Crossroads (by Corinna)

 

Summary:   A What Happened Next/Instead for the episode “The Crucible.”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:   MA (This story contains some adult subject matter which may be upsetting to sensitive readers and may not be suitable for younger readers.)
Word Count:  35,250


 

“He’s been through some kind of hell.”

It’s the first thing I hear — the first thing I truly hear, the first to break through the disordered chaos whirling inside my head.

Just a minute ago, there were other sounds, other shouts, but I decided those were all in my imagination. After all, days ago — or was it weeks? –when I desperately tried to escape Kane’s camp, I had heard the same exact thing: my family calling my name. Nothing had come of those shouts I’d heard back in the camp. Nothing but more misery.

“Adam! Adaamm!”

I don’t answer. It isn’t real. Neither had it been real when I’d lain in camp and listened to it all those days ago, too tired and dazed to answer. It had only been wind disguised as human voices, calls floating in on the hot desert air, coming from far, far away and distorted by distance and echoes. I had quickly dismissed it as having been a figment of my imagination not only because of the slightly ethereal sound of it, but because, if it had been real, my family surely would have come for me. They wouldn’t have just ridden away and left me there in that camp. They wouldn’t.

So I simply continue to struggle to drag the heavy travois through the sand, ignoring the call of my name. It is only my imagination, just as it was back in Kane’s camp. Only my imagination.

So ridiculous that my mind decides to conjure up such a thing. After all, who would be calling me? Nobody. I know for a fact I am all alone with Kane. Just him and me as I drag him through the desert. On and on and on, with the blistering sun toasting us to a brown crisp and slowly peeling away layers of our skin. The reality is that there is no sound other than the wind and the scraping of the travois across the sand.

Still, I hear it.

“Adam! Adam! Adam!” Closer now, right next to me, demanding that I pay attention.

Maybe it’s just Kane. He stopped his fevered muttering hours ago, but maybe he’s managed to rouse himself enough to continue tormenting me. I have to hand it to him. He is doing an incredible job of making his voice sound just like those of my family. Pa. Hoss. Joe.

I’m tempted to turn and look, but no, that’s what he wants.

You aren’t going to fool me. Not again.

I stumble on, but my imaginings are growing stronger, for I swear I can not only hear Pa, but can see him running toward me. I begin to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it. It’s my mind, I know it. Too many hours under a hot sun with too little water. My mind is going, and it’s trying to trick me into believing my family is here.

So cruel of nature to play such tricks.

I continue to laugh, even when I swear I can feel Pa’s hands grasping my shoulders, still speaking my name.

I can see him. My brothers too, moving like apparitions out of the shimmering, heated air.

My mind is going. I’m teetering on the edge of madness.

My laughter turns to sobs, the tears born of many things—exhaustion. Fear. Desperation. Relief and hope that maybe Pa really is here, that perhaps my ordeal is at an end. But — and dread floods through me at the thought — maybe Kane has broken me to the point that my mind is conjuring up everythingAll of it. Perhaps I’m even imagining this trek through the desert. Maybe I never left the camp at all. Maybe I’m still back there, striking hammer against worthless stone hour after hour while my mind has decided it is tired of the same old scenery.

My knees give out. I go down onto the burning sand, and I imagine Pa catching me and holding me in his arms. Through the sound of my sobbing, I hear my pa and brothers talking, but I can’t make out what they are saying. It’s all garbled, jumbled together with the sounds of Kane’s laughter.

Then one soft phrase comes through. “He’s been through some kind of hell.”

It’s a dark lyric running through a shadowed dirge, a requiem, a lament for me — but it’s real. It is real. Those words, spoken in that husky voice my kid brother tends to use when he’s under stress, are not just in my head.

My kid brother…

He’s supposed to be somewhere else. Where? Wait — yes, I remember; I left him back in Eastgate. He wanted to stay to watch a trial.

So I went on to Hell without him.

Now, somehow, he’s here in the desert with me. It’s true. Not my imagination.

I hold fiercely to that fact. Joe is here, and Hoss. And — I let myself sag more fully into his embrace — Pa.

am away from that camp. I am alive. Not only do I hear Joe’s words, I fully comprehend them, without the haze of my thoughts or the clamor of Kane’s voice getting in the way.

“He’s been through some kind of hell.”

Despite their awful truth, those words help me thrash my way back to the surface, back into the world of the living. Maybe it’s because Joe is the last member of my family I had contact with before I descended into hell, the last decent, sane person I spoke to. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, my youngest brother’s voice brings me full circle. It reaches through all the shadows and confirms the veracity of my ordeal, even as he presses fingers dripping with water against my bleeding, split lips, even as my father tightens his grip on me.

I’m here. They’re here. Heaven help me, it’s all real.

Real.

“Oh, Pa!” I cry harder. If only all the things that happened back in Kane’s camp hadn’t been real…

No, there’s no sense wishing for that, much as I wish it were the case. I know the truth — what happened to me in that camp was very, very real. Oh, yeah, it was. I’ve got the pain to prove it. In my mind, in my heart. In my body. It was real, and it was Hell, or as close to Hell as I am likely to get while I still walk this earth.

So tired. It’s a good thing I am no longer standing, for I suspect my quaking legs are too weak to hold my weight. But it doesn’t matter, for I have no place to go anyway.

The canteen is lifted to my mouth and I am allowed one short wash of water. It is warm and smells musty, but it’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted. Too soon it is taken away, but Pa is gathering me to him again, pulling me close to his chest as though he’s afraid I’ll disappear. Holding tight and rocking, rocking.

We sit there just like that, with him rocking me close and my brothers hovering near.

I am no longer alone. No longer on my own. No longer simply a target for a warped old man like Kane to vent his poison upon. If he tries, my family will stop him.

The need to let someone else know what I’ve been through is almost as strong as the need for water. Haltingly, words begin to form. It’s like I’m listening to somebody else.

“Pa, I didn’t mean for it to happen. I didn’t, you know I didn’t. I just couldn’t… Kane said he was going to prove I wasn’t a better man than he was, and I couldn’t…” I try hard to communicate the wretched ridiculousness that was Kane’s way of thinking, but I know I’m babbling complete nonsense. It’s frustrating. To my great dismay, I even cry some more; sobs erupt every few seconds while I talk, seemingly of their own accord. I don’t do such things. My youngest brother does. His emotions run hot and close to the surface, and they bubble over when he grows too full of them. But not me. Not until today, and I do not care for the feeling of it at all.

I’m embarrassingly aware that I sound like some raving lunatic. I’m not making sense. I know I’m not making sense. Worse, I’m beginning to remember that there are things that need to remain unsaid, but it’s like my mouth has somehow been disconnected from my brain, and I don’t even know for sure what’s spilling out. I need to shut up.

Please, just shut up, Cartwright. Shut up, shut up, shut up.

But I can’t. It’s as if my body wants to purge itself of everything Kane put me through, and my mind is in agreement, with no regard to logic or control. I just keep going, talking and talking until, after an immeasurable amount of time, I am finally empty and quiet.

I draw in a shuddering breath and manage to push feebly away from Pa. He lets me lean away from him, but he keeps one hand on me as though to anchor me to him. I take the first clear look at my family. They’ve been put through hell too. I can see it in the hard set of Hoss’ jaw and in the turbulent depths of Joe’s eyes. And I can see it in the new lines etched into my father’s face.

And it hits me.

They know. Dear God. Somehow, despite all my intentions, my family has guessed the repugnant details of what happened to me in that camp.

No, not guessed. They couldn’t have guessed. I didn’t tell them about…about that, did I? Did I tell them? No. Please, God, no.

But… yes. I did. I let it slip. Told them all about Kane, and what happened. All of it. Not just how he tried to break me by treating me like an animal, but the rest too. All of it, despite the promise I had made to myself that nobody would ever know. During all those long hours of dragging Kane through the desert, I spent almost every minute promising myself that no matter what happened my family would never find out the worst parts of the nightmare I’d been living.

Maybe I’m imagining the worst. Maybe I haven’t told them as much as I fear. Maybe I just think I have. After all, I’m having an amazingly difficult time telling reality from hallucination. And besides, it’s not like me to lay my cards out for all to see. That’s Joe’s way, not mine. I know how to guard secrets, especially my own.

But I study their faces — and I know I haven’t guarded this particular secret, the one I most need to keep buried. God, how I wish I could just die and sink into the dry earth and stay there. “Mortified” doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel.

Yet, strangely, part of me is relieved. Maybe it’s better this way. Yes, I am angry that I was fool enough to let it spill, but now I won’t have to struggle under the terrible secret of it. I won’t have to try to hide it.

My relief is only a thin shell on the surface, however; the biggest part of me is still filled — and will always be filled –with the darkest shame I’ve ever known. Shame for what Kane did. Shame for what I allowed to happen.

My family’s faces are all set hard, like they might crack and splinter at a touch. Joe is shaking; the expression he wears is much the same as the one he had the day I narrowly kept him from blowing Red Twilight’s head off in our barn.

Who will stop my hot-blooded brother from seeking family vengeance this time?

Curiously, thinking of the trouble Joe is sure to bring down on himself brings a feeling of being grounded, of the earth shifting closer to its proper place.

“He’ll go to jail,” I rasp, and point at the travois. “Kane. He’ll be punished. Keep your hands off of him, Little Joe.” I stare at him and try to look threatening. God knows I didn’t drag Kane all this way just to see my little brother shoot him down. But I don’t have the strength to stop Joe if he doesn’t listen. Hoss and Pa will have to do it.

They all turn their heads to look at Kane, then, for several long moments, at each other. Then back at me. Hoss shakes his head, and when he speaks, his voice is very, very soft. “Guess you didn’t hear me a minute ago, Adam. This man you’ve been carryin’ — he’s dead.”

Dead. Dead? What’s he talking about? Incredulous, I stare at the stiffening body lying on the travois. I start to laugh — only, to my utter humiliation, it is more sobbing that comes out. By the time I finally force myself to go quiet again, Joe is trembling harder and Hoss’ jaw looks as if it will surely break. Pa just watches me, but I haven’t missed the way his throat convulses.

They are in terrible pain, and it’s me who has done this to them. Me. Part of the torment of these long, lost days was from knowing my family would be worried sick, and now I can look into any one of their faces and see the toll that worry has taken. How much worse they must feel now that they know what Kane did? What I did? How can I ever make this right? How can I make them understand that what I did, I did because I had no choice?

My thoughts swirl around me, a confusing, dark vortex of mixed-up images that threatens to pull me under. Something that sounds distressingly like a scream claws its way up my throat, but before it escapes, the canteen is in my face again and someone helps me lift it to my mouth. For a few blissfully blank moments, the blessed wash of water is all I can think about.

Pa gathers me against him once more, holding tight. But this time I stay quiet. I say nothing, and I don’t shed any more tears. I simply stare over his shoulder, off toward the distant mountains.

I’ve made it; I’ve survived.

Only thing is, I find myself wishing I hadn’t.

I’m ashamed to be thinking such things, but I can’t help it, for it would be infinitely better if I had died. Even if my family can figure out how to forgive me for what happened, it won’t matter, because I’ll never be able to forgive myself. The things that happened in that camp will forever visit in me in my nightmares, whether I’m asleep or awake.

I can’t imagine living the rest of my life like this.

 

*****

 

The ride through the desert is a blur of foggy half-dreams and textures and sounds. The movement of the horse beneath me is a lulling one, making it difficult — impossible — to ward off sleep. Unfortunate, because sleep is an enemy to be avoided; it brings with it images of Kane’s face, Kane’s smile, Kane’s hands…

Sleep is terrifying, so I try to hold myself upright. It doesn’t work. I nod off over and over again, only to jerk awake each time to find myself sagging back against Pa, my face pressed against the fabric of his shirt. It’s ridiculous. Here I am, helpless as a babe, riding in the saddle in front of my father for the first time since I was probably no older than six or so. His scent is comfortingly familiar, but at the same time, it isn’t the one I usually associate with him. No tang of pine, no hint of bay rum cologne. Still clinging to his clothing is the barest suggestion of the western cedar that lines his bureau drawers, but it is overpowered by the smell of stale sweat and the sour scent of fear.

The scent of fear. I know it well, as it’s been emanating from my own body for days. Oddly, it seems even stronger now than it did when I really thought I might die. When Kane shot the mule, our only means of making it out of the desert, I truly thought I was next. I thought his next move would be to turn that gun on me, and I knew there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it. Yes, I had been frightened when that mule had died in the dirt and I’d realized just how unbalanced Kane was, but I had no idea then that the worst was yet to come. Had I known, had I had any idea of what was in store for me, I would have made a break for it right then, gun or no gun. I had asked Kane what he would do if I refused to be his pack animal in place of the dead mule. “You won’t refuse,” he’d said calmly. He’d been right. I hadn’t been given the choice of refusal about that, or about…so many things.

That distinctive scent of fear is sharp and acrid in my nostrils. It’s all around me, emanating from all of us…me…my brothers… and of course, my father….

My father is afraid. Not just hurting for me, but…actually afraid.

Well, of course he is afraid. After what happened back in that camp, nothing will ever be right again. My father is naturally thinking about how they’ll deal with this when we get back to the Ponderosa. What they’ll tell Sheriff Coffee. What they’ll say to all the people who know I was missing. Pa was frightened for my life before, but now…it’s what comes next that scares him. He’s trying to figure out how they’ll cover up the parts of the story that nobody must ever be allowed to know, for my sake and for theirs.

Even exhausted as I am, my mind starts casting about for various ways to help my family do exactly that. Not that it makes much difference to me. After all, there’s no help for me; I’m already destroyed. But my pa and brothers still have a future and a life to lead, and right now that’s all I’ve got left to care about — stopping Kane from hurting them. Besides, it’s always been in my nature to fix what has gone awry. Some things never change, even when a man’s world is ending.

I leave my eyes closed, trying to examine possibilities, but my thoughts are as easily scattered as dandelion fuzz. No matter. Between all of us, we’ll figure out a story that runs parallel to the truth, branching away from it only slightly—just enough to avoid the parts of it that have shattered me into a thousand pieces.

Somewhere in the distance, I swear I can hear Kane still laughing.

Oh, sure, Cartwright. Anybody who looks at you will know. It’s written all over your face. Do you really think you can hide something like this?

An odd, rhythmic sound moves along with us as we ride, but I am so distracted I can’t quite make out what it is.

Kane’s laughing voice has the right of it. Who am I kidding? I can’t help my family with this problem. Hell, I am the problem. I should have died back in that camp. If I was dead, there wouldn’t be any problem at all. My family would grieve, of course; they would be beside themselves with sorrow, but at least there wouldn’t be anything for them to hide. Nothing for them to be ashamed by. If I had died, they never would’ve known what had really happened in that camp, and they would never have had to bear the weight of it. They would’ve either caught my killer, or not. After a few months, their lives would’ve gone on, and nothing would’ve changed but the fact that I wasn’t there with them.

What is that sound? Is it — is it breathing? It is. Very labored breathing. Someone is sick, maybe hurt. It is harsh, shallow panting, awful to hear.

Wait. It’s — it’s me. That’s my breathing. Pa talks to me, asks me something, but I can’t seem to make sense of it. I barely register the fact that he has pulled the horse up short and we’ve stopped moving.

My time with Kane has taken its toll, both mentally and physically. Those days of working in the mine with not nearly enough food or water has weakened me, and the time I had spent towing him across the desert — who knows how long I was out there — has pretty much sapped everything I had left.

I let my thoughts roll back to the moment I had set off across the desert and left the camp behind. I had stopped just short of killing Kane then; I had closed my hands around his throat until his eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp. I had come so close to choking the life out of him, in fact, that it had terrified me. A few seconds more, and I would have done exactly what Kane had been so certain all along I would do.

Maybe I should have.

But I hadn’t gone that far. It had taken him a while to come to, but he’d been alive. Then I had given him water and waited until he had recovered sufficiently to get to his feet. Only then had we shuffled away from that camp, both of us, me occasionally shoving him in the back to keep him moving. Hours later, when he’d finally collapsed and was unable to rise, I’d strongly considered leaving him behind in order to try and make it out myself.

In the end, of course, I’d built that travois and loaded him onto it. At first I told myself that I didn’t abandon him because doing anything else would mean that he’d won. I’d have proven his theory that I wasn’t a better man than him, that given the right circumstances, any man could be provoked into killing or letting someone die. I held onto the idea that I dragged him with me to prove he was wrong.

But that wasn’t entirely true, for there had been many times I had desperately wanted to kill him — and would have, had I been given the opportunity at just the right moment, regardless of whether or not it would prove Kane was right about me.

The first of those times was the night after he’d shot the mule. That night he’d proven just how far he would go to put me in my place. I had lain in the dark afterwards, cold and hurting, my ankles and wrists snubbed tight to the posts of his lean-to while he snored a short distance away. I’d been left shattered, my humiliation complete; I’d spent the entire night staring at his blanket-wrapped form, planning all the ways I would exact revenge once I got the chance. Every one of my mental scenarios ended up with Kane bruised, bloody — and dead. Yes, very, very dead. I hated him more than I would ever have believed it possible for me to hate anyone.

When the sun had risen, I had still been watching him. By then, reason and calculating anger had pushed cold rage out of the way somewhat, enough to remind me that I was no killer, despite what Kane said. He would be punished, all right, but he would be punished within the confines of the law. I wouldn’t even have to tell the jury everything he’d done; he’d held me prisoner and made me work the mine against my will, withholding food and water while he did it. The act of kidnapping would be plenty to put him away. His punishment would be enough. The authorities and the jury didn’t even need to know the rest of what he’d done.

Nobody needed to know the rest. God, please don’t let them find out the rest, I’d silently begged.

As the sun began to climb into the sky that next morning, Kane had been no different than he ever was. He had untied me, given me a shove with the toe of his boot, and told me to get to work. I was almost glad for the dim isolation of the mine — anything so that I wouldn’t have to look at him. Anything so that he wouldn’t look at me.

I’d been given nothing to eat all that day, but for supper I’d been given a cup of muddy water, and he had tossed me a strip of raw mule meat that he’d forced me to hack out of the carcass before burying the rest. Other than that bit of nourishment, he had ignored me. I had desperately hoped there would be no repeats of the kind of punishment I’d received the night before.

It had seemed that my prayers might be answered, for that night, Kane had kept to himself. Not that I’d gotten much sleep; I’d found myself waking and holding my breath every time he rolled over or muttered in his sleep. But I’d been left alone that night, and the night after that, and my fears had begun to ease.

But then the next night came, and with it, more appalling, breath-choking humiliation. The following night brought more of the same. And each morning, my reason had a more difficult time overtaking my rage.

The day finally came when I couldn’t face anymore; he had pushed me over the edge. I finally got the jump on him. I had screamed that I was done with his games. I’d meant it. Our scuffle had ended with me choking almost all the life out of him. I had fully intended to kill him right there.

Only one odd little thing had stopped me. A memory had flashed into my mind, an image of Joe’s finger trembling on a gun trigger as he told Red Twilight he was going to blow his brains out. I’d been terrified that day, because I knew there was nothing I could do to stop Joe. I was going to watch my kid brother commit murder and then see him go to prison for it.

Only he hadn’t done it. He had stopped only because of what I said to him; I told him to go ahead, that it would only mean he was no better than Red Twilight. Somehow, the thought of ending up like a man as low as Twilight had been enough to bring Joe to his senses that day.

The memory of it brought me to my senses this time. Did I myself want to end up no better than Kane?

The thought had stopped me cold.

