Summary: A What Happened Instead for the episode “The Legacy.”
Word Count: 6938
Consciousness came to him gradually, in the form of a mouth dry as cotton and a fierce throbbing at the back of his skull. Small bits of gravel were nipping at his cheek, so he grudgingly forced his eyes open and lifted his head. Moving slowly, he managed to pull himself up onto his hands and knees.
He blinked to correct the blurriness of his vision. As it cleared, he saw the reflection of the campfire flickering back at him from…from the silver ‘C’ inlaid on the stock of Pa’s rifle. Instantly another pain rushed at him, raw and overwhelming — a pain that he had carried with him for the last two days and that rushed at him anew as he stared at that dully glinting ‘C’.
His pa. Shot down in cold blood by a lousy poacher.
His pa, taken from him by the man who sat coolly watching him now, holding his pa’s rifle.
A burst of pure rage swept through him, white-hot and almost blinding in its power. The pain in his head was forgotten as he surged to his feet, his entire being concentrating only on reaching the killer who had robbed him of his pa.
He leapt at him, a low scream deep in his throat, his mind shut off to everything but the searing hatred he felt. He saw the man’s face in front of him, knew his own fists were swinging at him, but couldn’t have said whether or not he ever touched him, such was the black numbness that clouded his senses.
Then he was grabbed and held by other hands, and a new face — an older, bearded one — blocked his view of the one he wanted. He struggled to keep sight of his pa’s killer, his efforts so concentrated that he never saw the fist that caught him in the jaw. He dropped like a rock back into the dirt and lay there for a moment, breathing, trying to think.
He found himself curiously thankful for the punch that had knocked him off his feet. The pain helped to dampen some of the red rage swirling before his eyes, and muffled, ever so slightly, some of the sorrow twining through his chest.
“I’m Colonel Abel Chapin, these are Chapin men, and that’s Chapin dirt you’re eatin’!”
It was an authoritative voice, one used to giving commands and being obeyed. Joe raised his eyes to look at the man whose voice boomed so confidently. He didn’t care who Chapin was. At that moment, he didn’t care about much of anything except putting his hands around the throat of the man who had snuffed out his pa’s life.
Then his eye caught the glimmer of that silver ‘C’ again. Its soft shine spoke to him even as the sight of it knifed through his heart. He knew what Pa would have wanted; he had fully intended to capture his pa’s murderer and drag him back to prison where he belonged. But here, face to face with the stark reality of being within reach of the man who had ended Pa’s life, who had ended his life as he knew it—well, he just didn’t think he had it in him to handle things as Pa would have wanted him to.
He wasn’t that strong.
“Who are you and what do you want?” the bearded man demanded.
“I’ve been looking for him.” Joe’s thrust his chin toward the man holding his pa’s rifle. His voice was soft and emotionless, in direct contrast with the torrent of rage seething within him.
“What do you want with him?”
There was nothing to say except the single truth upon which Joe’s world hinged. His mind could wrap itself around nothing other than the fact that his pa’s killer stood here now, befouling his pa’s rifle with his tainted killer’s hands.
“I want to kill him,” Joe said, and he had never meant anything as much as he meant those five words.
Dawn crept softly over the Ponderosa, and Ben’s heart clenched as he realized that the morning hadn’t brought Joe with it. He had dozed fitfully during the night, not seeking the comfort of his bed but sitting up in the great room along with Hoss and Adam.
Jacob Dormann, the traveling peddler who had rescued Ben and brought him home, sat there, too, rousing himself now from a light doze.
Hoss raised a weary head from Pa’s desk to look at Adam. Several times over the past couple of days, he had seen evidence of chinks in his older brother’s normally imperturbable armor.
During those first horrendous hours when they had decided that Pa must be dead, Adam had sobbed unashamedly along with his brothers. Later, when anger reared to mix with their grief and they had been intent on tracking down leads on the killer, he had been as snappish as Joe, using belligerence and intimidation to speed things along.
Now that their upside-down world had been flipped upright again, Adam still seemed to be having trouble holding onto his normal quiet calmness, and it bothered Hoss more than he was willing to admit. Adam wasn’t sitting, waiting quietly as he usually did when faced with a difficult situation. He was fidgety, tense, worried about their kid brother.
Just as they all were.
