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.
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