Aim True (by Corinna)

 

Summary:  Joe and Adam are on the run.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  22,589


 

 

He climbed the steps of the scaffold, his hands tied behind his back, his pace slow but steady. The shouts and catcalls from the crowd increased in volume as he climbed, but he showed no reaction to the noise around him. His features remained composed and quiet even as he stopped to stand with the long shadow of the hangman’s noose falling like a brand across his face.

A shiver ran up the back of Joe’s neck as he watched him. Only Adam could manage to look cool and collected in a situation like this. 

Inside the dim interior of the livery stable, Joe kept his face pressed tight against the rough plank door, its narrowly cracked opening giving him a constricted view of Adam.

It was hard to breathe. The heat lay heavy on the street outside; inside the quiet livery with its stagnant air it was even worse. Moisture prickled across Joe’s upper lip, at odds with his dry mouth. The smell of aged wood, musty hay and stale manure mingled with the sour scent of his fear, and his stomach gave an uneasy spasm. He swallowed again, still entirely unsure if he could really do this—just stand and watch as his brother moved inexorably toward his death. Horror and indignant rage for Adam wrapped itself around him in tight, strangling tendrils; his body trembled with the urge to step out into the open.

He would’ve given anything to be able to let Adam know he wasn’t alone.

Joe shook his head slightly as he kept his eyes on his brother. Helplessness made him want to pound his fist in fury against the door. Instead, he carefully scanned the crowd. Surely there was something he could say to the judge and the sheriff, some way he could convince them to stop the hanging. To allow things to progress like this was just crazy—but no, there was no sense in more talk. He’d already tried, and it hadn’t helped a thing.

Besides, he’d promised Adam. Adam had told him to…

“To hell with what Adam said,” he muttered, and his hand went slowly to the door. He pushed it open an inch, then two….

Don’t jump the gun, Joe. A cautionary phrase Hoss had murmured to him hundreds of times throughout his life whispered its way through his head. Joe bit his lip; an instant later, he let his hand fall away from the door.

He wished Hoss was with him right now, bracing him up with quiet, solid dependability, telling him what they should and shouldn’t do. Telling him not to jump the gun. Holding him under a tight rein and keeping him from doing something foolhardy.

Or Pa. Especially Pa. Pa would know what to do to save Adam. If he was here he’d know what to do to get Adam released and the whole mess cleared up. They’d all be back home in no time.

Joe shook his head again, the need for his father’s guidance an almost physical ache in his chest. Well, Pa wasn’t here, and neither was Hoss. He had only his own instincts to turn to, and those had never been inclined to persuade him to sit tight and wait.

Why just sit here and wait? Wouldn’t it be less painful to run at it head on?
Again his hand drifted back to the door’s edge, his mind filled with half-baked thoughts of shooting the first person who tried to put a rope around Adam’s neck. It was a long shot, he knew, but if he moved fast enough…

Don’t jump the gun, Joe.

He groaned with frustration and dropped his hand, cursing softly.

Outside, Adam still looked remarkably unperturbed. Joe couldn’t help but wonder how he managed to do it. And then a long-ago observation from Hoss chose that moment to rise to the surface of Joe’s turbulent thoughts, startling him with its appearance.

“Adam’s like a duck when he gets in a tight spot.”

A duck. Of all the crazy things… At the time, he had looked incredulously at Hoss for having said such a ridiculous thing and Hoss had shrugged and grinned and explained, “You know. All calm and collected on the surface but always paddlin’ like the dickens underneath.” They had both giggled and guffawed over the description, but Joe had to admit it described Adam’s approach to trouble pretty darn well.

Joe had no doubt his oldest brother was “paddling” right now—his shrewd mind leaping from one possibility to the next at a speed that belied his outwardly still appearance. Even with the sure knowledge that escape was impossible, anybody watching would think Adam wasn’t the least bit worried that his life would be ending in a matter of moments. He looked like he was carved out of stone. Only someone close to him—someone like a brother—would ever notice the tiny tic in his right cheek that revealed the true nature of the emotions roiling beneath the surface. But no matter how quick Adam’s mind was, it wasn’t going to get him out of the fix he was in.

No doubt about it. Their time—Adam’s time—had run out.

The panic that had been dogging Joe all day burgeoned and began to crawl up into his throat; his mind groped for stability, for anything to center itself upon, and it landed once more on the dubious haven of Hoss’ inane description of their oldest brother.

“Adam’s like a duck.” Like an absurd, manic litany, Joe whispered the words out loud. He pictured how Adam would react to such an unflattering portrayal. The thought of Adam’s predictable expression, one of annoyance mixed with bafflement, stuck in Joe’s head and brought a wild, off-kilter chuckle out of his throat. The strangled laughter bewildered him with its inappropriately timed appearance even as he stifled it, the sound dying in what sounded dismayingly like a sob. It was the sort of laugh that burst forth of its own volition, like that time he’d been trapped between Pa and Adam in a church pew one Sunday when the Widow Hawkins had sailed in with a new hat perched on her head. Decked out with a large fake purple bird, the thing had struck him as so funny that, to his horror, he couldn’t hold back a choked giggle. It had earned him a hard jab in the ribs from Adam and an even harder glare from Pa. That laugh, like this one, had contained a note of panic; Joe recognized this one, though, for the true terror-filled sound it was, even as the growing knot in his chest effectively helped to shut it off.

He was in real danger of doing something stupid; he recognized all the signs—the jumpiness, the tingling at the back of his neck, the twitching of the fingers. But he couldn’t afford stupidity or recklessness. Not now, not today. He made himself breathe, slow and deep. He kept on doing it even when it didn’t seem to be doing much for his nerves.

He swallowed past the knot that kept forming in his throat now that he’d managed to subdue that perplexing burst of laughter, which, on some level, he recognized as a defense against the pain reflecting itself off his brother; knowing what Adam was going through was a hot, sharp ache that ate at Joe’s insides. He wanted so very badly to get away from it, to turn away from the sight of his brother standing so still up on that platform, and he felt like a coward for wanting to escape when his brother couldn’t.

Which was, of course, precisely the reason he himself was just as trapped as if the noose had been around his own neck.

Again the urge swelled within him to move out into the open and free Adam using any means necessary; his palms itched with the need to jump free of the dark livery. Blood pounded loudly in his temples. No. He couldn’t give in to it. Coming out of hiding now wouldn’t help Adam any at all, not in the long run, and it might even make things worse.

Yeah, it would definitely make matters worse. He imagined Adam’s face if he were to catch sight of him now, the expression he’d wear as the hopeless, sick realization dawned that not only was he going to die, but that his kid brother was going to be witness to it. That Little Joe Cartwright would watch as Adam Cartwright had his neck snapped at the end of a rope or worse, slowly choked to death as his body spun in the air.

Joe swayed on his feet, and hurriedly blinked the image away. No, Adam didn’t want him to see that, which was why he had ordered him to ride to Salt Flats to find their pa and Hoss. He had to hurry, Adam said, and get them back here. Never mind that both he and Adam knew there wasn’t enough time for him to get to Salt Flats and back before it was all over and done with. Adam had wanted Joe out of the way. Joe knew what he’d been thinking—having Joe present at the hanging would only intensify an unimaginable horror for both of them and wouldn’t help anyone, least of all Adam.

But just to see some semblance of peace draw across his brother’s face, Joe had lied and promised that he’d ride to Salt Flats just as he’d been asked to do. As far as Adam knew, Joe had left a day and a half ago.

After all, Joe had promised him.

And that burned in Joe’s gullet like a hot poker—the fact that the last thing he’d said to Adam had been a lie.

It couldn’t end like this—it couldn’t. Again, all his instincts screamed at him to end this nightmare, to stop it now, in any way he could manage.

But he didn’t. Instead, he stiffened his jaw and dug his boots into the dirt, preparing himself for what was to follow. For once, Joe Cartwright would hold himself in check if it killed him. In the shadowy confines of the livery stable, he continued to watch the proceedings, and he did as his brother on the scaffold did; he stood still and waited, and tried to remember to breathe.

It was to be a sunset hanging. “Better for the celebratin’ afterwards,” Joe had heard one of Millican’s fine citizens declare. Hangings were cause for large amounts of gawking in almost any town, but Millican, a small, shabby community situated at the crossroads between nowhere and the edge of the earth, was apparently shorter on sources of amusement than other places and placed an exceptionally high value on the entertainment potential of a good stringing-up. The dirt streets had been bustling all afternoon as people from outlying areas arrived early so as not to miss the show. The town’s one saloon had done a booming business all day long in anticipation of the main event; if there was a single occupant of this whole, stinking town that wasn’t drunk or well on his way to it, Joe hadn’t seen them. From store merchants still wearing their counter aprons to businessmen in suits to cowboys in chaps, they were all here, and all, it seemed, were anxious to see justice executed on the gallows. Copious amounts of liquor fed their enthusiasm. It was a party for them.

Joe straightened as he saw Judge Quimby approach the gallows. At least the judge wasn’t drunk, or if he was, he hid it well.

Joe quivered, the strain of controlling himself growing ever more powerful. Quimby was the man who had condemned Adam to die. Since he was here, apparently he saw it as part of his duties to be present as the sentence was carried out. Or maybe he simply thought of it as entertainment, just as the rest of the town did.

The judge gave a nod to Sheriff Colvin, and the sheriff obediently climbed the steps up to the platform, his slightly unsteady gait revealing his own imbibing of the spirits that were flowing so freely in town. He approached the hangman and murmured a couple of quiet words to him; the hangman in turn handed the sheriff a dark hood. Colvin stepped in front of Adam and moved to drop the hood over his head, but Adam declined it with a short sideways jerk of his chin. The sound of the crowd dropped to a murmur.

The sheriff dropped the hand holding the hood to hang at his side. “It’s procedure, son,” he said, not unkindly. “You sure you don’t want it?”

Adam stared at him, and then looked out at the crowd before finally halting his gaze upon the judge. “If this town is bound and determined to hang an innocent man, they’re damned well going to look him in the face while they do it,” Adam said. His voice was quiet, but as always it had that distinctive resonance to it that caused it to carry, full and deep, out into the crowd. At the sound of it, Joe’s jaw clenched so hard it hurt.

Adam’s last denial fell on hard ears. Judge Quimby’s face remained impassive.

Sheriff Colvin looked slightly pained, but he shrugged. “Have it your way, boy,” he said quietly. He nodded at the hangman, who dropped the noose over Adam’s head and pulled at the knot until the rope was settled snugly about his throat.

The bile rose in Joe’s own throat as he watched Adam’s eyes sweep shut for only an instant, his lashes and several days’ worth of whisker growth providing a dark contrast to his paling complexion. Then Adam raised his chin and opened his eyes again. They were hard and clear, reflecting the colors of sun glinting off old dust. He put his shoulders back and stood as tall as Joe had ever seen him.

Joe shuddered as he kept his eyes on his brother, and it seemed as though the crowd held its breath along with him as a hush fell over the street—and suddenly, Joe couldn’t breathe. Tears shimmered across his vision. Panicked, he dashed them away with the back of his hand even as the nausea that had been threatening him for the last few minutes climbed thicker in his throat.

The hangman grasped the handle that would spring the trapdoor of the gallows into motion, and Joe stiffened, bracing himself against the inevitable.

But it was impossible to prepare completely for something that Joe knew he’d see in his mind’s eye for the rest of his life. When the trapdoor fell open with a deafening bang and Adam dropped like a stone, Joe was certain his own heart would never beat again.

 

**********

 

Forty-two hours earlier

“You know, son, you’re beginning to make a real nuisance of yourself,” Sheriff Colvin growled. “I don’t have anything against you sticking around until after the hanging to claim your brother’s body and see that he’s taken care of, but I’m telling you right now—if you don’t settle down, you’re likely to find yourself in trouble.”

“Sheriff, all I’m asking you to do is to delay carrying out the sentence until we can get some decent representation for my brother.” With an effort, Joe clamped down on his temper as he leaned across the desk toward the sheriff.

“It’s too late for that. ‘Sides, he had a lawyer, and the two of you fired him,” Sheriff Colvin sniffed. “Seems to me you shouldn’t ought to have been so picky.”

“That sorry excuse for a…look, we decided we didn’t have need of Mr. Breeley’s services because he insisted that Adam plead guilty. This whole thing has been rushed through like nobody’s business, and you know it.”

“I’ll tell you what I know, Mr. Cartwright.”

Judge Quimby’s voice rumbled unexpectedly from the door, and Joe whirled around to face him. The man stood in the doorway and scowled at him from under heavy eyebrows. “I know that a trial took place…”

“That trial was a farce. In two days’ time, a jury was selected, a show was put on, and a man was condemned with no evidence.” The anger building inside Joe made him shake. That blame could be placed like this with no evidence…

The judge’s mouth tightened. “As I was saying, a trial took place, two eye witnesses were heard, and now that trial is over. Furthermore, the jury was unanimous in finding your brother guilty.” He walked forward steadily until he was standing eye to eye with Joe. “Unless you want me to start suspecting that you had something to do with that murder, too, I would suggest that you stop badgering the sheriff, not to mention all the good citizens of this town with your incessant questioning. Keep going in this manner and you might well find yourself up on that gallows alongside your brother.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed at the direct confrontation. “Are you threatening me, Judge?” he said softly. “Murdering one man isn’t enough for you?”