“Pa, even if he found his man…” Adam paced over to where Ben sat, squatting on his haunches to look his father in the eye. “…even if he killed him, he did it thinking that he had murdered you…”
“An eye for an eye? Is that what you boys have been taught?” The baleful reproach quickly squelched Adam’s attempt at convincing his father that, in this instance, a killing would be justified.
The peddler noted the exchange with interest. He felt oddly bound to the Cartwrights, as so often seemed to happen when one person saved the life of another. Now he knew he really should be on his way, but Mr. Cartwright’s stories about his sons had left him feeling as if he knew them all intimately. He felt compelled to stick around until he saw all was right with the family he had come to admire so much in such a short time. Now, knowing that the youngest son had not come home, he looked at Mr. Cartwright with an expression of carefully subdued sympathy.
He and Mr. Cartwright had stopped in Virginia City the evening before, and the sheriff there had been highly concerned about the state of mind of the Cartwright boys.
“I don’t know when I’ve ever seen them boys like that, Ben,” the sheriff had said, and his words had obviously caused Mr. Cartwright’s worry to increase.
Yet Mr. Cartwright had had no trouble expressing his confidence in how his two older sons would handle the situation. He knew he had taught them well, and was adamant in the belief that, when push came to shove, they would do the right thing.
But when Jacob prodded him for information about the youngest son, Mr. Cartwright had been less certain, less confident in what he could expect out of that son.
I don’t know how much I know about that…third boy of mine. Quick tempered. Sometimes I see an anger in him…
Jacob remembered the uncertainty he had heard in the man’s voice. “So you’ve got doubts about what he’ll do?” he had asked.
Mr. Cartwright’s voice had been low and disturbed. “No. I’ve got doubts about me. About whether I was able to make him understand.”
Jacob had heard the anxiety in the timbre of his voice, and knew how troubled he was.
And now it was morning, and it was looking more and more as if Mr. Cartwright’s worry might come to fruition. It was apprehension over where that third son was and what he was doing that hung over the room like a dark curtain, casting a pall over what should have been a joyous reunion of father and sons.
Before the sun was fully over the horizon, Ben’s lips were set in a grim, tight line. “Get the horses, Adam,” he said, and strode to the sideboard to retrieve his gunbelt.
Jacob watched as the oldest son moved as if to block his father from the door.
“Pa, be reasonable. You’re in no condition to go anywhere.”
“What would you have me do—sit here while Joseph throws his life away?”
Jacob would have bet money that a lesser man would have shrunk away from that booming voice, but Adam Cartwright stood his ground. He was quickly backed up by his brother.
“Adam’s right, Pa. You ain’t in no condition to go gallavantin’ around the countryside.” Hoss looked at Adam, then back at his father. “Me and Adam will go after him.”
Ben looked as if he would argue, but his shoulders sagged as common sense took control.
“Alright. Alright, I’ll stay here.” Ben straightened, and his voice became forceful again. “But if you haven’t returned—all three of you—by day after tomorrow, I’m coming after you.”
Joe knew that, the instant Abel Chapin left, he was in for a beating. He didn’t care.
He watched as the older Chapin mounted and rode off. Colonel Chapin’s instructions to his men had been to let him go, with a warning to Joe to never set foot near his town again. Joe barely heard him. It didn’t matter what the man said; Joe would have come straight back to accomplish what he had come to do, regardless of what Chapin’s threats were.
Billy Chapin watched his father ride away, and then turned to walk slowly back toward him, the stolen rifle still in his hands.
Joe knew he had no chance against Billy Chapin, not with Chapin’s hands there to help hold him, but that didn’t matter, either.
When Billy quietly told the hands to let him go, it caught Joe somewhat by surprise. It barely had time to register before Billy’s fist slammed into his jaw, knocking him off his feet.
Far from being angry, Joe felt a strange, fierce joy at the possibility that he might still have a chance to launch everything he had at the man who had stolen his father from him.
Chapin ordered the hands to leave, and they protested weakly, torn between disobeying the boss’ orders and arguing with the boss’ son.
“If somethin’ happens to him…,” one of them said in warning, and Billy shouted him into submission.
“Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to him. Now, go on, git! This is Billy Chapin talkin’!”
The men rode off, and Joe looked up from the ground at Billy. Billy planned to kill him; it was plain as the nose on his face. A deadly calm settled over Joe as he waited, waited…and then lunged at his chance.
