To Slay the Dragon (by jfclover)

Summary:  Friendship is one of the greatest gifts of all, a mutual affection that dwells outside one’s family.  Some men are born natural loners, but in Joe Cartwright’s case, he depended greatly on those he considered true friends.  Could a friendship remain strong following events that were beyond his control?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  58,500


                                       

Chapter 1

Some would say I’d grown up privileged.  My father owned land.  He had diverse holdings, mines, cattle, timber, etc., and that alone set us apart from most men who lived in Storey County.  My brother had gone to college.  Hoss and I had been given the opportunity to better ourselves—as Adam put it—but we were content to leave all that fancy learning to older brother.  We’d better ourselves by working hard at what we knew best, and the Ponderosa meant everything to Hoss and me.

My best friend Martin and I grew up in households with few parallels other than he had an older brother that pestered him the same way mine pestered me.  Because of his father’s love for the bottle, some would say he grew up more disadvantaged than most. Quitting school long before I did, he worked at the Yellow Jacket alongside his older brother, Oren.  Mining was a hard life, and I didn’t envy him having to haul rock out of mineshafts for twelve hours a day when we were still boys, yet, despite our differences, we’d always remained friends.

We fished and swam.  We climbed towering rocks and rode like the wind through open valleys.  We brushed the edges of Indian burial grounds but never crossed the line that would’ve gotten us killed.  We scrounged through empty line shacks and rode too far from home in search of sun-bleached bones.  What one of us didn’t think of the other did. We both loved venturing into the unknown.

By the time I was out of school and working the ranch, Martin still worked in the mine, but we’d moved on to new games and adventures.  A beer on Saturday night, maybe a friendly game of cards or betting two bits on who could catch the eye of a pretty, young saloon girl first.  We challenged each other in ways that made us stronger and more thoughtful than we would’ve been otherwise.  Not that everyone would agree, but at twenty-one and twenty-two, we were still best friends.

When the westbound stage pulled up at the depot, Martin and I were heading to the Silver Dollar, and I stopped him from crossing the street.  “Hey,” I said.  “Hold on a minute.  Let’s see who gets off.”

“You expectin’ someone?”

“No.”

“Lookin’ for card sharps?”

“No, that’s the sheriff’s job.”

“What then?”

“Don’t you mean who?”

Martin was a shy sort, and we each saw women in a different light.  While I thought ahead to the next barn dance, Martin never gave socializing a second thought.

Martin punched my arm.  “Don’t get smart with me, Joseph.  Who you expect to see?”

“One never knows.”

Ever since we were kids in school and Miss Jones decided “Little Joseph” would get my attention, Martin has used my full name.  As a kid, I thought he was making fun, but it was just his way.  He was different than other boys.  He was a tall kid, lanky, with a head of unruly white-blonde hair, and his eyes were as pale as the moon.  Kids made fun.

Called him the ghost.  “Watch out for the ghost,” they’d say.  “Don’t get too near the ghost,” but I defended my friend.

“Come on,” I said.  “It’ll just take a minute.”

With his hands clasped behind his back, Roy Coffee stood on the boardwalk as we approached the depot.  “Hi, Little Joe, Martin.  What are you boys up to?”

“Wanted to see who got off the stage.”

“You expectin’ someone?”

“No.  Just passing time.”

Roy looked up at Martin, who towered over the two of us.  He was as tall as Hoss only my brother outweighed him by a mile.  “How’s your Pa gettin’ on, son?”

Everyone in town knew Eli Sears was a drunk who cared nothing about supporting his family.  Any money that came in always ended up in his hands and was gone the same day.  The drink made him sour and disagreeable, and an embarrassment to the family.

“He ain’t dead if that’s what you mean.”

“I’m sorry.  I know how hard it’s been for you boys.  Give your ma my best, will ya?”

“Sure will, Sheriff.”

I could read Martin’s face, and without thinking things through, Roy had mentioned the one thing Martin didn’t care to discuss.  He never talked about his home life.  I knew how things were—the whole town knew.  Eli Sears was miserable human being, and Martin had lived with the humiliation for years.

When a young woman popped her head out the stage window, I was glad we’d made the effort.  “Welcome to Virginia City,” Roy said after taking her hand and helping her down the wooden step to the boardwalk.

“Thank you, Sheriff.”

“Have you ever visited our fair city before?”

“Actually, yes, but it’s been a few years.”  Although I didn’t recognize the lady, my ears perked when she said she’d been here before.  “I traveled here with my father about ten years ago.  Maybe you remember him … the Reverend Mayer.

“I wasn’t sheriffin’ then,” Roy said, “but welcome back to Virginia City.”

“Thank you.  I won’t be staying long, though.  Just a few days.”

“Let me introduce you to two of our finest citizens.  This here’s Little Joe Cartwright, and this tall-drink-a-water is Martin Sears.”

I stepped forward and reached for the lady’s hand.  “Just Joe, ma’am.”

“Hello, Joe.”

Martin stepped forward and offered his hand.

She bobbed her head politely.  “Martin.”

“And you are?”  I asked.

She brushed the dust off the shoulders of her traveling suit.  “Pauline,” she said, “although I’m better known as Reverend Mayer’s daughter.  Or, better yet, a dusty traveler in need of a clean suit of clothes.”

“Is your father traveling with you?”  The young lady hesitated, and I realized how presumptuous my question had been.  “My apologies, Miss Mayer.  I didn’t mean to pry.”  Even though she smiled, I felt like a fool for asking.

“Father is still touring California, but we’ll meet up again.  Can you recommend a good hotel?”

I glanced up at Martin before I answered.  “The International is the best in town.”

Jerry Jenkins, the toothless stage driver, had unloaded everyone’s bags, and a large pile set next to Miss Mayer.  “We’d be glad to carry your bags and show you the way.”

“That’s very kind, gentlemen.”

The woman had three carpetbags.  I handed two to Martin before I picked up the smallest and took the lady’s arm.  “Right this way.”

*****

Chapter 2

“Can I ask you a favor, Little Joe?”

“Sure, Miss Daisy.  What do you need?”

I drove into town for supplies a couple of weeks after Martin and I had met the stage and Miss Mayer, and I stopped by Daisy’s Café for lunch before driving back home.  With roundup and the cattle drive coming up, Hop Sing had asked for extra rations of everything.

“Well, there’s a young woman that comes in every Saturday for lunch.  The poor girl doesn’t know anyone in town, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind—well, you know.  Maybe a picnic or dinner?”

“Slow down, Daisy.  Who’s the girl?”

“Her name is Pauline Mayer, and she’s very striking, Little Joe.  She’s got beautiful dark hair and she—”

“Hold on,” I said, raising my hand.  “I met her when she got off the stage; Roy introduced us, but is that considered a proper introduction?  I mean is it enough to ask a woman out to supper?”

I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but I wasn’t excited about the prospect either.  I’d had my eye on Sally Ann Wilson for the last couple of weeks and thought I might ask her to the Saturday night dance.  Besides, I wasn’t that taken with Miss Mayer.

“She works for the Lucent’s during the day, Little Joe, and she takes in sewing in her spare time, but I don’t think she ever gets out.  At least not on a real date with a handsome young man like you.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, Miss Daisy, but I can’t just knock on her door and say, ‘Hi, remember me?  Let’s go to dinner.’”

“No, that wouldn’t be right at all, but you could stop in here for lunch next Saturday, and I’ll be in charge of a second introduction.”

“You like this girl, Daisy?”

“Very much.  She’s kind and has good manners, oh, and did I mention she’s pretty too.  She has lovely dark hair and big brown eyes.  She’s a catch, Little Joe.  She’s a real catch.”

Matchmaker Daisy.  How could I turn her down?  “I’ll be here Saturday at noon.”

*****

Chapter 3

Two days later, I rode back to Virginia City to be re-introduced to Miss Mayer.  I tied Cooch outside the café and finger-combed my hair before I stepped inside.  Pa wasn’t at all happy that I’d given up an entire Saturday when we were so busy out at the ranch, but he knew how persuasive Miss Daisy could be.

Pauline Mayer was already seated, conveniently at a back table, and away from prying eyes.  Daisy scurried across the eatery when I walked in.  “Little Joe,” she said as if surprised to see me.  “I have someone I’d like you to meet.”

I followed her to Miss Mayer’s table and introductions were made.

“Joe,” Pauline said.  “How nice to see you again.”

“And you, Miss Mayer.”

“Please call me Pauline.  Would you care to sit down?  I haven’t had a chance to order yet, and I’d love the company.”

I took a seat next to the dark-haired girl.  She seemed a little friendlier than our first meeting, but she was no Sally Ann Wilson.

“Are you enjoying Virginia City so far?”

“Well, I’ve extended my stay.  I have a job now, and I moved into a wonderful boarding house.  Maybe you know the place.  The Widow Hawkins’?”

“She’s quite a gal … the widow, I mean.”

“Oh, she’s just a hoot, isn’t she?  I find her very entertaining.”

“That, she is.”

I ordered the “special” and Pauline ordered some kind of fruit salad that wouldn’t fill a bird.  We made small talk until I got up enough nerve to ask her to supper.  I’d already told her about the Ponderosa, that we were ranchers and lived west of town.  I’d mentioned my brothers and Pa and that we had a cattle drive coming up soon, but I’d run out anything more to say.

“Would you consider having dinner with me.”

“Dinner?  I don’t know if I should … I mean I usually don’t go out with men my father hasn’t approved.”

“I’m a pretty decent fella.  How about Miss Daisy?  She’ll vouch for me.”

“No need.  I’d be delighted.

“Tomorrow night at seven?”

“On the Sabbath?”

“Oh, that’s right.  How about Monday night.”

“Will your friend be joining us?”

My friend?  “Oh, Martin?  Um, no, it’ll just the two of us.”

“Okay.  That sounds lovely.”

“Good.  I’ll see you tomorrow … I mean Monday.”

As I retrieved my horse, I thought about our conversation.  Why in the world would I bring Martin on a dinner date?  Was she more interested in him than me?  Would she rather be dining with the shyest man on the planet, a man who became tongue-tied every time a woman looked his way?

*****

Chapter 4

“Why you takin’ a bath, little brother?  You know it’s Monday, right?”

“Not that it’s any of your business,” —and not that I was thrilled over the prospect— “but I have dinner plans in town.”

“Oh yeah?”  Hoss pulled a chair next to the copper tub.

“Do you mind?”  Why couldn’t I have five minutes of privacy?  I wasn’t even safe in the bathhouse.

“Who’s the girl?”

“You don’t know her.”

“So … who’s the girl?”

“Pauline Mayer.  She’s new in town.”  I dunked my soapy head and sputtered lukewarm bath water when I popped back up.  “Clean as a whistle.”

“New girl in town, you say.”  Hoss scratched his thinning hair.  “All them Virginia City gals know you too well?  Gotta make a fresh start?”

“Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Who me?”

“Get out!”  I grabbed the soapy sponge and hurled it at Hoss’ backside as he flew out the bathhouse door.

Dressed in my Sunday best, I knocked on the widow Hawkins’ front door.  I tried to relax. I didn’t even like the girl, and taking a woman out for the first time was always a bit awkward.  God knows I wasn’t a schoolboy, and God knows she wasn’t the first woman I’d ever asked out to dinner, but I was jittery inside.  You owe me, Miss Daisy.  You owe me big.

I wasn’t sure why, but I hadn’t been this nervous since I sat my first bronc.  I’d begged Pa for months, and the answer was always no.  My mother’s death had been part of his worry, but other boys my age had been doing the job forever.

Pa let Hoss bust his first bronc when he was twelve years old.  I was going on fourteen and had yet to sit on the back of a wild one.  It took both my brothers to convince my father to let me try my hand.

“We’ll be right there with him,” Adam said.

“We won’t let nothin’ happen to him, Pa.  He’s a might sturdier than you think,” Hoss added.

“You can’t guarantee his safety, can you?  I won’t put that boy on the back of a horse just so he can . . .”

“Pa—” Adam tried again.  “You can’t think that way.  Joe isn’t Marie.  You have to give him a certain amount of rein or he’ll always be a boy.  He needs to prove he’s a man.”

“By getting himself killed?”

I listened from the top of the stairs.  I should’ve been in bed but voices carry, and I heard every word that was said.  When Hoss and Adam turned their backs and left the discussion behind, I knew it was over, and it would be another six months or more before they tried again.  They’d done their best, but nothing they said would sway Pa’s thinking.

“You’re right.”

My ears perked.

“Make sure you don’t put him on the fiercest animal in the corral.  And don’t you dare give him one that’s already been ridden.”

Hoss looked at Adam.  His grin took up most of his face.  “You gonna tell him or should I?”

“Let Pa, Hoss.  It wasn’t our decision to make.”

“Joe.”  She swung the door wide open and broke my train of thought.  “You’re right on time.”

One look at Pauline and all my worries were over.  She looked lovely, and her smile told me I’d been all worked up for nothing.  We were in for a grand night.  Dinner by candlelight or was that too much for a preacher’s daughter?  Should I rethink my plans?

“Miss Pauline,” I said.  “You look lovely tonight.”

“So formal?”

I chuckled.  “I’m sorry.  I have reservations at a nice, little French restaurant called Pierre’s.  I hope you’ll be impressed by the cuisine in our dusty little town.”

“I’m sure I will.”

I didn’t usually go overboard on a first date, but I felt compelled to show her the best Virginia City had to offer.  With all that traveling under her belt, I didn’t want her to think I was just a dirty, sweaty cowpoke that worked my fingers to the bone on a ranch. Even though dinner would cost half a month’s wages, I was willing to live with the sacrifice.

“Shall we be on our way?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Since Pierre’s was just a block down the street from the boarding house, we walked.  I didn’t offer her my hand, but I stuck close by her side until I opened the door of the restaurant.

“May I take your wrap, Mademoiselle?”

“Thank you.”  She handed Pierre her cape, and he seated her across from me at his finest, candlelit table.  A French-worded menu of Pierre’s five specialties draped the dinner plate.

Pauline didn’t pick up the menu.

“Would you like a bottle of our best Bordeaux, Monsieur?”

“Yes, we would, Pierre.”  I glanced at Pauline.  “May I order for the two of us?”

She seemed to hesitate and then a smile broke through.  “Certainly.”

“Would you bring us two steaks, medium rare, with all the fixings?”

“Excellent choice, Joseph.”

I wasn’t taking any chances on a menu I couldn’t read; besides, the Ponderosa had supplied Pierre with beef for the last three years.  Steaks were a safe bet.

“Steak, as in beef?”  Pauline seemed worried.

Odd question.  “You’re gonna love Pierre’s food.  Pure Ponderosa beef.”

“I see.”

“Best in all of Nevada.”

Pauline picked up the linen napkin and unfolded it in her lap.  “And you’re proud of that fact, aren’t you?”

“Shouldn’t I be?  We pay very close attention to our cattle.”

“I guess every rancher would, but I can’t help wonder how other people feel when you brag about the cows you ultimately butcher for food.”

“Brag?”

“What about your friend, Martin.  Is he a rancher too?”

“No.  Martin works in the mines.”

“But ranching in more profitable, I bet.”

“Sure, for some, but not everyone.”

“Don’t you think your friend might feel inferior when you talk about all the cattle you take to market?”

“What’s this all about?”  Was the woman out to get my goat on a first date?  “Martin and I have been friends for years.  There’s no competition between us.”

“Have you asked him?”

“Asked him what?”

“If he feels inferior.”

“No, Why should I?”

“So you don’t think he feels second-rate?”

“I guarantee he’s never felt that way around me.”

“Are you sure?”

Pierre had opened the bottle of wine before Pauline started her insane conversation, and after finishing my first, I filled my glass a second time.  I offered her more, but she put her hand over her untouched glass of Bordeaux.  When our dinner arrived, I was starving, and I waited for my date to pick up her knife and fork, but that never happened.  She kept her hands in her lap.

“Is something wrong with your meal?”

“I guess I should’ve said something before.”

“I don’t understand?”

“I can’t possibly eat one of God’s sacred creatures.”

“You don’t eat meat?”

“No.  Never.”

“But you let me order you a steak.”

“I’m sorry but—” She held the napkin over her mouth and nose as if she might hurl all over the table.  “I refuse to eat some poor creature that’s been tortured since birth.”

“Tortured?  We don’t do anything of the kind, Miss Mayer.”

“Don’t you brand and butcher?”

“Of course, we do.”

“And you don’t call that torture?  You think because you’re a man that you’re better than all of God’s finest creatures?”

“Listen, Lady.  I don’t know where you get off—”

She closed her eyes and turned her head.  Still gripping the napkin, she held up her hand. “Please take me home.”

What kind of fool was I sitting with?  I threw my napkin on top of my plate and moved around the table to pull out her chair.  Pierre rushed to our side, concerned, of course, but I smiled and tried to reassure him.  I pulled a few bills from my wallet and patted the poor man’s shaking shoulder.  Not only was I humiliated, but we’d also caused a minor uproar in his overpriced establishment.

When we reached the widow Hawkins’, I leaned forward to open the front door but couldn’t think of a thing to say.  I was still fuming.  Half a month’s pay … gone.

“I should apologize for ruining your evening,” she said.

“Listen, Pauline.  My family and I are ranchers.  That’s all there is to it.  I’m sorry you don’t approve, but raising cattle is our livelihood.”

“How can you brand and butcher helpless animals?  Have you no feelings at all?”

“I do all those things, but I care for those helpless animals the best I know how.  I see that they have plenty of green pastures to graze.  I winter-feed when necessary, and I make sure every stream is running so none our cattle go a day without water.”

“And then you kill them.”

“And then I kill them.  It’s all part of God’s plan.”

“I disagree.”

“You have every right.”

“Good night, Joe.”

“Good night, Miss Mayer.”

*****

Chapter 5

Pa waited up, nothing new there, but I wasn’t up for a discussion on my miserable evening with a woman who hated me for no other reason than I was a rancher.  After stabling Cooch, I stepped through the front door, threw my hat on the sideboard, and flopped down on the settee.

“How’d it go, son?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“That bad?”

“Worse.”

Pa set his book aside and leaned forward in his chair.  “Are you saying it wasn’t the date you had planned?”

“That woman’s a bonafide nutcase.”

“Oh, come on, Joe.  She couldn’t be that bad.”

“Wanna bet?”

Pa tried not to chuckle, but it slipped out anyway.  “I’m sorry, son, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this upset.”

I shook my head.  “You know what really galls me?  You wanna hear the truth?”

“That’s up to you, son.”

“I spent half a month’s wages on a woman who lets me order for her, a big juicy steak at Pierre’s mind you, and then informs me that she couldn’t possibly eat an animal that’s been tortured by ranchers like me.”

“Tortured?”  Pa’s deep baritone raised an octave.

“You got it.  That’s all she talked about.  How we’re all a bunch of evil ranchers who find pleasure in branding and butchering our steers.”

Twice now, Pa smothered a laugh.  “I’m sorry, Joseph, but evil ranchers?”

“Those weren’t her exact words, but she got her point across.”

“You did a favor for a friend, and I’m proud of you.  You did your part, but don’t give that woman another thought.  What you need now, young man, is a good night’s sleep.”

“What I need now is a gun to my head.  I really know how to pick ‘em, Pa.”

Instead of squeezing the trigger and putting me out of my misery, Pa gripped my shoulder.  “Tomorrow we start branding, and I want you boys to head out early.”

“Don’t you mean the evil Cartwrights?  Ride out and torture more cattle?”

“Go to bed, Joseph.”

“Yes, sir.”

*****

Chapter 6

For the next five days, Adam and Hoss, and I sweated over a stinking hot fire although my mood was less than enthusiastic.  I told my brothers about the evil Cartwrights, which, of course, they both had a good laugh, but I couldn’t dismiss that woman’s unkind words.

“Ah, Joe, forget about her.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“You know better’n to dwell on some crazy gal that ain’t right in the head.”

“I’ll do my best, brother.”

We all took turns with the branding iron.  One of us roped and hauled the calf to the pit. The next man laid him on his side, and the third put a hot iron to his flank.  The smell of scorched hide filled the air only this time, it bothered me more than usual.

This time last year, we had visitors from Baltimore.  Melinda Banning and her obnoxious mother—a woman who sought out wealthy bachelors for her daughter to marry—visited the Ponderosa.  I didn’t realize the old lady’s motives at the time, and I fell head over heels in love with her daughter.  I was set to marry the girl only to find out I’d been played for a fool, but I was getting off track.

When mother and daughter rode out to watch the branding, it wasn’t hard to see that Melinda was Eastern bred and wasn’t accustomed to our Western ways.  Minutes after dismounting and standing near the pit, the poor girl fainted.  At the time, I felt sorry for her—a delicate flower—and I sat at her bedside until she recovered enough that I could finish the day’s work and not worry about leaving her alone.

If not for Pauline, I doubt I’d even remember Melinda and her fainting spell, but I tried to imagine what Pauline would say or do if she rode out to the pit.  Would she mouth off like she had at supper or would she take a shotgun and blast the evil Cartwrights to Kingdom Come?

“Joseph!”

“What?”  Hoss had a calf turned on his side, but I hadn’t been paying attention.

“Quit your daydreamin’ and put the iron this calf.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Hoss had been riding me all day—Joe do this.  Joe do that—but I couldn’t keep my mind on the job.  Pauline and all her talk about branding and butchering our cattle had me rattled.

“Hey, what’d you do with that new branding iron anyway?”

“Branding iron?”

“You had it last.”

“I left it in the back of the wagon.”

“Well, it ain’t there no more.”

I threw the old iron in the coals and pushed to my feet.  “You think I’m lying?”

“I just asked.”  Hoss stood up too.  “What’s wrong with you anyhow?  You ain’t had your mind on work all day.”

“I don’t know.”  I nudged a clod of dirt with my toe.

“You still thinkin’ about that crazy lady?”

“I guess.

Hoss didn’t push the subject, and that was fine with me.  The less said the better.  We finished branding a day early and dressed for a night on the town.  We all had different preferences as far as saloons went, but we didn’t let that get in the way of three thirsty men and settled on the Silver Dollar.  Cards, women, and booze.  We had our choice of all three; instead, we all sat together that night and enjoyed each other’s company.

It was a Thursday night and the saloon was crowded with off-shift miners.  I just happened to glance up when a tall, gangly man walked in.  “Hey, Martin,” I shouted and waved my hat over my head.  He held up a finger, stepped up to the bar, and ordered a beer before he moved toward our table.

“Hi, fellas.”

“Join us,” Adam said.  Hoss and Adam never cared much for Martin but for my benefit, they knew to keep a civil tongue.

“What are you doing here on a Thursday?”  I said.  “And look at you.  Why the fancy duds?”  Martin sported a clean, white shirt and black string tie, not his usual attire by a long shot.  He pulled the string and unknotted the tie before tucking it into his shirt pocket.

“I’ll never get used to them things,” he said and took a long draw from his mug.  “Had me a date, Joseph.”

“Yeah?  Who’s the lucky girl?”

“I think you know her.”

“Well?”  I waited a beat.  “Don’t keep us in suspense.”

“Miss Mayer,” he said.  “Miss Pauline Mayer.”

My brother’s eyes shot to me, but I didn’t acknowledge their glances.  “Really?  How’d it go?”

“She’s a mighty fine woman, Joseph.  We just got back from a buggy ride up to Benton Falls.”

I wanted to ask if they ate apples and celery all day, but … well, that was uncalled-for. “That’s great, Martin.  I’m glad things are going well.”

“Real well, Joseph.  I’m seein’ her again Saturday night.”

“That’s … that’s good, buddy.”

“I never would’ve figured it,” Hoss said on the ride home.  “Martin Sears and the crazy lady.”

“Yeah.  He’s not an evil rancher named Cartwright.”

Hoss laughed briefly then turned serious and furrowed his brow.  “Poor guy’s got his hands full.  I sure can’t see no future, can you, Joe?”

“Don’t ask me, Hoss.  I’m just a heartless cowpoke.”

*****

Chapter 7

Six weeks later, the four of us dressed in our Sunday best to attend the marriage of Pauline Mayer and Martin Sears.  I guess we were all wrong about Martin.  He’d been the shiest boy in school—almost an outcast—and the first of my friends to marry.

I’d polished the surrey and we all rode to town together.  The wedding was being held at noon at St. Mary’s in the Mountains, a new Catholic church that replaced the first one built in Virginia City after winter winds blew it to the ground.

I hadn’t seen Martin very often since that night at the Silver Dollar.  Sally Ann Wilson and I had attended a couple of dances together, but we didn’t socialize with my best friend and his girl.  Although I’d considered asking Martin and Pauline to join us, I was afraid once she saw me, she’d start running her mouth and ruin the entire night.  So, I never asked.

As usual, I daydreamed during most church services, and Martin’s wedding was no exception.  I thought about Pauline’s odd ways and wondered how my friend would survive when a good Ponderosa cut of beef was forbidden to him for the rest of his life.

“ . . . you may kiss the bride.”

As the pipe organ played, the newlyweds hurried down the aisle to the back of the church, and we all stopped to greet the happy couple.  I let Pa and my brothers go first.  I followed them down the aisle, stopped in front of Martin, and extended my hand.  “Congratulations, old man,” I said before looking at Pauline.  “You make a very handsome couple.”

“Thank you, Joseph.”  He leaned in closer.  “I wanted you for my best man, but Pa said it weren’t right not to have Oren stand up with me.”

“Hey, no problem.  I understand.  Family comes first.”  I turned again to Pauline.  “You have my blessing for a long and happy life.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.”

Mr. Cartwright?  “You’re welcome.”

Damn if she wasn’t the strangest woman I’d ever met.  “Mr. Cartwright.”  What was that all about?  Maybe it was just me, but was the woman determined to goad me even at her own wedding?

“How about a late lunch at the International?”  Pa said.  None of us argued.  We were starving, and we all ordered steaks and all the fixin’s except Hoss, who ordered two of everything.

“You still have room for pie?”  I said to my oversized brother.

“’Course, I do, little brother.  What’s a wedding without pie?”

“It’s not your wedding.”

“Don’t matter none.  I’m in a celebratory mood.  Ain’t you?”

And that’s when Pa added his two cents.  “You’ve been awful quiet, son.  Something bothering you?”

“Me?  No, I just don’t understand how Martin could fall in love that woman.”

“Don’t tell me you’re jealous,” Adam said.

“Jealous?  Not a chance in h … No!  I’m not jealous.  You know what she called me back there?  Mr. Cartwright.  Not Little Joe or just Joe, but Mr. Cartwright.”

Hoss and Adam couldn’t help but laugh, but Pa put his hand on my arm and patted me like I was a child who couldn’t take a joke, but that woman wasn’t joking.  She said it on purpose just to rile me, and she did a darn good job.

“Seems like that gal gets her jollies outta makin’ your life miserable, little brother.”

“You think?”

*****

Chapter 8

I’d been seen around town quite often with Sally Ann Wilson on my arm, but things didn’t work out like I planned.  There wasn’t a spark, no shiver down my spine when I stood on her doorstep and eventually we parted ways.  I wasn’t discouraged, though.  Time had a way of resolving matters of the heart, and I was in no rush to jump back into the game.

The cattle drive was nearing, and we’d all be off to Sacramento in no time, but we needed drovers.  Pa sent me off to town with a couple of posters advertising for available cowpokes in the area.  As I rode past the sheriff’s office, Roy called out and waved me over.

“Mornin’, Little Joe.”

“Morning, Sheriff.”

“Can you step inside my office for a minute.”

Pa would have my hide if I dawdled too long, but I couldn’t ignore the town sheriff. “Sure, Roy.”  I tied Cooch to the hitch rail and walked up the steps to the jailhouse. “What’s up?”

“This ain’t gonna be pleasant, Little Joe but … have a seat, son.”

I sat down in front of the sheriff desk.  He wore his serious face, and I always dreaded that look.  “What’s the matter, Roy?”

“Sally Ann Wilson is dead.”

“What do you mean dead?  I saw her a week ago.  She was fine then.”

“Sally Ann was murdered, Little Joe.”

“Murdered?  Why?”

“That’s what I’m tryin’ to figure out.”

I slumped farther down in the chair and held my hat in my hands.  “Sally Ann.  Who’d do something like that?”

“Old Jake Murdock found her down by Buckhorn Creek.  At first look, I thought she’d drowned, but that weren’t the case.  That gal had rope burns around her neck.  Someone strangled her first then dumped her remains in the water.”

“She never hurt a fly, Roy.  It doesn’t make sense.”

The sheriff sat up taller.  “Lemme ask you this, son.  Did you and Miss Sally Ann ever picnic down that way?”

“Yeah, we did.  One Sunday after service.”

“Then let me ask you this.  Was there any hard feelin’s between you and the girl?”

“Of course not.  We saw each other for a few of weeks, went to a couple of dances together, and decided we’d be better off seeing other people.  As far as I know, there were no hard feelings.”  But then I studied Roy’s question more clearly and realized what he was asking.  “You don’t think I had anything to do with this, do you?”

“Oh, of course, not, Little Joe,” Roy drawled, “but I have to question everyone who might’ve come in contact with her.  Do you know if she was seein’ someone else?”

I stared at Roy.  How would I know?  We parted ways.  I hadn’t seen her for over a week. “Wouldn’t her parents be able to answer that better and me?”

“I asked, and as far as they knew you were the last boy she’d been out with.”

“Are they accusing me of—”

“No, not exactly, but your name was brought up in conversation.”

“That’s just great.  I take a pretty girl to a couple of dances, and the next thing I know, I’m accused of killing her.  That’s really great, Roy.”

“Just hold on, Little Joe.  That ain’t what’s goin’ on at all.  I asked difficult questions, and the Wilson’s answered as best they could.  That’s all it means.  No one’s accusin’ you or anyone else so far.”

“So far?  But my name’s on the list, isn’t it?  Joe Cartwright, suspected killer of young girls.”

The sheriff stood from his chair.  “You go on about your business, son.  I’ll get in touch if we need to talk again.”

As the good citizens of Virginia City moved up and down the boardwalk, I stood outside Roy’s office in a haze of disbelief.  Murdered, but I didn’t have time to dwell.  I had posters to hang.

After telling Pa and my brothers about Sally Ann, Hoss and Adam headed back out to round up strays, and I stayed home with Pa.  He thought it best that I stuck close to home until the cattle drive, but I couldn’t sit around and do nothing.  I didn’t argue, though.  I was tired; at least my brain was tired.  I suppose Roy had to ask; he was an officer of the law and that was his job, but it rankled me that I was the first person he questioned.

Pa tried to smooth things over, but nothing he said eased my mind.  I should’ve asked Roy if he’d questioned anyone else.  Was I at the top of his list?  He sure made it sound that way.  I wondered if Sally Ann had already been buried.  I didn’t know that either, and I certainly would’ve gone to pay my respects, but I was in the dark about a lot of things.

“I need to talk to Roy,” I said to Pa.

“Joseph.  I’d rather you stayed out of town.  Let Roy do his job.”

“I’ll let him do his job, but I have questions, and I need answers.”

“If you must go, I’ll ride in with you, but not until tomorrow morning.  Maybe he’ll have gathered more evidence by then and have more answers to give.”

“Tomorrow’s fine.  Think I’ll go lie down a while if that’s okay.”

“Go ahead.  I’ll call you when supper’s ready.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

*****

Chapter 9

The following morning, I saddled Cooch and Buck and came back inside to tell Pa. “Horses are saddled.”

“Be ready in a minute.”

After a leisurely breakfast, Pa had paperwork he wanted to finish so he could post a packet with a signed contract while we were in town.  A lumber contract he and Adam had been working on over the past week and apparently, it had to be mailed today.  I tried to be patient.  I wasn’t a kid anymore, but I’d yet to learn patience.  Pa said it was my nature.

We rode straight to the sheriff’s office and tied our mounts out front.  First things first I always say, but Roy was out of the office.  His deputy, Ralph Carlisle, was in charge.

“Where’s the sheriff?”  I asked.

“He ain’t here.”

“I see that, Ralph.  I asked where he was.”

Pa could sense my irritation, and he cautioned my behavior when he grabbed my arm.  “Joseph.”  I’d pressed both hands on the sheriff’s desk.  Maybe I scared the deputy, but I asked a simple question and I expected an answer.  Was that too much to ask?

“He went out.”

“Out where, Ralph?  I’d like to speak to him.”

“He’s investigatin’ a murder.”

“Sally Ann Wilson?”

“How’d you know?”

“Come on, Joseph.  We’ll stop back before we leave town.”

I looked down at the deputy who hadn’t moved from behind Roy’s desk.  “If the sheriff comes back, tell him to wait here, okay?”

“Sure thing, Little Joe.”

I walked outside with Pa.  He carried the packet and turned toward the post office.  I stepped in front of him.  “There’s something I need to check on, Pa.  I’ll catch up.”

“Joseph … ” Warning bells flagged his voice.

“I’ll only be a minute.  I promise, and I’ll meet you down at the post office.”

Pa’s birthday was next week, and I’d ordered him an engraved holster out of a catalog from a tannery in San Francisco.  Since I wouldn’t be allowed in town again before the drive, today was my only chance to pick up the gift.

Pa relented, and I darted up the street to Ira’s shop.  I’d paid in advance, and all I had to do now was keep the gift hidden from Pa so I could spring it on him at his birthday dinner.  I walked through Ira’s front door, and he called out my name.  “Little Joe.  Glad you stopped in.”

“Hi, Mr. Felger.”

“It’s here, son.  Your package came in yesterday on the noon stage.”

“Good.  Pa’s in town with me so I’ll need you to wrap it up real good.”

The gift was already covered in brown paper for mailing purposes.  Ira pulled it from a shelf below and set it on top of the counter.  “Let’s have a look-see, shall we?”

He pulled the strings loose and handed me the holster.  I saw the engraving right off.  BC carved into the ornately fashioned leather.  “They did a nice job, didn’t they?  I’ll admit I was a little nervous.  I spent a lot of money for something sight unseen.”

“It looks fine, Little Joe.”

“If you’ll wrap it back up, I’ll be on my way.”

I thanked Mr. Felger for his time and hurried back up to Cochise, stuffed the present in my saddlebags, and headed down to the post office.  Wouldn’t Pa be surprised?

*****

Chapter 10

Gray skies had washed away the sun, but a bold strip of red sky hovered over the taller mountain peaks.  Sunset was nearing, and I lay on hard-packed ground with my hands tied behind my back.  Some of the day’s events were clear.  Some weren’t.  My mind was fuzzy, and my arms and legs felt like lead.  There wasn’t a house or line shack in sight. Virginia City and the Ponderosa were a long way away.

I thought it odd at the time, but she was an odd bird, no great friend of mine.  Pauline was my best friend’s wife.  When she’d waved me over from the alley, I thought it might’ve had something to do with Martin.  Maybe a birthday celebration she wanted to keep under wraps, a surprise party for her husband whose birthday was the day after my father’s, and I followed her down the alleyway where she had a wagon waiting behind the mercantile.

“What’s this all about, Pauline?”

“You must come with me,” she said as though she was out of breath.  “There’s something I need to show you.”

After we climbed aboard, she smacked the reins and we were off.  I still didn’t understand, but she seemed adamant.  Something in her voice sounded anxious as though she was frightened and needed my help.  After driving to the edge of town, she handed me the reins.

“I’ll be glad to drive,” I said, “but first, tell me where we’re going.”

“It’s Martin.  He needs you, Joe.”

Exactly what I thought, but we weren’t heading to the mine.  We headed east down six-mile canyon instead.  “I don’t understand.”

“You will.  Hurry.”

Like a fool, I’d done as she asked, and now I was lying on the desert floor with a gun pointed straight at my head.

She’d pulled my Colt from the holster when I nearly lost control of the team going down the canyon.  She was uneasy and jittery, and there’s nothing worse than a nervous finger on the trigger so I did as she asked.  I drove the wagon into the desert.  Surrounded by nothing but flat, dry sand, I was at the woman’s mercy.