So I’d dragged Kane across the desert and told myself it was because I was proving I couldn’t be driven to kill. But I’d been lying to myself. The truth — the truth is much, much harder. I am loath to admit it, but the truth is that, to some extent, Kane knew what he was talking about. There were certain things that could drive even a civilized man to kill. Simple survival, for example. I’d killed for that reason more than once. But that’s not what Kane was talking about; I know he was alluding to murder rather than self-defense when he spoke of men being driven to kill.

But with Kane, after everything that passed, it was different. I didn’t drag him along because I was a “better man.” Hard as it is, know the truth of why I didn’t leave him for dead back in that camp, even if nobody else will ever know. The truth is that I needed to take him with me. I needed to see him punished for what he’d done to me, wanted to see his body rot, wanted to see the buzzards land on him and eat their fill…

For the first time in my life, I hated someone so much that I needed to see him punished — needed it like I needed air to breathe.

Only there isn’t enough punishment in the world to make up for what he did to me. I understand that now. The realization of that harsh fact crashed in upon me the instant I looked into the faces of my family today after I’d spilled my guts to them. Nothing can make it right. Nothing.

My breathing is growing worse. A harsh, hacking cough rises up out of my throat and I stiffen, trying in vain to clear it all out. Pa tightens his grip on me. He says something in a low, soothing tone, but I can’t hear what it is, not over Kane’s laughter echoing inside my skull. I cough harder, and my heart slams against my chest.

I struggle to take in air — and find I can’t. After a few seconds of straining to breathe, I stop caring. After all I’ve been through, why should I have to deal with more?

Wasn’t what happened to me bad enough? Why did my family have to come when they did? If they had found me just a few hours later, it would all be over now. If they couldn’t have come days earlier, then why couldn’t they have just waited until I was gone? I want to scream with the injustice of it.

What does it matter now if I don’t make it? It doesn’t. Not at all.

It’s not a lost cause, Cartwright. Not completely. You aren’t that far from checking out of here. This is your chance; you could fix things right now. As much as possible, anyway. You could set everything right for Pa. For Hoss and Joe.

At first the words are in Kane’s voice. But as they repeat over and over, it becomes my voice, my own thoughts, clear and hard and logical, and suddenly I think maybe it’s true; maybe there is still a way out.

And so…I stop fighting. Just like that. I simply — stop. I never realized before that a person could just stop trying to live, but it turns out it is true. Maybe it is because I am too far gone. My body is too tired. Or my mind. Or both. I don’t know, but I turn loose, and that is that. I stop breathing. Somewhere very far away, I hear my father say my name, first questioning, then in loud, alarmed shouts. I hate doing this to him, hate it. Still, it’s so much kinder than the alternative — saddling him with a son who has been through something that he won’t be able to bear even thinking about, much less talking about. I know he would give his life to help me, but the truth is there isn’t a single thing he can do for me.

But I can do something for him.

My brothers are shouting too. I hear the pain in Hoss’ voice, the terror in Joe’s. I wish I could tell them that it’s all going to be all right, that it really will be better for everyone this way.

I’m a little sad, I admit, having to leave so soon. There were so many things I still wanted to see and do. But along with the sadness, part of me is fiercely glad, because a battle I thought was lost isn’t quite over. I can still salvage a piece of my world — the part that contains my pa and brothers. It’s too bad I have to die to do it, but I can’t think of any other way. Kane has destroyed me, but he will not destroy my family.

For the first time since I realized the mistake I made by trusting Kane when I stumbled into that camp, I smile.

And the darkness comes with velvet softness.

 

*****

 

“I never figured you for a coward, Adam.”

I whip my head around. I’ve definitely lost my mind. There is no way I should be hearing that voice. But sure enough, there he is, standing right there beside me — Ross Marquette, shaking his head with an easy smile on his face.

Impossible, of course. Obviously all rationality I once possessed has fled. Kane has driven me mad. But — wait. This vision of Ross isn’t being caused by insanity. It’s happening because I am dead. So this what the mind does as we leave life behind? It makes you think you are seeing friends long dead? That isn’t so bad. It could be worse.

Still, I take a wary step backward, away from the imaginary Ross, for he seems disturbingly solid.

“It’s all right,” Ross says gently, still smiling. “I know what this seems like, but it’s me. Really.”

“My mind is making you up.”

He laughs. “Cartwright, you’re a real smart man, but you’ve always put more stock into the power of your own mind than you’ve ever had a right to. I’m not a hallucination. I’m right here talking to you.”

I stare at him, more than a little shaken and a whole lot scared. But against all reason, what he says appears to be true. This does indeed appear to be the Ross I had been friends with for so many years, the one I’d fished with, hunted with, talked my problems over with. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear to be the Ross whose mind had taken a dark turn during the last months of his life, the one who had beaten his wife and broken the law and forced me to kill him to stop him from killing me first. It is Ross’s clear, lucid eyes that look back at me, not those of the stranger I once held as he lay dying by my own hand.

Somehow he knows what I’m thinking. The smile slips from his face, leaving a sad, gentle apology. “I’m awful sorry about what happened with you and me, Adam. It was a terrible thing for one friend to have to do to another. I hope you can forgive me. You can, can’t you?”

I nod, still amazed at how real he looks. Not that it matters. Real or not, I answer him. “There’s nothing to forgive,” I tell him, and it is true. I know without asking that he feels the same about me—or would if he were really standing here. Ross had no more been able to help what had happened between us than I’d been. Neither of us had had any control over what his mental state had triggered during those awful days when his mind had begun sliding into that dark abyss.

“It wasn’t me who did those things, you know,” Ross says. “And I sure never held any of it against you. Your hand was forced. My head, inside, was all…upside down. It wasn’t me…” He stops and smiles again. “But you know all that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I tell him, and I do know. If I had worried about how things had ended that awful day — and I had — that worry is now gone, wiped away by a simple smile from him. Everything is right between us. Nothing more needs to be said. It is done.

It’s a good thing, for there are other, more demanding issues at hand. “Ross, how is it you’re here? How can you be just… well, standing here like this?”

Ross laughs. “Since I’m dead, you mean?”

I have to smile at his easy acceptance of his situation, strange though that situation definitely is. This is the old Ross, dry sense of humor intact, untouched by whatever illness took his mind at the end of his life.

“Well, yes, since you’re…dead,” I say. It’s so strange to think that the word dead applies to me as well. “Why is it that I’m seeing you? What’s going on?”

Instead of answering, Ross turns to look out in front of us. “Look out there, Adam. What do you see?”

Yet again I am taken by surprise, for we are no longer in the desert. Instead, Ross and I stand shoulder to shoulder on a gently sloping mountainside as Lake Tahoe shimmers below us. A few years ago, I had sat on horseback beside Pa, looking down at the lake from this exact spot; I remember Pa saying Heaven would have a hard time comparing to the beauty of the lake. I had always wondered how many other places in the world were even more beautiful than this spot, so when Pa had said that, I didn’t want to limit the idea of Heaven to something I’d seen almost every day since I was eight. I told him something like he’d never been to Heaven, so how could he know?

Now it seemed that maybe he had been right all along, since I am no longer among the living and yet here I am, standing in front of that lake, as sparkling and as blue as ever.

No longer among the living…

“So I’m dead now too, right? Really dead?” I can’t help the small tremor threading through my voice. I dread the answer even though I know what it will be.

Ross turns from the view of those sky-blue waters to look at me, and now there is no trace of a smile on his face. “Do you want to be dead?” he asks, his expression solemn.

I think about that for a minute. Finally I decide to answer with the truth. “No, but…”

“Then why’d you quit?” Ross asks flatly. “Why’d you give up? Like I said, Adam, I never figured you for a coward. Appears maybe I was wrong about that.”

I am dumfounded at the way Ross’s easy candor has been replaced by sharp criticism. “You don’t understand,” I tell him. “I had no choice.”

“Don’t lie to me.” Ross spits at the ground. “Lots of folks don’t have a choice, but you did. You could have kept fighting. Yeah, between Kane and that desert, a lot got taken out of you, and you were in bad shape, but you weren’t whipped. At least I didn’t think you were. Appears I was wrong about that, too, since you went crawling off into the night with your tail between your legs…”

“I told you, I had no choice!” I grit my teeth, angry at the way Ross is describing what happened. Why is he treating me like this?

“Explain it to me, then. Tell me why you think it was okay for you to stop trying, to just give up the way you did.” The set of his jaw says that Ross is angry, too — which only fires my temper even more.

“You act like you don’t want me here. So it’s not okay for me to be here, is that it?” Now I’m shouting. “I’m not meant for Heaven? I’m not supposed to be here?” And in a cold wash of clarity, I go still. “Dear God, that’s it, isn’t it? I’m not good enough for Heaven, not after what happened with Kane. I’m not good enough…”

All the anger is instantly wiped from Ross’s face. Gentle sympathy shows in his eyes. He reaches out and clasps both my shoulders. “No, Adam, don’t be thinking that way. That isn’t it at all. Of course you’re good enough for Heaven. You’re one of the finest men I’ve ever known.” He shakes his head and says, very softly, “But it’s the way you went out — it isn’t right, not for you, not this time. And you know it.”

He stares at me, waiting. I stare back. And suddenly I’m crying again, just like I did in Pa’s arms when my family found me. Such odd behavior for me; I’ve always prided myself on presenting a cool and collected front to others, even when I’m anything but calm on the inside. Not this time. My knees buckle and I fall to the ground, and Ross goes down with me, keeping a tight hold while I shake my head back and forth.

“I did it for them,” I manage to say. “For Pa. For Hoss and Little Joe. So they don’t have to live with it hanging over their heads.”

“With what hanging over their heads?”

I swipe one hand across my eyes to clear the tears and look at Ross, wondering if he is the one person I could ever tell the whole truth to. Not the pieced-together, haphazard accounting I gave my family, but the whole story, clear and hard. Even as I wonder, though, the thought of trying to get the words out past my teeth is enough to make my stomach roil. And then I see his expression and suddenly, I realize I don’t have to tell him anything at all.

“You know,” I breathe. “You know what happened in that camp.” Ross nods, and hot shame floods through me. I look away from him. “Then why are you asking me about it?” I mumble.

“Because you’ve got to face up to it, Adam. What went on out there wasn’t none of your doing, but it happened. Pretending it didn’t won’t change anything.”

I stare up at him and then stand abruptly, kicking at a rock and sending it sailing over a nearby precipice. “Fine,” I snap. “It happened. I was Kane’s pack animal. No, worse than a pack animal. He did things…” Bile rises up inside me. I shake my head and look out over the distant blue of the lake. “Happy now? I’m facing up to it. It happened. It’s done. But my family shouldn’t have to continue to suffer for something that happened to me. It’s my rotten luck, but it shouldn’t be theirs as well.”

Ross’s voice is soft. “Do you think that’s how they would feel about it?”

“Of course not. They’d insist on riding the whole thing out right along with me.”

“So why won’t you let them?”

I kick at another rock. “You were always thick-headed, Marquette.” He chuckles softly, but I know he’s still waiting on an answer. I pull in a breath and try to give him one. Why it’s important that I make him understand, I don’t know. Maybe I’m trying to explain it to myself as well.

“This is just too big,” I tell him. “It’s not something we could ever put completely behind us. They wouldn’t be able to help me, no matter how much they’d want to. The shame of it…” I drop my head. “They’d just hurt. A lot. Dear God, do you know how much? Do you have any idea? And it would be every time they looked at me. Every time they rode into town and folks looked at them. I don’t want that. I won’t have it. I won’t.

“So you figure it’s better for you to just leave than to put them through the pain of what happened back there. You’d rather die than push part of this burden onto them. Is that it?”

“That’s the general idea, yeah. Look, I get what you’re saying. Never in my life would I have thought that I would end up just letting go like that, without a fight. I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s the only solution I’ve been able to come up with. This is the way it has to be.”

Ross sighs and shakes his head. “You’re wrong, Adam.”

He doesn’t understand, and that saddens me. “No, I’m not. I wish I was, but I’m not.”

Slowly he rises to stand beside me. “So there’s no changing your mind on this?”

His question surprises me, I admit. “Change my… You mean I can change my mind?” Not that I would change it, even if I could. Truthfully, I thought it was a done deal, since I’m dead. I mean, dead is dead. The only reason I’ve been arguing with Ross about it is because I don’t want him to think less of me. It’s important, somehow, that he understand why I chose death over life.

“Yeah,” Ross answers quietly. “Those with a choice can reverse their decision to stay on earth or…go. For a short period of time, anyway. After that period of time, though, it’s final, and there’s no going back.” He watches me carefully, and I can tell he still hopes I’ll change my mind.

I swallow, wishing with all my heart there was some other way. There is so much out there I still want to see, to learn, to experience, to do. But the price is too high, so I say nothing.

When Ross speaks, he sounds tired and disappointed. “You still want to call it quits, then?”

“Yes,” I whisper.

He drops his head. “Okay, then,” he sighs.

I wait, but he doesn’t say anything else. “So it’s that simple? That’s all there is to it? I’m here for good?” Twinges of regret nudge at me, but I brush them away.

He looks up and gives me a tiny smile with no humor behind it. “Almost, but not quite. You have to take a little trip with me first.”

Suspicious, I frown at him. “A trip?”

“Think of it as a sightseeing tour.” There is now something evasive in Ross’s expression that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Something else occurs to me. “Ross, are you like my guardian angel or something?”

For some reason that strikes Ross as hilariously funny. He howls with laughter. “Do I look like an angel to you, Cartwright?” he snorts.

“No,” I am forced to admit, “you don’t look a darned thing like any angel I’ve ever imagined. You just look like my old friend Ross.”

“And that’s exactly who I am. Your old friend Ross, come to help you out if I can. Sometimes God saves himself some time and trouble by delegating work, and those of us who have sins to atone for tend to get the worst jobs. Right now, you are one of those worst jobs. I’m stuck with trying to get you out of a jam, just like when we were kids.”

“I’m a ‘worst job’? Thanks a lot.”

He winks. “I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.” He waves off more questions from me. “Come on, no more time for talk. Are you ready?”

“That depends,” I say slowly. “Ready for what, exactly?”

“To see how this ‘solution’ of yours works out for everybody,” Ross says. “You think that after what’s happened, everyone you love would be better off without you. I want to show you how wrong that kind of thinking is.”

What is he trying to pull, some sort of twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? I read that book to Joe a hundred times when he was a kid. He always loved it, but it was too much of a fantasy to be a favorite of mine. I prefer realism. Now, though, I’m looking at that tale with an entirely new viewpoint. Maybe that whole story isn’t as farfetched as it has always seemed. Is Ross trying to set himself up to be my Jacob Marley? If so, he’ll be disappointed in the results, because it’s not going to change my mind. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come have nothing on Peter Kane. I’m pretty sure I’ll be visited by his ghost for the rest of my life.

Which means it’s a good thing, I remind myself, that there is no rest of my life.

A hard breath of exasperation whistles past my lips. “Look, Ross, I’m pretty sure I know what you’re trying to do, and I appreciate it. Really, I do. But you’re twisting around my words and somehow — I don’t know, dragging me around the world or something isn’t going to make me change my decision. I don’t have a choice. Can’t you understand that?”

Frustration at the futility of it all takes a firm hold in my gut, and I shut my eyes once again with the pain of knowing that everything has been taken from me. Everything. My honor. My pride. And now my life. Kane has won it all.

Except for my family. He has no control, no hold, over my family. And he never will.

Still, it is so unfair. My fists clench. I want to be done with it. All of it, and Ross is only delaying things. I round on him, my anger against the injustice of it all rising. “If you know so much — if you really want to make things right,” I snarl, “why don’t you just undo everything? Just fix it so that I never left Eastgate to go hunting at all? Fix it so I headed straight home, never got robbed, and never met Kane?”

I’m shouting again, bellowing at the top of my lungs. “Can you do that, Ross? Can you? Because if you can’t, you can just stop with the lectures and wise comments. I don’t need them.”

Ross, to his credit, doesn’t flinch away from my rage. He just stands there, steadily regarding me. “Is that what you really want, Adam?” he asks quietly. “For things to shift so that you didn’t hang around Eastgate at all? Because things happen for a reason, you know. God has a plan…”

“I don’t give a damn about God’s plan!” I roar, and I pick up another rock and hurl it with all my might over the side of the mountain. I listen as it knocks against trees and boulders, finally clattering into nothingness. Angrier than I have ever been in my life, I turn back and shove my face an inch away from his. “How can you stand there and tell me that there was a reason for what happened to me at the hands of that insane, wretched excuse for a man? Am I supposed to believe there was a reason I ended up under his control, that there was a reason things happened to me that shouldn’t happen to a mongrel dog?” I whirl away from him and slam my fist into a pine trunk — once, twice, three times. Bits of bark and blood mix together. I barely notice the sting. I want to keep punching that tree until it crashes to the ground.

My fist is grabbed and held fast.

“What I’m telling you,” Ross says calmly, as he clamps one hand around my wrist to keep it still, “is that you don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been there in Kane’s camp. As bad as it was, Adam, you’re a strong man. The strongest I know. You’re hurting like everything, but you will get through it. You’ll get past it. And so will your family. You’ll lean on each other, and you’ll get through. But if you decide instead to simply make sweeping changes, circumstances could…” He stops, chews his lip. “Let’s just say circumstances could change drastically as well. Not necessarily for the better, either. Things could spiral out of control and the resulting situation could be worse than the way it ended up for you.”

“Worse? Are you kidding? How could they be any worse?” And then something he said hits me. “Wait. Are you really saying — do you have the power to change this? Change history? Can you? Can you make it so I didn’t go hunting that day? So I didn’t end up in Kane’s camp?”

Ross looks decidedly uncomfortable, but he nods slowly. “If that’s what you really want. Yes. I can put in a request.”

I stare at him, first amazed, then elated beyond all measure. Hope floods through me. Dear God! All is not lost after all. All is not lost. I throw my arms around my friend. “For Pete’s sake, Marquette, why didn’t you just tell me about this in the first place? Why didn’t you just say you have the power to change it all?”

Well, don’t have such power, of course. But my superiors can take a look at a request from me. They can…make adjustments, let’s say. Within a certain scope.”

Superiors? That strikes me as odd, somehow. “After you die, you have superiors?

Ross shrugs. “If you die and still have things to make amends for, you do. God delegates some chores to certain angels, and then those chores in turn get divided further down the hierarchy. Like I said, if you leave earth with some marks against you, as long as those marks aren’t too bad, you work for a while, pay off some debts…” He shrugs again, grinning, and pokes me in the chest with a finger. “I’m still on grunt work detail. It won’t last forever.”

But my mind is racing, and I barely hear his last few words. If I had never ventured near Kane’s camp, he never would’ve entered my world, and never would’ve destroyed me from the inside out.

Surely this is too good to be true. I want to make sure I’ve got it straight. “So I can change my mind about deciding not to live, and you can fix it so I don’t meet up with Kane. And there’s still time?” I ask carefully.

“Yes, there’s still time. You can decide to live. And — yes, you can decide to change everything.” But Ross doesn’t look happy about it, not at all. Something isn’t right.

“What are you not telling me?” I ask, watching his face.

“I am telling you. You just haven’t been listening. For Pete’s sake, Adam, I feel like I’m talking to your kid brother here. Since when did you get so thick-headed? If you…”

“Okay, okay. I’m listening. I just don’t understand why you’re so reluctant to do something that would erase all the things that have happened to me over the last couple of weeks.”