“Delivering justice and committing murder are two different things,” Quimby barked. “I’m on one end, and your brother’s on the other.”

“You don’t have any…”

“Harold…”

Startled into silence, they all turned at the sound of the hesitant female voice at the door. The judge’s wife stood there, basket on her arm, obviously ready to do her good works of delivering meals to the prisoner in question, just as she’d done yesterday.

The judge stepped forward and took the basket. “Thank you, Jessica. I’ll be home in a few minutes.”

It was an obvious dismissal, but the woman didn’t obey it. “I…I brought an extra blanket,” she said hesitantly. “It’s outside in the buggy. It can get cold in those cells at night, and I thought…”

“The meal’s quite enough, Jessica.” The judge’s voice was firm. He set the basket on the sheriff’s desk, took his wife’s elbow and guided her toward the door.

At the last moment she held back, looking over her shoulder at Joe. Her eyes were large and sympathetic.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry about your brother. Truly I am,” she said. “Please don’t blame my husband for this. He’s a good man…”

“That’ll be all, Jessica. Get on home now,” the judge said, and his voice brooked no opposition. The woman hesitated, gave Joe another imploring glance, and then allowed herself to be let out.

Joe snorted softly as the door shut behind her. “A good man,” he said. “Tell me, Judge, how did you explain to your wife your rush to wrap up the court proceedings? What sort of lie did you come up with…”

“Cartwright, what I tell my wife is none of your concern. All you need to know is what I tell you. This town is pretty upset over Amy Holder’s murder. She was a sweet girl, and well liked around here. I don’t imagine it would bother the townsfolk much if they were able to take out all that anger on two men instead of one. They don’t have much call to like or trust Adam Cartwright’s brother. Do yourself a favor and get out of Millican. Now.”

“More threats?” Joe could hear the anger rising in his voice, but he couldn’t stop it.

“Joe!” Adam’s voice echoed through the door at the back of the sheriff’s office where the cells were located.

Joe didn’t move, but stood staring at the judge.

“Joe, I need to talk to you.” Adam’s voice, low-pitched but urgent, restrained Joe’s urge to tell Judge Quimby exactly what he could do with himself, his town, his sham of a court and his thinly-veiled threats.

Instead, with Adam calling his name yet again, he turned his back on the judge and stiffly addressed Sheriff Colvin. “You don’t mind if I go talk to my brother again, do you?”

Colvin shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He eyed Joe warily. “But if you get any funny ideas, boy, you need to remember that I’ve got the keys to that cell.” He patted his trouser pocket.

Joe resisted the urge to drive a fist into the sheriff’s jaw, snatch the keys, and make a run for Adam’s cell. But he knew neither of them would make it out of the building, much less the town, alive. So he only asked, “Can you at least let me into the cell with him?” He’d made the request before, but it didn’t hurt to try again.

But the sheriff’s answer was the same. “’Fraid not, son. Against policy.” He called after Joe, “Don’t forget, I’ve got the keys, so no funny business. It won’t get you nowhere.”

As Joe rounded the corner into the part of the building partitioned off for cells, he noticed again how short on light it was. A low-burning lantern sat on a small table in the outer corridor that ran the length of the three cells, but other than that, any illumination came from the one small, high window in each cell.

He quickly moved to the only occupied cell. Adam stood next to the bars, waiting for him.

Adam looked exasperated, and he spoke before Joe could say anything. “Joe, stop antagonizing the judge. It’s not going to help anything.”

“Antagonizing…Adam, didn’t you hear what he said?” Joe spat. “He’s as good as told me I’ll be arrested if I don’t get out of town.”

“I heard exactly what he said. Look, Joe, he’s not a man to be reckoned with. Not now, not here, not on his terms.”

“A man like that doesn’t scare me.”

“Well, he should. He holds all the dice here.”

“But…”

Adam shook his head. “Don’t push it.”

“Adam, I…”

“Don’t…push…it,” Adam hammered out, and his voice was sharp.

Joe stared at him. “Don’t push it? Adam, are you crazy? My God, they’re going to hang you, don’t you understand that?”

Instant shame slammed into him as Adam’s somber eyes met his. Of course his brother understood what was happening, better than anyone else. Joe dropped his head. “Sorry,” he mumbled. Then he sighed heavily. “I’ll keep asking questions. There’s got to be somebody around that knows something about what really happened. I’ll go…”

Adam interrupted him. “You’ve done everything you can, Joe. Now I want you to go to Salt Flats and get Pa and Hoss.”

“I already told you, there’s no need for me to go get them,” Joe argued. “The telegram was sent as soon as you were arrested. They’ll be here any time now, probably by tonight, even. And if they missed the message, I sent one to Sheriff Coffee, too. He’ll probably beat Pa and Hoss here.”

Adam gave a jerky nod and looked down at the floor without saying a word, and Joe felt cold hopelessness rolling off his brother in waves. He silently cursed the sheriff’s refusal to allow him to enter the cell, and he grabbed hold of the cell bars himself in an effort to get as close to Adam as he could. “Adam, listen to me. Pa is going to get here in time, and he’ll know what to do. You’ve gotta believe that.”

Adam lifted his eyes and looked at him then, and a tiny smile quivered at the corners of his mouth. “Sure he will,” he said quietly. “I know that.” But the tone of his voice said he was having serious doubts, and Joe found himself ill-equipped to reassure him; he was having a hard time convincing even himself. He’d sent the telegrams, all right, but hadn’t received an answer in return. He wondered if Pa and Hoss had been headed back to the Ponderosa by the time the message had arrived in Salt Flats. If so, by the time a message was sent home…it would be too late. As for Sheriff Coffee…maybe he had lit out in this direction so fast that he had forgotten to send a return telegram. Yes, that was it. It had to be. What other reason could there be for the lack of communication?

“Joe.”

Joe lifted his gaze. Adam had moved closer and was standing pressed against the other side of the bars, his face inches from Joe’s.

“I want you to promise me you’ll leave for Salt Flats. Today. Now. I want you to get Pa,” Adam repeated, and his voice was very quiet, very controlled.

First the judge telling him to get out of Millican, and now Adam. “We won’t make it back in time,” Joe whispered, and he knew he wasn’t saying anything Adam didn’t already know.

“I want you to go.”

Joe gave a tiny shake of his head, realizing the true motive his brother had for wanting him out of town. “No. You can’t tell me to do that.” His legs felt suddenly weak, as if his knees might buckle on him. He leaned harder on the bars. “I won’t do it.”

He wanted Adam to get angry, to yell at him. He could fight against that. But the softness in Adam’s entreaty left him off-balance and defenseless.

“Joe, I’m asking you for this one thing. I want you to ride out of here.”

Joe turned his face away, already shaking his head again.

“Joe.”

Against his will, Joe’s gaze was dragged back to his brother’s face. They stood there, face to face, hands wrapped white-knuckled around the same bars.

Joe searched his brother’s eyes. In the half-light of the dank jail cell, they were the color of whiskey and doom. “You can’t give up, Adam,” Joe whispered.

Adam’s lips tightened. He looked away, then back. “I’m not giving up. But we’re caught here, Joe. We need Pa’s help, and we need it now. You’ve got to get him.” He pinned Joe’s gaze with his own, and then his voice hardened with older-brother authority. “I don’t have time to argue with you. Now you promise me.”

Joe stared at him, and then let his hands fall from the bars. He backed away from the cell.

Adam’s eyes widened and he gripped the bars more tightly. “Joe…Little Joe, you listen to me.”

Joe took another step back, then another.

“Joe? Promise. Now.” Adam’s voice had taken on a note of alarm. “Do you hear me, boy? Promise me!”

No! He wouldn’t leave him—he couldn’t. It wasn’t right that Adam should ask such a thing of him. But he looked up slowly, and Adam’s trembling hands on those bars dragged the words from his throat, his voice cracking on them. “I…I promise.” And then he whirled around and headed for the door without looking at Adam.

“Joe?”

Joe stopped, and then slowly turned his head. “Yeah?”

“Tell Pa…” Adam swallowed and took a breath, and he turned to look up at the tiny window spilling its trickle of sunlight onto the floor. “Tell Pa…”

Joe waited, but Adam said nothing more. Joe could see his jaw muscles working as he struggled.

“I’ll tell him,” Joe choked out. And then he spun around and was gone.

 

*****

 

It was odd, but Adam felt himself grow calmer the moment Little Joe left the jail. His own death was looking more and more unavoidable, but at least now he knew Joe was safe. Something wasn’t right in this town; when officials were so jaw-droppingly quick to hand down and carry out condemnations for reasons known only to them, it was only a matter of time before someone like his youngest brother found himself in deep water, and one of them in trouble was enough.

In his terse statements regarding Joe’s tenuous stature in the town, Judge Quimby had made some dangerous implications very clear, and now Adam found himself actually fearing the man for his brother’s sake. It looked as though getting the charges dropped against him wasn’t going to happen no matter what they tried; getting Joe free and clear of the town of Millican was about the only thing they still had control over as far as Adam could see.

He sighed, watching a small mouse run the length of one wall. Realizing that he still held the bars in a tight grip, he made himself let go; he turned and looked up at the tiny window filtering light into the cell. Moving beneath it, he stood still and imagined that he could hear Cochise’s hooves beating out a pattern on the sand, drawing further and further away. It wasn’t only getting Joe out of Judge Quimby’s reach that was important. Knowing that Joe wouldn’t be out in front of the gallows tomorrow evening—that was vital as well. Adam had witnessed his share of hangings, and they were brutal, ugly events that, in his opinion, lowered the hierarchy of mankind in the general scheme of things, even though he’d be the first to admit that they were often a necessary evil. The visions left after witnessing them were hard, perhaps impossible, to get rid of. To see such a thing happen to a family member would be a permanent nightmare for any man to live with, and for Joe, a man whose emotions ran high at the best of times… Adam shook his head. He had serious doubts that someone like his kid brother could even survive such a thing without it permanently damaging him.

And of course the chances of Joe trying something reckless and extreme to break him out of jail grew higher with each passing hour. Yes, there was always that. No doubt about it; it was much better for everyone, especially Joe, to get him clear of Millican.

Adam eased himself down on the hard bunk, lying back and folding his arms under his head. The kid had scared him—the way he had looked through those bars at him, his young face lined with the stark shadows of the bars crossing it, his expression hopeful and frightened at the same time. For a moment, he’d thought Joe was going to flat out refuse to do as he was asked. When the boy had drawn back and looked like he was getting ready to bolt, Adam had been fighting panic, wondering how he’d ever talk him into leaving.

But Joe had backed down, thank God. For once, he’d backed down.

“Tell Pa…”

“I’ll tell him.”

With those words, Joe had promised to do as he was asked, and the relief flooding into Adam at that moment had threatened to send the sting of tears that his fear hadn’t been able to force.

”Watch over your brother, Adam.” It had been the last thing Pa had said to him before the four Cartwrights had split off into two different directions to tend to business that the ranch demanded, Joe and Adam to San Francisco to tie up some loose ends regarding a railhead contract, and Hoss and Pa to Salt Flats to deliver some cattle. The routine directive from Pa had been given quietly in order to prevent the kid from hearing and getting his ire up, but it really hadn’t been necessary to give it at all. Watching over Joe was as habitual a task for Adam as oiling his gun, one of those things he simply accepted because it had to be done, and he would do it even without Pa reminding him. He knew it, and Pa knew it, and yet the reminder was always there whenever they all parted ways, as customary a part of their family conversation as their hailed goodbyes. Had it instead been Hoss and Joe going their own way, the same instruction would’ve been given to Hoss, who didn’t need to be reminded any more than Adam did.

Adam stared up at the cracked, stained ceiling.

”Watch over your brother, Adam.”

He’d done that. Now he’d managed to convince Joe to ride out of Millican, and in doing so, he’d performed his duty one last time. He liked to think he’d done it well for the most part, even if it was a lapse in that responsibility that had landed them here in Millican in the first place. If that momentary failure had resulted in Joe’s life ending as well as his own, well, then he’d have gone to his grave carrying a self-loathing that even death couldn’t diminish….

Adam heaved another sigh, the sound loud against the cold cell wall next to him. “I’m such a fraud,” he whispered, and one corner of his mouth rose in a sardonic facade of a smile. Alone in this dim, dank room, he could admit that it hadn’t been a totally selfless gesture, his making Joe leave. It wasn’t only for Joe’s wellbeing, and it wasn’t only to keep him from having to watch his brother hang, and it wasn’t just to keep Joe from getting himself shot or jailed himself.

The truth was, the thought of leaving this earth with Joe’s horrified face being the last thing he’d see made his stomach pitch. A fleeting image of the scene burned through his mind. Hurriedly, he blinked it away, but it was too late; the plate of jail food Adam had eaten earlier began to congeal into a hard mass in the pit of his belly.

He rolled onto his side and stared at the wall, where moisture condensing on the rough plaster marred scribbled scratchings from former prisoners. His last words to Joe echoed through his head.

“Tell Pa…”

So much to say to his father. How could he ever have hoped to send a message to him that would convey it all? The love he had for him, the respect and pride…the regret he had now for leaving too soon by way of an unjust hangman’s noose.