When we were miles from town, she had me stop the wagon and get out.  She stayed seated but kept the gun leveled at my chest.  Was she a crack shot?  I didn’t know.  Was she a crazy bitch?  Definitely.

“Take off your boots.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

I pulled off my boots.

“Turn your back and get down on your hands and knees.”

After doing her bidding, I sensed a small flash of light behind me, and a hint of tobacco smoke drifted in the air.  I looked over my shoulder at my captor.  She pulled the cheroot from her lips and exhaled a trail of white smoke.  “Bad manners,” she said.  “A proper young lady would’ve asked permission first.  Do you mind?”

I didn’t bother to answer.

“You don’t find me a proper lady, do you, Joseph?”

“What do you want me to say, Pauline?  You have a gun at my back.  I’ll say anything you want.”

“You’re not as dumb as you look, are you?”

Shards of pebbles or maybe even dry bones gouged my hands and knees.  “You gonna tell me what this is all about?”

“No, not yet, but you’ll understand in time.”

And then I blacked out.  When I woke, the sun was higher in the sky and a tug on my shoulders told me my wrists were bound behind me.  While I was on my hands and knees, she’d hit me over the head, probably with the butt of my own gun and knocked me senseless.

Though I hadn’t realized at the time, she’d tied a second rope, a longer rope, around my waist.  “I’ll do the driving now,” she said.  Slipping my gun in her waistband, she climbed back up on the wagon seat.  “Get on your feet, Joseph, and enjoy the sights and sounds.”

Realization dawned.  I’d be walking the rest of the way without my boots.  This trip into the desert had nothing to do with her husband, my friend.  She flicked the reins, and I had no choice but to keep up or be dragged through the wasteland more commonly known as Starvation Flats.

“You’re crazy!”  I screamed.  “You know that, Pauline?  You’re insane!”

*****

Chapter 11

After mailing his package, Ben Cartwright marched straight to the jailhouse, but Joseph was nowhere in sight, and Ben was as angry as he’d ever been.  Cochise still stood next to Buck in front of Roy’s office, but where was the boy?

“All I asked was that he stick with me until this thing with Sally Ann was over, but no,” he mumbled to no one but himself.  “He takes off on his own and does exactly what I asked him not to do.  Pester the sheriff.”

Bursting through Roy’s front door, expecting to see his son, Ben halted abruptly when he realized the deputy was alone in the room.  “Have you seen Little Joe?”

“Sure have, but he was with you, Mr. Cartwright.”

Losing patience was easy with this numskull of a deputy.  “After that,” Ben growled.  “Has Joseph been back in this office?”

“Oh, no, sir.  Neither has the sheriff.”

“Fine.  That’s all I needed to know.”

Ben stood on the boardwalk.  He looked left and right.  C Street was bustling with heavy supply wagons and folks running daily errands but no sign of his son.  He crossed the street and walked into the Bucket of Blood.  “Hey, Cosmo.  Seen Joe today?”

“No, can’t say that I have.  Need a beer?”

Ben flung his elbows on the bar in frustration.  “Sure, why not.”

While Cosmo drew his beer, Ben glanced around the room.  The Bucket of Blood was Joe’s first choice of saloons.  If he hadn’t stopped in for a beer, what did that mean?  He didn’t know where else to look and he sipped his beer slowly, waiting for what?  He wasn’t quite sure.

*****

Chapter 12

If Pauline hadn’t kept the team at a steady pace, I’d be dead by now and never know the reason why.  My hat was gone, lost on the desert floor.  My holster, even without the gun, weighed heavy on my hip.  We headed east.

In the back of the wagon, a canvas tarp draped over whatever cargo she deemed necessary for the trip.  She didn’t explain, and I didn’t know what she was carrying, but I noticed the bulging tarp before we left town.  I didn’t think a thing about it.  I didn’t ask, but what good would it have done?

I hadn’t expected to be dragged through the desert at the end of a rope, but she’d planned every step of the kidnapping—if that was her plan—very carefully.  No one saw us leave.  No friendly wave to a friend or acquaintance as we left Virginia City.  No sign of my father or Roy Coffee.  No one knew I’d disappeared into the desert.

I could picture my father, though.  Boy, would he have been put out when I didn’t show up at the post office.  He’d be awful mad, but he wouldn’t worry, not until a few hours passed and there was still no sign of his wayward son.  He’d check my horse, probably find his birthday present in my saddlebags and blow the surprise I intended.  He wouldn’t have a clue where I’d bought the fancy holster, but he’d check every shop in town until he had answers.  That was my pa.  He never left a stone unturned.

By day’s end, he’d realize something was wrong, and that’s when he’d worry.  He’d contact Roy, not Ralph, the idiot deputy Roy had been forced to hire.  He’d gather my brothers and anyone else in town that would take time from their busy day to help find his missing son.  Roy would lead a posse in one direction while Pa and my brothers searched elsewhere.  But, they wouldn’t start out until daybreak.

*****

Chapter 13

After discovering his birthday present in Joe’s saddlebags, Ben went straight to the mercantile to question Amos Cole about the gift.

“No, Little Joe didn’t order it here.  That’s a mighty fine looking holster, though.  Must’ve cost him a pretty penny.  Hey, you might try Ira’s shop down the street.  He often deals in mail order, special orders he doesn’t have in stock.”

Ben rewrapped his package.  “If Little Joe should stop by … oh, never mind.  Thanks, Amos.”

Joseph should’ve met him at the post office.  Ben realized why Joe had begged off and said he had an errand to run, but that was hours ago, and the engraved holster was proof he’d needed a few minutes alone, but where was he now?  It wasn’t like Joe to blatantly disobey.  He marched back down to the sheriff’s office.

“I need your help, Roy?”  I explained the situation.

“You sure the boy’s missing or did he leave town of his own free will?”

Ben palmed his hands on the sheriff’s desk, an obvious display of aggravation he’d cautioned his son about earlier in the day.  “Why in the world would he do that?  His horse is tied right outside your door.  You think he walked out of town?”

“He could’ve took the stage.  One headed west just this afternoon.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  Joe had no reason to leave town.”

Roy stood from his chair.  “What about Sally Ann Wilson?”

“What about her?”

“She’s dead, you know.  Murdered.  I had no choice, Ben.  I had to question Little Joe.  He’s a likely suspect and a crucial part of the investigation.”

“So help me, Roy Coffee.  Do you really think Joseph had anything to do with her death?  They barely knew each other.”

“A courtship gone wrong?  It happens, Ben.  Happens all the time.”

“Not to Joseph, it doesn’t.  Are you going to help me or not?”

“If you don’t find the boy tonight, I’ll put a posse together tomorrow morning.  That’s the best I can do.  Now, go home.  Joe’s probably wondering where you are.”

Ben stiffened his arm and pointed at the front door.  “My boy would never leave town without his horse.”

*****

Chapter 14

I could hang on until Pa found us.  I’d do what Pauline asked.  I wouldn’t talk back or upset her in any way.  She was a hair-trigger away from ending my life, and I didn’t know why.  Did I dare ask?  Maybe not just yet.  Let her think she had complete control. Pa and my brothers or the sheriff would show up, and whatever game she was playing would come to an end.

Apparently, we’d reached our destination.  She slowed the horses to a standstill and climbed down from the seat still aiming the gun.  “Did you enjoy the walk, Joseph?”

Don’t rile her.  Don’t make this any worse than it has to be.  My hands were tied behind me, and my feet were torn to shreds, but I managed a disinterested tone.  “What happens now, Pauline?”

She stopped by a grouping of tall rocks, a shelter of sorts in the middle of nowhere.  The wind had picked up.  Sand blew in my face, in my eyes and mouth.  I spit out a mouthful of grit.

“Bet you’re dry as a bone.”

“Yeah, I could use a drink.”

“Soon.  The horses worked just as hard as you did, and I bet they’re thirsty too.  Who should come first, Joseph?  Two faithful beasts or a despicable human being?”

I dropped my head.  Reasoning with Pauline Sears was like … My, God.  She thought more of the horses than she did of me; at least, that’s what she wanted me to believe.  Is that what this was all about?  Was she trying to make a point?

I was so tired, I could barely think straight and when needless visions cluttered my mind, I tried to push them away but the sun’s relentless blaze made me dizzy, too dizzy to stay on my feet and … maybe I passed out.  I’m not sure, but when I opened my eyes, Pauline stood over me wielding a crop at my shoulders and screaming at the top of her lungs.

“One day in the desert and you collapse like a little girl.  You’re worthless, Joseph.  I can smell your sweaty, filthy body from here.  Add repulsive to worthless.”

I shifted my weight and tried to look up, but the low, evening sun shadowed her face.  My shoulders were torn and bleeding.  The back of my shirt was shredded, and I was dying of thirst.  I rolled back to my stomach and listened to a much calmer Pauline.

“I’m sorry it has to be this way, but it wouldn’t be in my best interest to untie you.  Not yet at least.”

I squeezed out a minimal amount of words.  “What do you want from me?”

“How does it feel to be at the mercy of another human being, Joseph?  It’s a funny little phrase, isn’t it?  At the mercy.”  She’d moved behind me, but I could hear her pacing back and forth on the hard-packed ground.

“There’s meaning in that phrase, though, Joseph, and you need to understand how things will work from now on.  When a particular individual takes control over a weaker, less fortunate creature, only one can dictate the rules.  The poor creature might try to defend himself or run away, but what if no mercy is shown?  Is that wrong?  Is that a bad thing?

“You will abide by my rules, and you’ll learn how it feels when there’s no possible escape.  When you’re bound, and you struggle to free yourself, but your struggle has been in vain, then you’ll understand what being at the mercy means.”

I couldn’t lift my head.  I was truly at her mercy, but what did she expect me to say? Apologize?  In her mind’s eye, I was a rancher and every rancher was evil.  Okay, I understood all that.  Her father was a preacher, and she’d been raised differently than I had, but why had she hauled me out to the desert, and what were the rules was she referring to?

With my hands bound and a rope around my waist, she was right about one thing. Trying to free myself wasn’t going to happen.  She still held my gun and had added the crop to her list of weapons, which she kept in plain sight.  I was weak and without water, I wouldn’t last long.  I had no choice but to play by her rules.

“Move over by the wagon and put your back against a wheel.”

I did as I was told, but it was hard to get situated much less comfortable.  My shoulders were on fire, and the bottoms of my feet were raw.  My body cried out for relief, but Pauline seemed content to watch me crawl across the desert floor.  She secured me to the wheel.

“That’ll do for tonight.  We have a long day tomorrow so I suggest you get some sleep.”

“How about some water?”

“Oh, didn’t you have anything to drink today?  How thoughtless of me, Joseph?  I’ll make sure to have someone clear that beaver dam first thing in the morning.”

*****

Chapter 15

Following Roy’s suggestion, although it irked him that his friend had turned Joe’s disappearance into something unsavory, Ben led Cochise to the livery, asked Miguel to feed and keep him overnight, and turned his own mount toward the Ponderosa.  If for some unknown reason, Joe were still in town, he’d need his horse to get home.

Hoss greeted him in the yard and kindly put up his horse.  Adam stepped outside and asked where he’d been all day.

“Long story, son, and no answers as yet.”

Intrigued, Adam followed his father inside.  “Wanna talk about it?”

“Your brother is missing, but let’s wait for Hoss.  I only want to tell the story once.”

*****

Chapter 16

I woke to my brother’s voice.  Adam had called out my name, but his voice fell silent as soon as I opened my eyes and stared blankly into an inky darkness.  It must have been a dream, a cruel and hopeless dream.  There was no sign of Adam.

Pa always said I should eat more, and now I knew why.  I shifted my weight, but nothing seemed to help.  Every inch of me ached including my butt.  My mouth was like cotton. The beaver dam prevented me from having that drink, and I ran my tongue across chalky, split lips.  It’s the best I could do, but then it hit me.  There was no beaver dam. Pure nonsense, but had I believed her last night?  Was I that far gone?  Thank God, I’d come to my senses before she woke and tried to put one past me again.

Pauline made her bed a few feet from the wagon and had buried herself under a pile of blankets to ward off the night chill.  She hadn’t started a fire.  The woman didn’t miss a trick.  She feared someone might find us.

She never gave me a drink.  I wouldn’t last long now, and maybe that was her plan, but what about Martin?  Was he in on this too?  Was he even aware his wife was missing? Damn.  If I could only reason things out.

And then there was Sally Ann, and I knew what Roy Coffee would think.  A woman was dead, and I’d skipped town with another man’s wife.  If that didn’t make me his number one suspect, nothing else would.  No matter what Pa and my brothers might say, that’s exactly what the sheriff would think.

After laying my head back against a narrow spoke, I tried to fall back asleep.  I’d need every ounce of strength I could manage to keep up with the wagon tomorrow.

The following morning, Pauline tied my ankles as a precaution.  She loosened the rope holding me to the wheel and told me to stand.  With my hands still tied behind my back, it wasn’t an easy task.  She realized my dilemma and pushed me on my stomach then jabbed her knee in my back.  When I grunted and tried to catch my breath, she smacked the back of my head.

After my hands were untied, and I was helped to my feet, I tried to rub the soreness from my wrists.  But I felt so lightheaded, I grabbed hold of the wheel before I keeled over and landed flat on the ground.

My freedom was short-lived.  My wrists were tied in front of me this time.  With my feet still bound, I couldn’t run off, and Pauline felt comfortable moving to the back of the wagon and leaving me on my own.  She wasn’t gone long and when she returned, she breezed past me, swinging a canteen over her head like a parasol.  My eyes were glued, but Pauline liked to play games.

“Oh, did I forget to tell you, Joseph?  Those pesky little beavers hadn’t dammed up the stream after all.”  She raised her hand to her heart.  “I swear on my mother’s grave.  Can you imagine my surprise?”

The longer she rambled, the weaker I became.  A day in the desert without water.  If she were testing my endurance, she wouldn’t have much longer to wait.

“Not very talkative this morning, are we?”

She popped the stopper, held the canteen to her lips, and let a small amount of water dribble down her chin to her chest.  When she had her fill, she arched her neck and ran her hand seductively across her throat.  She sighed.  “That feels so good.”

Her eyes shot at me.  “Gonna be another hot one, Joseph.”  When she stepped forward, I licked my lips.  My eyes watered in the bright sunlight, but I dared not blink.  I stared at the canteen, fearing she’d take it away.

“Don’t look so worried.  No one’s ever thought of me as heartless.  I realize your needs.  Neither man nor beast can survive days the desert without water, don’t you agree?”

I licked my lips again and was finally handed the canteen.  I tilted the container upright until she jerked it away too soon, and I stood with my mouth hanging open.  Water splashed and spilled—my water—leaving a darker smudge on the ground.

“Look what you’ve done now.”  I stared at Pauline through narrowed eyes.  “Careless,” she screamed.  “Careless and ungrateful.  You force my hand, Joseph.”

I didn’t drink enough water to keep a squirrel alive, and I knew we were in for another long day.  I thought I’d find the perfect opportunity and no one would get hurt, but I’d waited too long to overpower her.  She never let her guard down, and she’d never become complacent or careless.  She held all the cards and was well aware that I’d become too weak to do anything but fold my hand and claim defeat.

My body ached and thoughts of today’s venture across more of the desert seemed impossible.  I couldn’t be made to walk again without food or constant stops for water.  I reached my limit yesterday, but I feared a repeat performance was part of her plan.

Pauline hitched the team like a pro.  She didn’t ask for or need my help.  The rope around my waist still dangled at my feet until she took hold and led me in front of the team.

“You’ll take the lead today, Joseph.”

“The what?”  My voice was barely audible, but the questioning look on my face made her smile.  She pulled the rope and I followed.  The ground was rock-hard, and I felt every stray stone and clump of brittle grass as she marched me in front of the wagon and secured the longer rope to the harness.

“Won’t this be fun?  Today, I’ll watch you, but you won’t see me.  Isn’t variation a wonderful thing?”

Pauline sounded so cheerful and gay that I summoned the courage to wipe that stupid smile off her face.  I fisted my tied hands, whirled all my feeble efforts at the left side of her face but only managed a flimsy punch against her shoulder instead.  She stumbled out of my reach and caught herself before she fell, but the damage wasn’t severe enough. Although she composed herself, the cheeriness was gone, and a raging, vengeful woman appeared.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” she cried.  “You filthy, disgusting man.  I should castrate you here and now!”

When she turned back to the wagon, she rubbed her hand over her shoulder blade, but the pain was short-lived.  I’d blown my chance.  I was at her mercy again, but what did she mean by castrate?  Surely, she wasn’t that far gone.  Hopefully, I wasn’t either. Maybe I’d heard her wrong.  When she flicked the reins—I being the lead “horse”—we moved farther into the desert.

My shirt hung on me like a rag.  I wanted to ask how far we were going and why, but there’d be no answers.  She knew I wouldn’t stop walking.  I wasn’t ready to die by letting the weighted hooves of two horses crush me to death, but it was all I could do to keep a step ahead of the team.  I stared at the endless horizon, an open range of nothing.

I tried to find beauty where there was none.  Starvations Flats was void of lakes and trees or brush more than a few inches tall.  There were no cabins, no homesteaders trying to make a go in the vast wasteland.  Pauline and I were very much alone.

I told myself to hang tough, that someone would pick up our trail and come riding our way, but a steady breeze blew in from the west.  Wind kicked up dust, and dust covered tracks in an instant.  There’d been no ruts to follow.  The ground was too hard and dry for a seasoned tracker.  Even Hoss could get lost in the desert.

Adam’s desert cries labored in my mind like it was only yesterday that we found him crossing another desolate wasteland near Salt Flats.  Hauling a dead man, too weak and too disoriented to know that his baggage had died, his energy had been wasted on a cruel and angry man who tried to break him.  His mind had taken a turn, and he marched through the desert alone and afraid.  My compassion for his plight grew stronger with every step I took.

Could Adam see his way out or was his persistence to move forward nothing more than a suicide march, a dead man walking.  An eternity spent walking through hell on earth. He never talked about his days in the desert, and he valued his privacy even more now than before.  Spending weeks with a madman had changed him, had given him a different perspective on life though he was unwilling to share his experience.  Fear. Solitude. Nothing any of us could pinpoint, not even Pa, but there’d been a change.  Discontent maybe.

I stared into the distance, hoping for the sight of a mirage, a resting place where I could soak my feet, lay in cool, green grasses and dream of home and family and Hop Sing’s Sunday dinners, but that’s not what I saw.  All that was left to me except the blazing sun was dust and wind and a sense that the whole world had turned a languid shade of gray. But then it appeared.

Heavenly shapes took form in the distance.  An oasis of clear, blue water and a rich, green landscape lay before me.  I tried to pick up my pace, but I was tied to the harness, helpless to move any faster until Pauline chucked the reins and the horses began to trot. Across the scorching desert, I ran until I stumbled and fell.

*****

Chapter 17

I came to when she slapped my face repeatedly with the palm of her hand.  She’d stopped the wagon in time, but I saw the smile on her face.  I could’ve been trampled to death, but she saw fit to save my life.  I had to wonder why.

“You don’t look too good, Joseph?”

I could’ve begged for water, but I knew what the answer would be.  I could’ve asked her why she hated me so, but the energy didn’t exist.

“You must be exhausted.  How are your feet?  Do you have a stone bruise or a cut that’s beginning to fester?  I would tend to that right away, but I’m afraid that your wounds will have to heal themselves.  Isn’t that what nature intended?  Heal thyself?”

What the hell was she mumbling about?  Stone bruise?  I wasn’t a horse for God’s sake.  I was a human being that felt pain just like everyone else.  Mocking.  That was her only form of entertainment, to harass and humiliate, but I couldn’t let her get the best of me, and I felt a surge of energy.  If I had to walk all the way to Kansas, so be it.  I pushed myself up and stood next to my captor.

“Let’s go,” I said.  “Let’s get this over with.”

The sun slipped behind distant peaks before she stopped the wagon a second time.  She tied me to the wheel and made camp.  She built a small fire this time, far enough away from me that I felt no direct heat.  She warmed a pot of beans.  After offering me a drink—a short one—she grabbed the canteen from my hands before I had my fill.  I didn’t ask for more.  I didn’t beg or cry out.

Her expression as she corked the canteen showed nothing that would lead me to believe either of us was winning the battle she’d started when she told me to drive down six-mile canyon and pulled the gun from my holster.  The woman was on a mission but to what end?  What was her reason for traipsing me through no-man’s land like an animal?

I was starving.  I could live without food, but one gulp of water was barely enough to keep a man alive.  She knew it and I knew it.  Martin knew it too, and if he was behind all this, he was a dead man.  We’d been friends a long time, unlikely friends maybe.  That’s what everyone thought except Martin and me.  We got along well.  Nothing had ever come between us before, but had something happened after the lovebirds were married?

He’d never agree to this.  Not Martin.  He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.  Plus, he was a newlywed.  He and Pauline should’ve been enjoying their life together, exploring new things and finding happiness with each other.  They were separated now.  Martin, as far as I could guess, was probably searching for his bride and had the whole town on the lookout.

While my captor wrapped herself in blankets, the wagon wheel served as my bed with no warmth for the second night in a row.  I lay my head back against a spoke, not the best pillow even in the desert, but enough of an upright that I could rest while she touched a spoon of heated beans to her lips.

“Much too hot,” she’d said for my benefit, I’m sure, but I didn’t look away.  I continued to stare.

Soon, the fire burned out and the desert turned pitch black, a lonely place, and a frightening place with no woodland sounds that usually put me to sleep.  No coyote cries or the hoot of a nearby owl.  No sound of leaves rustling outside my bedroom window or fire crackling in the fireplace.  Silence.  Nothing but dead silence.

*****

Chapter 18

Finding nothing after a day spent in the saddle, Roy and his posse rode back to Virginia City empty-handed and waited for Ben and his boys.  Arriving an hour later, the Cartwright’s had nothing to show for their efforts either.

“This makes no sense, Roy.”

Roy steepled his hands on his desk.  “You and me’s the same kind of people, ain’t we, Ben?”

“Yes, why?”

“We’re both tryin’ to think like Little Joe, aren’t we?”

“Go on.”

“We’ve checked the stage line and nearly every business in town.  We’ve scoured through line shacks and all the abandoned mines nearby yet we found nothin’ to go on.”

“What’s your point, Roy?”

“My point is maybe Little Joe don’t wanna be found.  You ever consider that?”

“No, and I won’t consider it now.  It’s absurd.  Joseph had no reason to disappear or hide out.  I know my son, Roy.  Something’s happened to him, something beyond his control.”  Ben stood to his full height.  “The boys and I will head out early tomorrow.  Are you with us?”

“I’d like to help any way I can, but you and me ain’t seeing Little Joe’s disappearance in the same light, which, I hate to say, brings me back to the Wilson girl.”

Ben stormed from Roy’s office and pulled Buck’s reins from the hitch post.  Adam and Hoss eyed each other before Hoss swallowed a heavy lump and spoke up.  “Somethin’ wrong, Pa?”

“No one votes for Roy Coffee in the next election.  Is that clear?”

“Clear as day, Pa.”

Ben yanked Buck’s reins across the animal’s neck and galloped down C Street.  Dutiful sons that they were, Hoss and Adam followed close behind.  The story would be told after they were home, but that didn’t solve the Little Joe problem.  The boy up and vanishing like was unsettling.  It wasn’t like Joe to go against their father in such a way, but tomorrow would come early, and they’d head out again, apparently without the sheriff’s help.

*****

Chapter 19

She didn’t bother warming the beans before breakfast.  Instead, she ate them cold but made a deliberate point of scraping the tin plate with her spoon as she shoveled the food, quite unladylike, into her mouth.

“Don’t know why I’m so hungry this morning.  Must be the dry, desert air that gives me such an appetite.”  She scooped up a handful of sand and cleaned her plate and spoon before tucking each piece back in her knapsack.  “Oh, my, did I forget about you?”

I turned my head away.  Already, the sun beat against my face like a blazing-hot oven.  Not a sliver of shade was left on my side of the wagon, and the day’s heat was beginning to rise.  After shivering most of the night, I’d welcomed the early morning warmth though I regretted another long day of travel.

“I best water you, though.  Water is important, isn’t it, Joseph?  We can’t let the creek run dry, can we?”

She held water to my lips and I drank.  Usually, she let me hold the canteen, but she changed the routine.  She was all business except for the taunting, which I let pass without a reply.  Maybe she’d get tired of the game.  Maybe she’d come to her senses and call it quits, but I’d lost faith in mankind … womankind?  Was that a word?

My, God, I was losing my mind?  Had I fallen that far?  Damn it!  There was no god; I knew that now.  The margin between life and death had narrowed.  One more day like yesterday and my life would be His.

I’d been a fool to let the abduction go this far.  Two days without food, and only enough water to keep me from falling on my face.  I’d dried up inside.  There wasn’t much left, and I had to take action today, this morning.  Catch her off guard.  Let her see that Joe Cartwright still had enough strength to call the shots.

After loading the wagon with last night’s bedding and her knapsack of food, she tied a noose around my neck instead of my waist.  She untied me from the wagon wheel and told me to stand.  I pushed up from my seat on the ground and waited until she bent over to untie my ankles.  She was out of sync.  Yesterday, she’d untied my feet before she had me stand.  Today, I had the advantage.

She loosened the knot and when she pulled the rope from my feet, I kicked out and nailed her in the shin.  Not expecting a reaction from me, she fell backward on the ground.  But she was quick, and before I could kick out again, she was back on her feet and glaring at me with contempt.

“You’re nothing but a dirty, repulsive little man, Joseph.  You’re nothing!  Nothing but the lowest creature on earth.”

Twice, I failed to break free.  The look in her eye told me that life had taken a turn for the worse, that I’d be punished severely this time.  I meant less to her than any other man in the world, and our steady march across the desert would either break me or kill me.  I wasn’t sure which.

There wasn’t much slack in the noose she’d slipped over my head.  The difference, though, was that I walked adjacent to Pauline so she could keep a close eye.  No longer would I act as the lead horse.

She climbed aboard and slapped the reins, and the horses started our journey at a good clip.  If I should stumble and fall, I wouldn’t be trampled, but she could easily drag me alongside the wagon until my neck stretched tight.  I ran like hell.

*****

Chapter 20

“Who d’ya suppose is bangin’ on the door this early?”

“Probably just one of the hands.  Would you mind, son?”

Hoss sighed and stared at his uneaten breakfast.  “Sure thing, Pa.”  Without Little Joe to fetch and carry and answer early morning calls, he was the next in line.  “Martin?  What brings you out this way?”

“I … well, I’ve been to see the sheriff and he … have you found Little Joe yet?”

“No.  You know somethin’ we don’t?”

Chair legs scraped the floor, and Ben and Adam joined Hoss at the front door.

“Have you seen Joseph?”  Ben asked.

“No, can’t rightly say I have but there’s somethin’ I should tell you, sir.”

“Okay, go ahead.  Don’t be shy, Martin.”

The boy hesitated.  His eyes dipped to the floor before he found the nerve to continue.  “It’s about my wife, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Mrs. Sears?”

“Yes, sir.  She … my wife that is … well, she’s gone missing too.”

“When?”  Adam asked.  “How long has she been gone?”

“Same as Joseph, according to the sheriff.”

“And you just now realized she was gone?”

“Adam,” Pa cautioned.

“No.  When I got home from work the other night, she wasn’t there.  Neither was our wagon.  I tried to figger it out on my own, but I couldn’t come up with a decent reason. We didn’t fight or nothin’ so I was kinda in the dark.  Then, I heard about Sally Wilson, and I feared something might’ve happened to Pauline too.  I should’ve gone straight to the sheriff, but I was unsure of … well, I don’t know why I didn’t go, but I didn’t.  When she still hadn’t come home yesterday, I went and talked to Roy Coffee, and that’s when I found out Joseph was missin’ too.”

Ben glanced at his boys and back to Martin Sears.  “None of this makes sense.”

“It sure don’t, Mr. Cartwright, but I thought you should know about my wife.”

“Is there any reason she’d go away, any reason you can think of that she …”

“I wish I knew, sir, but I’m kinda still learnin’ the ropes.  I’m not smart about women like Joseph.”

Four pairs of eyes shifted when hooves sounded in the yard.  Roy dismounted and clattered across the front porch.  He stood next to Martin.  “Guess you told Ben and the boys the same thing you told me.”

“I sure did, Sheriff.”

“Is there any reason them two would run off together?”

“Come on, Roy,” Adam said.  “You know Joe better than that.”

“I don’t know what to think, Adam.  I got one dead girl, another girl missin’, and no Joe Cartwright.  Now, whether you agree or not, I think there’s a connection.”

“You can’t be serious, Roy,” Ben stormed.  “My son isn’t involved with either woman.  Pauline is Martin’s wife.  Joseph and Sally Ann haven’t been together for weeks.”

“Then you tell me, Ben.  What happened to them women and where’s Little Joe?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out.  And when I do, you better be ready to hand me an apology on a big silver platter.”  Ben turned to Martin.  “I’m sorry about your wife, but we’ll get to the bottom of this.  Mark my words, young man.  Joseph is innocent of any and all accusations the sheriff is spouting off without adequate information.  Seriously, Roy.  I never thought I’d see the day you’d accuse a man without one piece of solid evidence.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I’m doing my job the best I know how.  If that rubs you the wrong way, there ain’t a thing I can do about it.”

All four men stared as Roy mounted his horse and rode out of the yard.

“I don’t know if the sheriff is right or wrong, but I’ll be on my way too, sir.  Boss don’t take kindly to me missin’ a day’s work.”

“Keep in touch, Martin,” Ben said.  “We’ll let you know if we find out anything about Joe or Pauline.”

Hoss shut the front door and turned toward his father.  “What the heck?  Joe ain’t no killer.  Why’s Roy actin’ like that?”

“Oh, son, I don’t know.  Frustration, I guess.  No leads to a murder.  A second woman missing.  Why don’t we saddle up?  We need to find Joseph before the whole town is breathing down our necks with groundless allegations.”

*****

Chapter 21

“Damn, damn, damn!” she shouted.  “Too much too soon, and the damn fool’s dead.  I wanted you to feel.  I wanted you to know pain and suffering, and now it’s too late.”

Her words were unclear, muffled and bitter, but the constant breeze of her skirts as she paced back and forth kept me conscious of her whereabouts.  I suppressed a groan and kept as still as any “dead” man could.

My body was torn, ripped, and bleeding from scudding across the desert floor by a team of horses eager to run.  Her regrets about my death surprised me.  I figured that was the plan all along, but I was wrong.  She had something else in mind, something worse than death.  And when she kicked my side, the performance of my life was over when my eyes shot open, and she realized I was still alive.

“You!  You thought you could fool me, didn’t you?  You think you’re so smart.  You bastard.  You sanctimonious bastard.”

I wanted to reply, but I couldn’t form any words.  Everything, even my jaw and my teeth ached and screamed for relief.  How many bones were broken?  How many muscles had gone useless and unwilling to cooperate?  I was as good as dead.  There wasn’t much more she could do to increase the pain she’d inflicted when she chose to run the team.

Pa always said life was precious although I hope he’d think differently if he saw me now. My life was over, and I prayed that death would come sooner than later.  A tall drink of whiskey would help, but none was at hand.  A double dose of Doc Martin’s powders might knock me out, but that wasn’t possible either.

I rolled from my side to my back and couldn’t help but mutter a cry.  Tears burned my eyes when raw, bleeding skin made contact with hot, sandy earth.  If I begged for mercy, my cries would fall on deaf ears, and I vowed to live my few remaining hours in silence.

“Let me help you, Joseph.”

I was wary, but I opened my eyes.

“You’re hurt, and I don’t want your death on my conscience.”

By the time she’d finished tending me, I lay flat on my stomach, the remains of my shirt discarded, the cuts and gouges cleaned, and a greasy salve coated my back and shoulders.  Though tender hands had succeeded in keeping me alive, I considered the cost of letting her doctor me.  Death would take longer to come.

*****

Chapter 22

“Tomorrow we split up,” Ben said and they headed for the house.  “We’re not making any progress by sticking together.”

“Ain’t no trace of neither of ‘em, Pa.  It don’t make sense that Miss Pauline would be missin’ too.  There’s no way she and Joe’d be together.  He can’t hardly stand the sight of that gal.”

“I know, Hoss, and Roy’s way off base if he thinks there’s a connection between any of the parties involved.  I can’t explain Joe’s disappearance.  I can’t explain Pauline Sears’ either, but one thing’s certain.  If, in fact, there’s some bizarre connection, it wasn’t your brother’s idea.”

“Maybe there’s something Martin hasn’t told us.”

“What are you getting at, Adam?”

“Well, he’s the only connection between both parties.  Maybe he knows something we don’t.”

“Why don’t you head down to the Yellow Jacket first thing in the morning.  You might be on to something, son.  Hoss and I’ll ride out.  Hoss?”  Ben turned to his middle son.  “What does your gut tell you?  Where do we look next?”

*****

Chapter 23

I tried to sleep.  Even though Pauline had lowered a bedroll on top of me, I shivered from the cold.  Maybe fever had set in.  If I lived to see the sunrise and feel the morning warmth against my face, I still didn’t stand a chance.  My family would never know my fate.

Fitful sleep was like no sleep at all.  I’d watched the moon rise and set.  I watched the morning sun make its way over faraway peaks, and I watched Pauline begin to stir.  She’d made her bed several feet from mine, blankets, a soft pillow—the works.

She hadn’t bothered to tie my wrists.  She’d removed the noose from my neck so she could tend the blistering rope burns, but she didn’t trust me completely.  She’d tied my ankles and secured a lead rope to the seat of the wagon.  She was a very careful woman.

Maybe it was time to talk, to seek answers and try to understand why she brought me on such a foolhardy journey.  If she’d wanted me dead, she would’ve killed me by now.  If the lady thought I could stand up and run again tomorrow, she was mistaken.  She’d exercised my last bit of strength when she doctored my shoulders and back.

Pauline stood and straightened her skirts.  She tied the little sash at the neckline of her blouse then twisted from side to side to alleviate the kinks and soreness from sleeping on the ground.  I watched her bend at the waist and flatten her palms on the desert floor before standing tall and stretching both arms over her head.

“Better,” she said.  “Nothing like a good night’s sleep.”

After stepping my way, she brought her hands to her hips and stared down at me.  I didn’t move.  I couldn’t if I tried.  “Your face is flushed, Joseph.”  She squatted down on her haunches and felt my forehead.  “Fever.  That might slow us down.”

I waited for her to hitch the team and tighten the noose around my neck, but I didn’t think I’d last an hour on my feet, and then what?  She’d drag me the rest of the way?  I was starving and thirsty and could barely lift my head off the ground.  I’m sorry, Pa, but I’m fighting a battle I can’t win.

“You were stronger and healthier when we left town.  You’ve lost weight, but I guess that’s to be expected.”

I tried to clear my throat.  I hadn’t spoken for hours, and my voice came out gravelly and hoarse.  I coughed madly.  “What did you expect?”

“You still don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“Why we’re here, of course.”

Her voice was so damn cheerful, I wanted to smack her silly, but I didn’t have enough energy to lift myself off the ground.  The woman was insane, and I turned my head to face the wagon, but the subtle movement took a toll, and I tried to cover a grown by gripping the blanket with both hands.  The pain was slow to subside.

“You poor, lost soul.  You brought this on yourself, Joseph.  You have no one else to blame.”

Her words betrayed her true feelings.  She enjoyed seeing me helpless and afraid.  She had all the power, and she thrived on the fact that I couldn’t help myself, that I couldn’t move a muscle without crying out.  This was more than a kidnapping.  She wasn’t looking for ransom.  She didn’t want me dead either.  What was I missing?  What kind of evil game was she playing?

Adam talked about games.  “No more games,” he cried out in his sleep.  “No more games,” but he never explained what he meant.  Adam changed after Kane.  He’d become more vocal during sleep than during waking hours.  Pa tried to console, but Adam wouldn’t let him in.  He never let anyone into the nightmare that plagued him most nights.

