother's sleeve. It was at times like these he wished you could jolly Josh out of a mood the way you could Jason. Jason could be utterly stubborn, serious, and determined one moment, and the next the sun would come out with his smile, and with twinkling eyes he'd agree to whatever Jeremy suggested, throwing an arm around his shoulder in an expansive gesture, and beginning a great speech about something or other. And Jeremy would feel rather glad that he could convince someone so sure of himself that he'd been wrong, even if it only happened occasionally.

But Josh…

Well, you just couldn't talk Josh out of anything, a decision or a bad mood. He'd just keep things to himself, and more often than not pretend to go along with whatever other people decided—and that was impossible to talk someone out of, when they wouldn't even admit they didn't agree.

That made Josh sound like he was sneaky, but it was different from that, like the middle Bolt brother had to keep things separate and private, keep some thoughts and aspects of himself and his personality to himself, or else get trodden over by his older, more forceful brother, or his 'baby' brother.

Jeremy and Josh got along well. In some ways, they were much closer than either of the younger brothers were to Jason. But there were so many ways and times and places, where Jeremy felt like his brother never let him, much less anyone else, in. That Josh felt oppressed about Jason's sometimes-brash leadership tactics, that he felt gloomy about girls he'd liked and how those relationships had never seemed to work out, that he thought perhaps too much about the future and the direction the logging camp was taking—all these things Jeremy knew...but not what to do about them.

So he did the thing he always did, the thing the Bolts were best at, when they weren't logging or charming girls or being stubborn—turn to alcohol.

"C'mon, Josh. Have a drink," he implored.

At last, Josh clambered down from the wagon with a sigh, all long limbs, strong and powerful, but slightly clumsy, his blond hair flopping down into his face.

"Oh yeah, I've got to cut that again," said Jeremy.

"What? No. It's fine." Josh scraped it back self-consciously, and Jeremy suppressed a sigh.

"Josh, how come it is that I'm the younger brother, but I've got to take care of you two?" He pushed on Josh, herding him towards the saloon.

"What? You do not." Josh cast him a perturbed glance. "Hardly."

"Oh? When don't I? I'm always cooking for you two, and getting you out of scrapes with the girls, making sure you get your hair cut…"

On their way inside, he continued to expound how he was really the responsible brother, while hardly stuttering at all.

Ch 7

#####

When he got inside, Josh was surprised to see that many people were dancing. Someone had gotten a flute, another a banjo, and together they were playing a real toe-tapper. Josh wished he'd brought his guitar along; he could've joined in.

Around the saloon, people danced. Josh was surprised to see the younger Stempel was there, too, dancing enthusiastically with none other than Biddie. He liked Biddie? Most men seemed put off by her scatterbrained good cheer and talkative nature. She was a nice girl, though: someone would marry her, he felt sure.

But not that guy. Why would he ever want to stay in Seattle, if he had another home to go to? Why would anyone want to stay in Seattle, if they had somewhere else to go?

He shook his head and moved to the bar to get a drink from Lottie.

What was wrong with him, anyway? He loved Seattle. He couldn't leave his brothers.

…Could he?

He drank a little, but the noise and jokes and good cheer palled on him today. He finished his drink and headed outdoors. At least on the porch it was quiet. He could be alone with his thoughts, and stare at the stars. The darkness of the sky, its great width and welcomingness…if only the world had so much space, had room for everyone to be themselves.

The stars never seemed too close together, outshone by their older brothers. Perhaps it would be different if he had a proper spyglass and could see the stars that were outshone. It made him a little sad, somehow, to think so, even though he'd always wanted such a device for studying the stars.

It would be nice to think that somewhere, there was enough room for someone to not be outshone or crowded out—even if it was only stars.

"Hey. 'Scuse me. Hey you—Bolt boy."

Someone jogged his elbow, startling him from his gloomy reverie. He turned to look at a curly-headed Stempel nephew, leaning on the railing, looking over at him.

"You? What do you want?" He scowled at the rascal who'd interrupted his thoughts. Did he want another fight?

"I want to apologize." The dark-haired young man scowled at him, matching his irritation. "'Cuz I only told your brother, and not you. Sorry I pulled you in the water," he mumbled, giving Josh a defiant, sullen, and rather ashamed look in the eye, squinting a little and looking stubborn.

Josh stared at him, and remembered to shut his mouth so he wouldn't gape.

"Well." David looked at the ground, and scuffed his foot in the dirt. "Just thought I better say that. Everybody's been real nice to me… Well." He straightened, not quite looking at Josh now. "See ya around."

Josh stared after him as he headed back indoors.

Then his feet unstuck. "Um—hey." He started after the newcomer, ready to accept his apology, ready to take the olive branch that had been held out.

Someone large bumped into his shoulder on the way indoors, someone large and laughing with Jason's voluminous laugh. Josh was shoved back a step, scrambling to stay upright—he hadn't drank more than a little, but Jason obviously had.

"Joshua!" His brother's big hand grasped his shoulder and he laughed into Josh's face. "Come along! Lazy boy. You've had enough to drink. Time to go home or you'll be sleeping in late again!" He laughed at his own terrible non-joke.

Jeremy followed along behind, looking a bit grumpy. He gave Josh a look, and spread his hands as if to say "what can I do?" Even if they'd just barely arrived, Jason had decided it was time to go…so they were going.

"Come along, brothers! Bolt brothers, on their way home!" Jason hiccupped, and, slinging his big arms around both his brothers, steered them towards the wagon. Like it or not, they were going home.

Josh stared up at the stars, and thought how hopelessly far away they all were, and free.

#####

Jason yawned prodigiously and stretched his arms over his head. Another beautiful morning on Bridal Veil Mountain. They'd better get busy; there was lots of logging to do. Orders to fill, brothers and the town to keep in line, and possibly Aaron to annoy, regarding a certain marriage proposal. But that would have to wait. Breakfast, and brothers first.

"Boys. Josh. Jeremy. Time to wake up." He turned to a cot, and shook Jeremy.

Jeremy groaned and pulled his sheet higher. "Go away," he mumbled. Perhaps he'd had too much last night. Jason would have to speak with him about that. You couldn't let anything keep you from logging at your best.

"The sun is shining, the birds are singing. Smell that beautiful mountain air." Jason beat his chest with one fist, smiling. He turned and pulled the covers off Jeremy. The youngest Bolt brother groaned theatrically, and Jason smiled before turning to give Josh the same treatment.

Only his cot was empty.

On the pillow sat a note, written in Josh's close, careful hand.

Jason's mouth fell open, and he picked it up. For once, he had nothing to say as he read…

Dear Jason and Jeremy,

I have to go. I'm sorry. I'll be back someday. I hope you understand, but I don't really expect you to. I wish I could explain, but if I don't get out now, maybe I never will, and will never see if I can make it on my own. You wouldn't think you could suffocate on a mountain with all this clean air, but sometimes I feel like that's what's happening to me.

I'll write when I find a job.

My love,

Joshua

"What is it, Jason?" Yawning and scrubbing at his hair, Jeremy walked over and peered at the letter. "What's this…?" He took it just as Jason dropped it.

Jason went and stared out at the open tent. "Well, Jeremy, it looks as though we've lost a brother—again."

"W-well what are you s-standing there for? We can catch him. Saddle the horses, quick!" He started past Jason at a run. "We can't let him l-leave!"

Jason caught his shoulders. "We can, and we will. If he really feels that way…if this is really suffocating him—" He spread a hand out, indicating the mountain. "—then perhaps it's best he go, and grow up a little before he comes home."

"Y-you don't know Josh very well if you think that! H-he'll be too proud to come home. C'mon, Jason! Wh-what are you standing around for? Hurry up!"

And he tore out the tent and ran towards the horses.

Jason let him go.

What Josh hadn't said, but what he'd meant, was that his brothers were suffocating him. Well, if he felt that way, talking wouldn't do much good, would it?

And if he were childish enough to walk out in the middle of the night, not even having the decency to say goodbye to their faces…then Jason was willing to let him go.

If he hadn't learned his lesson after that fiasco that nearly lost him his third of the mountain—to Aaron Stempel—then maybe he needed to learn his lesson the hard way.

Jason certainly wasn't going to go crawling for him to come home.

#####

Aaron was almost bowled over by the youngest member of the Bolt family, running towards Clancey's ship.

"Josh!" Panic filled Jeremy's voice as he called for his brother.

