A Woman Scorned (by Rona)

Summary:  A face from the past comes back to haunt Adam.

Rated:  K+ (11,760 words)

A Woman Scorned

 

January had been cold, with many storms adding to the feet of snow that had already been lying. It had been so long since there had been any real daylight that the sudden reappearance of the sun had made the people of Nevada feel as though they had been trapped in the dark for a very long time.

The break in the weather was extremely opportune for the Cartwrights on the Ponderosa ranch. With blizzard after blizzard racing down from the mountains, they had been unable to go out and check on the herd and barn chores had only been accomplished with the help of a rope stretched from the house across the yard to the barn. Various chores needed doing. The woodpile, although not very depleted, required to be topped up. Hay needed to be brought to the barn and the herd needed checked.

Quite how he ended up going off to check the herd, Joe wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t complaining. With his volatile, impetuous nature, Joe had found it very hard to be cooped up in the house for days and weeks at a time. He set off in good spirits, which survived even the inevitable stops to clear snow from his horse’s hooves.

As always, the herd was wintering in a pasture comparatively near the house. Joe arrived there shortly before noon and had a good look round. He only found one cow that had not survived the last storm, and the carcass was pretty much picked clean. If there were any others lost to winter kill, they were buried somewhere under the snow and would not be found until spring thaw.

Satisfied with the way things were, Joe mounted up and began the cold ride back home. He felt more relaxed and knew that if a storm hit that night, he would find it easier – for a while – to stay in the house.

Following the rutted track home to the house, Joe was suddenly intrigued to notice fresh wagon tracks. His curiosity spiked, he ignored the turn-off to the house, despite Cochise turning hopefully in that direction. The trail led through sheltered areas where the sun could not penetrate and the temperature was even further below freezing than it was in other places.

It was in one of these sheltered hollows that Joe found the wagon. It had slid from the frozen, snow-packed trail into a shallow ditch. The two occupants of the wagon were struggling futilely to push it back onto the trail. As they heard Joe’s horse, they turned.

They were women, Joe released, with a sense of shock. The younger one was now holding a gun on him. Joe pulled Cochise to a halt and lifted his left hand so that they could see he wasn’t going to draw his gun. “I won’t hurt you,” Joe assured them. “I just want to help.”

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman lowered the gun. “All right, thank you,” she replied, ungraciously and Joe stifled a pang of irritation.

Dismounting, he tethered his horse and went over to check out the situation more closely. The wheel was on a patch of ice and there was no purchase for it. Shivering slightly in the frigid air, Joe found a broken branch and began to break it into slivers. Scattering the branch fragments, Joe took a small axe he had in his saddlebags and cracked the surface of the ice. All the time he worked, neither of the women said a single word and Joe took the opportunity to study them more closely, albeit covertly.

The young woman looked to be a few years older than Joe. She had blonde bangs protruding from under the warm shawl she wore over her head. Her clothes looked well made and expensive, yet he noticed that her hands were chapped from hard work and the cold when she took off one mitt briefly.

The older woman appeared to be her mother. There was a certain resemblance between them, although Joe didn’t think the mother had ever been as beautiful as the daughter. She, too, wore expensive clothes. So far, no names had been offered. Joe could not help but speculate as to the reason they were there.

“If you get the horses to move, I’ll push from this side,” Joe offered. “I don’t think it’ll be difficult to get the wagon to move now.”

The mother moved to climb onto the wagon seat, but the daughter kept up her wary, suspicious observation of Joe. Ignoring her, Joe put his shoulder to the wheel and shouted, “All right!”

For a horrid second, Joe thought the wagon was not going to move, but it did, and Joe barely managed to keep his feet on the icy surface. He watched in satisfaction as the wagon moved forward a few feet to safety and brushed a little dirt off the shoulder of his coat.
“Thank you,” the older woman said, getting down from the seat. “I didn’t know what we were going to do.”

“This is a bad time to travel,” Joe replied, concerned. He cast a glance at the sky. “It looks all right now, but there’ll be snow again by dark. Where are you headed?”

“What business is it of yours?” snapped the young woman rudely.

“Evie!” reproved her mother.

“I ask because it seems to me that two women alone with a wagon in this weather is a bad idea,” Joe responded, holding tight to his temper. “You do know that you’re on private property?”

“No, we didn’t,” the mother muttered, looking embarrassed.

“We’re not stopping,” Evie added. “We’re going on to California and I’m quite sure we’ll manage perfectly well.” Her blue eyes snapped angrily at him. “Thank you for what you did, but we don’t need any further help. Goodbye.”

Nonplussed, Joe just gaped at her for a moment. “All right,” he responded slowly. “But perhaps you ought to return to Virginia City until the weather improves.” He saw the gun appear in Evie’s hand again and shrugged. “Fine, if you don’t want my help so be it.” He turned and walked back to Cochise, taking the rein in his hand. “Can I at least learn your names before I go?” He didn’t add that he would know what names to put on their tombstones come spring, when their bodies were found.

“I am Miss Evangeline Bolton,” Evie said, haughtily. “This is my mother, Mrs Jemima Bolton.”

“Ma’am,” Joe responded, tipping his hat slightly. “My name is Joe Cartwright and this is the Ponderosa ranch that you are on.”

“Cartwright!” exclaimed Evie and in one single, fluid motion, she lifted the gun and fired at Joe.

Caught completely by surprise, Joe felt the first bullet bite into his right side. As he slid to the ground, another bullet creased his head. Dimly, Joe was aware of Cochise fleeing in panic before he surrendered to the darkness.

How much time passed before he roused, Joe was never sure. His eyes flickered open and he shivered violently. A burst of pain shot through his side and he couldn’t contain a groan. Memory came back with a jolt and Joe forced his eyes to focus on the empty trail where he lay. The wagon was gone.

The snow where he was lying was stained red with his blood, but Joe was surprised at how little there was. It didn’t occur to him that the cold had prevented serious blood loss. However, he knew, despite the slowness of his thinking, that he had to get home, or the cold would finish him.

He got as far as his knees before his stomach rebelled against the whirling of his head and he was sick. The retching caused him untold misery in his injured side, and when it was over, Joe could barely lift his head. Wiping his mouth with some clean snow, Joe wondered if Cochise had gone far. If the horse was close by, he should be able to get home without too much difficulty. He whistled.

There was no response. Joe sighed and closed his eyes for a moment while he gathered his strength to get to his feet. After a moment, he made the galvanic effort required and gained his feet. He drew in several deep breaths to try and control the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him again. After a moment, it subsided and Joe began to stagger towards his home.

The wind had risen and as Joe squinted up at the sky, he saw the snow clouds rushing in over the mountains again. The sky was growing dark and Joe felt a pang of alarm. Although he wasn’t much more than a mile from the house, he knew he would be unable to reach it before darkness fell. His clothes were already wet from lying in the snow and Joe knew that being caught out at night, in freezing temperatures, while it was snowing, was a recipe for disaster. He tried to hurry his pace, but his wound was bleeding sluggishly again and he couldn’t maintain the faster pace.