Chapin quickly showed that he was a cocky, strong fighter, and Joe welcomed that, too. He wanted—needed—Billy to come at him with everything he had, wanted him to be a strong force to be reckoned with. He was desperate to unleash all the fury built up inside him, to strike out until there was nothing left to strike at.
The days-old pain in his heart threatened to suffocate him, and he threw himself at his attacker in a frenzied attempt to escape it. It helped, a very little, to feel the smack of his fists against Chapin’s face. Chapin got in several of his own punches, but Joe’s rage had numbed him to physical pain. His mind barely registered the sharp stinging of the skin splitting at the corner of his lip, the deep ache of a hard blow to his belly, the smarting throb of a fist battering his ribs. Giving a single anguished roar, he ran head-first at Chapin, ramming his head into the man’s belly, flipping them both into a flailing tumble of fists and boots.
Chapin fought hard, but his eager violence was no match for the deep-seated anger in Joe’s heart and head. One after another, Joe’s vicious, sharp jabs assailed Billy until at last the man went down and lay still in the dust.
It was all he could do not to simply keep pummeling away at him. With enormous effort, he pulled himself away and staggered over to where Pa’s rifle lay. Keeping his eyes on Billy, he picked the rifle up and made his way unsteadily back to where he lay.
With rapt concentration, he raised the rifle, put Billy’s head in its sights, and put his finger on the trigger.
“It don’t look good, you know that, Adam.”
Adam sighed, drawing a hand downwards across his mouth and chin in that habit he had whenever he was worried. “I know.”
A telegraph sent by Joe to Sheriff Coffee had helped them trace Joe’s progress to the town looming on the horizon before them, and if they had had any hopes of finding him before he took irrevocable action, those hopes were almost gone. Too much time had passed.
Hoss had tried to convince Pa that Joe would do exactly as he and Adam had done when finding their own suspects: realize that, as much as they were hurting, killing another man wouldn’t bring back their father.
But inside, Hoss’ sinking heart told another story. Joe was hotheaded even during the best of times. Deep in grief and believing that he was joining his brothers in avenging their father’s death, Joe was almost certain to carry out what they had all set in motion.
As they rode into town, the thought came upon him, not for the first time, that they had regained Pa only to lose Joe.
Joe stood in front of Colonel Chapin’s ranchhouse, Pa’s rifle still trained on Billy Chapin. Colonel Chapin and his foreman and a few hands stood looking at him.
He had made a mistake coming here. He realized that now.
He should have taken Billy Chapin straight back to Virginia City and deposited him on Sheriff Coffee’s doorstep. Instead, he’d brought him back here to Colonel Chapin. Why he’d ever thought that the old man would do what was right…
Back in the woods, as he’d stood there pointing his pa’s rifle at Billy, a hair’s breadth from pulling the trigger, it was as if he could hear what his own pa would say.
Joe, you’ve got a good heart, son. It will never allow you to live with what you’re contemplating. Kill that man, and you might as well dig a hole for yourself, because you won’t find life worth living afterwards.
He’d tried to ignore the voice, knew it was only a product of his own imaginings, but in the end, he’d been unable to do so. So he’d done what he knew what Pa would want him to do, even though it was one of the hardest things he’d ever faced. He’d decided to hand Billy Chapin over to the law.
Moreover, he’d decided to let another father and son have the chance to make the right decision.
It had been an emotional decision, and, it appeared now, a naïve and erroneous judgment on his part.
“Your son tried to kill me, Colonel Chapin,” he said carefully. “He had no intention of letting me go the way you ordered. He wanted me dead because he knew what I know—that he killed my pa in cold blood.” He looked at Billy. “Go on, Chapin. Tell him.”
Billy’s glum face, bruised and bloodied from fighting, gazed sullenly back at his father—and the sick disappointment in Colonel Chapin’s own face told Joe that he knew the truth.
For an instant, the fight seemed to go out of the older man, and Joe felt sorry for him.
But then Billy started to plead with his father.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I truly am sorry. It was an accident. I didn’t mean it.” He looked up at Colonel Chapin with tears shimmering in his eyes. “Pa, if you let them send me back to prison, it’ll kill me. Please don’t let them send me back. Pa, please, don’t you understand? It’ll kill me!”
Colonel Chapin shook his head. “I’ve given up trying to understand, Billy.” He sighed. He looked at Joe. “I’m truly sorry this had to happen, Cartwright. But I love my son. Undeserving as he is, I still love him. I didn’t interfere when he was sent to prison the first time; it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I had hopes that perhaps the experience would straighten him out. Lord knows I’ve tried everything else.”