"Hold up there, Jeremy." Aaron caught himself and didn't fall, he grabbed Jeremy's shoulders and turned him around. "What seems to be the problem?"

Jeremy tore free, in a panic. "J-Josh is leaving!"

Aaron blinked. He stared after Jeremy, running all out towards the ship, and saw the light-haired Bolt, already aboard, talking frantically to Captain Clancey. Then Aaron looked around—no Jason. Well well. The brothers were fighting again, eh?

He hurried towards the ship, to see what was going on.

When he got there, the two youngest Bolt brothers were arguing impassionedly, and Clancey was standing back, his arms crossed, a frown on his grizzled face.

"Please don't try to change my mind. I said I'd come back," said Josh.

"But J-Josh! You can't leave like this, you just can't! I know you're angry with Jason, but whatever he did, he'll apologize. M-maybe you can try your pr-profit sharing idea a-again. Just d-don't leave like th-this!" He put a hand on his brother's arm.

Josh, meanwhile, shook his head, looking miserable but very stubborn. "You don't understand," he said quietly, then turned to Clancey. "Captain, will you take my money or won't you?"

Clancey opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked torn.

"D-don't you t-take it, Clancey, or we'll—we'll never hire you a-again!" threatened Jeremy.

Josh cast his brother an irritated look. "Now that's just stupid, Jeremy."

"Who's stupid? I think anyone who leaves the way y-you're leaving is—"

"Hold up, Bolts," said Aaron, stepping in and pushing them apart. "I think there's another solution to this problem. Josh, you want to get away from logging for awhile, right? And maybe from Jason Bolt." He smirked a little.

Josh opened his mouth, but said nothing. He just nodded, looking rather depressed.

Aaron turned to Jeremy. "And you don't want your brother to leave in anger or go away too far. Well, how about coming to work for me, Josh? I could use a bookkeeper. My man is sick this week, and work is piling up. Give yourself time to think about leaving Seattle, and do something useful in the meantime. And get away from Jason for a little while. What do you say?"

Clancey was the first to speak. "Say, that's not a bad idea. And if the lad still wants to leave when I return, why, then I'll take yous money sure as whistling, I will!"

Jeremy looked at Aaron skeptically. "Is this a trick? Y-you're not g-getting his third of the mountain, that's for sure!"

Aaron waved the concern away. "Of course it's not a trick! How could being a bookkeeper possibly be a trick? Contrary to popular belief, I do have more to do than just annoy the Bolt brothers. And I happen to need a skilled bookkeeper, and Joshua happens to fit the bill. What could be simpler than that?"

Josh stepped forward, suddenly, his blue eyes flashing with decisiveness and…something like hope. "I'll take it!" He grabbed Aaron's hand and pumped it up and down.

"Well, good." Aaron shook his hand free. "Now grab your bag and come on. I don't have all day and those books won't balance themselves." He turned away quickly before any more emotionalism could be displayed—a 'thank you' from Jeremy would be even more distasteful than his distrust of a moment ago, and Aaron could see a warm look entering Clancey's eyes, as if he were about to sprout forth on the kindness of a man keeping a family together.

What a ridiculous idea!

As if Aaron wanted anything more than a good bookkeeper for a few days. The Bolt brothers could fight from here to kingdom come if they wanted to.

Except…well, perhaps he did feel a bit guilty about how he'd behaved the last time the brothers were on the outs. With a clearer head, and without the help of the lawyer making it all seem so legal and square...it would never have occurred to him to proceed the way he did.

If keeping Josh in town for a few days longer to let cooler heads prevail would help atone for what he'd done the last time the Bolts fought, well, then it was the least he could do. The absolute least, and he meant that—no way was he going to play peacemaker or try to get Josh and Jason to start talking again.

But it would've been a terrible trick, even worse than before, if he were to let Joshua Bolt walk away from Seattle without trying to stop him. He'd never be able to face Jason again, if he hadn't intervened.

Not that he cared about Jason or his feelings. But a man had to be able to hold his head up.

Ch 8

#####

Josh worked hard, plugging away at the books. He did so well with the books, and finished so much in the first day, that Stempel actually told him he'd done a good job. That felt kind of nice. Not that he needed Aaron's approval, but it felt good that someone had noticed him for something good he'd done, instead of something he'd done wrong, or hadn't done—or just hadn't noticed him at all.

When he finished with the books Stempel had given him for the day, he got up and started sweeping the floor. Goodness knows why, but he felt like he owed the man a good day's work…

He found his mind drifting to his brothers. They were probably talking and eating supper. Did they miss him at all?

Not that that was why he was leaving, he reminded himself sternly. This wasn't about trying to get attention. It was about being a man.

For three days, he kept his head down and worked like a horse. Jeremy and Jason both left him alone. He told himself that was what he'd wanted, anyway.

He slept at a room in Lottie's, and ate the meals she served. She was friendly, but it was rather lonely, not having his brothers to eat with. He was even starting to miss Jason's lively, near-constant chatter. The bar was often busy at mealtimes, with grim men shoveling away their food and rushing back to the mill, or the serious drinkers crouching silent over their drinks.

Josh ate alone, unhappily, hurrying to get back to his books and forget how lonely and forgotten he was starting to feel. This was what he'd wanted, right? But this wasn't really a fresh start. When Clancey came back, then he could leave for good.

But would he be less lonely in another city? It was dreadful to feel hemmed in, but also dreadful to feel forgotten and alone.

He always ate quickly, hurrying back to the books and their comforting march of numbers.

One day, he had just finished and was hurrying from the lonely barroom when he almost banged into David Stempel.

"Oh! Sorry." He drew back, apologizing instantly. The young man looked sleepy, pale, and worn down. And rather pale in the face. He blinked at Josh a moment, rather blankly.

"Hey." Josh caught his arm and steered him towards an empty table. "Maybe you should sit down." He gestured to the waitress who was serving today; Lottie was busy elsewhere. "Could you get him something to eat and some water?"

The dark-haired man leaned forward a moment, his head resting in his hands. "I'm fine. Just give me a minute," he mumbled.

Josh sat next to him, regarding the young man with concern. He looked to see where the food and water were, and jumped up to take them from the waitress when she headed over.

"Here. Drink that." He pushed the glass of water into David's hand, and waited while he drank. "Now eat something."

He'd seen people get faint before, but not often. The men of Seattle were a hearty lot; he'd seen a few women looking green at the gills like that, however, and was afraid a faint was not far off.

"I'm all right. Thanks." David eyed the food, and finally decided to take a bite.

"You've been working too hard?" suggested Josh.

"Yeah. Not used to working at the mill."

The men from the mill had already been here several minutes and were grimly shoveling their food away. None had jumped up to see to David, or looked at all concerned.

"Had to sit down a minute. Guess I'm not used to it yet."

He looked up at Josh then, looked disconcerted and embarrassed, frowning. "Thanks." His mouth twisted down, as if he hated saying it. "I'd have been okay, though."

"Yeah. Of course. Um, thanks for—for your apology, the other day. I didn't get a chance to respond…"

David waved it away. "Under the bridge. Glad you're not mad. Tell me," he said in an obvious attempt to change the subject rapidly, "do you guys always work so hard in Seattle?" He glanced at Josh's face.

Josh snorted. "Work, drink, or court the brides. Not much else to do! Well, there's church, of course, and here and the store…" Somehow he found himself correcting his words the moment he said something even slightly negative about Seattle; maybe he was more like Jason than he wanted to admit. Well, they were brothers…

David shook his head. "I don't go to church."

"Huh?" Josh blinked at him. "Why not?"

"Jewish." David's face went rather hard again, and he eyed Josh with a return of that sullen look that he used to wear all the time.

"But your uncle isn't…"

"Isn't he?"

Josh blinked. "Oh. I didn't know. Stempel never said anything." He frowned, suddenly remembering the dilemma when the girl Josh had been engaged to marry had revealed she was Jewish, and didn't want to marry outside her faith after all. They'd all been so worried that she would have to leave, that she'd been encouraged to see—and had finally even married—the one Jewish man in Seattle, a man who Josh still didn't think was good enough for her.

And all along Stempel had been available?

He snorted inwardly. Of course Stempel hadn't told. He wanted to win the mountain, not be encouraged to marry one of the brides himself.

"Well, he never said anything, and he attends church as much as anyone else."

David shrugged. "It's social. Stay in good with the town. But I don't have to, and I won't."

Josh found himself nodding in approval.