Clenching his jaw grimly against the pain, Joe staggered on.

 

It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone at the big house that Joe had not returned for lunch that day. After having had his restless presence cooped up with them, they were more than willing for Joe to stay away for a while. But as the afternoon wore on, Ben began to look a bit concerned. Adam and Hoss, finished with their chores, tried to keep Ben occupied so that he didn’t worry, but as the clouds began to build over the mountains again, they gave up. Joe should have been back by then. He knew better than to ignore the weather at that time of year.

“I’m going to look for him!” Ben declared. “Joe should have been back long ago.”

“We’re coming with you,” Adam stated, quietly, as he shrugged on his big coat. Hoss was doing the same. Ben gave his sons a grateful smile, but it didn’t chase away the worry in his eyes.

As they crossed the yard, commenting on the strength of the wind, they heard hooves and exchanged relieved, embarrassed grins. Joe would never let them hear the end of it if he knew they had been worried enough to come looking for him when he was perfectly fine.

But the grins faded as Cochise came into the yard with an empty saddle. Hoss moved to catch the horse and checked him over. “There ain’t a mark on him, Pa,” he reported, grimly.

“Get the sleigh,” Ben ordered, his tone equally grim. “Adam, alert one of the men and send him for the doctor. We can always send someone else to turn Paul back should he not be needed.” He went back to the house to alert Hop Sing that they would probably need some warm water when they returned with Joe.

If they returned with Joe.

*******************

The cold seemed to be growing more intense as they left a short time later. Hoss led the way, mounted on Chubb, back–tracking Joe’s horse. There were a few moments of confusion as they reached the main trail, but after casting carefully around on foot, Hoss found the trail again and they all exchanged concerned glances as they realised that the trail was coming from a direction they did not expect to find Joe travelling in.

They had gone barely half a mile when Hoss suddenly let out a shout and spurred his horse on. There, on the trail, lay Joe, face down in the snow. Ben’s heart contracted painfully and he pulled the sleigh horse to a halt, leaping from the vehicle before it was completely stopped. Adam was only a second behind him.

“He’s bin shot,” Hoss reported, anxiously, kneeling in the snow by Joe. “An’ he’s soaked through, Pa.”

Frantically, Ben felt for Joe’s pulse. It was there, slow and steady. Joe’s face was almost as white as the snow he was lying on. There was a small patch of red under his body. “Help me get him in the sleigh,” Ben ordered, although Adam and Hoss were already preparing to do just that.

Within moments, Joe was warmly tucked beneath buffalo robes, and Ben was carefully turning the sleigh. The temptation to get in and whip up the horse was immense, but Ben knew the risks and he kept the horse to a steady pace. He knew it would be some considerable time before the doctor reached them. He had to get Joe home safely, before he could start helping his son in whatever way he could.

Adam gripped his arm. “I’ll drive, Pa,” he offered, knowing that Ben would want to hold Joe, to reassure him should he wake.

“Thanks,” Ben breathed and climbed into the sleigh, taking Joe’s head onto his lap and gently stroking the wet hair. Joe’s breathing remained slow and steady, but he showed no signs of waking up.

*******************

The warming effects of the buffalo robes had raised Joe’s temperature enough to make him shiver by the time they reached the house. He was perceptibly nearer consciousness than he had been on the journey. Ben and Hoss carried Joe into the house. “Hop Sing! Bring warm water for a bath!” Ben shouted as they headed for the stairs.

“D’you think we should give him a bath?” Hoss panted. “Ain’t it jist gonna make Joe bleed more?”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, wretchedly. “But he’s so cold, we have to try and warm him up.” Ben bit his lip in indecision. “We don’t know how long he was lying out there in the snow, Hoss. He might have frostbite. We have to get him warm again.”

“You’re right,” Hoss agreed, contritely. He hadn’t meant to worry Ben any further. Working together, they stripped off Joe’s soaking coat and Ben winced as he saw the jagged hole in Joe’s side. There was no exit wound. Adam came in from putting away the sleigh and pulled off Joe’s wet boots and socks. Ben peered anxiously at Joe’s toes, but although they were white and cold, there was no sign of frostbite. Relieved, Ben pulled off the rest of Joe’s clothes and by then, Hop Sing had arrived with the bath water.

As he was immersed carefully in the water, Joe let out a great moan. Ben soothed him, but Joe was oblivious to Ben’s presence and continued to groan as the warmth brought the feeling back into his frozen limbs. He was only in the bath for a few moments, but when they lifted him out, his skin was flushed as the blood rushed to the surface. Hop Sing had a warmed towel spread on the bed and a blanket standing by.

It was only as he tucked the blanket carefully around Joe that Ben realised his son was conscious again. “Joe?” he asked. “How do you feel?”

“Sore,” Joe whispered. His eyes were slightly glazed. “What happened?”

“You’ve been shot,” Ben explained and Joe winced as memory returned.

“I remember,” he croaked. He shifted minutely and grimaced at the pain. After a moment, his hand crept out from under the blanket and he tried to touch his head, which throbbed miserably. Ben caught his hand and prevented him.

“Don’t, Joe,” he warned him. “Your head is hurt, too.”

“Pa, here’s Paul,” he heard Adam say. Relief washed over Ben. The doctor was here and now Joe would get the help he needed.

It only took Paul Martin a few moments to see that he needed to operate at once and he rapidly cleared the room. Only Hop Sing remained to assist. Ben, Adam and Hoss were banished to put on dry clothes and have something hot to eat and drink.

******************

The coffee went down without any of them noticing it, but the sandwiches that Hoss made went untouched. “Who could have shot him?” Ben asked, at last. “And why?”

“I was wondering the same thing,” Adam admitted.

“Me, too,” Hoss chimed in. “Who would be goin’ around in this weather?”

“Surely not one of the hands?” Ben denied. “None of them would hurt Joe.” At that time of year, only a handful of men were kept on at the ranch and they had all been there for a long time.

“They were all in the bunkhouse when I went to send for Paul,” Adam offered. “I don’t think it was one of them.”

“Neither do I,” Ben agreed. “But who could it be?” He glanced at Hoss. “Were there any other tracks out there?”

Frowning, Hoss thought back. His chief concern had been finding Joe, but now that he thought about it… “There were wagon tracks, Pa, I’m pretty sure,” he cried. “I didn’ think on it afore.”

“We can have a look tomorrow,” Ben suggested. “It’s dark now and…”

“It’s snowing,” Adam told him. “It began as Paul arrived and it’s fairly steady. There may not be any tracks to see, come morning.”

For a long moment, Ben just stared at Adam, then he shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait until Joe can tell us what happened.”

Reminded, although they hadn’t forgotten Joe’s plight, they all looked hopefully towards the stairs. However, Paul did not conveniently appear to put their minds at rest.

*****************

It was almost an hour later that Paul finally did appear. He looked tired. Hop Sing followed at his back with a bundle of bloodied linens and towels. He avoided his employer’s eyes as he headed for the kitchen. “How is he?” Ben asked, hoarsely.