Leaving too soon…Adam smiled again. There’d been times, lots of them recently, when he’d toyed with the idea of leaving for other places, other dreams…and yet right now home was the only place he wanted to be. He felt a sharp, stabbing grief that he’d never again set foot on the Ponderosa. In this moment, he found it surprisingly difficult to remember why he’d ever thought about leaving.

“Tell Pa… Tell Pa…”

“Tell Pa to watch over my brothers,” Adam whispered out loud even though there was no one in the room to hear, and then he shut his eyes and tried to escape into sleep.

 

**********

 

The Hanging

It wasn’t difficult to ignore the shouts of the onlookers. With disjointed, loose thoughts clanging about in his head, he was barely even aware of the noise.

He couldn’t stop the shudder that rippled across him as the noose settled about his throat. The rough hemp rasped across the skin of his neck, and he felt as though he couldn’t draw in air, even though the rope wasn’t tight enough to choke him. That would come when the trap door opened beneath his feet. Black fear obliterated his senses, and he shut his eyes, and in that instant, he felt a selfish regret at sending Joe away.

He scanned the crowd, half-hoping and half-fearing that he’d find Joe there. He wanted to be thankful that the kid had done what he’d been told, and yet all he felt was a rush of terrified abandonment.

God help me, I don’t want to do this alone.

Almost instantly, he berated himself. His life was ending. Joe’s life shouldn’t be ruined by having to witness it. He should be glad that his brother had followed his orders. And he was, damn it. He was glad. He’d fought to protect that boy all his life. It would be wrong to deny him that protection now.

And yet, the thought of doing this with none of his family near…

He bit his lip and pulled in a steadying breath. The town of Millican was not going to do this to him. They were going to take his life, but he would not give them his dignity. With renewed resolve, he opened his eyes and looked out toward the dying sun, straightened to his full height and pulled back his shoulders before sending out a silent prayer.

But when the sheriff grabbed the handle that would drop the floor from under him, he couldn’t help it; he winced and closed his eyes again just as the sheriff pushed the handle forward. The sound the trapdoor made when it fell open was louder than he’d expected, almost like a rifle shot. He dropped through the air…

…and landed hard in the dirt beneath the gallows, sprawled face-down and choking on a mouthful of dirt and a gutful of shock, his head seeming to explode with the force of the fall.

For an instant, he thought something had gone awry and that he hadn’t been hung at all. But then…well, he couldn’t breathe, so he must be dead…

He started crawling on his knees anyway, scooting out from underneath the gallows’ framework. There were several sharp retorts as gunshots echoed through the street. Screams and angry shouts came from all directions. More gunshots.

Blind with terror and confusion and badly hampered by the fact that his hands were tied behind him, he tried desperately to put some distance between himself and the gallows, scraping his knees raw in his effort to do so. Unable to get his balance, he stumbled forward, getting another mouthful of dirt as his jaw plowed a furrow in the street. He struggled back up onto his knees. And then he stopped, blinking, because Joe’s face was in front of him. The kid looked scared out of his wits, but he was definitely there.

The fall had rattled Adam’s brains and knocked the wind right out of him. He managed to rasp out his brother’s name, but since there was still no air in his lungs to put behind his voice, his “Joe?” wasn’t loud enough for anyone to hear.

What the hell had just happened? Late sunlight glinted on a knife blade in Joe’s hand; it flashed downward, and Adam felt the ropes binding his wrists give way. Still trying to pull in air and making a pitiful attempt to get on his feet, he had no time to process anything, but he didn’t miss the rifle Joe flung to the ground, nor the double-barreled shotgun he was now waving haphazardly at the crowd.

Oh, God, kid, what have you done?

The crowd surged toward them as Joe reached down with his free hand and jerked him upright without looking at him. When a man raised a gun and pointed it at them, Joe didn’t hesitate; he pulled the trigger, emptying one of the barrels of the shotgun into the man’s leg. Adam flinched as the man roared in pain and fell back.

“Stay back, every one of you! I’ll kill any man that tries to stop us, I swear to God.”

Even in his disoriented state, a frisson of alarm shot up the back of Adam’s neck at the cold deadliness in his kid brother’s voice. He tried to turn and look at him, but Joe was pulling him along even as he swung the barrel of the shotgun back and forth, and Adam had to concentrate in order to stay upright and moving.

Around them, the milling crowd nervously eyed the gun in Joe’s hand. The barrels had been sawed short, turning it into a weapon that would certainly hit a body without requiring much aim. It was enough to keep everyone at bay as Joe pulled Adam back toward an alley.

The fact that he really wasn’t dead was still slowly dawning on Adam, along with the knowledge that he was as yet unable to get a decent breath of air. Stumbling alongside Joe, he reached up with one hand and clawed at the noose still drawn tight around his neck, finally managing to loosen it enough to wedge a couple of fingers underneath, enough to drag in a tiny bit more air, filled as it was with the dust of their escape. He caught a glimpse of the short length of rope still attached to the noose, noting the clean break at its free end. As he staggered down the narrow alley, Joe shoving and pushing at him, the loud boom of the trapdoor opening came back to him, and some of the events of the last few minutes finally began to congeal into some modicum of reason.

He shot the rope. He shot me down.

Not with that shotgun, though. Where had Joe gotten that thing, anyway? Their own weapons had been confiscated when he’d been arrested, “as a safety precaution” as Judge Quimby had put it. But the shotgun wouldn’t have enabled him to shoot accurately enough to hit that rope. Joe had to have found a rifle somewhere…

“Adam!”

They had emerged from the alley, and he suddenly realized that it wasn’t the first time Joe had shouted his name. The hammers banging away at the inside of his skull made his thinking ridiculously fuzzy. The dizziness was overwhelming. Stupid to be trying to figure things out now anyway, and he knew it, but it was a part of him that he couldn’t always turn off. Right now, his mind was careening around like a steer that had gotten into a patch of loco weed. He rubbed one hand over his face as if to wipe away the uncharacteristic sluggishness of his thinking and tried to concentrate on doing what he needed to do.

Only…what was it that he needed to do? God, his head hurt. He couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight…

“Adam!” Joe was screaming his name again, and this time he threw in some well-placed oaths for good measure. “For the love of… Adam, get on the horse!”

A horse? There was a horse? Adam spun around and sure enough, he almost fell into the side of a large dun gelding standing next to a smaller black horse. He put his hands out against the animal’s side to keep from crumpling beneath it. Beside him, Joe faced the alley’s opening, shotgun held at the ready.

Adam’s heart beat wildly in his chest in time with the thumping in his head. He reached for the horn and began to clamber up onto the dun, but fell back. He immediately made another attempt, again unsuccessful. He was reaching for the horn yet again when he heard a shout, then another blast from the shotgun, and then another curse from Joe. The shotgun clattered against the ground as Joe threw it aside.

Adam struggled to balance as his brother dipped his shoulder and shoved it against his backside, heaving upwards and more or less throwing him into the saddle. Leaning forward with the horn digging into his belly, Adam scrabbled for the reins as Joe flung himself onto the back of the other horse.

“Ride!” Joe roared at him. It was an unnecessary order; Adam knew his wits were still scattered, but his thinking didn’t have to be all that clear to know that they had to move fast or die, and his heels were already digging hard into his horse’s flanks. They burst past a group of men trying to cut them off, and more gunshots rang out. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Joe had drawn his pistol to shoot a warning shot back—Adam didn’t even want to question how he’d managed to get the gun back.

As Adam urged his horse forward, his lungs finally started to catch up with the rest of him, and larger, more normal breaths of air at last began to wheeze back into his chest. He lay low over the dun’s neck and tugged again at the still-present noose, trying to loosen it further; the presence of the thing scared the daylights out of him. Despite the fact that they had other immediate dangers that were infinitely more troubling, he desperately wanted to be rid of it. The rough fibers kept the knot tight and abraded his fingers as he fumbled with the rope.

Then something slammed hard into his thigh, and he forgot about the noose, swaying in the saddle with the force of the blow. The world tilted on end, and he was on the verge of falling when Joe shot up beside him, grabbing him by the arm and balancing him in the saddle.

Joe was shouting at him, and it took him a moment to make sense of the words. “I’ve got you, Adam. Just hold on. Grab onto that horn and don’t let go.”

Another unnecessary order—after all, what choice did he have?

More shots buffeted his ears and his aching head, fighting for attention among the relentless pounding of their horses’ hooves. Every few seconds, he heard a sound like the buzz of angry bees as the bullets whizzed close by, and he hunched lower over the saddle, wishing he had a gun. His thigh felt as though someone were holding a hot branding iron to it; he didn’t dare look to see how bad it was.

Instead, he turned his head to the other side to look at Joe riding beside him.

The kid grinned back at him.

Grinned. Adam didn’t know whether to grin back or curse.

Then Joe jerked slightly and the grin vanished even as he emitted a short grunt as if someone had punched him hard in the belly, and Adam did curse.

“Are you hit?”

But Joe was hard at work reloading his pistol. Within seconds, he was once more firing at their pursuers, several of whom had managed to mount nearby horses to give chase.

Adam shouted at him again. “You’re hit?”

Joe shook his head. “Just a crease,” he shouted back. “Shut up and ride!”

And then, astonishingly, the town of Millican began to fall behind them.

Dear God, they were fugitives. A fool’s ride, that’s what they were on. There was no way they could possibly get out of this thing alive. What had Joe gotten them into? Now they were both going to die. Adam’s emotions were in turmoil; he’d gone from wanting to kiss his brother to wanting to thrash him.

Too bad he didn’t feel quite steady enough to do either. The sun was fast disappearing over the horizon, and the sky seemed to be darkening at an alarmingly fast rate. Too late, Adam realized it wasn’t just the sky; it was everything. He was about to pass out.

He managed to look over at Joe still riding beside him. Joe gave him a funny look back, and in a split-second movement, shoved his pistol back into his holster.

The last thing Adam saw was Joe’s hand reaching for him…

 

*****

 

“Easy…easy…come on, now, I’ve got you.”

Joe’s soft murmurings drifted up to him. He shook himself and blinked, and realized that his surroundings had changed. It was night—real night, not just unnatural darkness brought on by the loss of consciousness—and everything was quiet. His horse stood still, hide lathered and head hanging low. And he was slipping from the saddle again—no, Joe was on the ground, tugging at him, trying to pull him off the horse.

Adam stiffened. His leg was on fire.

“Come on, turn loose of the horn, Adam.” Joe pried his fingers loose from the saddle horn and pulled at him again. “I’ve got you,” he repeated, but when Adam did as he asked, he immediately felt Joe stagger beneath his weight.

“You’ve got me—the hell you do,” Adam muttered, and braced for a fall.

Somehow, though, Joe managed to lower him to the ground without dropping him.

Adam lay flat on his back, panting from the pain in his thigh. “Did I ever tell you that you’re stronger than you look?” he managed to gasp.

“You’re forgetting that time I carried your carcass half a mile with Cochise himself shooting at us,” Joe said, but his joke didn’t hide the worry in his eyes as they skimmed over Adam’s face. “Don’t go anywhere,” he said, and gave Adam’s arm an easy nudge before rising. He went to the saddlebag still hanging on his horse and rummaged around in it.

Adam raised a skeptical brow and fought to get his breathing under control. To steady his nerves, he grasped at the Cochise attack story Joe had mentioned. “And when exactly did you carry me half a mile? It was more like twenty yards.” He was appalled at how shaky and hoarse his voice sounded.

“More like fifty yards,” Joe retorted. “At the very least. And I was shooting back at Cochise at the same time.”

Despite waves of dizziness and the pain in his leg, Adam had to grin at the playfully defensive tone that had crept into Joe’s bragging. The Cochise account was a tale the youngest Cartwright loved to tell to anyone who would listen, and the fact that it was true didn’t stop his brothers from teasing him about it every time the subject came up. It might be an odd moment to be talking about it, but it was proof of how desperate they were to get their minds off the tight corner they found themselves jammed into.

He noticed that Joe had buttoned his jacket up, and he wondered at that. Adam wasn’t cold at all. No doubt the desert night would soon be chilly, but for now there was still a hint of warmth rising up from the sand. He saw that there was an extra coat rolled up at the back of his saddle—darn, but the boy had thought this thing through, at least somewhat—but he felt no need to put it on yet. Was his wound making him fevered? He shook his head. No, stupid thought. He wasn’t sure how long they had been riding, but it certainly hadn’t been so long that fever had had time to develop.

He eyed his kid brother with interest, glad to have something to puzzle out to take his mind off his leg. Maybe Joe had more weapons hidden away under that buttoned-up jacket. He wanted to laugh at the absurd thought, but the fact was that Joe had sure somehow come up with enough guns when it counted. Adam made a mental note to ask later how he’d managed to get them. Adam was fairly certain that Judge Quimby would’ve ordered the townspeople not to sell him anything more dangerous than a pea-shooter, and he knew he would never have agreed to give Joe his guns back until after the hanging.

Despite feeling pretty darn wobbly, Adam had to smile at Joe’s no-doubt questionable ingenuity. Immediately, another wave of pain wiped the smile from his face. Something had to be done about this leg. He had to take a couple of breaths before he was sure he could speak without his voice breaking. “While you’re thinking about how you held off the entire Apache nation single handedly, you might want to give me a hand in looking at this leg wound.”