As much as he hadn't liked losing his fiancée to religious reasons, he'd respected her for figuring out her own mind and sticking with what she believed.

He'd even briefly flirted with the idea of converting, but she'd been pretty discouraging about the possibility of that working out.

"You don't know anything of the Jewish heritage, Josh," she'd said. "You'd just be doing it for me. And someday when you wished you hadn't, you'd never forgive me."

He hadn't been able to convince her otherwise—especially because he would've been just doing it for her. He'd never have been interested in Judaism without her in his life.

He shifted on his seat. "So, uh, I guess you won't be staying in Seattle and marrying one of the brides."

David smirked. He was looking better already, with a little food in him, and from sitting down. "Hardly. I might get annoyed with my uncle but I'm not gonna help him lose a bet."

Josh nodded. That made sense to him also, regrettably. You always stuck by family….

#####

"So when are you going to go check on Josh?" Jeremy faced his oldest brother with a frown. "It's not right to just let him stew in town, working for S-Stempel, never seeing a friendly f-face…"

Jason spread his hands. "If he wants a friendly face, he knows the way. Besides, if we don't leave him alone, he won't get a taste of what he thinks he wants—life without brothers, without a mountain. And then he might go away even further." He raised his eyes towards the tree line. "This mountain is all our parents had, and now it's ours. Josh need to learn to appreciate that, Jeremy, just as you and I do."

Jeremy was glaring at him, to all intents and purposes, ignoring his speech. "I don't think it's the mountain he wants to get away from, Jason." Then he turned and walked away, not even stopping to listen to the rest of what Jason had to say.

Jason gaped after him, and then blinked. Well. Both brothers acting up, were they?

He smiled then and shook his head. The Bolts had strong blood. Of course it was bound to act up now and again, making the brothers want to strike out on their own. But family ties were stronger. Josh would be back, and Jeremy would learn to appreciate all they had in Bridal Veil Mountain someday, too.

#####

"Mr. Stempel."

"What is it, Josh?" Aaron looked up to see the middle Bolt brother looking surprisingly hesitant. His hair was neatly combed and his shirt was clean. Not that he didn't usually look rather clean. For sweating laborers, the Bolts certainly made an effort to look after their hygiene.

Josh ran a hand back over his hair. "I think you need to give your nephew easier work."

"What?" Aaron leaned back and blinked at him.

"Oh, just till he gets used to it. He's not used to doing this much hard physical labor." He looked at Stempel, as if waiting for him to agree.

Aaron shook his head to the side slightly. "I hardly think I need your input on how to take care of my nephew."

"But you do. I think he's finally decided to buckle down and show you he can be a man—but if it's too hard for him, your plan will backfire, and he'll probably just give up and stop trying. He was barely able to walk yesterday at lunch, and I know you want to teach him to be responsible, not just bury him with backbreaking labor."

It was unusual to hear so many words from the middle Bolt. Jason was a talker, sure, and Jeremy somehow or other usually managed to get his say in, even if he stuttered while doing it. But the middle brother was usually the most silent one, going along with his brothers, laughing at other people's jokes, but rarely speaking up on his own.

Now he stared at Aaron expectantly.

Aaron made a face, and got up. "Josh, I don't know what kind of guilt complex you have. I suppose because you and my nephew fought, you now feel responsible…"

"No, nothing like that," said Josh.

Aaron glared at him for interrupting. "Whatever you may think, the fact is David is a Stempel. He's not a weakling."

Josh was shaking his head. "That's not right, Stempel. You forget how hard life is in Seattle. He wasn't raised here. He probably never did anything as hard as work in a sawmill before in his life. That doesn't make him a weakling, just means he needs time to get used to it."

Aaron stared at the suddenly very self-assured and certain middle Bolt. It was true: even the very few men like Stempel who lived more by brain than brawn, had grown up working hard for much of their lives.

David had been groomed for banking, not hard physical labor. Failing at the one wouldn't make him better at the other. Perhaps it had been a mistake, throwing him in at the deep end of the lake. Aaron had automatically dismissed David's complaints because they were so many and varied: and now when the complaints had ceased, he hadn't questioned it.

He found himself nodding. "All right, Josh. I'll see what I can do about moving him to easier work. If that's all?" He sat down and picked up his pen again, pointedly.

Josh nodded, smiling a little. "Of course, Stempel. I'll let you work." He left.

Aaron frowned after him thoughtfully. Dang it, he was beginning to really like this Bolt. Could've even worked with him for real. He had a good head on his shoulders, and he was thoughtful and good with numbers. If he wasn't always in the shadows of his brothers…

He frowned a little more, for thinking of hiring a Bolt permanently.

Ch 9

#####

Josh entered Ben's store and looked around the cozy, familiar shelves, stocked with dry goods and little luxuries for the people of Seattle to covet, save up for, and buy. Things to remind them of back east, things to bring pleasure to a love one—candy, a bit of fancy cloth, a book.

Ben's dark head was bent over the counter as he waited on several young ladies. He was quiet and polite to them, all smiles. As soon as they left (swishing out the door, giggling a little as they glimpsed Joshua), Ben turned to his newest customer, with a smile just as nice but somehow more for a man and less as though he had to be gentle or scare a customer off.

"Josh! What can I do for you?" He dusted off his hands on his apron, even though they seemed to be already clean. Lots of things were cleaner, in town.

Josh leaned on the counter. "Hi Ben. I could use a new ledger for Stempel."

"Stempel?" Ben's eyebrows rose as he turned to the shelf to fetch one. "I thought you'd have plenty, what with that nephew of his buying up all the unlined ones I had." He wrapped and handed the ledger to Josh. "Here you go."

"Thanks." Josh held out the money and accepted the package. "That nephew of his. Do many people dislike him?" He asked casually, but he'd been wondering about the way Stempel's men seemed to be giving him the cold shoulder.

Ben laughed. "Well, Josh, you have to admit he didn't have the best introduction, getting into a fight with you!"

"Well, that shouldn't make Stempel's men dislike him."

"As for that, they aren't too thrilled to have the boss's nephew working with them. I think they think he's a spy. The girls like him well enough, though. Come to think of it, that probably doesn't make him any more popular either—big city boy from back east coming into town. Well, he's bound to be a seven day's wonder with the girls, and that won't make the men like him any better, for sure. Can I get you anything else?"

"Thanks, that's all," said Josh, and nodded and smiled. He headed out the door, wondering what the ledgers David had bought were for.

#####

Now that he wasn't doing such backbreaking labor during the day, David actually had time to visit Lottie's after work, like the other men. Perhaps they would stop looking down on him and hating him now. Surely he wouldn't have to stay in Seattle forever. It would be nice not to be hated while he was here, though.

At least now he had the energy to do the thing he loved most. Before, he'd been too tired at the end of the day to even hold a pencil straight.

He picked the best-lit corner of the room that he could find where people would leave him alone. He bent over his blank paper, and began to draw. Slowly, the rest of the world drifted away, and it was just him in the hazy warm glow of the room, him and pencil and paper, and nothing much else.

"What's that?"

A voice at his elbow jogged him from the cozy place, and he jumped, automatically moving to cover his work with his hands.

A mop of light hair, practically glowing in the oil-lamp light, leaned closer as Josh peered at David's work, squinting a little. "You're drawing something?" said Joshua Bolt, holding his drink and smiling a little.

If someone else laughed at him…

David glared daggers at Josh. "Yes, and if you don't get out of here…" He rose ominously, wishing he were just a little taller, and could've perhaps intimidated the tall blond guy.

"You'll what, draw me to death? Come on, let me see. It looks good."

"So, what, you've already seen?" David stood in front of the table, his arms crossed, blocking the guy's view.

"Fine, don't let me see. But if you're an artist, why don't you want anyone to see what you can do? Trust me, you won't be outclassed here in Seattle. We can barely draw stick figures." He grinned at his own joke, and David saw he wasn't planning to fight, nor mock.

He relaxed a little. It would be awfully nice to let someone see who wouldn't mock. "Well—I guess you could…" He turned back to the book, and flipped to an earlier page. "Here. Just look at that one, none of the others," he ordered.

He waited to see Josh's reaction to the picture he was most proud of. He'd done it last night, in this same spot, a thoughtful view of Lottie. He liked the way that he'd captured her, her smile and the energetic way she stood. She was a real lady, and apart from being angry with him when he'd fought with Joshua, she'd made him feel welcome in Seattle—one of the few people other than the brides who had.