“I got the bullet out,” Paul replied. “It hadn’t touched any of his internal organs, nor was he bleeding internally. I suspect that if it hadn’t been so cold outside, Joe would have bled to death long before you found him. That bullet had been in there for a while. Joe is developing a fever and he’s still very cold and shocked. He’s lost a lot of blood and is weak.”

“Still cold?” Ben asked, worriedly.

“Just his extremities,” Paul replied. “He’s lost a lot of blood, and although you did the right thing warming him up, he’s still not back to his usual body temperature. I’ve never felt Joe so cold. The problem is, if his body doesn’t get back to normal before this fever gets going, the fever will kill him. His heart is too sluggish to fight it off.”

“Is there infection?” Adam asked.

“Some,” Paul admitted. “I’ve done what I can, and I think if we can get Joe warm again, he’ll fight it off without a problem. We need to get a roaring fire in his room and have blankets heating there all the time. Every time a blanket cools off, we need to put another warm one on him.” Paul sighed. “Ben, I’ll be staying the night.”

“Of course,” Ben replied, but Paul was fairly sure that Ben had no idea what he had just agreed to. He had confirmation of that a moment later when Ben went over to the credenza and pulled out some blankets. “Let’s go,” he suggested and headed upstairs.

*************************

The room was stifling, but none of them noticed. All their attention was centred on warming Joe up. The youngest Cartwright was still and quiet on the bed, his face still deathly pale. Ben sat chafing one of Joe’s hands, while Hoss and Adam each worked on his feet. Paul supervised the heating and changing of the blankets.

“Joe’s sweating,” Ben reported in an anxious voice. He smoothed the tangled curls back from Joe’s forehead. Joe turned his face to the familiar, soothing touch.

Turning from the fire, Paul quickly checked him over. “Yes, and that’s a good sign,” he replied. “Our job is done for the moment. Joe’s temperature is back up to normal, and he’s beginning to fight off the infection. We’ll keep him covered up for now, but,” and here Paul laughed slightly, “we might have to cool him off if he gets too warm.”

“That seems like a contradiction,” Adam commented.
“I know,” Paul agreed. “Ridiculous, but there you are. That’s medical science for you, Adam. Sometimes it seems there’s no rhyme nor reason to it.”

Slowly, Ben Adam and Hoss relaxed and eventually, Ben sent his older sons to bed. There was no point in all of them losing sleep. Outside, the snow kept falling, obliterating the wagon tracks that would have led them to the person who shot Joe. That didn’t concern Ben at that moment. All his attention was on his youngest son.

 

Voices woke Ben some time later. Confused, he lifted his head and glanced around the room. Paul Martin was sitting on the edge of the bed, and Ben realised that he was talking to Joe. Shaking off sleep, Ben got up stiffly, reflecting that he was getting too old to sleep in chairs, and hurried over to look down on the pale, but smiling face of his youngest son.

“Hi, Pa,” Joe offered, his voice little more than a tired whisper.

“Hi yourself,” Ben replied. “How do you feel?” His hand automatically went to Joe’s head, searching for the fever that he knew had broken during the long vigil of the night. Joe’s head was cool to the touch, although his curls were still slightly damp. “And don’t tell me you’re fine,” he admonished, wagging a finger at Joe. “The truth, please.”

“I’m sore,” Joe admitted. “My head aches and my side is throbbing.” He began to lift his hand to his head, but Paul put a stop to that.

“Oh no, don’t touch,” he chided. “You’ve got a bullet graze on your head, Joe and I don’t want you poking at it! Understand?”

“Sure,” Joe agreed and let his hand drop to his side. That told Ben how unwell his son was feeling, as Joe would normally have argued the toss with the doctor.

“Well, Ben, it looks as though Joe will recover this time,” Paul said, cheerfully. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll get some breakfast before I trek homewards through the snow.”

“Of course, I’ll come with you,” Ben agreed. “I’ll be back soon, Joe,” he assured his son, leaning over the bed once more.

“I’ll be here,” Joe replied, his eyes closing as he slipped into slumber.

*************************

Later that morning, as Adam was trying to persuade Ben to get some sleep, Roy Coffee, the sheriff, arrived. Paul had reported treating the gunshot wound to him, as he had to by law and Roy had come out almost immediately.

“Do you remember what happened, Little Joe?” Roy asked.

Nodding his bandaged head gingerly, Joe replied, “I was coming back from checking on the herd. I noticed some tracks in the snow, so I followed them. I couldn’t figure who would be crazy enough to be going anywhere in a wagon in this weather.” He paused to regroup his thoughts and Ben offered him a drink. “About a mile from the house, I found the wagon. There were two women with it, a mother and daughter. The wagon had slipped into the ditch, so I offered to help them get it out. The daughter pulled a gun on me.”

It was only when Joe looked at him enquiringly that Ben realised he had made some sort of noise. He shook his head and gestured for Joe to go on. “I convinced them that I wasn’t about to attack them, and we got the wagon out of the ditch. I told them that there was more snow on the way, and that they would be better going back to town, but they made it quite clear they weren’t going to do that. As I was about to mount, I asked them for their names. They told me, then I told them mine. That was when the daughter lifted the gun and shot me!” Joe closed his eyes for a moment as he remembered the sound of the gun firing.

“What were their names?” Roy asked.

“The daughter was called Evangeline Bolton and the mother was Jemima Bolton,” Joe told him. “I never saw them before and I still don’t know why she shot me. I was just going to mount, and told her my name and where they were. She didn’t say anything just…” Joe’s voice trailed off as he caught sight of his oldest brother’s face. Adam looked like he’d just been hit very hard on the head. “Adam?” he questioned.

Turning, the others saw Adam’s face and Ben became instantly anxious. “What is it?” he asked.

For a moment, the oldest son’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I don’t know…” he began. “I knew…” Shaking his head, Adam drew a deep breath. “I once knew a family called Bolton. I dated the daughter, Evangeline, for a few months while I was in college. Her mother was called Jemima, but they couldn’t be here.”

“It must be a coincidence,” Ben agreed, shaken by this development.

However, it seemed neither Adam nor Roy was convinced by this argument. “What did this woman look like?” Roy asked Joe, just as Adam started to ask the same thing.

“A few years older than me,” Joe replied. “She had blonde hair, and was quite pretty. Her mother looked quite like her. Their clothes were good, but they didn’t seem to have much.”

“Did Evangeline wear her hair in bangs?” Adam asked, and knew at once by the look on Joe’s face what the answer was.

Joe said it anyway. “Yes.”

“Do you think it’s the same person?” Roy asked Adam.

Sighing, Adam reluctantly agreed, “Yes, I do.” He swallowed and looked at Ben. “I don’t know what they would be doing out here, but we didn’t part on the best of terms, I’m afraid.”

“Meaning?” Roy asked.

“My summer vacation from college arrived and I had a position working for a firm in New York. I told Evie that I wouldn’t be back for 2 months and that I wouldn’t be seeing her again. She was…hurt.”