“It’s like this. If you start messing around with destiny, you’re liable to change things in ways you never saw coming. I can’t even tell you what those changes might be, because I don’t have any more idea than you do. All I know is that it’s never better to change the order of what God puts in motion. I’ve seen this happen before. Granted the opportunity, things can be changed to an extent, but it generally doesn’t work out for the best, that’s all.”

For the best? He’s got to be joking. “You know what?” I say,” I don’t care. Whatever changes, it has to be better than—than what happened to me with Kane.” That’s it. I’m through talking. I’m still having a hard time believing it, but my old friend has offered me true hope, however grudgingly, when I thought there was none to be had. I’ve got my life back, and I’m ready to do what has to be done to get everything to get back to normal. I step back and fold my arms across my chest. “Do it.”

Ross sighs, but nods. “It’ll be just a minute. Gotta okay it up top first.”

And then he’s gone, leaving me alone in an empty meadow. Just when I begin to wonder if I’ve imagined the whole exchange, he’s back, making me jump when he appears behind me from out of nowhere.

“All right, everything’s in place.”

I frown. “What about the fact that I’m dead?”

He grins. “You aren’t dead. You are near death. And we’re pulling you out.”

“Comforting.” It is, I must admit.

“Shut up and listen. Here’s how it works. We’re rewinding time. You’ll be dropped off at the trail drive, just before you and Joe go to Eastgate. We…”

“Wait. To Eastgate? Can’t we back up further and make plans not to go there at all? Maybe we can deliver cattle to some other place instead. Or maybe we can rush ahead, so that we’re already back at the Ponderosa after we deliver the cattle?” Even the thought of being near Eastgate makes me feel queasy.

Ross shakes his head. “I’m sorry, compadre, but it doesn’t work that way. We’re given leave to manipulate time, but only within boundaries. There are only certain — let’s call them windows — windows of time we can drop you through. In this case, dropping you just before you arrive at Eastgate is as close as we can get. After that, it’s up to you to decide what you will do differently the second time around.” He puts out his hand to shake mine, and he clasps my shoulder in a warm embrace with his other hand. “Good luck to you, Adam. You know I mean that.”

Suddenly, I’m regretful. “So this is it? I won’t be seeing you again?” Now that I know my life will soon be back on an even keel, I’m not thinking only of myself. I’m thinking more about Ross and how much I’ve missed him. It’s been an exceedingly short visit, and one filled with turmoil. Now that everything is okay, I hate to say goodbye so soon to the best friend I’ve ever had.

He smiles. “Oh, you’ll be seeing me again. Many, many years down the road, God willing.” The smile wavers a bit. “I hope the change you’ve asked for goes well, my friend.” And then he raises one hand and snaps his fingers.

And just like that, I’m astride Sport, riding just to the left of my tired kid brother and his pinto pony as we push cattle into the holding pens on the outskirts of Eastgate.

 

*****

 

“Adam, I can’t for the life of me figure out why you wanna rush off back home to chores when you could stay here in town for a couple of days and just relax and take it easy. Besides, we can take in that trial together.” Joe’s voice is full of contented ease as he lounges in the tub of water we’ve had brought up to our room.

I continue to put my hair to rights in front of the mirror, my own deep sense of contentment flooding through me. It’s a new day. A new life, one untainted by Kane. “It’s been the longest trail drive of my life,” I say. “I’m beat. All I want is to get home to my own bed. And the sooner I start out, the quicker I’ll make it there. Besides, the cattle buyer told me about the case. The man confessed. So he’ll hang. I don’t want to stay around for that.”

Joe is skeptical. “How can you be so sure he’s gonna hang? “

Did he ask that same question the first time around? The first time he and I were here in this same hotel room, in this same town? I think so, but I’m not entirely sure. This time manipulation thing has left my memory foggy in places, like a window with smudges blocking the full view. At any rate, my answer is on my lips even as I turn away from the mirror to look at him. “Simple logic. He’s guilty. He’ll hang. It’s the law.”

Joe pours dippers of water through his hair. “Aw, does everything have to be so logical?”

Typical Joe. “No, not if you don’t want to use your brains,” I say, collecting my hat and holster. “Look, Joe. A man’s responsible for what he does. If he loses control, he has to be punished for it. That’s the way it is.” I know what I’m saying is truth, but I feel an unease deep inside as I buckle on my holster.

“Yeah. I just wonder if you’d feel that way if you were in Obadiah’s shoes.”

I shove my uneasy feelings away. “Well, I could never be in Obadiah’s shoes, because nobody could ever drive me to murder.” It’s true, it’s true, I tell myself as I grab the money bag and prepare to walk out the door. It’s true, no matter what Kane said or did. That day never happened. My convictions are intact. “With one exception,” I add.

“Oh, yeah, who’s that?”

“You!” I shove my kid brother’s head beneath the surface of the cooling, sudsy water. He comes up gasping and hollering, and I can’t help but grin. Before he can exact retribution, I am out the door, narrowly dodging being whacked with a wet, soapy sponge.

I pop my head back in and point at him. “Be sure you’re on the road back to the Ponderosa in three days. And be on time for a change.”

I leave my brother shaking his head with water still streaming into his eyes. In minutes, I’ve retrieved Sport from the livery, and I’ve hit the trail filled with a peculiar mix of dread and exhilaration. I’m almost giddy with relief over the reprieve I’ve been given — and yet I’m needled by a sense that something isn’t right.

It’s just because I’m remembering what happened the first time. I shake off my doubts and remind myself that I need never lay eyes on Kane, never hear his voice give me haughty commands, never cringe under the feel of his hot breath on my neck…

Abruptly, I knee Sport into a trot, even though I know he needs to walk most of the long, hot trip ahead. The fact that I am hurrying irritates me. Why am I so jumpy? Why do find myself looking over my shoulder every minute? Everything is different this time. I have made sure of that, leaving nothing to chance. When Joe and I rode into town, I made sure we went straight to the hotel. No stop at the saloon first, despite Joe’s protests, and certainly no discussion of the money we carried. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to blab about that the first time around. It was something I would normally be cautioning Joe about, not myself. All I have to offer in my defense is how hot and tired I had been; I simply hadn’t been thinking the first time. But I had paid the price for it — God, did I pay the price.

But now the cost has been anted up by someone else, by Ross, by his superiors, perhaps by God himself. It doesn’t matter how or why. What matters is I’ve been set free, and I’m determined to follow the right path this time.

Since we didn’t spend time in the saloon and didn’t mention money to anyone, there will be no robbers waiting for me outside town. I’m not even traveling down the same road, for I’m certainly planning no side hunting trip this time. The outlaws will not ambush me, will not steal my horse, and I will not be left afoot to wander into a mad man’s camp in the depths of the desert.

Nor have I forgotten my kid brother’s safety; the thought has not escaped me that he himself could end up a target for the robbers if they somehow discovered he carried money, so that’s the one thing, the only thing, I haven’t changed — I carry the money myself. Since nobody knows we have it, it shouldn’t be a danger, but I’m not willing to take that chance where Joe is concerned. It’s just one more detail in a series of actions that I’ve taken great care to handle in just the right way.

It bothers me that Joe isn’t leaving Eastgate with me, that he is insisting on staying to watch the trial. Nothing I said managed to change his mind. When I got too vehement about it, he started looking at me funny, and I let it go. God knows I couldn’t tell him the truth. But it’s okay. He has no intention of heading east toward the foothills above Kane’s camp; he’ll head straight back home and everything will fall into place.

So why am I nervous? Everything will be all right. I will change what happened to me.

If you start messing around with destiny, you’re liable to change things in ways you never saw coming.

Ross’s words ring in my head, and I click my tongue to Sport to urge him into an easy lope, promising myself and him that I’ll let him stay at a more reasonable gait once Eastgate no longer peers over my shoulder on the horizon.

If you start messing around with destiny, you’re liable to change things in ways you never saw coming.

Well, I didn’t see Kane coming the first time, either, and look what that got me. I’ve been handed a priceless gift in this second chance, and I’m holding onto it with everything I’ve got. I’m taking it, and I’m heading for home.

Destiny be damned.

 

*****

 

My bedroom is on the north side of the house, in the leg of the T-shape formed by the extension jutting out behind the house. Hop Sing’s room is directly below mine. My brothers have always been mystified as to how I’m always able to rise so early, but I’ve never told them the truth: my habit of waking before dawn is mainly due to the location of my bedroom.

It is Hop Sing who wakes me every morning, though not intentionally. I don’t know why the sound travels so well from his room up to mine; some sort of fluke in the house’s construction, I suppose. You might think I would know if that was the case, since I designed and helped build this part of the house, but sometimes even houses throw surprises at you.

Whatever the reason, when Hop Sing awakes, the sounds of his morning ablutions filter clearly up through my floorboards. I have begun each day since I was twelve years old by listening to him splashing water on his face, then to the soft opening and closing of his door behind the staircase. If I listen hard enough, I can just make out the sounds of pots and pans being readied in the kitchen long before dawn arrives.

This morning the sound of Hop Sing’s splashing brings a surge of relief, for it rescues me from strange dreams. Disturbing dreams. Halfway between sleep and wakefulness, flickers of images flash before me: a man’s perspiring face, skin bronzed by sun, teeth flashing as he laughs. Dimly lit mine passages thick with oven-hot air. My own hands, wrists bound tightly in front of me as I strain to escape—

I lurch into a sitting position and stare wide-eyed into the pitch blackness of my bedroom, my harsh breathing almost drowning out the muffled sound of water pouring from a pitcher in the room below. Terror thrumming through me, I close my mind to the dreams, drawing comfort from the sound of the water and Hop Sing’s soft humming; the noises are familiar and homey, weaving themselves into a gentle silken ribbon that ties adolescence to adulthood with unerring constancy.

After a few moments I am calm enough to push the last vestiges of the dreams from my head, and even to snort at my distress over them. I vow that next time Hop Sing serves deviled eggs for supper, I will avoid second helpings of them. For surely it is something I ate that brought on such ridiculous nightmares.

It’s just that they seemed so real…

Shutting my mind to the images that threaten to move back up out of the darkness, I throw back the blankets and light the lamp on the bedside table. Heaving myself out of bed and crossing the room to the washbasin to shave, I am suddenly anxious to get the day started. As I free my face of the dark growth that always greets me in the mirror in the mornings, I’m still dimly aware of those odd, shredded bits of dreams. I feel slightly off-kilter this morning, though I can’t place my finger on exactly why.

“Darned deviled eggs,” I mutter into the dimly lit mirror, and begin to splash my face with cold water and prepare to head down to breakfast, even though I can’t shake the feeling that I’m forgetting something.

Something important.

I’ve been back from Eastgate for several days, and there’s a lot of work to catch up on. Pa has a list a mile long, and though I’ve been working hard these last few days, I haven’t made much of a dent in it. But I don’t mind. After weeks of riding, it feels good to stay busy at other things, to stack hay and nail up new corral fencing, to grease wagon axles alongside Hoss, to exercise muscles still slightly stiff from too many long days in the saddle. With Joe not yet returned from Eastgate, I don’t even mind doing his chores.

By evening I fall into bed so tired I’m convinced those idiotic dreams won’t make another appearance.

But they do. Visions of that same laughing man and the dark mine are interspersed with placid scenes of Lake Tahoe and my old friend Ross.

Ross, of all people. I didn’t dream of Ross even immediately after his death — the memories were too painful and I guess my mind just shut them off — but I’m dreaming of him now after all this time? So odd.

Maybe I’m coming down with something.

For the next several nights, the dreams find me, but each night they are more hazy, less troubling. Less real. Eventually they don’t come at all. Whatever brought them on is gone, and my nights are filled with peaceful slumber.

All is right with the world.

 

*****

 

Something is wrong.

It’s been days since I left Joe at Eastgate. Far too many days. He should’ve been home, but he’s not. Yesterday we sent a telegram to Eastgate; now Sheriff Coffee stands here at the door to inform us that the sheriff of Eastgate has sent a reply. The message confirms that Joe left town three days after I did, just as he was supposed to.

Within a half hour we are in the saddle, riding hard and fast for Eastgate.

I have strangely conflicting feelings as I ride. I am desperate to get there soon, and yet, every few miles I have an almost irresistible urge to whip Sport’s head around and head for home. It’s worry over Joe, I tell myself. I’m afraid we’ll miss him and he’ll be safely at home while we’re out here searching for him. That’s all it is.

The sheriff of Eastgate is waiting for us by the time we arrive, but he has little information to offer. He’s contacted all the lawmen in the surrounding territory. We are sitting in his office going over maps when a telegram arrives from the sheriff of Salt Flats.

“It says he has a horse in town that fits the description of the pinto we’re looking for,” the Eastgate sheriff tells us, and hands the telegraphed message to us so we can read it for ourselves.

Salt Flats? Salt Flats was far to the south of the road Joe should’ve taken back to the Ponderosa. What would he have been doing in Salt Flats?

By the time we make it to Salt Flats two days later, our horses are badly winded, and our guts are tight and empty with worry and lack of food.

The sheriff there leads us to the town’s livery stable, talking matter-of-factly as he walks. “When Sheriff Coffee sent that wire and described your son’s horse, I figured this one had to be it,” he says. “Seemed like too fine an animal for the likes of the two hombres that had him, and I was a bit suspicious right from the start, even before I got the telegraph from Eastgate.” He ushers us inside, and Cochise nickers at us from inside a stall. “This him?” the sheriff asks.

Pa nods and swallows. “Yes. That’s my son’s horse.”

The sheriff sighs. The sound carries with it a world of bad news. “Then I’m afraid, mister, that you might not find your boy. The two that stole this pony were no good, to say the least. I wouldn’t have put it past them to ambush a man.”

“I want to talk to them.” Pa’s voice is hard and clipped. Even as my anger surges like acid inside me, I am aware of the restraint my father holds himself under, and out of lifelong habit, I follow suit. “Right now, Sheriff, if you don’t mind,” Pa adds when the sheriff doesn’t move.

Instead, he shakes his head. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

The walls of my restraint break free, and I grab the man’s arm in a hard grip. “You heard my father. We need to question the men who stole my brother’s horse.”

“Son, they ain’t gonna be answering no questions from you or nobody else.” Frowning, he shakes my hand off. “They were killed two days ago when they rode in shooting up the town. One of ‘em was riding this pinto.”

 

*****

 

For days we ride through the desert between Salt Flats and Eastgate, but we find nothing. Hoss and I are completely worn out, and Pa…Pa has nothing left. We can’t keep this up. We need to give up, to quit, but neither of us wants to be the one to tell Pa that all hope is gone.

This isn’t right. My brother should be at home, cheating at checkers with Hoss, driving Pa to distraction. Giving me grief.

People always talk about anger as being something hot. That is not how it is for me. For me, anger is cold. Cold and black. It weighs in my gut now like a great chunk of ice, sending icy tendrils snaking through me until I can hardly contain it.

And along with the anger is the nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something. Something very important. The feeling rubs at me like a blister in an ill-fitting boot, pushed to the back of my mind but never really gone. Perhaps it’s only grief, simply waiting for me to acknowledge it.

Grief — yes, that’s it. It must be. All this time I’ve refused to accept that we might not find my brother. But now my hope is at an end. It’s been two weeks since Joe was reported to have checked out of that hotel in Eastgate; it’s time to face reality.

We aren’t going to find him.

Hard as it is for me to relate that truth out loud to Pa, I force myself to do it. Hoss backs me up, and Pa slumps in the saddle, weary resignation lining his face and making him appear a decade older.

“All right,” he says softly. “Let’s head home.”

 

*****

 

We are headed through the desert toward Eastgate when Hoss points out a large flock of buzzards circling an outcrop of rocks in the foothills. Could be a dead deer. Or a strayed cow that wandered around out here until she died. Or even nothing at all, for buzzards are notorious for riding hot currents of air just for the fun of it sometimes.

Or it could be something terrible, a voice in the back of my head whispers. Something that, once we’ve laid eyes on it, will brand itself forever in our minds and hearts.

Despite an overwhelming urge to dig my heels into Sport’s flanks and tear out of there as fast as I can, I nudge him toward whatever it is that has captured the buzzards’ interest. Hoss and Pa are close beside me, but none of us speak. The desert heat presses down; my heart beats leaden and slow, but picks up speed as we come closer and closer to the corpse the birds are feeding on. Only about a hundred yards away now; through the shimmering heat I see the body lying on the ground. It is half-buried. Even from here I can make out a shock of dark hair poking up through dirt and rocks. Buzzards peck at the body, feeding.

Before I’ve realized what I’m doing, I’ve spurred my exhausted horse into a run, charging at the buzzards. “Get away!” I wave my arms and yell at them, and when I am close enough, I swing down from the saddle and hit the ground running. The large, ugly birds scramble to take to the air in clumsy lurches. Their black wings buffet against the heated air. My ears feel deaf to all other sound.

I skid to a stop in front of the body and drop to my knees.

Dark hair. Dark hair that is dusty-gray with dirt.

“A mule,” Hoss gasps out from behind me. “A dadblamed mule.” He turns to Pa, who is just now catching up to us. “It’s just a mule, Pa. Not… ” He shakes his head and repeats softly, “It’s just a mule.”

A mule.

Suddenly the stench is overpowering, and we reel away from the decaying carcass, coughing to rid ourselves of the toxic air the buzzards find so tempting. The animal has been buried in a shallow grave, but it is obvious from the surrounding claw marks that coyotes or wolves have been working at digging it up. Some of the uncovered parts of the body have already been gnawed away.

“Why would anybody go to all the trouble of burying a dead mule way out here?” Hoss asks.

We find out soon enough. On the other side of the outcrop of boulders, someone has staked out a small mining camp. It appears to be abandoned, though not long ago. A rough lean-to with a table sits just outside the mine entrance, and tools and various articles of clothing are scattered about. A small heap of unprocessed ore lies in one corner of the makeshift shelter. Lying beside it is a canvas pannier, the kind used to sling across a mule’s back for transporting. Hoss picks it up and turns it upside down, and a couple of chunks of ore tumble from it.

“Looks like the owner of that mule tried for a while to keep going without him.”

“Tough way to eke out a claim.” Pa shakes his head. “It’s likely that’s why he’s not here now. Could be he gave it up and headed to Eastgate or Salt Flats for supplies and a new pack animal. He’ll probably be back, unless he’s decided that the mine is played out.” It is clear from the flat, tired tone of Pa’s voice that he doesn’t really care much why the mine was abandoned. Neither does Hoss. The worry over my missing brother is about all they can handle right now.

I shouldn’t be that bothered by the missing miner, either. Likely, it’s just as Pa says — he’s given it up for good or gone for supplies. But I glance back toward the place where the dead mule lies, and a new, strange kind of anxiety uncoils into my veins. I wonder if the miner has another mule or horse; if not, it will be a long, hard trek to town for him.

As it turns out, there is no need to worry about this particular miner. Not anymore.

Using a lantern from the camp, we make a quick inspection of the mine’s interior, and it is here that we find him. He hasn’t been dead long, but he is dead. Of course, we don’t know for certain if he is indeed the owner of the mine, but it seems likely, given the calloused condition of his hands and fingers. A gunshot wound to his chest gives us the answer to what caused his end, though it sheds no light on the person responsible.

“Probably robbed of whatever tiny bit of silver ore he dug outta this hole, poor devil.” Hoss says.

The man’s eyes are still open. It’s as if he continues to search for a rich vein among the murky interior of the mine, even as he lies there on the cold, dank floor. I can’t help but stare at his face. Something there scares the hell out of me. Something familiar. Something evil.

My limbs are frozen in place. I can’t breathe. Pa and Hoss are talking, but I am barely able to make sense of what they’re saying.