Josh made an exclamation in his throat and sat down his mug on the table. He held the page closer, and moved it towards the light. Was he squinting a little? David found he was feeling nervous—nervous, of what this guy thought! Well, if he hadn't been criticized so much before for his pictures, maybe he wouldn't feel that way, but…as it was, he found himself practically holding his breath, waiting.

Josh whistled. "Wow! This is amazing!" He thumped David on the back, and grinned at him. "You could sell pictures! Why aren't you in magazines?"

Josh felt a pleasant heat rising in his cheeks. It was the best reaction he could've hoped for. He wasn't one to be taken in by flattery, surely… But it certainly was nice to hear something pleasant about his pictures, for once, instead of just criticism.

He was trying to think of something to say when Josh whirled away, still holding the book. "Lottie! Lottie! Come look what David drew!"

Oh no…

David ran after him, teeth gritted, to try to get the book back. "Josh!" he hissed, trying to grab it, but the big blond guy didn't even seem to notice.

Before he could do anything about it, Lottie had seen his picture, and been so suitably impressed that half the men in the room had then wanted to see it.

Everyone was impressed enough that tonight, David found himself less of an outcast than usual. "Can you draw me?" "How 'bout a picture of my sweetheart?" people asked him all night, coming up to him and offering to buy him a drink.

It was surprisingly pleasant to feel welcome and included, for once.

A half hour later, Aaron Stempel walked into the saloon and David found himself hoping he wouldn't catch wind of what was going on.

He tried to keep his head down at his table, and flipped to a new page and began to doodle in the edges of it. He didn't want his uncle to see, and give that sarcastic snort of amused half-laughter. He didn't want someone else looking down his nose at him because of his love of drawing.

Sure enough, after talking to Lottie for a moment, Aaron's brows rose. He looked over at David, then took a drink and walked over and planted himself in a chair opposite his nephew. David continued to draw lines, and glanced up to meet his uncle's gaze defiantly.

Sure enough, Aaron looked amused.

Stempel took a sip of his drink. "David, I know why you came out here. So you're going to start again, eh?"

"I'm drawing on my own time," said David, his eyes flashing stubborn defiance. "I'm not slacking off my work."

"Well, that's more than can be said for what you did back home."

David frowned, and then looked down at his page, drawing slow, lazy circles. So, he hadn't wanted to be a banker. Somehow he'd thought his parents could understand, would support his decision to go to art school and study further. He'd learned a lot, from practice and from his lessons, but there was so much more to learn.

"You had better not let it interfere with your work," said Aaron in a lecturing tone of voice. He seemed about to say more when Joshua Bolt bounced up.

"Did you see it?" He was all grins.

"See what?" said Stempel, sounding grouchy.

David groaned inwardly. The big clod… He slammed the book shut and moved his hands to cover it. None of this guy's business. Why couldn't he leave the nephew and uncle to fight in peace? But at the same time, some part of him wished to be stood up for, and liked it.

"The picture of Lottie." Josh reached down and gently disentangled the book from David, and flipped back to the first page. His brows rose in interest and surprise as he glimpsed some of the drawings of trees, buildings, and townsfolk as he flipped. David felt his cheeks heating again. It was just sketches! He shouldn't be judged on sketches; it wasn't fair.

"Here." Joshua held the book open and proudly held it out towards Aaron, grinning. "Didn't he draw her just right?"

And Aaron, squinting closer, grunted in—something like approval.

Ch 10

#####

It had been nearly a week. A week, and he hadn't seen his middle brother! Jeremy frowned horribly at the terrible thought. How could they have just abandoned Josh in town, for a whole week? To Stempel, no less!

It was all well and good to say he needed to see what it was really like on his own, and Jeremy had listened to Jason so far on the subject, but this had gone too far. A week!

He marched into town, with all the righteous indignation he could muster. He'd just tell Josh—well, he'd suggest to Josh—that Jason had no right to push him off, and he could stay if he wanted to, and—and Jeremy would even back him up this time, if he wanted to make some changes. Anything was better than him leaving, even another fight—as long as it was a small one. And two brothers' votes…well, he was sure he could get Josh to listen, if he could just get the words out when Josh wasn't too busy or angry to pay attention. He'd have to listen…

It was evening, and most traffic seemed to be either towards the dormitory or the saloon. He decided to check the latter, as Josh wasn't courting anyone at the moment. At least…he hadn't been a week ago. Maybe things had changed.

He entered Lottie's, which was hopping and busy, and scanned the room for his brother. There were several men from the logging camp laughing and having a good time, several other men from town talking in a low grumbly sort of way, and—there was Josh.

He was seated next to Stempel's nephew, talking to him. "If you love it, you shouldn't let anyone make you quit," he was saying. He looked up, smiling, and motioned to Lottie. "Two more, please."

"Josh?" Jeremy walked up behind him, thunderstruck, eying his brother who had suddenly become friends (apparently) with his enemy of just a short time ago. Had so much changed? Could Josh change so quickly? Apparently he could…

Josh turned to see him, and his face lit up. "Jeremy! I've been wondering when I'd see you. Hey. How are things at the camp?" He rose from his seat and smiled, facing Jeremy.

Jeremy looked at him as if he could hardly recognize him. Where was the grumpy, moody, quiet brother of the past few months? Here was Josh looking vibrant and buoyant, and he wasn't even drunk. (Jeremy could always tell with his brothers.)

Josh was usually careful of his appearance—making sure his good shirt was clean whenever he went into town—but this was beyond the pale. He wore a new shirt, and looked like he'd just had a bath yesterday. His hair was neatly combed, and his clothes in pristine condition. Not even any mud splashed on his pant legs.

What had happened to the Josh he knew, the hard-laboring brother who said little? Had he changed into a glad-handing, office-working dandy?

"Josh?" he said again, surveying this new and 'improved' brother.

Josh's smile died a little. "Yeah, Jeremy. Is something wrong at camp?"

"N-no." Jeremy got the word out rather forcefully. Thought he was coming running to Josh for help, huh? "We're f-fine!"

Josh looked at him a moment. "Well, I'd like you to meet David. He and I got off on the wrong foot, but he's an okay guy." He turned smiling to introduce his new friend—Stempel's nephew.

"P-pleased to meet you, I'm sh-sure," said Jeremy coldly, giving him a stiff handshake.

Stempel's nephew was looking pleased and relaxed, and actually much nicer than he had at first—less grumpy and defensive. But at the sound of Jeremy's voice, his smile died a little, and he backed off. "'Scuse me, Josh. Just remembered something I have to take care of." He left the two brothers alone, staring at each other.

"What'd you do that for? He's my friend."

"Your friend? You barely met him, and he pulled you in the water, if I recall—and you two had a fistfight! You expect me to believe he's your friend? O-oh, I see—because you're working with S-S-Stempel now, you've g-got to g-get along and pretend to be f-f-friends with him and his r-relatives!" He was stuttering worse with his growing anger.

Josh glared at him. "It's not like that. You think I'm brownnosing? Well it's a lot less brownnosing to work for a paycheck from Stempel—who actually listens to me sometimes—than to work for free with my brother, and go along with everything he says, for nothing!" His voice was rising now too, with frustration or anger, and several patrons glanced their way, along with Lottie. She headed over with a purposeful step, no doubt intent on breaking things up before anyone could say something he'd regret.

Jeremy looked at his brother again, wondering how things could go so wrong, and how his brother could leave him behind like this. "W-what about me, Josh? Aren't I your brother, too?"

Josh just stared at him.

Jeremy turned and left the bar, more thoroughly hurt than he'd thought he could ever be by seeing Josh happy and successful—without his family.

#####

"Joshua Bolt." Lottie's hand closed over his upper arm. "I don't know what you said to him, but if you're any kind of a brother, you'd better go after him—right now."

She spoke quietly but firmly, and Lottie was usually right about this sort of thing.

Josh turned back to the bar, and lifted his glass. "Maybe I'm sick of just being a brother."

"Joshua Bolt." She glared at him, much shorter than him but somehow intimidating all the same, fierce in her certainty of being in the moral right. "You go out there and talk to your brother. Go!"

She motioned towards the door and he went—reluctantly, but he went. He dried his mouth on his sleeve first. It would do no good talking to Jeremy with a beer moustache. Then again, if it made him laugh, instead of storming off in some version of self-righteous anger…

He sighed inwardly. "Jeremy? Wait up." Long steps took him towards the door, and then outside he looked around to see where Jeremy was. His little brother was walking determinedly towards camp, ignoring the puddles he was walking through.