“Why was she hurt?” Ben asked, quietly.

“I heard from one of my room mates that she had thought we would get married. When I got back to college, it was all around the town that I had practically jilted her at the alter.” Adam straightened up and looked Ben in the eye. “Pa, I promise, I never led her on, or made any promises to her.”
“I believe you, son,” Ben replied.

“It all blew over,” Adam went on, before Roy could prompt him. “I never saw her again and I had forgotten all about her until now.”

“I’m gonna git a posse together, Ben,” Roy told him.

“I’ll come with you,” Adam offered.

“Me, too,” Hoss chimed in.

“No you won’t, either of ya!” Roy declared. “It might complicate things if’n ya do, so stay here an’ help yer pa. Looks to me like he needs some sleep.”

“Roy’s right, boys,” Ben reminded them, softly. “You sit with Joe while I get some sleep. If you’re needed, you’ll know soon enough.” He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder to give some comfort, but Adam shrugged it off angrily. He felt guilty that Joe might have been shot because of something he had done many years before and he wasn’t sure how he could face his younger brother. But he knew that Ben needed to sleep and if this was the only way his father would agree to go and lie down, then he would have to stay.

Nodding, he forced out two words. “All right.” He kept his face averted from everyone as Ben and Roy left the room together.

********************

The silence in the room was palpable. Joe fought off sleep as he gazed at his brother’s back. Hoss hovered uncertainly by the bed. Adam was ramrod straight, his head held high, denying his feelings. He gazed out of the window, watching Roy Coffee mounting and riding carefully away through the snow. He knew that Roy would have a hard time finding the two women with the weather as it was. He suspected that their corpses would be found, come spring thaw. But that didn’t help his state of mind.

“Adam?”

The man in black flinched at the word, and kept staring out of the window, but Joe refused to back down. He was just as stubborn as Adam, which caused many of the conflicts they had. “Adam, look at me.”

Slowly, Adam turned round and looked at Joe. He didn’t quite meet his brother’s eyes, and his face was a hard mask, revealing nothing. “What is it?” he asked, his voice clipped and his lips thin.

“This isn’t your fault,” Joe told him, his voice soft and tired. “It was a fluke; a chance. You didn’t do this to me.”

But Adam wasn’t ready for absolution; not yet. He needed to know all the whys and the wherefores before he could accept that he wasn’t to blame for this. And the only way he would believe that was to prove that the woman who shot Joe was not the woman who thought he had jilted her, many years before. But right now, Joe was ill and tired and needed comfort. “I know that,” he snapped and left the room.

Dismayed, Hoss fought down the urge to run after Adam. He turned instead to Joe and saw, as he had expected, that Joe’s green eyes were full of tears. “He didn’ mean nuthin’ by that, Punkin,” he soothed. “Ol’ Adam’s jist upset.”

“I know,” Joe croaked. He did know, but knowing didn’t ease his hurt any. He closed his eyes to keep the tears from falling, and slid, without meaning to, into a deep sleep.

*********************

The posse was back at the Ponderosa within a couple of hours, but due to the new snow, they found nothing. There were no tracks to follow, although they did go along the trail for several miles, hoping against hope that they might find the wagon bogged down somewhere. As daylight waned and the frigid air grew colder, they turned back for the night. Roy sent out wires to the surrounding towns, asking for information, but he didn’t hold out much hope.

At the Ponderosa, Joe slept the day away, his dreams dark and unhappy, although never enough to waken him. Ben got some sleep, while Hoss sat with Joe and brooded about Adam, who sat looking at the books, his eyes seeing, not the numbers, but the face of a blonde girl he had dated and thought for a short time he might come to love.

It had been 12 years before, he realised, thinking back. He had met Evangeline at the Christmas Ball in his second year at school. She had been with someone else, but before the evening was over, she had shed her escort and was with Adam. He had never been entirely sure how that had come about, but at 19, he had been flattered that this pretty, rich young girl wanted his company.

For a time, they had gone out regularly each weekend. Adam had met her parents on a number of occasions and they had got along very well. Evie’s father was a distant man, who seemed to spend all his time at the office or in his den at home. Jemima, the mother, had been desperately insecure and Evie had told him once that her mother had not been of the same class as her father when they married and her father had never let her mother forget that he had made her what she was.

That was Adam’s first inkling that perhaps he was not falling in love with Evie. He had lived by his father’s creed all his life, and it was only now that he was alone that Adam realised that he believed it too. It didn’t matter to Adam about a person’s colour or creed, whether they were rich or poor. He judged each person on their own merits, and he was coming to see that Evie was a snob.

But she was also a lot of fun, and for a time, Adam put aside his misgivings. He shared as much with Evie as he could bring himself to, telling her of his life in Nevada and of his family. He would often share snippets from his father’s letters about Joe’s latest antics and they would laugh together. Adam’s pride in his family was obvious and Evie wasn’t about to say anything that might jeopardise her position in his life.

When Adam got the New York job for the summer months, he was relieved. Not just because it was a prestigious firm, but because he would have a legitimate excuse to end his relationship with Evie. Adam had not been expecting her anger and hurt, although he should have been, perhaps. She was only 17, and at that age, girls often built castles in the air. Evie had fallen head-over-heels in love with Adam and was devastated that he did not return her love.

All that summer, Evie had brooded, then decided that her best defence was to pretend that she wasn’t hurt by him, and she proceeded to go out with every boy that asked her. Unfortunately, she realised only too quickly that Adam was no longer hanging around at the parties, and her show of gaiety was wasted. Her hurt festered and turned into hatred. Evie began to hang around the college, waiting for glimpses of Adam. She harboured a faint hope that he would see her and realise that he had made a mistake, but that was a forlorn hope. Adam applied himself to his books and did not have a steady girlfriend.

By the end of Adam’s fourth year in college, Evie was no longer getting the dates she thought were her due. It didn’t occur to her that her bitterness was now showing in her face and her tongue spilled out spite with every opportunity. The unpleasant gossip she tried to spread about Adam never reached his ears simply because the few unfortunates who heard it were not in the least disposed to repeat any of it.

The day after graduation, Evie was at the train station when Adam left for home after four long years. She never forgot him, and the hatred she had in her heart grew with every passing day. She remained unmarried and laid the blame for that at Adam’s door. New acquaintances were told her fiancé had died and she loved his memory too much to give her heart to another, but it seldom took very long before the whole sordid story reached their ears.

Then, that autumn before Evie shot Joe, her father died. Evie did not mourn him, for he had not featured heavily in her life. But she was appalled to discover that they had been living on credit for a long time and there was no money for her and her mother to live on. Everything had to be sold – the houses, the carriages and her mother’s jewellery. It barely covered the debts and they were destitute. A family friend gifted them some money and advised that they start afresh somewhere else. Together, Evie and her mother bought a wagon and set out for California.

Of course, Evie knew where Adam lived, but she had no intention of looking for him. She knew when they arrived in Virginia City that they were close to Adam’s home, but their money had virtually run out and they could no longer afford a guide, so had set off on their own. Chance had taken them across the Ponderosa, and when Evie heard Joe’s name, her hatred had overwhelmed her common sense and she had shot him before she could think about it.