Having found the items he wanted in the saddlebag, Joe turned toward him, hefting a knife in his hand. “We’ll get to that. First things first, brother.”

Adam eyed his brother warily as he squatted on his haunches next to him and began to bring the knife blade close to Adam’s face. “First things first? What things?”

“That thing around your neck, that’s what.”

The noose. It was still there? Dear God, yes, it was. And his throat hurt. He just hadn’t noticed it before because the pain in his confounded leg had been overriding everything else. He raised his hand and laid his fingers gingerly against the rope grating across his windpipe.

Joe placed the knife against the rope and started to saw, and Adam grabbed his wrist.

“Slow down, boy. It’d be a real shame if you saved my neck only to accidentally cut it now.”

Joe gave him a wounded look. “I won’t slip. Let’s just get it off, huh? It’s giving me the jitters.”

“Giving you the jitters?” Adam huffed, but he let Joe wave his hand away and obediently sat still as the knife sliced through the rope. He heaved a sigh of relief as the noose fell away from his neck, and then started in surprise when Joe snatched the thing up and, with more force than was necessary, hurled it as far away as he could.

Adam stared at him. Joe stood there with his back to him, breathing hard, his cavalier attitude abruptly vanished. In the set of his spine and the tremble in his muscles, Adam could see that Joe’s self-control had slipped and he was fighting hard to regain it.

And it was in that moment, even flat on his back with a bullet in his leg, that Adam was back in the familiar role of protector. It was almost a relief, for it was something he knew how to do, and it made him feel that the world hadn’t been turned quite as topsy-turvy as it had seemed earlier that day.

“It’s okay, Little Joe,” he said softly. “It’s over.” It was a far sight from over, of course, since that mob from town was sure to be close on their heels.

It was only because of Joe’s obstinacy that he wasn’t dangling from the end of a rope right now. Alive or not, the whole thing had already cost them both plenty. Here he was with a bullet in his leg, and they were both fugitives from the law. And now it wasn’t only his own life at stake; if they were caught, there was no doubt in his mind that Joe would die alongside him. The posse would have no compunction about cutting them down together.

He stared at his brother’s back and wondered how they were possibly going to get out of the mess they were in. Joe gave a shuddering sigh.

“I could’ve missed,” Joe whispered, and still he remained turned away from Adam.

Adam frowned. “Missed?”

“When I shot at the rope. I had to wait until it was stretched tight so that it would break clean, and I…I…”

Ah. So that’s what his little brother was all ramrod stiff over. The fear that, just this once, he might not have been as unerring in his shooting as he liked to claim. Adam smiled slightly and finished Joe’s sentence. “And your aim was true,” he said, purposely making his tone matter-of-fact despite the fact that his mind was recoiling over what could’ve easily gone wrong.

“I could’ve missed,” Joe said again.

“But you didn’t.” He repeated himself, more slowly this time. “Joe, your aim was true.”

Joe didn’t answer. Instead, he dropped his head and stalked off to retrieve the noose he had flung out into the darkness. They didn’t want to leave any more traces of their passage than necessary, after all. If circumstances had been different, and if he hadn’t been hurting so darn much, Adam would’ve laughed at the sound of his brother muttering curses at himself under his breath when, hampered by the dark, moonless night, he couldn’t find the betraying piece of rope.

But Adam was hurting. A lot. Laughter seemed like too much effort to even think about.

Joe’s triumphant “got it” sounded a minute later. Adam turned his face toward Joe as the boy’s black silhouette eased up out of the dark, and he watched as Joe dug a shallow hole and dropped the noose into it.

“We sure ain’t carryin’ it with us,” Joe muttered, and scraped dirt over it with his boot, tamping it down until he was satisfied—but something about the way he was moving caught Adam’s eye.

There was something odd in Joe’s stance, something totally unrelated to the fear and self-doubt he had displayed a few minutes ago. It was an actual physical rigidity, stiffness in his movements. Adam squinted, trying to better make him out in the heavy darkness. Nothing was readily apparent, but Adam’s doubts had been raised. When Joe returned to his side, Adam didn’t wait before hitting him with his suspicions.

“Are you hurt?” he asked flatly, and knew he was on the right track when Joe’s eyes flickered away before he shook his head no, and when Adam caught the passing glint of pain in them he mentally kicked himself for having missed it before. He thought about that wild flight out of Millican.

A sound like angry bees as bullets whizzed close by, and a grunt from Joe, as if someone had hit him. 

Ah, yes. The pit of Adam’s stomach sank, and he sighed. “That ‘crease’ you said you had,” he stated. “How bad is it?”

Joe shrugged. “It’ll keep ‘till we get to the next town.”

“Were you planning on hiding it until then?”

“I hadn’t planned on keeping it secret. I just haven’t had a chance to stop and fill you in on all the details.”

“Well, fill me in now. “Let’s see it.”

“No. I told you, it can wait.”

“I’ll decide if it can wait or not. Now let’s see it.” Adam beckoned him with an impatient finger, but Joe’s expression only became more mulish.

“It ain’t bad. Just a shallow nick, in and back out. Barely a scratch.” He jerked his chin in the direction of Adam’s leg. “Which is more than we can say for your leg. We don’t get that bullet out, you won’t be able to sit a horse tomorrow. And if you can’t ride, we’re finished.”

Adam felt his mouth tighten. He wasn’t used to conceding an argument so easily, but Joe had a point. The pain in his leg was bad, but it was only going to get worse if they didn’t do something about it soon. And he knew they couldn’t afford for him to slow them down any more.

It was enough to sway his decision. “Fine. We’ll get the lead out of my leg, and then we’ll bandage you up.”

“Fine,” Joe muttered. He was already heading for the horses to retrieve what he needed from the saddlebags.

“Fine!” If Little Brother was feeling peevish, well, so was he. He rubbed at the raw soreness encircling his throat…and smiled a wicked smile. “You were right, though—you could have fired a split second sooner. Yeah, the rope had to be tight, but don’t you think you overdid it just a bit? Gettin’ just a tad slow on the trigger, aren’t you, brother?”

Joe swung his head around to stare open-mouthed at him, and Adam grinned slyly when Joe half-heartedly chucked a clod of earth in his direction.

The memory of Joe’s dumbfounded expression gave Adam something to smile about a few minutes later when his little brother started to carve into his thigh. When Joe had to go deeper than expected, though, Adam’s sense of humor was pretty much buried along with the knife blade. He gritted his teeth and held his own for as long as he could, for Joe’s sake as much as his own.

But then, just as Joe whispered, “I feel it; almost there,” Adam felt himself sliding into oblivion for the second time that day.

 

*****

 

When he came to, he was on his horse, riding through the darkest desert night he’d ever seen, his head bobbing along in time to the horse’s steps. He lifted his head slightly and blinked, trying to clear the fuzz out of his brain.

He became aware of warmth at his back and realized that someone rode with him, holding onto him from behind. Joe.

“Adam. Adam, you awake?”

He opened his mouth to answer. Had to stop, swallow, and try again. “Yeah.” Finally he managed to rasp it out, but it sounded pathetic, even to his own ears.

“Doin’ okay?” Joe sounded pathetic, too. Scared to death, as a matter of fact. Worried sick. It made Adam pull himself upright, away from the comforting warmth of his little brother.

“Fine as frog hair.” Still sounded pretty puny. Joe’s sigh of relief tickled the back of his neck.

“I was beginnin’ to think I was gonna have to hold you like a baby the whole night through.”

Surprised, Adam glanced down. Sure enough, his brother’s arms circled round him to hold onto the reins.

He sat up straighter, and brushed the arms aside, taking the reins into his own hands. “Yeah, well, I can get along without the nursemaidin’ now, I think.”

“Good. My arms are ready to fall out of their sockets, they’re so numb from holding onto your dead weight. Hoss ain’t the only one needin’ to lay off the flapjacks.”

“Very funny. Just how did you manage to get me back up in the saddle?”

“You don’t remember?”

Adam rolled his eyes even though he knew Joe couldn’t see them. “If I remembered, I wouldn’t be asking, would I?”

Joe tsked. “Mite grouchy, ain’t ya? Well, that’s probably a good sign. Hey, since you’re not needin’ a nursemaid anymore, you think you could go ahead and stop the horse now? I’m kind of uncomfortable riding back here behind you. Think I’d feel better in my own saddle if it’s all the same to you.”

Adam pulled up and Joe slid off. He untied the second horse’s lead rope, and through the dark, Adam watched him mount—not his usual swinging leap up into the saddle, nor even a springy step into the stirrup. No, this was a slow, ragged, jerking haul up into the saddle, and when he finally made it up, he sat stiffly. Not at all like his rambunctious kid brother.

Damn it.”

His sudden curse made Joe stiffen further. “What’s wrong? You hurtin’ pretty bad?”

“No. Yes. I mean, I just realized. I passed out, and we never got to you. I never checked your wound. I didn’t…”

“No need,” Joe broke in. “I bandaged it up myself. Had all day long to do it, since you refused to wake up.”

All day long. “What? Do you mean to tell me we’re on the second night out? We wasted a whole day back there?”

Joe shrugged and clucked to the horses to move on. He sidled his horse up beside Adam. “Well, it wasn’t my idea. Like I said, you wouldn’t wake up.”

Adam ran a hand hard over his eyes and nose. Half a night and a whole day of sitting around waiting for the posse to catch up to them. “Joe, they’ve got to be getting close.”

“You got that right. I caught sight of ‘em, or at least the dust they were raising, late this evening. And yeah, you’re right—they’re gettin’ way too close for comfort. That’s why we’re riding in the dark, trying to make up some lost time.” Joe hesitated. “Something tells me they’ll string us up right where we stand if they catch us,” he said, and Adam nodded at the unnecessary observation.

They couldn’t run at a gallop at night, not without risk of breaking a horse’s leg, and that was a risk they couldn’t afford. So they plodded along, and Adam thought the slower pace was likely all that kept him going. His leg protested with every step his horse took. The bullet was out, which was a definite improvement, but still the limb was hot and achy and it hurt like the blazes—a definite hindrance to his endurance and mobility.

The night stretched on. Both of them were exhausted and uncomfortable, and conversation was sparse. Finally they stopped speaking altogether as they concentrated on simply moving forward beneath silent stars.

Hours passed. More to take his mind off his leg than any real hunger, Adam chewed the last of the jerky Joe had handed him. He’d had a couple of apples in his saddlebag as well, and although the pain of his wound kept him from wanting to eat, Joe had insisted.

Dutifully swallowing the jerky down, Adam sighed and patted the dun’s neck. A good horse. He’d certainly helped to pull his rider out of a really sticky situation. He was…

Adam frowned. “Joe? What happened to Cochise and Sport?”

Joe was riding directly in front of him, a few feet ahead. He didn’t answer. His head bobbed slightly in time to his mount’s gait, and Adam wondered if he was sleeping in the saddle.

“Joe? Joe!”

Joe gave a tiny jump and turned his head, blinking his eyes as if trying to figure out where he was. “You say somethin’, Adam?”

He had been asleep. The kid could sleep anywhere. With his good leg, Adam nudged his horse up to ride next to his brother. “I asked you what happened to Cochise and Sport.”

Joe’s eyes were cloudy under the moonlight, and he frowned as if trying to remember. “Left Cochise with a horse trader on th’ other side of Millican. He sold me these two. Sport…” He frowned again. “Sport’s still in th’ livery back in town. Sheriff was watchin’ too close…he would’ve noticed…somebody would’ve noticed if our horses’d been saddled and waitin’ outside…” His slurred voice drifted off and his head nodded forward again.

Adam stared at him, squinting in an attempt to make out his features in the dark. Something felt wrong. He knew Joe was tired, but…

“Let’s stop. I want to take a look at that ‘scratch’ of yours.” His order was ignored. He sighed at the back of Joe’s drooping head. “Joe…”

The bullet-torn muscle in his thigh chose that moment to seize up in a spasm that sucked Adam’s breath away. An involuntary cry was ripped from his throat, and he dropped the reins to grab hold of his leg with both hands.

The yelp was loud enough to rouse Joe. He jerked his head up. “Adam? You okay?”

Adam gritted his teeth; the pain held him in a vise. “It’s the leg,” he managed to grunt out. “The muscle—it’s cramping up or something, I don’t know.”

Joe scowled. “It’s the riding. It’s too much.”

Adam winced and tried massaging the leg on the parts where it didn’t hurt to touch. “I’ll be all right. It’ll ease up in a minute. It just needs…” and then another spasm, stronger than the first, tore a harsh curse from his lips, and he bent over double, rubbing one hand along the edge of the wound in a desperate attempt to ease the pain.

“That’s it,” he heard Joe mutter, and the next thing he knew Joe was at his side. “Come on, let’s get you down.”

Adam hurt too badly to argue. Maybe if he could just straighten the leg for a few minutes…

He looked down into Joe’s face, and again the notion struck him that all wasn’t right. His kid brother’s eyes were dull and slightly unfocused, and although Adam tried to tell himself that it was the starlight playing tricks, somehow he knew it wasn’t true. Well, he was darn sure going to check the wound himself this time, no matter what Joe said. But it would have to wait for a few minutes until the pain in his leg subsided enough to allow him to think more clearly. Right now it was all he could focus on….