“…and we’ll let the sheriff know when we get there. Unless we — Adam? Adam!”

I jerk my gaze free of the dead miner. Pa and Hoss are both staring at me, brows drawn together, puzzlement in their eyes.

What is wrong with me? “I…I don’t think I can…” I can’t even finish trying to explain the absurd fear that has me in its grip. I stagger backwards, and then break and run. The path I take through the mine passage is dark, since Hoss carries the lantern, but I don’t care. Dim light is ahead, indicating the opening, and that is enough. Pa and Hoss are shouting from behind me to stop, to wait, but I don’t listen. I have to get out, have to get out. Have to. Get. Out.

I burst into the blinding sunshine, lurching ahead so fast that I stumble and fall face-first into the dust. My mouth and eyes are full of dirt; my ears ring with what sounds like laughter. Cruel, maniacal laughter. I try to get away, but suddenly hands are on me, forcing me, holding me down. I kick out with one boot and scramble forward on my knees and elbows. Someone shouts my name. I am free for only an instant — but it is long enough. I am on my feet and running again, even though dirt is still in my eyes and I can’t see where I’m going.

Something hits me behind the knees, and I go down. Deep, irrational fear floods through me as muscular arms wind around my legs. I close my fist and throw a desperate punch. There is an instant of grim satisfaction as it connects; my attacker responds with an “oomph” and muffled swearing, and then he shouts my name, over and over, while he fights to hold me down. Again I try to crawl out of reach, but I am too late, for hands grab me and drag me back. I am pinned tightly to the ground. No matter how I struggle, I am trapped, ropes chafing at my wrists and ankles, securing me to stakes driven in the ground.

Finally I give up and lie still. My despair is so thick and strong that I could drown in it. But then… I realize suddenly that there is no insane laughter. Only the subdued, worried whispers of my pa and brother talking of exhaustion and insufficient water and too much sun.

There are no ropes, either. Nor stakes. Only the cotton dampness of Pa’s water-dipped bandana as he wipes my face, and the comforting weight of Hoss’ hand on my leg. Their faces hover close; beyond them is the ragged ceiling of the lean-to, sagging in the heat but still providing precious shade.

“Feeling better?” Pa asks softly, his eyes searching mine. Deep worry creases the corners of his eyes. I hesitate, then nod.

“Crazy what the sun will do to a feller if he’s out in it too long, ain’t it? Here, drink a little more water.” Hoss’ voice is gently cheerful as he hands me the canteen, but I don’t miss the quick look that shoots between him and Pa.

“It’s my fault,” Pa says, still wiping my forehead with his water-soaked bandana. His eyes don’t leave my face. “We should’ve headed back two days ago. It won’t help Joseph any if we all end up out here getting sunstroke.” Concern overlays the grief in his eyes. The sight of it makes me struggle slowly into a sitting position.

“I’m all right,” I say. “Like Hoss says, just too much sun.” That’s it, certainly. Nothing else can explain the way I’ve just reacted to the sight of the man inside the mine, a stranger whose life and death mean nothing to me. It is pity I should feel for him, and I do. But paralyzing, irrational fear? No.

I’ve just been rationing myself too hard on the water we’ve brought with us, that’s all. I should’ve been drinking more.

I start to try to get myself onto my feet, but Pa plants a hand in the middle of my chest and stops me. “Oh, no you don’t,” he says. “You’re going to just sit here in the shade for a while. Hoss and I will dig a grave for the miner. In fact, maybe we should just camp here for the night…”

“No!” I blurt out, too loudly. Hoss and Pa glance at one another again, and I inhale, gathering myself. “I mean…no. We’ve still got hours of daylight left for travel. Really, I’ll be fine after I sit here for a minute. Just got too hot, that’s all. Let’s just keep going, all right?”

I can’t explain why, but the thought of spending the night in this camp fills me with white-hot terror. I can’t stay here. I can’t.

After staring hard at me for several long moments, Pa slowly nods. “All right. We’ll go on as soon as we take care of the miner. But if you feel ill at all…”

“I’m not sick. It’s nothing. Seriously, I feel fine now. I just got lightheaded and disoriented back there, that’s all.” It’s not all. I know it, and they know it, but I have no other idea how to explain it all away. It doesn’t make any sense, not even to me.

Still, they simply nod and then leave me to tend to the dead man. Obediently, I sit in the shade of the lean-to, giving my head time to clear while they dig a hole, trying their best to make it deeper than the one on the other side of the outcrop where the dead mule lies. It takes a long time, for beneath the top few inches of sand the ground is baked cast-iron hard. Several times they both stop and come to rest beside me, slowly sipping at water from the canteens, perspiration dampening their shirts.

Finally they go back into the mine and carry the miner out, and I cannot help myself; I avert my eyes. I don’t want to see his face again. If Pa and Hoss notice, they say nothing. Instead, Hoss finds an old blanket stashed with the supplies under the shelter, and they wrap him in that.

An hour later we ride out, leaving the dead miner there in the parched earth, the tattered corners of his abandoned shelter fluttering slightly as if to wave us on our way.

It is hot as blazes.

And yet I shiver.

 

*****

 

The aspens on the mountainsides turn from green to yellow; they scatter their round leaves across an early snowfall like gold coins offered to pagan winter gods. Apparently it’s an inadequate offering, for winter comes early, and it comes with a particular vengeance. The sun seems to have forgotten us. If ever we’ve had a colder November, I don’t remember it. The mountains are smothered in white. Hop Sing keeps the window shutters closed most days. Under a mantle of snow, everything seems muffled. Silent. The house, especially.

The snowy weather continues through December, and then worsens in January. We lose cattle, and a handful of horses as well.

Not Cochise, though. Cochise stays warm and snug in his stall at night, next to Buck and Chub and Sport. Every morning before we saddle our horses, Hoss turns Cochise out into the paddock behind the barn to spend the day pawing at the snow in search of a few sprigs of frozen, dried grass. The pinto leads a life of horse luxury, remaining unused and unridden. I suspect he will do so for the rest of his days. My father would never allow him to be sold, nor can any of us bring ourselves to saddle him and mount up.

When we ride out on dark, gray mornings to check the cattle, Cochise races along the paddock fence beside us as far as he can, not understanding why he is being left behind. When the snow is coming down, he appears almost ghostly, an icy dusting turning his black parts gray to match the sky. Herd instinct is a strong thing; desperate to follow our horses, he flies back and forth along the fence, his breath rising like smoke from flared nostrils, his shrill, whistling neigh echoing after us long after he can no longer see us. The sound scrapes against us, sharp as a knife. We grit our teeth and hunch our shoulders against it as we ride away.

“He’s too good a horse to let go to waste,” I say once as we hurry away from that high, piercing ache. “One of us really should ride him out every now and then.”

“Yeah. One of us should,” Hoss agrees, but that’s as far as it ever goes. Cochise remains behind, and though we care for him faithfully, none of us ride him.

It is April before winter loosens her iron grip. The blue-white ice paralyzing the creeks begins to shift and groan and crack until, one luminous afternoon, all the streams seem to break free at once in a rushing, exhausting purge of rushing water.

With it, something seems to break free within us as well. After nine months of relentless grief, there is a letting go. Bouts of crushing sadness and irrational hope give way to quiet acceptance. One crisp, sun-filled day in late April, friends and family join us at the side of the lake where Marie is buried. Standing near her headstone is a new granite marker. The words “Joseph Francis Cartwright” are engraved upon it, even though the ground beneath the stone holds no body. Pastor Johnson conducts the service, the ladies sing beautifully, and then everyone offers handshakes and gentle condolences. Then quietly, they all slip away and go home. For a time, we remain there alone, the three of us, me, Hoss and Pa.

We let our tears fall one more time, with only the trees and lake to see.

Ordering the stone and holding the service has been cathartic in some strange way. The sadness hasn’t disappeared, but it is no longer quite so paralyzing. Our hearts seem to have remembered that life must go on, even when loved ones don’t go on with us. The days and weeks pass. We play checkers. Hoss sings a song or two in his off-key, rumbling voice. Chicken and dumplings was Joe’s favorite meal, and Hop Sing serves it for the first time since he’s been gone. We eat it gladly, and there is even some laughter during the meal. One Saturday night Hoss and I go down to the Silver Dollar and have several beers, for no other reason than because Hoss decides Joe would’ve wanted us to. We flirt with the girls because he would’ve wanted us to. We even get into a fistfight with some cowboys from the Rocking S — because he would’ve wanted us to, just for the fun of it. And before we leave the saloon and head home, we raise our beers high. The boys from the Rocking S join us in a rousing toast to him.

Upon our return home, Pa looks at our bruises and black eyes and raises a brow; then he lifts one corner of his mouth in a small smile and asks if we’d like to join him in a brandy before bed.

We are not healed, but we are healing.

As for my strange dreams, they have receded completely. Sometimes the barest wisp of an almost-memory skitters past, but it always disappears when I try to examine it more closely. After a while, I stop trying, and the odd feeling that I’ve forgotten something eventually goes away entirely.

The days grow warm. The spring drive comes and goes. The branding takes a little longer than usual because our best roper isn’t here to help, but Hoss and I take up the slack and we get it done. Missing a family member is like missing a limb — you get used to it, but not really. You learn to compensate, to get along without it. But not really.

Still, you know the missing part isn’t coming back, so you square your shoulders and get on with things.

And so it is with us.

 

*****

 

Spring gives way to summer, and we find ourselves preparing to travel to New Orleans.

Years ago Pa invested some money in a shipyard there, but despite the active port, the ship-building industry has been slow to develop in Louisiana for a variety of reasons. An eastern-based firm has contacted us and is interested in buying our shares in the still-fledgling shipyard, and Pa is just as interested in getting out if the price is right. When the firm suggests meeting in New Orleans to complete the transaction, Pa agrees.

“We’ll all go,” he says. “You boys deserve some time off. We’ll stay a while and have a time of it. The three of us. Eat at some fine restaurants, see the sights. Take it easy for a couple of weeks.”

We all know why he doesn’t want to go alone. Rather than dimming with time, some memories grow more painful. New Orleans has long been a bittersweet place for Pa, and now it will be worse. Alone there, he would be miserable, remembering how he and Marie had met, and how they’d gone on to marry and make Little Joe…

Hoss exchanges a quick look with me. “Sounds like a good idea, Pa,” he says. “I reckon some time off would be just the thing. Right, Adam?”

“Just the thing,” I confirm, even though I don’t feel like going any more than Hoss or Pa do.

Sometimes the only way back to normalcy is to feign it.

 

*****

 

New Orleans in late September is often as warm and sultry as the hottest day in July on the Ponderosa. Heavy and wet, the air deep in the French Quarter at night is a sluggish thing, pregnant with the scent of saltwater and flowers, crawfish and beignets, expensive perfumes and unwashed bodies.

Tonight I am alone as I wander through the streets. Not truly alone of course, as there are always plenty of people about in this city late at night, but for once I am without Pa and Hoss. I suggested another visit to the French Opera House earlier this evening, but they both claimed exhaustion and the preference of an early bedtime. Pa’s fatigue has been apparent in the dark circles below his eyes; he and Mr. Latimer have had a long and difficult time coming to a compromise on their business deal, but it is at last finished to the mutual satisfaction of each. Hoss’ weariness comes more from home sickness than anything else. He enjoyed New Orleans for the first week, but admitted to me yesterday that he will be glad to get home again.

Part of me is also craving the crisp, pine-scented air of home — but still, the lure of the city is strong. New Orleans is one of the largest cities in these United States, and the most European of them all. Tonight I stroll from the opera house toward the hotel, my eyes continuously roaming over the gaslight-gilded framework of the elegant structures so common to the Quarter. Now and then the lines of a particular building catch my eye; I take a detour here and there to take a closer look, but of course, never do I let my guard down so much that I would let someone sneak up behind me. Not only does this city contain fine food and architecture; it also comes with all the vices one would expect from a huge conglomeration of people. I do not intend to become one of the city’s statistics while enjoying its charms, so I remain alert even as I enjoy my stroll.

I turn down a less heavily traveled street. As I walk, my attention is suddenly drawn by a soft sound in a dark alley. A groan. A harsh whisper. I flick a glance down the alley and can just make out two figures pressed close together against a brick wall. An illicit tryst, one the likes of which I have no desire to witness. There are things that happen here that would make some of our saloon girls in Virginia City blush from head to toe.

Shrugging, I turn to head back toward the hotel. Enough sightseeing for one night. As I walk away, one of the pair in the alley speaks to the other. The voice drifts out of the alleyway, each word clearly heard.

“If you want it, you’re gonna have to pay for it just like everybody else.”

I feel as though I have stepped off a cliff and plunged into ice water. I cannot move. I cannot think. My brain is shouting at me, but I cannot process what it is saying — for the voice from the alley is disturbingly familiar. A man’s voice. Soft. Rough.

Even before I realize I am moving, I am already flattened against the wall next to the entry to the darkened passage.

You’re an idiot, Cartwright. Hearing things…

“I’ll pay you after, how’s that?” A different man’s voice, arrogant and sure.

Two men. Together. That’s what’s throwing you. This is something totally out of your realm, that’s all. You did not hear what you thought you did. You’re just…thrown. By something you don’t see in Virginia City. That’s all. That’s all.

“Look, I don’t have time for this. If you’re interested, fine. Not here, though. If you aren’t interested, that’s fine too. But I don’t give anything away for free.”

“What’s your name — Jori? That’s what I heard them calling you, isn’t it? Look, Jori, give me a chance and I promise I’ll make you feel so good you won’t care if you get paid or not,” the other man coos.

But “Jori” is having none of it. He laughs, a short, sharp, cynical sound devoid of all humor. “Mister, you can’t make me feel anything at all, good or bad. Quit wasting my time and get out of my way. I’ve got paying customers waiting for me.”

With roaring in my ears, I numbly stagger forward to stand in the middle of the alley in full view of the two men. They both start and turn their faces toward me.

It is a narrow alley, and the space between the buildings is very dark. Feebly, my mind registers the fact that with the way the weak light from the street is coming from behind me, I am only a black, faceless silhouette to them. They are still several yards away, and in the dim light, I can’t see much of their features, either.

But I can see enough.

He has lost weight. A white shirt hangs loosely from his frame. His hair is much longer than I’ve ever seen it; it covers his collar and brushes loosely against his face, emphasizing the unfamiliar gauntness of his cheekbones. But there is no mistaking who he is.

How? I can’t think. I can’t speak. Nothing makes sense. It can’t be him.

But there he is, Joe, with his back against the crumbling brick wall, his shoulders pinned against it by the much larger man. He is working hard at appearing cool and unfazed, but I know him too well. The kid is scared. With the light at my back, I know he can’t possibly tell who I am, but he flashes a grin at me anyway. The defiant smile is half a snarl, and it is cold and hard. He turns his attention back to the other man. “So you thought you’d bring a friend along to help trap me back here so you can steal what you want? Well, it ain’t gonna work, mister.”

“What? No! Hell, I don’t know who he is!” The man insists, and then scowls at me. “Get lost. You want some of this, you go find your own. Or else wait till I’m done.”

Joe shoves hard at him and tries to duck away, but the man slams him back in place, closing one beefy fist around his throat to hold him. I am lunging toward them even as the man brings his mouth down hard upon Joe’s. Before I can reach them, a flash of metal arcs between them, and the larger man falls back screaming and swearing. Joe vaults away and bolts toward the alley’s dead end.

“Joe! Stop!”

If he hears me over the wounded man’s shrieks, he gives no indication. He leaps, catches the top of the brick wall at the end of the alley, and scrambles on top of it. He stands there for just an instant before leaping, all but invisible in the darkness save for the billowing whiteness of his shirt. I charge after him, but once I climb up and look over, he has disappeared. There is nothing to show which direction he took. On the other side of the wall is a veritable rabbit warren — more alleys, doors to courtyards, multiple iron-spiked gates and wooden doors leading into the backs of buildings. My brother has disappeared as if he never existed.

“Joe!” I strain my ears, listening for his running footsteps, but the man on the ground behind me is wailing and cursing so loudly I can barely hear myself think. Dogs are barking; people begin to throw windows open on second stories and shout complaints down on us. “Shut up!” I snap at the man, but still he carries on. For a brief moment I consider leaping down to the other side of the wall and trying to follow Joe, but any direction I take will only be a guess since I don’t know which way he went. And he has always been fast; at this point there is little chance I could catch him even if I knew which way to go.

Swearing under my breath, I reluctantly drop back down and return to the man, who is sitting with both hands pressed against his thigh, blood seeping between his fingers. I can see it probably isn’t enough blood to be fatal.

“He knifed me! I’ll see that little bugger dead, see if I don’t. His face ain’t gonna be so pretty once I…” The rest of what he planned to say is lost in a strangled gulp as I grab his collar in both fists and haul him upright.

“How do you know him?” I grit out. “Do you know where he lives? Where can I find him?”

The man gurgles something unintelligible and claws at my hands. I loosen my grip just enough to give him air enough to speak.

“Hell, I don’t know nothin’ about him,” the man gasps. “He’s just a who…”

I give him one hard shake and put my face near his. “You like boys, do you? Men?”

He narrows his eyes suspiciously. “You with the police? I ain’t done nothin’. I was just…”

In a split second I have him shoved against the wall where he had Joe pinned only moments ago. “I want to know where you go to find them. These men you — these assignations. Where do you go?”

“Look, mister, I’m bleedin’ to death!” he complains. “I’m stabbed. I gotta get myself to a doctor…” I bury my fist in his gut. The blow steals his breath, and he crumbles to the ground. I go down on my haunches and look at him, feeling no pity, only black desperation.

“I need to know where I can find him,” I say.

He sneers at me. “Oh, now I’ve got it. You got a thing for that one in particular, do you? Well, too bad. You can just hang yourself…”

This time I slam my fist done onto his thigh, right onto the knife wound he is nursing. He screams, and then tries to scramble away. I yank him back.

“Jesus, mister! Fine, I’ll tell you. Just let me go,” he whimpers.

“Where? And don’t lie to me. I’ll hunt you down if you do, and that scratch on your leg will be the least of your worries.”

It’s an empty threat; I won’t be able to find him again if he doesn’t want to be found, and we both know it. All I can do is hope I’ve frightened him sufficiently that he’ll give me good information. Right now, I really don’t care what I have to do to him to get him to talk, so I hope for both his sake and mine that he uses some sense.

Thankfully, he does. “Fine. What do I care if you go after that piece of…” He stops, looks at my closed fist, and swallows. “He stays different places,” he says sullenly.

“Where?”

He sighs. “Maggie Thompson’s place sometimes. I seen him there before. On Toulouse Street. That’s all I know, mister. I swear it.”

I give him one last hard look. Then I shove him away and leave him to hurl curses at my back as I start running, headed for Toulouse Street as fast as I can.

My thoughts race faster than my feet can possibly carry me, and they are agonizing ones.

How is this possible? He’s been gone a year. Dead and gone. No. We thought he was dead. Believed he was dead. Why didn’t he come home? Why is he here, in New Orleans, more than two thousand miles from home?

What is he doing in dark alleys?

God, I heard enough back there to know what he’s been doing. And I don’t believe I’ve somehow misunderstood the intent of that rendezvous I stumbled across.

It makes no sense. None of it.

People turn to stare at me as I run block after block. I barely notice; indeed, I can relate little of anything I pass by. What I saw in the alley, what I heard, keeps running through my mind.

“If you want it, you’re gonna have to pay for it just like everybody else.”

Just like everybody else.

I let fly with a stream of profanity, using words I normally would never stoop to using. Still, they aren’t vulgar enough, aren’t awful enough, to describe what I am feeling.