“You poor thing.  I should’ve fattened you up more before we started the drive.”

The drive?

Pauline set out her medical supplies before she pulled the blanket from my back.  “Oh, my,” she said.  “This doesn’t look good, Joseph.  Not good at all.”

I wanted to scream— “Don’t lay a hand on me,” —but a sniveling whimper resulted instead.  The cool morning air felt like ice against the exposed area of skin, and although I tried to control my trembling, I braced myself when she began to probe.

“I must tend these wounds, Joseph.  You’re my livelihood, an important source of revenue.  I’m already responsible for the loss of one little heifer down by Buckhorn Creek.  God knows I can’t lose another.”

What in God’s name?  I breathed in deeply and tried to form a few words.  “Just leave me be, Pauline.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I beg you.”

“I’ll clean the deeper cuts first.  Do you need something to bite on?  I didn’t think of that last night, and I apologize.  That was thoughtless of me, wasn’t it?  But I’m new at this, you see.  I’m learning as I go.”

My heart thumped like a bass drum.  She hadn’t begun, but I cringed at the thought of her touching me.  I knew the fiery burn of alcohol, and I knew that Doc always mixed a powder before he tended severe wounds.  Sometimes I balked, but Doc knew best.  He knew what a man could tolerate and what was too much to endure.

“Don’t do this,” I begged.  “It’s over, Pauline.  For God’s sake, take me back to town.”

“Oh, Joseph.  You underestimate me.”

“Please . . .”

*****

Chapter 24

“I’ve drawn up a map, Pa.  I’ve marked where we’ve been already and where we still might wanna look.”

“That’s good, son.  It’s just you and me today so we need to be productive.”

“That’s my thinkin’ too so let’s check the map together.”  Hoss laid his masterpiece on the dining room table.  “Miguel said Little Joe didn’t rent a horse from the livery, and we know he didn’t ride Cochise.  He didn’t take a stage outta town neither, which means he’s on foot unless he borrowed a horse, but we’ve already checked with his friends and that didn’t pan out either.”

Ben stared down at the map.  They’d covered Virginia City and Gold Hill, and as far south as Dayton and Carson.  They’d ridden over to Genoa late yesterday afternoon, and no one recalled seeing a young man wearing a tan hat and green jacket.  They’d checked Ponderosa line shacks.  They’d searched every abandoned mine and crawled into a few remote caves Hoss said he and Joe used to play in as kids but nothing turned up.

“What do you suggest, son?”

“Well, we’re gonna have to widen our circle.  If Joe went north, he mighta run into unfriendly Paiutes.  East is Starvation Flats and west, well there’s California and the coast.  That don’t make sense and neither does anything else, but that’s where we’re at, Pa.”

Ben shook his head.  “Joe wouldn’t head to the desert.  No fool in his right mind would, not this time of year.  I guess Paiutes are an option but there hasn’t been an uprising for years, which leaves California but why?  He doesn’t know anyone that far west.”

“If little brother had been kidnapped, we would’ve received a ransom note by now, so we can rule that out.  But there ain’t no reason Joe would’ve left town on his own.  He said he’d meet you at the post office, and Joe don’t lie.  Somethin’s happened to him, Pa. Someone’s got him hid away or he’s hurt and he can’t get home.”

“I’ve considered all that too, Hoss, and you’re right, but we can’t just sit and wait for him to drag himself back to the Ponderosa.”

“I know that, Pa, and I’m with you a hundred percent.  I just ain’t sure which way we should ride.”

*****

Chapter 25

When the whistle sounded, eight men at a time were hauled up from the mines in iron cages.  Adam waited for Martin Sears to be lifted from the depths of the earth, and the third time the lift carried men to the surface, he stepped out on solid ground.  Soot-faced men shaded their eyes from the bright sunlight, and Martin was no exception.  Each headed straight to their lunch pail and found a seat at long wooden tables for a half-hour reprieve from the underground pit.  Adam waved his hat at Joe’s friend.

“What brings you down here, Adam?  Good news, I hope.”

“No, but mind if we talk while you eat?”

“Over here,” he said.  “I ain’t told none of the men about my wife.  It’s embarrassing, you know.  I ain’t been married but a couple of months, and now I’ve misplaced my bride. The fellas would talk, and that ain’t the kind of talk I wanna hear.”

“I understand.”

“I found something odd though.  Maybe I should show you.”

“Something about Pauline?”

“I don’t know.”

The two men sat on a fallen log and Martin opened his pail.  “I’m glad to share.”

“No, I’m fine.  You go ahead.”

After biting into a crisp apple, Martin reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a woman’s necklace, a diamond cut ruby dangled at the end of a gold chain.

“Beautiful,” Adam said.  “Pauline’s?”

“No, and that’s the problem.  This ain’t her necklace, but I found it on the little dressing table I bought her for a wedding present.  She saw the fancy piece of furniture in Cole’s front window when we was still courtin’ and mentioned how pretty it was.  I put a deposit down the next day and had it paid off by the time we was married.”

“You’re a good man, Martin.”

“Thanks, but I kinda got off track, didn’t I?  Anyway, this little necklace was lying’ on top of the table.  It ain’t my wife’s, Adam.”

“I have an idea whose it might be.  If you’ll let me do some investigating, maybe I can find the rightful owner.”

“You think?”

“I can try.”

Martin handed the necklace to Adam.  “Only thing I can think is that Pauline found it on the boardwalk or in the street and never had time to find the rightful owner.”

“I’m sure that’s the case.  Why don’t I stop by Roy Coffee’s office on the way home?  Maybe someone came to him and mentioned the loss.”

“That’s a good idea.  It’ll make Pauline happy too.”

“Still no word?”

Martin shook his head.  “I don’t know what to think, Adam.  I ain’t gotta clue where she went or if she’ll come back.  She never said a word.  I went to work that day, and when I got home she was gone.”

Adam tried to sound out his words before actually speaking.  Joe and Martin had been friends for years, and he didn’t want to damage their relationship by putting Martin on the defensive.  “Let me ask you this.”

“What’s that?”

“My brother and your wife went missing on the same day, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And neither Joe or Pauline has returned home.  They’ve both been missing for the same amount of time.”

“What are you gettin’ at, Adam?”

“I don’t know, but I’m trying to find logic in a difficult situation.”  Adam pulled off his hat and fingered the brim between his knees.  “Is there anywhere Pauline would want to go?  You said your wagon was missing, too.”

“Yeah.”

“Would she have asked Joe to drive her somewhere?”

With his lunch forgotten and his pail pushed aside, Martin shook his head.  “I don’t know where, Adam.”

“Was there anything she needed or wanted that she couldn’t buy in Virginia City?  Carson or maybe Genoa?”

“Nothin’ I know of.”

Adam had run out of questions.

“You don’t think they run off together, do you?”

“Joe and Pauline?”  Adam muffled a laugh with a fisted hand.  “Not a chance.”  He stood from the fallen log and extended his hand to Martin.  “I’ll check on the necklace and let you know what I find out.”

Martin stood too.  “I don’t mean no disrespect, Adam, but I know Joe better’n anyone, and if he’s taken off with my wife and his thoughts ain’t honorable, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”

“Save your breath, Martin, and let me give it to you straight.  Joe would never run off with your wife.”

Adam mounted Sport and left Gold Hill behind.  It wasn’t a long ride back to Virginia City, but the solitude gave him time to think.  Pauline and Joe.  He was well aware of their disastrous dinner-date, which, in turn, ended any future engagements.  Martin was definitely safe where Joe was concerned.

As Adam approached the jailhouse, the sheriff stood outside his office door.  Ready to make his afternoon rounds, Adam would detain Roy long enough to show him the necklace.  The thoughts running through his mind were gruesome, and he hoped he was wrong, but he was willing to take a shot.  He had nothing to lose.  If he was right, though, his brother might have everything to lose.

“Roy,” he called from atop his horse.  “Got a minute?”

“Howdy, Adam.  Any news about Joe?”

“No, not yet, but I have something I’d like to show you.”

*****

Chapter 26

“Oh, God,” I cried.  “No more … no more.”

“Just hold still, Joseph.  You’re such an infant.  You know these wounds have to be tended.  What would you do if wolves attacked your prize bull?  You’d tend him the best you knew how.  No matter how much the animal suffered, it would be worth it if the poor creature lived, would it not?”

“I’m not an animal.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Joseph.  If only you’d choose to listen.”

“Just leave me be.”

“Soon, Joseph.  I’m nearly finished.”  A fiery blaze radiated from my back and shoulders that was as close to hell as I’d ever been.  “Some of the deeper gashes should’ve been sutured last night, but I didn’t bring the right tools.  You understand, don’t you?  I’m doing the best I can with what I have available.”

I didn’t answer; I didn’t have the strength.  With talons of fire stabbing my skin, I didn’t care what she said.  My life was in her hands.  Whatever she thought best is how it would be.  I had no say.  A ripping sound caught my attention, and I lifted my head off the ground.

“Quit fussing, Joseph.  I’m out of bandages, and I’m forced to use strips of my undergarments to wrap your wounds.  I’ll be finished in a minute.”

Letting my head fall back on the blanket was stupid and careless and caused me to stifle a cry.  I didn’t know why the ripping noise had bothered me so, but strange sounds in the desert seemed to intensify, and my tolerance was bordering on insanity.

Every time she made a move, my senses heightened and I became anxiously alert.  I stressed over my weakness.  I fretted over her intentions, but my fears became even more relevant when she finished dressing my wounds.  She was adamant about keeping me alive so she could carry out some master plan.  She wanted me healthy and alert.  I dreaded what was to come.

She’d built a small campfire and by midnight, the fire had dwindled down to hot, glowing coals.  If I didn’t run now, the fear of what tomorrow might bring seemed foreboding and sinisterly grim.

Her negligence had been my savior.  Thinking I was too sick to run, she hadn’t secured me in the usual ways.  At some point, I knew she’d make a mistake, but I wasn’t in the best of shape.  How far could I make it by morning?

Once she’d fallen asleep, I grabbed three full canteens, all she had left in the wagon. Another lay next to her on the ground, but I left that one alone.  I wasn’t an animal.  Only a wicked, wicked man would take her last drop of water.  I wrapped the blanket around my shoulders and began my journey through the desert alone.

*****

Chapter 27

Just as Adam suspected, the ruby necklace had belonged to Sally Ann Wilson.  Her father identified the piece as a gift he and his wife had given her on her twenty-first birthday just three months ago.

When Adam arrived back at the ranch, a light still shone in the window over his father’s desk.  He figured as much.  Even after searching all day for Joe, his pa wouldn’t retire until his eldest “boy” was back under his roof.  Since it was long after supper, he probably thought he had two sons missing and couldn’t have slept anyway.

Adam stabled his horse and when he came out of the barn, Ben stood on the porch to greet him.  “Wondered where you were, son.”

“I’m sorry it’s so late, but I have some news to share.”

“Good news?”

“Yes and no.”

“There’s coffee on the stove.  I’m sure we could both use a cup.”

Adam followed Ben to the kitchen.  “I take it you didn’t have any luck.”

Ben turned and shot him a look.  “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Hoss and I rode up to Paiute country.  Another day wasted.”

After pouring two cups and sitting in front of the fireplace, Adam started his story.  “I won’t bore you will all the details, but Martin handed me a necklace he found on Pauline’s dressing table.  I took the piece to Roy and thought I’d get his viewpoint before I gave him my own perspective, but his response wasn’t what I expected.”

“No?”

“He asked if I’d gotten the necklace from Little Joe.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I’m dead serious, Pa, and I proceeded to tell him that Martin found it lying on his wife’s dressing table.  I didn’t go any further, though.  I wanted Roy to think he’d come up with the idea that it might be Sally Ann’s.”

“Oh, no.  Was it the girl’s?”

“We rode out to the Wilson’s together, and Mr. Wilson identified it as his daughter’s.”

“I don’t understand.  Why would Pauline have Sally Ann’s necklace?”

“Roy says it’s not enough evidence to convict, but it’s suspicious.”

“Oh, Adam.  I can’t believe Martin’s wife had anything to do with that girl’s death.”

Ben set his cup down and moved toward the decanter of brandy.  As he poured two shots, Hoss appeared at the top of the stairs.  “You fellers know what time it is?”

“Come on down, son.”

“Think I’ll get me a piece of cake.  Don’t say nothin’ till I get back.”

Adam rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair.  “Guess we’ll wait.”

When Hoss returned with a full plate, Adam explained the situation with Sally Ann and Pauline and continued from there.

“If,” Adam said, “and I’m saying if since we don’t know anything for sure, Pauline had something to do with the Wilson girl’s death, then maybe she had something to do with Joe’s disappearance.”

“You ain’t sayin’ Joe’s already dead, are you?”

“That’s not what I said, Hoss.  I’m just saying maybe we need to rethink this whole thing.  Maybe Joe and Pauline are together somewhere and—”

“And what, son?  You think they ran off together?”

“NO!”  Adam’s frustration mounted.  “What I’m trying to say is that maybe Pauline convinced Joe to go with her … somewhere.  A ruse to get him—I don’t know, out of town or hidden away in Virginia City.  I don’t know where or why, and I don’t know any more than the two of you, but both parties are missing, and I’m beginning to think Roy might be right.  This whole mess could be connected.”

*****

Chapter 28

The sliver of moon did nothing to light my way.  The three canteens hung heavy on my damaged shoulder.  I tried carrying them in my left hand while I gripped the blanket with my right, but I was off balance, clumsy, and I needed to concentrate if I wanted to make it through Starvation Flats, but my feet were my main concern.  How far could I actually walk, and where would I find a decent place to hide?

After a mile or so, I needed a minute’s rest and I sat down on the ground.  I couldn’t chance Virginia City, and Placerville was too far so I’d chosen Fort Churchill as my destination.  Since Pauline hadn’t been in the area long, I figured the army post was a safe bet.  If I made it that far, I could wire my family and be home in my own bed within hours.

Once I was back on my feet, my legs barely held my weight.  I could come up with every excuse in the book why I should call it quits except I wasn’t ready to die, and sitting on my butt only gave Pauline more time to find me than forcing myself to move forward. Every muscle ached.  I hadn’t eaten in so long I was light-headed and often stumbled and veered left or right.

Maybe I was playing a fool’s game.  Setting off alone in the desert wasn’t a perfect solution, but what other choice did I have?  Adam would call it the stupidest stunt I’d ever pulled, but hadn’t he fought through the same situation too?  I wish he’d talked to me.  I wish he’d told me about Kane.

The ground had become more rocky than sandy, and I felt every pebble and dry bone the buzzards had left behind.  Ahead stood a rock formation shaped like the face of a man, a rather fat man, and I headed that direction.  I needed sleep and a place to hide.  The fat man was just the ticket.

After taking a long and satisfying drink, I set the canteens next to fat face and moved enough rocks and pebbles that I wouldn’t be jabbed to death while I slept.  Morning would come soon, and Fort Churchill was still miles away.

I curled into a tight ball but sleep wouldn’t come.  I played with the little pile of rocks I’d scattered so I could lay down and lined them up smallest to biggest to smallest, but I was still wide-awake when the dark silhouette of a man—an old-timer I didn’t recognize and might never see again—walked up to my camp.  “Eighty miles to water,” he said.

“I’ve got water,” I mumbled, but he’d said all he had to say and kept walking.  Maybe he was a dream.  A vision.  A mirage.  I blinked my eyes and sat up tall, but he was gone.

I picked up a rock and fingered the pointy edge with my thumb.  And then I got creative. I carved my initials into the fat man’s chin.

*****

Chapter 29

While Ben and Hoss rode in to discuss the Wilson girl’s death with Roy Coffee, Adam headed back down to Gold Hill and the Yellow Jacket mine.  He sat on the fallen log and waited for the lift that would bring Martin Sears to the surface.  He needed more information and hoped Joe’s friend was the key to solving the mystery.

At half past ten, the iron cage made a trip down, and Martin was in the first group of eight to unload.  Adam stood and caught his eye.  He waved him over and held up a basket.

“Working twelve-hour shifts,” Adam said, “I figured cooking was a low priority.”

“You figgered right.  I appreciate the kindness and all, but Pauline set me straight on a few things.  I’m sorry, Adam.  I can’t accept the basket.”

“Oh?”

“She told me about her quarrel with Joseph, and I guess that applies to the whole family, but I found her beliefs well founded.  She makes a lot of sense, Adam.  Why should we brutalize those less fortunate than ourselves?”

“You mean cattle.”

“Cattle, pigs, chickens.  They’re all God’s creatures, ain’t they?”

“Yes, but …”

“Ain’t no buts about it.  You either believe in God or you don’t.”  At Adam’s request, Hop Sing had fried a chicken that morning for Martin.  “She made me see the light, Adam.  We’re all God’s creatures, and if I’m gonna live by the Good Book then it’s time I changed my ways.”

“That’s fine for you, Martin, but not everyone thinks the same way.”

“No, but think about the horrors those poor animals go through.  Branding.  Butchering. When you think how inhumane—well, I don’t suppose that’s what a rancher like yourself wants to hear, is it?”

It was senseless to argue the point.  Pauline married a man she could sway to her way of thinking.  So be it.  Adam wasn’t about to step foot between a husband and his wife.

Both men took a seat on the log and Adam set the basket a good distance from Martin.  Again, he found himself twisting his hat between his knees.  “This is hard for me to say, Martin, but I learned who owned the necklace.”

“That’s good.  That’ll make Pauline happy.”

Adam wasn’t so sure, but he’d let Joe’s friend work things out himself.  “The necklace belonged to Sally Ann Wilson, the girl that was murdered about a week ago down by Buckhorn Creek.”

“Oh, I heard.  Wasn’t she Joe’s girl?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“You say Buckhorn Creek?”

“Yeah.”

“My wife and I saw Joseph and his girl down there one Sunday after church.  We was headin’ elsewhere, but I waved as we passed.”

“Joe and Sally Ann?”

“Yeah, and you say that’s where she died?”

“Yes.”

“That’s kinda spooky, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Bet Joe’s upset.”

“He is.  We all are, but Joe and Sally Ann had gone their separate ways a couple of weeks before she died.”

“Oh, I didn’t know.  Pauline told me they planned to marry.”

Adam’s ears perked at Martin’s statement.  “Marry?  She told you that?”

“Yeah, and I was happy for him.  Thought he finally found the girl of his dreams.”

“No, not with Sally Ann, but there’s something that bothers me, Martin.”

“What’s that?”

“Why do you think your wife had a dead girl’s necklace?”

Martin thought for a minute then narrowed his eyes.  “You ain’t accusin’ Pauline of—you hold on there, Adam.”

Adam threw his hands in the air.  “I’m not accusing anyone, but you have to admit it’s a bit odd that your wife would have the girl’s necklace, isn’t it?”

“She probably found the darn thing and didn’t know who it belonged to.”

“Where’s your wife now, Martin?”

The young man shook his head.  “I don’t know, but I could ask the same question about Joseph.”

“Since my brother and your wife are missing, I’ve concluded that she and Joe are together somewhere.  Do you know where they are?”

Martin stood from the fallen log.  “I told you I don’t know where she’s at, and I’ll tell you this too.  If Joseph had anything to do with Pauline’s disappearance, he’s a dead man. You’re talkin’ about my wife, Adam Cartwright.  She ain’t no killer, and she ain’t with your damn brother.”

Even though Martin’s voice could be heard clear to the mine, Adam remained calm. “Then where is she?”

Martin jabbed his finger at Adam’s chest.  “Don’t you come ‘round here no more, ya hear?  I’m done talkin’ about your brother and my wife.  You got it all wrong, Adam.  My wife can’t stomach your brother or any of you Cartwrights.  She told me that straight out. Butchers, she called you.”

“Butchers?”

“I’m done talkin’.  My wife is my business, and it’s time you left both of us alone.”

Although Martin stormed off, Adam didn’t move a muscle.  “Butchers?”

*****

Chapter 30

I didn’t hear the wagon pull to a stop, and I didn’t hear Pauline walk up, but I heard her engage the hammer of my Colt, and I bolted to a seated position.  The blanket fell from my shoulders, and my head fell to my chest.  I never stood a chance.  “How’d you find me?”

“Does it matter?”

“What happens now?”

“You still don’t get it, do you, Joseph?  Are you that dimwitted?  I thought you’d catch on by now, but you’ve justified your actions for so long, you can’t see the flipside of the coin.”

“The what?”

With my gun in one hand, she tossed the end of a rope at me.  “Tie this around your waist.  All strays will be taken back to the herd.”

I’m sure I looked like hell, but Pauline didn’t look much better.  Her dark, black hair had fallen from a tightly fashioned chignon.  Her skirt was soiled with my blood; the hemline was frayed and torn.  Her pure white skin was streaked with desert dust, and her perfectly manicured nails had become ragged and untidy.

“As sick as you were, I felt generous and didn’t tie you to the wagon but rest assured, Joseph, I never make the same mistake twice.”

I stood to my feet.  “This whole thing’s a mistake.”

“No, you’re whole life’s a mistake.  You, your brothers, your father.”

“Don’t bring my family into this, lady.  They’ve done nothing to you.”

“Nothing?  Every rancher’s the same, Joseph.  Cruel and violent.”

“What about Martin?  Is he in on this too?”

“Martin is a good man, but he lacks what it takes to punish men like you.  He’s always been a loyal friend, Joseph, but time will set him straight.  He’s learning, and he’s accepting God’s ways.  The tide is turning, little man.”

I wanted to laugh.  “Wise or afraid he’ll lose you?  There’s a difference, Pauline.”

“You’re so smart, aren’t you?  Just like your father and brothers, the powerful Cartwrights, the most respected cattle barons in western Nevada.  All that wealth and power is the work of Satan.”

“Satan?”  I cried.  “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?  Who wants all the power now, lady?  What kind of righteous bull are you preaching?”

“You’re a sick man.  Sick and evil and disgusting!”  She’d lowered the gun to her side but raised it again and aimed for my head.  “What happens to sick cattle, Joseph?  Do you aim for the head or the heart?”

I’d counted on Pa to rescue me, but that hadn’t happened, and in my efforts to tell it straight, I’d riled an unstable woman.  I’d vowed not to upset her but like always, I lost my temper and had provoked her beyond reason.

After lowering the gun to her side, she moved toward the wagon.  If I tried to run now, she’d shoot me in the back.  If I’d been thinking straight, if my fever hadn’t been so high when I left camp, I would’ve grabbed my gun before I took off.  A reckless move on my part, but it was too late to dwell on stupid mistakes.

“Let’s go, Joseph.”

Her voice was calm—matter of fact—as if I’d never run and we’d never talked.  I rose to my feet and walked toward the wagon.  Every inch of me hurt, but I didn’t want to die in the desert.  My brother had fought his way out, and maybe I could too.  I was tired, and I was hungry.  I’d run through one canteen yesterday.  Two were left, but I’d given up control of both.  Again, I was at her mercy.

“Put the noose over your head, Joseph.”

I stared at Pauline, but I knew better than to rile her any further.  I slipped the noose over my head.

“Tighten the knot.”

Pauline was tired too.  Her voice wasn’t even the same.  Her demeanor had changed, as though she, too, had grown weary of the game.  Though soft-spoken and almost reverent, she hadn’t lost the will to put me in my place.  She moved closer.

“Lay flat on the ground, Joseph.”  A short piece of rope dangled from her hand.  “Put your hands behind your back.”

She slipped the gun into her waistband.  This was my chance.  As soon as she knelt down, I could take her.  Every muscle tingled with excitement.  I put my hands behind my back and waited for her to squat down.

“Oh, God,” I wailed like a newborn calf.  My shoulders arched involuntarily, and my head flew up off the ground.  The cords in my neck stood taut, and a storm of tears filled my eyes.  Her bootheel found its mark.  A deeper gash on my back split open and nearly paralyzed me.  Effortlessly, she tied my hands.

“Stand up.”

My head reeled with the fury of a wildfire.  I pushed up to my hands and knees; my legs trembled beneath me.  When I tried to raise my right knee, my gut cramped and seized and felt tighter than the noose around my neck.

“Now, Joseph.”

I couldn’t muster the strength to stand.  My stomach was empty and my throat was dry, and when I pushed up a second time, the violence that comes from dry heaves left me weak and unfocused.  But when I was able to look up, the morning sun backlit my captor with a heavenly halo.  As I reached up to touch the angelic vision, she slapped my hand away, and I tumbled back to the earth.

*****

Chapter 31

Adam didn’t look up when Hoss started in on the previous night’s conversation. “Butchers,” he said as he dug into his morning breakfast.  “That gal’s got a screw loose.” He stabbed at an oversized bite of ham and shoved it in his mouth.  “She sure don’t act like any preacher’s daughter I’ve ever known.”  Hoss never looked up but it was obvious he was still bothered by Martin’s statement.

“Only place we ain’t looked yet is Starvation Flats.”  With a mouth full of biscuit, Hoss wasn’t quite finished probing the inner workings of Pauline.  “Think she’d brave the desert this time of year?”

Ben and Adam looked up, and while Adam remained silent, Ben’s lips tightened, and he turned to Hoss with a fixed stare.  “It’s the only place we haven’t looked.”

“You really think?”

“There’s only one way to find out, son.  As soon as the horses are saddled.  Adam’s already secured enough supplies for a four-day ride.”

“Four days?”

“You can’t be too careful,” Adam remarked.

“You should know.”  Hoss dipped his head.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean nothin’—”

“Water under the bridge.”

Though Adam and Hoss never had trouble talking, they’d never spoken about Adam’s weeks with Kane.  The subject was hush-hush, never to be brought up again, and Hoss had just done the very thing that would bring buried memories of that awful time back to life.

“I’ll see to the horses,” Hoss said.  As he moved around the end of the table, he ran his hand across his brother’s shoulder, but nothing more was said.

Ben stood from the table, straightened his shirt collar, and forced a tight smile.  “Ready, son?”

As a last resort?  Is that why they’d put off searching Starvation Flats?  Ben reached for his hat and gunbelt with the beat-up holster, not the new engraved gift Joseph had bought.  Even though he’d already seen his birthday present, Ben had rewrapped the package and set it on top of Joe’s dresser.  He’d celebrate as soon as his son returned home.

Not only had Adam secured numerous canteens of fresh well water, he added extra bedrolls and medical supplies to the list.  He’d filled a canvas bag with kindling and enough wood for two, maybe three fires, and would use Berta, a sturdy packhorse, to carry the extra provisions.

They reached the edge of the desert before noon.  The sun blazed high in the sky and each man stopped to take a drink and decide which direction they would take.

“Straight ahead?”  Hoss asked.  “If I was tryin’ to make time, that’s what I’d do.”

Adam nodded.  “Straight ahead it is.”

“Ain’t no tracks to follow, but I think we should stick together.  This ain’t no place to separate and get lost.”  The three men rode straight into the desert.  “We could spread out some,” Hoss continued.  “Maybe one of us would pick up a trail.”

Adam, who held Berta’s reins, veered to the left while Hoss took off to the right.  Ben kept a steady pace forward.  He took the lead but felt comfort knowing his sons would remain in his wake.

*****

Chapter 32

Lying flat on my belly, a new more ferocious pain had anchored itself to my hip.  I hadn’t fallen or been dragged across the desert floor yet I was unable to move.  Without warning, my left leg trembled, a skittering motion I couldn’t control, nor could I suppress the ungodly pain.  Had I cried out or was my mind playing tricks?  Maybe I lost my mind and no one bothered to tell me.

A haunting shade of red stained the desert floor, and I could measure the heat of the day by the changing colors.  The sun’s rays stung like an ill-fitting yoke, and my burden became more demanding the farther I traveled.  Kane was a bigger man, a heavier man than I ever hoped to be, and dragging the travois worked every muscle I had.  I moved at a snail’s pace across the vast wasteland.

“Eighty miles to water.”  That’s what the old-timer had said.  He stood next to the fat man, a place I recognized as a safe haven.  A place I’d been before, but the sight of a golden rainbow was new, and I reached out in awe of its beauty.

At the end of the rainbow, a gateway opened and offered me a reprieve.  A gathering of fairies dressed in various hues welcomed me into their golden kingdom.  Holding bright silver chalices overflowing with wine, they sprang from the earth and circled me on all sides.  I joined in the dance, and we buried ourselves in slips of green grasses while a clear, bubbling waterfall showered nearby.  Heaven was a beautiful place.

“Wake up, Joseph”

I shuddered and curled into a tight ball.  I threw my hands over my head to shield myself from the oncoming storm.  A dark cloud loomed, and I feared the fairies might twirl and scatter like the dry leaves of autumn.

“Now, Joseph.”

My eyes flew open, and the fairies were gone.  The lush green grasses had faded to an ugly brown, and the gnarly, wicked face of a dragon stood over me.  She’d frightened the fairies that danced and romped when she crushed the golden rainbow with her bare hands.  “Go back,” I cried.  “Go away.”

My voice sounded different, a distant murmur that didn’t match the strength of the dragon.  To escape her blistering wrath, I shielded my friends with the blanket and spoke in low tones.  “Shh, be very quiet.”

When the blanket was ripped from my body, the night breeze teased my skin and created leathery pinpricks that had me shivering and curling farther into myself.  Pulling my legs to my chest only heightened the burning pain in my hip, and I hid my tears with both hands.

“You’re hurting, aren’t you, Joseph.”

The dragon stood over me, but I didn’t acknowledge her presence.  The fairies had been my salvation, but they were smart enough to scatter and disappear when the monster came near.  I was past feeling hungry or thirsty and had become too weak to act as their savior.  My body was an empty shell that would burn itself out when death’s hand reached down to take me.

An unexpected splash of pain forced me to reach for my hip, but the dragon pulled my hand away.  “No!  I’ll tend the wound, but you mustn’t touch.”

Tears burned my eyes, and my breathing became hesitant, overloud.  “Please, no more …”

“Settle down, Joseph.  We want the wound to heal properly.”

“No … ”  I struggled for breath.

I lay naked and exposed to the ice-cold wind.  With long, slender claws, the dragon moved about my hip and shot bursts of fire at tender flesh.  A dust devil blasted my eyes and mouth; sand tickled my nose, and I fought like hell to breathe.  When I was offered a drink, I turned my head, but that was wrong.  I paid the price with a brutal slap and a guttural grunt that spewed from the dragon’s mouth.

With the task completed, she settled the blanket back over me, and I curled back into a little ball.  A campfire burned, but it was too far away for comfort.  When it felt safe to open my eyes, the monster sat close to the fire sipping from a tin cup.

My stomach ached when I smelled the boiling brew. Until the familiar scent triggered a burning desire, most of my senses had become dulled from lack of food and drink and pain.

*****

Chapter 33

“I hope we ain’t on a wild goose chase, Pa.  Ain’t no sign that anyone’s been through here in a month of Sundays.”

“I know that, son, but the desert’s like that.  The slightest breeze washes everything away.”

“I know it does.”  Hoss scrubbed his face with his hands.  “But we don’t know if Joe’s dead or alive.  We don’t know if he’s with that woman or not.  We don’t know nothin’ more’n we did the day he went missin’.”

“I’d know if my son were dead.”

Adam poked at the fire he’d built when they made camp nearly an hour ago.  Since there’d been no tracks to follow, they’d ridden into the evening, until their backsides could take no more.  Tomorrow would come soon enough, and they needed sleep if they planned to travel the same amount of miles.

“We can’t turn back.”

“What’s that, son?”  Adam’s voice was so soft, Ben could barely make out the words.

“He’s out there, Pa.  We just have to find him.”

Ben didn’t answer his eldest.  He knew or at least tried to understand how a trip through Starvation Flats might affect his private, no-nonsense son.  Adam had kept to himself most of the evening, and Ben worried that their search for Joe had brought a host of unsettling memories of Kane.

Adam had been lost to them.  He’d gone into the desert and never come out.  Joe’s telegram from Salt Flats came as an urgent request for help, but after days of looking in hundred-degree heat, Hoss and Joe tried to convince him that Adam was gone and couldn’t be found.

Those days of endless searching had been rough on everyone.  His sons had done all they could for the brother they loved, but they both began worrying that they wouldn’t only lose Adam; they’d lose their father to exhaustion if they didn’t turn back soon.

“It’s been two weeks since he left Eastgate.”

Hoss’ words finally registered, and he was right.  The search needed to end.  They’d traveled in circles, hoping to pick up Adam’s trail, but hope was fading and he, too, was ready to call it quits.  That’s until the miracle of life appeared on the desert floor.

Ben blinked repeatedly and adjusted his vision on a man walking through the desert, but not just any man.  “Adam,” he called.  He cupped his hands to his mouth and called again. “Adam!  Adam!”

Ben stared into the fire.  His eldest still poked and prodded with a long, slender stick that should’ve caught fire but hadn’t.  Was the wood too green or was Adam quick enough to pull the tip away before it ignited?   What kind of game was he playing?

“Pa?”  Hoss’s voice caught Ben’s attention.  “You okay, Pa?”

“I’m fine, son.  Just thinking.”

His eldest stared into the flames, not lifting his head when he spoke?  “Good things, I hope.”

Ben’s eyes lit up and he smiled.  He stared at his eldest boy.  “Very good things.”

They’d found Adam, and if it could happen once, it could happen again.  They’d only searched for one day, and whether it took weeks or months, Ben didn’t care.  Giving up was simple.  Moving forward would take stamina and faith that Joseph could still be found.  A much-loved and much-needed treasure would be waiting at the end of that rainbow.

*****

Chapter 34

“You must eat, Joseph.”

My stomach roiled at the thought, and I pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders. My left hip burned like fire, and I didn’t know why.  I lay on my right side to prevent further discomfort, but it didn’t seem to help.  I’d even tried to stretch out my legs, but the pain intensified.

“I’ll have to spoon-feed you if you won’t eat on your own.”

“Go ‘way … ”

“I know you’re hurting, but I’ve been told the pain doesn’t last long.”

My thinking was sluggish and blurred by the fairies—the dance, and the drink—and I didn’t know what she meant.

“You’ll be up and running back to the herd in no time, Joseph.”

I fought to dismiss the dragon and her crazed words, but she’d knelt down in front of me, lifted my head, and began spooning some lumpy mess into my mouth.  “Too tired …” I said between bites, but the dragon could be forceful.  She lifted my chin and squeezed my cheeks hard.

“You won’t heal if you don’t eat.  Now, open wide.”  She tormented me with the spoon, shoveling the tasteless slop into my mouth, and I couldn’t put up a fight.  Her eyes were fierce and demanding.  Trapped in a world of pain, there was no way out.

After two bites, I was full, too full, but she kept prodding my lips with the spoon.  “No more,” I said, but my cries were ignored.  The dragon was relentless in her pursuit.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” she squealed when the hand-spooned gruel came spewing back out and splattered the hem of her skirt.  “You ungrateful cur!”  Heat flushed my face.  My cheeks reddened with embarrassment.

“Thirsty,” I managed, but she’d already thrown the bowl on the desert floor and stormed off.  She didn’t want anything more to do with me, and she’d made her exit so extreme that I closed my eyes and became as small as a fetus once again.

My burning hip kept me awake, and I worried that the dragon would leave me behind to rot, only to have a flock of vultures swoop down and attack my bloated body before I died.  They targeted easy prey, and they had no patience when there was nowhere else to feast.  I didn’t want that happening to me, and I kept a diligent watch.

The campfire still burned; she lay beside the flickering flames.  Though the dragon hadn’t changed her clothes, she’d cleaned her skirt the best she could.  The putrid smell would attract unwanted predators, but she was a smart one.  She never took chances.

*****

Chapter 35

Martin’s day off couldn’t have come soon enough.  He’d read his wife’s diary every night after work and tried to put the pieces together.  Pauline had been gone for days, and so had his best friend.  He’d always called his friend Joseph rather than using his common name—Little Joe—but after so many years; he’d forgotten the reason why.  Pauline had followed suit.  She began referring to him as Joseph, too.