Joe waited, not knowing what to say to the man. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up when Colonel Chapin stared at him with something akin to pity.
“He’s right, though. I just can’t let him go back, especially not for murder. I just can’t bear the thought of never seeing him again. I’m sorry.”
The Colonel gestured with a sudden signal, and Joe took a quick step back—but not quick enough. Someone plowed into him from the back, and then they were all over him. Within moments, his arms were pinned to his side, immobilizing him. Filled with angered disbelief, he stood staring at Colonel Chapin.
“Get rid of him,” Colonel Chapin snapped to his foreman, and then turned to walk away as the foreman raised his rifle.
“I’ll do it,” Billy said.
Colonel Chapin swung back to face him. “You’ll do nothing. Now get into the house.”
Billy started to argue, and then seemed to think better of it. But as his father turned away again, he leaped toward the foreman and yanked the rifle away. With one lightning fast action, he turned the gun on Joe and fired.
The townspeople were not all that cooperative. Every question was met with vague shakes of the head if not outright animosity. A visit to the local saloon produced no better results than anywhere else. Only one old man, sitting outside whittling, admitted to seeing a “slight-built, good-looking kid” entering the saloon a day or two before.
It was now late in the evening, and Adam and Hoss stood at the bar, sipping at warm beer while they questioned everyone who came by, but nobody was the least bit inclined to offer up any information. They leaned on their elbows over their beer, well aware of the men watching them from near the door.
“Close-mouthed bunch, ain’t they? I’ll bet Little Joe was just about ready to have some heads rollin’ when he was in here,” Hoss commented in a low voice.
“Looks like that’s what we might have to do, too,” Hoss pushed.
Adam tipped his mug, letting the remainder of its contents slide down his throat. “Looks like it.” He plunked the empty glass down onto the bar, and Hoss followed suit, walking beside him as they ambled with deliberate casualness toward the door.
As they started to move past the men posted there, Adam exploded into motion. He grabbed the nearest man, yanked his arm up behind his back, and held his gun to the man’s head. Hoss moved, too, with a speed belying his great size, as he whipped out his own gun and covered his brother.
“Now,” Adam said calmly. “We’re going to ask some questions, and you are going to give us some answers. Understood?”
The man whose head was pressed into the barrel of Adam’s pistol nodded frantically.
“Listen, mister, we don’t know nothin’,” one of the onlookers insisted.
“I think you do.”
“None of us have seen the man you’re looking for. Now, why don’t you and the big fella here just go back in the direction you came from? Else you’re gonna bite off more than you can chew.”
“I don’t reckon we’ve bitten off anything, yet. But I reckon we’re willin’ to give it a try.”
“Yeah, we’re willing.” Adam cocked his gun and pressed it more firmly against the man’s head.
The man’s eyes rolled in fear. “Colonel Chapin took him!” he blurted.
“Shut up, Carl!” someone snarled.
“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere,” Adam intoned smoothly. “Suppose one of you tells my brother and I where we can find this Colonel Chapin, and we’ll be on our way.”
“We don’t feel like we have a whole lotta time, gentlemen,” Hoss interjected. “So I wouldn’t push my brother. His trigger finger’s liable to be just a tad bit itchy.”
The crowd grumbled with indecision as Carl squirmed.
“There’s no need for this!” a voice boomed. “I’m Colonel Abel Chapin. State your business and be quick about it.”
Hoss and Adam turned their gazes toward the bearded man who had just pushed through the saloon door. Adam turned his captive loose, but neither he nor Hoss lowered their weapons.
“Our name is Cartwright. We’re looking for our brother, Joseph Cartwright.”
“What makes you think I know him?” The answer was sharp, dismissive.
Adam raised his chin and pinned the man with a calculating glare. “I didn’t ask if you knew him. We know he came here tracking a murder suspect. One of the citizens of this…fair town has verified that he was here. In addition, Carl here just told us that you are somehow involved with my brother’s whereabouts. Is that true, or do you have another story you’d like to try?”
Colonel Chapin stared back at Adam as if trying to decide how formidable an opponent he was. Something in Adam’s eyes made him bite back a caustic retort, and he drew himself up in haughty defiance.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Cartwright, but you have made a long ride for nothing.”