Toulouse Street. Where on Toulouse? I slow, taking stock. Two women standing near a cast-iron fence appear to be a likely place for information. Their smiles brighten as I approach them.

“Mon Dieu, you hurry so!” one of them laughs. “Do not worry, mon mignon, I will teach you to go very, very slowly.” She leans into me and walks her fingers up my arm.

Her blonde companion moves around to take my other arm. “Oh, you are a fine one!” she purrs. “I’m Delia. Tell you what, Kate and me will give you a special deal. Two for one. What do you say?”

I disengage myself a little less gently than I should, but remind myself that I need their help. I force myself to smile back. “Tempting,” I say, still breathing hard from my run. “But I’m looking for Maggie Thompson’s place.”

Delia pouts. “Why do you want to go there for? I promise, I’ll give you a whole lot more fun than anything you’ll find at Maggie’s.”

I catch her hand before she can thread it back underneath my arm again.

“I’m searching for someone in particular,” I say, trying to keep my impatience tamped down. “A man. Twenty years old, dark brown hair, green eyes…”

Surprise crosses their faces. Then they glance at each other, roll their eyes, and step back.

“Quels déchets,” Kate mutters. Delia glares at me. Smiles gone, they both resume their places in front of the fence.

“Don’t know why you’re wanting to go to Maggie’s then,” Delia says crossly. “They ain’t got no boys there. Maggie would never allow it. Too much trouble with that route. Maggie just has girls. Like us.”

Disappoint settles in my belly. So the man had lied. “Please,” I say, “where might he be, then? I saw him in an alley, four or five blocks over, just a few minutes ago. Maybe you’ve seen him. He’s…”

“We ain’t seen nobody,” Delia sniffs. She glances at Kate, and then says, “Maggie’s place is that big yellow-painted house down there. The one between the two brick buildings.” She points. “Go on and see what you can find there, since you were so all-fired up looking for it a minute ago.” She drops her gaze low on my body and smirks. “Though I can guarantee you ain’t gonna find anything there that stirs your interest, being as you’re after…other things.”

If I wasn’t so terrified that I’ve let my brother slip through my fingers, I might even be embarrassed by the obvious insinuation. As it is, though, all I feel is frustration as Delia flips her yellow curls across her shoulder and stalks away down the street without looking back.

At wit’s end, I stare at the large yellow house down the street. Lamplight spills from its windows. “Maggie’s Boarding House”, the wooden sign out front proclaims. But according to Delia, no male ‘employees’ reside there.

He would be an employee at such a place, wouldn’t he? You’re gonna have to pay for it just like everybody else. Am I jumping to conclusions?

I cast about for any other possible explanation, but no. My brother hadn’t been making a cattle deal back in that alley. Granted, he’d obviously been biding his time to make an escape, but there is no possible way to explain away what I’d heard him say. No, there can be no doubt. Joe has been selling the same thing these two women are selling.

What has happened to you, Joe? What are you doing here?

The world is crashing in around me, I swear it.

Heavily, I sit down on the ground next to the spiked iron fence, taking off my hat and running a hand hard over my face and through my sweat-dampened hair. I have no idea what to do next. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a complete stranger to the goings-on inside bordellos and bawdy houses, but I’ve never given a tremendous amount of thought to how a person would go about hunting for one particular girl — and I’ve certainly never stopped to consider where one would go to find a man. I am in foreign territory here.

I drop my head and try to think, but my stomach roils as my mind insists on conjuring up alien images of Joe. Joe, pressed against a wall in a dark alley, a stranger’s mouth coming down hard…

The foul oath I let drop is one that I would never utter around my father. But at the moment it is the only word I can come up with to express the situation and my inability to deal with it.

A gentle hand at my elbow causes me to start, but it is only the dark-haired girl, the one called Kate.

“What?” At the moment, I have no more patience for the ladies of the evening so prominent on these streets.

“I only wish to speak to you,” she says.

“Why? My French is fairly poor, but a minute ago, didn’t you say I was a waste of time?”

She smiles. “Perhaps I am reconsidering.”

“Well, don’t. You were right the first time. I’m feeling pretty much useless right now.” Useless. What an understatement. I’ve found my dead brother — alive — only to lose him again.

“You are distraught, yes?” she asks quietly.

Distraught? Yes, I am most definitely distraught. At the moment, I can’t decide which is the more appealing action to take — to punch the red brick building in front of me until my knuckles are raw and bloody, or to stand here in the street and bellow at the moon until they hear me all the way back in Nevada Territory. Of course I do neither, but only nod instead.

“You love this boy you search for?” she asks, regarding me closely.

I nod again, suddenly feeling completely exhausted. “He’s my brother.”

That seems to surprise her, and I’m pretty sure I understand why. “Ah,” she murmurs, “I thought…” She laughs. “Well, it is no matter what I thought.” She cocks her head and regards me speculatively. “So what will you do now?”

What will I do? I shrug. “I don’t know. Turn to the police, I suppose. I don’t think we’ll be able to find him without help.” Which means I’ll have to tell Pa what has happened. I can’t even begin to imagine how he’ll take all this.

“You are correct in that,” she says. “New Orleans has too many houses of ill repute and too many places to hide for you to ever find someone who may not want to be found.” She smiles. “But you do not know New Orleans, or how it works here. The police will be of no help to you.”

“I’ve got to try.”

“You want them to arrest him?” Now she sounds defiant. Vaguely accusatory, even.

“I want them to find him. If they have to arrest him to do it, at least we’ll have him back. We can worry later about the details of any…any laws he’s broken.”

She frowns and chews her bottom lip. “Perhaps you do not realize all of the…consequences for a man in this business when an arrest is made. Fines and punishment are often much more harsh than it is for a woman. Sometimes, for a man, it means several years of prison time. Or worse.”

Is she right about that? I have no idea. It isn’t a subject I’m familiar with.

Besides, I’m not sure I have a choice about involving the police even if she is right. “I don’t know what else to do. If I…if I could just find him, talk to him, maybe…” My voice cracks, and I look away, blinking to clear my vision.

For long moments, Kate is quiet. Then, “Your brother… he is very handsome?”

I think about the way women looked at Joe whenever we rode into town. How they whispered to one another and giggled behind fans when he walked by. “Handsome. Yeah, you could say that.”

“His smile—it is very big and bright, no? His eyes green, as you said, more so when he is angry? He is slender, but also very…” She pauses, searching for the correct word, and curls her arm as if showing off her bicep. “Very muscular.”

I frown at her, my suspicions rising.

“He is not so tall as you — more average in height. He is very quick with a pistol. And not bad with an epee. And he is left-handed — and oh, what a skilled hand it is,” she purrs, and has the audacity to wink.

The suggestive comment would no doubt embarrass me if it weren’t for the anger surging through me. I don’t have the time or the inclination for this woman’s games. Before she can say another word, I’ve got her by the arm, and I’m not gentle about it. “Why didn’t you say before that you know him?” I growl.

“Mon mignon, you are hurting my arm.”

“I’ll break it if you don’t spill your guts in about three seconds. Where’s the kid?”

She sighs and rolls her eyes. “Monsieur, if I was going to hide information from you, would I be so stupid as to describe him for you? We are speaking of the same man, then, correct?”

“Yes. Apparently we are,” I grind out between my teeth. “Where is he?”

“I do not know. I have not seen him today. But,” she adds hastily as I tighten my grip, “I will help you find him.” She looks meaningfully at my hand, then back at my face. I hesitate and then slowly take my hand away.

“I promise you, you’ll be sorry if you try to run.” I am not bluffing. This woman has obviously been in contact with Joe; her detailed description proves that. She is the only tie I’ve got to him, and the chivalry toward women we were all taught at my pa’s knee is not uppermost in my priorities at the moment. For her sake, I hope she understands just how desperate I am.

“Oh, I have no doubt I will be sorry. Believe me, I tremble in my boots.” Her mockery and the smirk on her face let me know that she is not all that worried about my threat. “Come.” She leads me down the street, and we continue until we are in front of the yellow house.

I’m confused. “I thought Delia said there were no men…”

“We protect our own,” she says, shrugging as if that explains everything.

Inside Maggie’s “boarding house”, the parlor is large, and filled with overstuffed settees and love seats covered in red and pink velvet and brassy chandeliers. Every seat seems to be occupied with men and women talking, laughing, joking. Kissing. Stroking. Brightly colored gowns adorn giggling women. The men are mostly well-dressed, but there are a few who appear to be of the less elite sector of the working class. People mill about the place drinking and laughing as if they are attending nothing more than a respectable party.

As we move through the crowd toward the staircase, there is a feminine squeal at my side and a white-gloved hand places itself at the crook of my elbow.

“Ooo, I’ll be glad to take this one if you’re too busy, Katie,” a tall redhead says. She rubs her hand up and down my arm in a way that would be distracting at any other time, but now is only irritating.

Kate doesn’t even slow down. She just starts up the stairs and waves at me to follow. “Go away, Lily,” she says.

The redhead pouts, still holding onto my arm. “Seems to me you’re getting’ kind of greedy lately, Kate. It wouldn’t hurt you to share more. For heaven’s sake, you’ve already got Jori, after all…”

“Jori isn’t mine and you know it,” Kate retorts. “And speaking of Jori, have you seen him today?”

Lily sighs. “He was here a few minutes ago, all out of breath, looking for you. I told him you had an appointment to keep and hadn’t gotten back yet. So he left again.”

Kate shoots me an apologetic look and shrugs. “He might come in again tonight, or he might not. Do you want to wait?”

As if I would walk away at this point. I don’t think so. “I’ll wait.” I pry myself away from Lily’s still-clutching hands and follow Kate up the stairs and down a corridor, where she pulls a key from her reticule and unlocks the door. She waves me in ahead of her.

I step inside and then stop, stunned.

She smiles. “Not what you were expecting, I take it?”

I shake my head. “Not at all. This is…very nice.” It is. The garish velvet upholstery and badly done paintings of nudes that made up so much of the décor downstairs are nowhere in evidence in this quietly done room. Instead, the floors are covered with expensive rugs, and the furniture is highly polished black walnut upholstered in tasteful damask. Strategically placed in corners are a couple of marble statuettes. A costly French mirror with a gilt frame hangs over the mantle. The overall effect is costly but elegant.

She holds out her hand for my hat and hangs it on a gilded stand in the corner. Then she pulls off her gloves and lays them on a marble table, and places her plumed bonnet beside them. “I’m pleased you approve,” she says. “I intend to have my own place someday very soon, and it will all be like this.”

The lady has ambition, I have to hand her that. Then it occurs to me—the French accent is gone, having disappeared sometime after we entered the house. In its place is a soft, vaguely British accent. Can I really believe anything this woman has to tell me? “The ‘French’ Kate — where did she go?” I ask suspiciously.

Kate grins. “You finally noticed.” She shrugs. “It’s all part of the act. Men who come to New Orleans from some other place — and you are very obviously not from New Orleans — often expect a sweet French or Creole maid. I do my best to oblige them. Can’t be letting my French sisters have all the fun, now can I?” She steps over to a side table and picks up a finely-cut crystal decanter. “I’m going to change into something more comfortable. May I interest you in a brandy while I’m gone?” After a moment’s hesitation, I nod. She pours a generous amount into a glass and hands it to me. “I won’t be long, Mr…” She stops. “Jori has never told me his last name. What may I call you?”

“Cartwright. Adam Cartwright. And his name isn’t Jori. It’s Joe,” I add. I sound petulant, even to myself.

She smiles in a patronizing way that needles at me, and opens the door to a small dressing room. “Please, Mr. Cartwright,” she says over her shoulder, “make yourself comfortable.” She shuts the door behind her.

I stare at the brandy in my hand for a moment and then gulp the entire thing down in several rapid swallows. There are plenty of chairs in the room, but I can’t imagine trying to sit still right now. Instead, I help myself to another brandy and move to the window. Under a cloud-shrouded moon, the city is a dusky queen, bedecked in lacy ironwork and twinkling gaslight. The despondent moan of ships’ horns mingles with the lively strains of a piano and a couple of fiddles.

My kid brother is out there somewhere.

After a few minutes Kate returns wearing a white peignoir, sheer, but not as crudely so as I would have expected, given her occupation. I raise my glass. “You look…different,” I brusquely offer.

She grins again, and she appears a decade younger than the woman I first approached out on the street. “Less like a whore than most, you mean?” She throws the word out there like a gauntlet.

“No. I mean, yes. I mean…” I shake my head, embarrassed by my lack of finesse. “Softer,” I say finally.

She inclines her head graciously. “I will take that as a compliment,” she says. “May I pour you another?” she asks as she fills her own glass with brandy.

Her relaxed manner bothers me. “Thanks, but no. You know I’m not here for drinks. Or social niceties. Or…or anything else. I’m here to find my brother.”

“Very well. No ‘social niceties’, then.” She takes her brandy and sits down at the table. “Come. Sit.”

I take the chair she offers and regard her steadily. This woman might have information I need, not just about where Joe is at the moment, but also about what has happened to him during these past long months. Perhaps the time we spend here waiting for him won’t be wasted. “Just how well do you know Joe?”

“I would say fairly well.” She shrugs. “We are friends.”

“Can you tell me why he hasn’t gotten in touch with his family? Why he’s here, doing…doing what he’s doing? Why he let us believe he was dead?” I can’t keep the anger out of my voice as I say the last.

“If you truly want to talk about all that, I think you might want to take me up on that offer of another brandy,” she says pointedly, though there is a touch of what might be kindness in her voice.

Instead of answering, I stare at the bed in the room. It is a huge four-posted affair set up on a dais, covered with a white duvet and sheer white fabric draped artfully around the canopy. We are friends, she’d said.

Friends. Yeah, I’ll bet.

“Have you slept with him?” I ask, not looking at her.

She laughs. “This is your brother. The one you say you know and love. If so, then you know the answer to that question. What do you think?” She sighs when I don’t answer, and then says quietly, “Yes. We have slept together. Many times.” She takes a sip of brandy. “Sometimes after he makes a call to one of the wealthy plantation owners’ wives, he comes back here with the money they have given him, and he takes me out on the town. We laugh, we dance, we walk beneath the trees, and then we come back here. And we make love.” There is a wistful tone to her voice that makes me glance at her. She gives me a cocky smile. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“No. I just…” I drop my head. “I have no idea what I want to hear.” It’s true. I need any information she has to offer, but nothing she tells me is going to be good. She, this place, none of it is anything that should be attached to Joe.

“Sometimes he even makes me forget what I am,” she says softly. Then she slips back into a matter-of-fact tone. “But he is skilled that way. It is one reason he has become such a favorite of so many customers. He makes people forget, just for a while. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that I have taught him a good deal. He is a quick learner. His looks are an asset, naturally.”

Skilled that way. Favorite of customers. Quick learner. “Plantation owners’ wives,” I say dully. I try, unsuccessfully, to imagine explaining all this to Pa.

“Yes. And other women too, of course. Some widows, some not. Many are simply lonely. Others need more than their husbands can or will give them. He has a pretty face and body, and he shares that with lonely women for a few very pleasurable hours, and then he is compensated in return. Is that so wrong?”

I don’t answer. What I really want to do is to get up and walk out of this room and out of this nightmare. But I have no choice; waiting here is perhaps the only shot I’ve got at finding Joe. Will he run once he realizes I’m looking for him? I don’t know. Probably. Maybe. I have to find out everything I can. I don’t want to know what he’s doing at the moment — God knows I don’t want to know. But not knowing is worse.

Believing he was dead is worse.

Maybe Pa doesn’t have to be told. Perhaps no one but Joe and me need ever know anything about any of this. He can come home, and what happened here can simply be…erased. It will be enough that we’ve found him, and that he’s alive. Can I possibly keep the rest from Pa? Should I? I don’t know. At any rate, at this moment I am the only thing my brother has to pull him out of the pit he’s somehow fallen into. I need to learn what I can in order to be able to do that, to save him.

Can I save him?

I stare down at the empty brandy glass as I roll it slowly back and forth between my palms. “What about the men?” My voice is raspy and harsh.

“The men?”

“The men. When I saw him in that alley earlier, he was with a man. Does he…does he…” My stomach twinges uncomfortably. I can scarcely draw the words out. I know what I saw, what I heard, but maybe….

Her hand comes to rest on top of mine. “Not that I know of,” she says gently. “But of course, sometimes things happen here that we don’t necessarily want or plan.”

Her answer does nothing to put my mind at ease. “Why is he doing this?” I hate how plaintive the question sounds. I can’t help it.

“We all have to make a living, Mr. Cartwright. Even Jori.”

I grit my teeth and then explode. “Jori! Jori! What is this ‘Jori’ business? It’s Joe, not Jori!”

She looks at me, then rises to go to the sideboard. She carries the bottle of brandy back to our table, takes the empty glass out of my hand, and fills it to the brim.

“I don’t want…”

“You will.” She sets the filled glass down in front of me and leans back in her chair. “I think it is only fair that you also give me information. I know nothing of Jori’s life before he was separated from his family. Will you tell me? I’ve asked, of course, but he refuses to talk about that part of his existence. He always just says that it is over and done with.”

“Over and done with?” I am bewildered. “Why would he say that?”

“The first time I asked him, his exact words were, I believe, ‘It was a life that happened to somebody else.’” She raises her shoulders slightly. “So…will you tell me?”

I stare at the brandy in my glass. How could so much change in a year’s time? For whatever reason, I am reluctant to share intimate details of my family with this stranger. The answer I give her is short and blunt. “We live on a cattle ranch in Nevada. Me, my pa, our brother Hoss, and Joe.” I silently defy her to say anything about my inclusion of Joe as if he still lived there.

She doesn’t. “Ah. A ranch.” She smiles. “That certainly explains the way he rides. Occasionally he borrows a horse from a friend of mine, or,” she laughs, “from someone he doesn’t even know. And when he rides, it is as if he believes by riding fast enough, he can outrun all his problems. All his fears.” She shakes her head. “So wild and risky, the way he gallops down the street. I worry for him — as well as for anyone unfortunate enough to step into his path.”

Joe, taking risks and riding like a banshee. Some things never change. It’s almost comforting, thinking about him terrorizing the streets of New Orleans on horseback.

“When was the last time you saw him?” she asks.

I stare up at the elaborately decorated tin which festoons the ceiling. “A year ago. We were in Eastgate, the two of us, delivering cattle to a buyer. There was a big trial in town, and he wanted to stay for it. I wanted to go home. I tried to talk him into leaving with me, but he didn’t want to miss that trial. Finally I told him fine, stay, but he’d better be on the road for home in three days. And I…I left him there.”

The last time I saw him. The last time I saw him.

I grab the glass of brandy and slam it back, all of it, in one hard swallow. I wish the burn of the liquor was stronger. I wish it was strong enough to burn out the sorrow and the guilt that I feel…

“You blame yourself?”

I say nothing.

“Well, you shouldn’t. Jori is young, but he is not a child,” Kate says. “He made his own choice to stay in that town to watch that trial. It wasn’t your choice to make for him.”

She doesn’t understand. I don’t bother trying to explain.

“So you have discovered nothing else of what happened to him when you parted from him in Eastgate?” she asks. “Until now?”

“No. Nothing. We had reason to suspect a couple of outlaws of ambushing him. They’d already been killed themselves by the time we caught up to them, so we couldn’t be sure, but we believed they were to blame for his disappearance.”

“And so you stopped looking for him.”