It never made much difference when you were logging. You couldn't expect to stay clean when you were logging anyway. But in town it was different. Josh had gotten in the habit of stepping around the worst puddles. Mud wasn't as amenable to working indoors, or dealing with books.

"Jeremy." He caught up to his brother and caught his arm. Jeremy yanked it free but turned around anyway, to glare at him. Josh tried to look calm and not angry; no need for this to get escalated into another big family fight.

"Jeremy, I'm not ready to go home," he said quietly, in a firm voice. "Yeah, I miss you and Jason sometimes—but sometimes I don't. It's good to be by myself for awhile. Making my own decisions. Maybe I'll be ready to come home in a little bit. Maybe I won't." He shrugged. "Can't you be happy for me either way?"

Jeremy looked at him, as sad as if he'd just been told Candy was sick. "I'll try, Josh. I'll try, b-but it won't be easy." He swallowed, and looked at Josh sadly. "Y-you know, I w-was coming into town to promise you my v-vote. In the Bolt brothers family. If you wanted to change things again. But you don't want a vote. You just want to l-leave."

He turned and headed back towards camp, his shoulders bowed. And all Josh could do was stare after him. It was true.

At least for now. Maybe it wouldn't always be, but for now, it was true. He missed his brothers and thought about them often. But he didn't miss feeling like he had no real say in their business, or even in his own life. He didn't miss feeling like he was always wrong, and his best ideas on a good day were worse, or less valuable, than Jason's worst ideas on a bad day.

There was nothing he could say or do. If Jeremy didn't see it, then he didn't. And maybe things would change; maybe he'd be glad to go back someday.

But for now, he turned and headed back towards town, feeling sadder and more depressed than he'd thought he could possibly feel after seeing his baby brother, his favorite brother.

#####

The day of the raffle came. (Stempel had grumbled and put up a fight, but it turned out there was no Seattle law against raffles.) The whole town gathered to see who won the top prizes.

There was the much-coveted quilt, made by the girls in the dormitory from beautiful fabric Lottie had bought, that Clancey had brought West just for her. Lottie had paid the girls a little something for their time and efforts, but in the end the quilt was worth much more than that.

It had taken almost six weeks, and the final result was a marvel of fine stitching and intricate designs. The brides had made different squares with different designs—log cabin, pineapple, flying geese, and more. The profusion of styles and colors made the quilt even more special and beautiful, and a number of men had said publically how much they would like it, as well.

Bachelors would never again get such an opportunity for a fancy bedspread, and courting men would have a very special gift to give to their brides-to-be. The women, of course, each wanted it as well. Each of them had contributed, and the object was now more of a 'Seattle quilt' than a raffle prize. There was already talk of making their next project one for the next couple who got married, although it might not be of quite the same quality, without the special fabric, but instead whatever scraps they could find, or bolts they could buy from Ben.

There were also homemade pies that Lottie had paid the girls to make, as smaller prizes, and a couple of "all you can drink" prizes (nontransferable, to make things interesting if one of the teetotalers happened to win it). Some had said Lottie should have separate drawings for each prize, so that people only signed up for prizes they wanted to win, and she'd promised to think about it for next time. But for now the town was rather enjoying wondering who would win what.

Most everyone in town had bought at least one ticket, some quite a few. The tickets were cheap, but they counted up: Lottie's bills would be covered easily with this extra infusion of cash.

If it worked out well, she might even do it again soon, although it seemed like it would be impossible to top the Seattle Quilt.

Josh arrived on time and joined the crowd waiting excitedly outside Lottie's. He looked around rather unhappily, trying to spot his brothers, but he couldn't. It was awfully lonely standing by yourself in a crowd….

"What did I miss?" David ran up to join Josh, grinning.

"Nothing. It hasn't started yet." He crossed his arms and pulled his collar higher, wishing he didn't miss Jason and Jeremy so much. As much as he wanted to be in charge of his own destiny, and all the rest, sometimes it was really nice to just be one of the brothers, anonymous and safely flanked by Jason and Jeremy—just one of the Bolts.

Ch 11

David tugged his arm. "Hey. How many tickets did you buy?"

Josh smiled at him, glad for a friend, anyway. "Two."

David had been doing better since his uncle put him on easier work at the mill. He'd changed him to one of the jobs that was usually given to the youngest employees, men as young as teens. David was the oldest employee in the runner's job, and teased about it, but he had stopped nearly fainting halfway through the day, and was building up strength. He was even energetic sometimes, and he and Josh had rather become friends. Two outcasts, who didn't fit anywhere else, now each had someone to talk to. Despite the bad start they'd gotten off to, and their very divergent backgrounds, they somehow had lots to discuss. They were getting along well. He wasn't exactly a brother, but visiting the raffle drawing with David was better than going it alone—much better.

Josh looked around and took a deep breath.

The air was festive and carnival-like in this beautiful day. The sun had even come out, as if agreeing to hold off any rain for this special event. There wasn't room in the saloon for everyone, so, the same as when the whole town had voted, the results were announced outside.

To keep things fair, and to include the town's children (who weren't eligible for the drawings—the church women had put their foot down about that, because of the drinking prizes), Lottie had gathered the town's small children to each take turns pulling a ticket with a winner's name. Then they were to have their own treats of lemonade and penny candies from Ben's store.

The drawings began, to much excitement and cheerful smiles.

Most of the pies went to the men, but a few women won them as well—to her chagrin, Biddie won back her own pie. Everyone laughed at the face she made, but then she shrugged and made the best of it with a smile. "Well—I guess we'll be eating pie, girls!" Her friends had joined her in laughing.

Surprisingly, a number of the brides and married women won the drinking prizes—both the big prize, all you can drink for a week, and the smaller prizes of one or two days. So many women won, in fact, that there were beginning to be some grumbles. Lottie spoke up and promised she'd serve all-you-want lemonade and cookies to anyone who wanted, instead. After that, the grumbles ceased; it was a good prize, too.

The quilt, the best prize, was chosen last. One of Stempel's mill employees won it—a man very few people knew, a grizzled man who said little but was obviously overjoyed to win. It was difficult to begrudge the man—who apparently had little else going for him—the win. Some of the brides went up to tease him gently, and his coworkers ribbed him about needing to find a girl to "share" it with.

Lottie hastily broke the crowd up before it could get un-family-friendly, by offering free drinks for all the grownups, lemonade for the children and anyone who did not want alcohol.

Some people trooped indoors, the rest gathered round the porch, smiling and chatting about the next raffle. Even Stempel could not help but admit (reluctantly) that the raffle had been a good thing for Lottie and for the town.

Josh headed into the saloon with his friend at his side, and scanned the room for his brothers. Sure enough, there they were, belly up at the bar, tall Jason and short Jeremy, looking somehow alike from the back, dark haired and… certain.

Sometimes he wondered if they missed him, but with Jason's certainty of being right, and Jeremy's righteous indignation…perhaps they didn't.

Well, there was one way to find out. He turned to David. "Hey, see ya, okay?" David nodded. Josh went to the bar and stood behind his brothers. "Hey guys. Buy you a drink?"

Jason turned to him and smiled a big, surprised smile. "Why, Josh! Come on, sit down."

He patted the seat beside him. Jeremy also turned and smiled at him.

The three brothers sat together in a row, drinking companionably. Josh didn't quite dare to talk. He didn't know what to say. He wondered who would be the first to suggest he come home…

"So, Josh," said Jason, "when are you coming home?"

Josh turned to look at him with a sinking heart. Maybe it would be better to just give in. They looked so friendly now, smiling at him eagerly, hopefully.

No. Not like this. On my terms. When I'm ready.

He found himself shaking his head. "Not yet." He turned back to his drink and stared at it, no longer thirsty. Then he looked back at his brothers. "I'm not ready. I'm—doing good, working for Stempel." He treats me right, he pays me, he listens to my opinion… "I'm…enjoying it here in town. If you need my help for the books or something, just bring them in. I'll still do them."

To his surprise, Jason nodded, smiling, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "All right. All right, Josh. If that's what you think best."

He blinked in surprise at his forceful older brother, giving in without an argument.

#####

After they left the bar and were on their way home to the mountain, Jason's strides grew longer and longer.

"I hope that worked. Jeremy, I'm trusting you that we did the right thing."