“Why don’t you just tell us where he is and let us decide whether we’re wastin’ our time or not,” Hoss growled.
“Very well.” Colonel Chapin threw out his arms in acquiescence. “Then I regret to inform you, gentlemen, that your brother is dead.”
He shivered in the damp night air even as he wiped perspiration off his forehead with his shirtsleeve. He stumbled unsteadily through the darkness, pushing the heavier brush aside with his left arm; his right hung at his side, useless and aching.
He wanted, oh, so badly, to stop and rest, but he didn’t dare. They were close behind him, he knew, and if he stopped, they would find him.
So he kept moving, one foot in front of the other, until his boot heel caught on an exposed root; he went down, sprawling on his face in the dirt. He allowed himself the luxury of lying there, just for a minute, while he tried without much success to slow the rhythm of his breathing.
Pushing himself to his knees, he forced himself back into a standing position, and was shocked at how much effort it took. He shouldn’t be so tired. Really, he shouldn’t. He had run a lot faster, a lot further than this many times. And in the heat of the day, too.
He heard faint voices through the trees. A short distance off, but they were getting closer. A new surge of fear caused his heart to beat faster and his feet to start moving again.
Funny how fear could pump new life into a person. He had been so numb since Pa’s death, he wasn’t sure if he could ever feel anything other than sorrow or anger ever again.
Well, he was feeling lots of things now. The sorrow and anger was still there, and of course the fear itself, but now there was also regret, and confusion, and the wistful desire to be back among his family. Wrapping it all up was a fierce, relentless determination to survive.
He heard low shouts, and he forced himself to move faster through the dense underbrush. Branches clung to him and wound around him, and he shoved them viciously aside, inwardly cursing at the worthlessness of his injured arm.
He came up on the edge of a short bluff, barely visible in the dark, and he crawled over the edge and headed down. His progress down the steep slope was fast and uncontrolled, more of it spent sliding and rolling than actually climbing. When he at last hit the bottom with a hard thump, he crawled into a clump of bushes and rested again.
He had been incredibly lucky, he knew. When Billy had grabbed the rifle from the foreman’s hands, it had taken them all by surprise. Fear of getting hit themselves had made the men holding him release their grip, and Joe had jerked awkwardly to the side and slightly back; the bullet had slammed into his shoulder, throwing him to the ground.
Billy had fired again, and by now the hands were scattering to get out of the way. The ensuing chaos had given Joe a shot at freedom, and he had taken it. He’d scrambled up, ignoring the exploding pain in his shoulder, and sprinted off into the surrounding woods.
He’d run with everything he had, listening with half an ear to Colonel Chapin’s angry voice as it quickly receded into the distance.
“Billy, you fool!” Then, “Thompson! Take the men and run him down!”
He’d heard them crashing along behind him on foot for some time—Billy, the foreman, and the hands. Then later, apparently more men, with horses this time. He’d heard the pounding of hooves as they traversed back and forth in the dark, looking for him.
He was a good runner, though, and managed to stay ahead of the search. The horses would have quickly spelled the end for him, but he took care to stick to areas of dense underbrush and trees where a rider couldn’t easily follow.
Running. It was a skill that had brought him a multitude of childhood victories in the schoolyard. He’d always thrown himself joyfully into racing along, pumping his legs as fast as they could go, loving the feeling of freedom and the wind in his face.
Hoss had often watched him admiringly.
“You move like a dang deer, Little Joe. Sure wish I could run like that,” Hoss had said once.
Joe remembered his shrugged response. “I’d trade my speed for your strength, Hoss.”
Hoss had been astounded. “Why? Don’t you like runnin’?”
“Sure, I like it. But runnin’s just a game, that’s all. It’s not useful, not like bein’ able to lift wagon tongues or an ornery horse’s feet, or holdin’ on to a sick cow to be doctored, or pitchin’ sacks of grain into the wagon—things like that. If I had my druthers, I’d rather be strong like you than fast like me.”
Now it seemed that his flair for speed was the only thing standing between him and death.
His chest wasn’t heaving quite so much now, although the fierce burning in his shoulder hadn’t subsided any. He put tentative fingers inside his shirt, trying to assess the damage.
The bullet had hit him high on the front of his shoulder and then angled up, but not out. It was still there, lodged somewhere beneath his collarbone. As gunshot wounds went, he supposed he could have been hit in worse places, even if his arm had been rendered virtually useless.