“No. Yes…” I’m flustered, feeling as though I need to defend our actions to this woman. “Not right away,” I clarified. “We hunted for weeks, but found no sign of him. That area is all harsh desert. Next to impossible for a man to survive out on foot for long. For a long time, we hoped…” I shake my head. “By the time spring came and we’d heard nothing else, we decided it was time to stop hoping. We put a headstone next to his mother’s grave with his name on it.”

“His mother’s grave,” Kate murmurs. “Marie.”

I look up sharply. “I thought you said he told you nothing of his life, his family.”

“Marie is the only one he has ever mentioned. She is why he chose to come here, to New Orleans. He said his roots were here.” She watches me for a moment. “You were right to suspect outlaws of ambushing him. He told me that is what happened.”

Somehow, knowing for sure what happened to him it doesn’t help. Not at all. “It still doesn’t explain why he just…left us.”

She chews on her bottom lip. “I told you things happen sometimes that we don’t want. Not just here, but everywhere. That is the sort of thing that happened to Jori after he was ambushed outside Eastgate.”

She pours my glass full again. I hold it tight, but I don’t lift it. I just watch her.

“After those men took his horse, he almost died walking through that desert you mentioned,” she continues. “When he stumbled upon a remote mining camp, he was overjoyed. He thought he had been rescued.”

I sit up straight. “A mining camp? We found an abandoned camp out there while we were searching for Joe.” Memories of the camp sift hazily through my head. It seems like there is something important about that camp I need to remember, but trying to grasp hold of those memories is like trying to hold onto fog.

“Was the…was there a man there?” she asks. “A dead man in a mine?”

What the hell? I narrow my eyes at her. “How did you know that?”

“Because Jori told me. He was the one who killed him, you see.”

My belly is one congealed mass of cold agony. It was Joe who killed the miner we’d found? “I don’t understand,” I whisper. “Why would he do that? Kill the very man who offered him refuge?”

“He offered him no refuge!” Kate spits out, and her brown eyes are alight with fire. “He offered him nothing at all. Oh, at first he gave him food and water and tricked him into believing that he would help him get out of that desert. But then…” She shakes her head. “Are you sure you want to hear this? Do you really want to hear what your brother lived through?”

No, I don’t want to hear it. Pain is already slicing through me at the thought of what she is going to tell me. I don’t want to hear it put into words.

But she doesn’t wait. “He attacked Jori in his sleep. Knocked him out. Bound his hands and feet, and tied him down to stakes driven in the ground. And then he…”

“Stop.” I’m suddenly desperate to shut her up.

“…then he forced himself on him. Night after night. He…”

“Stop it!” On my feet now, I hurl my glass against the wall. Kate jumps as it shatters, spraying glass and brandy everywhere. My heart pounding, I look at her. “Stop. Please. Just…stop.” She does. I shut my eyes to block out both the sympathy on her face and the images she has put in my head. My hand goes to my abdomen as my stomach heaves. I feel the blood drain from my face. “Do you have a…a…”

She dashes to the bed and then shoves an enamel chamber pot into my hands. I immediately make use of it, depositing all the brandy I’ve drunk as well as the remains of my early supper. And still my body demands more purging, as if it can also clear my mind of the image this woman has put there. The second time, I’m even able to turn my back on her so as not to subject her to the sight of my indignity. Afterwards, I am spent and shaking, and grateful for the damp cloth she hands me. I allow her to guide me to a large armchair, and I collapse back in it, while she sits on the settee across from me. For long minutes we simply sit there.

“He told you all this himself?” I finally ask, my voice a hoarse rasp.

She nods.

I shut my eyes and rest my head on the back of the chair, my fingers holding tight to the arms. “Tell me the rest,” I grate out. Despite how I pleaded earlier for her to stop, we both know I have to hear it, even though I know what she’s going to say. “All of it.”

She complies. There is no outrage in her voice now; she relates the entire story in a flat monotone. It feels as though it takes a lifetime. Finally, she says, “Jori wouldn’t stop fighting back. For three days he was left tied to those stakes. Occasionally the miner would…” She shakes her head. “He took what he wanted from Jori, and in return gave him tiny amounts of food and water. Finally he told him that he would untie him if he promised ‘to be a good little pack mule’ and do as he was told. Jori agreed — and as soon as he got a chance, he grabbed the man’s gun and shot him dead with it.”

It’s like I’m standing under a great waterfall, a great sheet of deafening white blankness, pounding down on me and blocking out all sight and sound except for the roaring between my ears. Dear Lord in heaven, how? How could this happen to Joe, to my family?

“Last autumn when I first met him,” Kate says, “he was very…. broken inside. Outside, though, underneath bruises and dirt, he was — is —beautiful. I knew he could do well for himself in New Orleans. I took him under my wing, cleaned him up and taught him how to handle his clients and how to remain as safe as possible as he did so.”

How to remain as safe as possible as he sold himself. “So very kind of you to usher him into prostitution,” I say coldly. “First some wretched parasite attacks and rapes him, and then you turn him into a whore.”

She jerks her head up and glares at me. “You are wrong. He needed help. I gave him that help.”

I laugh. The sound is cold and harsh, exactly the way I am feeling. Never in my life have I hit a woman in anger, nor even thought to do so—but my palm itches to slap this one. “Help? Help? God, with people like you preying on my brother, he doesn’t even need monsters like that son of a bitch in the mine to destroy him.”

“When I met him, he was turning a trick every other hour in the alleys on the south side of the city,” she snaps. “He blamed himself for what happened at that mine, thought it was somehow his fault. He was convinced it was some personal flaw that caused it to happen.”

I don’t want to hear any more. I’m on my feet, grabbing her by the shoulders. I shake her to make her shut up, but she keeps going. “That is why he decided to do this for a living. For him, it is a form of self-punishment for what he felt he let happen at the mine. He still feels that way. He thinks if he’d just been quicker when that miner came at him, been smarter, paid more attention, he wouldn’t have allowed himself to be drawn into such a predicament, wouldn’t have allowed himself to be attacked.”

I shake my head back and forth, trying to will her words out of existence, but she keeps going.

“He roamed the streets constantly when he first arrived here. Sometimes he didn’t even insist that they pay him anything at all. He thought his life had no value, that he had no value. He told me that often he did it simply out of a need for human comfort and a desperate urge to forget. It’s why he is so good at making people do the same, you see. He knows what it’s like to wish your memories would simply vanish.”

“He wasn’t. Alone, I mean,” I whisper. “He had us. All he had to do was come home.”

“How could he do that? Even if he had been sure of his welcome, he felt himself unworthy. After what had happened to him, he truly thought himself nothing but a piece of insignificant filth, less valuable than the scraps of garbage on the street. He was selling himself for nothing, Mr. Cartwright. Pennies, a scrap of food, a blanket in the shelter of someone’s cowshed for the night. All because he felt that he deserved no more than that.”

“Yes, yes, I get it. And then you came along and helped him bury himself even deeper,” I say bitterly. “So very kind of you.”

She shakes her head. “You don’t understand. He was going to die out there. A month, two months, maybe three, but he was going to die, probably knifed and left sprawled in some gutter. Or worse. I could not bear to see it happen to him.”

“So you’d rather he die of self-loathing or some vile disease? Become an empty shell, ancient before he hits thirty? God save him from help like yours,” I snarl.

 She stiffens. “If my efforts were below your standards, so be it. But I was here to help him. You were not.”

I grip her arms so hard I am surprised she doesn’t cry out. I want so very, very badly to hit something, someone, her, even—but deep down, I know she isn’t the real enemy here. The real enemy is dead in the ground outside a ramshackle mine in Nevada. I am glad his burial place is so far away, because I’m afraid if I were there at this moment, I would dig him up just to kick him until my strength is gone.

I try desperately to grasp onto the cool rationality that has guided me most of my life. Kate is right; if her tale is true, Joe likely would’ve died in the streets without her help, just as she said. We owe her for that, at least.

I am just beginning to release my grip on her when the door knob clicks open behind me. One second later something plows into my back with the force of a charging bull. Kate shrieks, and I find myself face-down on the floor. Instantly I flip over to defend myself, only to take a punch to the jaw that sends my senses reeling. And then — it stops.

Joe is straddling me, his fist drawn back and frozen in midair. His eyes are huge and his face is white as chalk. “Adam?” he whispers, and then he jumps up and scrambles backwards, looking as if he’s seen a ghost.

I rub my sore jaw. “Is that any way to greet your long lost brother?” I ask wryly, and gingerly pick myself up off the floor. It’s him. Standing here in the flesh, right in front of me. Though it’s the second time tonight, it’s still almost impossible to believe.

He tears his eyes off me and looks at Kate. “Are you okay? It looked like…”

“Of course I’m okay. Your brother and I have simply been talking. Isn’t that right, Mr. Cartwright?”

I look at her and debate my answer, but I can see from his expression that he has accepted her explanation. Some of the tension leaves his shoulders. Not all, but some.

I half-brace myself, for I know he’ll be moving in for another assault, only this one will be for a bear hug instead of a punch. My kid brother was always one for hugs, and if there was ever a time for one, this is it. He has come back from the dead, after all. What better reason for an emotional reunion could there possibly be?

Only he doesn’t move. He just stands there.

Well, no matter. Between the two of us, I’m the more reticent when it comes to physical affection, but right now my heart is swollen with such thankfulness just for seeing him that it feels about ready to burst. I need to touch him, need to put my hand on bone and sinew and muscle to make sure he isn’t just a figment of my imagination.

I step forward and reach out — and he jerks back.

I cock my head to the side and stare at him. What is this? He looks embarrassed, seems to gather himself, and then steps forward. But it is only to shake my hand.

It’s a quick, cool handshake. “Adam,” he says, and gives a stiff nod.

 I’ve gotten a warmer welcome from this kid after being away for an hour than I’m getting now.

We stand there and stare at each other. He’s different, and it’s more than just his lost weight. There are shadows in those eyes that I’ve never seen before. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. With what he’s been through, there’s bound to be damage, and of more than one kind. How could there not be? I had just hoped…. Well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s alive and that we’ve found him. We can bring him home, and we’ll all heal together.

I restrain myself from reaching out again. “It’s good to see you,” I say quietly. “I never expected this day to come.”

His mouth tightens, and he turns away and pours himself a drink. “Yeah, well, I didn’t either. I thought surely I was far enough away from Nevada that my family wouldn’t have to end up stumbling over me.” He stands with his back to us, staring at the brandy-stained wall caused by my throwing my glass earlier.

“We had an accident,” I finally say, since he seems to be so focused on those stains. “I’ll clean it up.”

“It’s all right, Mr. Cartwright,” Kate assures me. “The housekeeper will take care of it. Shall…shall I leave for a while so that you two gentlemen can talk?”

“No, stay,” Joe says quickly, and turns back to us. “Adam was just leaving.” The challenge in his face as he looks at me is icy.

Nothing has prepared me for this. “Joe, I know this is hard, but you have to…”

Joe slams his glass down. “I don’t have to do anything! Nobody tells me what to do, Adam. Not Pa. Not you. Not…not anybody.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing here? Trying to tell you what to do?”

“I don’t know. You tell me. What are you doing here?” He’s furious. Terrified and furious, all at the same time.

Well, he’s not the only one. Suddenly my anger is back. Why is he reacting like this?

“We thought you were dead. Did you know that?” I snap. “All this time, we’ve been under the impression that you died in the desert. You let us believe that. You let us believe it. Do you know what that did to Pa? Do you have any idea?”

He looks away, but I can still see enough of his profile to detect the subtle tremble of his bottom lip. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I couldn’t help any of that.”

“Couldn’t help — what do you mean you couldn’t help it?” My voice is raised now, despite my intentions to remain in control. “We hunted for you for weeks! We mourned for you! For God’s sake, we buried you! Hoss and I stood there at your grave and held Pa up while he cried. And now you want to say you ‘couldn’t help any of that’? Look, I know what you went through with that miner, the things he did, but…”

His head whips around to look at me. “Miner? Things he did? What things are you talking about, Adam?” His tone is careful, as brittle as glass.

I swallow, and spread my hands in supplication. “It wasn’t your fault, Joe,” I say softly. It is poor comfort, worthless, but it is all I can think of to say.

He’s shaking his head as he rounds on Kate. “You told him?” he says, his voice incredulous. When Kate answers him with only a stricken expression, he lets loose with a torrent of foul curses. “I trusted you!” he shouts at her.

“Jori, I’m sorry, but when I found out he is your brother, I thought…” she lays a hand on his arm, but he throws it off roughly and steps back away from her.

“You thought? You thought what? That some perverted old miner grunting over me would make a great story for my brother? Is that what you thought?”

“Jori, please…”

“Please.” He laughs, and the sound has notes of both rage and hysteria. “Please, please, please. I am so sick of that word. From you, from everyone. Every day. ‘Jori, please do this. Jori, please kiss me there. Jori, please touch me here. Jori, please let me…‘”

Kate tries to touch him again, and he gives her a vicious shove.

His fury is alarming, even for him. I take a step toward him. “Stop it, Joe.”

“Stop?” He laughs again. “You know, now there’s a word I never hear. Stop. But you know what? I’ve said it. Back there in that mine, when that lousy old man wouldn’t stay away from me, I said it, all right. Screamed it until my throat bled. But it didn’t make a bit of difference. So finally I tried ‘please’.”

For a long minute, none of us say anything. When Joe finally speaks again, I can barely hear him. “I said ‘please’,” he whispers. “I begged him to please stop. I begged. And it only…it only made it that much harder on me. The more I begged, the more he seemed to enjoy it.”

Tears are spilling down his cheeks. The urge to go to him is so strong it hurts, an actual physical ache in my chest. I’m bleeding inside for him. But some instinct tells me that reaching out now will do nothing but send him into a spiraling descent to a place I won’t be able to reach. Above all, I’m afraid he might run out that door and never come back, running for his life like a skittish colt. So I don’t move, and I say nothing.

He isn’t through. “When ‘stop’ and ‘please’ didn’t work, do you know what I tried?” he asks, and he looks at me with an expression so pleading, so full of pain, that my gut clenches on itself. I shake my head slightly, and he says, “I prayed. I prayed that you or Pa or Hoss would come. I prayed that you’d find me. But you didn’t. After another day, I prayed you wouldn’t, since I didn’t want you to see what I’d become, what Kane had turned me into.” He snorts. “And now I find out that God couldn’t even grant me that much.”

For a long moment, we are all silent. Then he shakes his head, picks up the brandy glass again, gulps it down, and pours himself another.

I am at a loss. I don’t know where to even begin. “Okay,” I say, “let’s just let all this go for now. We’ll get it all hammered out later, I promise you. What’s important is that you’re alive. It was all a bad…a bad sequence of events, and—”

Joe laughs again and takes another slug of brandy. “A bad sequence of events. Only my civilized oldest brother could take what happened to me out there and call it ‘a bad sequence of events.’ Sounds so much more appetizing than saying ‘poor kid brother got rode hard and put up wet…’”

“Shut up, Joe.”

“What? Don’t like it? Then you can just imagine how felt when it was happening to me.” Two more glasses of brandy go down in quick succession before he fills the glass yet again.

I draw in a slow breath. “Look. Let’s just get you home. Everything will be okay. I swear it.”

He looks at me and giggles. He almost sounds like the old Joe, young and foolhardy and easily amused — but the pitch of his voice is wrong, and so is the light in his eyes. “Home?” he asks. “I am home, Adam. Can’t you see?” He throws out his arms in a wide arc, spilling brandy on the expensive Persian rug at his feet. “This is my home. The beautiful city of New Orleans. The only home I was ever meant to have.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

He grins. “Ridiculous? Hell, brother, I’m being realistic, not ridiculous. Let me tell you what’s ridiculous,” he breaks in when I try to speak again. “Ridiculous is when a fine, upstanding citizen like Ben Cartwright decides to marry a fancy whore from New Orleans…”

“Shut your mouth, Joe.”

“I don’t know why anybody should be surprised by me ending up back here. Like mother like son. Just taking up where she left off, that’s all. Using my looks to get what I want…”

In a split second I’ve got his collar crushed in my fists, his face dragged an inch from mine. “You listen to me, and you listen good,” I grit out from between clenched teeth. “Don’t you ever — ever —talk that way about her again. She deserves better.” I give him a shake hard enough to make his head whip back, but he doesn’t defend himself. “People made up rumors about her, but that’s all they were. Nasty, vicious rumors concocted by sour, jealous people. Don’t you dare give any credence to them now.”

The false smile has dropped from his face. But neither does he look the least bit worried that I might start pounding on him. “You know, for a long time I really believed those stories Pa told us about my mother being a fine lady. But so many people saying the same thing…they couldn’t all be lies, could they?” I shake him again, but he only laughs. “Come on, Adam. I know you and Hoss and Pa tried to protect me, but I heard my share of those tales floating around Virginia City.”

“Joe, none of that has anything to do…”

“…to do with me?” He laughs again, and now the sound sends a chill up my spine. “Sure it does. It has everything to do with me. Remember how old Mrs. Tarley used to look at me when I was little and turn her nose up and say, “Blood will out in that one, you mark my words” to anyone who would listen? For years, I had no idea what she meant.”

“Mrs. Tarley was a bitter old woman who had nothing better to do than try to make other people as miserable as she was.”

“Maybe. But she wasn’t lyin’, Adam. She knew what I was, even then.”

“What you… Stop it, Joe.”

He doesn’t even slow down. “And that miner outside Eastgate knew, all right; he knew what he was looking at and he took what he wanted. He knew. I guess I did, too, all along, but I was just too stubborn to accept it. Now I’ve stopped fighting it. I am…who and what I am. That’s it.”

I do not loosen my grip on his collar. “Have you lost your mind? Do you even hear yourself?”

“No, I haven’t lost my mind. Just my fairy tales. I’m living the truth now, Adam, and I’m doing just fine.” He sounds so utterly calm and convinced that I don’t know what to say. I just stare at him and wonder what I could possibly do, what I could possibly say, to break through this cold wall of nonsensical facts he’s managed to build up.

He pulls my hands loose from his shirt, pushes me away and goes to the window. He stands there, his back to us, leaning both hands on the sill as he stares out into the soft, magnolia-scented darkness. “Adam, can you do something for me?” he asks quietly, without turning around.

My heart begins to pound. “What?” I ask softly.

“Are Pa and Hoss here in town with you?”

“Yes. We were due to leave in a couple of days, but…”

“Good. Just please do me a favor and don’t say anything about me to them, okay? Can you do that?”

My mouth is dry as cotton. In nervous habit, I run my tongue across my upper lip as I stare at his back, his head dropped low as if watching something on the street beneath the window. “Keep this from Pa?” I ask. “No. I can’t promise that.” I may very well end up doing precisely that, because at the moment I’m not completely sure what would be the right thing to do. I’ve got to do some heavy thinking. Until then, I’m promising nothing.

He sighs. “Adam Cartwright. Always the dutiful son. If you tell him, you’ll only hurt him, you know.”

He has no idea how hard I’ve been considering that very thing. What if I tell Pa, and he’s not able to do any more about the situation than I’ve done tonight? I am looking at a much more complicated kid brother than the one I left in Eastgate. Despite the tough, cool façade he’s presenting, I can feel how brittle, how close to shattering he is. What if I do tell Pa about him, and we still lose him, one way or another?

On the other hand, how can I possibly keep what I know a secret?

“Tell you what,” Joe says, still not turning from the darkened window. “If you can’t do that, then can you at least do one small favor for me?”

I clear my throat. “I’ll try. What is it?”

“Go away, Adam. Please, just — go away. And don’t come back.”