Jeremy nodded, and found himself hoping so, too. "I—I think so, J-Jason."

After he'd thought about it a little while, after getting so upset with Josh for leaving and then staying gone, he'd decided maybe they needed to act like it wasn't a big deal. Whatever Jason thought, Josh had obviously left because he was feeling bossed around. So if they told him to come back, wouldn't that just make him want to leave further? Whereas if they pretended they didn't mind him being gone—that it didn't make more work for the rest of the brothers, that it didn't hurt, missing him—then maybe he'd feel comfortable and free, and decide to come back on his own.

Begging him to come home hadn't worked. Neither had Jason's ignoring trick. So…just being casual, pretending everything was great and that they didn't mind him being gone…that was their latest plan.

Jeremy still halfway wanted to fake an emergency so Josh would come running back to help.

But he knew his brother, and if Josh ever found out, his pride would be hurt irreparably, and he'd probably really never forgive them.

#####

"So? How'd it go?" David sat down next to Josh at the bar, putting his glass down with a thump. "What happened?"

Josh stared miserably into his glass. "Nothing. They just—accepted it. Said hi, took me up on my offer of doing the books sometimes, and then just—left."

"I thought that's what you wanted."

"Yeah, me too," murmured Jason. He stared at his drink, and then looked up abruptly to meet his friend's inquiring blue gaze. "I guess I wanted them to need my help, a little bit. It's more like they're doing me a favor, letting me do the books. And they don't seem to need my help with the logging or business end, or anything else. So maybe I really was the third wheel." He shook his head, and swirled his glass around on the table, watching the yellowish liquid slosh, and a little of it spill. "You wouldn't think I'd mind that, but I do."

"Sure. Everybody wants to be important," said David. He took a drink and then set his glass down, and stared at it a moment. Then he said quietly, "If it helps, you're important to me."

#####

"Josh. Would you set those down and come here a minute?"

Josh blinked, then set down the books he'd carried in to deliver to Stempel, and moved to stand in front of Stempel's desk. "Uh, what is it?"

Aaron was frowning—again. He often seemed to frown; Josh had come to realize it was not always an indication of his mood. He seemed to feel he had to put on a tough face whether or not he was actually angry.

Aaron drummed a pen on the table, and grimaced, leaning back in his chair, and scowling up at Josh. "Joshua Bolt, would you like a permanent job?"

Josh could only stare at him. "I thought your regular guy was sick…"

Aaron acknowledged it with a single nod of his head. "He was. He's better now, but you're much better at the job."

"But wouldn't I be putting him out of work...?"

Aaron waved a hand dismissively. "I'll find him some other job to do. Well? How about it? You wouldn't have to leave Seattle to escape Jason, and you'd still be near enough to go back to your mountain if you ever changed your mind. In the meantime, the pay is decent, and you get to live in town. What do you say?"

Josh blinked. "I—I'd like time to think about it."

Aaron nodded. "Okay. I need your decision by tomorrow." He picked up his pen and turned back to his papers.

Josh wandered from the room in a daze, his mind working furiously. Working for Aaron—it would feel so permanent. On the other hand, it was less permanent than leaving Seattle. And that could be good or bad. It was also working for the competition. When it had just been for a few months, well, that seemed all right, somehow. But now…

He would have to think about it, that was all.

And somehow he wished he could ask his brothers advice. The Bolts always seemed to work through things best by talking about them together.

Maybe he could just stop by the logging camp, see how they were doing with him away. If he could find an excuse…oh yeah, the books! He could return them early. He'd finished with them last night. It was just the excuse he needed.

#####

On the way out of Stempel's office, he happened to see David, carrying a sketchbook under his arm and looking content. He must be back from one of his new artwork jobs. Stempel was letting him work fewer days now, so he could work on selling art some of the time. Since people had started realizing what a great artist he was, he was in very high demand—mostly for portraits, for which he seemed to have a knack.

Josh waved to his friend and David waved back. Josh continued on, smiling, glad for his friend to be doing so well. Now he was out of town, into the clean pine air, smelling of the forest. No one was around; oh wait, there was one person. He noticed as he walked that someone was heading down the path towards him with a determined look on his face. Josh didn't recognize the man; he was short with sandy blond hair, not very strong looking. He wore a fierce scowl and had one hand stuck in his pocket.

Josh didn't think anything of this—at any given time, plenty of people in Seattle could be upset about something. Then the man stopped in front of him, and said, "Are you Joshua Bolt?"

"Yes, that's me." Josh stopped and faced him. "Why?"

"Because you're not going to steal my job, that's why!"

The man pulled a gun out of his pocket and pulled the trigger.

The world seemed to explode in Josh's face, and he was down, an awful blackness welling up before him, and a terrible redness welling from him. And he wished he had gotten to say goodbye to his brothers.

######

David had been walking to the dormitory to finish Portia's portrait—it was certainly not difficult, looking at her while he worked—and he'd waved to Josh just a moment ago.

Then he heard a gunshot from the path towards town, and something about it made him uneasy. People weren't supposed to hunt so near town. There were kids and women here, and someone could be accidentally hurt. On a horrible hunch, David headed down the path. He could be a little late for his appointment. He just hoped nothing had happened.

He started to run.

When he got there, Josh was already lying on the ground, pooling in his own blood. "Josh!" He dropped his book in the mud and knelt by his friend.

From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a man disappearing around a bend in the path, walking very fast. Then his attention was back to Josh, who seemed to be fading fast. He was bleeding profusely from the shoulder.

David raised his voice and shouted, "Help! Help!" The sound seemed to echo off the trees. Would anyone hear? Should he run for help?

"Josh, what do I do?" He knelt by Josh, mindless of the fact that his knees and his art book were now covered in mud.

"Tie…shirt," said Josh in a wheezing sort of voice.

"Tie my shirt?"

Josh nodded—and winced.

"Oh! Around your—your shoulder, of course." His hands were shaking as he peeled off his own flannel shirt and got it tied around Joshua's shoulder. Somehow, the blond man only grunted once. He didn't scream….

"Get…help," Josh rasped between his teeth. He'd turned a sickening shade of white, paler than anyone ought to look, even someone as light-skinned at Joshua Bolt.

"Okay, I'll get help," said David. "Don't die!" He scrambled to his feet, and ran back towards town.

He ran for all he was worth, and arrived back in town panting, telling the news to everyone who would listen. The town was quick to respond. Men and women alike dropped what they were doing and ran to Josh. David's uncle and Lottie were among the first, Lottie frantic-looking with worry, Aaron grim-faced, severe, and anxious.

But despite the speed of response, Josh was unconscious by the time they arrived.

People crowded around, and Aaron barked at them to make room. He and Lottie tended to Josh as best they could. Then they got Josh onto a stretcher, and two men carried him carefully back towards town. David stood around worrying, wishing there was something he could do to help. But everyone else was here now, and he didn't know anything about gunshot wounds, anyway.

Then Aaron turned to him, grim-faced and with a smear of Josh's blood on his cheek where he must have brushed his hand without realizing it. "David. Go tell his brothers."

Josh gulped, and looked down at the ground. The worst task… But he nodded quickly, and went. The Bolts deserved to know that their brother might be dying….

#####

Chapter 12

The room was silent, lit by lamp light. Josh lay silent and still under a sheet on a bed in Lottie's saloon. Candy was there along with Lottie and the doctor.

The door burst open and Jeremy rushed in. "J-Josh has been sh-shot? Wh-where is he?" His eyes fell on the still figure on the bed, and he let out a horrible sound. "JOSH!"

In an instant, he was by his brother's bedside, staring down at him, searching all over, searching for some sign of recognition in his eyes.

"Josh, oh Josh…" His head bowed, overcome with grief. Then in an instant his eyes flashed and he jumped up. He whirled to face Lottie, tears in his eyes. "W-who did this? And can you f-fix Josh?"

Lottie moved forward with a look of sadness and compassion in her eyes. She put an arm around his shoulder. "We're doing the best we can, Jeremy. Your brother is strong. He'll probably make it…."

Probably wasn't good enough. And Jeremy couldn't stand the thought of all he'd left unsaid….

#####

Jason ran up the stairs and into the room where his little brother lay gunshot.

Lottie, the doctor, and Stempel were all standing there looking grim. Jeremy had just rushed from the room, followed hurriedly by Candy.