In the aftermath of the shooting, while the sound of the shots still echoed in their ears, Jemima had gasped, “What have you done?”

“Shut up!” Evie hissed, her face almost unrecognisable with hate. “He’s Adam’s brother! He deserves it! Adam hurt me and now he’s going to be hurt too! Its Adam’s fault that we’re in this mess! If he’d married me all those years ago, none of this would have happened! We’d still be living in Boston, not in the back of a stinking old wagon!” She gave her mother a vicious shove. “Now get in and let’s move!”

Cowed and terrified, Jemima did as she was told and they had driven off, arriving at one of Ben’s line shacks as darkness fell. They made themselves at home, eating from the supplies they found there. When they left again the next morning, Evie had stripped the shack bare of all useful items. She had had the best night’s sleep in years, knowing that she had had at least part of her revenge on Adam.

 

“Adam?” Ben repeated, crossing over to the desk. “Adam, are you all right?”

“Hmm?” Adam looked up and then blinked, as though coming back from somewhere far away. “Did you say something, Pa?”

“I asked if you were all right,” Ben told him, gently. “Have you been sitting here all day?”

Glancing around, Adam belatedly became aware that it had grown dark. “I guess so,” he admitted. He suddenly looked panicked. “Is Joe all right? I never thought…”

“He’s fine,” Ben replied. “Hoss has been with him. I’m going to get him something to eat. Adam, he wants to see you.”

“Why?” Adam asked, which was not the reaction that Ben had been expecting.

“Because you’re his brother,” Ben chided him patiently. “Why do you think? He hasn’t seen you all day and he’s ill.”

“You don’t need to remind me that it’s my fault,” Adam muttered. “I haven’t forgotten.”

“The only person here who thinks it’s your fault is you,” Ben said, sternly. “I don’t want to hear any of that nonsense again. Nobody thinks you shot your brother and it certainly isn’t your fault if someone you once knew comes along and does just that!” Ben fixed Adam with a fierce glare. “That sounds like your brother Joseph’s thinking, not yours!”

“Joe would be right to think that,” Adam retorted, but Ben shook his head.

“If Joe really thought that, he wouldn’t want to see you,” Ben reminded him. “Come along, Adam, use that logic that you’re so fond of. How can this possibly be your fault? Unless…” and Ben’s eyes suddenly twinkled, “you’ve become omniscient and haven’t told us?”

For a moment, Adam just gazed at Ben, then a tiny smile crooked the corner of his mouth. “Well, I didn’t want to mention it…” he joked. He sighed. “Thank, Pa. I’ll go and see Joe now.”

“And no more nonsense about this being your fault,” Ben called after him. “Or I’ll turn you over my knee!”

“I’d like to see that!” Adam called back and made a hasty exit up the stairs.

******************

Despite feeling a bit better, Adam found himself hesitating outside Joe’s door. How could his brother not blame him, he wondered? Several times he reached for the handle and then withdrew his hand. But at last, he steeled himself and opened the door.

The room was warmly lit by a lamp on the dresser. Joe was sitting up in bed, retching helplessly and painfully into a basin. His own angst forgotten, Adam hurried over to assist Hoss, who was supporting Joe as best he could. “What brought this on?” Adam asked Hoss, for this was the first time Joe had been sick.

“Joe thought he might feel more like eatin’ if’n he were sittin’ up,” Hoss explained as another heave shook his brother. “But it made his head spin, and this happened.”

“Concussion,” Adam remarked, and fetched a cloth to wipe Joe’s mouth.

As Hoss left with the noisome basin, Adam helped Joe to lie down again. Joe was green and his mouth was tight with pain. Adam carefully checked his side, to make sure there was no bleeding, but the stitches had held. Adam smoothed the bandages around his brother’s slim waist and looked up at him. Joe’s eyes were closed and he breathed shallowly through his mouth.

“Your stitches are all right,” Adam told him, softly.

His only response was a grunt. Straightening, Adam felt that he couldn’t blame Joe for not wanting to look at him. He moved around the bed and sat heavily in the chair that was sitting there. When he glanced back at Joe, Joe was watching him. “Thanks,” Joe whispered.

“I didn’t do anything,” Adam denied.

“Just for being here,” Joe insisted. “Where were you all day?”

“Downstairs,” Adam replied, truthfully. “Thinking.” Sighing, he decided he owed Joe the story of the relationship between himself and Evangeline Bolton and he began to tell it. Joe listened quietly, the colour slowly returning to his face. “I’m sorry, Joe,” Adam concluded.

“How could you know she would come here and shoot me?” Joe demanded angrily. “That’s crazy, Adam! This isn’t your fault.” He paused to catch his breath, for he was still weak and being angry drained his strength.

“I guess you’re right,” Adam agreed, “but it still feels like my fault.”

“I know how that is,” Joe agreed. “I’ve been there a time or two myself.” He found a smile for Adam. “It’s not your fault.”

From somewhere, Adam found a smile to return, and a moment later, Ben came in, bringing some food for Joe. Adam saw his brother go green again just at the smell, and soon, they were caught up in helping Joe, and any thoughts of blame and fault were forgotten.

****************

The next day, Joe seemed to be a bit better and was able to sit up without being sick. The sun was again shining, and Adam found himself increasingly restless. About mid-morning, he saddled his horse and rode out.

It took him a little while to admit that he was looking for Evie and her mother. He had gone several miles along the trail where Joe had been found before he would admit it to himself. Being more familiar with the country than the posse, Adam found himself veering naturally away from the trail slightly and he wasn’t surprised to come across the line shack. Dismounting, he checked it over and discovered that it had been looted. There were wagon tracks next to the lean-to, which showed signs of having had two horses in it. The natural path for Evie and her mother to have taken led away from the shack in a different direction from the trail they had originally taken.

It was beginning to get cold again, and Adam didn’t linger. He headed back home and arrived just as Roy Coffee was about to leave.

“Where have you been?” Ben asked, trying to hide his anxiety.

“I found Evie’s trail,” Adam replied, and Roy stopped unhitching his horse and beckoned Adam into the house. He warmed his hands by the fire as he told the story. “I found that they had gone to one of the line shacks, and they’ve stripped it of everything that moves. All the food and the blankets, the plates and coffeepot; everything. The trail leads away from the main trail that you followed, Roy, which is why you didn’t find them.”

“I’ll git a posse together an’ you c’n lead us out there in the mornin’,” Roy declared. “Ben, would it be all right if’n I gathered the boys an’ brought ‘em out here tonight, so’s we c’n make an early start tomorra?”

“Yes, of course,” Ben agreed. “There’s plenty of room in the bunkhouse.”

“I’ll git goin’ then,” Roy said, and left.

“What was he doing here?” Adam asked. “I gather he hasn’t caught them?”

“No,” Ben agreed. “He brought some information. He wired Boston, and it seems that Mr Bolton died last fall and left only a mountain of debt. Mrs Bolton was forced to sell everything, and they came west. It seems that Evangeline was never married.”