Joseph this and Joseph that.  Day and night, her conversations circled around Joe Cartwright.  To Pauline, his sanctimonious behavior had become intolerable.  Joseph is a butcher.  Joseph is a menace to society.  Joseph needs to be taken down a notch and taught a lesson.  Through every unpleasant dinner conversation, her ruthless rage never seemed to end.  The radical demoralizing of his best friend often became close to a vicious and agonizing refrain.  But he loved her all the same.

He opened her diary to page one.

Case in point:  On the sixth day, God created both animals and humanity.

Case in point:  King James:  Preach the gospel to every creature.

Case in point:  God’s kingdom is for all creatures.

A reference to her dinner date with Joseph.

He took it upon himself to order for me, and I was appalled by his selection.  Although I should’ve pegged him a carnivore, I was sickened by my plate of food and refused to eat.  I conveyed my displeasure.

An artful poem.

All creatures great and small.

Branded and sent to be slaughtered.

I shall not be spectator to such cruelty,

But with God’s help, I shall witness their mighty fall.

After reading the final entry, Martin studied the two unnerving words, the only words on the page.  Brand and flay.  Her musings were disturbing and had kept him awake most of the night.  Each selection had been fraught with rage and contempt, and as Martin rolled out of bed at daybreak, he studied his three choices once more.

He could let the sheriff read his wife’s diary.

He could ride out to the Ponderosa and show Ben Cartwright.

He could keep Pauline’s musings to himself and no one would be the wiser.

*****

Chapter 36

“Up’n at ‘em boys.”

Ben stoked the fire back to life, added a few dry sticks, and set a pot of coffee on to boil.  Turning his back to the bright, morning sun, he heard his largest son mumble something incoherent as he rolled onto his back and lifted his oversized hat from his face.

“You say somethin’, Pa?”

“Time to rise and shine, boy.”

Hoss moaned, “Thought that’s what you said.”

Another long day lay ahead, but after glancing at Adam’s bedroll, Ben’s heart skipped a beat.  “Where’s your brother?”

Hoss pushed to his feet.  “Who?”

“Adam, your brother, Adam?  Have you seen him?”

“Ain’t he sleepin’?”

“No, son.”  Ben kept his agitation to a minimum.  Hoss could be as dense as a rock until he got the blood flowing.  “If your brother was still asleep, I wouldn’t be asking.”

Hoss looked toward a big rock where he’d hobbled the horses for the night.  He rubbed the back of his neck.  “He ain’t gone far.  His horse is still here.”

Ben lowered his hat to shield his eyes from the low, morning sun and gazed over the desert floor.  Turning from left to right, he saw nothing.  “Where in the devil?”

Hoss took a different approach and looked behind the big rock.  “You hidin’ out or somethin’?”

“Hidin’ out?  No, just using fat-boy as a backrest.”

“You’re worryin’ Pa to death, you know.”  Hoss extended his hand and helped Adam to his feet.  “Come on.  Coffee’s ready.”

Ben overheard the conversation and moved toward his two sons.  “There you are.”

“Sorry, Pa.  I woke up early.  Thought I’d watch the sunrise.”

“You okay, boy?”

“I’m fine, but there’s something you ought to see.”  Ben glanced at Hoss, but the big man shrugged his shoulders.  “See these pebbles?  They’re arranged in order.  Small to big to small.”

Hoss stared down at the structured formation.  “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”

“Look closer.  Check out the face of the rock.”

Hoss hiked his pants and squatted down on his haunches.  He stared at the rock face.  His grin amused Ben although he was bewildered by his sons’ odd behavior.

“Come look, Pa.  Look real close.”

Ben lowered himself next to Hoss and wondered why his grown sons were carrying on like children.  And then he saw the cryptic marks scratched into the rock.  He ran his fingers over the carving — JFC.

Nothing made sense in the desert, but the initials gave Ben more hope than he’d had in days.  When his eyes began to water, he looked away, but it was too late.  Hoss slid his arm across Ben’s shoulders.  He’d nearly lost control.  This wasn’t the time or place, and he fought to restrain the joy that seized his heart.  He prayed they weren’t too late.

“Let’s ride.”

*****

Chapter 37

She carried three poles—fencing posts, I think—in the back of the wagon.  I’d been feverish for so long, I hadn’t thought much about anything until she stood on the tailgate and began strapping one end together to form a teepee-like structure.  If she chose to tend me inside the newly formed lodge, maybe I wouldn’t freeze to death or sweat so much under the noonday sun.

My dreams of fairies and rainbows had long since passed.  I traveled to a darker place now, a hurtful place that excluded family or friends and often brought me to tears when I couldn’t escape the pain.

Dreams are like that, though.  Dropped into the depths of a whirlwind fantasy, the mind takes an unlikely journey where the soul is imprisoned by fear and anxiety, and the mind learns to accept the confines of a living hell.  Day and night become one.  Real and imagined meld together and capture the mind at its lowest point.

The dragon forced water down my throat.  Since the canteens had sat in the sun for days, that alone might’ve caused the bitter taste, but I managed to swallow.  My lips were cracked, the corners bled, but tainted water wasn’t the only thing that assaulted my senses.  Besides the fact that I had to lay in my own filth, the bright morning sun felt like another form of punishment to my sleep deprived eyes.

A prolonged fever can bring on a slew of unwanted dreams, and my dream-filled night had been no exception.  Not only had I fought the dragon’s fury, I discovered a newfound reality.  The wearing effect of never-ending pain challenged my sanity.

*****

Chapter 38

Hoss recalled the last time he’d seen the same controlled look on his father’s face.  It wasn’t that long ago, but it scared him just the same.  The search for Adam had brought an unease that was hard to explain other than sheer determination, little rest, and little food.

The similarities were haunting.  With Adam’s disappearance, his father had found his brother’s gunbelt near a low mound of rock, as if it had been placed rather than thrown. They’d the same discovery this morning when Adam had spotted the carving.

The initials gave hope, but the look in his father’s eyes was back, and Hoss knew they wouldn’t dismount until Joe was found.  They’d never stopped looking for Adam.  Even after he and Joe had begged their father to rest, his pa was adamant about moving on.  “After we find him.”  Blank-faced, that’s all he said.

They continued east through Starvation Flats.  Water was a forbidden luxury, and trees that provided shade were nonexistent.  Hell on earth some had called it.  Early settlers to the area had seen the godforsaken land and turned back.  They’d been told of rich farmland in California, but after approaching the sea of nothingness that lay before them, some gave up hope of ever finding the dreamland they’d been promised.

Hoss and Adam flanked Ben at a steady pace.  With no way to set bearings, no rock formations or hanging cliffs, only distant mountain peaks, gray against the sky, Hoss offered a suggestion.  “Think we should we split up?”

“Probably a good idea,” Adam said and pulled the packhorse away from his father as he’d done the day before.  Adam moved left and Hoss moved right.

“Not too far,” Ben reminded his sons as they rode away.

They searched for tracks that weren’t there, but Ben didn’t want either son out of his sight, within calling distance if need be.  Hoss knew the rules.  He knew his father’s mind. He’d traveled across wastelands before.

*****

Chapter 39

“I need to tend the wound, Joseph.”

She stripped off the blanket and tossed it aside.  My hip still burned like fire, but when I tried to remember the details, the dream returned and plagued my mind.  Often, I gasped for air.

When truth and nightmares collide, illusions seem real, and I was often caught off guard. More importantly, I feared what was to come.  Even if I blinked my eyes, I didn’t know if I was asleep or awake.  A woman tending a naked man didn’t seem proper though I didn’t shy away.  My dignity was no longer an issue, but when the bandage was torn from my hip, I breathed in deep and clutched the sandy dirt with my hands.

“It looks better.  Still red and swollen, but that’s to be expected on skin as opposed to hide.”

Hide?

The conversation was one-sided.  I rarely responded, and she rarely explained.  I was too sick to care.  I’d been out of it for so long, it was hard for me to grasp much of the conversation at all.  The sun’s warmth felt good, though.  Even with the blanket pulled over my shoulder, I’d shivered all night, maybe even cried out at one point, but she hadn’t mentioned anything that I might’ve said or done in my fevered state.

In that respect, my father was different.  Not that he bad-mouthed me for still having nightmares, but he always came running, which embarrassed me all the same.  He’d want to talk, and the last thing I wanted to do was explain what was bothering me. That’s what nightmares are all about.  A hidden fear that’s hard to bring to light, that didn’t want to be discussed in the dead of night, but Pa thought he was doing right by me.

“Want to come downstairs and have something to eat?”

Hell no, I don’t want to eat.  “No, thanks,” I’d say instead, but it was a kindness on his part.  He only wanted to help, and I loved him for that.  I missed him too, him and my brothers, and wondered how I’d gotten myself into such a fix that I’d let a woman tend a fire-eating wound.

I wasn’t thirsty, but she insisted I drink more water from the canteen.  It still had that funny taste, but I chalked it up to the fever that had racked my body for so long.  Nothing tasted right when an illness took over.  I should know.  I’d lived through childhood diseases, broken bones, and even been gunshot.  I knew what it was like to feel like hell and this was no different.  Hell was hell.

I drank, and she covered me.  I fell back asleep in no time.  When I woke, the blanket was gone and the sun’s rays were so intense, I could barely open my eyes.  My arms had been pulled from their sockets, and my shoulders cried out in pain.  I looked around me.

Strung up like a side a beef, centered between the teepeed polls, I gasped repeatedly until I could slow my breathing and figure out what the hell happened.  Only my toes touched the ground, and I was helpless to remedy the situation.  Did I have sufficient resolve to survive my current nightmare?

The sun’s heat pounded the top of my head, and I could feel the pull on my arms.  I was a grown man, much too old to have the constant assault of nightmares, but all my sense responded.  Why couldn’t I distinguish reality from fantasy?  One on top of the other. Each becoming more fantastic than the one before.

The wagon was gone.  She was gone, and I was hanging from three fence posts in the desert.  What did the dream mean?  Dreams always had meanings.  Fear, loathing, lies, and threats, all those things wrapped up in a neat little package only this time I was at a loss.  I cried out for Pa and Hoss and Adam, my saviors, but that was the biggest laugh of all.

“I’m here, Pa.  Over here, Hoss.”  I giggled like a madman until tears stung my eyes.  “Can you see me?  I’m hanging inside a teepee.  Pa … Hoss … Adam.”

*****

Chapter 40

“We need to stop, Pa,” Hoss said.  “The horses need rest.”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

Ben was strung tight, and Hoss glanced at Adam.  Too much time in the desert changed a man, and Ben was hovering the edge of his endurance.  The way he sat his horse, hunched forward and becoming ever fearful of what they might find.  Every mile they traveled, sadness like no other etched another deep crease in his face.

Most men couldn’t survive in the desert alone.  Was Joe with Mrs. Sears?  Did they have food and water?  Questions no one could answer, but questions that plagued everyone’s mind.  Each filled their hats with water and let their mounts drink.  They walked the next mile:  The horses deserved a rest.

*****

Chapter 41

I prayed the golden rainbow and dancing fairies would reappear, but the dragon stood in front of me clutching her fists to her sides.  Mirages are like that.  When reality falters, nightmares invade the soul and render a man helpless and afraid.  In an attempt to save my sanity, I begged the dragon for mercy.

“Help me!  Please … help me.”

Her response was laughter, and I let my chin fall to my chest.  Playtime was over.  The fairies were gone.  Cracked and bleeding, my lips felt twice their normal size.  The coppery taste of blood pooled in my gut like a foreign object that should be expelled.  I was a dying man.  The end was near, and I prayed that Pa would never find my bloated body or witness the vultures diving down to feast.

“Stringing you up wasn’t an easy task.  I’m weary, Joseph.  Weary to the bone.”

No one in the desert knew my name; no human even existed except the old-timer who stumbled past the fat man.  That was days ago, maybe even weeks, but a new reality had taken on a life of its own.  It was my dream and my mirage, and I tried to take back control, but the dragon had other plans.

Balancing on my toes left me nearly helpless, but how much help did I need to match wits with an illusion?  I started to giggle.  Muscles I hadn’t used in days tightened as they stretched and pulled, and I tried to gather strength before something broke.  Could I break a bone by laughing?  Hell, it was my dream.  I could break a bone and heal a bone all in one breath.

When the dragon came back into view, I couldn’t believe I’d let things go this far.  She raised her hand shoulder height and slapped the giggle from my face.  My head snapped back, and I twirled on my toes until the dragon yelled, “Enough!”  She scared me half to death, and my heart raced with fear of the unknown.  She seemed so real.

She held a knife in her hand, something akin to a stiletto.  I’d only seen one on display at Cole’s but never paid much attention.  When sun glinted off the silver blade, the weapon looked real to me.  The slap felt real, and if I could clear my head, maybe I could end the nightmare.  I didn’t like the direction we were headed.

The blade tickled my skin when the dragon ran the tip up my chest.  And, when an evil grin appeared, I turned my face away.  With her free hand, she cupped my chin and jerked my head back until my eyes met hers.

“Like most young calves in the herd, you survived the drive and the initial act of human cruelty.  I’ll admit, I never heard anyone scream with such intensity before, but it was to be expected.  Clearly, human flesh isn’t as tough as hide, but you know it had to be done.”

Hide?  Again with the hide.

“I’m afraid your days are numbered, Joseph.”

Numbered?  Why couldn’t I break through and shout back?

The dragon seemed anxious.  She paced back and forth in front of me, wielding her blade as if practicing for an event.  Hoss and I used to play with epees in the same manner. We’d practice for hours at a time.  En garde.  Lunge and attack.  Engage.  Counterattack. Glissade. Parry.  But Hoss only dueled out of kindness to me.  I was serious about the craft, and he was keeping his little brother occupied and out of trouble.  It was a game to him and even though he was twice my size, I’d pin him every time.  I was champion of the world.  If only I’d brought my epee.

“Should I start with your shoulders or work from the bottom up?  I don’t want you passing out too soon.  I want you to know how it feels to be at the mercy of a human who’s more powerful than a lowly creature.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but logic prevented me from indulging the dream any further.  Instead, I began laughing.  The dream was so idiotic that I found humor in the way my mind had taken a turn toward the macabre.  I was at the mercy of a dragon that didn’t exist.

“Start anywhere you want, you fiery beast.  I’m at your mercy.”

My head spun just like my body had twirled only moments ago, and I giggled again. Nothing but bouts of laughter could save me from focusing my mind on the knife-wielding dragon.  I needed a reprieve.  I needed to go home and have Pa come running when panic overtook common sense.

Branded like a calf at spring roundup.  The dragon had stood over me.  Fire as hot as coals burned into my hip, and I screamed.  I screamed and screamed, but the pain lingered into the night and all through the following day.  Even now, my heart pounds when I recalled the fright that nearly destroyed me.  The desert plays tricks.  The world becomes hateful and cruel.

That was a dream I’d readily forget.  I thought I was dying.  I wished I were dead.  I’d never felt so much biting agony in a dream before.  Bitter conflicts or fears of the unknown were common traits of most dreams, but never such gut-wrenching pain.

As the dragon lowered herself to her haunches, I tried to clear my mind of past events. To set my mind at ease, I summoned the fairies, the green grasses, and splashing waterfall.  Could I force a new dream?  Could the desert show me just one moment of kindness?

*****

Chapter 42

After much consideration, Martin was ready to initiate a conversation with Roy Coffee.  The sheriff greeted him with a friendly hello and asked if there was any word on Pauline.

“No, sir.  Nothing yet, but I thought maybe we should look at this together.”

“Whatcha got there, son?”

Martin hesitated.  Was he doing the right thing?  “I brought my wife’s diary.”

Roy leaned forward in his chair.  “That’s a private matter, ain’t it, son?”

“Yeah, but my wife—see she’s … well, she has different thoughts than most people.”

Roy steepled his fingers.  He was at a loss until the young man continued his explanation.

“She kind of has this quirk about ranchers who raise cattle, it being their livelihood and all.  She don’t like it none, and she can get awful outspoken on the subject.  She’s downright adamant that butchering cattle is a wrongful thing to do.  Let’s just say it upsets her more than it should.”

“I don’t think she’s alone unless she carries her thinkin’ too far and upsets folks.  But that ain’t a crime, son.  You think that’s what she done?  Upset someone then run outta town? That don’t make much sense, does it?”

Martin pulled a chair in front of Roy’s desk and opened the diary.  “I’ve bookmarked certain pages, Sheriff.”  He handed Roy the musings of a burdened mind.

Case in point:  On the sixth day, God created both animals and humanity.

Case in point:  King James:  Preach the gospel to every creature.

Case in point:  God’s kingdom is for all creatures.

Roy looked up.  “I don’t understand, son.”

“Keep reading.”

He didn’t ask, he took it upon himself to order dinner for me, and I was appalled by his selection.  Although I should’ve pegged him a carnivore, I was sickened by my plate of food and refused to eat.  I conveyed my displeasure.

“Dinner?  Is she referring to you?”

“No, sir.  She had a dinner engagement with Joseph Cartwright when she first come to town.”

“Little Joe?”

“Yes, sir.”

All creatures great and small.

Branded and sent to be slaughtered.

I shall not be spectator to such cruelty,

But with God’s help, I shall witness their mighty fall.

Roy thumbed his mustache before turning to the last page.

Brand and Flay

“Brand and flay?  That’s all it says, Martin.”

“Yes, I know.”

Roy read the words again and looked up.  “What’s that mean?”

“It could be a threat.”

“A threat?”

Martin sat without moving.  Roy studied the words again before he looked up.  “You don’t think …”

“I don’t rightly know, Sheriff.”

“But it’s possible.”

Roy knew all along that the disappearance of Mrs. Sears and Little Joe was connected, and he studied the young man in front of him with a lawman’s eye.  Martin seemed as innocent as the day was long, and it took courage on his part to bring his wife’s diary to light.

“Okay, son.  Here’s what we’re gonna do.”

*****

Chapter 43

The day felt hotter and drier than the day before, and Hoss and Adam had lifted their canteens more frequently, but not Ben.  The desert was taking its toll.  After a quick bite and rest for the horses, Hoss suggested they use an old cavalry trick.  Ride three miles and walk one.  Repeat.

“This dang jerky tastes like straw,” he said after tearing off a bite with his front teeth.

Ben actually smiled.  Conditions never mattered to Hoss.  He knew his food and he wasn’t a happy man.  No one was happy at this point.  They’d found Joe’s etchings and then nothing.  No tracks.  No trail to follow, only flat, desolate land for miles on end.

“How far could they have come?”  Adam said.  “I’m beginning to think we missed something along the way.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, Hoss.  Maybe we’ve come too far?”

“You don’t know that.  Guessin’, same as me and Pa.  All we’ve done since we started this trip is guess.”

“Yeah.  Guess you’re right.”

“Little play on words, big brother?”

“Yeah.  That was my chuckle for the day.  Got anything better?”

“Wish I did.”

Ben leaned back and stretched his aching muscles then bent from side to side.  “We best push on, boys.”

“Straight ahead?”

“I guess so.”

Hoss started laughing and Adam followed suit.

“What’s so funny?”  Ben questioned his sun-weary boys.  Although he loved the sound of their laughter, he’d missed the joke.

“Nothin’, Pa.  Guess we better get movin’.”

“Guess so,” Adam said.

Each man hitched their canteens over their saddle horns and mounted.  An odd sound caught their attention, but Hoss was the first to react.  “You hear somethin’?”

“Sure did.  Coyote maybe?”

“No,” Ben said.  “Human.”

“Joe?”

*****

Chapter 44

The dragon was merciless, and I screamed bloody murder.  It wasn’t pain so much as fear.  When she’d grabbed my ankle and steadied my right foot, I tried to kick out with my left, but I couldn’t bring my toes off the ground.  My shoulders were worthless and couldn’t hold my weight.

“Have you read your bible?  Do you know the story of Bartholomew?  The man was flayed upside down, Joseph.  Do recall the scripture?”

How did the dragon know my name, and why couldn’t I alter the dream?  I wished I were Adam or Hoss.  They never had nightmares.  They never cried out in panic or pain. “You have an overactive imagination,” Pa said one night.  “It’s part of your nature, son. You carry your thoughts to bed and your mind keeps churning.  You’re never completely at ease.”

But I had no thoughts, and I didn’t know anyone named Bartholomew.  Fairies and rainbows.  They were my thoughts, but they’d scurried away when the dragon had set up camp.  I could hear my own voice when I cursed and screamed at the Almighty. “Goddamn you, God.”  I hope He heard me loud and clear.

Pop!  Pop!  Pop!  A distant sound of gunfire?  The dragon stood and blocked my view of the desert and the setting sun.  Blood rushed to my head and tears stained my cheeks as I tried to break free.  “Help me.  God, help me,” I cried.

She held the knife to my throat and whispered in my ear.  “There is no God for men like you.  You will burn in hellfire forever.”

A spray of dust showered me, and I tried to best the dragon, but the stiletto was pressed tight under my chin.  I closed my eyes and prayed she was wrong.  I prayed for the solace of heaven.

A barking voice gave me pause.  I opened my eyes, but my face was upturned.  The dragon had clutched my hair and pulled my head straight back, her steel blade still pressed to my throat.

“Let the boy go, Mrs. Sears.”

A rustling of footsteps, and a beautiful scenario crossed my mind.  Had Hoss brought my epee?  Had he come to slay the dragon?  Had I taught him anything at all?

“I should’ve castrated him right off,” she snarled in a low, deliberate voice.  “I had the chance, you know.  Isn’t that part of the ritual?  Castrate, brand and butcher?”

“Lower the knife, Mrs. Sears.”

The dragon’s words were harsh and rang in my ear, but the second voice I heard was calm and steady.  Maybe it wasn’t Hoss after all.  Maybe Pa had come to slay the dragon. I didn’t dare move.  Late afternoon heat radiated, and the blade felt like flames had seared my Adam’s apple.

A new voice came from afar.  Adam?  “Castration will generally kill a man if you don’t have optimal skills, Mrs. Sears, but that wasn’t your plan, was it?”  You wanted the kid to suffer.  You wanted to teach him a lesson.”

Mrs. Sears?

“You’re damn right, I did.  I wanted to teach all you Cartwrights.”

“We’re a family of butchers, aren’t we, Mrs. Sears?”

“Don’t come any closer,” she growled.  “I see what you’re up to and it won’t work.”

“Is the kid worth a lifetime in prison?”

“I’ve been chosen by God, you fool.  No one will send me away.”

“Oh, but they will.”

The voice—nearly serene in nature—moved closer.  Footfalls were everywhere, circling. The dragon yanked my head back farther.  Every muscle tightened, and I gasped for air. Unable to swallow the rising bile, my body twisted and jerked.  No longer did my feet touch the ground.  I spun like a top, coughing and wheezing, and sucking in mouthfuls of air.

I tried to open my eyes and watch the dream unfold, but when my arms fell free, my muscles went slack, and I dropped like dead weight … into the arms of my father.  My brothers had slain the dragon.

*****

Chapter 45

“He’s hurt real bad, Doc.”

Ben jumped down off the tailgate and caught up with Hoss and Paul.

“What happened here, Ben?”

“You’ll see for yourself.”

By the time Paul and Ben rushed inside, Hoss had Joe laid out on Doc’s table, his brother’s body still wrapped in a bedroll.  “Son,” Ben said, placing his hand on the wool blanket to keep it in place.  “I want you to go down to Roy Coffee’s and help Adam explain.”

“But, Pa.”

“Please, Hoss.  Do as I ask.”  Paul reached for the bedroll, but Ben stayed the doctor’s hand until Hoss left the room.  When Paul’s eyes narrowed, questioning his friend’s intent, Ben explained.  “I wanted to spare Hoss for now.”

Ben circled the surgical table to Joe’s left side and slipped the blanket down his son’s battered body.  Paul followed and after recognizing the distinctive pine tree brand on his patient’s hip, the doctor was caught off guard.  Though his gasp was minimal, Ben understood the doctor’s disbelief.

“I’m sorry, Ben, but in twenty-three years of practice, I thought I’d seen everything, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“There’s more.”  Ben angled Joe’s leg so Paul could see the backside.

“It looks like he’s been skinned.”  Swallowing the lump in his throat, Ben held his anger in check, but the doctor continued with a valid question.  “Who in God’s name?”

Ben lowered Joe’s leg and slipped his hand over his son’s.  “Pauline Sears.”

“Martin Sears’ new wife?”

Ben squeezed Joe’s hand.  Life still pulsed and he should’ve felt thankful.  “My best guess is that she … I can barely get the words out, Paul, but if you put all the pieces together, the result is that Joe crossed miles of open desert barefoot, then he was branded and partially skinned—as in slaughtered or butchered or whatever the hell that monster … ”

Paul reached for Ben’s shoulder.  “That’s enough.  Where’s the woman now?”

“Hopefully, behind bars.”

“Wait for me outside, Ben.  You know where I keep my bottle.”

Ben carried himself to the waiting room and nearly fell into the leather desk chair.  He’d skip Paul’s good whiskey for now.  It didn’t seem fair that he should numb himself to the horror of seeing his son’s mutilated body while Joe had much more to endure.

Adam had taken charge of the situation, and Ben had come to realize that for the last several months his son had bottled up the anger he felt over Kane, but it kept him strong and focused until the ordeal with Joe was over.

Adam circled Joe’s left and grabbed the knife from her hand before shoving the woman at Hoss.  Belying his anger, his voice remained tempered.  “Get her outta here.”

Adam stepped closer to Joe, and that’s when we both saw the brand.  Adam steadied me, but I pushed his hand away and grabbed one of the bedrolls.  Each of us feared how Hoss would react, and I secured a blanket around Joseph’s torso before Adam sliced through the rope that secured my son in the makeshift teepee.

My boys had been efficient.  Mrs. Sears’ wrists were tied and Hoss nearly threw her up on Chubb so Adam could haul her to jail and Hoss, bless his soul, could drive the wagon that carried his brother and me home.

I’d tucked several blankets under and around Joseph, and held his head on my lap.  I clasped my boy’s hand and stroked the dirt-streaked hair that the woman had nearly ripped from his head.  Hoss drove through the night.  The slender knife and branding iron were secured on the packhorse, as far away from Joe as possible.  Every time Hoss hit a rut, I cradled my boy even tighter, but he never moved.  He’d fallen unconscious, and maybe that was a blessing.

“Ben?”

Looking up from his musings, Ben stood.  “Well?”

“Everything’s cleaned and bandaged, but I want to keep him overnight.  Infection is almost guaranteed, and I’ll need to keep him under close observation.”

“How long—I mean, has he woken up?  Does he know where he is?”

“No, but sleep is the best thing for him right now.”  The doctor wasn’t naïve to Ben’s relationship with his boys, especially his youngest.  He clasped his hands in front of him and told Ben what he needed to hear.  “I never said you had to leave.”

*****

Chapter 46

When Adam burst through his front door with Mrs. Sears’ hands tied in front of her, Roy stood from his chair and circled his desk.  “What in the world?”

“Lock her up first, and I’ll explain.”

“You just hold on there, Boy.  I’m the law in this town and I’ll be glad to listen, but I’ll hear from both parties before I lock anyone up.  You got that?”  Roy knew she was guilty as sin.  He’d read her diary and had concluded that she meant to harm Little Joe, but he was still the sheriff of Virginia City and he made the rules, not Adam Cartwright.  “Get them ropes off her and let’s act like civilized human beings.”

“Civilized?  If you want to talk about civilized, don’t bother questioning this woman.” Adam pushed Pauline down in the chair, hands still tied in her lap.  “She’s an animal, Roy.  Treat her like a human being, and she’ll turn on you in an instant.”

Roy returned to his chair and looked directly at Pauline.  “You have anything to say, Mrs. Sears?”  Pauline turned her head and spit on the sheriff’s floor.  “Seems as though Adam has a story to tell.  I thought you might want to tell your side first.”

Adam stood behind her chair.  Refusing to talk was a smart move on her part.  Martin would hire the best lawyer in town to defend her, but no matter what magic the attorney offered, Pauline Sears would spend time behind bars.

When he took a seat on the corner of Roy’s desk, Adam glared down at Pauline.  “You’re an intelligent woman, aren’t you, Mrs. Sears?  If I remember correctly, your father was a traveling preacher who relied heavily on the Old Testament, a bloated version of hellfire and damnation.  I went to one of those revivals under his worn-out tent a few years back, and from what I recall, the Reverend Mayer didn’t leave much to the imagination. And you, being his only child, believed every word that spewed from his vile and vengeful mouth.”

“My father is one of God’s prophets.  How dare you condemn him for preaching the gospel.”

“I beg to differ, Mrs. Sears.  Your father was no prophet.  He preached words of the devil, so fantastic were his sermons that the congregation trembled and cried from fright. There was no love, no understanding, and no compassion, was there, Mrs. Sears?  I never met anyone filled with that much hate … until I met you.”

Pauline crossed her legs and turned away from Adam’s contemptible admonishment of her father.  “Your brother got everything he deserved.”

“You put my brother through hell, lady.”  Because Pauline sneered and turned farther in her chair, Adam grabbed her chin and turned her back to face him.  “Only a deranged heathen would treat another human being in such a manner.  Not only did you brand him, you intended to skin him alive.”

“I would have if not for you,” she fired back.  “You’re all the same.  You’re evil, just like your brother, and you’ll all burn in hell.”

“That may be, Mrs. Sears, the devil himself will haul you there first.”

Hoss burst through the front door.  He glared at Pauline.  “Why ain’t she behind bars?”

Pauline’s eyes rounded with fury, and she bolted from the chair.  “He’s another one, Sheriff.”  They’re all butchers!  They kill for pleasure and profit.”

Adam stood.  “And that’s why you kidnapped my brother?”

“Yes!  Because God spoke to me, and I offered to carry out his plan.”

“God told you to mutilate my brother.”

“Yes!  My God!  Don’t you have a brain in your head?”

Adam turned to face Roy.  “I’d call that a confession, wouldn’t you?”

Roy stood from his chair.  “Good as I’m gonna get.”  He rounded his desk.  “Come with me, Ma’am.”

Pauline backed away from the sheriff.  Wearing a filthy, bloodstained dress, her hair stringy and matted with dust and sand, she batted him away with her tied hands.  She looked like a devil on earth.  When Adam grabbed one arm, Hoss gladly grabbed the other, and they escorted the woman back to a cell.

Roy followed with a jangle of keys.  “I’ll let Mr. Sears know you’re here.”

*****

Chapter 47

Paul did all he could to stem the promise of infection, but he knew Little Joe faced an uphill battle.  The mark on his hip had been a day or two old and without proper attention, the brand along with the skin removal on the back of his leg could become septic within a matter of days.

He questioned how much he should say straight out.  Ben was closer to his youngest in ways that weren’t explainable but were there just the same.  To lay something like this on him at this point seemed harsh and unnecessary.  Miracles happened, and in Joe Cartwright’s case, the boy had always beaten the odds.

“What now?”  Ben said.

“We wait.”

“Shouldn’t he be awake by now?  He’s been out a long time.”

“Let me explain the best I know how, Ben.  Come.  Sit.”  The two men moved to Paul’s private office, and the doctor poured two shots of whiskey.  “Joe needs sleep more than anything right now.  His body is trying to preserve what remains intact.”

“But—”

Paul raised his hand.  “He probably hasn’t had enough food or water to sustain a healthy body.  Not only was he branded and partially flayed his shoulders and back have taken a severe beating, not to mention his feet.  You saw as well as I did, the torn flesh, which leads me to believe he might ‘ve been tied and dragged behind the wagon.”

Ben didn’t reply.  He worried his hands in his lap instead.

“I’m only guessing, but that’s what it looks like to me.  I’ve tended his back, his shoulders, and feet.  The dirt’s been removed and I stitched the deeper wounds.  They should heal fairly quickly.”

“What about the rest?”

Paul hesitated.  “We’ll know in time.”

Both men looked up when Adam and Hoss walked through the front door.  “Well?”  Ben said.

Adam let Hoss have the honors.  “She confessed to hurtin’ Little Joe, and Roy locked her up in his jail.”

With all said and done, Adam had reservations about the upcoming trial.  A woman like Pauline needed to be punished, which meant Joe would have to testify to his days in the desert.  He was a prideful kid, and speaking in open court about the damage she’d inflicted would cause him an excessive amount of humiliation and embarrassment.

Ben stood from his chair.  “Paul wants to keep Joe overnight so I’ll stay here with him.  I want you boys to ride home and take Buck with you.  When Joe’s ready to travel, I’ll need you to bring the wagon.”

“Why don’t I book us a suite at the hotel,” Adam said.  “You need a good night’s sleep too, Pa.”

“No, I’m staying here with your brother.  You two do as I say … please.”

“Come on, Adam,” Hoss said.  “Pa can handle Joe on his own.”

“Right.  Goodnight.”

“Nite, Pa.”

*****

Chapter 48

After settling the horses in the barn, Adam and Hoss rummaged through the kitchen for something to eat.  With Hop Sing in San Francisco for an extended period, the boys had to fend for themselves.

“There’s not much,” Adam said, looking through the cupboards.  “Peaches and pickles.”

“We should’ve stayed in town with Pa.”

Adam turned to his oversized brother.  “You’re the one who said Pa could handle Joe without us.”

“I lied.”

“What do you want to eat?”

“I ain’t hungry.”

Hoss was in a mood, and Adam had more bad news to tell him though he’d rather Hoss had a full stomach, and he pulled a jar from the shelf.  “Peaches it is.”  He filled two bowls and handed one to his brother.  “Here.”  He gave Hoss a spoon and they sat at the kitchen table.  “There’s more to the story.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means,” Adam continued, “that you may not have seen all of Joe’s injuries.”

“I saw what she done.  She hung him up like a side of beef and carved the hide right off him.”

Adam held back.  Was this the right time to explain?  Since the day Joe was born, Hoss had used common sense—bulk, if necessary—to protect the kid and keep him safe.  Not a day went by that he didn’t fret over something Joe had done or something Joe was planning to do.  He remembered an incident that occurred when Joe was only waist high.

Joe was just a little mite.  We couldn’t find him, and we’d looked everywhere.  Hop Sing had called us to dinner and no Little Joe.  Whereas it should’ve been Pa who was overly concerned, Hoss ran out the front door and was the first to saddle his horse.  Pa had other ideas and told him to hold off.  “One more hour,” he said, “and we’ll all go look.”

Hoss couldn’t eat that night.  He played with the food on his plate until Pa gave in, and we all rode out together.  Hoss was only eleven or twelve at the time.  Joe’s ma had just died and the household had been … shall we say, in a state of chaos due to her untimely death.

We’d explained the best we could to Little Joe that his mama wasn’t coming home, that she was in heaven now, but who knows what goes on in five-year-old boy’s mind.  As it turned out, Joe thought he could climb to heaven, and he scaled what seemed like the tallest mountain around to a boy his size.

Hoss had been the first to spot him and jumped down off his horse at the base of Eagle’s Nest, but Pa held him back.  “Please, son, let me.”

Hoss had signed on as Joe’s protector the day the kid was born, and he wanted to climb that jutting rock formation and bring his little brother down to safety.  But Pa, not wanting two of his sons in trouble, asked Hoss to stay with me.  Since he was the most obedient of all, he did as Pa asked, but he was heartbroken when told to stay behind while Pa climbed the rock.

Hoss fretted other times, too.  A good example was the first time Joe sat a bronc, and Hoss worried like an old mother hen.  He propped his elbows on the corral railing, wrung his hands, and made every face in the book until the ride was finished and Joe climbed down off the horse.

For Hoss, watching Joe’s first ride was just as harrowing as his little brother getting himself stuck at the top of Eagle’s Nest, but that was Hoss, the most caring individual a man could ever know.

Hoss looked up from his empty bowl.  Adam had been too quiet for his taste, and didn’t he say there was more?  “What did you mean there was more to the story?”

Adam clenched his fists. “You’re right.  There’s more.”

“Well?  Spell it out, big brother.”

“Remember during roundup, you couldn’t find the new branding iron and accused Joe of being careless and losing it?”

“Yeah, what’s that got to do with any of this?”