He leaned down into Joe’s up-stretched arms, helping as much as he could by holding onto the horn until the last moment. He hesitated, then held his breath and let go…

…and then howled in pain as Joe crumpled beneath him and sent them both sprawling.

He immediately grabbed for his leg, rocking back and forth in instinctive reaction to the pain.

“Hellfire, Joe, if you couldn’t hold me, why didn’t you just say so?” he hissed when he could get his breath back, but at the same time he cursed himself for having leaned too hard on his injured brother.

Joe lay flopped belly down in the dirt a few feet away, his face turned away. Adam threw him a dark look and rolled his eyes. It was obvious Joe had been hurting a lot more than he had been letting on.

Adam’s leg clamored relentlessly for attention. Well, hell. It was bleeding again. No surprise there. He bit his lip and pulled at the bandage in an attempt to tighten it, but couldn’t get enough leverage to do it himself.

“Joe. Scrape yourself off the ground and get over here. I need you to help me with this. All our dancing around has made the bandage come loose. Let’s redo it and then it’s your turn. No argument out of you, either. Joe? Joe! Come on, boy, we don’t have all night The words died in his throat as he realized his brother hadn’t so much as moved. “Joe?”

Lying on his belly in the dirt, he leaned over and stretched out, ignoring the ember-hot pain rippling across his thigh. He placed the palm of his hand against Joe’s back—and cursed again.

The back of the kid’s jacket was damp. Adam pulled his hand back and held it up in front of his face. Under the dim starlight, he could make out the dark wetness covering his palm and fingers even though he hadn’t been able to see it against the dark green of Joe’s jacket.

Terror grew in a cold lump in his gut as he ignored his shrieking thigh muscle and pulled himself up into a sitting position. He winced as he struggled to ease his brother over onto his back. His worst fears were realized as his eyes swept the length of the Joe’s body, taking note of the large dark stain spreading across one side of Joe’s jacket. Panting with alarm and fright and pain, Adam leaned forward and fumbled with the buttons of the coat.

“You fool kid. You fool, fool kid.” Apparently Joe’s buttoned-up jacket had been a ploy to hide the extent of his injury. Stupid, senseless, boneheaded thing to do. “No. I’m the senseless one,” he muttered out loud. “I should’ve known…” He cursed again.

The jacket finally came open, and Adam wasted no time with unbuttoning Joe’s shirt, but instead yanked it free of his trousers and pushed it up out of the way. He saw immediately that Joe had made an earlier attempt to slow the bleeding; just as he’d said, he’d bandaged it, but it was a clumsy affair, a loose bandage fashioned from a piece of horse blanket wrapped around his torso. The piece of blanket was long past having any useful absorbency left; he pushed that up out of the way, too. As soon as he did, fresh blood slowly welled up, but he couldn’t tell where it was coming from. He tried to recall Joe’s words.

“Just a nick…barely a scratch.”

Where was the entry wound?

“Damn it.” He reached up and flung his hat from his head in an effort to gain more light. Joe’s abdomen was dully shining, dark and wet. Wherever the actual wound was, the mess of blood was disguising it. Adam put out a shaking hand and smoothed it across his brother’s belly as he felt for a clue, and he prayed that he would find none in the place where he first began to search. A belly wound… No, no, no…

But his fingers skimmed along smooth skin made slick and tacky with blood, and he felt his breath come a little easier. A shot in the gut would’ve almost certainly meant the end for his brother, but as Adam moved his hand along, hope began to grow that such a wound wasn’t the case.

He crept his hand out to Joe’s right side, and the blood easing his way grew less sticky and more fluid. And then…

“That’s it,” he whispered. A hole, a bit bigger than his forefinger was round, sitting just below his brother’s ribcage. He moved his hand around to Joe’s back; sure enough, there was a slightly smaller hole low on his side.

Well, at least Joe had been forthright about that much. If it had been an inch further to the right, it wouldn’t have gotten him at all. And yet, the bleeding was heavy.

He frowned. All that dark blood, covering Joe’s belly, soaking into his shirt, seeping into the sand, coating his own fingers… How much blood had Joe lost? How much blood could a man lose before he died? He could make some educated guesses, but he was no doctor. He really had no idea. He’d seen men lying on saloon floors bleed more than he’d ever thought possible and still live, and yet he’d seen others pass quietly away after bleeding very little from what at first seemed to be a minor injury.

Whether or not anything inside had been damaged—well, that was something Adam had no way of knowing. All he could do was try to fix what he could see. And that was the bleeding—a lot of it.

Joe groaned, and Adam pushed himself up to lean over him, watching as the green eyes fluttered and then fixed hazily on him. Adam put one hand on the wound on Joe’s back and the other against the exit wound on his torso. He leaned in hard to add pressure to both.

“Are you with me?” Adam asked softly, and Joe gave a tiny nod.

“I’m with you,” he whispered, and then he grimaced. “I’m not kiddin’ about laying off the flapjacks. You’ve gained some weight since that time I lugged you away from Cochise, you know that?” His words were slurred even worse than before, and his voice was fluttery and weak, and Adam’s stomach pitched at hearing it.

“I think it’s more likely that you’ve lost some muscle,” Adam teased, smiling to hide his fear. “Darn it, Joe, what were you thinking?” he asked softly. “Didn’t you know how bad you were bleeding? Why didn’t you let me check this earlier?” He wanted to shout at Joe for his foolishness; it was with effort that his voice came out low and gentle.

Joe sighed and shrugged. “I swear, it really didn’t seem to be too bad at first. ‘Sides, what would you have been able to do if you’d known about it?”

Not much. That was the truth. It had been all Adam could do to stay in the saddle this far, and that had only been with Joe’s help. He clamped his mouth shut, furious that Joe hadn’t paid attention to his own limitations for once. More than that, he was frustrated by his own limitations, and to add insult to injury, he found himself unable to come up with a good argument for his kid brother’s twisted logic.

He shook it all out of his head. “Well, now that I do know about it, we’re going to have to figure out what to do. We’ve got to get the bleeding stopped.”

Unfortunately, that appeared to be easier said than done. The blood kept flowing despite his attempts to put pressure on the wound. He leaned hard on it, ignoring the pained grunts from his brother.

His efforts appeared to do no good.

His eyes roved over Joe’s face as he pushed, wishing again that he could see better. The kid had been lucky to make it as far as he had. Adam wondered if he even realized how bad off he was.

“You know they’ll catch up to us if we don’t move,” Joe murmured. “Maybe we could ride out, find a place to hide, and take care of this when the sun comes up.”

Adam caught the whiff of fear that threaded through his voice. Whether it was fear of being caught, or of all the blood he was losing, Adam didn’t know.

He didn’t have the time to try to find out, even if he’d been inclined. He felt the blood slipping between his fingers and shook his head, the rhythm of his heart beginning to take on speed. There would be no sunup for Joe, not if they couldn’t get this stopped. He abandoned the effort to apply pressure, and yanked off the coat he had donned earlier in the night, wadding it up and pushing it under the boy’s back. He took Joe’s hands and placed them on the entry wound.

“Press down hard, Joe. Just lie there and don’t move.” Adam struggled to get to his feet—and made it, though he was unable to suppress a growl of pain as he managed to force himself upright.

“You’re not…doing that…leg any good.” Joe’s voice had grown weaker, and the sound of it made Adam whirl his head around to look at him, fear making his heart slam against his chest.

“Don’t you pass out on me, Little Joe, you hear me? You keep your eyes open and concentrate. You stay awake, understand?” Outside, it was barked as an order; inside, it was a plea. He didn’t want Joe drifting off again—he feared he might not get him back.

Sure enough, a big-brother order seemed to work. Joe gave him a jerky nod, and Adam lurched back over to the horses. He had an idea, something he’d heard from an Army doctor once…. Inside Joe’s saddlebag he found the knife, a leather pouch full of extra ammunition, and a packet of matches. He grabbed the items and staggered back to his brother, dropping the supplies before turning away again.

He felt Joe’s eyes on him as he hopped and hobbled around the surrounding area collecting pieces of dead wood, and he wondered when Joe would realize what had to happen. Adam found himself dreading the moment comprehension would come to him.

It took several minutes to get a campfire going, and Joe watched in silence. He still said nothing as Adam used the knife to pry the caps off two bullets, carefully pouring the gunpowder from them into a small square of cloth ripped from his shirt. He laid the gunpowder beside Joe, and then placed the knife in the fire, situating it so that the blade was buried in the red embers.

He went back to Joe then, sprawling beside him with his bad leg stretched out in front of him as he pressed hard on Joe’s exit wound, his stomach threatening mutiny at the thought of what he had to do.

After several minutes, the crackling sound of the campfire’s flames told him the time had come. He raised his head to find Joe’s eyes directly on his.

He blew out a breath and forced himself to look Joe in the face. “This, um… This is…” He cleared his throat and straightened. “I’m not going to lie to you, Joe. This is gonna be rough. It’s going to…”

“It’s gonna hurt like everything,” Joe whispered.

Adam stared at him and gave a slow nod. The kid was lucid enough to know exactly what was going on. “Yeah. Like everything.” Uncomfortable holding his brother’s gaze, he dropped his head, only to be struck by the sight of Joe’s blood-covered fingers pressed against the wound in his side. He glanced away, and pinned his stare on the knife heating up in the fire.

He wished he knew the best way to prepare them both for what was coming. Joe would want to know what he was facing. “You got an idea of what we have to do here?” he said finally.

“I got an idea,” Joe whispered. “But tell me anyway.”

And so Adam delivered the facts, crisp and hard. He didn’t soften them, both because he didn’t know how and because Joe deserved the truth.

“The heat and the combustion of the gunpowder will cauterize the vessels and stop the bleeding. It still might become infected, but we’ll deal with that if it happens. The bleeding is what we’re up against right now.”

Joe responded to his cool explanation by doing what Joe did best. He joked. “Maybe…maybe your leg needs the same treatment.” A weak joke, but a stab at lightening the mood, all the same.

Too bad it didn’t quite do the trick.

Adam looked up in time to catch his brother’s weak grin. He forced a smile back. “Could be. Tell you what; let’s get you through this and then we’ll see what we can do about my bum leg.”

His wound wasn’t ready for the last-resort treatment of cauterization with gunpowder and they both knew it; it was bleeding, but slowly, not enough to kill him—not yet, anyway. Still, if Adam could’ve swapped places with Joe, he’d have done it in a heartbeat. It would be easier to take.

He honestly would’ve preferred the noose to being put in this position.

He’s lying in the dirt bleeding to death for you. Because of you.

Guilt began to build like thunderheads in his mind. Strong flames of doubt were beginning to take hold within him, and he was having trouble shaking free of them.

He should’ve turned back, should’ve turned himself in, should’ve refused to run in the first place. Running from the law—how many times had he done his best to talk desperate men out of doing that? And yet he’d allowed himself to fall in behind his impulsive youngest brother and done exactly what he’d always preached against. And look where it had got them. A bullet in each of them and Joe bleeding to death in the desert.

But at least you’re alive. The contradictory thought insisted on prodding him, and he had to admit they’d had no other choice but to run. Had they?

Minutes passed along with Adam’s dark thoughts, and they both waited, the only sound Joe’s shallow, rapid breathing and the crackling of the fire. Adam could feel his brother watching him, but he couldn’t bring himself to look back at him. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to hide his own fear, and Joe didn’t need that. Not now.

When it was time, Adam scooted over to the fire. He touched a finger to the knife handle where it was propped against a log. It was hot, but not untouchable, so he picked it up with a trembling hand and turned it slowly in front of his face. The blade glowed red in the darkness, like the lanterns in the windows of the lowlier brothels on D Street in Virginia City, and because of its coming purpose, to Adam it exuded an essence just as vile.

“Don’t let it…cool off.” Joe’s voice was barely audible, but he didn’t drop his gaze from Adam’s face.

Adam had no choice—he stopped thinking.

He moved back over to Joe. Carefully, he held the knife with one hand while he picked up the cloth with the gunpowder in the other.

“Move your hands away, Joe,” he said quietly.

Joe hesitated, and then did as he was told. “Gunpowder first, right?” His voice was whispery soft with fear and weakness, and Adam had to swallow before he could answer.

“Right, gunpowder first. It’s gonna sting pretty good, but we need to get it down into the wound to help seal up as many vessels as possible.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Joe’s breath was coming hard, and perspiration shimmered across his forehead despite the night chill. For the first time, he dropped his eyes from Adam’s, clenched his jaw and nodded. “Do it.”

Adam didn’t wait. The words had barely left Joe’s lips before Adam was pouring the small mound of gunpowder into the wound. Joe’s body spasmed and shuddered, but the only sound he made was a tiny strained whimper. As the sting of the powder slowly released him, he held still again and then nodded, heaving huge breaths. “Okay. Okay. That wasn’t so bad.”

Adam wasn’t sure which of them Joe was trying to convince with that lie.

Even in the cold night air, sweat had popped out on Adam’s forehead. Holding the red-hot knife out to one side, he wiped away the moisture trickling into his eyes with his free hand. Then he handed a small stick to Joe. “Bite down hard,” he said, and he tried to control the tremors that were moving through his own body.