“Poor Evie,” Adam murmured softly. “How she will hate being poor.” He gazed absently into the flames for a few minutes. “How’s Joe?” he asked.

“Recovering,” Ben replied. “He’s complaining.”

They exchanged a relieved grin at that. “Well, that’s good news,” Adam declared.

“That depends on your point of view!” Ben retorted, and they laughed together.

******************

Naturally, Joe was incensed when he discovered that Adam was riding out with the posse the next morning and he was not going. Even though he knew he was too weak to make the ride – he hadn’t been out of bed for more than a few moments, and then only with Ben’s discreet help – Joe insisted that he was the only one who could reliably identify the women. “But I would know them at once,” he argued.

“Assuming you survived the ride,” Adam retorted, sarcastically. “Joe, I went out with the girl for almost 6 months! I think I might just recognise her when I see her!”

“That was 12 years ago!” Joe shouted back. “Memories fade after 12 years!”

“I’m not that old and decrepit, thank you,” Adam snarled. “Face it, Joe, you’re not coming! There’s nothing you can say that would make any of us change our minds!” He couldn’t imagine what was making Joe behave like that. “You can’t get yourself out of bed, never mind ride a horse!” Turning smartly on his heel, Adam left the room, resisting banging the door only with great difficulty.

He had taken no more than a few steps towards his own room when there was a thud and a cry from Joe’s room. Whirling, Adam threw open Joe’s door and saw his brother lying on the floor, curled up in a ball. “Joe!” Adam crossed the room in two steps and knelt beside his brother. “Joe, what happened?”

“Adam? What on earth…?” Ben was across the room in seconds. “Joe!” His only answer, like Adam’s, was a groan. “Help me lift him,” Ben ordered. “Be careful.”

Together, they lifted Joe back onto the bed, where he immediately curled up again, his arms hugging his middle. But it was too late, because as they had lifted Joe, both Ben and Adam had seen the blood staining the bandages round his waist.

With an exclamation of disgust, Ben ripped the bandages off to study the damage his son had done to himself. “It’s not too bad,” he said, in relief, a moment later. “Just two stitches burst.” He looked at Joe, who at last had his eyes open. “What were you thinking of?” he demanded.

“I wanted to prove to Adam that I wasn’t too weak to get out of bed,” Joe whispered, wretchedly. “I felt dizzy and fell.”

“You what?” Ben roared. He was angry with Joe, but his anger was fuelled by the fear he had felt when he saw his son lying on the floor, bleeding. “That was a very foolish thing to do!”

Joe flinched. He had known how stupid it was for him to try and get up alone, but his temper had got the better of him and he hadn’t thought. His side burned where the stitches had pulled loose. “I know,” he whispered, his voice barely audible.

“But why, Joe?” Adam demanded. “You wouldn’t be coming with us even if you were up and around! You’ve been shot for crying out loud.”

“I know!” Joe bellowed, sitting bolt upright, ignoring the pain. “And if this is what she did to me, what is she going to do when she sees you, Adam?”

For a moment, all three of them were frozen in position, the words hanging on the air. Then Joe slumped back down, closing his eyes and biting his lip.

“Is that what all this is about?” Adam asked, softly. “You’re afraid for me, Joe?” He sat down on the edge of the bed and touched Joe’s leg. “Joe, look at me.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Joe opened his eyes and looked at Adam. “Yes, I’m afraid for you,” he replied, bitterly. “She shot me because I’m your brother.”

“You don’t know that, Joe,” Ben reproved gently.

“Why else did she do it, then, Pa?” Joe asked. He blinked back tears. “And what will she do when she sees and recognises Adam? He hasn’t changed much in all these years.”

“I thought you didn’t blame me for this,” Adam breathed.

“I don’t,” Joe replied, bluntly. “But we both know that’s why she shot me! It doesn’t make it your fault, Adam! You didn’t pull the trigger. But I’m afraid of what she’ll do when she sees you.”

“I won’t be alone, for a start,” Adam replied. “I’ll be with the posse and we’re looking for her, knowing that Evie is capable of doing something like this. You were alone, and you were helping them out. Why would you expect her to shoot you?” He swallowed and met Joe’s concerned eyes. “Joe, I promise you, I’ll be very careful. Roy won’t let anything happen to me.”

“I know you’ll be careful,” Joe responded. He sounded exhausted. “But things happen, Adam. You can’t promise me that nothing will happen. I’m not a child to believe that any more.”

“Hey,” Adam chided, his voice gentle. “I didn’t promise that nothing would happen, did I? I promised that I would be careful. There’s a difference.”

“Splitting hairs,” Joe muttered, rebelliously, but the corner of his mouth twitched.

“That’s what big brothers are for,” Adam retorted, patted Joe once more on the leg and left.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe sighed, as Ben gathered up clean bandages.

“Why didn’t you just say something, Joe?” Ben asked. “Instead of putting yourself and us through this unnecessary pain?”

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, I guess.” He bit down on his lip as Ben cleaned the blood away from the wound. “But I did anyway.”

The bandaging over, Ben washed his hands and then sat down beside Joe again. The younger man was visibly pale and tired. Ben allowed his hand to stroke Joe’s curls where they poked out above the bandage he still had on his head. “Joe, I don’t think it’s foolish to admit you care for anyone, and usually neither do you. So why now?”

The depthless green eyes were shadowed with sleep. “Perhaps because it was Adam,” he answered. “Adam doesn’t like to admit he’s human and as vulnerable as the rest of us. And maybe,” Joe shrugged, “maybe because I thought saying it out loud might make it come true.”

“You know, God gave us a family for a reason, Joe,” Ben mused. “And the reason is so that we have someone around who cares for us and worries for us and loves us, no matter what.” He smiled, and Joe smiled tentatively back. “We’re lucky that we all care for and worry about each other. Adam just has a harder time showing it than we do, that’s all. He’s no different underneath.”

“I know,” Joe agreed.

“You rest now,” Ben suggested and sat with Joe until his son’s deep, even breathing told Ben that he was asleep.

 

The leave-taking the next morning was not as painful as it might have been. Joe had made peace with his fears, and Ben reflected that the old adage was true; a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Hoss had looked slightly disgruntled at being left behind, but he knew that Ben would need some help with Joe, as well as the chores that needed doing around the house and barn.

It was a bitterly cold day as they rode away. Adam led the way, with Roy at his side. They speculated that with the weather having been so cold, Evie and her mother were unlikely to have managed to travel very far. Perhaps no more than five miles a day. It was possible they would meet up with them the next day.

“If they made it to another of our line shacks,” Adam commented, “they might have decided to stay there for a night or two, especially with it snowing most of yesterday.”

“You think they’d have done that?” Roy asked.

“Why not?” Adam returned. “After all, they had already discovered that the line shacks are stocked, and even thin wood walls are better than canvas in weather like this.”

“True,” Roy agreed. “Ya wonder what made ‘em come out this way in this weather? Surely anyone with sense c’n see how bad the trail is gonna be?”