"Josh." Jason knelt by his brother's bed, holding one of Josh's hands in his own. His little brother looked so pale lying there, so horribly still. "Josh." He swallowed hard, fighting back tears. His own brother…

Because he'd left Josh alone, let him leave without a fight, that was why it had happened! Who would shoot the harmless middle Bolt? He almost never fought with anyone, and who could possibly, possibly hold a grudge against him?

Because there was nothing he could do right now but try to find that out, he released his brother's hand and turned to thunder at Aaron Stempel, "Who did this and why? I want answers, and I want them now!"

Aaron looked decidedly uncomfortable, a deep scowl on his lined face. "I want to know that too. Keep your voice down or—"

"Or you'll what?" He lunged at Aaron, grabbing him by the collar. Maybe this was Aaron's fault—not his. Aaron had hired Josh—Aaron had given him an excuse to leave the mountain…

Aaron glared at him, and pushed Jason's hands away. "Or you'll disturb Joshua!"

All the fight went out of Jason and he slumped, his shoulders sagging, his hands hanging uselessly at his side. He nodded slightly. "All right, Aaron. But we've got to find…" He swallowed, hard. "We've got to find out who did this."

"We will. Come on, Bolt." Still frowning, Aaron nodded towards the doorway, and waited for Jason to move. When he didn't, Aaron took his arm and steered him, almost gently, out of the room. "We'll set up a search party. The shooter must have gone towards your camp, or the woods. And I'll ask my nephew if he saw anything when he arrived."

Jason nodded, keeping his head down, for once glad to let Stempel take charge. If there was only something he could do to help Josh. Even catching his shooter might not be enough. It wouldn't keep Josh alive….

#####

The vigils were long. After everyone had done everything they could to find the shooter—a short man, whom David had only barely glimpsed, and not well enough to recognize—both Bolt brothers returned and sat watch by Josh's bed. The logging work on the mountain was forgotten, left in the hands of Corky and the others. Nothing mattered now, nothing but Josh.

Sometimes they sat together, sometimes they spelled each other. Jeremy and Jason grew exhausted but refused to rest, whatever Lottie or the doctor said. If they fell asleep in their seats, they jerked awake quickly, as if they believed staying awake could somehow save their brother's life.

Sometimes they talked, brief, scattered words to one another, or quiet cajoling words to Josh, apologizing, wishing him awake, begging him to get well. But mostly they were silent, watching their brother lying so silent and deathly still.

David felt guilty for intruding, but he couldn't do nothing. He snuck into the room quietly, peering at the exhausted brothers, and the one lying so still. As he watched, Jeremy jerked awake with a little snort, sitting upright in his chair again. He blinked around and rubbed his eyes, and then spotted David. He nudged his brother, who had also been dozing, and they both looked up at David. Their looks seemed to say, "Well? What do you want?"

David swallowed. "You might not believe this, but—Josh is my friend. I hope he gets well, and I'm real sorry he got hurt. I—I wanted to give you this."

He moved forward nervously, and held out the sketch he'd torn from his tablet. He'd drawn it just two days ago, when he and Josh were drinking at Lottie's: a quick sketch of the blond-headed man, his head thrown back in laughter, his eyes sparkling.

David watched with his heart in his throat as Jason accepted it and looked down at it. David hoped this hadn't been the wrong thing to do…

Jason looked up with damp eyes. "Thank you, David." He cleared his throat and handed the picture to his younger brother. Jeremy also seemed to get choked up at the sight of it. Jason rose, and pulled another chair towards the middle of the room. "We'd be honored if you stayed, if you want to."

And David did. The three sat watch, not saying much, watching for any sign that Josh was through the worst and about to awaken. The danger of infection, the fact that he might have lost too much blood: these were all things that would determine whether he got better or slipped away, the doctor had said.

It was on the third day that Josh awoke. David was the first to spot it, the one most awake at the moment. He saw a faint movement of eyelids, and rushed towards the bed. "Josh?"

Blue eyes stared up at him, looking exhausted almost past the point of comprehension.

"Do—do you want some water?" he asked, reaching nervously for the cup that was there, waiting. The doctor had said he would need to drink something as soon as possible.

Josh gave a very faint nod in reply.

Now Jeremy and Josh were awake too, and they moved forward to help support their brother's head, to help him drink.

"Good boy, Josh," crowed Jason in a loud whisper when he finished a few sips. He patted the hair back from his brother's sweat-slicked forehead. "You're going to make it, you hear? We Bolts are strong….and we'll catch the guy who did this to you, and I'll be a better brother, and we'll try whatever you want on the mountain, if you'll just come home…"

David smiled once more at the exhausted-looking Joshua, then slipped quietly from the room to leave them their privacy. As he was leaving, he heard Jeremy's voice twine with Jason's, his words full of emotion, promises and apologies, and love for his brother.

David closed the door quietly behind him, swallowing hard, and went to tell Lottie and the rest of the town the good news.

#####

It was a day later before Josh was feeling well enough to sit up and talk. His shoulder still hurt him like the blazes, but at least it was not a bad wound, as these things went. He could've been hurt much, much worse and died right there where he was shot, in the mud.

Aaron and Jason and Jeremy were gathered around, looking grim. Jason knelt by his side, holding one of Josh's hands in both of his own. "Now, Josh, do you feel well enough to talk?"

He'd been talking to Josh very gently, as if he were a child. It would've been annoying if he were feeling better, but Josh was feeling so weak and tired and pained still that a strangely muted, gentle-voiced Jason was actually comforting. And it was so nice that his brothers were here. They were so welcome in his pain, tripping over themselves to give him water or laudanum or food, anything to make him more comfortable.

He hadn't been able to talk to them very much, but he hoped he'd been able to let them know just how grateful he was, with his few stumbling words and his smile. It meant the world to him that they were here, when he really needed them. And it was wonderful to know they always would be—his brothers, the three Bolts, all of them against the world, no matter how much they sometimes annoyed one another.

And he knew, now: he couldn't leave home again, not after this. As good as it had been in some ways to be away from his brothers, he belonged with them, on the mountain. And if things had to change in the way they ran things or related to each other, then they would work to change them. It might take time. But he couldn't turn his back on his family, and face all on his own a world where people could just walk up and shoot you.

He returned the gentle pressure on Jason's hand as strongly as he was able to. "What is it, Jason?" he asked, and then had to clear his throat.

Jeremy rushed over to give him another drink of water, and he managed to do part of it himself this time, using his good arm. He drank most of the glass.

"We wondered if you got a good look at the man who shot you," said Jason. By the tensed looks on everyone's face, this was pretty important to them. Josh looked back and forth. But of course, they couldn't know. They hadn't been there….

"He was a short man," rasped Josh. "And he said I stole his job."

Everyone turned on Aaron, who looked stunned.

"Your bookkeeper did this, Stempel?"

Aaron reached up to scratch at his hair, looking embarrassed. "I guess so. Just yesterday, I gave him his old job back, since Josh couldn't work. I had no idea—" He cleared his throat. "Well, boys, I guess we'd better round him up. He should be working right now. Ahem." He hurried towards the door, looking very self-conscious.

The others moved quickly to follow him. Jason gave his hand one last squeeze and left, too.

Josh lay on his bed, watching as they trooped from the room. He wished he could get up and follow them, or that someone would stay with him. It was dreadful to wonder what would happen, and not be able to see. He hoped the insane bookkeeper wouldn't shoot someone else.

But he was even more exhausted than he was worried. He seemed to have the strength of a newborn baby. The doctor had said he would improve, but it couldn't happen quickly enough for him.

Chapter thirteen

David Stempel eased the door open, and peered inside. Sure enough the room was empty but for one blond Bolt, lying fast asleep in bed, his cheeks faintly flushed. He was still fighting some of that infection, although the doctor said he was winning.

Swallowing hard, David stepped into the room and carefully set on the side table a letter and a large sheet of paper with a drawing on it. "Bye, Josh," he whispered. Then he tiptoed from the room, shouldered his bag, and headed down towards the harbor.

It would have been nice if he could say goodbye in person, but he hoped Josh would understand. Clancey was leaving today, and he couldn't bear to wake up a recuperating man, just for him. It would be too selfish.