He leaned close, trying but not succeeding in stilling the shaking of his hand, and he regretted his earlier decision to try to keep Joe awake. Unconsciousness for his brother would be a blessing for both of them right now. He could feel the heat radiating off the steel, and he wanted to fling the thing away from him with the same passion with which Joe had attacked the noose after cutting it away.

Get on with it.

He snapped the order silently to himself and took a deep breath. Leaning over his brother, he was aware that Joe was holding his breath and clenching his fists at his sides, but again Adam didn’t dare look at his face. Instead, he lowered the knife blade close to the hole in Joe’s side, where gunpowder mixed with blood to make a thick, dark paste. He sprinkled more dry powder on top of it.

He edged the blade near Joe’s skin…but his hand wouldn’t obey his head. Instead it hovered, trembling, scant inches over his brother’s body. He gritted his teeth and struggled.

“Damn it.” Again he strained to force himself to do what he had to, his entire body now shaking. “Damn it.” Abruptly he sat back, groaning in despair, his head falling back, his face tilted up toward the stars. Damn Judge Quimby, damn whoever had really murdered that poor girl, damn the whole stinking, rotten town of Millican for putting the two of them here.

“Adam.”

Slowly, Adam lowered his head to look at his brother. Joe had spit the stick out of his mouth, and the fear in his face as he regarded Adam was tempered with so much trust that it made Adam’s stomach jump. He had seen Joe look at him that way before. Many times over the years, in fact. That trust, that open expectancy…

Adam’s mind went back to that awful time after the shooting accident at Montpelier Gorge a couple of years before. The bullet had been lodged deep under Joe’s collarbone, and all conventional wisdom said it had to come out. When he had told Joe what had to be done, Joe had nodded and never said a word. He had simply lain looking up at Adam, a wad of cloth in his mouth to bite down on, trusting his oldest brother to do what he had to do, and it was only when the knife bit into his skin that he had closed his eyes.

When that surgery had been finished, Adam had walked out behind the barn and doubled over to retch again and again until he had hardly been able to stand. Nobody had ever known about that, nor had they known about the nightmares that had plagued him for months afterwards. He was a man of control even in his sleep, it seemed, for no cries from him ever awakened his family at night. Instead, when visions of his gun sending a bullet into his brother haunted his dreams, his own raspy breathing had wakened him before he could call out. When his sleep was invaded by the sight of his own hand parting his brother’s flesh to remove the bullet, he had jerked himself awake each time with his jaw clenched shut, sweat-drenched sheets clutched in closed fists. Each time, he had lain there in his darkened room, awake until morning, battling against scenes from the dreams that insisted on floating through his memory. The odd thing was, for the longest time those scenes had played out in his head even during his waking hours. It was if he couldn’t escape them no matter what he did. It had been a long time before those dark visions stopped tormenting him.

But here he was, feeling like that again; like he was in one of those god-awful dreams, the ones that stuck with you even when you were awake.

“Adam.”

He met Joe’s eyes. Joe held his gaze even as he reached up and grasped Adam’s hand. The weakness in his grip shook Adam, but the trust in his eyes shook him more. One corner of Joe’s lips slid up in a tiny almost-smile.

“Aim true, brother,” Joe said softly. “That’s all you have to do.”

Adam swallowed hard, the knot in his throat working up and down, and he nodded. “Aim true,” he whispered, and this time when Joe bit down on the stick, he was ready—his aim was quick and steady and hard. He pressed the hot blade firmly against the wound, and when his kid brother was unable to clamp down on his screams, Adam’s own howls of enraged pain mingled with them to reverberate out across the surrounding desert.

 

*****

 

He awoke abruptly, wrenching himself free of the abyss of his dreams. For a few seconds he lay blinking at the early dawn sky paling above him, trying to get his bearings, and then memories of the night washed over him.

Joe.

Immediately he jerked his head up, comprehension and cold fear swooping in on him as he looked around for his brother, and heady relief took its place at the realization that Joe lay sleeping next to him, pale but breathing with slow, steady breaths. The sand next to him was still stained dark with the dealings of the night before.

Adam let his head fall back to earth and let his eyes close.

Dear God.

After a few minutes, he slowly shifted his cold, stiff body into a sitting position. Pain shot up and down his leg. He leaned over and rubbed absently at the mangled thigh muscle, and through the tattered, blood-stiffened fabric, heat rose up to meet the palm of his hand; the unnatural warmth caused unease to wrap itself around him. Flitting back and forth like a bird trapped in a cage, his mind once again crossed and double crossed over the limited possibilities open to the two of them, and he groaned softly; the sound came out as a muted growl of frustrated desperation.

Joe stirred beside him, instantly drawing his attention. The boy’s brow furrowed as he mumbled something in his sleep, but he didn’t wake. As Adam watched, the lines of worry and pain in Joe’s forehead smoothed out, leaving his young face looking remarkably peaceful as he slept on.

The sun was a hot, thin line of fire peeking over the horizon, rapidly dissipating the night’s chill, and the sight of it nagged at Adam, reminding him that they needed to move. He should hurry and rouse Joe; if they were going to have any hope of staying ahead of the posse, they had to mount and ride hard. He leaned forward, knowing he should nudge him awake.

But he looked at that dark-stained sand and shuddered. It had been a night from Hell itself. Would Joe even be able to ride? It didn’t matter; he’d have to try. He looked at his kid brother’s pale face, so surprisingly serene in sleep, and he found he couldn’t deny him a few more minutes escape from a day that was bound to only go downhill.

Unless Pa came.

Adam’s lips tightened. But Pa wasn’t coming. Adam knew that, somehow, and sitting here with only himself to talk to, he saw no reason to lie about it. Something had gone wrong. Somehow their messages to Virginia City had gotten crossed, mis-wired, something—he didn’t know exactly what had happened to the frantic telegrams Joe had sent, but he knew if his father had gotten word, he’d have been in Millican already, having ridden Buck into the ground if necessary to get there in time…

His thoughts swung abruptly toward the animals under his own care, and guilt flushed through him as he turned his gaze onto the two horses. They stood quietly, heads down, in the scraggly brush where, last night, he had haphazardly tied them just before stumbling back to where Joe lay. Then he’d let his protesting leg crumple beneath him, and he’d been almost instantly asleep where he fell, his last coherent act the edging of his body up against that of his brother’s in an attempt at mutual warmth. He’d been too exhausted and in too much pain to do more than that. Even their bedrolls had remained in place behind the saddles.

The comfort of the horses had suffered as much as that of Joe and himself. He’d managed to slip the bits from the poor creatures’ mouths, rebuckling the bridles to serve as halters, but that had been it. The animals had remained under saddle all night, cinches tight, blankets stiff and sodden and cold with the perspiration of their efforts. No water, no feed.

A curse passed through Adam’s own dry lips, and he struggled to his feet. He couldn’t do much now about the uncomfortable night the horses had passed, but they had to have water at the very least. Without it, they’d soon be worthless as a means of escape.

More unease drifted through him at the light weight of the canteen he picked up, but he pushed it aside and bent stiffly to gather his hat off the ground. Joe had packed four canteens; hopefully the other three still held more water than this one did. He’d have to check into that later, although he had no idea what he could do about it anyway.

He poured a little into his hat and held it out to the horses; they immediately raised their heads and let out gentle snorts as they stretched their necks toward the offering.

“Easy, fellas,” Adam murmured, holding tight to the hat so their enthusiastic snuffling at the bottom of it and their shoving at each other didn’t knock it right out of his hands. “I’ll give you more later,” he promised.

He looked back at Joe; the kid still slept. Again the anxious voice inside him told him to get the boy up and moving so they could be off, but he shook his head and put it off once more. Let him sleep. It could well be the last chance at rest they’d get all day, and besides, the horses needed at least a little something in their bellies after having worked so hard, especially since they’d be asked to do it all again today.

Adam took the coil of rope looped around one of the saddle horns and cut a couple of short lengths from it; he looped a piece around the pasterns of each horse’s front legs, effectively hobbling them and preventing them from running away while still allowing them movement to graze a bit.

Not that there was much to graze on here. Dry, sparse grass next to the shallow rock outcropping where they’d landed last night; nothing but sand in the direction they’d been heading. Adam gave the animals a slap on their haunches to send them hunting for their meager breakfast; then he stood quiet, studying the landscape with grim thoughtfulness and wondered if they should change course.

A muffled whimper came from Joe’s direction, and Adam hurried over as best his injured leg would allow, only to find the kid in the midst of an uneasy dream.

No surprise there, what with all that had happened.

Adam eased himself to the ground, being careful not to strain his leg. He sat next to his brother and watched him just as he had done so often in the warm, protected darkness of the bedrooms of the Ponderosa. Adam couldn’t count the times he had sat on the edge of Joe’s bed and watched him war with enemies invisible to the rest of them. It seemed the youngest Cartwright sought trouble even in his sleep.

But this morning, the shadowy threats that sometimes peopled Joe’s sleeping moments were merciful; they retreated quickly and allowed him to ease once more into tranquil, quiet rest.

He looked young lying there. Adam regarded him thoughtfully. That run from Millican had been a desperate plan, even for Joe, and it was one he, Adam, definitely would’ve rejected. If he’d been consulted at all, that is. Being a fugitive from the law was a position he’d been in before. He didn’t like it. And he’d have sworn he’d never let himself be pushed into it again, regardless of the circumstances.

But here he was. Here they both were, in sorry shape with no help in sight, two tired horses, and a posse on their heels. Looking out to the horizon, he saw no answers.

He grimaced and shook his head.

Dark brown curls licked at the collar of Joe’s shirt, and the sight of them made Adam feel guilty all over again as portions of Pa’s instructions came back to him.

“You’ll have some time to kill once you’re in San Francisco; all you should have to do is have Robert Fanning sign the papers, but the man is a stickler. He always likes to go over those contracts with a fine-toothed comb before he signs, so you might as well resign yourself to waiting. And while you wait, you get yourself a haircut, Joseph. When you get back, I want to see the son I raised, not some…“

“…some riverboat gambler,” Joe broke in, rolling his eyes. “I know, Pa, I know. But it hasn’t even been that long since I got it cut…”

“A haircut, Joe.”

“Can’t it wait until I get back?”

“No, it can not. If that hair of yours covers any more of your face, I won’t be able to recognize you. A haircut, as soon as you get to town. Adam, you see to it, you hear?”

Adam had grinned and promised over Joe’s moping complaints and Hoss’ cheerful guffaws. And so they had parted ways, he and Joe headed one direction, Hoss and Pa in another.

Once in San Francisco, though, Joe had found a hundred reasons to put off visiting a barber. He had been having too fine a time seeing the sights, and truth be told, so had Adam. Once the business with the contract was taken care of, they had celebrated by spending their last night in town in one of the most finely appointed saloons Adam had ever seen. They’d both had too much to drink, and the next morning they’d started for home more than a little worse for the wear.

Head pounding, mouth full of cotton, Adam had been licking his wounds and riding along behind Joe when he’d looked up and caught sight of those wisps of dark hair waving back at him from beneath Joe’s hat.

“Damn it, Joe!”

“W-what? Look, I already told you I was sorry for telling that saloon girl you were married…”

“No, not—it’s your hair, damn it! Look, I promised Pa you’d get it cut, and that was two weeks ago. If he thought you looked like a riverboat gambler then—Lord, do you know what he’s going to say? Why couldn’t you have just gotten it done the first three times I said something about it?” He’d thrown up a hand to fend off Joe’s excuses. “No, forget it—I don’t want to hear it. We’ll make a stop in the town over the next pass and find a barber there. It’s not even that far out of the way, and it’ll be worth it if it keeps me out of hot water over your blasted hair.”

“The next town over’s Millican, ain’t it? Millican ain’t even got a decent saloon, much less a barber. Come on, Adam, be reasonable…”

“No.”

“I’ll get it cut as soon as we reach Virginia City.”

“No. I’m not inclined to duck those long looks I’m bound to get from Pa if he gets a glimpse of you.”

“I’m telling you, as soon as we reach Virginia City…”

“No.”

“For Pete’s sakes, it’s just hair!” Joe had shouted.

And then Adam had shouted back, his growing irritation making him ignore his drinking-induced headache. “Then why are you always so all-fired stubborn about getting it cut? You’d think you were holding onto it for a reason, like you believe it gives you some sort of strength or power or something. Just stop being such a kid about it, will you?”

Tired and hung-over, he’d yelled that last part louder and rougher than he’d intended, and had instantly regretted his loss of temper at the sight of the hurt look his brother shot him.

But there had been no more arguments about the haircut as they’d swerved slightly left of their course so as to encounter Millican, and Adam had held out a peace offering as they rode into town late in the afternoon.

“Look, how about a beer first? I’ll buy. Then you can get that mop of yours cut back.”

Joe had grinned. “Hair of the dog that bit us? Big brother, that’s the best idea you’ve had all day.” He’d cheerfully given his promise that he’d see the barber immediately afterwards, and Adam had felt better about the entire incident.

But they’d never made it out of the saloon. The sheriff had walked in, sat down at their table and started asking questions about a girl neither of them had ever laid eyes on. The next thing they knew, Adam had been behind bars. A hurried trial, the word of two witnesses, and his hanging was scheduled. It had all been done with dizzying speed.

For the hundredth time, he wondered at the reasons behind the hurry of it all. Was it just because the judge fancied himself such a staunch pillar of justice that he saw no reason to delay its completion?