“Yes, but you’re looking at it from a Westerner’s point of view,” Adam argued. “They come from the East, where the snow is as bad as this, but they have shops and the things they need. Think how many people freeze to death every year, because they don’t believe how bad the weather gets.”

“I guess you’re right,” Roy nodded. “There’s nowt so queer as folk, as my grandmother used to say.”

“She was right,” Adam muttered.

********************

They stopped that night in another old shack they found along the way. The thin walls didn’t keep out much of the cold, but with a roaring fire and lots of blankets, they weathered the night reasonably well. A hot breakfast set them up next morning and they made sure the fire was properly out before they went on. There might be another hapless soul out there who would need the shelter sometime.

By now, there were small pieces of evidence to show the men they were on the right track. In one or two sheltered spots, they saw wagon tracks and along about noon, one of the men pointed out some smoke hanging motionless in the sky.

Adam nodded. “There’s a line shack along there,” he whispered. They all knew that voices carried on the clear air.

Dismounting, the men tethered their horses securely and continued on foot. The going was treacherous, with ice covering much of the snow. The sun shone through a haze and they all knew there would be snow again by dark.
When the line shack came into view, they all drew their guns. “All right,” Roy whispered, as the men all grouped around him. “I’ll go an’ knock on the door. Clem, you take a couple o’ fellas an’ cover the back. Adam, I want you ta stay outa harm’s way here. You other fellas, spread out.”

“But, Roy!” Adam protested.

“But nothin’, son!” Roy snapped back. “Bad enough Little Joe got shot without it happenin’ ta ya too!” He gave Adam a fierce look and Adam backed down.

Staying where he was, Adam reflected that Roy had brought along more than enough men, considering that they were only chasing two women. There again, one of the women had shot Joe and left him in the snow to die. Perhaps Roy did know what he was doing, bringing eight men along with him.

As Roy knocked on the door, Adam found himself tensing. What if Evie just opened the door and fired, without waiting to see who it was? Was she capable of doing that? he asked himself and had to admit he did not know.

It wasn’t Evie who opened the door, it was Jemima. Even from the place where he stood, Adam could see that she had not changed very much over the years. She looked shocked to see Roy and as soon as he spoke, informing her that he was the sheriff and he wanted to talk to her, she began to cry.

In the very next instant, Roy shoved Jemima aside and dashed into the shack. Forgetting his instructions, Adam raced forwards, but as he arrived at the cabin door, he heard Clem shout, “I’ve got her!”

“Adam?” Jemima quavered, looking up at him, her mouth hanging open with shock. “Adam, is that you?”

“Yes,” he replied, but his attention was not on the older woman at his side, it was on the younger one being brought round the corner of the shack, her hands firmly grasped by the deputy. “Evie,” he breathed.

For those first few seconds before Evie saw Adam, she looked pretty much as he remembered her. But as her gaze fell on him and she recognised him, her face changed. It became hard, bitter and ugly. “You!” she screamed and broke free from Clem’s grip to race at Adam, her nails up, ready to rake down his dark face.

She had no chance of reaching Adam, and Roy ordered that Clem put her in handcuffs, so that she could make no further attempts to harm Adam. He hated to do that to a woman, but it was clear that Evie was unbalanced.

********************

It hadn’t taken long to pack up their pitifully few belongings. Reasoning that they would make quicker time without the wagon, the women were made to ride double, and one of the wagon horses was pressed into service as a pack horse. They made it back to the shack where the posse had spent the previous night, and they spent the night there. It was acutely uncomfortable for Adam, as Evie had said not one word, but watched him constantly. She never seemed to sleep.

Come morning, they set off back to the Ponderosa through an infant snowstorm, which grew stronger and stronger as the day went on. By the time they arrived back at the ranch, they were all soaked and half frozen.

The ranch hands were organised to take care of the horses and the men were hustled inside, where warm food was soon waiting for them. Roy, Clem and the women went into the main house. And it was then that Ben found himself in a quandary.

Normally, he would not have hesitated to offer his hospitality to anyone caught in a snowstorm, but one of these women had tried to kill his youngest son, who was still in bed at that point, having managed only a few minutes sitting in a chair earlier that day. She was under guard, and that meant she would not be offered a warm bath, although she could clearly use one. It was a very uncomfortable situation.

“How’s Joe?” Adam asked, when his teeth had finally stopped chattering long enough to allow him to talk.

“He was up for a few minutes today,” Ben replied. “He seems a lot better.”

For the first time, Evie spoke. “So that was your brother then, Adam? I thought it had to be. Is he still alive? What a pity.”

“That’s enough!” Roy chided, gruffly. He was embarrassed by the anger on both the Cartwrights’ faces. “You’ll git yer chance ta talk at the trial!”

“Is that meant to worry me?” Evie asked, scornfully.

With a meaningful look at Clem and a jerk of his head, Roy ordered his deputy to escort the women into the downstairs bedroom where they would sleep. “I’m real sorry about that, Ben,” Roy apologised as they door closed.

“It’s not your fault,” Ben replied. He glanced at Adam, who was gazing into the fire, hiding his feelings. It was going to be a long night.

*********************

About 5 am, a noise woke Ben. He lay there, suddenly alert, wondering what sound he had heard. There was silence, but nevertheless, an unease was growing in Ben’s mind and he slipped from the warmth of the covers to dress quickly in the cold air. The fire in his room was banked for the night and he ignored it as he opened the door quietly.

The house seemed still, but as Ben walked quietly along the upstairs hall, he heard the sound again. Footsteps on the stairs, and they didn’t sound familiar. Ben suddenly wished that he had not left his gun on the credenza downstairs.

Moments later, a dark figure threw itself at Ben, who dodged instinctively, while letting out a startled shout. The figure – Evie, he guessed from the size and shape – lunged at him again, and this time Ben was not quick enough to escape. They grappled for a moment, fighting for control of the gun in Evie’s hand, until Evie managed to clip Ben on the side of the head.

The blow was not enough to knock Ben out completely, but it was enough to knock him off his feet. He tumbled to the floor, vaguely aware of doors opening round about him, and people shouting incoherently. “Joe!” he mumbled. “Adam!”

Standing frozen in his door way, Adam winced at the sudden light as Hoss appeared with his lamp in his hand. It worked against Evie, too, who threw up her arm to shield her eyes. The sudden movement and the light combined to knock her aim awry, and the bullet splintered the doorpost by Adam’s head. He ducked.

“Hold it!” cried a voice and Roy Coffee appeared at the top of the stairs, brandishing a gun. However, like most men, he was reluctant to shoot a woman and Evie took advantage of his hesitation to open the nearest door and dive in.

“Joe!” Ben cried, and made it to his feet, swaying dizzily.

He wasn’t fast enough and neither were Hoss or Roy. Adam propelled himself across the hall and into Joe’s room without stopping to think. Joe was sleeping in that room and Evie was in there with him. That was all Adam needed to know.