I can’t breathe. I can’t move. Kate looks at me and shrugs. Then she retrieves my hat from its hook and holds it out to me. I cannot decide if her raised brow contains mockery or sympathy.

One thing is certain. I need help with this. It’s too much for any one of us, including me, to handle on our own. I hesitate, and then take my hat from Kate. I stand there running the brim through my hands as I stare at my brother’s back, rigid beneath the fine linen of his shirt. I am terrified of leaving him here. I could ask him to meet me tomorrow, but I don’t think he’d agree. I could ask him to promise not to leave, but I’m not sure I could believe what he’d tell me. “Listen, Joe…”

“My name isn’t Joe,” he says softly. “It’s Jori.”

 

*****

 

I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” Hoss growls. “We’re going to march in there and pull that boy outta there and get him home.” Under the light of early dawn in the flower-scented courtyard of our hotel, his eyes are red-edged; despite his dogged tone, there is the slightest quaver in his voice. It was a hard story for him to hear; it was almost impossible for me to tell.

My own voice is rough with exhaustion from being up all night. “Pull him out? Against his will?”

“What do you mean, against his will? He can’t want to stay in that…in that…”

“I don’t think he knows what he wants. Like I told you, he’s not himself. If I hadn’t been standing right there looking at him, I would’ve sworn he was somebody else altogether.”

“If he ain’t thinkin’ right, then it’s up to us to do his thinkin’ for him,” Hoss says, his wide jaw set. “We’ll drag him out kickin’ and screamin’ if that’s what it takes.”

I’m not so sure force is the right option, at least not at first. After all, force is what has brought Joe to the mess he…we are in. “We’ll talk to him first,” I say. “The two of us, together.” Hoss and Joe were always exceptionally close. Maybe Hoss can succeed where so far I’ve failed.

“All right,” Hoss says slowly. “We’ll try talkin’ to him first, if that’s what you think is best, Adam. Maybe he’ll come around on his own without us forcing him. And what about Pa? Are you still sure we should wait to tell him?”

After talking it over, we’ve agreed that Pa will have to be told eventually. To hope we can protect him from this forever is unrealistic. Not that I ever truly thought I could keep it from him, if I’m being honest. Even though it has taken a while to admit it to myself, I knew from the beginning that it will take all of us to patch Joe back together — and even that might not be enough.

“Let’s just get Joe back first,” I say. “Let Pa see for himself that he’s alive and well. Then we’ll tell him everything. And we’ll deal with the rest together. Hopefully it will be easier for Pa if he can see him first.”

Easier for Pa. Like it’s easier to saw off a finger with a sharp knife as opposed to a dull one. Either way, it’s going to be painful.

“All right. Let’s go get him, then.” Hoss is on his feet in an instant, but I shake my head.

“Not yet.”

“What?” Hoss looks at me like I’ve grown another head. “Why? Why would we want to wait?”

“You should’ve seen him. He was all tensed up, ready to run. He acted like a deer who can smell a cougar on its tail. I’m going on instinct here, but I’m pretty sure he’ll run from us if he gets the slightest inkling that we’re thinking of taking him regardless of whether or not he wants to come. And if that happens — if he sees that we aren’t going to stop until we’ve got him — I’m convinced he’ll head someplace else. New York. Atlanta. St. Louis. Anywhere else.”

Hoss sags, and I know he understands. “And we wouldn’t have any idea where,” he says wearily. “We’d never find him again.”

“That’s what I’m thinking. During the day, he’s bound to be sleeping the night off, and we could probably take him then, except…”

“…except we don’t know where to look.”

“Right. Especially if he doesn’t always hole up in the same place, and I’m not sure he’ll risk sleeping at the boarding house where I found him. It’s important that we get him on the first try, and I think we probably have the best chance of doing that while he’s out doing…business. Which generally starts in the evening, I’m assuming.”

“’Business’,” Hoss snorts. “All right. Then we’ll wait.” He juts his chin out. “And then we’re bringin’ him home.”

It takes forever for the day to pass, to wait for the first light of evening. At last, we find ourselves sitting with Pa, finishing our supper in the hotel lobby. It is a fine meal of steak and oysters, but I’ve been unable to eat much of it. I glance at Hoss’ plate and see that he isn’t doing any better than I am. Instead of eating, he’s staring out the window. Through the glass, we can see that the late afternoon sun has gilded the lacy ironwork trimming so many of the Quarter’s buildings.

Hoss clears his throat. “How about a night on the town this evenin’?”

“Sounds good,” I say, trying to sound relaxed about it. Then I hold my breath. What if Pa decides he wants to go with us? Then so be it, I think. We can’t afford to wait any longer. We’ll just have to deal with it as it comes.

But I needn’t have worried.

“You boys go on without me,” Pa says. “I’ve got one more set of papers to go over with Mr. Latimer. Just formalities, really, tedious but necessary.” He cocks his head and studies me. “Are you sure you’re up to another night on the town, Adam? You look tuckered out.”

“No, I’m fine,” I say, too quickly.

“He promised me he’d take me back to that dancehall we found on Chartres Street,” Hoss cuts in. “There’s a pretty little redhead there that I promised I’d look up before we head back to Nevada.” He even manages to give a sheepish grin. If the situation wasn’t so grim, I’d stand and applaud his performance.

Pa smiles. “Well, we can’t have you going back on your word, can we?” He nods toward Hoss’ barely touched plate. “Must be thoughts of that girl that has your appetite off. I was beginning to worry you were coming down with something.” As Hoss gives a feeble smile, Pa waves his napkin at us. “All right, I won’t hold you two. Just be careful.”

“I had no idea you could lie like that,” I hiss at Hoss a few minutes later as we leave the hotel. “Especially to Pa.”

“Neither did I,” Hoss says grimly. “Guess a man can be driven to do all sorts of things he don’t normally do if he gets into a tight enough pickle.”

“Yes,” I say, “all sorts of things.” Just looking at Joe’s situation was proof enough of that.

An odd thought comes to me. What else besides lying could a man be driven to, given the right circumstances? Dropping out of sight and selling oneself, apparently. What else? Stealing, no doubt. Murder? What about that? Could any man be driven to murder?

I think about the dead miner outside Eastgate, and I picture myself coming upon him as he attacked my brother.

I wonder what I would do — and I shudder.

 

*****

 

“Sorry, boys, but I already told you. Miss Kate is busy entertaining someone right now,” says Maggie of the boarding house. “You can either wait, or you can visit with one of our other girls. They’re all fine, classy ladies. I’m sure you’ll find that any one of them will be more than satisfactory.”

“Maybe you can help us, ma’am,” Hoss says, his hat in his hands.

Maggie looks at him and simpers. “Well, now. I don’t usually work anymore myself, but for a big strapping man like yourself, I could possibly be persuaded to take a turn beneath the blankets. For the right price, of course.” She bats her heavily made-up eyes.

“Uh, no, ma’am. I mean, we don’t…don’t…”

“We just need information,” I say.

Immediately her eyes narrow. “You with the police or somethin’? I haven’t…”

“No, no. We aren’t with the police. We’re looking for someone. A male friend of Kate’s. Good looking kid, slender, hair that tends to curl.”

“Oh, you mean Jori. Been taken up too much of Kate’s time, that kid. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was besotted with him.” Maggie snorts, and then shoots me another suspicious look. “What do you want him for? This is a respectable establishment. I have my license, I’ve paid my tax to the mayor, and I ain’t lookin’ to get myself fined. And I don’t deal in any perverted hanky-panky. If you want something like that, you’ll have to find some other—”

“He’s our brother,” Hoss breaks in. “We need to find him.” He looks down, his fists twisting at his hat. “We need to find him and bring him home,” he says quietly.

Maggie’s coarse features soften slightly. “Ah, that’s the way of it, is it?” She shakes her head. “Your brother is a pretty one, and he’s a charmer, but he’s reckless. Takes too many chances. He ain’t ever gonna last. That’s what I told Kate myself.”

“All the more reason we want to find him,” I say.

She studies my face and sighs. “Look, boys. I feel for you. Really I do. Had me a sister once…” She sighs. “If I could help you, I would, but there are a hundred different places in this town he might be. You could take your chances and wait for him here, being as he visits Kate pretty regular. Long as there ain’t no trouble, that is,” she added sternly. “I don’t want you bringing the law down on me.”

“No, ma’am, no trouble,” Hoss says. “We’re just wanting to talk to him.”

“Well, then, like I say, you could wait for him here, but he don’t usually show up until after work slows down, and that could be anywhere from just after midnight until dawn — if he shows at all.” She shrugs. “Your choice. Now, if you’ll excuse me, gentleman, I have work to do.” She leaves to sail through a growing crowd of merrymakers, stopping here and there dispensing greetings.

I glance at Hoss and see my frustration mirrored in his face. More waiting. What if Joe is already running? Do we dare wait any longer and risk him getting further and further away if that’s the case? Do we have any alternative? Hardly, since this is the only place we know he frequents.

“Good evening, Mr. Cartwright.”

We both whip our heads around to see a woman in blue silk descending the stairs with a man in tow.

“That her?” Hoss whispers, and I nod.

Reaching the bottom step, Kate hands the man his hat. “Thank you, Mr. Tomlin. As always, it’s been a pleasure.”

The man kisses her hand. “Indeed it has, Miss Kate. I’ll see you next week, then.”

She smiles. “I’ll look forward to it.” She turns to us as the man takes his leave, and her smile vanishes. “If you’re looking for Jori, he’s not here.”

“We know. We’re hoping you can point us in his direction.”

She looks at Hoss, then back at me. “You brought reinforcements, I see.”

“This is my other brother, Hoss,” I say by way of introduction, and Hoss tips the edge of his hat brim to her.

She says, “Well, I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.” She turns away. We follow her to the bar on one side of the large room, where a waiter is dispensing spirits. “A brandy, Elliot, if you please.”

Elliot obliges, but I grab her hand before she can lift the glass to her lips. “You can’t help? Or you won’t?”

“Both,” she snaps. “Jori is a grown man. He doesn’t constantly keep me informed as to his whereabouts. And even if he did…” She snaps her mouth closed.

“Even if he did, you wouldn’t tell us,” I finish. I wonder, not for the first time, whose best interest this woman is looking out for.

Her lips thin, and she jerks her hand away, sloshing some of the brandy out of the glass as she pulls back. “Very well. I can see you are going to be obstinate about this. Let’s take it upstairs, shall we?” Without another word, she ascends the stairs, leaving us to follow.

Once inside her room, she turns to me and sighs, her manner more conciliatory. “Mr. Cartwright, I know you think you know what is best for your brother. But your showing up here…” She shakes her head. “Do you have any idea how upset he was after you left last night? He wouldn’t talk, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. When he finally did drift off near morning, he was plagued by nightmares, shuddering and crying out…” She shook her head. “It was like he was starting over again, almost as bad as he was when I found him. He was completely devastated by the fact that you’d discovered what had become of him. It was stupid of me to think telling you about what he’d been through could in any way be good for him. I’ll not let him down again. What happened to him can’t be undone. It can’t be changed. His old life is gone. Wishing otherwise will bring nothing but pain, especially for him, but for you as well. He understands that, so why can’t you?”

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Hoss says, and his voice is cold, “but it’s you who don’t understand. His old life ain’t gone. It’s still back on the Ponderosa, and we aim to help him get it back.”

She looks at him. “Dear Mr. Cartwright, if only that were possible. But it isn’t. Jori has chosen this life. Much as you might wish it, it isn’t your choice. It’s his.”

“Is it?” I snap. “Or is this your choice, Kate?”

Irritation flickers across her face, along with something else. Defiance? “What on earth are you talking about? Of course not. If I thought for an instant that going back with you would make Jori happy, I’d be the first to encourage him to do so.”

“Would you? I’m not so sure. You told me that you took him under your wing and taught him…taught him to do what he does. Tell me. Just what did your lessons cost my brother?”

“What? Nothing! I just didn’t want to see him get hurt, that’s all.” But there is an incriminating flush spreading across her fine cheekbones, and I know I’m on the right track.

“Really? Come now, Kate. An enterprising young woman like yourself knows better than to give away anything for free.”

She opens her mouth, then shuts it and turns away from me, her arms folded across her chest.

I move up behind her. “You’re not just interested in my brother for his friendship, nor for the lovemaking, are you?” I murmur into her ear. “No, for a woman like you, everything involves around money. Tell me. Just what portion of Joe’s earnings go to you? How much?”

She whirls to face me, her eyes flashing. “Fine. Not that it makes any difference, but yes, I do take part of what Jori makes. But that is business. It is how it’s done. Besides, he wants it that way. He understands that without me, he’d have nothing.”

“How much?” Hoss rumbles.

Her mouth tightens. “Half. Sometimes a bit more, depending on my costs in dressing him, fines, and such as that. But like I said, it makes no—”

“Fifty percent.” I purse my lips. “Or more. And something tells me that my brother can make quite a bit of money in a night. Am I correct in that, Kate? Especially after your ‘lessons’?”

She shrugs. “He does all right, I suppose. But without me…”

“Funny. I seem to remember you saying that he was a favorite of customers. That his looks were an asset, and that he was a ‘quick learner’. Skilled.”

She shrugs, eyeing me warily. I turn to Hoss. “Hoss, what do you think of Miss Kate’s furnishings? She has very expensive tastes, don’t you think? And do you know she means to have a place of her own soon? And that she plans for that business to be decorated as exquisitely as this room?”

Hoss glances around at the marble statuettes, the fine damask, the expensive rugs. He looks back at Kate, and I can see by the hard set of his face that he knows what I’m thinking. “Mighty nice. A big place decorated like this is gonna cost a pretty penny, though.”

“The truth is, Kate,” I continue, “that an endeavor like the one you’re thinking of costs more than a single working girl can save up. Even an expensive working girl. You’ve invested time, trouble, and expense in my brother. But not out of the goodness of your heart. No, you see him as a monetary investment. You don’t want him to leave, because without the income he’s bringing you, you’re going to be just another girl in Maggie’s boarding house for a long time to come. Just one. More. Prostitute.”

Her palm strikes me hard across the cheek. I welcome the slap, because it means I’ve hit bone with what I’m saying. “Tell me,” I say, “why did you bother talking to me last night, knowing I was looking for him? You could have kept quiet, and I never would’ve known.”

She swallows, and runs her tongue across dry lips. And then she visibly sags. “Because,” she says quietly, “I lied to you about him telling me nothing of his family. He talked about you, all of you, often. You, your brother, your father. The ranch. He was homesick, so much so that I worried he would try to go back despite—despite everything. I worried even though he said over and over that there was no way he could ever go back. I couldn’t figure out how to make certain he wouldn’t change his mind. When you came looking for him yesterday, it occurred to me that the worst thing he could imagine, the one thing that might cause him to cut those ties forever, had fallen right into my lap.”

“What worst thing?” Hoss whispers.

“That we would find out what had happened to him at the mine, and what he had turned to for survival here in New Orleans,” I say without taking my eyes off Kate. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

She gives a jerky nod of her head. “He had mentioned many times how ashamed you all would be of him, how it would kill him to know that you knew about…everything,” she says sullenly. “I thought that if he was face to face with you, saw your shame, saw your disgust, that it would be enough to make him end all thoughts of him ever returning home.” She juts her chin out. “And I was right. It worked. He wants nothing to do with any of you. If you truly care for him, you will abide by the only wish he has now — that you will leave him in peace to live the life he has chosen.”

“This ain’t no life,” Hoss barks, “and it sure ain’t my little brother’s life. I think my brother Adam is right. I don’t think he chose this all on his own. I think you had a lot to do with it.”

She straightens her shoulders. “I think we’ve done all the talking we are going to do, gentlemen. If you’ll excuse me, I…”

“Kate!” The door bangs open, and Delia, the girl who was on the street yesterday evening with Kate, barges into the room. She’s red and flushed and breathing hard, as if she’s been running. She barely looks at me or Hoss. “Kate, there’s trouble. It’s Jori.”

“Delia, for heaven’s sake. What are you talking about?”

“Jori. It’s Jori. He’s…” Delia stops to gulp in air. “He was down on Gallatin Street working.”

“Gallatin Street! I’ve told him to stay away from there! Nothing but thugs and winos and cheap whores. What was he thinking? I…”

“Shut up!” I shout at her. “Delia, what happened on Gallatin Street?”

Delia shoots me a frightened glance and pauses to draw in another couple of breaths; it is all I can do not to shake her. “He went inside Brown’s Palace with a woman, only…”

“Only what? For God’s sake, woman, speak up!”

“It was a set-up!” Delia blurts out. “I didn’t see it, but Thelma was there. They beat him up. They still have him—”

I don’t remember flying down the stairs. I don’t remember running through the streets. I don’t remember taking a horse that didn’t belong to me, and I don’t remember grabbing the first man I see on Gallatin Street and threatening to choke the life out of him if he didn’t tell me where Brown’s Palace is. What I do remember is thinking, over and over, “I’ve failed him. I’ve failed him. I shouldn’t have left him at Kate’s last night. I should’ve cold-cocked him, knocked him out, thrown him over my shoulder, and left. I’ve failed him.”

I run into the depths of the so-called “Palace”, a ramshackle behemoth of a building that may have been grand once but that is now dark and dirty. I pound up the stairs, a rickety backbone skinned in a dusty, threadbare carpet runner. At the top, walls rise up to frame a dark hallway.

There is a small crowd of people standing outside one of the doors lining the hall, but they pull back as I draw near. I stop; on the other side of the door, I can hear men hooting and laughing. I try to open the door, but it doesn’t budge. I throw my shoulder against it. Nothing happens.

“Joe! Are you in there?” I shout.

“There ain’t no Joe in here,” a man shouts back. “Get lost.”

I ram the door again, but the lock holds. “Joe!” Again I smash into it; my shoulder protests with a sharp twinge of pain, but the door doesn’t budge. I get ready to smash into it again —  but now Hoss is shouting Joe’s name downstairs. Somehow, he’s managed to keep up and stay close behind me.

“Hoss! Up here!” I keep slamming against the door until Hoss arrives and pushes me aside. He bulls his way against the door; there is a loud pop as the latch gives way, and then the door flies open, hanging haphazardly by one hinge.

Two men leap away from a four-poster bed set in the middle of a dim, dingy room. One of them draws a gun and fires, but my own pistol barks an instant sooner, and he clutches at his arm. I take advantage of the moment and leap on him, punching until he stops moving. I look up to see Hoss send his fist into the other man’s jaw with such force that I won’t be surprised if it’s killed him. The man crumples to the floor and is silent.

“You should learn to mind your own business, friend,” someone says. My blood runs cold; it is the man I saw with Joe in the alley last night. He sits on the side of the bead, holding a knife at Joe’s throat.

The blankets from the bed have been pulled onto the floor, and Joe lies in the middle of the bare mattress, his arms and legs stretched and tied to the bed posts. The muscles in his back bunch and quiver as he pulls hard, quick breaths in and out; his body is covered in dark bruises and cuts and streaks of blood. His face is turned toward us, and his eyes are open, but he stares straight ahead toward the window as if we aren’t even in the room. A strip of dirty bandana is tied cruelly tight across his mouth.

If he was trying to shout through the gag before, he doesn’t seem to be making any effort to do so now.

The man from the alley presses the knife harder against Joe’s neck, below his jawline, and wraps his other hand tightly in Joe’s hair. “You again,” he sneers at me. “You still on this one’s trail, are you?” He laughs. “Well, I guess you found him, but you’ll be getting second-hand merchandise.”

I take a step toward him. “Turn him loose.”

“I told you I was gonna mess up pretty boy here for what he did to me, and by thunder, I ain’t finished.”