#####

"Josh?" Jeremy smiled down at him, and offered him another sip of the tea Lottie had made to fight his fever. "We caught the bookkeeper." He helped Josh sit up, and held the glass while he took a sip. "His name's Munday, did you know that?" He brushed Josh's hair back from his forehead. "You should've let me cut your hair, you know. It's getting too long. His name's Munday. You got shot by a man named Munday…"

He had to bite his lip to keep back the slightly hysterical laughter he felt coming on. "He's going to jail, probably for a very long time. Mr. Stempel actually apologized, did you know that? He couldn't have known, but he felt bad about that guy shooting you. I guess if you hadn't taken that job, it wouldn't have happened. Me and Jason feel bad about that too. But I don't think it's really anyone's fault," he hastened to add, at the worried, wrinkling frown growing on his brother's face. "It's just one of those bad things that sometimes happen. But you'll come home, now, won't you, Josh? Come home and let us take care of you," he implored. "We'll be better brothers, and we'll all three learn new ways to get along, if we have to…"

He sagged in relief at the faint nod from Josh. "Oh, good… I'm glad you agree."

Josh's hand closed momentarily around his wrist, and he gave another, even firmer nod. "Me too," he said in his voice that was a low whisper. He was still awfully weak, and Jeremy didn't like to see it, his middle brother laid so low. Josh had always been able to take on the world….

But he was getting better; the doctor said so.

"Oh, by the way, Clancey's leaving today."

Josh's face wrinkled in confused. "Leaving? When did he… get here?"

"Oh, just after you got sh-shot. He v-visited you, but you weren't awake. He has to hurry back East, couldn't wait around till you were better. But he's very glad you're going to be okay, and he promised to bring you something nice next time he comes to Seattle." He smiled at Josh, and then put the empty teacup down. He spotted an envelope with his brother's name on it. "Hey, what's this?"

He picked it up and turned it so Josh could see.

Josh frowned. Jeremy helped him get it open, and then offered him the single sheet inside. "Read it aloud," croaked Josh, and Jeremy did.

He cleared his throat and read.

Dear Josh,

I hope I get to say goodbye to you before I go, but if I don't, I'm saying it here. Clancey just gave me a letter from my parents saying they want me to come home and go to art school! I have to leave right away. Clancey's going today while the weather's nice.

Do you know what changed my parents' minds? It was a letter from my uncle, saying what a good job I did with drawing, and how I was even earning money at it, and working hard. Both those things are because you showed around my picture of Lottie. Even though I didn't want you to at the time, I'm really grateful… You've been a really good friend to me. I hope your brothers and you get along better now, and I'm really happy everyone says you're going to be okay.

I'm glad I came to Seattle. I learned a lot from living here, and meeting everyone. Please say goodbye to everyone for me, and tell them 'thank you' too.

If you ever want to write, this is the address of the art school where I'll be staying. Thank you for being my friend and helping me figure some things out.

Next time I'm in Seattle, you owe me a good ducking in the harbor, how about that?

Sincerely,

David Stempel

p.s. I hope you like the picture.

"Picture?" They looked at each other, and then Jeremy turned to the desk. "Oh. Here it is." He held it up and stared at a lifelike drawing of all three Bolt brothers, smiling and looking very happy together. He didn't know how David had drawn it so well. They'd never posed for him.

"See?" He handed the picture to his brother, and Josh stared at it for a long moment, just staring and staring. Then he tried to get out of bed.

"What are you doing?" Jeremy moved to stop him.

"I've gotta look out the window. Help me," said Josh, sounding exhausted.

Jeremy frowned, but he wasn't going to tell his brother what to do anymore. He moved to help support Josh, and the two of them shuffled towards the window. Josh was panting a little by the time they arrived.

They both looked out. Sure enough, you could see the docks from here, and Clancey's ship was already pulling out, the sailors working like busy bees on the deck, Clancey standing with his chest puffed out, competently in charge of the wheel.

On deck, you could just see one curly-headed young man standing there, holding a single carpetbag, looking rather forlorn and small, as though he had nothing to do and no one to say goodbye to.

"Open the window," said Josh.

Jeremy frowned. It was a chilly day, but he obeyed.

"Tell him I'll write," rasped Josh.

Obediently, Jeremy stuck his head out the window and shouted, "HEY! YOU! DAVID!"

The dark-haired young man whirled and gazed all around, before spotting them at the window. His face lit up, and he waved.

"HE SAYS HE'LL WRITE," shouted Jeremy.

"Me too!" came the distant, returned shout from Stempel's nephew. "Get well soon!"

Clancey covered his ears and grimaced, saying something to David. Then David pointed, and he turned too, a smile on his face, and began to wave.

"Get you well! You get yourself well, Joshua! And you, Jeremy Bolt, you close that window and get your brother back to bed! Catch a cold, he will, a-standing there like that!"

Jeremy grinned. "DON'T WORRY, I WILL!" he called to them, and then waved one last time and drew his brother gently back from leaning on the windowsill, and pushed the window back into place. "Now get back to bed, or I'll let Biddie nurse you back to health. She's been wanting to for awhile, you know."

Josh winced, and looked just intimidated enough to listen, heading obediently back to bed, leaning on his brother's arm.

Jeremy smiled at him as he got his brother tucked back into bed. He didn't look that much worse for the wear, even though he'd pushed himself pretty hard to get to the window so he could say goodbye.

Good ol' Josh, loyal to a fault. He'd have wanted to say goodbye even if it had been too much for him. And Biddie would be pleased if she could know she was helping Josh get better…although perhaps not if she knew the reason why.

Jeremy would take care of him now. He wouldn't let his brother push himself too hard. He'd make him get well…and he'd see to it that Josh and Jason kept getting along, even when he was well.

After all, they were brothers. They needed to stick together. He tucked the covers up to Josh's chin. "Want some more tea, Josh?" he asked.

But Josh was already drifting back to sleep. Jeremy smiled down at his brother. Good, it was just what he needed, a nice, healing sleep….

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Epilogue

Biddie sighed voluminously as she finished putting her hair up. "Well, no one got married," she said dourly.

"And no one died," reminded Candy. "You've got to look on the bright side of things."

"Yes, that's true. Josh is going to be all right. He's getting stronger every day. Did you see him yesterday, out on the porch and everything? Lottie said he'll be going home any day now. I still think I should take the chance and bring him some pie, or a knitted scarf while I still can."

"Biddie, maybe you should just let him recuperate in peace. I'm sure we can give him pie and scarves later."

"Oh, well, if you say so, Candy. It just seems like an awfully good opportunity to pass up…" Biddie frowned thoughtfully into the distance. "Spending time changing his bandages, feeding him soup, dabbing the sweat from his forehead…"

"Biddie!" said Candy in a shocked voice, and then dissolved into laughter.

Her friend cast her a quick, indignant look, and then laughed as well. "Well you can't blame a girl for dreaming…"

"No, I can't do that," said Candy, taking her friend's hands, their fingers intertwining. "After all, I have my own Bolt brother to dream about. I can't judge you for wanting the same. But all the same, you have to play fair when someone's not well."

Biddie made a face. "Oh, I know. But I suppose it wouldn't hurt to take a pie there and just leave it?"

"No, I don't suppose there would be any trouble in that…" agreed Candy.

"Maybe apple pie, his favorite. It didn't work on that nice nephew of Stempel's, but maybe it would work on one of the Bolt brothers. After all, I do make the best apple pie this side of Boston."

Candy smiled. "I think so too—but just don't let Patricia hear you say that!"

"Weeeelllll…I don't add whiskey to mine." She blinked innocently.

"Biddie!" Candy cast her a shocked look. "Are you starting another rumor…?"

"No, no! I heard it from Laura herself, who heard it from Jenny, who heard it from…"

"Patricia herself?" said Candy skeptically.

"Weeeellll…" Biddie fluttered her eyelashes. "I'm only saying…" She shrugged and flounced out of the bedroom. "I thought I'd discuss it with Lottie, and ask what she thinks…" Mischief danced in her eyes, poorly disguised under an innocent expression. But her back was to Candy, and Candy couldn't see the teasing look in her eyes.

Candy made an indignant sound and started after her at a run. "Biddie Clume, I know what you're only saying, and don't you dare tell another soul!"

She caught her friend's arm, and started to say something more. Then she saw the sparkle of a teasing look in Biddie's eyes, and broke into a smile. "You! You really had me going for a minute!"

"I did, didn't I?" agreed Biddie, grinning. "Don't worry, my next rumor will be much, much better than that!"

Candy tried to look indignant and disapproving. "You wouldn't!"

"I might!"

Then both girls burst out laughing.

Chattering and laughing together, arm in arm, they made their way from the dormitory, ready to take on a new day in Seattle.

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