“Apparently, it was stolen.”

“Stolen?  You mean rustlers?”

“No.”  Adam hesitated.  “Pauline Sears.”

Adam couldn’t bring himself to explain any further, and he waited for Hoss to catch on.  When Hoss slapped the table with both hands and stood from his chair, Adam grabbed his brother’s wrist and blocked his efforts to leave the room.

“You sayin’ what I think you’re are?”

“I am.”

“Joe?”

“Left hip.”

“I swear to God, Adam.  I’m gonna kill that woman.”

*****

Chapter 49

Ben slept in an overstuffed chair next to his battered son.  He and Paul had transferred Joe to a more comfortable bed earlier in the day and covered him with a quilted blanket that the eighty-two-year-old Widow Simpson had given Paul for services rendered.

As Ben adjusted himself in the chair, he heard a moaning, almost groaning sound and sprung to his feet.  “Joseph,” he whispered.  Although he hoped for recognition, Joe stared straight ahead as if looking for something that wasn’t there.  “Joe.  Little Joe.” Reaching under the blanket, Ben took his son’s hand and pressed it to his chest.  Ben’s heart beat strong, but the placement did nothing to bring Joe fully awake.

Paul tapped on the door before he walked in.  Dawn was breaking.  He knew Ben would be anxious for good news, so he dressed, put on a pot of coffee, and headed down the hall to check on father and son.  Though he wasn’t surprised to see Ben sitting on the edge of Joe’s bed, he wondered if his friend had slept at all.

“Morning,” he said.  Not having heard the doctor walk in, Ben turned with a start.  He laid Joe’s hand on top of the blanket and stood.  “You sleep there all night?”

“No.  Joe began stirring a few minutes ago.  I thought he’d woken.  His eyes were open but he didn’t see me.  He seemed to stare at nothing.”

Paul moved closer and nudged his friend’s shoulder.  “Don’t overthink things.  The boy’s been through a terrifying experience.  Give him time.”

“I’m trying, Paul.”

“At least he opened his eyes.  That’s a good sign.”

It was only natural that Ben looked tired and disheveled, but Paul didn’t need two patients and suggested his friend go freshen up while he checked Joe over.  “He’s not going anywhere, Ben.  He’ll be fine while you’re gone.”

“I could use a bath and a shave.”

“You sure could.”

“That bad?”

“A ride through the desert doesn’t leave a man smelling like a rose, you know.”

Ben chuckled.  “Okay, I can take a hint.  Take good care of my boy.  I won’t be long.”

Thankful that Virginia City’s doors never closed, Ben bought a new set of clothes, had a shave and a bath at the barber’s, and sat down for a good hot meal at Daisy’s Café.  After carrying out his breakfast, Daisy felt so guilty over Joe’s situation, that Ben noticed her unease and asked her to sit down.

“My customers have been talking, Ben.  Rumors are flying and none of them are good.”

Ben cut through a piece of ham before answering.  “I should’ve figured as much.”

“Oh, Mr. Cartwright.”  Daisy pulled a handkerchief from her waistband.  “All this miserable talk is my fault.  If I hadn’t butted in … if I hadn’t asked Little Joe.”

“I’m not blaming you, Daisy.  None of us are, and Joe won’t either.”  Ben gave her a minute to collect herself before he asked the dreaded question.  “What’s the talk, Daisy?”

“It’s terrible, Mr. Cartwright.  People are saying Little Joe killed that poor girl … that pretty Sally Ann, and that he ran off with that Sears woman.”  Ben’s jaw visibly clenched, but he waited for Daisy to finish.  “That’s not all.  They’re saying Little Joe was in love with Mrs. Sears.  There’s also talk that Martin Sears is out for revenge.  That he wants to kill Little Joe.”

Although he should’ve been starving for a decent meal, Ben’s appetite was gone, but he spoke as calmly as he could.  “My son isn’t a murderer, and my son didn’t run off with another man’s wife.”

“Oh, I’m not saying—”

“I know you aren’t, Daisy.”  Ben pulled a dollar from his vest pocket and laid it on the table.  “Joseph is at Doc Martin’s.  He’s fighting for his life, and at this point, a full recovery isn’t guaranteed.”

Ben stood from his chair, and Daisy scrambled out of hers.  “Please tell Little Joe I’m sorry.”

“I will.”

“But … but what about your breakfast.”

He forced a smile.  “Maybe next time.”

Ben settled his hat on his head and marched straight to Roy Coffee’s office.  He slammed the front door behind him.  “Have you heard what those idiot people are saying about my son?  Of all the—” He slammed his hat on Roy’s desk, but the sheriff didn’t flinch.  He expected as much from Ben Cartwright.

“I’ve heard the rumors, but that’s all they are, Ben.  Just rumors.”  Roy stood and walked toward the stove.  “Coffee?”

“Please,” Ben said in a softer voice.  “Thank you.”

“You know how them people are.  They love to gossip and until they know what happened out there in the desert, it’s anyone’s guess.”

“Why do they always think the worst when they don’t know truth from fact?”

“Human nature, I guess.”

“Human nature,” Ben mumbled.  “Stupid people.”

“I agree.”  Roy handed Ben a cup and returned to his desk chair.  “Judge Thurston will be through on Monday, and I’ll set up a hearing.  Maybe that’ll change their minds about Little Joe.”

Ben worked his jaw muscles but there was no more said.  Roy knew if there were a law against gossiping, Ben would have the whole town locked up in his jail until they apologized for thinking badly of his youngest boy.

“I guess the boys told you Mrs. Sears confessed.”

“Yeah, they told me.”

“The one thing I didn’t tell them boys of yours was that Martin ain’t out for revenge like people are sayin’.  Fact is, he came to me the other day and showed me his wife’s diary.” Interested in what Roy had to say, Ben looked up.  “We rode out to your place the next mornin’, but Hank said you was still out lookin’ for Little Joe.  Didn’t know where you was or when you’d be back.”

“Starvation Flats.  That’s where we found Joe and … that woman.”

“Yeah, well, Martin had become suspicious after reading some things she wrote in her diary.”

“Did you read?”

“Yes, I did, and it all kind of fell together.”

“What fell together?”

“She’s an odd bird all right, and I’ll be happy to explain, but I don’t want no interruptions, you hear?”

*****

Chapter 50

The dragon was back.  Fingers probed and an icy liquid burned my fevered flesh.  Words were spoken, mumbled, but I couldn’t make out their meaning.  The canteen was forced to my lips and I drank.  Another poison?  My head fell back to the side.

I thought I’d heard voices—Pa and my brothers—and I wondered if Hoss brought my epee. Was I man enough to slay the dragon?  My head throbbed, and my body ached.  I tried to lift myself off the ground, but I feared she would punish me even more.  I felt too weak to do my own fighting, but I could always count on Hoss.  Engage.  Lunge.  Attack!

*****

Chapter 51

“How’s he doin’ this mornin’, Doc?”

The lights were turned low, and Joe was barely visible even in the tiny room.  A quilt had been pulled to his chin and from what both Cartwright boys could tell, their brother was sleeping peacefully.

“Morning, boys.”  Paul crossed the room to Adam and Hoss.  “After your pa stepped out for a bath, I had a chance to check your brother.”

“And?”  Paul’s evasive answer didn’t begin to satisfy Adam.

“He’s running a fever, but that’s to be expected.  Both wounds are festering, and I’m keeping a close eye.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Wait for what?  Ain’t he gettin’ better?”

Paul shook his head.  “I’m afraid not, not yet at least.  These types of injuries take time, Hoss.”

Hoss looked to Adam, but his brother was good at hiding fear.  “So, when can we take him home?”

“I’ll know more after tonight.”

“I get the feelin’ you’re leavin’ somethin’ out, Doc.”

Paul smiled.  The last thing he wanted to do was worry the boys.  That’s why he hadn’t told Ben, but he felt he might as well give them the facts.  Ben, too, for that matter.

“Infection runs rampant in these types of injuries, Hoss.  There’s skin loss, and skin is a protector.  Think of them as a burn, a bad burn.  Luckily, the woman had a sharp knife, and she was able to extract a very thin layer of skin from Joe’s leg.  She didn’t disrupt any muscle or nerves that I can tell, and the area above his ankle should heal in time.  The fact that she’d only begun the flaying process when the three of you rode up means you not only ended her reign of terror but also saved your brother’s life.  If she’d had more time to work on him, we wouldn’t be discussing a prognosis at all.”

“What about his hip?”

Paul moved toward the bed where Joe slept.  “If you’re asking whether it’s still inflamed, the answer is yes, and it will be for quite some time.  Your brother has a permanent scar, and I’m sure you know there’s nothing I can do to erase the damage.”

Adam watched Hoss clench his fists.  His brother was wound tight, and he’d have to get him back to the ranch, keep him busy, and not let him fret over Joe or, especially, Pauline Sears.  Finding one brother only to lose another wasn’t an option.

“Hello, boys.”  Adam and Hoss turned toward the doorway and their father’s welcoming voice.

“You look a sight better, Pa.”

“So do you, son.”  Ben saw the look on their faces.  He didn’t want to add to his sons’ misery by mentioning the rumors that had spread throughout town and who knew where else.  “You’re up early,” he said instead.

“Why don’t you go home with Adam and get some rest, Pa.  I’ll stay here with Little Joe.”

“Thank you, son, but I’m sure you and Adam can get us caught up faster than I can.”

“Come on, Hoss.  Pa’s right.”

“You sure you don’t want me to stay?”

“I’m sure.”

When Adam opened the office door, he stopped cold after seeing Martin Sears standing on the boardwalk.  Hoss moved up behind his brother and blocked the entrance.

“Martin,” Adam said.

The young man dipped his head and gathered enough courage to speak to Joe’s older brothers.  “The sheriff told me Joseph was here.”

“That’s right.

“Is he … all right?”

“He will be … hopefully.”

Martin thought the brothers might get the wrong idea if he smiled with relief or reacted in any way, and he remained as stoic as possible.  “Good.  I’m glad he’s doing well.”

“No thanks to your wife,” Hoss noted.

Martin’s head dropped again.  “Joseph’s the best friend I ever had, and I’m sorry.  Sorry for everything.  I wanted to tell him myself … if that’s okay.”

“He ain’t in a good way, Martin, and somethin’ tells me you’re the last person he’d wanna see.”

Martin stepped back.  “Okay.”

Adam watched Pauline’s husband move down the boardwalk as though the life had been kicked out of him.  A brand new bride, a life gone wrong.  He turned to Hoss.  “You were a little rough on him, weren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” Hoss sighed and scuffed the toe of his boot.  “Maybe I should’ve never said them things, but I can’t hardly look at him without picturing his wife holdin’ that blade to Little Joe’s leg.”

“Come on,” Adam gestured toward their horses.  “We’ve got work to do.”

After mounting, they started down C Street.  The ranch couldn’t run itself, and the spring drive to Sacramento was right around the corner.  As they rode past the jail, Adam thought it best to get Hoss’ mind off Martin and Pauline Sears.

“We’ll need to hire extra drovers,” he said.  Without Pa and Joe this year, we’re a week behind and shorthanded.”

“Ain’t none of us should be goin’ on that drive.  Joe’s gonna need us, Adam.”

“Listen.  The best thing for Joe right now is—”

A shot rang out and both men fled from their mounts and crouched low to the ground.  Two women screamed, and a drunk stumbled out of a nearby saloon still swinging a bottle of rotgut.

“Sheriff’s office,” Hoss yelled.

With guns drawn, both men ran up to Roy’s front door.  Adam hesitated, but Hoss rushed inside.  Adam covered his brother’s back but noticed that Roy had drawn his gun too. Martin Sears stood just outside the cell door, a smoking gun lay on the ground, and Martin had raised his hands shoulder high.  His new bride lay dead on the jailhouse floor.

After Martin was locked in the adjoining cell, and everyone’s gun was holstered, Roy looked at Adam and Hoss.  “Will one of you go get Paul Martin?”

“We’ll both go,” Adam said.  “Come on, Hoss.”

Adam wished he’d never chastised Hoss for using such harsh and exacting language when speaking to Martin Sears.  Now, and maybe forever, his brother would feel the kind of guilt that settles deep in a man’s soul.

Paul picked up his bag, walked down to the jail, and readily pronounced the woman dead.  “I’ll send for the coroner,” he said.  He turned to Martin’s cell.  “I’m sorry, son.”

Martin stood with his back to the cell door staring out the barred window.  He didn’t turn around.  He didn’t acknowledge Paul’s comment.  His bride was dead and his life was over.  He’d be hanged by the neck until dead.

Paul and Roy stepped into the outer office, and Roy shut the door behind him before he spoke to the doc.  “A sad turn of events.”

“I sure hate to see that boy hang.”

“The judge won’t have much choice.  He shot his wife point-blank.”

“I know, but what a waste.  He’s a good boy, Roy, and under normal circumstances, he’d never hurt a fly.  Martin and Joe Cartwright have been friends since … I can remember … when they were just boys, I guess.  What one didn’t think of the other did.  Such an unlikely pair, but they stuck together like glue, and maybe that’s what Martin remembers too.  That unwavering friendship.”

“That friendship ain’t gonna help him much in a court of law.”

“No, I’m afraid it won’t.”

*****

Chapter 52

More than one person drifted in and out of camp, and I’d feigned sleep.  I didn’t know what else to do.  The burning in my hip and leg was growing less and less, and I needed to make a stand before it was too late, before the dragon pulled her stiletto and butchered the rest of me.

I admired my brothers more than anything.  They were good men, proud men, capable men, and I wanted Pa to think the same of me, his baby son.  I wanted to see pride in his eyes.  I wanted him to know I could take care of myself and weather any storm, and that I could return to my family in one piece, whole, like Adam after Kane.  That I could slay the dragon on my own.

Voices cluttered my thinking.  Many voices, different voices  “She’s dead all right.”

“Her husband?”

“Locked in jail.”

“Shame.”

Jail.  Husband.  Shame.  What did it all mean?  Had the old-timer stumbled upon the dragon and me?  Should I call out for help?  Would he fight alongside me?  I struggled to make myself known, but the voices had quieted, and I squirmed and thrashed against the ropes that bound me to the teepee.

“Can’t you see me, old man?  Did you come to help?”

“Joseph.”

The old man knew my name.

“Little Joe.”

With the last of my strength, I gripped the ropes, lifted my feet off the ground, and lashed out at the old man.  Struggling like a crazed animal, I kicked and squirmed, but he had the upper hand.  He held my arms to the ground until my energy was spent, and I had to give up the fight.

“Please, son.  No more.  Easy, Joseph.”

I wasn’t like Hoss or Adam.  I was a weak and worthless human being that couldn’t fight off a wiry old man that lived like a hermit in the desert.  Tears stained my cheeks.  The battle was over, and I’d be punished again.  She’d carve deeper this time.  She’d cut me to the bone and leave me for the vultures to circle and feast.

*****

Chapter 53

Hoss and Adam attended the hearing on Monday morning.  Also present were Martin Sears, Roy Coffee, Paul Martin, the Virginia City prosecutor, and the best attorney the Cartwright’s could provide for the defendant.

The sheriff presented a written statement to Judge Thurston, and considering all the facts of the case, Roy Coffee pleaded for mercy.  “The defendant and Little Joe Cartwright have been friends for a good many years, Your Honor.  I honestly believe Martin was trying to protect Little Joe from having to relive the torment he’d suffered at the hands of Mrs. Sears by testifyin’ in a court of law.”

Hiram Wood had taken the case pro bono, and by suppressing hard evidence—Yes, the man shot his wife—Mr. Wood was able to convince the judge that Martin wasn’t in his right mind when he shot Mrs. Sears.

“Irresistible impulse, Your Honor.  Martin Sears acted under impulse,” Wood said.  “He was literally forced to carry out the execution of his wife by an impulse he was powerless to control and should be exempt from any form of punishment.”

The prosecutor bellowed and pounded his fist on the table Roy had set up in his office for the proceedings.  He disagreed with every aspect the attorney had laid out before the judge, but in the end, Judge Thurston was more lenient than anyone had expected.  He let Martin go on one condition.

“Don’t ever let me lay eyes on you again.”

Adam nodded to Hoss.  “See, everything worked out fine.”  He stepped forward and shook Hiram Wood’s hand.  “Thank you,” he said before turning to Martin.  “I’ll let you know when Joe’s ready for visitors.”

*****

Chapter 54

Was I dreaming or not?  If I was, it was the best dream ever.  If I wasn’t, I wondered why the voice kept insisting that I open my eyes and come back to him.  My eyelids were heavy.  My whole body felt heavy and stiff as though an unforgiving weight kept me down.  Should I answer the dream or not?  If I made my presence known, I had to be ready to fight, but I was too tired and too weak for battle.

“Come on, Joseph.  Open your eyes.”

There it was again.  The voice that brought back the fairies and lush green grasses.  The voice that could slay the dragon and could announce to the world that all was good, that evil had been destroyed and we would live happily ever after.

I geared myself up for the worst.  My eyelids began to flutter and every nerve in my body tensed at the prospect, but I was ready to take a chance.  I fisted my hands for battle and opened my eyes.

“That’s good, son.  Good boy.”

“Pa?”

“I’m right here, Joseph.  You’re at Doc Martin’s, son.  You’re safe now.  No one can hurt you anymore.”

I blinked repeatedly.  The air was warm but not desert hot.  There was no blue sky or bits of gravel digging into my shoulders and back.  Lace curtains fluttered at an open window and a large wooden clock tick-tocked on a far wall.

There were no dancing fairies or grasses or waterfalls, and I let my gaze drift.  An image of my father loomed by the side of the bed.  Tears filled his eyes when he reached for my hand and lifted it from the bed.  I smelled Bay Rum.

“Is it really you?”

“It’s me, son.  You’ve been sleeping a long time.”

“Dreams.”

“This isn’t a dream, Little Joe.  You’re awake, and you’re on the mend.”

I grabbed Pa’s shirtsleeve and held tight.  I couldn’t let go, and he didn’t pull away.  He didn’t shift his weight or lay my hand back on the bed, and that’s when I knew he was real.  The room was real, and Pa would keep the dragon away.

A squeaking noise drew our attention and Doc Martin stood in the doorway.  He smiled before crossing the room and standing next to Pa.  “I see you decided to join us.”

It seemed like a curious statement.  “How long have I been out?”

“A while.”

I dropped my hand from Pa’s shirt and tried to sit up.  Pa turned to the doc as if he needed permission, and Doc nodded his head.  “Let me help you, son.”

Pa fluffed a pillow against the headboard.  I leaned back and tried to catch my breath as Pa straightened a quilt over my legs and sat down on the edge of the bed.  “That better?”

“Good.  Thanks.”  My voice sounded rough and unconvincing, but I croaked out one more word.  “Thirsty.”

I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, and when I tried putting the pieces together, the visions that came were like pinpricks of needles against my skin.  I shivered and my eyes shot open.  “Pa?”

“Here’s a drink, son.”

He held a glass to my lips, but I snatched it from his hands and tipped it bottom up so I could drink my fill.  Water dripped down my chin and chest and my breathing came hard and fast.  “More.”

Pa refilled the glass but he hesitated.  “Slower this time, okay?”

Realizing I could drink all I wanted, I did as he asked.  I sipped rather than gulped.  Pa seemed pleased and patted my leg.  “You need to rest, son.”

Without anyone seeing, I slid my hand under the blanket and across my left hip.  A thick bandage.  I moved my left foot to the back of my right leg and felt another just as thick as the first.  “Bandages?”

Pa glanced up at Doc who stood next to the bed.  Paul tugged at the hem of his waistcoat.

“You have two serious injuries, Joe.  They’re healing nicely, but you need to leave the dressings alone.”

“What kind of injuries?”  Pa and Doc hesitated, and I repeated my question.  “What injuries?”

“Think of both wounds as burns,” Paul said.  “There’s been sufficient skin loss and that’s what’s concerning.  We can’t let either area become infected so they both need to remain covered for now.”

Doc remained stoic and gave nothing away, but tears formed in Pa’s eyes, and he tried to blink them away.  He didn’t think I noticed, but I did.  “How was I injured?”

“Joe,” Pa sighed.  “You need to rest.  We don’t need to talk right now.”

“Yeah, we do.”

Doc scooted out of the room when he heard the front door open.  Pa and I both turned our attention to the bedroom door when Hoss and Adam walked in.

“Sleeping Beauty decided to wake up I see,” Adam said.

Pa stood when my brothers appeared, but Hoss nudged him aside to get closer to the bed. “Hey, little brother.  About time you showed that purty face of yours.”

“Good to see your ugly mug too.”

Hoss’ booming laugh made everyone else in the room chuckle only Pa didn’t laugh for long, and he whispered to Adam.  “How’d the hearing go?”

“What’s that?”  I said.

Adam moved closer.  “There was a hearing this morning in front of Judge Thurston.”

“For what?”

Adam looked at Pa, and Pa moved back toward my bed.  “It’s a long, involved story, Joseph.”

I linked my fingers on top of the quilt that covered my legs.  “I’ve got time.”

Adam put on his serious face and sat in a chair next to the bed.  “Martin Sears was acquitted of a murder charge this morning.”

“Murder?”

“He, um, he shot his wife.  Pauline Sears is dead.”

“Martin killed Pauline?”

I studied my folded hands and tried to think of everything that happened.  Some things in the desert seemed real, but there were giant holes I couldn’t fill.  I could remember losing my hat and walking barefoot.  I remembered being dragged behind a wagon, but then confusion set in.  My body ached and dreams that couldn’t be explained took control of my thinking.

I knew there was more and I racked my brain.  I was at a loss, but the bandage on my left hip … I flung the quilt to the side.  The bandage was white and a strip of long white cloth wrapped around both hips to secure it in place.  Dead center was an ugly splotch of yellowish red.

“What happened to my hip?”

“Not now, son.”

“Okay, then why did Martin shoot his wife?”

Pa seemed duly upset.  He tried to pull the blanket back in place, but I stayed his hand.  “No.  I need to know now.”

Hoss moved up next to Pa.  “He don’t know?”

I leaned forward and Pa fought to stop me, but I yanked at the long white strip and ripped the bandage off my hip.  I stared at the pine tree brand.

“Joe … ”

“She did that to me, didn’t she?  That lunatic put a hot iron on me, didn’t she?”

“Joe, please.”

“Please what?”  I cried and pushed Pa’s hands away.  “Forgive her?  For God sakes, Pa, she branded me!”

“You’re alive, son.  That’s what matters most.”

“I’m alive.”  I laughed in Pa’s face.  “I’m alive,” I yelled so that everyone in the room could hear.  “Branded!  It’s not a scratch, Pa.  I have to live with this … this little treasure the rest of my life.”

“Pa’s right, Little Joe.  There’s worse things than—”

“Name one, Hoss.  Name one thing that’s worse than having a hot iron …” I couldn’t form the word.  Branded.  Branded by a crazed woman.  Branded.  The word filled my head with hate, but I’d never have a chance to seek vengeance.  Martin had taken that away from me.

Pa crossed the room and whispered as if I weren’t there.  “Why don’t you two head back to the ranch?  I’ll stay here.”

“All right,” Adam said.  “We’ll stop back later, Joe.”

“Don’t bother.  I’m fine.  I’m alive … remember?”

Pa nodded to my brothers, his way of letting them know the conversation was over, and Hoss followed Adam out of the room.  The doc stood over me with a bottle of alcohol and a clean white cloth.  “I need to re-bandage, Joe.”

After cleaning the wound, which had me grabbing the sheets until my knuckles were white and my fingers ached, Pa lifted my hips from the bed so the doc could wrap another strip around and tie it off.  “I should do the leg again too while I’m here.”

“The leg?”

“You have a bad wound on the back of your leg, son.  Let’s have Paul finish what he started.”

“What kind of wound?”

“Paul said it’s like a burn so it has to be treated.”

Another bout of alcohol and another clean bandage, and the doc said I should rest, but Pa wasn’t leaving my side.  He moved to the upholstered chair and crossed his legs.  He was in for the long haul, and so was I, but I still had questions.

“What’s wrong with my leg?”

Pa leaned forward and ran his hands over his face.  “Do you remember when Hoss and Adam and I rode up?”

I tried to think, tried to remember.  “Yes and no.”

“Mrs. Sears had strung you up by your wrists to a … to three wooden posts.”

“Wait.  Fence posts.  She built a teepee, but there wasn’t a canvas, right?”

“That’s right.  What else do you remember?”

Fairies and dragons.  No.  My mind was still playing tricks, and I had to get back on track. “Not much,” I said.  I felt forced to lie, but I wasn’t about to talk about dragons and such with my father.  A woman had overpowered me, had taken control, and I didn’t want Pa to think worse of me than he did already.

“Mrs. Sears wasn’t right in the head, son.  She had ideas that—well, her father was a preacher, and he preached that all God’s creatures should be treated equally.  My belief is that she took her father’s words literally and … I don’t know if the right word is frustration or anger or what, but she—”

“I get the picture, Pa.  Loud and clear.”

I couldn’t erase the brand she’d left on my hip, but that had been her sole intent.  She wanted me permanently damaged.  The march through the desert, no different than a cattle drive.  Branded and butchered.  The whole scenario became clear in my mind.  I clenched my fists and fought to steady my breathing.  I pictured bright red blood seeping from her body and wished Martin had left the final outcome to me.

“My leg,” I said.  “She wanted to skin me alive, didn’t she?”

“Yes, but a very small piece of flesh is missing.  She’d just begun when your brothers and I rode up, but Paul’s keeping a close eye.”

“A close eye?”

“Infection, son.  Paul’s doing everything he can.”

Panic had me thinking the worst, and I questioned my father.  “Will I lose my leg?”

“Oh, no.  Not at all.”  Pa seemed flustered by the question.  “Your leg will be fine.”

I didn’t want to think or talk any longer.  I lay back down, turned my back to the world around me, and pulled the quilt over my shoulder.

*****

Chapter 55

Rain fell for the next two days, and I did nothing more than I was told.  Eat, drink, and sleep.  I preferred any of those three to forcing idle conversation.  My brothers stopped by once a day and filled Pa in on ranch business.  I wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t bother to listen.  Eat, drink, sleep, and forget.  A perfect routine.  A blissful existence.  But forgetting wasn’t my nature.

Angry and agitated, my blissful existence crumbled a little more every day that I lay in bed with nothing to do but brood.  I wanted revenge.  I wanted Pauline to suffer, to be scarred for life but it was too late.  The dragon had died much too soon.

I was alive.  I was lucky.  My father’s words sang like a mantra, but the “forever” scars left a dangerous shadow over my sweet disposition.  When Adam and Hoss stopped by the evening before I was allowed to go home, they brought a visitor, which they left outside my door until permission was granted.

Adam approached my bed.  “Someone’s here to see you, Joe.”

I ran a nervous hand through my hair and stared at Adam in disbelief.  Who in God’s name knew about my ordeal besides Doc and the sheriff?  I wasn’t up for visitors, and I managed one simple word.  “No.”  The reaction in the room was static.  Everyone stared but no one spoke until Hoss stepped forward.

“It’s Martin, Little Joe.  He’s waited a long time to see you.”

I wanted to laugh at the absurdity.  His wife maims me for life, and he dares to come to see me?  All’s forgiven?  Not in this lifetime.  “No.”

“You don’t understand, Joe,” Adam said.  “He did it for you.”

“Martin’s no longer a friend of mine.”

“He killed his wife because she hurt you,” Adam said.  “He saved you from facing her in front of a jury and telling the court what she did.  He’s the best friend you’ll ever have.”

“Adam’s right, Little Joe.  He even wrote a statement to Roy, and that’s exactly what he said.”

“He killed his wife because of me?”

“Yep.  Said you was his best friend, and he didn’t want you to relive the torture in a court of law.”

I pushed myself up against the headboard.  “He said that?”

“And the judge let him off.  Ain’t gonna be no trial neither.  What’d they call that, Adam?”

“Irresistible impulse.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Basically,” Adam said, “under normal circumstances, Martin knows right from wrong but he was so distraught over his wife’s actions that he temporarily lost his mind and shot her on impulse.”

“So he’s not going to prison?”

“That’s right.”

“Will you leave us to talk alone?”

“Sure, we will.”

“You too, Pa?”

“Of course, son.”

As Pa and my brothers switched places with Martin, I straightened my bedcovers and sat as tall as I could.  Martin ducked through the doorway, his hair mussed and his hands fidgeting with his hat, but I was glad to see him after-all.

“You doin’ okay, Joseph?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“How are you really?”

“Well, you know.  Okay, I guess.”

“I’m sorry, Joseph.”

“Hey, it wasn’t your fault.”

“Maybe not, but I should’ve known she was crazy and maybe I did, but—well, she was my wife, and I thought things would be good but they never was.”

“I know.”  I smiled at my best friend.  “Still friends?”

“You don’t hate me?”

“You don’t listen, do you, Martin?  Nothing about this was your fault.  There’s no reason we can’t still be friends, is there?”

“There’s one more thing you should know.”

Oh, God.  What else could there possibly be?  “What’s that?”

“Sally Ann Wilson.”

“What about her?”

Martin hung his head.  “I found her ruby necklace on Pauline’s dressing table.”

“What are you saying, Martin?”

He looked straight at me and I knew.  “Pauline?”  His Adam’s apple bobbed.  “Does the sheriff know?”  Martin nodded.  “How?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t wanna know.”

I didn’t know what to say.  Sally Ann was dead, and maybe I didn’t want to know the whole truth either.  Rather than asking more questions, I changed the subject.  “Doc’s sending me home tomorrow.”

“That’s good.  That’s real good.  That’s where you belong.”

“Yeah.  I think so too.”  Martin seemed so fragile and down in the dumps, I wanted to cheer him up.  I had a thought.  “Hey, you should come stay at the Ponderosa for a few days.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Sure you can.”  I had another curious thought.  “If you want to nursemaid me, I could send Pa with my brothers on the drive to Sacramento and you could stay with me at the Ponderosa.  I could sure use the company.”

“Adam told you, didn’t he?  He told you I quit my job.”

“No, I didn’t know.  What will you do now?”

“I ain’t sure, Joseph, but I can’t go back.  There’s a lot of talk, you know.  People like to talk.”

“Yeah.”

“People start rumors that don’t make a lick of sense, but when a man gets stuck in the middle … you know what I mean?”

“Hell with them.  Come work out at the ranch.  We always need hands.”

“I don’t know.”

“With me as a teacher, you’ll learn everything in no time.”

Martin looked up.  “You’re a good friend, Joseph.”

“Friend nothing.  You have a strong back and two good hands. I’ll teach you the ropes.”

“What about your Pa?”

“He’ll be happy to have you.”

“Okay.  You’re on.”

“That’s all I wanted to hear.”

*****

Chapter 56

Adam arrived with the wagon, and I traveled from Virginia City to the Ponderosa in the back like an invalid, mattress and blankets and all.  I hadn’t talked to Pa about the drive to Sacramento, but if Martin came out to nursemaid me, there’d be no reason for Pa not to boss the job.  All I had to do now was convince him I could survive without him.

With Pa and my brothers away for a month, I could recover in peace without the whole family hovering over me day and night.  And that’s just what they’d do.  Martin would treat me like an equal, a friend, not a sick little boy, and I needed that sense of freedom.

Pa’s birthday celebration had been delayed.  I understood why, but I felt guilty that he had to spend his special day searching for me.  Though I had to push, I convinced him that after twenty-four hours of resting in my own bed, I’d be well enough to celebrate, and I asked if Martin could join us.  There was a downside to being laid up, but there was an upside too.  My request for both was granted.

I’d already told Martin to pack his bags and ride out to the ranch, but I wouldn’t spring my suggestion on Pa until we were all seated for his birthday dinner.  That’s when I’d broach the subject of Martin staying and Pa feeling free to boss the drive.

Hop Sing cooked all day—Pa’s and my favorites—and I thanked him more than once.  I’d survived without food for days.  Dry toast and chicken broth had been my introduction to eating again, but tonight would be different.  Ponderosa steaks and all the fixin’s.  I hoped I could keep it down.

Rather than spending another day in bed, I convinced Pa I’d heal just as quick or even quicker if I could sit on the front porch and take in some fresh air.  I was expecting Martin, and I wanted to welcome him properly.  Pa said he’d bring his paperwork outside and join me.  Three days at Doc’s, another day in bed at home, and Pa still couldn’t leave my side.  Convincing him to go on the drive and leave his baby son at home would take a miracle from above.

A half-hour later, Martin rode into the yard.  I’d told Pa earlier that he needed a job and thought it was the least we could do.  Pa didn’t argue.  Tonight was the big celebration and Martin had been invited, so it seemed only natural that he should get settled in before supper.  I almost felt guilty about springing my proposition during such a special event except time was running out.  A decision had to be made.

“Hey, buddy,” I called out.

“Hi, Joseph, Mr. Cartwright.  I sure appreciate the job offer.”

“Think nothing of it, Martin,” Pa said.  “You’re a welcome addition to the Ponderosa.”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

“Once you’ve stabled your horse and found a bed in the bunkhouse, come on back and join Joe and me.”

“Thank you, sir.”

My father was a generous man.  Martin didn’t know diddlysquat about ranching, but Pa took a chance that he could learn, probably for my benefit, and I appreciated the kindness.  I’m sure Martin did too.

“Thanks, Pa.”

“I’m not worried.  Martin will do his share.”

“I’m sure he will.”

By the time we sat down for supper, I was ready for either a good stiff drink or bed.  Both sounded like heaven.  Sometimes a drink or two would help keep the demons away, but Pa didn’t believe that type of indulgence was wise, but I was sneaky.  I’d already slipped down for a couple shots of his good brandy since I’d been home.  What Pa didn’t know wouldn’t hurt either of us.

My hip ached constantly, and my leg was stiff and sore.  Even the stitches in my shoulders pulled more when I sat up than when I laid flat out in bed.  When Adam popped the cork on a bottle of expensive French wine, I was the first after Pa, of course, to lift my glass.

Wine wasn’t my favorite drink, but after the first glass, I felt more relaxed, and after the second, I was holding my own at the table and was ready to present my case.  “Pa,” I said, but I was still gathering my thoughts and I hesitated.

“Yes, son.”

“Oh, well, yeah, I’ve come up with a plan, Pa.”

My brothers rolled their eyes.

“A plan?”  Pa repeated.

“Martin’s agreed to nursemaid me so you can go with Adam and Hoss and boss the drive just like always.”

“Oh, Joe, I don’t know.”

Pa considered my health, which was improving every day, but he probably considered the constant stream of nightmares I’d been having too.  “I’m fine, Pa.  Really.  I won’t do anything except sit on my butt and watch Martin do all the work.”

“Joseph,” Pa cautioned.  “This is the dinner table.  Watch your language.”

“Okay, maybe I didn’t say that right, but you know what I mean.  I won’t lift a finger all month.”

Pa glanced at Martin.  “This is something the two of you have discussed?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you’re okay with the idea of being Joe’s—as he put it, nursemaid?”

“I wouldn’t want the word nursemaid gettin’ around, but I’d be glad to stay here with Joseph while you’re away.”

Pa looked at my brothers.  He quirked an eyebrow and set down his glass of wine.  The decision was hard for him, but I wasn’t ill and on death’s door.  I was recovering from an injury.  Besides, Hop Sing would gladly change the dressing on my hip and leg.

“Need another man on the drive?”

“We could sure use ya, Pa.”

“I guess it’s settled then.”

“Not just yet,” I said.  I pushed my chair back, managed the stairs, and grabbed the package I’d picked up before the dragon changed my life.  I was happy that day, proud that I’d found the perfect gift for my father.  But now, things were different.  I was different too.

When Pa unwrapped the engraved holster, he carried on like it was the best gift he’d ever received, but that was my pa.  I feel sure he’d seen the holster the day I went missing, but he never let on.  “Where in the world—” he said.  “Did you have to special order or did Ira do this for you?”

“Ira helped me order.”

“This is beautiful, Joseph.  Just beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it, Pa.”