Or was it something else?

“You’re thinkin’ awful hard for this early in the morning.”

Joe’s voice, thick and rusty, jolted him out of his thoughts. Green eyes, weary and hazed with pain, blinked at him.

“Morning, nothin’,” Adam murmured, pressing the back of his hand against Joe’s forehead. A little warm. The fact that the kid was still here was proof, though, that the cauterization had done its job as far as the bleeding went. “It’s halfway to noon.”

It wasn’t, but it was what he always greeted his youngest brother with as he stumbled down the stairs each morning, boots in hand, shirttails out, and face bleary with sleep. “’Bout time you got yourself up. It’s halfway to noon.” It usually got him at least a glare and sometimes a boot thrown at his head, but not this morning.

Joe eyed the sun as it began its climb into the sky and said reproachfully, “We should’ve been on the move by now. Why didn’t you wake me?” He struggled to sit up.

Adam put a hand against his chest to hold him in place. “I didn’t wake you because you used half your blood last night to water cactus. Now hold on. Let’s make sure you’re up to riding. A few minutes one way or another isn’t going to make that much difference.”

“Yes, I’m up to riding,” Joe snapped. “It’s hanging I think I’d have trouble with.” He pushed Adam’s restraining hand aside and struggled into a sitting position. Adam noticed he didn’t reject the help he offered to get him to his feet, however. Nor did he fail to notice the sheen of perspiration that appeared on Joe’s pale forehead. Joe, none too solid on his feet, didn’t shake off Adam’s steadying hand on his shoulder, either.

“Hurting?” Adam asked, expecting a dark look for asking something so ridiculous.

But Joe’s husky reply was simple and direct. “Like all get-out.”

Adam found himself wishing he’d gotten the boy’s standard, “I’m fine,” to his question. No such luck on this weary morning. “I need to check your wounds,” he said, but Joe was having none of it.

“The posse’s bound to be climbing up our backs,” Joe said. “We’ve gotta get out of here. Where’re the horses?”

“Hobbled and grazing on what little grass there is on the other side of those rocks. We’ll go get them just as soon as we check out your side. Pull your shirt up, and don’t make me ask again.”

His tone must’ve been hard enough. Although Joe’s jaw clenched and he thrust out his chin in obstinate rebellion, he ceased arguing and jerked his shirttail up. He stood still, gaze moving along the horizon, while Adam inspected him.

Despite telling himself he was prepared, Adam’s own body jerked when he caught sight of the entry wound. Red, angry, puckered flesh glared back at him from Joe’s side, the outline of a knife blade standing out in stark detail over it all. The exit wound was a copy of it. His stomach lurched—not at the sight of the wound, for he’d seen his share of ugly injuries and he’d known this would be one—but at the knowledge that it was his hand that had done this. He watched the involuntary quivers and twinges of Joe’s muscles as they reacted to the pain of it all, and he suddenly wished for nothing more than to be able to wade into a saloon brawl at that very moment, to be able to swing and hit with his fists and take out his fury on whatever drunken miner or cowboy might offer him a reason.

“You didn’t do it, so don’t go kicking yourself.”

Startled, Adam looked up, surprised at the quiet empathy he heard in his brother’s voice. It shook him; he was used to Hoss knowing exactly what he was thinking, but having Joe read his mind was something that didn’t happen so often. Joe was still studying the horizon, ostensibly watching for the posse.

“I’m sorry, Joe.” It was all he could think of to say.

Joe’s gaze met him head on. “For saving me? Too late for second thoughts, brother.” He flashed a grin at Adam, a smile wide and open despite the sickly color of his skin. Adam found himself giving a slow smile back. Sometimes, the effect his kid brother had on him confounded him. How could that same grin be an irritant one day and a gift another?

“The cauterization worked, at least,” Adam offered. “That’s the main thing. Those bullet holes are sealed shut tight as a banker’s pockets. No sign of bleeding.” Not on the outside anyway. If there was any on the inside…

Adam refused to think about it. There was nothing they’d be able to do in such a case. He looked up and caught Joe frowning off into the distance.

“Do you hear that?” Joe whispered.

“What?” But as soon as he said it, he did hear it. A sound like rolling thunder, very faint. His eyes met Joe’s, and then, alarm overriding pain, they both scrambled for the horses.

The posse was coming.

 

*****

 

Looking back, Joe felt like they’d made a pretty good go of it. He and Adam had managed to catch the horses and, after a couple of awkward tries, got each other mounted, though he’d wondered for a moment if Adam might pass out from the pain his leg was giving him.

And they rode. Despite the sickening dizziness whirling around in his head and the blood he saw oozing from beneath the bandana tied around Adam’s thigh, they rode. They rode like nobody’s business, lying low over their horses’ necks, flying hell bent for leather across desert terrain and then into low foothills stubbled with scrub oak. They rode like there was no tomorrow.

Only it quickly became apparent that there really was no tomorrow.

The speed at which the posse moved made one thing clear: apparently they had taken so long to catch up because they had stopped somewhere to acquire fresh horses, and it had been a smart move on their part. It wasn’t long before they were close behind and firing shots that weren’t far off the mark.

Wincing as his horse’s mane slapped at his face, Joe shot a questioning look over at Adam. Adam shook his head. He didn’t need to explain his thoughts; Joe knew. They had no choice but to keep going. If a bullet found their backs, so be it. It was either that or be strung up from one of the scrub oaks they were flying past.

The scenery had been going blurry on Joe since the beginning, and when it worsened, he knew it wasn’t just from the speed they were traveling. He was having a tough time telling up from down, and although he clamped hard onto the saddle horn with one hand, he wasn’t surprised when he found himself sailing through the air to land hard in the dirt.

Wildly, he looked around for Adam, and found him. Adam was looking back, hauling on his horse’s bit to stop.

“Go!” Joe put everything he had into screaming that word, and knew all the while that it wouldn’t do him a bit of good.

Sure enough, Adam was already wheeling the horse back around and galloping back toward him. He skidded the horse to a stop and piled off. His leg didn’t hold up under the strain. Down he went, his face contorting with pain, but then he was up again. On one good leg he hopped and lurched toward Joe, grabbing him by the arm just as Joe clambered to his feet.

Leaning on one another, they headed in the direction of a small cluster of boulders. Reaching the scant shelter, they threw themselves to the ground and began to return fire.

Joe knew in his heart it was useless. There were too many men in the posse, and this small scattering of rocks was too slight a refuge. Yet it was still a shock when a warning shot kicked up sand, and a cold voice came from behind them.

“It’s over, boys.”

 

*****

 

Even from a distance, Millican was an ugly little town, Adam thought as they topped a low rise and watched the outline of the community’s ramshackle buildings shimmer into view off in the distance, dancing like across a sun-heated horizon like ghosts.

He shifted his weight in the saddle yet again. It didn’t seem right that a man riding to his death should be so physically miserable, he thought ruefully. His leg felt as though someone was pounding an iron spike into it, and he was, by turns, either freezing or sweating profusely. Fever had him in a sure grip, not that it mattered. Sheriff Colvin had already told him that as soon as they reached Millican, the hanging would take place as planned.

Joe’s fate was less certain.

Or maybe not. “He’ll get a trial, same as you did,” Sheriff Colvin shrugged.

Joe’s failure to respond to that remark was a good sign of how peaked he felt. Adam narrowed his eyes on the kid as they rode. Pale as desert sand, he sat hunched dejectedly on his horse, hands tied, as Adam’s were, to the saddle horn in front of him. A fine pair they were. Both of them together weren’t fit to fight off a good-sized kitten.

Adam nudged his horse closer. “Hang on, boy,” he told Joe quietly. “It’ll all work out. We’ll get out of this yet, you’ll see.”

Joe rewarded his lie by mustering up a half-smile. “Sure we will.”

It was as if they had shifted places from those few days Adam had been locked up in Millican. Now Joe had given up, and the hopelessness written across his face tore at Adam’s gut. He found himself offering comfort that he didn’t dare truly hope for.

“Pa will come,” he said. “Those messages have to have reached him by now.”

“Then why isn’t he here?” Joe’s tone was wretched. His eyes pleaded with Adam to give him a reason, and Adam was at a loss to come up with one.

“I don’t know,” he admitted softly.

Joe turned his face away then, and Adam was struck again by the sight of dark chestnut hair lapping at Joe’s collar. The curls seemed to wave accusingly at him. Your fault, your fault, your fault.

“I’m sorry I harangued you over getting your hair cut,” Adam blurted.

“Huh?” Startled Joe looked back at him, confusion fluttering across his face.

“Your hair. If I hadn’t insisting on stopping so you could get your hair cut, none of this would’ve happened. We’d never have been in Millican.”

Joe stared incredulously at him. Then he started to chuckle but immediately broke it off, wincing. “We wouldn’t have been in Millican if I’d gotten it cut back in San Francisco like I was supposed to, either,” he said. He shook his head. “You’re amazing, you know that? You’ll grab onto the flimsiest excuse to be able to pin the blame on yourself. It’s like it’s a matter of pride with you or something. Why do you do that?”

“I don’t do that,” Adam snapped. He managed to hold up under Joe’s steady gaze for a full five seconds before he sighed. Somehow it just didn’t seem like a time for false fronts and denials. “I don’t know. I guess I just like for everything to have a reason behind it.”

Joe nodded, looking thoughtful. “A reason.” He glanced cautiously at the men riding ahead and behind them, his gaze lingering on the judge. “Adam, the way Quimby was in such an all-fired hurry to have your hanging over and done with…he’s protecting someone, isn’t he?”

“A logical conclusion, I’d say,” Adam said grimly. “Either that, or he committed the murder himself.” He shifted in the saddle, trying again without success to ease the pain in his leg, and he turned his face away to look straight ahead. “Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“When they…when they do the hanging, it’d be best for both of us if you aren’t around. They’ll most likely have you in a cell by then anyway. Just stay away from the window, okay?”

Several beats of silence followed before Adam had the guts to look over at his brother.

“Did you hear me?”

Joe didn’t take his eyes off his horse’s ears. “I heard you.” His voice was flat, and Adam couldn’t hear anything in it to indicate what his true intentions were.

He started to insist that Joe do what he asked, but in the end, he didn’t have the heart. The moisture that he caught shining in Joe’s green eyes didn’t help.

Ah, hell. How had it come to this?

He felt icy cold inside, and he knew it had nothing to do with the fever raging within him.

They drew closer; townspeople could be seen gathering in the middle of the town’s main thoroughfare, near the stark skeleton of the gallows. Shouts and insults drifted toward them, growing louder as they approached.

“What’d you expect?” Sheriff Colvin shrugged. “Not only did you kill one of their own, you cheated them out of a day’s entertainment.” He had the good grace to look slightly ashamed. But then he frowned pointedly at Joe. “The fact that you actually shot some of them while you were hightailin’ it out of here ain’t helpin’ their tempers none. You can blame yourself for that one.”

As they rode into town, Millican’s disgruntled inhabitants surged toward them. Alarm prickled at the back of Adam’s neck, not for himself, as his fate was surely sealed, but for his brother.

“Hang ‘em both, side by side!” a man shouted, and loud agreement rose up. Within seconds the mob had engulfed the horses despite Sheriff Colvin’s shouts to stay back. The noise and the crowding had the horses whinnying in fear.

Struggling to control his nervous horse without the aid of his hands, Adam looked back at Joe. Joe’s horse was skittering around in circles, hampering the horde’s attempts to reach up and drag him out of the saddle.

“Sheriff! You’ve got to get him into a cell!” Adam shouted at Colvin, even as someone grabbed his wrist. Manhandled down from his horse, his throat seized up from the pain in his leg, now made more intense by the rough treatment.

Colvin, looking shaken, was shouting and firing his gun into the air, but it was having no effect on the frenzied throng. A few of the posse members tried to regain some control, but most were intent only on getting out of the way before they were unseated. Jerked loose from the saddle, Adam found himself hoisted into the air and moved along over the heads of the crowd like a floating log hurtling down a raging river. He heard Joe scream his name once, twice, and though he twisted his body around in his captors’ hands, he couldn’t find him.

But he found Judge Quimby. The judge had managed to get his own mount out of the midst of the roiling pack, and he now sat stiffly, watching everything with a peculiar, frozen expression.

“Quimby!” Adam screamed. “You’ve got to stop it. My brother is guilty of helping a prisoner escape, and maybe some assault charges, but he’s killed no one.” Adam strained to make his voice heard. “You can’t let them hang him.”

Judge Quimby looked at him, but didn’t move. He remained sitting on his horse, seemingly aloof from the goings on. His stiff face, though, looked oddly sorrowful. As Adam was carried past him, he mouthed a silent “I’m sorry,” leaving Adam to twist his head around to stare at him. The judge looked away.

The mob poured down the street, and Adam was taken with them. The judge was no longer within view. Again Adam fought to locate Joe’s whereabouts, but the crowd was too thick. He shouted his brother’s name, but his voice was swallowed by the deafening noise.

Ahead of him, the gallows loomed, a new rope hanging from its crossbeam. Someone carried a ladder up, and a second rope was added beside the first. He was propelled, stumbling, up the steps, and a noose was dropped around his neck, the rough hemp grinding against the still-tender bruises on his throat from his earlier meeting with Millican’s hangman.