Another shaky step from me. “Get away from him.”

The man laughs. “Not yet. I haven’t gotten what I paid for. But maybe I’ll let you have what’s left when I finish. Now you and that big galoot can step back out that door, or I swear, I’ll cut this kid’s throat right now and you’ll have to find your jollies somewhere else.”

I leap, moving blindly through a haze of black rage. When I come back to myself, Hoss is pulling me off the man. Hot blood is on my hands, and the knife the man held is now buried in his gut. His eyes are open and staring at the ceiling, unseeing.

Hoss’ face is in front of me, his eyes inches from mine. His hands hold me tightly by the shoulders. I give him a jerky nod.

Hoss lets me go. “Let’s see to Joe and get out of here,” he snaps.

We push the man’s body off the bed and strain at the knots in the ropes at the bed posts. Hoss pulls the knife free of the man’s body and uses it to cut the gag away. Joe whimpers, a soft, wild-animal sound. Still he doesn’t look at us. He only stares straight ahead, eyes wide and glassy.

“It’s all right, boy,” Hoss says in the same tone he always uses on hurt or frightened things. He passes one large hand gently across Joe’s forehead before hurrying to cut at the ropes. “We’re gonna get you outta here, don’t you worry none.”

“Please,” Joe whispers. “Just…stop.” He says it over and over. At least he’s moving now, trying to push us away with the hand Hoss has managed to free.

The crowd outside the doorway has grown. Someone shouts something about calling the police. In the next instant, Kate arrives, hovering anxiously in the doorway.

“Is he all right?” she asks. “Dear God, is he all right?”

I glance at her for only an instant. Her face is pale, even though she’s breathing hard from running. The concern in her expression makes me think that perhaps it’s not only her source of income she’s worried about. If I had the time or the inclination, which I do not, I’d tell her that her worry over Joe comes far too late. He is definitely not all right, and from the way he’s acting, he may never be again.

Frantically, Hoss and I continue to cut and pull the ropes loose, and as Hoss saws on the last one, Joe begins to thrash, yanking at the ropes until the wrist that is still tied starts to ooze blood. He begins to scream. “Stop! Stop, or I swear I’m going to kill you! Don’t touch me!” His eyes are wild.

“He’s out of his head,” I say. “He doesn’t know us.”

The last rope comes free, and Joe jerks upright and leaps from the bed. Hoss and I both reach for him. “Little Joe, it’s going to be all right, boy,” Hoss soothes. “It’s me and Adam, that’s all. We..”

Hoss stops talking, and has such a look of surprise on his face that I can’t imagine what has caused it. Then he looks down, and I see. The hilt of the knife is protruding from his belly, and Joe’s hand is wrapped around it.

“Confound it, little brother,” Hoss breathes. “Why’d you want to go and do a thing like that?” And then he falls.

The world stops. Taking the knife with him, Hoss is dead before he hits the floor. Somehow I know that, and part of me dies instantly with him. Something inside me cracks wide open, something jagged and white-hot that steals all my air and makes my heart cease its beating. There is a huge hole inside me that I know will never, ever go away. The room is spinning, and my stomach heaves. Incredulous, I drag my eyes away from Hoss and look up at Joe.

He stares down at Hoss, his breathing harsh. “I told you, Kane,” he says. “I told you. No more games.”

Kane. Kane. Kane.

Joe looks at me. His eyes are that of a stranger.

“Joe…”

Without warning, he lunges at me.

We struggle. I feel his hand at my holster, and I reach, but my kid brother has always been lightning fast. Despite the fact that he’s just been badly beaten, he’s still fast enough. He whirls away from me, and then backs up, holding the gun.

“Joe, listen to me…”

“I told you,” he says. “I told you!” He begins to sob, dry hacking sounds that come from deep inside. “I’m not your pack animal, Kane. I asked you to stop but you wouldn’t.”

Kane. That name! I try to ignore how it jars me. I try to ignore my dead brother Hoss, impossible as that is. If I am going to save anything, anything at all, I have to focus on my shaking, terrified brother. Maybe I can at least save him.

“Joe, look at me. It’s me, Adam. Don’t do this. Look at me, Joe.”

Something changes in his eyes. Suddenly, he’s once again my baby brother. “Adam?” he whispers, sounding confused. He looks down at Hoss lying on the floor, dark blood pooling beneath him to stain the threadbare carpet and when he looks back up at me, his face is full of the worst pain imaginable.

I know exactly how he feels. My own searing agony has a grip on my throat, and I honestly don’t think I can keep it from pulling me under. It occurs to me that it’s too late, that we are all lost, that nothing can be saved.

But I reach for him anyway.

In one quick movement, he raises the gun and pulls the trigger.

There is no way for him to miss, not with the gun barrel pressed against his temple. The reverberating echoes of the shot mingle with my screams. I am not sure when either sound finally stops.

 

*****

 

Hours later, I find myself sitting in a hot, damp jail cell, watching through the bars as my father approaches. When we thought Joe had died in that desert — dear God, surely that was years ago — it had aged Pa greatly, but I am unprepared for how elderly he appears now; he is, all at once, a broken old man, withered and declining.

With him is a police sergeant, who quickly orders a guard to unlock the cell door. Pa hurries through and, without a word, embraces me tightly. He feels shockingly frail as my arms go around him.

After a moment, he releases me, steps back, and attempts a small smile. “Let’s go home, son,” he says, and he sounds so tired and ancient that I am surprised he can even stand.

“I can…leave?”

I look at the sergeant, who nods. He says in a voice laced with sympathy, “You were never charged with anything, Mr. Cartwright. The man who had your brother, the one you stabbed — it was a simple case of self-defense. Plenty of witnesses. You were brought here only because the doc suggested leaving you here until you had calmed down and were back in your right mind again, just for safety’s sake. I thought you understood that.” He shakes his head. “Can’t say as anybody can blame you for going off the way you did. When a body is witness to one brother murdering another and then turning the gun on himself…” He shakes his head. “It was a terrible thing, and we are surely sorry that you had to go through it while visiting our fair city.”

A terrible thing.

Such tiny, insignificant words to be ascribed to something so monstrous that it ends the world as I know it.

 

*****

 

As usual, I toss and turn for most of the night, unable to sleep for the roaring silence of the house. It is a relief when, just before dawn, I finally hear Hop Sing moving around in the bedroom beneath mine. Thank God for Hop Sing; in spite of the fact that everything has changed, meals are still put on the table at precisely the hour they always have been. It’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed. He’s had a difficult time adjusting to cooking for only two, however; there is always a tremendous amount of food left since neither Joe nor Hoss are here to eat it.

Or maybe he has cut back, but so much is left because Pa and I aren’t eating our share.

I don’t know. Nor do I really care.

It’s difficult to find anything I do care about, other than Pa and Hop Sing. I was once fascinated by so many things, but now nothing seems to hold my interest. Today, just like yesterday and the day before that, I rise in the morning, pick at my breakfast, say a few words to Pa, and then head out to work until midday, when we both meet at home and go through the motions again.

Day after day after day. Week after week.

It’s like treading water in a bottomless lake with no land in sight. You begin to wonder if there’s any hope of salvation, or if you are only stretching out the agony by pretending there will be an end to suffering if you just keep paddling.

Evening comes, and tonight, I just can’t bear the thought of going into that dark, silent house. I turn Sport around and head for the lake. For Marie’s burial spot — which is now my brothers’ burial spot as well.

Joe’s grave is a true one now, no longer empty, and beside it is another for Hoss. Pa took care of the details for shipping their bodies home while I still sat blank-minded in that New Orleans cell. I shouldn’t have let myself sit there in a daze; I should’ve been there to help him with my brothers. Just one more thing to feel guilty over.

I sit in my saddle and look at the three headstones for a moment and contemplate their pale starkness, the way they stand so stiff and straight. Almost like fingers pointing in mute accusation.

I curse, and then dismount so quickly and roughly that Sport startles and snorts, jogging a short distance away before dropping his head to graze.

“I’m sorry!” I shout at the markers, waving my arms at them as I approach. “I should’ve done things differently. I should’ve taken you with me that first night, Little Joe, whether you wanted to go or not. I should’ve insisted you miss that trial in Eastgate. Hoss, I should’ve called in the law instead of thinking we could do this ourselves. I had no idea things would end up this way.” My tears feel hot on my cheeks. “I’m sorry!” I shout again, and now I’m sobbing. “I’m so sorry. If I could go back and change things, make different decisions, I would.” I hit my knees. “I’m sorry,” I say once more, and then I let the ground come up and meet me. I fall forward and lay flat on my belly, holding tightly onto the grass as if it can keep me from falling, and I rest my cheek against cool, wet earth. “But it wasn’t my fault,” I whisper. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“No. It wasn’t your fault.”

I twist around, my hand going to my holster even though I’m lying on the ground in no good position to shoot. And then I freeze. For standing there, not a dozen feet away, is my old friend Ross Marquette.

I let my hand fall away from my gun and shake my head, laughing. “I’ve gone completely crazy, haven’t I? The doctor in New Orleans told Pa I only blanked out due to shock, and that I should be okay after we got home and things were normal again — only things can never be normal again, and I’m not okay. This is proof. I’m losing my mind and seeing dead friends.”

“Not just seeing dead friends. Talking to them, too,” Ross smirks, and squats on his haunches beside me. “It really wasn’t your fault, you know. It never was. Not for what happened to your brothers, and not for what happened to you with Kane. But you were always a fine one for shouldering the blame, weren’t you, Adam?” He plucks a stem of grass to chew and stares out over the lake. “You and your Pa did right, picking this resting spot for Marie. It’s beautiful here.”

I barely hear him. “And not for what happened to you with Kane.” My mind flashes back to Joe, standing there with blood on his hands as he stared at Hoss. “I told you, Kane. I told you. No more games.”

“Kane,” I say abruptly. “Joe kept mentioning that name. Who is he?” I forget that Ross is a figment of my almost assuredly damaged mind and that, therefore, I am asking questions only of myself.

Ross looks at me, and spits out his grass stem. He gets to his feet. “I can’t tell you that,” he says, “but then, I don’t need to. Way deep down, you know who Kane was.” He smiles. “You are a fortunate man, Adam Cartwright. The good Lord loves you very much. He’s given me permission to offer you yet another choice. Not everybody gets that at this point. You must’ve done something right along the way, is all I can say.”

“Another choice? What are you talking about?”

“You either leave Kane buried, and you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you help yourself and your pa get through this stretch of rough trail you’re riding. Or you put things back like they were the first time, and you get yourself over that rough trail. Totally up to you. One trail or the other. You’re standing at the crossroads.”

He’s lost me. But then, it probably isn’t difficult for a man who is going insane to lose track of a conversation.

He laughs at my expression, and then holds out a hand to me. I hesitate. Then, slowly, I take his hand, and he hauls me to my feet.

“What are you…”

“Shh. Watch.” He passes his hand over my eyes, shutting them tight. And I see…everything.

Joe and I splitting up at Eastgate. My getting robbed and left on foot in the desert and ending up in Kane’s camp — and Ross is right. I know exactly who Kane is. His face is still branded on my soul even though my mind forgot him for a time.

I see the insidious game Kane played. How I was a pawn in that game. How he kept me bound, even gagged, and used me to build himself up into a false semblance of manhood. My family finding me and carrying me through the desert, trying to get me home.

I see…my death.

I see my return to life and my decision to go back and change things. I see the result of those decisions.

Ross moves his hand from my eyes.

“Joe wasn’t the one Kane did those things to,” I whisper. “Not the first time, I mean. The first time, it was me. was the one that he…that he…”

“Yes,” Ross says quietly. “It was you. When you chose to redo everything, it ended up being Joe. And you see what happened.” He looks toward the two new graves.

The tears in my eyes make the headstones dance and waver in the late evening sunlight. “Joe didn’t know how to handle it,” I say. “He lost himself. He didn’t know what to do. What Kane did — it completely destroyed him. Destroyed us.”

Ross looks down, scuffing the ground with his boot. “Men all have different strengths and weaknesses, Adam. We rarely realize what strengths we do and don’t have until we are called upon to put them to the test. For example, Joe might’ve been able to run for ten miles with an arrow in his leg while you couldn’t go more than two with the same wound. Or it might be the reverse. Often, we just don’t know until we’re thrown into a situation. This particular test — being put under Kane’s control — was just too much for Joe.” He raises his head and looks me steadily in the eye. “Was it too much for you?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course it was too much for me!” I shout. “I died out in that desert because of it.”

“You quit out in that desert because of it,” Ross says, and holds up a hand to stop my angry retort. “Okay, okay. Maybe you’re right. Maybe Joe was the man to be put in that place. After all, he fought on for a whole year, confused and hurting and doing things he never wanted to do, but he fought. So yeah, maybe he had a certain strength you didn’t.”

“Maybe he did,” I mumble. I’d rather have died than have done some of the things my brother ended up doing. But even so, he broke in the end. Broke and did something so terrible that…

Suddenly, I wonder if Ross is telling me that what happened to Hoss happened because I chose to change things. “I would never — never —  have made that choice if I’d known what would happen to my brothers,” I growl at him. “No matter what the consequences to me.”

“Of course you wouldn’t have. You don’t have to tell me that. But that’s what I tried to tell you the first time. Usually things happen a certain way for a reason.”

“But why? Why did either of us have to be the man to be put in that place?” I cry. “Tell me that, Ross. Why did God decide to put either one of us in that position?”

He smiles a little sadly at me and shakes his head. “None of us knows everything about God’s plans, Adam. Not even those of us who, like me, are given His work to do out in the field. And maybe that’s because He knows that we aren’t strong enough to deal with certain kinds of knowledge. We understand so little about how the world works. How the universe works. Who are we to question the only One who does?” Then he laughs. “Of course, men like you can’t help but ask questions, can they? It’s in your nature. But God knows that, too.” He shrugs. “At any rate, the choice is there. It’s your decision.”

I chew on my lip, considering what he has said. “You’re telling me I have the choice of going back and putting myself into Kane’s hands, or letting it play out like this?” I gesture toward my brothers’ graves.

Choice. There is no real choice. Not between these two options. I know which one is worse.

“Yes. And understand this. Either way, what happens is not your fault. You’ve done what you truly believed was best, either way. It is simply God’s plan. Destiny, if you will.”

I stare at the new headstones. The thought of going back to Kane’s camp and going through that torment again makes my blood ice up in my veins. It makes me want to run, as fast as I can, to the ends of the earth if I have to, just to avoid ever seeing his face.

But there are worse things than what happened to me at Kane’s hands. I’ve seen them firsthand.

I’ll go back. I won’t break. I’ll take what he dishes out; I’ll come back fighting.

And my family will be there to help me.

“Send me back,” I tell Ross. “Let’s just leave it. The way it was the first time.”

Somehow, he doesn’t look a bit surprised. A gentle smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. “You sure?”

I nod. “Do it.”

“A few minutes after I send you back, you’ll forget everything, you know. All of this. It will be as though it never happened.” He waves toward my brothers’ headstones.

“Thank God,” I say. Ross smiles again.

Then he snaps his fingers and with a great flash of light, I am once again in Kane’s camp, standing there in front of him as he tells me he’s known for some time that his mine was a bust.

“I never had the breaks like you, Cartwright.”

“You wouldn’t know what to do with ‘em if you had ‘em,” I retort, and I know it’s true. But I do. I know what to do with breaks when I get them. I’m using this one for all it’s worth.

Kane must see something in my expression, because he asks, “You still think you’re a better man than I am, don’t you?”

“That’s right,” I tell him. I am a better man. A far better man. And I won’t be broken by the likes of you.

“Well, I’m gonna prove it’s the other way around,” Kane says. “I claim that you can be driven to kill like everyone else.”

I don’t argue, because part of what he says is true. I would kill a man for hurting my family. For something has horrific as violating a brother. For threatening to kill that brother in front of my eyes—oh, yes, there are some situations in which even I can be driven to kill.

But I don’t need to tell Kane any of that. I won’t give him more ammunition to use against me. Instead, I let him drone on as his twisted mind makes its plans, and I gather my strength, and wait my chance.

Because I am going to get out of this. I have the strength to do it, and I have my family’s strength on top of that. I will survive, and I will heal.

Unlike Kane, who has been a dead man walking for a long, long time, I am a better man, and I will lead a better man’s life. I will live.

 

*****

 

Epilogue

 

The tang of autumn is upon the mountains. It is a little early coming this year, but I welcome the sweep of colder air which heralds winter. Snow has a way of washing everything clean and giving the world a fresh start. I am more than ready for that.

As we push the last of the cattle out of the high country, I catch Pa watching me. He does that a lot ever since he and my brothers carried me out of the desert. So does Hoss. I’ve told them some of what happened to me in Kane’s camp. Some. Not all. They never ask for more than I’m willing to give, which I’m grateful for. Maybe someday I’ll tell them everything. Maybe. And maybe not.

At any rate, what they do know is enough to cause them to treat me more carefully than they usually would. Sometimes I feel like one of Marie’s Christmas ornaments, wrapped in tissue and packed carefully away. At first it helped, being shielded like that. But now the careful handling is beginning to fray at my nerves; rather than feeling protected, I feel slightly smothered. What I need is…normalcy.

Joe alone seems to treat me with the same mixture of exuberance and hot temperament he always did. His thinking on the whole situation is that I survived Kane much as I would’ve survived a mauling from a grizzly. The animal is dead, I’m alive; that is the end of it, and the way things should be. Anything else is superfluous. He doesn’t seem to be as aware as Pa and Hoss of the scars that have been left inside by that mauling.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s more aware than I think. After all, this is the brother who once told Pa, “Sometimes to see a scar, you’ve got to be looking for it.” Maybe he simply chooses not to look for the scars I’ve taken on.

Pa’s thoughtful gaze is on me even now, and, as has been the case lately, it is starting to wear. So I look over and smile at him just to relieve the tension beginning to gather between my shoulder blades. He smiles back, and then, thankfully, he reins his horse away to cut off a couple of heifers making a break away from the herd.

“I’ll get them!” Joe shouts, and thunders past us, going too fast on steep terrain. I can hear Pa’s hissing intake of breath as he watches my kid brother narrowly miss going over the side of a drop-off. Then Joe digs his heels into the flank of his horse and charges even faster after the errant cattle, forcing Cochise to swerve and leap over the rough terrain.

“Boy’s going to be the death of me,” Pa grumbles.

Joe soon turns the cattle back, and, grinning triumphantly, trots Cochise back to us.

“You might be a little more considerate of your horse next time, even if you aren’t concerned about your own hide,” I point out, and a scowl instantly replaces his smile.

“Don’t tell me how to treat a horse, Adam. Or how to drive cattle, either.”

I stare at him, my head lifted in annoyance. He glares back, nostrils flared, eyes sparking green fire.

Deliberately, I lift the corner of my mouth in the smirk I know Joe hates with a passion, and I shrug. The next thing I know, Joe and I are rolling in the dirt, both of us landing as many punches on the other as we can. Hoss steps in and pulls Joe off me, only to have him squirm out of his grasp. In return for his interference, Joe gives Hoss a swift upper cut to the jaw, knocking him backwards. I laugh — but then find myself on my back after Joe punches me in the eye. Which makes Hoss laugh.

Then everything cuts loose. The three of us converge into one squirming mass of fists and elbows and boots, with dirt in our hair and ears and eyes, and Pa, outraged, is stomping around us shouting about fire and brimstone. I know I’m going to have a doozy of a black eye, but I’m slightly mollified to see blood trickling from Joe’s split lip.

God, how I do love my brothers.

***The End***

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