After Martin excused himself and went out to the bunkhouse, Pa and my brothers moved in front of the fire, but I said goodnight.  I had to lie down before I fell down.  If Pa caught on to how used up and worthless I felt by the end of the day, he’d never go on the drive.

“I’ll be up soon, son.”

“No need.  I can tuck myself in.”

Pa chuckled then added, “I’ll be up anyway.”

I’d shed my clothes and was already lying down when Pa came to my room and issued a set of rules he insisted I follow.  By the time he was through, I’d promised to eat right, sleep eight hours every night, not ride Cochise or leave the ranch, and not lift a finger or lift anything heavier than five pounds.

“Is that all?”

“One more thing.  Have Martin sleep in the guest room instead of the bunkhouse, just in case.”

“Fine, Pa.  Just in case.”

“Are you sure about this, son?  Just say the word and I’ll stay.  Adam can boss the drive.”

“I be fine, Pa.”

“All right.  Goodnight, Joseph.”

“Goodnight, Pa.”

*****

Chapter 57

Martin and I joined the family for an early breakfast.  Pa repeated the instructions he’d given me the night before, and he and my brothers were ready to head out before dawn.  I followed Pa to the front door.

“I’ll wire when I can, son.  If there’s any problem, Martin knows to get in touch with Roy or Paul.”

“We’ll be fine.  No need for worry.”

Pa eyed his new holster before fastening his gunbelt.  “A fine holster, son.”  He held his jacket and hat in one hand and gripped my arm with the other.  “Behave yourself, Joseph.”

“I will, Pa.”

“No funny business.”

“No, sir.”

“We’ll see you in about a month.”

“Okay.”

From across the yard, Hoss yelled.  “You ready, Pa?”

Pa acknowledged by waving his hat.  “Be right there.”

“Take care, Joseph.”

“You too, Pa.”

When my father closed the door behind him, Martin couldn’t stop giggling.  “Is he always like that?”

“Yep.  That was relatively mild, my friend.  I’ve been through much worse.”

Pa’s concern over his sons’ welfare was common knowledge to most, but Martin had lived a different life.  He’d never known the love and respect that resonates with a family like ours.  Eli Sears was a sleazy drunk who married and fathered two boys he couldn’t support because of the drink.  Everyone in town knew about their home situation and the whole dirty business embarrassed Martin.

I remember one Christmas after church service we all drew names of families in need. Pa and I stood on the Sears’ doorstep.  Oren and Martin were young—Martin, a year older than me—and we’d come to deliver a basket of food and toys, but it didn’t go well. Mr. Sears was irate and nearly swung a fist at Pa before it was over.

“We don’t take no charity from no Cartwright.”

“Just a little something for the boys, Eli.  It’s Christmastime.”

Oren and Martin stood behind their mother’s skirt.  I stood behind Pa’s pant leg, and we heard every word that was said.  It was an ugly scene, and I remember thinking the big man could hurt my pa if we didn’t leave the Christmas package and run.  But Mr. Sears grabbed the overstuffed basket, slammed the front door in our face, and that was the end of it.

Pa and I rode home together.  Not a word was ever said, but I’ve never forgotten that day. I wondered if Martin had any recollection or if he could even understand the kindhearted goodness of a man so willing to share with those less fortunate.

My father proved his generous nature a second time when he took Martin on as a ranch hand.  Pa was a good man.  I might not miss the constant hovering, but I’d miss all the little quirks that made my father the man he was.

*****

Chapter 58

As Pa and my brothers rode out, I wished they’d taken my nightmares with them but, as always, they persisted.  Every night like clockwork, the dragon crawled into bed with me, but I was far enough away from Martin and the downstairs guest room that he never heard my cries or my desperate attempt to cut the ties that bound the monster and me together.

Some nights, I crept down for a shot a brandy just to help me sleep, and it seemed to do the trick if only a temporary fix.  Medicinal purposes.  That’s what I told myself as I tiptoed down the stairs in the dead of night.

It wasn’t just the physical pain; I was ashamed that I’d let a woman get the best of me.  I’d let things go too far before trying to escape.  Hoss would never hold that against me, but Pa and Adam had to be biting their tongues to hold back questions that plagued their minds.  They’d always wonder how a lady half my size managed to haul me through the desert and torture a grown man.  A fool.  That’s what I’d been.  A damn fool, and I was paying the price.

There was work to be done and even though I wasn’t allowed to lift a finger, there was no reason I couldn’t start Martin out on simple chores and build from there.  He’d worked underground for so long that he wasn’t accustomed to outside jobs and on our first day together, I led him straight to the barn.

Trying to ignore the pain in my hip, I used an upturned bucket as a chair, stretched my legs out in front of me, and leaned back against a post while Martin mucked and straightened the tack.  The swelling in my feet was gone.  I was able to wear boots again and that’s when Hop Sing handed me the basket and informed me I could collect the eggs.  My shoulders and back could tolerate a shirt.  The worst had passed except the damn hip.  I tried to reassure myself that the pain wouldn’t last forever.

Had I been able to do more around the ranch, I wouldn’t have had time to think, and memories of the desert brought me to a place I didn’t want to be.  As much as I tried to distance the dragon from my thoughts, she was there, a constant reminder that I would always be disfigured, that I was forced to live with the pine tree brand for the rest of my life.

“What’s next, boss.”  I was so caught up in my musings, I’d forgotten where I was and why.  “Joseph?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”  I pushed up from the bucket and realized the chores had been completed.  “Um, that’s it for the barn, I guess.”

“Somethin’ wrong?”

“Wrong?”  I tried to sound light and airy.  Martin didn’t need to know the depths of my thoughts.  “No.  I’m fine.”

“You were a hundred miles away.”

I chuckled.  “You sound like one of my brothers.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Come on.  It’s not time for lunch so how ‘bout a game of checkers.”

“Is that what you Cartwright’s do all day?  Sit around and play checkers, and let the hired hands do all the work?”

“I’ll tell you how things work, Martin.  When the invalid’s butt gets tired of sitting on a wooden bucket, he needs a more comfortable chair.  Naturally, the nursemaid can’t leave his side so the invalid suggests a game of checkers.  Got it?”

“Okay.  I’m game if you’re game.”

“Come on.  We can sit on the front porch and listen to the birds sing.  Bet you don’t know one song from another, do you?”

“No.  Just the sweet sound of a canary.  That’s the only tune I know.”

I set up the checkerboard, and after we played our first game, Martin asked if we had anything to drink.

“Drink?”

“Loser takes a shot.”

“Little early in the day, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know.  If you were in Virginia City pickin’ up supplies, you’d stop for a drink, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, a beer maybe.”

“But if you can’t leave the ranch for a month … ”

“Mmm.  A month is a long time, isn’t it?”

Martin wasn’t allowed to drink anywhere near the mine, and it surprised me that he was interested in a midday jolt.  He was right, though.  A beer.  A shot.  There wasn’t much difference.  I grabbed a bottle and two glasses and carried them out to the front porch.  “Whiskey okay?”

“Sure, why not?”

After pouring two fingers in each glass, I handed one to Martin.  “To friendship.”

“To best friends.”

“Best friends.”

While I was inside, Martin set up the checkerboard for another game.  “You ready?”

I cocked my head.  “I’ve played for money before but never shots.”

“Change your mind?”

“Nope.  You’re on, but I’m pretty good at this game.”

“So am I.”

“Just remember.  I’m not allowed to lift so I can’t carry you to bed.”

Martin’s eyebrows shot up.  “You?  Carry me?  Ha!  I could drink you under the table any day of the week.”

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

We laughed until our sides ached, but the game was on.  I moved my black piece first.  If Pa could see me now, drinking during daylight hours, he’d have a conniption or worse. He’d bust me over the head and ask if I had any brains at all.  But it was only a game.  I didn’t think we were breaking any hard-fast rules.

By the time Hop Sing called supper, the two of us were beyond help and could barely eat the food we’d piled on our plates.  We giggled and made silly jokes until we stood and moved closer to the fireplace where we both plopped our booted feet on the table and laughed some more.

“We didn’t get much done today,” I said.

“We’ll do better tomorrow, that’s if I can roll out of bed in the morning.”

“You and me both.  I’m ready to call it a night.  You?”

“I’m beat, Joseph.  This ranch business is hard work.”

I knew he was joking, but I couldn’t find a suitable comeback so I stood and headed for the stairs.  “See you tomorrow.”

“Nite, Joseph.”

As soon as I pulled off my boots, I flopped back on my bed.  I didn’t bother with a nightshirt.  Our games—one right after the other—had turned into a drunk-fest, and I was too far-gone for such nonsense, but a funny thing happened.  For the first time in days, I didn’t care about my hip or my leg.  I didn’t care that a hate-filled woman had brutalized me in the desert and left me scarred for life.  I felt at peace.

By week’s end, I pulled the last full bottle of whiskey from Pa’s stash.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, but the cabinet was empty.  After our chores were finished, I carried the bottle to the barn, and Martin and I sat on two upturned buckets.

We’d given up on glasses.  They’d become too much of a bother when we could pass the bottle back and forth just as easily.  After Hop Sing ranted and carried on over our childish behavior, we gave up playing checkers on the front porch.  The game didn’t seem important anymore, and it was a helluva lot more peaceful in the barn.

“We need to go to town.”

“Why?”  Martin swung the half-full bottle like a pendulum.  “We got everything we need right here.”

“That’s the last bottle, my friend.  No more.  End of the line.  Kaput.”

Martin jumped up from the wooden bucket.  “Well then,” he said with a flourish.  “What’re we waiting for?”

We consumed the rest of the bottle before we took off in the buckboard.  It was mid-afternoon, but we had nothing left for later or tomorrow or the next day, and I felt the trip was necessary.  If not, I would have gone straight to bed, but for once in my life, I thought ahead.

In the back of my mind, I knew my father’s thoughts about using alcohol as a crutch, and I knew Pa would have my hide if he found out, but the peace that came over me was worth every drink I took.  I wouldn’t need the whiskey for long, but for now, it seemed like the only way to get past my constant thoughts of Starvation Flats.  I needed to forget. I needed that more than I needed to do what was expected of me.

“Carson,” I said.  “Let’s not go to Virginia City.”

“Right.”  He chucked the reins while I sat back and enjoyed the ride.  “Always knew you were the smart one, Joseph.”  Martin took very good care of me; at least, that was my belief.  Pa would’ve thought otherwise.

*****

Chapter 59

We each set a case in the buckboard.  In order to buy two cases, Martin convinced me to buy a cheaper rotgut.  Said the taste wouldn’t matter after the first drink.  I’d spent all the cash I had on me, and we stashed our spare whiskey in a cave about a mile from the house.  It wouldn’t do to have Hop Sing giving us his two cents so we played it smart.  I brought a few bottles into the house and slipped them back in the sideboard.  Martin and I sat down for supper.

“Where you boys go?  Father say no leave ranch.”

“Oh, sorry, Hop Sing.  Martin wanted to pick something up at his house, but he drove.  I didn’t have to move a muscle.  See?”  I held out both arms.  “No harm done.”

“You stay on ranch.  You no leave again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t get smart with me, little boy.”

“No, sir.”

“Humph.”

As soon as Hop Sing disappeared into the kitchen, Martin turned to me.  “He takes after your pa.”

“Two peas in a pod.”

I wasn’t angry at Hop Sing, but I wasn’t hungry either.  I ate a couple of bites and pushed the rest of my supper around the plate until I couldn’t stand the sight any longer.  I was jittery, rough around the edges, and not tired enough to sleep.  I stood from my chair. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Want company?”

“Your choice.”  I grabbed a bottle from the sideboard and marched directly to the barn.  Martin followed like a puppy chasing a bone.  “We can’t keep this up.”

“You’re probably right.”

I pulled the cork and took a long pull before I handed the bottle to Martin—back and forth until the bottle was halfway gone—but I seemed to be out-drinking my friend.  Two deep breaths later, and I could feel that annoying tightness begin to ease.  I thought of the fire-breathing dragon that disrupted my life.  Hate was all I felt, that bitter feeling was back in full force, and I smashed the bottle against the barn wall.

“She did this to me,” I cried.  “That crazy bitch ruined my life.”

“Hold on now, Joseph.”

“Hold on?  What for?”

“Nothing,” he mumbled as though he didn’t want me to hear.  “Nothing at all.”

Martin’s voice sounded different, melancholy.  I shook it off as too much to drink, but our motives were different.  He was enjoying a reprieve from the mines, but there was never a time when the dragon didn’t creep into the back of my mind and linger until I poured enough whiskey down my throat that I could erase her if only for a few moments.  And then she was back, that evil, vicious woman that nightmares were made of.  The dragon had become a permanent fixture in my life.

I hadn’t realized we’d fallen asleep in the barn, passed out, rather, in a nest of prickly straw until Martin called my name.  “Wake up, Joseph.”

“Wh … what’s wrong?”

“You were screamin’.  Something about a … a dragon, I think.”

My head throbbed and my face was streaming with sweat, but I shivered from the cold.  Embarrassed that Martin had heard my cries, I turned my back, tucked my arms under the horse blanket, and brought my knees to my chest.  “Just some stupid dream.  Sorry I woke you, buddy.”  I couldn’t chance a second nightmare, and I laid awake the rest of the night.

*****

Chapter 60

Jimmy Daniels, one of Virginia City’s street kids who earned money making deliveries, brought a telegram from Pa out to the ranch.  I thanked him, gave him a dime, and he was on his way back to town.

Day or two behind schedule (stop)

Hope all is well (stop)

Should be home on 21st  (stop)

Pa (end)

Guilt often hits at odd times and reading Pa’s wire brought on a boatload of guilt and shame.  I had ten days to clean up my act and be the man Pa thought I was, not the man I was fast becoming.  The unsightly pile of empty bottles behind the barn was proof that my life was spiraling in the wrong direction.

Though I had sense enough to know right from wrong, the dragon still shadowed me like a skin I couldn’t shed.  A drink first thing in the morning soothed the rough edges, and after finding Pa’s silver flask, I kept it filled and stuffed in my jacket pocket.  There was a comfort just knowing it was close at hand.  A sip or two suppressed that jittery feeling that grew more intense every day.

The following morning, after Martin cleaned the stalls, and I’d fed the chicken and gathered the eggs, I gave each mount a bag of oats then led them out to the corral.  I noticed two splintered rails that needed replacing.  “You up for a new job?”

“You’re the boss, Joseph.”

“Cut that out.”

“You’re a Cartwright, aren’t you?  And this is the mighty Ponderosa.”  Martin shrugged.  “That makes you the boss.”

“Fine.  Whatever you say.”

Maybe we needed a change.  We’d fallen into a rut and needed something to lift our spirits.  Too many days in a row of mundane chores and drinking straight from the bottle had made us both stale and short-tempered.

The splintered boards would still be there tomorrow.  Since I wasn’t worth my salt around the ranch, Pa didn’t expect much, but I felt guilty all the same.  Sitting around all day had become tedious, and even though Pa had left bookwork, I was in no mood to tackle his small print and transfer numbers on the stack of papers he’d left on his desk.

I didn’t want to stay home.  I wanted to ride, to feel the wind in my hair, and pretend all was good in the world.  I needed to do normal things, and I decided to check with Doc. Surely, after this long, he’d give me the “okay” to get back to work.  Plus, it would make Pa happy to know I’d followed the rules.  I hitched the buckboard and like a good little boy, I let Martin drive me to town.

And, like a good patient, I let “nurse” Hop Sing change the bandages every day like clockwork.  He said both wounds looked better, but I didn’t want to chance infection.

The doctor had made that clear.  “Keep both wounds clean and bandaged.”

Doc had me wait.  He was with a patient and told me he wouldn’t be long.  I could live with that.  I reached for the flask then thought better of it.  Martin left me alone.  He had errands to run, and I told him to go ahead.  I’d meet him outside when I was finished with the doctor.

I patted my jacket pocket to make sure the flask was still there.  Only a few minutes more.  Doc said he wouldn’t be long.  My left leg bounced up and down like a prairie jackrabbit, and I pressed my hand against my thigh.  Easy Joe.  Sweat beaded on my forehead, and I wiped it with the back of my hand.

This was ridiculous.  Pull it together or the doc will suspect.  He’ll run straight to Pa and—damn it.  I stood from the chair and paced the waiting room like a caged animal in a traveling circus.  Sweat covered my face.  I couldn’t wait any longer, and I bolted out the front door.

My bootheels sounded overloud on the boardwalk.  Every step I took—clack, clack, clack—and I wondered if anyone else would notice.  Could they see the panic in my eyes or the way I bumped into that last post?  For God’s sake, I hadn’t had enough to drink to cause me to stumble on the stupid boardwalk, and where the hell was Martin?

As a strange feeling of anxiety took over, I looked for our buckboard.  It had to be parked close by.  Run a few errands.  What was that all about?  Everything he needed was on the Ponderosa.  I glanced across the street to the mercantile.  My frustration mounted.  Was he there?  Damn, the buckboard wasn’t there either.  What the hell?

I turned and walked back the way I’d come, marching like a soldier with my eyes beaming up the street and across, and why was I constantly swallowing.  Where was the damn buckboard?  My head ached, and I thought a nice cold beer might do the trick.  The Bucket of Blood was across the street and welcomed me like an old friend.  Just one beer. Just like old times.  I crossed the street, passed through the batwings, and called out to the bartender.

“How ‘bout a cold one, Bruno?”

“You’re in town early, Little Joe?  Come for supplies?”

“No, but I’ll take that beer anyway.”

“Beer wagon ain’t showed up yet.  Settle for a whiskey?”

“Sure, why not.  I’m meeting a friend.  Just give me a bottle.”

Bruno quirked his head to the side but did as I asked and slid an uncorked bottle my way. I nodded my thanks and found an empty table near the back of the saloon where I wouldn’t be bothered.  I had no doubt Martin would find me eventually.

The saloon wasn’t crowded, and I could drink in peace.  I didn’t have to deal with rowdy drunks, the stench of sweaty bodies and smoke-filled air, or an off-key piano player pounding out a lively tune I was in no mood to hear.  The atmosphere suited me fine, and though I felt a little off kilter, I poured myself a shot.

Bruno went about his business, but he often glanced my way.  Drinking was my business and no one else’s, and if he continued to stare, I could always settle in elsewhere.  Not only was my credit good, I had a few silver coins in my pocket.  I was good to go.

I tried to remember the date, but the last few days had become a blur of the same old thing, cleaning the barn and … not much else that Pa would call productive.  But those were the rules he set before they left on the drive.  “No heavy lifting.  No riding.  No this no that.”  I obeyed the rules, Pa.  Martin saw to that and you should be happy.

The longer I sat, the worse my left hip ached.  I poured another drink.  Damn.  Ease the pain.  Wasn’t that the reason I sat in a stuffy saloon before noon?  Doc would wonder where I went and I’d need a good excuse, but I’d worry about that later.

Lifting both feet onto an empty chair, I leaned heavily on my right side.  Maybe if I had more padding like Hoss, the brand wouldn’t always be a sore spot, literally.  I chuckled softly.  I’d made a joke.

As time passed more patrons entered the saloon, men I didn’t know and didn’t care to meet.  They left me alone and went about their business.  Bruno had rolled a new keg of beer in earlier, and that was the drink of choice for most men this early in the day, but I knew better than to switch from booze to beer.  I’d be puking my guts out in the alley if I tried a stupid stunt like that.

Though I didn’t bother to look up when Martin walked in, he thumped my chair to make his presence known.  “Hey,” I said.

He took the seat next to me.  “Thought you’d be waiting outside.  Doc Martin said—”

I help up my hand.  “Just forget it.”

“Okay.”

“Wanna drink?”

“Kinda early ain’t it?”

“Never too early, my friend.”

Martin stood from his seat.  “Come on.  Time to go, Joseph.”

“But the bottle’s nearly full?’

“Come on.  Let’s go.”

Guessing Martin didn’t want to join me, I returned the bottle to Bruno and walked out the door.  Confused by the loaded buckboard, I reached for the seat, but an unnerving stomach cramp nearly bent me in half.

“Too much to drink?”

“You saw the bottle.  I’d just gotten started.”

“No worries.  There’s more where that came from.  A quick shot when we get home should make you feel better.”

Clutching my midsection, I climbed up on the buckboard next to Martin and tried to pretend nothing was wrong.  I’d only had a couple of shots; I sure as heck wasn’t drunk and having my gut seize up like that made no sense.  When the sweating subsided and I felt human again, I turned to Martin.

“What’s in the back?”

“Just a few things I picked up from the house.”

“That makes sense.

“Figured I didn’t need to pay rent if I didn’t live there no more.”

When a sharper pain struck, I gripped the buckboard’s railing and anchored my feet to the floor.  My eyelids felt heavy, but every time the buckboard hit a bump or a rut, I swayed and my eyes jerked back open.  Men do foolish things, but as God as my witness, I hadn’t had too much to drink.

Martin pulled the buckboard close to the front door and helped me up the stairs.  “Time to sleep it off, Joseph.”

I wanted to shout.  “I’m not drunk.”  Instead, I let him lead me to bed.

He’d grabbed a bottle before we headed up and poured me a drink.  “Here you go, buddy.”

Without a second thought, I took the glass from his hand and belted it back.  Anything to ease the pain.   “You’re a good friend, Martin.”

“Sweet dreams, Joseph.”

“If only.”

Me and the dragon and the pine tree brand.  We all slept together in the same bed.

*****

Chapter 61

When I rolled to my side, my bedroom shade was drawn and confusion set in.  Was it day or night?  After letting my feet fall to the floor, I tried to stand, but why was I still so tired?  My eyelids felt like lead weights, and my stomach wasn’t in great shape either.  When I reached for my pitcher, it was dry.  That wasn’t like Hop Sing.

I didn’t bother with boots.  After walking across the bedroom and down the hall to the stairs, I realized how quiet the house was.  “Hello?”  No one answered so I crept downstairs and crossed to the dining room where soft evening light revealed itself through the window behind Pa’s chair.

When I tapped on Martin’s bedroom door, no one answered, and I called out his name. “Martin?”  I moved to the kitchen and looked for Hop Sing.  No Hop Sing either.  Strange as it might seem, the house felt odd, lifeless, and a bit unnerving.

No fire blazed in the fireplace; no pot simmered on the stove.  Was I dreaming?  I moved to the front door and pulled it open.  The last rays of sun shimmered against the tallest pines, a halo of gold.  Very nice, but the yard took on an ashen look that said the day was done.  Where was everyone?

I closed the front door and walked back to Martin’s room.  Maybe he was napping too.  I pushed the door open and glanced inside.  No one was in the bed but in the dusky light, the room looked different, cluttered and overflowing.  I stepped inside and lit a lamp.

“Joseph?”

I whirled like a whip, my eyes wide with fright.  Martin stood behind me.  “You scared me to death.”  I fought to catch my breath.  “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“Did you want something?”

“Uh, well, I thought maybe you were sleeping.  I couldn’t find you or Hop Sing, and I lit your lamp thinking … ”

“Thinking what, Joseph?”

“I don’t know exactly.”  Martin’s voice sounded strange, deadpan, but I’d let myself grow spooked by … whatever when I couldn’t find anyone in the house.

“It’s your home, not mine.  You’re welcome to come and go as you please.”

“I didn’t mean to pry, honest I didn’t.”

And that’s when I turned back to the guest room, unconsciously, I think, but my eyes fell on a silver-framed tintype, a wedding photograph had been placed on top of a crocheted doily.  Martin sat in an upholstered chair and Pauline stood with her hand on his shoulder, a stoic appearance that seemed more hostile than endearing.

The bedcover caught my eye too, ruffled and flowered, and tiny knickknacks had been displayed around the room like a shrine.  A lace curtain had taken the place of the one that hung before.

“I brought some things from the house.  A few mementos.”

“Yeah, I see that.”

But the wedding photograph stayed with me, and I didn’t appreciate anything concerning that woman displayed in our home.  Did I have the right to tell him to take it down, better yet, throw it out?  Martin was my friend.  She was his wife, but he’d killed her because of our friendship, hadn’t he?  Bang!  Dead.  So why was the tintype displayed next to his bed?

I needed a damn drink.  Standing in the same room with the dragon made my head erupt with hatred and vengeance.  The woman was dead, buried six feet under, but her spirit haunted me as though she stood right there with us.  I stepped to the sideboard and grabbed the first bottle I saw.  “I’ll be outside if you want me.”

After tossing the cork in the yard, I plopped down in the rocker and took a man-size gulp.  I shivered when the fiery drink burned my throat and filled my empty stomach.  I hadn’t eaten all day.  I drank and I slept, and I had damn good reason to repeat the process. Why the hell not?  The dragon wouldn’t leave me alone, and when she stared back at me in that bedroom, I lost all sense of control.

Everything that was right and good didn’t matter.  Pa didn’t matter.  Adam and Hoss didn’t matter.  Martin could go to hell and I’d fend for myself.  Why I’d ever asked him to stay on the Ponderosa was a mystery.  If I’d had any sense at all, I would’ve known better than to invite a stranger into our home, and that’s just what he’d become.

He knew damn well how I’d react yet he brought her here anyway.  I hated everything and everyone, and my hip hurt like hell.  I tried rocking.  With the bottle pressed against my thigh, I had a gay old time rocking back and forth and staring at the inky-black sky.  Not a star in sight, even the moon hid behind heavy clouds.  A storm threatened.

I rocked faster and faster until my feet reached the sky and touched the rain-filled clouds.  The rungs rattled on the wooden surface, back and forth, back and forth, higher and higher.  I was flying, flying, flying.

*****

Chapter 62

“Why you sleep in rain?”

“Hop Sing?”

“You grown man.  Why you act like little boy?”

“What?”  The light from my window nearly blinded me, and I flung my arm across my eyes.  “What time is it?”

“It morning.  Wet clothes in heap on floor.”

“What?”

“Mr. Martin carry you inside house and put to bed.  You tell Hop Sing why you sleep in rain?”

For the life of me, I didn’t know why he was yelling or what he was yelling about, but he was sure fired up.  “I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Drink too much whiskey.  Make stupid decisions.  Bandage all wet and muddy.”

“I know, Hop Sing.  I know.  Just give me a minute to wake up.”

Hop Sing scurried around the room like a crazy man as he gathered alcohol and clean bandages before stepping back up to the bed.  “Must clean wound.”

“Not now, Hop Sing.”

“Right now.  You want I call doctor instead?”

“No, go ahead.”

Hop Sing had been a dutiful nurse since Pa left.  Inspecting the wounds, he changed the bandages daily.  Today was no exception, and I lay as still as I could until he was finished.

“You get dressed.  Breakfast already on table.”

“Okay.  I’m up.”

He closed the bedroom door behind him—slammed was a better word—and I let my arm fall from my eyes.  It was morning all right.  That part was true and so was the pile of wet clothes, but what was all that rain business about?

When I raked my fingers through my hair and tried to stand, the room whirled around me, and I sat back down on the bed.  My head was a different story.  Pound, pound, pound like the beat of a sledge on an anvil, and then I remembered something he’d said. “Martin put you to bed.”

I recalled nothing about him carrying me upstairs, but I woke up naked, which meant Martin had stripped off my wet clothes.  Had he lit a lamp?  Had he … did he want to see firsthand what his wife had done to me?  If so, he was well aware now, and maybe he’d realize why seeing that damn photograph had put a bottle of whiskey in my hand.

I stood a second time and dug through my drawers for a clean shirt, pants, and a pair of long johns.  I threw them all on the bed but had to sit down again.  This already had the makings of a helluva long day.

Martin had already sat down at the table in Pa’s chair when I made my entrance.  Nearly tripping when I hit the bottom step, he looked up.  “You look like hell, Joseph.”

“Thanks.”

He poured me a cup of coffee, and I cradled the small, china cup with both hands, but my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.  Hoping he hadn’t noticed, I set the cup down and reached for the platter of eggs.  Misery likes company, but I seemed to be the only one under the weather.  “Sleep good?”  I asked.

“Like a baby.”  He devoured a crisp strip of bacon.  “Barn chores are done.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost ten.”

“Boy, I must’ve been tired.  I never sleep that late.”

“Drunk is more like it, Joseph.”

“Yeah, well, that too.”  I scooped a pile of eggs onto my plate.  “Hop Sing said something about you carrying me in last night.”

“Somebody had to.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You don’t remember?”

“I guess not.”

Martin bit into a biscuit and set the other half back on his plate.  “It’s called passing out, Joseph.  In the yard.  In the rain.  Dead to the world.  I dragged you out of the rain is all.”

“Guess I should say thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Mentioning the pine tree brand seemed pointless, and I let it go.  I’m sure he peeked under the bandage.  If the roles had been reversed, I would’ve checked it out.  Curiosity usually wins out, but the drinking had to stop.  If I drank till I couldn’t remember, then enough was enough.

I’d had my fun, and it was over now.  Martin and Hop Sing had both railed at me for last night’s behavior; it felt like Pa had given me a good dressing down.  I was a bum.  I’d acted like a bum, and I was well aware.  No more.  I was done with all the foolishness.

The piles of statements and payments still waited for me on Pa’s desk.  He knew how much I hated bookwork, but since I wasn’t good for much else, it was time I got the figures posted or died trying.

“I’ve got bookwork to do,” I said.  “You have anything planned?”

“No.  You give the orders not me.”

I looked at Martin curiously.  “What’s with you?  You seem out of sorts.”

Martin raised his hands and shrugged.  “I’m just the hired hand, Joseph.”

*****

Chapter 63

Pa’s ledgers took me the better part of three hours, and by the time I slipped the finished paperwork into the desk drawer; I wanted a drink but not today.  I’d promised myself no more.  I wasn’t a bum like Eli Sears, and I didn’t plan on becoming one anytime soon.

I stood and stretched.  My muscles ached but I was glad the bookwork was finished.  The day was still young, and I had nothing left to do.  I hadn’t seen Martin since around ten in the morning, and Hop Sing hadn’t bothered making lunch.  I couldn’t blame him.  After the stunt I pulled last night, I’d be surprised if he bothered to cook at all.

When he brought me a cup of hot coffee earlier, I asked him where he’d been yesterday.  It wasn’t like him to leave the ranch without telling someone.

“I go Virginia City.”

“What for?  I would’ve gone if you needed supplies.”

“I send wire to father in Sacramento.”

“You wired Pa?  Why?”

Hop Sing glanced around the room before he answered.  “Mr. Martin not good for Little Joe.”

“Oh, don’t be silly.”

“He not friend.”

“Why would you say that?”

“I know.  You listen Hop Sing.  He not friend.”

“Fine.  I hear you, but I think you’re wrong.”

“Hop Sing not wrong.”

“Okay.  I’m tired, Hop Sing.  I don’t want to argue.”

I usually didn’t cave in that easily, but I was too agitated to squabble.  In fact, I hid my trembling hands under Pa’s desk.  The sweat on my brow couldn’t be helped, but he didn’t comment or pass judgment.  Maybe just one shot, just enough to steady me for the rest of the day.  As soon as he rounded the corner to the kitchen, I moved toward the sideboard and grabbed a single bottle, hid it in front of me, and walked upstairs to my room.  No one else had to know that whiskey was my only solace to end the torment.

I tipped the bottle up.  Just one drink.  That’s all I needed.  I corked the bottle and buried it in my bottom drawer under a stack of trousers.  All done.  Remembered warmth had already soothed the fragile edges that had pestered me most of the afternoon.  I took a deep breath, slipped on my boots, and ventured outside for a breath of air.

Finding Martin hoeing between each furrowed row in Hop Sing’s garden surprised me. How could our cook say he wasn’t a good friend?  He found jobs to do without being asked, even jobs that were beneath a so-called ranch hand.  I’d call that a man with a good head on his shoulders.  I moved toward the garden.

“Hi,” I said.  Apparently, I scared him, and he turned with a start.  His eyes lit up like full moons, and he held the hoe over his head like a Paiute wielding a tomahawk.  “Hey, buddy.  It’s just me.”

He lowered the weapon and playfully chopped at a loose clod of dirt.  “My apologies, Joseph.”  His erratic breathing slowed, and his eyes returned to normal size.  “You startled me is all.”

“Just wondered where you were but don’t stop on my account.”

After a beat, I turned and walked back to the house.  Who’d he think had come up behind him?  Hop Sing and I were the only two people within shouting distance.  There was no one to be afraid of so what had upset him so?

He’d scared the hell out of me; every nerve was on fire, and my sense of bravado was shaken.  I tried to move past it, to think it was nothing but fear on his part, but that look in his eye was as bad or worse than the dragon’s.  It was eerie, haunting, and oddly, my closest friend had frightened me.

Recurring visions of the desert yielded fuel for nightmares.  Calculating, and manipulative, the creature burned and tore at my flesh, but she’d become distorted and unrecognizable in my mind.  In turn, she transformed into the fire-breathing dragon of my dreams.  I saw the same look in Martin’s eyes or was I linking fantasy in with real life?  A nightmare that never ended.  Was it possible to enjoy life’s little pleasures without raking in the past every damn minute of the day?

I sat on my bed, but I didn’t remember coming up the stairs.  Worrying my hands like an old woman, I prayed my mind was playing tricks, and there was nothing else to fear. When I took a deep breath, the pain that seized my gut when Martin pulled me from the saloon had returned, but it couldn’t be the drink.  I’d only had one little shot.

Granted, I drank too much last night, but I’d felt okay all day … until … why now?  Would a drink help?  “Oh God.”  I grabbed my stomach and moved like a hunchback toward the dresser.  After pulling the bottom drawer open, I uncorked the bottle, tipped it to my mouth, and sucked like a starving baby.

“What’s wrong with me?”  I whimpered like a small child.  “I need you, Pa.  I need you now.”

*****

Chapter 64

Ben Cartwright c/o Lamplighter Hotel, Sacramento, Ca.  (stop)

Come home now.  (stop)

Little Joe in trouble.  (stop)

Hop Sing  (stop)

“Whatcha got, Pa?”

“Telegram from Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing?”

“Here.”  Ben handed the wire to Hoss.

“What kind of trouble?”

Ben stared at his overgrown son.  “Your guess is as good as mine, but you better get the horses from the livery.  So much for an end-of-the-drive celebration.”

“Hey, where’s Adam?”

“He mentioned a bookstore next door.  I’ll pack up and check there first.  We’ll meet you outside the hotel.”

“Good enough.”

*****

Chapter 65

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The bottle was nearly empty.  I slipped downstairs for another and brought it back to my room, just in case.  No Hop Sing and no Martin. Though I needed time to think, I didn’t need another drink.  I buried both bottles under my trousers and pulled my chair close to the window.  Why had I grouped Martin in with his malicious wife?  It was an unfair assumption but somehow, they’d merged together as one.  Pauline – Martin.  Martin – Pauline.  It was the eyes.  They each had the same hate-filled eyes.

My nerves had calmed, but my gut still tossed and turned.  I couldn’t win for losing and dug out the unfinished bottle.  I cradled it with both hands and began picking at the label.  Scraps of paper fell to the floor.  Why was Martin hoeing?  Maybe Hop Sing had asked him.  No, he’d never do that.  He doesn’t even ask me to help anymore, not since I was ten or eleven, and it was usually punishment for some misdeed.

One drink led to another … and another … until the bottle was dry.  Whiskey went down like water in the desert.  Smooth as silk even though it was rotgut.  Beer was beer, but whiskey was altogether different, and I’d grown accustomed to the taste.  Maybe I’d give up beer.  Too bubbly.  Too filling.  Whiskey wasn’t filling.  I could drink all day and never feel the full effects of the alcohol.  I knew that, and I should tell Hop Sing.  Maybe he would cancel the wire he’d sent to Sacramento.

Bad idea, Hop Sing.  Pa will be madder’n a hornet when he reads that telegram.  Mad, mad, mad.  I don’t want to be here when he gets home.  I don’t want to be in Storey County.  I should run away, far away, where Pa can’t find me.  Yeah, that’s good, Joe.  Run away.