**********************

Of course, Joe was no longer sleeping. The noise had roused him and he was lying there, wondering if he should try and get up, or just stay put when the door opened. The small amount of light that spilled in from the hall showed Joe the gun and allowed him to guess the identity of the intruder. He lay still, helpless.

The next moment, Adam was in the room, too and Evie was over by the bed, her gun aimed at Joe. She was too far away for either Joe or Adam to jump her, but near enough that she was unlikely to miss either of them if she aimed at them.

“Why are you doing this, Evie?” Adam asked, softly.

“You know what they say, Adam,” Evie returned. Her voice had changed from 12 years before. Now, it had a harsh edge to it. “’Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’”

“Is that what I did to you?” he asked. “We weren’t in love with each other, Evie. We were too young.”

“Perhaps you were too young, Adam,” she retorted, “but don’t judge everyone by your own immaturity! I did love you and you broke my heart!”

“We’ve had all someone break our hearts,” he responded, keeping his voice low and soft. He did not dare take his eyes from Evie to glance at Joe. He knew that Joe would keep his cool. He had been in perilous situations before. “We move on and find someone else to love.”

“I found someone to love and I didn’t want to move on!” she cried. “You hurt me and you’re going to pay for it! Were you hurt when I shot your brother? Were you? Do you have any feelings at all, Adam? Or are you still as cold as you were back then? Well?”

“Of course I was hurt when you shot Joe,” Adam replied, his throat tight. “He’s my brother.”

“Well, you’re not as hurt as you’re going to be when he dies, are you, darling?” she threatened, cocking the gun.

Out in the hall, Ben caught his breath. Hoss tightened his grip on his father’s shoulder, looking worriedly at the blood streaming down Ben’s face from the cut on his scalp. There was nothing they could do to help either Joe or Adam at that moment and it was driving them both crazy.

“But I’m the one who hurt you,” Adam coaxed. “So you should hurt me, not Joe.”

“Oh, I could hurt you physically,” Evie agreed. “But I want to hurt you the way I was hurt! I want to hurt your heart, assuming you have one! You’re the coldest man I ever met, Adam. All that control must be strangling you. Well, I think I’ve found a way to make you feel, and I’m going to use it!”

“Joe!” Adam yelled, as he launched himself at the deranged woman.

Joe had been waiting for a chance or a sign from Adam and was moving as Adam spoke. He launched himself from the bed, but he was fractionally too late. The bullet bit into the back of his right shoulder as he dived to the floor and for an instant, the world went black.

Before Evie could change her aim, Adam hit her around the waist, bearing her to the floor. He used his weight to keep her pinned there as he fought with her for control of the gun. He was only too aware that the safety was still off and if the gun went off, they might both die. He did not know if Joe had escaped and he feared more for his brother’s life than for his own.

Footsteps thundered over the floor and Evie let out an animal scream. With demonic strength, she smashed the gun against Adam’s head and he tumbled to the floor, his limbs suddenly lax. Evie rolled under Roy Coffee’s hand and scrambled to her feet, the gun up and ready to fire once more.

But Evie hadn’t counted on Hoss Cartwright. The big man was furious at the treatment she had dealt out to his brothers. He rushed across the room and put his hand out, squeezing gently. Evie let out a scream of pain as the huge hand squeezed her hand harder and harder until the gun dropped from her nerveless fingers into Hoss’ waiting palm. In a moment, the gun was made safe. “Here ya are, Roy,” Hoss grunted, handing the stunned woman over to the lawman.

As Clem staggered to the door of Joe’s room, he saw quite a scene. Ben, who was bleeding from the head, knelt on the floor by Joe, who was bleeding from the shoulder. Adam was stretched out unconscious on the other side of the bed, with Hoss kneeling beside him. Roy was putting handcuffs on the distraught Evangeline Bolton. “I wanted to kill him!” Evie sobbed as she was led from the room.

************************

The inevitable jibes about being overpowered by a woman were non-existent that day. It was not only Clem who had been caught by surprise, but two of the Cartwrights, too. Roy had roused the posse, even though it was still dark and they had taken the women into town, and Paul Martin had been sent out to treat the Cartwrights.

Sitting by the fire, his head bandaged and throbbing unmercifully, Ben reflected on how lucky they had been that day. Evie might have managed to kill them all. Hoss was uninjured and had even managed not to break Evie’s hand, although no one would have blamed him if he had. Adam was lying down, trying to sleep off the concussion and stitches he’d required in his head. Paul was checking on Joe one last time before going back into town. The bullet had gone right through Joe’s shoulder, tearing up skin and muscle, but doing less damage than they had originally feared. He, Ben, had a bad cut on his head, but although it was sore, he didn’t have a concussion.

“You’re very thoughtful,” Paul commented as he came down. “A penny for them?”

“I was thinking how lucky we’ve been,” Ben explained. “The old saying is true; Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

“You’re right there,” Paul agreed. He sat down, sensing that Ben was not finished.

“I think perhaps Adam won’t blame himself any more,” Ben went on, cryptically. He caught Paul’s puzzled glance. “Adam thought this was his fault, when Joe was first shot. We told him otherwise, of course, but I think that this might have shown him that it wasn’t his fault.”

“I hope so,” murmured Paul.

*******************

It was a couple of days before either Adam or Joe was up to seeing visitors. Adam went across to Joe’s room as soon as he could get up without puking or falling over. Joe had his right arm in a sling and was sitting in a chair by the window, looking out. “Adam! How are you feeling?”

“All right,” he replied, untruthfully. “What about you?”

“Fine,” Joe replied, and they regarded each other gravely, both aware of the fact that they were lying. “Have you got all this blame nonsense out of your head now?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” Adam replied. “You see, it was partly my fault. I just didn’t see Evie’s feelings. If I had, I might have let her down more easily.” He looked away. “I just find it difficult to share my feelings.”

“But not always,” Joe contradicted him. “You told us that you were able to share your feelings with Ruth quite openly.” It wasn’t often that any of them mentioned the girl Adam had loved and lost. It was generally a taboo subject.

Adam looked startled. “I guess so,” he agreed. “But I don’t even share my feelings with my family.”

“You don’t have to,” Joe replied. “We generally have an idea of what you’re feeling. Not always, but that’s the way you are, Adam. You aren’t responsible for Evie’s actions. After all, we’ve all lost someone we loved and you didn’t see us going out and murdering others, did you?”

“That’s different,” Adam began.

“No, its not,” Joe interrupted. “It’s exactly the same. There must be something wrong with Evie that caused her to react like this. No sane person would behave like this. Adam, for the last time, it’s not your fault.”

A slow smile crept across Adam’s face. “What makes you so wise for a little kid?”

Flashing a grin, Joe replied, saucily, “I have two older brothers who make my life an absolute misery, which teaches me all sorts of things you don’t learn when you’re the oldest!”

“Why, you…” Adam declared, but he could not help but grin back.

The End

3 thoughts on “A Woman Scorned (by Rona)”

  1. The OCs are well drawn here, and evil lurks in Evangeline’s tortured soul. Great story exploring Adam’s psyche.

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