No official hangman, now, though. He saw Sheriff Colvin several yards away, now on foot and shouting, but with his gun nowhere in sight. Everything was happening in a rush, and Adam couldn’t help thinking it was almost less painful this way. Get it over with. Still he had to know what had happened to Joe….

As if his thoughts had conjured him up, Joe appeared next to him, limp and lifeless and held up by a couple of jeering cowhands. He was breathing but unconscious, apparently having fought his way into oblivion.

Thank God he wasn’t awake. Hopefully he’d never feel a thing.

“Put the rope around his neck. Open the trapdoor and we’ll just push him off,” one of the men ordered another.

Adam turned his face away, frustration and grief and bitter hate closing off his throat as effectively as the noose would soon do. He closed his eyes. A roaring sounded in his head; he prayed to God it would muffle the sound of his brother’s neck snapping.

Amid the raucous din, a loud pop suddenly rent the air, and Adam’s heart and body spasmed.

Then he realized that what he’d heard had been a nearby gunshot. More raucous celebrating from the mob, he thought bleakly. Why couldn’t they just get it over with?

“Just end it,” he whispered the plea to anyone who might hear, God or man.

But another shot came, and another. He realized suddenly that the loud shouts from the crowd had died down.

“Cut them down.”

The deep, booming voice made his breath catch. The rhythm of his heart stumbled, hesitated, and then moved into a wild gallop. He opened his eyes.

There, in front of the gallows, was his father. He sat tall and stiff on Buck’s back, eyes dark and flashing, brows lowered in anger. Even from here on the gallows he looked tall as a church steeple, chest heaving, shoulders back and spread wide like the wings of an avenging angel. He held his gun, level and steady, aimed at the men on the gallows with his sons. He looked as though he could spout fire if he so chose.

And he wasn’t alone. Hoss flanked him on one side, gun aimed, finger on the trigger, with no sign of the gentle nature that normally made up his disposition. His face was hard, angry, brittle-looking.

Roy Coffee was on Pa’s other side, his gun also at the ready. Behind them sat a host of grim-faced Ponderosa ranch hands, all armed. Roy gave a curt nod to the men holding Joe. “I’d do as he says, boys. If somebody was to slip and accidentally hang these two, I can promise you that several of you will find yourselves slapped with murder charges—that is, if the men I brought with me don’t get trigger-happy and shoot you first.”

Angry murmurings stirred through the crowd. “It ain’t murder to hang a convicted killer, Sheriff,” someone shouted. Adam recognized the man as one of the witnesses who’d sworn he’d seen Adam shoot the girl. “This one killed an innocent girl in cold blood. The other one here ain’t no better; shot up the town and helped his killer brother escape.”

“Stop, Mr. Everly. Just stop.” A woman’s voice, weary but firm rang out. Mrs. Quimby stood at the front of the crowd. She looked up at her husband. “It’s gone too far, Harold. No more lies.”

“Jessica, what are you doing?” For the first time since they’d been overrun by the townspeople of Millican, the judge sprang to life. He hurriedly dismounted and moved to catch his wife by the arm. He looked around, the color leaving his face. “She’s upset by all the brutality. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.” He caught sight of someone. “Mr. Jansen.”

Jansen stepped forward. Adam stared at him. He had been the other witness in the sham of a trial Quimby had presided over. “Shall I escort your wife down to Doc’s office, Judge?” Jensen asked helpfully. “Maybe he can give her something to settle her nerves.”

The judge nodded hurriedly. “Thank you, Mr. Jansen. I’d appreciate it.” He started to usher his wife toward the man.

Mrs. Quimby jerked her arm from her husband’s hold. “No! It’s over, Harold, can’t you see that? When you took off after these boys, I decided I just couldn’t live with it. I knew you had made sure those messages never got to Virginia City, so I sent one of my own. That’s why Mr. Cartwright and the sheriff are here.” She looked up at Adam, and her voice grew faint. “I am so…very sorry. I knew it was wrong, but Harold convinced me…” Her face crumpled, and she covered her eyes with her gloved hands.

Quimby looked as though he might argue. Then he looked at the anxious faces of his two chief witnesses—and suddenly it was as if something broke inside him. He visibly sagged, hanging his head and drawing his wife into an embrace. “It’s all right,” he said softly against her hair. “This is all my fault, not yours.”

More murmurings and whispers from the crowd, but now all eyes were on the judge and his wife.

Only then did Pa look at Adam. The fire was gone from his eyes, replaced with relief and fear and uncertainty.

“Are you all right, son?”

“No.”

But he would be.

He looked at Judge Quimby. “You killed her, then?” he asked quietly. “You killed Amy Holder, and paid off the witnesses?”

The judge nodded, his eyes glazed as if he didn’t quite know where he was. “Jansen and Everly owed me…a great deal of money. I told them I’d forgive the debt if they would…. Yes. I killed her.”

Mrs. Quimby raised a hand and turned his face so that she could look into his eyes. “Harold. The truth.”

“Jessica…” A tear ran down his cheek as she shook her head.

Quimby stared at her, then turned slowly and stared out over the crowd, resignation dulling his eyes. “Miss Holder and I had…inappropriate dealings with one another,” he said hoarsely. “She threatened blackmail…said she’d tell everyone…”

“And I couldn’t let her do that to my husband.” Mrs. Quimby’s tears were now flowing freely. She looked up at Adam. “She said she was going to spread the news all over town unless he gave her money, more money than he was able to get. But Harold didn’t kill Amy,” she said, her voice soft. “I did.”

 

*****

 

He felt as though he was waking up from a long nightmare. Someone was lifting the noose from his head, and then suddenly Hoss was up on the gallows beside him.

“You all right?” Hoss asked him, even as he reached for Joe.

He nodded, watching as Hoss shoved at the two dumbfounded men still holding onto Joe.

“I oughta snap you two in half,” Hoss growled at them, taking Joe’s dead weight in his arms. “I might still do it, come to think of it.” The men blinked and backed away.

Pa hurried up the gallows steps. He grabbed Adam by the arm, and Adam was glad of it, because his knees felt like butter. He wanted to hang onto him for dear life, but there was Joe, still silent and unresponsive, to think about. Along with his father, Adam peered over Hoss’ shoulder as the subdued townsfolk of Millican began to drift away.

“Out cold,” Hoss said gruffly, “but he seems to be okay. Must’ve taken a good hit to the noggin’.” He laid one thick finger gently against a bruise beginning to darken along the boy’s jawline.

A blow to the head might be what kept Joe dead to the world at the moment, but it wasn’t what had brought him to this condition. “You haven’t looked him over good enough yet,” Adam said grimly, watching Pa take Joe from Hoss. “He’s not okay.” He sounded petulant and younger than his age, even to his own ears. He thought of that hellish night out on the desert, and he shivered. Over the top of Joe’s head, Pa looked sharply at him, and he knew his father saw things in his eyes that others might miss.

“Watch over your brother, Adam.”

He wondered suddenly if his father had put too much faith in him. He looked at his kid brother cradled in Pa’s arms, at the too-long curls, damp with sweat, framing a paper-white face, and at the limp body that he, Adam, had done a terrible thing to, and he felt a nagging sense of failure. He’d done what he had to, and he knew nobody, not Pa, not Joe, would ever blame him for what had gone wrong.

But he couldn’t help blaming himself. Somewhere, somehow, he should’ve been able to figure out how to turn the tide of things before they had gone so wrong. Both his and Joe’s lives had come within a whisker’s breadth of ending because he hadn’t been able to figure out what to do to get them out of it. For the rest of his life, Joe’s body would bear the marks of his oldest brother’s failure.

He knew feeling this way was ridiculous. Knew it. But he couldn’t stop it.

You’ll grab onto the flimsiest excuse to be able to pin the blame on yourself. It’s like it’s a matter of pride with you or something. Why do you do that?

His head throbbed. He put a hand to his brow. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he heard himself say. “I couldn’t keep him safe. I couldn’t keep us safe.” I failed you. The proof of his father’s misplaced confidence was hidden beneath the youngest Cartwright’s shirt in patches of marred flesh. That would come to light soon enough. Adam could visualize the pain in Pa’s face when he laid eyes on it, the slight wince he’d give and then try to hide, the tightening of his jawline.

The hurt look he’d give Adam when he inevitably asked, “How did this happen?”

I failed you, Pa. Failed Joe. Failed myself.

Adam swayed. Something was wrong with him. Pa was saying something, reaching for him with one hand while holding onto Joe with the other. He couldn’t hear his father’s voice over the drum banging in his head, but he could still see him—that kind, strong face that had been at the center of his world all his life. The face of someone he relied on; the face of someone that relied on him. He saw his name form on Pa’s lips even as he faded back into a silvery haze….

…and the last thing he knew was the firm cushion of Hoss’ big arms as they caught him.

 

*****

 

Because of Adam’s condition, they were forced to stay in Millican, and the wait seemed interminable. Joe wanted out. He knew it was one town he’d never ride into again, not for love or money.

“Even if your younger son was fit enough to ride,” the town’s doctor told Ben, sliding a stern look at Joe that left no question as to his thoughts on the idea, “your oldest boy is in absolutely no condition to travel, not even in the back of a wagon. You’ll likely kill him if you try it.”

From the looks of Adam’s leg, Joe knew the doctor told the truth. It was swollen and streaked with a myriad of colors, and even after surgery the poison of the wound had spread to make Adam desperately ill. He regained consciousness off and on, but most of the time he remained in a deep, unnatural sleep. It was what he needed to heal, Hoss said.

“Mr. Cartwright…” the doctor said hesitantly, “I need to inform you…there is a chance we might have to remove the limb…”

“Amputation?” Pa asked hoarsely, shock spreading through his features.

Joe felt the blood drain from his face. He didn’t even realize that he had moved, but suddenly he found himself slamming the stunned doctor into the wall, the man’s collar clutched tightly in his fist.

“You fix it, you hear me?” he gritted out.

“Joe, stop!”

His fury blinding, Joe shook his father’s hands off and continued to shout into the doctor’s red, flustered face. “You fix this. This dung heap you call a town has taken all it’s gonna take from my brother and me. I’ll be damned if you’re going to take his leg, too. Do you hear me?” Hoss and Pa shouted at him, but he ignored them. He continued to shove the gasping doctor hard into the wall until his father wrenched him away.

“Joseph! That is enough!” Ben gripped Joe hard by the shoulders, scowling into his face until he was certain he could trust him enough to release him.

Joe stood, chest heaving, while Pa lifted his hands in apology to the doctor.

“Please excuse my son’s behavior,” he said, shooting another hard look at Joe. “I’m afraid he’s…not quite himself.”

The fright left the doctor’s eyes to be replaced by reproach. He straightened, one hand rubbing his throat, and nodded curtly. “As you say, Mr. Cartwright, he’s had a difficult time of it. I’m willing to excuse his actions.” He moved toward the door, keeping a wary eye on Joe. “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t make any promises I can’t keep,” said coolly. With that, he departed.

Silence reigned in the small hotel room where they had taken shelter since the doctor had deemed Adam well enough to be moved from his offices. Joe felt Pa’s and Hoss’ eyes on him.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled finally. “It’s just…if Adam loses his leg, it’s because of me. Because I was the one that made us run. If I hadn’t done that…”

“If you hadn’t done that, I’d be dead right now.” Adam’s low, hoarse voice had all their heads whipping around. He shook his head and gave a weak chuckle. “I swear, Joe, you’ll grasp at any excuse to be able to pin the blame on yourself. Why? Is it a matter of pride with you or something?”

Joe’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. Instead, it was Pa’s voice that offered an answer.

“Not a matter of pride, son,” he said, smiling and dropping a gentle hand onto the back of Adam’s head. “It’s a matter of love and responsibility for one another. It’s natural for us to want to shoulder each other’s troubles. But I don’t have to explain that to you, do I?”

Joe watched something move through Adam’s eyes. He was watching Pa with something like gratitude, Joe thought, or maybe relief, but there was a definite shift in his bearing—an intangible lightening of both mood and body that somehow took some of the pressure off Joe’s own chest. Then he turned his eyes on Joe, and in their amber depths Joe saw a myriad of things that he was unable to categorize. A resigned sorrow, perhaps—no, it was more like a fierce regret. But the guilt…the guilt was gone.

He’d seen it in Adam’s face, that guilt, the morning he’d woken up after almost bleeding to death. He’d seen it and hadn’t known how to take it away. Hadn’t known what to say to make it right. He’d been trembling from the pain in his side; had he been alone, he might’ve fallen back onto the sand and let the posse come to take him. It had been that bad.

But he’d hidden the pain. Had never tried harder in his life to hide it. Bit down on it and swallowed it. Somehow he knew that however much pain he was in, it hurt Adam more.

He began to grow nervous under Adam’s steady appraisal. Sometimes he swore his oldest brother could see inside him.

Then Adam smiled. “You look good, kid,” he said quietly.

Joe felt a tentative smile of his own spreading across his face. And suddenly he knew Adam would be all right. All of them would be. Whatever came, they’d meet it head on, do what had to be done, and come out stronger for it, because his family wasn’t the sort to crumble under adversity.

Pa had taught them to always…aim steady, aim true.

***The End***

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