Should I take Martin with me?  He’d know the way, wouldn’t he?  In case I got lost in the desert.  He’d find a way out.  He’d slay the dragon.  No.  Wait.  He already did that.  Bang.  You’re dead Mrs. Dragon.  Dead and buried.  Too bad.  Dead forever.  Never coming back.  Should I tell Pa she’s dead?

No.  I can’t tell Pa ‘cause I won’t be here.  ‘Cause I ran away.  Far, far away where he couldn’t find me.  No more tannings in the barn.  No more lectures when I was too tired to care.  Bye, Pa and Adam and Hoss.  I’m going now.

The bottle dropped from my hand and the last drops of golden fire spilled on the floor.  The bottle was dry.  Gone.  All gone.  I should pack my bags tonight and leave tomorrow.  Far away from the Ponderosa and Hop Sing.  Bye, Hop Sing.  Gotta go now.

When I pushed up from the floor, I didn’t get far.  I crawled toward the bed but the bed was too high so I curled into a ball, a tight little ball next to the big, tall bed.  Goodnight, Hop Sing.  Goodnight, Martin.  I’ll be outta here tomorrow.

*****

Chapter 66

Sometime during the night, I was sick, sicker than I’d ever been, and I grabbed the china bowl.  My stomach insisted on purging, but I hadn’t eaten all day.  Tears stung my eyes and sweat tickled the back of my neck.  I propped myself up on all fours as my stomach convulsed and my arms trembled.  Swaying and heaving, the bout of dry heaves was merciless.

I lay in Martin’s arms.  Sitting on the floor, he held me tight to his chest while I heaved and choked on sour-tasting bile my stomach tried to reject.  I don’t know when he came to my room, and I don’t know how long he held me, but the warmth of his body felt like a shelter from the storm.

By morning light, I began to stir, and I realized every wicked thought I’d had about my friend was a lie.  He wasn’t a dragon.  He wasn’t Pauline.  He cared about me like best friends do.  Hop Sing was wrong.  He didn’t know Martin like I did.  Some called us an unlikely pair, even his wife had scolded me about making him feel second best, but that wasn’t the case at all.  Our friendship was still strong.  We’d never dealt with rivalry or jealousy, no one-upmanship that could easily destroy the bonds of a lifetime of friendship.

Not long after breakfast, which consisted of black coffee and a bite of bacon, I asked Martin if he’d go riding with me.  Nothing fancy.  No wind in my hair, just a nice walk around the Ponderosa.  I needed a change.  I hadn’t done anything normal for so long that I was scared I’d lost the ability to manage even one day in the saddle without a drink.

I’d leave the whiskey and the fear behind and enjoy a clear blue sky and the rolling hills that made this land my home.  Pa and my brothers would be home soon, and they couldn’t see me like this.  I needed to clear my head of past events and move forward like Adam after Kane.

No more dwelling on the past and life’s little pitfalls.  It happened.  It’s over.  Nothing can change the brand on my hip or the raised skin on the back of my leg.  I’d live with the scars forever, but neither my hip nor my leg had to change the direction of my life.

Today was a new day, a better day, and Pa said it best not long ago.  Be thankful you’re alive, and I was.  It took me a while to realize, but today I would change my life for the better and become a new man, a man Pa could be proud of.

“Hey.  How ‘bout a ride.”

“I don’t know, Joseph.  Remember what your Pa said about leaving the house.”

“I need to feel normal again.”  I had the word “reborn” in my mind, but it sounded too corny.  I didn’t want to sound like a fool; I wanted to ride my horse and feel like the man I’d once been.  I wasn’t a lowdown drunk.  I’d seen Martin’s father stumble and fall.  I’d seen a lot of men lose control, but Cartwright men were better than that.  I was better’n that.

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

As we headed out to the barn, I could already feel a slight breeze on my face.  This was the right thing to do.  Forget the past.  Two carefree young men riding the day away.

Hop Sing had packed us a lunch.  I said we wouldn’t be long, but we might get hungry and not want to turn back.  He didn’t seem happy with my request, but he didn’t stop us either.  No ranting over the rules Pa had set, which included leaving the house and riding.

I threw the blanket over Cochise, but when I lifted the saddle, my shoulders nearly gave out, and the cramping in my gut hit hard, but I tried to dismiss it.  Maybe it was the drink after all.  I’d never had stomach pains like that before, and fool that I was, maybe I couldn’t handle whiskey as well as I thought.

If I wasn’t home, I couldn’t drink.  Simple as that.  If I had a rough day, it was my own damn fault, but I’d live through it and come out a better man in the end.  I pulled the cinch tight, but I had to lean my head against Cooch and take a deep breath before I mounted.  Martin came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“You okay?”

“I will be.”  My face was cold and clammy and sadly, I shivered under his touch. Embarrassed that anyone would know I wasn’t in control didn’t sit well.  I shrugged off his hand and mounted my horse.  “Let’s ride.”

Other than my family, Martin knew me better than anyone, but I’d always been the strong one, a take-charge kind of guy.  Martin was more of a follower, and that was okay. He may have been tall and lanky, but fighting bullies like Jacob Sinton and Roy Overton, who pestered the two of us at school, wasn’t his way.

I fought most of the schoolyard battles while he stood back and watched.  Mostly, I was the victor, but there were times when I took on a kid—Roy, who was twice my size—and the outcome was grim, but Martin stuck by me.  He was there to console and that’s what I needed, a stick-close kind of guy.

We circled the barn and I already felt, I guess the word would be liberated.  Free. Normal.  The queasy feeling had passed, and I was ready to ride, ready to get on with my life and enjoy the world around me.

“Where to, Joseph?”  Martin’s voice was light and airy.

“How about Eagle’s Nest?”

“Sounds good to me.”

Yesterday, or maybe it was the day before, I remember asking him why he was all out of sorts, but that bizarre behavior was gone now, and he was just as happy to get away from the house as I was.  We all had bad days.  The tone of his voice said he was keen on having fun, and so was I.

*****

Chapter 67

We kept our pace slow and easy.  Martin had finished in the barn before breakfast, and we were ready for a day of peace and relaxation, no worries and no more chores until we bedded the horses down for the night.

Eagle’s Nest towered ahead of us.  We meandered up close to the base of the tall jagged rock and dismounted the horses in the shade.  I patted Cooch’s flank and walked back a ways so I could see to the top.

“When I was a little kid, five, I think, I climbed up but didn’t know how to get back down.”

“Seriously?”

“That’s what Pa tells me.  I don’t actually remember but my pa don’t lie.  I was kind of messed up in the head.  My mama died and everyone told me she was in heaven.  I thought if I climbed to the top, I could talk to—well, let’s just say it didn’t work out the way I planned.”

“Wanna give it another try?”

“Heck no.”

“You chicken?”

“No, I’m not chicken, but it’s a fool thing to do.”

Martin didn’t respond.  I glanced up the sharp irregular surface, but that’s when the little voice inside my head whispered words I didn’t want to hear.  Just one drink.  I closed my eyes and ears to the voice.  Just one.  Just one.  But I shook it off.

“Something wrong, Joseph?”

Everything around me became distorted, swaying like rough seas, and I was trapped in a lifeboat that tumbled and dipped from side to side.  Caught in a never-ending nightmare, a feeling of foreboding captured my mind, and I tore my hat off my head.  Sweat covered my brow.  I tried to shake the feeling, but I couldn’t move.  Muscles constricted and a new sense of fear took hold.

“Joseph?  You okay, buddy?”

My mood had soured.  Riding had been a stupid idea, and we should’ve stayed home. Whether it was the dragon or the booze or thoughts of that five-year-old kid stranded on top of a mountain, I wasn’t sure which had brought me to such a state of unease.

I fought for control.  Turning my back to Eagle’s Nest and to Martin, I stared into the distance until the feeling of terror subsided.  No one could ever know how crazy my life had become, not even my best friend.  Then, I started to pace.

Martin would know soon enough, but it couldn’t be helped.  My muscles began to loosen. The tight, clenching feeling had only been temporary but would it return?  Would there be a next time or had I become hysterical over nothing?  Why should I let some nonexistent fear take control every time my mind felt like playing tricks?

“Can you hear me, Joseph?”

I turned to face Martin.  “What?”

“You feel all right?  You okay?”

“Hell no, I’m not okay.”  I couldn’t drink.  That was the plan.  Don’t bring a bottle and you won’t be tempted.  Make it through the day like any other normal person, but why had I become so desperate and out of sorts?

“I brought something that might help?

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The only thing we brought with us was two canteens and Hop Sing’s lunch, and I sure as hell didn’t want to eat.  Martin had left me in the blazing sun and moved toward the shade and the horses.  Please, not a cheese sandwich.  If he brought me one, I’d throw it right back at him.  That’s not what I wanted or needed.

“Here,” he said.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I didn’t think you could go without.”

He held Pa’s silver container in his hand, but I turned my back.  “No.  I’m done with all that.”

Martin stepped up behind me.  “You sure?”

“Damn it, Martin.”  I grabbed the hipflask and took a drink.  “Damn you all to hell.”

We sat side by side in the shade.  Martin didn’t share my enthusiasm for a medicinal shot just to calm down, and I kept the little flask to myself.  Martin had been my savior, and I told him as much.  “You’re a good friend, buddy.”

“I do what I can.”

“Sometimes, I think you know me better’n I know myself.”

“Just tryin’ to help.”

I drank the liquid courage and felt human again.  I’d never tell anyone what went on inside my head, and I wouldn’t dare mention any of the deadlier evils that hounded me off and on.  The cramping.  The constant dizziness.  These irritations were new but needed to be kept private.  Not only did the dragon shadow me, there were the odd indications that something inside me was very wrong.

I was kidding myself, but I wasn’t about to let it show.  “It’s a good day, Martin.  Blue skies.  Warm breeze.  Only peace of mind.”

“I can’t complain either, Joseph, but I still think you’re chicken.”

“Give it up, buddy.  I’m not climbing that stupid rock.

“I know how your mind works.  I know you want to climb to the top just to prove you can.”

“You don’t know nothin’.  I’m content where I am.”

“Sure, you are.”

“Give it up, Martin.”

“Want a sandwich?”

“God, no.”  After pushing myself off the ground, I walked out a few feet and stared up at Eagle’s Nest.  I stumbled over a clump of brush though I caught myself before I landed on my butt.  “Long way up there.  Long way.”

“It’s just an illusion.  Once you start climbing, it’s nothing.”

“You’re crazy.  You know that?”

“Crazy or not, I have faith in you, Joseph.”

Believe in the unbelievable.  Isn’t that the meaning of faith?  “You have faith in me?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Fine.  I’ll climb the damn rock.”

*****

Chapter 68

Boots weren’t meant for scaling slippery surfaces.  The soles were slick, and I slipped more than once on loose fragments that clattered and skipped their way to the ground. Narrow crevices and wider gaps gave me enough of a finger-hold that I could lay belly-down and shimmy my way up.

I managed to stay focused and made my way up the mountain.  I felt freer and more confident than I had in days.  Martin knew what I needed, and I had him to thank for having enough faith in me that I left my reluctance behind and was eager to accept the challenge.

Halfway up the rock’s face, the sun’s intensity began playing tricks and irrational thoughts edged their way into mind.  The dragon was back, and she’d taken the lead in a new dance.  Though I fought the urge to look down, I searched for the next cleft in the rock, but when I couldn’t find anything to grab, my fingers dug in tighter to their original hold.

My breathing became labored, and I laid my face against the hot rock.  I couldn’t get air, couldn’t get my fill.  The rope had been drawn tight around my neck.  Bits of sand and gravel brushed past me and slid to the ground, but I was stronger now.  The dragon was dead, and I tried to sort my thoughts, but the constant pull at my neck made me think she’d returned.

“No,” I whimpered.  “Not here.  Not now.”

The gasping sound couldn’t have been my own.  I wasn’t in the desert.  A rope wasn’t anywhere near me, and neither was the dragon.  Damn it, Joe.  Concentrate.  But I couldn’t think.  I couldn’t open my eyes.  I lay motionless.  The thrill of the challenge was gone.  My momentum was gone, and the rising terror inside me escalated when I heard Martin—his feet planted on solid ground—laughing at my expense.

The sight of Pa’s silver flask had broken my resolve.  No more rotgut.  A day of freedom without the drink.  I needed to know if I was man enough to do without.  Instead, I’d become stranded halfway up a rock I never wanted to climb, all because of the drink. Eagle’s Nest was only a destination.  Ride there and back.  That’s all it ever was.  I had nothing to prove.

I turned my head and looked down.  Oh, God.  Why had I been such a fool?  Given that my knuckles were white, and my legs shook like autumn leaves, panic had rooted itself deep inside, and I mumbled like a scared little boy.  That five-year-old kid that didn’t have the sense God gave him had claimed my body and soul.  I would never reach the top, and I couldn’t back down.

Lose hold and die.  The dragon laughed in my face, which restricted any movement I dared to make.  Fear and unholy anxiety clutched at my gut.  I needed a drink, but I was halfway up a damn mountain.  I clung tighter to the rock.

Minutes passed.  Maybe hours, I didn’t know or care until lightning lit the sky like the fourth of July.  Dark, heavy clouds had moved in from the west, and a loud crash of thunder shook the ancient structure from its core.

I was stranded.  “No!”  I cried in a voice that God and his angels could hear.

“Joseph?”  The voice was faint, and I didn’t dare turn or look down.  My fear was too great.  “You okay up there?”  Hell, no, I’m not okay, and I’m a damn fool for listening to you in the first place.  “You gonna stay on that rock all day?”

How much time had passed?  How long had I let the dragon have control?  A cool breeze ruffled my hair, and I clamped my fingers tighter into the inch-deep crevice.  How many hours had I hugged the rock face, and why was Martin just now showing concern?

When I fought to steady my boot, I slid maybe an inch but that’s all it took for my fingers to lose hold.  I stretched and grabbed, seeking a finger hold, but I was sliding fast … faster.  Like a sled on ice, I slid belly-down to the bottom of Eagle’s Nest.

*****

Chapter 69

“You’re safe, buddy.  I’ve got you.”

“Pa?”

“Just me, Joseph.”

“Martin?”

“You fell.”

“I fell?”

“I caught you.”

“You saved my life.”

I reached for the side of my face, but Martin pulled my hand away.  “You’ve got a few scratches, but I can’t find nothin’ broke.  Here, this should help.”

With trembling hands, I angled the bottle and let the bitter swill down run my throat. “Good,” I said.

“I know.”

Leaning heavily against Martin’s shoulder, we sat in silence.  He’d slain the dragon.  Not only once but twice, and I was grateful.  I owed him my life twice over and didn’t know how I’d ever repay him for his abiding sense of loyalty.

We didn’t start back to the house until I was feeling no pain the bottle rolled off my lap to the ground.  Martin helped me mount, but I couldn’t sit the saddle without swaying.  He pushed me forward so I could rest my head on Cooch’s silky mane then held my reins and led the two of us home.  Again, I was grateful.

He talked and I tried to listen, but I might’ve missed parts of the story.  When he mentioned his wife and how much he still loved her, my mind traveled back to their wedding day, a happy time with a long and blissful future.  I didn’t lift my head, but the more he talked, the more unsettled I became.

“She should be with me.”

“Mmm.”

“I loved that woman, Joseph.  She meant the world to me, but that’s all changed now, hasn’t it?  She’s gone, and I’m left to pick up the pieces.  When I had her buried, no one cared enough to come to the funeral.  I have nothing.  No home.  No wife, and no prospects.  I’m alone.

“Ranchers, Joseph, ranchers who maim and butcher their cattle.  You riled her that night at dinner.  You poisoned her and forced her hand.  You gave her no choice, but I didn’t realize the nature of your superior attitude until it was too late.

“I’d been corrupted by some twisted fantasy of loyalty, and I shot my own wife.  I killed her because of you, but someone has to pay for her death.  Someone needs to be held accountable, and I’ve been exonerated.  What does that tell you, my friend?”

“Friend … ”

“Are you listening, Joseph?  Tell me.  What’s the true price of friendship?”

“Friendship … ”

*****

Chapter 70

A golden hue tinted my window shade.  The bedroom door had been closed, but images of a frantic death-fall flashed through my mind the instant I opened my eyes.  Lost hold.  Rocks skidding down the face and I followed but wait … I was home in my own bed.

I tried to sit up but after little effort, I gave in to my battered body.  I felt like hell and I remembered Pa’s words.  “At least you’re alive,” or something to that effect, but he was wrong.  Living was hard.  Dying seemed much more sane than crawling out of bed and starting a new day.

Through a split in the shade, a gathering of little motes played in a narrow ray of sunlight and highlighted an item on my dresser.  Intrigued, I narrowed my eyes, but I couldn’t understand why it was there.  I rolled to my side, dropped my feet to the floor, and stared.

I’d always kept my secret hidden from Hop Sing, but I moved forward and reached for the full new bottle.  When my gut tightened and nearly cut me in half, I stumbled back to bed, cradled the precious gift, and read the printed label.

Limited Edition

Whiskey

Since 1860

Limited Edition Rotgut.  That’s what the label should’ve read, but whiskey was whiskey.  At least in my case, age didn’t matter.  Taste didn’t matter either.  Only relief.

Pressure mounted in my head that equaled the physical pain I suffered in the desert. That feeling of despair that lowered me into the murky depths where nothing else mattered crept through my veins and raced through my heart like a thudding hammer.  I hugged the golden solace to my chest, my pure and constant savior.

My life had taken a turn, and I was content with the outcome.  I was my own man, and I knew better than anyone how to survive.  I didn’t need Martin watching over me, but he’d saved me more than once; in fact, I had him to thank for leaving the bottle on my dresser.  He knew how rough I’d feel when I woke, and he did what he could to brighten my day and make me feel whole.

So, I needed a drink.  I went through hell in the desert, and I deserved a few moments of sanity and peace of mind.  Surely, I wasn’t the only man who needed a little help to get over the hump.  Pa would never understand.  “A crutch,” he’d say.  My indulgence would have to remain hidden.  I was more than capable.  I’d left that little kid back on Eagle’s Nest.  Joseph Cartwright was old enough and man enough to keep secrets from friends and family.

I licked my lips in anticipation.  One drink.  That’s all, but one led to another before I buried the bottle under my trousers.  The mirror above my washstand told a story I thought had been a dream but wasn’t a dream at all.  Sliding down Eagle’s Nest had been real.

I looked like I’d been beaten and left for dead by a man twice my size.  Scrapes and bruises marked my face and hands; no wonder everything ached.  Running my hand over my chin, I hadn’t shaved in … I’m not sure how long, but the swelling in my face made the task impossible.  My shirt was shredded.  Ragged holes in the knees of my trousers gave credence to the nasty fall I’d taken down the rock.

After kicking off my boots, I changed my clothes and filled the large china bowl from the pitcher.  Dipping both hands, I scrubbed tepid water over my face and reached for a towel.  I should be dead, but I was one lucky man.  Scraped and sore but still alive and sort of well.  I owed it all to Martin.

The sun was higher than I thought it should be, and Hop Sing’s voice rang in my ears as if he were standing next to me.  “Why you always late?  You get up on time.  Hop Sing not cook all hours of day.”

In my mind, I apologized for upsetting our cook before I headed downstairs and listened to him rant for real.  Taking a deep breath, it was high time I became productive.  Martin never complained about the work.  Even after all that happened, his perfect life destroyed, he’d finish a job with a smile on his face and ask, “What’s next?”

But what had he said last night?  Something about his wife, but recalling the details was more than I could ask my feeble brain.  He missed his wife and maybe that was a natural feeling for a man whose life was just beginning.  Having a new bride and a new home, Martin had high expectations, but he’d put the past behind him.  He was a better man than I.

When I made it downstairs, the breakfast dishes had been cleared from the table, and I glanced at the grandfather clock—10:25.  I was a dead man, but I needed a strong cup of coffee.

“Hop Sing?”  I headed toward the kitchen.  “You here?”

‘What you want?”

“Coffee?”

“On stove.”

“Thanks.”

I reached for a mug, poured the hot brew, loaded the cup with sugar, and drank.  Strong.  Wow.  The pot had sat for hours, but I knew better than ask for fresh.  “Have you seen Martin this morning?”

“He clean barn and eat hot breakfast when breakfast served.  Not seen since.”

“Think I’ll go find him.”  I couldn’t drink the coffee and poured it down the sink.  “Thanks again, Hop Sing.”

“Remember what Hop Sing say.”

“I know you don’t like Martin, but you don’t have to worry.  I’m fine.  He’s fine, and Pa will be home soon.”

“Father need ride like wind.”

“What?”

“Father leave Little Joe in Hop Sing care next time, not bad man who bring trouble to Ponderosa.”

I’d heard enough.  “The man saved my life yesterday, Hop Sing.  I’d be dead now if it weren’t for Martin.”

“Foolish talk.  Only in Little Joe head.”

“I give up.”  I slammed the kitchen door on my way out.  Foolish talk.  “Think again, Hop Sing,” I muttered as I made my way to the barn.  I rounded Cochise and patted his rump as I passed.  Martin’s horse was gone, but where would he go without me?  Having nothing better to do, I saddled Cooch and rode out after him.

When I hit the main road, I hesitated.  Virginia City?  The cave?  Had he ridden out to restock?  I glanced at my empty saddlebags.  The least I could do was save him a trip. He’d been keeping the sideboard well stocked, but I could do my share too.

With the bandage still on my hip, I hadn’t worn my gunbelt since I’d been home, but I should’ve grabbed my hat and jacket.  I rarely left home without the finishing touches and I didn’t feel fully dressed, but I wasn’t going that far, just over the ridge where we’d hidden the extra case of whiskey.  I could carry a couple of bottles back to the house.  I had to do something productive and a ride seemed like a good idea.

No sign of Martin, but that was okay.  I hadn’t been truly alone for weeks, and I rather enjoyed the feeling of freedom without being watched.  Somehow, though, just the thought of all that Limited Edition Whiskey brought a thirst that made my heart quicken, and I rode a little faster.  I ground tied Cooch outside the cave.

First things first.  I loaded my saddlebags though I was surprised there wasn’t much whiskey left.  We’d set the extra bottles toward the back of the cave, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else would’ve found our stash.  I carried a single bottle with me and leaned against a tree with a dark, ragged line down its middle, a lightning strike I guess, but the tree still stood and was calling my name.

After popping the cork and slipping it into my shirt pocket, I took a drink and rested my head against the torn trunk.  One long pull and I’d stop for the day.  The sky looked like rain.  Dark, heavy clouds moved over the mountaintops and were heading my way.  I’d already caught hell for sleeping in the rain, which had to be a huge exaggeration.  I had more sense than to fall asleep during a storm.

I wondered if Pa and my brothers were having as much rain as we’d had on the Ponderosa this past month.  Heavily clouded skies were unusual, but nearly every day since they’d left, we’d had a significant downpour.  Hopefully, we wouldn’t need the ark, but I was beginning to wonder if the crazy weather would ever end.

One more little nip and I’d be on my way.  With my legs stretched out in front of me, I was more than willing to stay put and watch the clouds pass by, but when a strong gust of wind rippled my hair, I decided to pack up and go.

I wasn’t one to waste a good thing.  Pa always said, “Waste not want not.”  I remembered those words per-perfectly.  Waste not want not.  Okay.  I’m good with that, and I tilted the rotgut once more.  “See, Pa?  I learned my lesson well.”

With the bottle still in my hand, I pushed to all fours and tried to stand.  Though I fell to the side, the whiskey was saved.  “Nope.  Didn’t spill a drop.”   I tucked the half-empty bottle into my saddlebags and rode home.

I left Cooch at the hitch rail and made my way up the stairs without anyone knowing I’d ever left the house.  I was sneaky that way.  The storm I expected never let loose, only a sprinkle of rain dampened my shirt.  Although I never found Martin, he knew the way home.  Besides, I wasn’t his keeper.  He was mine.

My bed looked terribly inviting, and I flopped down face first.  I’d wasted most of the day sitting up at the cave sipping whiskey.  Not a care in the world, but I was completely worn out.  As Martin said on his very first day, “Ranching is hard work.”  It sure is, buddy.  Just ask a man who knows.

Hop Sing would have nothing to complain about if I kept my dirty boots off the linens, and I did just that.  “Nite, Hop Sing.  Nite, buddy, wherever you are.”

*****

Chapter 71

Martin sat next to my bed in a chair he’d pulled out from my desk.  I was surprised to find anyone camped out in my room in the dead of night.  At least, I thought it was night, but maybe I was wrong.  Lately, I seemed to lose track of time, and I woke with a start.  Another dream perhaps.  Not one I could recall, but something had jolted me awake.

“What time is it?”  I croaked to my nursemaid.

“Does it matter?”

“I guess not.”

Martin slid a blue bandana up and down the blade of his Sheffield Bowie Knife, one he’d worn for years sheathed to his belt.  In the low lamplight, the silver blade gleamed as though it was brand new, and I stared under low lashes.  A knife wasn’t used for barn chores or much else on a ranch, so why was he cleaning it now?

Should I ask or play dumb and feign sleep?  I didn’t dare close my eyes, but had I gotten it all wrong?  When Martin stood, I lay frozen in place.  He moved closer to my window and looked out.  What did he see?  What was he looking for?  I curled on my side and brought my knees to my chest as a means of protection.  And then he was gone.

Wheezing but trying not to cough, I rolled to a sitting position and let my feet fall to the floor.  Still grounded to my bed, I fought to breathe evenly.  When I pressed my hand to the wooden chair, it felt warm.  He hadn’t been a dream.  Why had Martin seemed so distant and ill-disposed, and why had he cleaned his Sheffield in front of me?

Steadying my hand on the bedpost, I moved to the window and scanned the yard, but Martin wasn’t there.  No one was there.  The storm must’ve gathered strength after I returned home.  Puddles dotted the yard like a checkerboard, but rain and puddles weren’t my main concern.  Martin Sears and his awkward visit bothered me more.

I dragged my chair to the window, lifted the sash, and watched the final droplets form rings in the puddles.  I was spooked, but why shouldn’t I be?  I was nearly alone in the house with a man who saved my life one day and polished a knife the next.  He missed his wife, but I wasn’t the one who killed her.  God knows he couldn’t blame me for that.

Nothing moved in the yard.  I was wasting my time, but I couldn’t go back to bed, not with a knife-wielding maniac in the house.  And then I chuckled.  Reckless thoughts. That’s all they were.  So, a man cleans his knife.  Big deal.

I wanted to lie down, but a little voice in my head said, don’t be a fool.  Stay awake. Fearing the voice might be right, I stayed in the chair, but I opened the window a bit more.  The cool evening breeze would keep me awake.  And then I remembered Cooch. I’d left him tied to the hitch rail.  I popped my head out the window, but my horse was gone.  Had Martin stabled him when he got home?  Had he unloaded my saddlebags and arranged the bottles in the sideboard?

Damn.  This had to stop.  Every time I tried to think, my brain turned to mush.  I couldn’t remember half the stuff I was supposed to.  My mind was muddled most of the time, and keeping up pretenses was becoming more worrisome as time progressed.  Dreams and fragments of life.  That’s what it boiled down to.  Every day was more of a challenge than the day before.

Did I need a gun before I walked outside?  My gunbelt sat on the sideboard, and I could grab my pistol on the way out.  Butterflies swirled in my gut as I pulled my bedroom door open and walked down the hall to the stairs.  If Martin was sleeping in the guest room, I didn’t want to wake him.  I tiptoed down and started across the main room, but an unexpected voice brought me to a complete stop.

“Looking for this, Joseph?”

Martin’s measured baritone caught me off guard.  Sitting in Adam’s chair, he held my pearl-handled revolver and polished the barrel the same way he’d polished the knife.

“I was worried about my horse but … isn’t that my gun?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I’m polishing the barrel.”

I glanced at the grandfather clock.  “It’s after midnight?”

“Is that a problem?”

I pinched my thigh to make sure I was awake.  “Why were you in my room with your Sheffield?”

“What?”

“You sat in my chair and polished your knife, and don’t tell me you weren’t there.”

Martin leaned forward in the chair, but he still held my gun.  “I was never in your room, Joseph.”

“You were, and I can prove it.”

Martin stood.  He towered over me like a giant in a storybook and I stepped back, but he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder.  “On my honor as your friend, I can honestly say I wasn’t in your room.”

“The chair was warm, Martin.  You were there.  I saw you with my own eyes.”

“I’m sorry, Joseph.  Must have been another one of your dreams.”

Frustrated, I slipped away from his grasp and moved toward the front door.  “I need to check my horse.”

“He’s fine.”

“You stabled him?”

“I did.”

“You unloaded my saddlebags?”

“You weren’t in any shape.”

“You knew?”

“I watched you ride up to the cave.”

“You watched me?”  My voice pitched an octave higher.  “Why?”

“That’s my job, Joseph.”

I ran my fingers through my hair.  I needed a damn drink, but not in front of Martin.  I still had half a bottle in my drawer.  I’d make do.

Martin moved across the room and slipped my Colt in its holster.  He opened the sideboard and took out a bottle.  “You’ll need this, won’t you?”

“No, Martin.  I don’t need anything from you.”

“Oh, Joseph.  Don’t be ridiculous.  We’re friends.”  He held out the bottle.  “Call it a peace offering.”

“Not tonight.”

I marched toward the stairs and though I wanted to take them two at a time, I couldn’t summon the energy.  When I reached the top landing, I heard Martin laugh.  I turned at shouted at my so-called friend.  “Go to hell you son of a bitch!”

I pulled the bottle from my bottom drawer, a lifesaver for some, but maybe I wasn’t cut out for such foolishness.  Maybe I was different than men who could handle a drink or two without drifting off into some kind of fantasy world where nothing but dreams and nightly visions tormented their lives.

If Martin hadn’t been cleaning his Sheffield, maybe the fact that he also polished my Colt wouldn’t’ve bothered me.  I was so sure he’d been in my room.  The chair he sat in was warm.  He’d never lied to me before, and there was no reason he’d start now … was there?

God help me.  I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight.  I grabbed the bedpost with one hand and heaved the bottle across the room.  Glass shattered and a half bottle of whiskey pooled on the floor.  “Good riddance, old friend!  I don’t need you anymore.  I don’t need anyone or anything!”

I crawled under the covers and buried my head in my pillow.  I couldn’t trust anyone, not even Martin.  Maybe he lied, maybe he didn’t.  How could I know, but the friendship had soured … trust was gone.  I knew that now, and I knew what I had to do.  Martin had to go.  Pa would be back in a day or two, and I could manage just fine without a damn keeper.

*****

Chapter 72

Lying awake half the night did nothing but force me to relive everything I’d tried to forget, but there was more.  My gut seized numerous times, enough to keep me awake, and I had nothing to soothe the barrage of shooting pains.  I crawled from my bed anyway and dressed for the day.  Lying around wasn’t the answer.  Fresh air and a few light chores would get me back on track.

But when a stabbing pain coiled me like a snake, the unforgiving cramp tore at my gut until it struck my backbone with the force of a mule’s displeasure.  I retched with such intensity that I crashed to my knees.  Clammy, sweaty, my head felt like lead when the violence burst through again.  Knives pierced every organ, slicing, stabbing, relentlessly thrusting until I rolled to my side, brought my knees to my chest, and rocked like a baby.

When the agony began to subside, I pulled myself to my feet, but the room spun like a wild bronc.  I closed my eyes.  Mind over matter.  I’d heard the term before and was set to will the pain away.  When I could finally stand on my own without help from the bedpost, I splashed cool water on my face and tried to function like a normal human being.  I left the confines of my room and headed down the stairs.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I didn’t feel safe with him in the house.  At least my brain functioned enough to know something was wrong, that Martin was acting odd, and he needed to go away.

I glanced at the grandfather clock on my way down the stairs—6:50.  That was more like it, no more sleeping the day away like before.  The table was set for breakfast, but there was no sign of my best buddy.  I peeked into the kitchen at Hop Sing.  “You seen Martin this morning?”

“No, Little Joe.  He not come out of room yet.”

“Coffee ready?”

“You sit.  I bring.”

I took my seat and the table then shifted over to Pa’s chair.  It didn’t seem right when Martin sat there and besides, I didn’t want my back to his door.  Hop Sing carried the coffee pot out and set on the table next to my cup like he usually did for Pa.  For the next day or two, I would play man of the house, not our visitor.

“Time you eat decent breakfast, Little Joe.”

“You fix it and I’ll eat it.”

“Already done.”

By the time I’d poured my coffee, Hop Sing brought out a plate of bacon, eggs, and two biscuits.  A crock set on the table, and I dipped my knife and spread strawberry jam on the right-out-of-the-oven bread.  But the closer I came to eating, the more my stomach rejected the thought.  Sweat beaded for the second time that morning, and I ran out of the house, stumbled sideways and fell to my knees at the edge of Hop Sing’s garden.

Pressing my palms to the upturned soil, my breathing came in spurts and spats and unshed tears burned my eyes.  I heaved but my stomach was empty.  My entire body convulsed, and I begged the Almighty for relief.  My efforts were useless, and I rolled to my side.  Willing to curse the man upstairs and tell him just what I thought of the agony he made me endure, I opened my eyes and there stood Martin, hovering and shaking his head.  “Pathetic, Joseph.  Truly pathetic.”

“Get out!”  I cried.  “Get away from me.”

“I won’t leave your side, Joseph.  Didn’t I promise your father?”  He lowered himself to his haunches.  “Here, my friend.”  He handed me Pa’s flask.  “This should ease the pain.”

I snatched the silver container and drank with abandon.  Too weak to turn down the offer, I didn’t hesitate or exhale until the flask was nearly dry and relief was on the way. The cramping would soon stop, and I could start my day.  After swiping the back of my hand across my chin, I tried to get my feet under me.  Covered in mud, I pushed up on all fours but the ground was slick and my chance at recovery failed.  My bootheels couldn’t manage the slop, and before I could register my next move, I’d fallen back into the mud.

“Memories of dear old dad.”

What?  Had I heard him right?

“My father used to wallow in the mud too, Joseph.”

I wasn’t anything like that old man.  He was a lifetime drunk, and I could stop anytime I wanted.  “You’re comparing me to your father?”

An evil smile broke through.  “Shouldn’t I?

Raw anger pushed me to my feet.  “You bastard.”

“You look like hell, Joseph.”

“No thanks to you.”

“Me?”  His eyebrows rose, and he clapped his hand to his chest.  “I’m only doing what’s best for a friend.”

“Friend, my ass.  You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m only here to help.”

“Help?  Go away, Martin.  Pack your stuff and get out.”

“Nope.”  He crossed his arms in defiance.  “A promise is a promise.  If you don’t want me in the house, I’ll move to the bunkhouse, but I won’t leave the Ponderosa until your father returns from the drive.”

“Fine.  Move to the bunkhouse.”

“I’ll be there when you need me.”

“I don’t need anyone, Martin, especially the likes of you.”

“We’ll see.”

*****

Chapter 73

Martin hadn’t cleaned the barn, and I took it upon myself to get the job done without him.  He wasn’t needed anymore.  My hip and my leg and even my feet were healed enough that there wasn’t any more worry about infection; at least, I hoped not.  I was healthy and strong, and I could muck a barn or anything else that needed to be done.

The first thing I noticed was my empty saddlebags, but I figured as much.  Martin had hidden the evidence of my trip to the cave and filled the sideboard as usual.  If I wanted a drink, I knew where to find it.  If the sideboard ran low, I could restock myself.  I didn’t need his help.

After the barn was in good shape, I walked back to the house but left my mud-caked boots on the front porch.  I’d deal with them later.  I’d change my clothes and decide what needed doing next.  I remembered the splintered fence rail.  I could manage just fine without my so-called friend.

Once inside, I glanced around the room for Hop Sing, and when I heard pots clanging in the kitchen, I knew I was safe.  I liked having one bottle handy in my room, just in case things got too bad.  I opened the sideboard.  Empty.  “That son of a—” He’d taken every bottle of whiskey and Pa’s good brandy.

After kicking the door shut with my foot, I looked for Pa’s crystal decanter that set on the table close to his desk.  Empty.  Bone dry.  I pulled the empty flask from my jacket pocket and hurled the silver container into the flaming fireplace.  Good riddance to Martin and pointless toys.  I didn’t need a flask, and I didn’t need any more damn whiskey.

I pounced up the stairs and slammed my bedroom door.  After sliding my pants to the floor, I nearly ripped the buttons off my shirt trying to rid myself of the mud-soaked clothes.

“Damn him.”  He’d planned this all along, hadn’t he?  He figured that sooner or later I’d come knocking on his door and beg for a bottle.  “Well, my friend, it’s over, finished.  I don’t work that way, and the last thing I’d ever do is come beggin’ to you.”

I slipped into clean clothes and took a deep breath before I headed back downstairs.  An apology was needed and I walked toward the kitchen and Hop Sing.  I know he heard me enter his domain but he kept his back to me.  “I’m sorry about breakfast.  My stomach was upset and I—well, I wasn’t very hungry after all.”

“You no eat for days.  Hop Sing not fool.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Father be home soon.”

“I know.”

“You need set new path before father return.”

“I will.  I have.  I’m done with Martin.  I told him to clear out his stuff and move out of the house.”

“Best thing happen in long time.”

I hung my head.  “I know.”

Hop Sing turned and stood in front of me.  “Little Joe good boy, have good heart, but Mr. Martin lose heart after lose wife.  He angry inside.  No longer friend.  Have only one purpose when come to Ponderosa.  He want Little Joe hurt too.”

I pressed my fingers to my temples and tried to think.  My mind was so clouded anymore … that first drink.  The front porch.  An easy game of checkers.  I wasn’t forced, but it was a beginning.

Knowing Pa would never approve, I valued the friendship too much to contradict Martin’s reasoning.  “Just like having a beer in town,” he’d said and like a fool —“Damn”— I went along.  “You were right, Hop Sing.  I shouldn’t have let him stay as long as I did.”

“You make Hop Sing proud.  You already set new path.”

A response wasn’t necessary, and I moved the few steps from Hop Sing’s kitchen to Martin’s bedroom and opened the door.  Just as I’d asked, he’d cleared out his belongings except for one obvious memento he knew would threaten any future friendship between us.  The silver-framed tintype sat on the bedside table facing the open door.  Their wedding picture made me crazy with hatred that only a drink would cure.  He set the trap.  He knew how I’d react, and I did.

“Think I’ll go for a ride, Hop Sing.”

“Better if Hop Sing change bandage first.”

I patted the cook’s shoulder and forced a smile.  “I won’t be gone long.”

I rode a mile to the cave entrance, ran my hand along the cold wall until I reached the place where we’d set the case of whiskey.  I lit a match and scuffed my boot along the ground where the crate should’ve been.  Every bottle was gone.  Whether he’d followed me or not yesterday didn’t matter, but sometime after I’d come and gone, he’d either moved or destroyed every last bottle of whiskey.

My empty bottle from yesterday lay on the ground next to the lightning tree.  No doubt, he’d left it there for me to see.  This was a game to him.  He knew how my body would react knowing there was nothing left—not one single bottle.  Not one innocent drink to tide me over.

I cursed myself more than I cursed Martin.  He never forced me to drink.  I managed that all by myself, and I had to accept the fact that I was weaker than most, that I wasn’t the man Pa thought I was.  Sure, I was tortured in the desert, but I survived.  Adam survived Kane, but Adam was stronger than me.  He managed just fine without help from anyone or anything.

Time was running out.  My family could never know the depths I’d taken to offset the pain and the memories.  I had to stand strong in the eyes of Pa and Hoss and Adam, and I needed to stay sober until they got home.  I had no other choice.  I could manage without a drink if I stayed away from Martin and trashed the damn tintype of his wife.

In all respects, though, Martin had helped me more than he knew.  No booze in the house.  The cave was empty, and I took a cleansing breath.  I felt stronger already.  I could do it.  I could make a fresh start.

After stabling Cochise, I walked to the house and threw my hat on top of the sideboard.  I sat in front of the grand fireplace, Pa’s pride and joy.  Enjoying the crackling, orange flames that burst from the logs, I wondered if my fairies would spring from the flames and carry on with their dance.

Almost too warm for my taste, but a roaring fire brought the comfort of home, and I pictured the four of us enjoying an evening of simple talk.  The dragon was behind me now, and so was the whiskey.  If nothing else, I told Hop Sing I’d taken a new path, and I promised to see it through.

Rubbing my palms together, I cleared the heavy lump from my throat.  It was late afternoon, still two hours until supper.  Maybe I should read.  That seemed to pacify Adam when he was troubled.  A Tale of Two Cities sat on the table next to Pa’s chair.  I’d heard him laughing at parts of the story, and laughing sounded like a good thing.  I picked up the book and opened to Chapter One.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .

I’d heard those words before, probably Adam quoting the line at some point, but the line fell flat with me, all except foolishness.  That resonated loud and clear.  I’d been a fool, a damn fool, and I was paying the price.  I slammed the book shut and threw it on Pa’s chair.  Enough reading for one day.  I’d lost the mood, and I stood from the settee.

Anger rose and I began pacing the room.  I licked my dry lips and stared at nothing.  It was just the beginning.  The pain, the cramping, the anxiety of knowing what I had to do. Fight it, Joe.  Fight and come out a winner.  I ran up the stairs and pulled open my bottom drawer.  Just maybe … but only folded trousers remained.

Take a nap.  With my hands tucked behind my head, I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling.  I closed my eyes and tried to drift off, but in no time, I was curled in a fetal position, trying to relieve the tightness, the ever-present constricting muscles that drove me insane.

Air.  I need air and rolled off the bed.  I threw my window open so I could breathe without gasping for every damn breath.  Another storm.  With low-hanging clouds and the soft patter of rain sounding on the roof, the afternoon sky had darkened like night. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a movement.  Leaning against the side of the barn, Martin stood, smiling.  He tipped his hat before strolling back into the bunkhouse and closing the door behind him.

“Asshole.”

I moved around my room like a cat looking for that glorious sunny spot on the floor, but the sun was gone.  Stupid cat.  “Damn you, Martin.”  I couldn’t bring myself to read.  I couldn’t sleep, and supper was still an hour away, but the thought of eating Hop Sing’s dinner wound my gut tighter than a twisted spring.

I moved back to the window and looked down at the bunkhouse.  Martin was the only one there.  Hank and Sandy were repairing fences in the southern pasture and working out of a line shack.  Both of our wranglers were with Pa and my brothers.  Knowing my father, he’d given the drovers a bonus and a week off, and no one would be straggling in when they had money to burn or fences to repair.

Just one drink.

I paced some more.  NO!  Think of something else.  Think of the good times you’ve had breaking broncs or courting pretty girls to Saturday night dances.  Pauline.  Why was she always the first woman to pop into my head?  I never took her to a dance, only one dinner.  One damn dinner and look at me now.

God, I hated my life.  What Pa and Hoss and Adam didn’t know about the baby of the family would send them all into a tailspin.  I was weak, defenseless.  A sad excuse who couldn’t even call himself a man.  Why didn’t I see Martin for what he was?  Vicious. Vindictive.  Sitting on his bunk, smiling, and waiting for me to come running.

No way, my friend.  Not today.  Not ever!

The room spun.  Dizziness took over and I reached for the bedpost before sitting and letting my head fall to my hands.  And then it struck.  Like a cannonball to the gut, a wrenching, twisting pain nearly severed me in half.  A seizure so strong, I curled into myself and dropped from the bed with a thud.  My heart hammered so fast, I wondered if this was how I’d go out.

Joe Cartwright found dead on bedroom floor.

The headlines weren’t pretty.  I could lay here and suffer or go begging to Martin.  One little drink would ease the cramping, but one always led to another.  I’m trying my best, Pa.  I just don’t know if my best is good enough.

*****

Chapter 74

A steady rain fell when I stepped outside and crossed the yard to the bunkhouse.  Playing a hand of solitaire—red ten on black jack, that sort of thing—he heard me come in.  He saw that I was wet and when I shivered, I thought he’d look up, but he kept a stoic face and played another card.  Two games at once, card game, mind game.  He’d perfected both and felt justified in prolonging my agony.

“Pride goeth before a fall, Joseph, and oh, how the mighty have fallen.”  He didn’t look up.  Instead, he played another card.  “I thought you’d come sooner.”

The sadistic greeting finally came, and though I’d rather let my fists do the talking, I responded evenly.  “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Oh, Joseph.  You’re so predictable.”

“Fine.  I’m predictable.  What do you want me to say, Martin?”

Like a boy waiting to be scolded, I clasped my hands behind my back and didn’t make eye contact.  The beads of sweat on my brow and my inability to remain steady made it plain to see I couldn’t hold out much longer.  But more than my obvious discomfort, it pleasured him that I would stoop so low, that I’d come and ask for a bottle.

“You exiled me, Joseph.  You threw me out like a worthless piece of trash, and look at you now.  Joseph Cartwright comes beggin’, but I hold all the cards, don’t I?”

He put me on the defensive.  What did he expect?  You brought a picture of the dragon into my house.  You knew how I’d react and here I am.  Happy?  “Okay,” I said instead. “Maybe I was wrong to kick you out.”

“Wrong?  You flatter me, Joseph?”  Martin threw his cards on the table and stood from the chair.  “I used to go to bed hungry.  I even used to cry myself to sleep while my friend Joe Cartwright lived the high life out on the Ponderosa.  Remember those days? Remember what it was like when we were kids?”

Steadying my fingertips on the table, I remembered something Pauline had said.  “Don’t you think Martin feels second best?”  I couldn’t change the past, and I couldn’t pretend that Martin’s life wasn’t as privileged as mine, but I was damn close to ringing his neck. “I remember.”

“I lived with a falling-down drunk for years.”  Martin sat on the edge of the table less than a foot from my face.  “I know the signs, my friend.  I know them well and you’re hurtin’, aren’t you?  Your stomach quakes and quivers.  Your hands shake and your mind begs for relief.  But that’s not what bothers you most, is it?  You’re Ben Cartwright’s son, and unlike the Sears’ household, there’s a standard to uphold, isn’t there?”

“Is that what this is all about?”  My body tensed involuntarily, and I was more lightheaded than I cared to admit.  I never should’ve come to Martin.  I should’ve ridden to Virginia City and been done with it.  “What’s your game, Martin?”

“Game?  You see this as a game?”  He stood and circled behind me.  “I thought you had a different reason for comin’ to see me.  You wanna play games?  Should I deal the cards?”

I’d left my pride behind once I stepped through the bunkhouse door.  Though it had become harder to maintain control, I kept my voice even.  “No.  I don’t want to play cards.  I don’t want to play games.”

“It’s gettin’ worse now, isn’t it?  That feelin’ you can’t control is eating you up inside, and you wish I’d shut up and quit talkin’ nonsense.”  Martin chuckled before moving back in front of me.  “Hey, don’t say Martin Sears wasn’t on hand to aid a friend in need, but didn’t Ben teach you any manners?  Please, and thank you?”

“May I please have what I came for?”

“I couldn’t ask for more, Joseph.  That wasn’t so hard, was it?  But, it doesn’t cut the mustard with me.”

I gritted my teeth when a lightning bolt of pain coursed through my mid-section.

“Your body aches for it, doesn’t it?  You put up a good fight but in the end, you crossed the yard, and every step closer to the bunkhouse made you hate yourself even more.  But here you are, standing in front of the only person who can ease the pain.”  Martin reached down and lifted the blanket covering his bunk so I could see the wooden crate he’d taken from the cave.  “There you go.  A generous stash, wouldn’t you say?”

My heart raced when I laid eyes on the front row of bottles.

“Just like my father, you’re eyes lit up at just the sight of a brand new bottle.  Brandy, beer, even rotgut.  It doesn’t matter anymore, does it?  Anything will do.  My father used to drink paregoric or laudanum, anything he could get his hands on.  What about you, Joseph?”

I tried to stay calm.  “You’re a sick man, Martin.”

“Me?”  He pointed to his chest.  “That’s where you’re wrong my friend, but here’s what you came for.  A sick man would dive to his hands and knees and scramble for a bottle. Will you do that for me, Joseph?  Will you crawl your way across the room or will the prideful Joseph Cartwright resist temptation and make papa proud of his little boy?”

I took a step forward, but Martin dropped the blanket over the bottles.

“Crawl, Joseph.  I want to see you crawl.”

A wave of dizziness caught me off guard and I nearly fell to my knees, but I wasn’t about to crawl.  With both hands, I gripped the table hard enough that it shook several cards to the floor.  My head spun so fast, I closed my eyes and hung on, but when my gut seized, I dropped to the bunkhouse floor.

“That’s a good boy.  You’re halfway there, Joseph.”

I could barely make out his words.  I felt so feverish, I didn’t know whether to drink or put a gun to my head.  “I’m sick, Martin.”

“How well I know.  Just like Eli.  He crawled too.  More than once, Pa crawled on his hands and knees.  How does it feel, Joseph?  Proud of what you’ve become?”

His tone was angry but a sadness swept over him as he remembered those desperate times.  He never talked about his father, a hidden misery we never discussed, but for some unknown reason, he wanted to play God.  Like a puppet on a string, he had me right where he wanted me.  I’d already come begging, but he wanted more.  Beg and crawl.  How low could a man sink before he hit bottom?

“I’m waiting, Joseph.”

I’d left my pride behind, and my choices were slim.  Lying on my right hip and under Martin’s watchful eye, I struggled to move toward the bed.  I lifted a bottle from the crate.  Empty.  Corked, but empty.  I lifted another … and another before I looked up. “You find this funny, don’t you?”  His head shot back and laughter exploded.  His whole body shook with pleasure.  The pain had subsided enough that I stood from the floor and grabbed his shirtfront.   “Don’t play games with me, Martin.”

“You still think this is a game.”

“Why?”  I pleaded.

He tore my hands from his shirt.  “You’re a worthless drunk, Joseph.  Won’t Ben be proud of his boy.”

Ripples of pain tore at my gut.  My recovery had been temporary, and I ran out the door when another bout of dry heaves brought me to my knees.  Thunder crashed above me as my stomach seized and convulsed.  When I pressed my hand to my midsection, I realized that nothing but whiskey would help.  “You bastard!”  I shouted.  “Get the hell off this ranch.”

Martin stood over me.  Holding two full bottles, he swung them back and forth like a pendulum.  “Elijah Sears and Joseph Cartwright.  Ain’t much difference now, is there?”

When I reached up, he lifted the bottles higher.  “Once a drunk always a drunk.”

I pushed up on all fours and watched in disbelief as he swung both bottles over his head like a lariat.  “Games are fun, aren’t they?

I fell sideways in the mud and pounding rain.  A different Martin stood over me.  I wanted to know why he hated me so, but the babble started again.

“What’s a bottle worth to you, Joseph?  God knows your standing in the community is shot all to hell.  It might matter to Ben, but I could give a rat’s ass.  What about your horse?  He’s a mighty fine pinto.  How ‘bout we trade your horse for a brand new bottle? Never opened, Joseph.”

I turned my head and coughed up a bunch of—an ungodly mess—but it became harder to listen to the man I once called friend.  “You’re not getting my horse.”

“Can you dance?”

“What?”

“Maybe you could sing me a song, like big brother, Adam.”

“I don’t sing and I don’t dance.”

“Think again, Joseph.”  Martin snapped his fingers.  “I know.  Sing while you dance.”

“Just give me a goddamned bottle.”

“Tsk, tsk, Joseph.  What if Papa heard you talkin’ like that?  Would he take you over his knee?”

“Leave my father out of this.”

A bottle crashed to the ground.  “Oops,” he said, and I stared as the earth absorbed the pure gold.  “Only one left, my friend.  What will you give in trade to your old pal, Martin?”

I shook my head.  Hair fell in my eyes and rain dripped from my chin.  My hands and knees were soaked with mud, but I didn’t care if everyone in the state of Nevada saw me wallowing like a pig in my own yard.  All I needed was one damn drink.

Martin dropped the second bottle.  “Oops.  There goes the other.”

With all my strength, I launched myself from the ground and charged his midsection, but Martin was prepared to fight.  I wasn’t.  The two of us rolled through the mud and pouring rain, struggling and grabbing until he pinned my wrists to the ground and straddled himself on top.  I never stood a chance.

“You were always the best fighter when we were boys, but time changes everything, Joseph.  Lots of things change when a man finds the girl of his dreams.”

Pauline?

“A man takes a wife.  He settles into a routine.”

Oh, God.  Pauline.

“He thinks the world of her, and he listens to what she has to say.  She sets him straight.  She teaches him about life, things he should’ve realized before but hadn’t given a thought to until he was enlightened by a God-fearing woman.”

My voice was breathy but I managed a few words.  “What’s this all about, Martin?”

“You don’t know?”

“I guess not.”  I could barely breathe.  Martin forced my wrists deeper into the mud.  I couldn’t move a muscle.

“She showed me the light, Joseph.  She taught me about life and selfish injustice.”

“Pauline?”

“Of course, Pauline.”

I struggled to lift my arms but to no avail.  Martin wanted me to hear him out.

“She was right, you know.  About everything.”

“No.”  My breathing was labored.  “No, she wasn’t.  You said that yourself, Martin.”

“Do you know the seven sins, Joseph?  Do you?”

“I guess.”

“Greed, lust, vanity.  Need I say more?”

“How about envy and wrath.”

“Very good, Joseph.  I’m impressed, and I won’t argue the point, but don’t I have any reason to envy or feel anger toward a miserable human being like you?”

“Is that what your wife taught you?  To hate?”

“Only you, Joseph.  You know the reason why, but she took care of that, and I applaud her efforts.”

“Get off me, damn it.  Tell your stories to someone who cares.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, you sodden son-of-a-bitch.”

Martin was so unstable that I worried about the Sheffield strapped to his belt.  In my weakened state, I couldn’t defend myself if he pulled the knife and decided to slit my throat.

Joe Cartwright found dead in mud puddle.

I didn’t like that headline either.  My desperate craving had subsided, and at least I could think straight, but I was still trapped under Martin’s grasp, and he was still spewing out his wife’s trash.

“She taught me about evil, Joseph.  She instilled a different set of values, a true set of values I never understood before, but you, my friend, took all that away.  In a moment of weakness, I shot my own wife.  For you, Joseph.  You!  And look at you now.”

Spittle flew from his mouth.

“You’re nothing.  A nobody.  You’re the kind of man everyone loves to hate.  That’s who you’ve become, my friend.  You’re filthy.  Smelly.  Unshaven, and Martin Sears has proved to the world that even the mighty Joe Cartwright can be taken down and destroyed.  Just like Eli, you’re a burden to society, and you have me to thank.  Me, Joseph!”

The tirade was over, and even after Martin stood to his feet, I remained unmoving until he walked inside the bunkhouse and slammed the door behind him.  Dripping and cold, I pushed myself up and walked toward the house, his words still echoing in my ears.

*****

Chapter 75

With its barren landscape and relentless heat, the desert could intimidate even the strongest of men.  Days of torment had threatened my sanity.  Days without food and water end proved that man alone had to fight to survive, that even the Almighty had forsaken those he found worthless and distrusting of his goodness.  Lost and afraid of my own shadow, I struggled to find my way.

Dreams were abundant.  Out of nowhere, a cool cloth was pressed to my forehead.  The tender touch yielded hope, but I was restless and brushed off the hand that moments ago gave comfort.

At times, my body would jerk and seize as if I were riding the fiercest bronc through the gates of hell, but the bronc would eventually still and the long ride was finished.  Often, I climbed back on for a second round and by the end of the ride, my legs ached and my body screamed, “No more!”  But I was a fool kid, and I climbed back into the saddle again and again.

The desert heat bore down like iron weights, and I’d kick out for relief, curl into myself, and shake uncontrollably until I was sick and heaved my guts on the desert floor.  The dragon laughed, reveling in my panic and fear.

Time eluded me.  Day rolled into night and nights were exchanged for days.  Maybe I was ill.  Maybe I’d lost my mind during the long days of travel.  Voices mumbled in whispered tones, but the roar in my ears outweighed any banter that surrounded me.  Words escaped me.  The dragon pitched a fiery breath and I sobbed.

Tears streaked my cheeks when I laid eyes on my father’s face.  A sad but gentle smile broke through but it was fleeting.  Dreams could bring joy, but dreams were far from real.  I turned my head away from the mirage.  Just the thought of Pa watching over me put my mind at ease and brought a calm I hadn’t felt for days, maybe even weeks.  I was so tired.

When I sensed my father’s hand touch mine, I was so unnerved by the vision of home and family, I wrestled my hand away and scrunched up tighter under my bedroll.  Night had fallen, and I waited for the icy chill to seep into my bones, but it never came.  On this night, the desert felt warm and welcoming, and I drifted off into a restful sleep.

“Joseph.”

When the voice called my name, my eyes fluttered open.  Morning had come too soon, and I shuddered at the thought of another lost day, but something was different.  I stared at an open window where a gentle breeze ruffled a lacy-white curtain.  A fire had been built in the fireplace but left untended; all that remained were radiant coals.  My eyes shifted to the picture of my Indian.  An oddity to some, but the old man always entertained me when I glanced his way.

“Little Joe?”

I scrubbed my face with my hands.  Pa was calling.  Was I late for breakfast again?  I tried to holler back, tell him I was coming, but confusion set up camp in my head. Dreams and mirages.  I’d grown tired of the nightmare that ruled my life.

“Pa?”  I said the word aloud.  Was I delirious with fever?  The sight of my father sitting on the edge of my bed seemed foreign but very real.  He’d hovered my subconscious for so long that if I could fight my way out of the nightmare, maybe the mirage would be real.  “Pa.”

“I’m right here, son.”

I reached out and touched my father’s face, but I wanted to shout at the absurdity of it all.  When Pa reached for the back of my neck and pulled me close, the warmth I felt nearly brought me to tears.  A great sense of loss kept me from letting go.  I needed my pa so much that I didn’t care whether I was dreaming or not.  Bay Rum and pipe tobacco, a new and delicious part of the dream opened the floodgates.  Tears streaked my cheeks, and I bawled like a baby.

A cool breeze blew through the open window, and my hair ruffled when a small gust lifted the curtain aside.  Maybe I’d died and gone to heaven.  When my mind began to clear, I blinked repeatedly, but the mirage still held me in his arms, tighter than before. The Indian stared back.  I think he smiled.

Sitting up in bed, I struggled to distance myself from my father’s embrace.  There was no use dreaming of what I couldn’t have or needed most.  I was fooling myself if I thought Pa would take me in his arms and show compassion for his useless, drunkard son.  A son who’d betrayed everything good my father stood for.

“You’re okay now, Joseph.”

I trembled at the sound of his voice though I had no response.

“Take it easy, boy.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joseph.”

“You came home?”

“We’re all home, son.  Your brothers are downstairs.  They’ll be glad to know you’re back with us.”

“Back with us?”

Pa smoothed the matted hair from my forehead and reached for both of my arms. “You’ve had a rough few days.”

I glanced around the room.  The curtain still moved, and the fire had nearly burned out. The Indian didn’t seem as jolly.  “Days?”

“That’s right.”

“Martin?”

“He’s gone, son.  Hop Sing said he rode out just minutes before we rode in.”

My bedroom door opened just enough for Hoss to pop his head through.  His grin made me realize how much I’d let my family down.  “Hey, little brother.”

I couldn’t speak.  I didn’t know how to react or what to say.

“You feelin’ better?”

“I’m fine.”

Pa’s smile told me I’d said something amusing although I didn’t get the joke.

“Hey,” Adam said when he walked in behind Hoss.  “Look who’s finally awake.”

I looked at Pa, still confused about a lot of things, but I chose not to ask questions; at least not yet.  I felt an odd sense of detachment.  Something must’ve gone terribly wrong, but Pa couldn’t know the extent of my problem.

“I’m glad you’re back with us, son.  Paul said it would take time.”

“Doc’s been here?”

“Twice.”

Hoss still grinned from ear to ear, but Adam’s face remained passive.  He gave nothing away, but he’s the one I needed to talk to.  Even Hop Sing stood in the doorway.  A slight bow of his head reminded me that he knew everything that went on since the day Pa and my brothers rode out.  With an air of tranquility, he backed out of the room and nothing was said.

“I’m kinda hungry, Pa.”

“Good.  I’ll have Hop Sing bring you a bowl of soup.  Think you can keep it down?”

“I think so.”

Pa turned to Hoss.  “Would you tell Hop Sing?”

“Sure will.  He’s been boilin’ a chicken for nearly two days.”

When I tried to sit up taller, Pa rushed to add pillows behind my back.  “That’s good,” I said.  I’d grown accustomed to doing for myself, and all the fuss made me uneasy.  A lowdown miserable drunk didn’t deserve sympathy or acts of kindness.

Adam had left with Hoss, but Pa remained at my bedside.  After the tray arrived, he helped me eat the soup.  My hands were shaky, and I felt self-conscious when I dribbled hot broth, and Pa hurried to wipe my chin.  I should’ve been grateful for the active attention he provided, but I wanted to be alone.  I didn’t want my father staring at me and realizing how much his son had changed.

I handed Pa the empty bowl and snuggled down under the covers as though I was ready to sleep.  “That’s good, son.  You rest now.”

“Pa?”

“Yes.”

When the dream had shifted to reality, and I was no longer stuck in the pits of a hell, I realized Pa knew more than he was letting on, and there was only one person who would tell me the truth straight out.  “Would you tell Adam I want to talk to him?”

“Right now?”

I didn’t answer but Pa got the message.  “Okay, but keep it short.  You need your sleep.”

“I will.”

I knew chicken soup was a cure-all, but I didn’t realize how tired I’d become and nearly fell asleep before Adam walked in and a pulled a chair beside the bed.  “Pa said you wanted to talk.”

“Yeah.”  I pushed back up to a seated position.  “I’m not sure where to start.”

“You’ve had a rough time, Joe, but you’re going to make it through.”

“You know … everything?”

“Yes.”

“Pa?”

“I’m afraid so.”  Adam pressed his elbows against his knees and leaned forward.  “Let me guess.  You feel like you’ve disappointed Pa, and you want to make amends, but you’re not sure where to start.”

“You some kind of mind reader or what?”  My brother smiled but didn’t offer anything more.  “How much does Pa know?”

“You were sick when we returned home, and you’ve been hovering in and out of consciousness for the last five days.”

“Sick.”  I wanted to laugh.  “That’s one way to put it.”

“Let’s leave it at sick.  It sounds more dignified than completely out of your mind.”

“That bad?”

“Yeah.”

“And Pa saw it all?”

“He did.”

“You and Hoss?”

“We did.”

I threw my head against the headboard.

“Come on, Joe.  Don’t rip yourself apart.  The worst is over now.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

Curiosity made me study Adam’s face, and a twitching muscle in his jaw gave him away.  “You too?”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Kane?”

“No.  God, no.  I knew better by then.”

Pleading only with my eyes, Adam reluctantly told a story that took him back nearly twenty years.  As a young freshman in college, he met a girl.  “We walked to classes together, and we studied together.  We ate dinner together and went to socials.  Eventually, we became inseparable.”

I understood all that.  I wasn’t naïve to the lure of a pretty woman.  Anything was possible where a girl was concerned, but when he hesitated, I filled in the blanks.  “You fell in love.”

“I fell in love.”

“But that’s no reason to—”

Adam held up his hand.  “There’s more.”

I tried not to seem too anxious, and maybe I was meddling where I didn’t belong, but I wanted to hear the story.  I hoped I could stay awake.  Since Adam made it through Kane and the desert without sinking as low as I had, I wanted to know where that strength had come from, and I felt he was about to tell me.

“I wasn’t aware of her father’s money and status in the community for weeks into the relationship.  I’m sure you think none of that matters, but life is different here in the west.  If you’re an only child, and your father’s a highly regarded industrialist on the Eastern seaboard, relationships matter a great deal.”

“Her Pa didn’t like you?”

“You could say that.  But, if I’m going to be honest, Joe, he hated everything about me.  In his eyes, I was a nobody and certainly not the right young man to be seen escorting his daughter around campus.  When he found out a country boy—that’s what he called me—was squiring his only offspring, the relationship was all but finished, but Marianne wouldn’t let it die.”

“Good for her.”

“Not exactly.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means I was young and foolish, and I didn’t see the signs.  I was in love and wanted to marry the girl.  It means we became even more intimate than before her father intervened.  My studies suffered, and I was called into the dean’s office and nearly sent home from college.  It was a bad time, Joe.”

“Pa doesn’t know any of this, does he?”

“No.”

“Okay, go on.”

Adam sucked in a deep breath.  “Long story short, Marianne hated her father, but that didn’t mean she loved me.  She never loved me and … realizing she used our courtship as a ruse to get back at her father caused even greater problems; at least for me.  I left Marianne behind and concentrated on my studies.  That’s all I ever wanted, Joe.  A college education.  Night and day, I studied like crazy.  Like you at that age, I needed to prove myself.  I needed to be the best, and that’s where I ran into trouble.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.”  Adam worried his fingers between his knees.  He didn’t look up.  “I became quite ill and was prescribed paregoric for my stomach and bowel problems.  After I had recovered, I was behind in my classes and tried like hell to catch up.

“My roommate, Edward Hawkins, was an English major, an A+ student.  He wrote poetry and beautiful sonnets, and he revealed the magic of laudanum and how it expanded his thoughts and enhanced his imagination.  Foolishly, I was led to believe that poetry and architecture were much the same.  That a vivid imagination would prove beneficial.”

I could see where this was going and it made me squirm on the bed.

“I traded the paregoric in for laudanum and found that that there was truth in what Edward had said.  The professor’s account at the end of my first year was glowing with praise.  But there was a problem.”

“You couldn’t stop taking the laudanum, could you?”

“When the school year was over, I tried to stop, but by mid-summer, I was still using a few drops a day just to get by.  It didn’t take long to realize I was … what should I say, Joe. Trapped?  Putting drops of laudanum in a glass of water was no different than you with the whiskey except for one important aspect I don’t think you’re aware of.”

“What’s that?”

“Martin betrayed you in the worst way possible.”

“My drinking had nothing to do with him.  Not really.  I managed that all by myself.”

“No … you didn’t.”

I pushed myself up taller in the bed.  “You haven’t finished your story.”

“Let’s finish this one first.”

“Fine.  I know you and Hoss don’t like Martin, and neither does Hop Sing for that matter, but he didn’t force me to drink.”

“Are you sure?”

“Aw, come on, Adam.  You want me to blame him?  No, I did this all by myself?”

“I don’t think so.”

“He may be an ass, but forget it.  The drinking was my own damn fault.”

“Do me a favor.”  Adam glanced toward my hands.  “Look at your fingernails.”

“What?”  I chuckled.  “What do my nails have to do with anything?”

“Just look.  It’s the first thing Doc noticed when he was here.”  I looked down at my hands.  “Paul called them Mees’ lines.  In other words, you were poisoned, Joe.  Arsenic.”

“Arsenic?  What are you talking about?”

“Groundwater in the mines is loaded with arsenic.  It’s tasteless and colorless, and Doc believes Martin added it to the whiskey you drank.”

“I can’t believe he’d … “

“Cramping.  Dizziness.  Excessive swallowing.  Sound familiar?”

Tears blurred my eyes.

“Martin wasn’t much different than his wife.  He didn’t want you dead, but he wanted you to suffer.”

“I thought we were friends.”

“Until Pauline infected his mind with hate, you were good friends, Joe.  We’ll never know everything she said to him, but she changed him.”

Could Adam be right in his thinking?  If the doctor said I was poisoned … he should know, but could it be true?  I thought about our final conversation outside the bunkhouse.  “He compared me to his father.  He wanted Pa and the whole town to hate me, a burden to society.”  I looked up at my brother.  “You’re the kind of man everyone loves to hate.  Those were his words, Adam.”

“And I believe that was his intent.”

“I never saw it coming.  The hurtful words.  The comparison to Eli until it was too late ”

“It’s over now, and no one hates you, Joe.  Maybe Martin, but he’s long gone.”

“I thought the only thing that would stop my gut from seizing was another drink, but it only made things worse, didn’t it?  Every time I drank … damn him!”

“I’m sorry, Joe.”

“Why didn’t I know?”

“How could you know?”

I scrubbed my hands over my face.  “I was such a fool.”

“I beg to differ, and if you’ll let me finish my story, I’ll tell you why.”

“I don’t think storytelling is gonna help.”

“Just listen.”  Adam clasped his hands and looked straight at me.  “There’s a big difference between Edward and Martin.”

“He did the same thing to you, didn’t he?”  My voice sounded weak and unsure.  “He got you started on laudanum.”

“Edward wasn’t out to hurt me.  He’d fallen into the same trap as I, and we formed a pact.  Neither of us would take another drop of laudanum, and we threw our respective bottles in the fireplace together.  Each day was a struggle, but the two of us held strong. We encouraged each other to stay on track.

“I’ll admit it wasn’t easy, Joe.  We were both back in school after summer vacation, and even after a long period without, we backslid.  A friend of a friend offered and—well, we both caved to the glorious wonders of laudanum.  A few drops later, we were able to stay up all night and study for our upcoming exams.

“After that night of stupidity, though, we fought hard to keep each other strong.  We shared the same goals.  I had a good friend, Joe, and according to Hop Sing and Doc Martin, you did not.”

I forced the slightest grin.  “I’m not a very good judge of character, am I?”

“You’re wrong, Joe.  My guess is Martin couldn’t let go of the life he’d imagined with his new bride.  He had to know she was evil, and he proved that when he shot her, but something more sinister settled in his mind.  Something went off inside his head, and he ended up blaming you for a life that should’ve been.

“He changed, Joe, but you were the same loyal friend you’d always been, which is why you never saw it coming.  You couldn’t know his mind was filled with hate.  You couldn’t know he purposely plied you with bottle after bottle topped off with arsenic water for just one reason.  To watch Joe Cartwright fall from grace.”

“God, I was such a fool.”

“We both were, little brother.”

I studied my older brother’s demeanor.  Discussing past mistakes wasn’t his way.  In fact, if someone else had told me my brother had “fallen from grace” I would’ve called him a liar and then beaten him within an inch of his life.  Adam shared a secret that would’ve remained a closed chapter in his life, but he wanted me to understand that neither of us was perfect, that we were flawed human beings, but we were survivors.

“Do you ever think back on those days?”

“I try not to but one thing I know for sure.  We’re both stronger than before.  We survived a bump in the road, and we’re better men for it.”

“Maybe you are.”

“You will be in time.  The only struggle now is within yourself, but you have family.  You have our support, and we’ll see you through.”

“Thanks, brother.”

“For what?”  Adam’s features lightened.

“For trusting me enough to tell your story.”

Adam sat back in the chair.  “Maybe it’s time I came clean to Pa too.”

“Seriously?  Hey, don’t let one bad apple spoil the whole barrel.”

“There’s still Hoss.”

“He’s the good son.”

“Always will be.”

“One outta three ain’t bad.”

Adam stood from his chair and ruffled my hair.  “Go to sleep.”

“You really gonna tell Pa?”

“You weren’t entirely innocent in all this, but two bad apples might soften the blow.”

I slid under the covers and pulled the blanket up over my shoulder.  Denying that the last few weeks had left physical and emotional scars that would stay with me for the rest of my life was a given, but Cartwright men were fighters.  That’s one thing Martin didn’t count on.

Adam said the worst was over and that my family had my back.  I trusted a friend to see me through a bad time but friendships, no matter how good they might seem, can’t compare to the loyalty of family, and I had the best.

My brother had already slain his dragon, but with three good men behind me, I could slay my own dragon and become a man my family could take back into the fold, no questions asked.  With time and determination, I hoped to make Pa and my brothers proud of me again.

***The End***

Nano – 2017

A/N:  I fudged about 20 years.  The Alabama Supreme Court adopted irresistible impulse in 1887.

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