He got to his feet, thanking God that he hadn’t been hit in a leg, and started running again.
“You’d better start talkin’, mister, and you’d better talk fast,” Hoss growled at Colonel Chapin. “I’m about this close to reachin’ over and snappin’ your neck.”
At Colonel Chapin’s suggestion, they had moved to a back room of the saloon. They had holstered their guns but remained tensely ready, fully aware by now that Colonel Chapin pretty much owned the town and everyone in it.
“He’ll do it, you know,” Adam said coolly.
Colonel Chapin flicked a glance at Hoss and had no doubt that Adam’s words were true. But he wasn’t worried; he had plenty of backup waiting just outside.
He frowned when Hoss moved to the door and pulled the bar across it. “There’s no need for more violence,” he said. “Your brother died needlessly. Be smart—don’t end up like he did.”
“I would suggest that you take your own advice, Colonel Chapin. If you don’t start spilling your guts now, I’m going to let my brother proceed to take you apart. By the time he finishes, there won’t be enough left of you to pour into one of those spittoons out there.” Adam spoke calmly, as though it didn’t matter to him one way or another.
Chapin threw another quick glance at Hoss. His mouth tightened. “Alright, as I said, there’s no need for more violence. Here’s what happened. Your brother came into town three days ago, spouting lies about my son murdering your father. I knew it wasn’t true; my son hasn’t left the ranch.”
“Oh?” Adam’s eyebrow rose a notch. “I heard he just got back this week from doing a stint in the territorial prison.”
If Chapin was nervous, he did a good job of hiding it.
“That’s true. He’s young and foolish, and fell in with a bad crowd, and made some mistakes. But he paid for those mistakes. Now he’s home, and I won’t stand for people trying to pin the blame on him for every crime that comes up. He was already here at the time your brother said the murder took place.” He sighed and looked down. “I never wanted anything to happen to your brother, gentlemen. I told him to get out and not come back. Instead, he went after my son. Tried to kill him.” He raised his head and looked at Hoss, and then back at Adam. “Billy shot him in self-defense.”
Adam stared at him, his thoughts splintering in a hundred different directions.
He went after my son.
Would Joe do that?
Yes, he would.
Hoss looked at him, his wide face threatening to crumple under the force of his sorrow, and Adam knew that his brother’s thoughts were running parallel to his own.
Adam started to speak, and found he couldn’t. He had to stop and swallow before he could try again. “Colonel Chapin,” he finally rasped out. “I would appreciate it if you’d take us to my brother’s body. We’ll be taking him home.”
Joe sank to his belly on the banks of a small creek, slurping noisily as he cupped quick handfuls of water into his mouth. When his thirst was quenched, he rolled over onto his back, careful not to jar the shoulder.
Damn, but it hurt.
The collarbone was broken, he had decided, having taken the impact of the bullet as it tried to exit. The pain on the upper right half of his body was so insistent and pulsed so strongly that he couldn’t tell whether the majority of it was coming from the broken bone or the gunshot wound.
Shouts drifted across the valley toward him, still at a distance but considerably closer than they had been. With an effort, he gathered his legs beneath him and set off once more.
At first Adam thought Colonel Chapin’s refusal to hand over Joe’s body was an incredible act of deliberate cruelty. He stared at the man in disbelief.
“Would you mind telling me why?” Adam asked the question in as civilized a voice as he could muster. Inside, he wanted to pulverize the man. But he couldn’t give in to the temptation, because out of the corner of his eye, he could see Hoss, trembling with a fury that was just this side of being controlled. It was up to him, Adam, to follow this thing through and make sure it didn’t end up any worse than it already had.
“Well…I might need the body for evidence.” Colonel Chapin’s eyes were beginning to shift back and forth, as though he were looking for answers he didn’t have.
“Evidence!” Hoss hissed. “For what?
“Proof of my boy’s innocence. That’s why I’m in town in the first place. I was on my way to tell the sheriff what happened, about Billy shooting in self-defense. He might want to see the body. You know, just as additional evidence in the report.”
Adam nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Fine. We’ll come with the sheriff.”
Colonel Chapin started to argue, and Adam interrupted him.
“We’ll come with the sheriff, and we’ll wait as long as it takes. But we will not go home to our pa without our brother. So please conduct your business quickly.” Adam’s voice shook slightly, and his throat convulsed.
Colonel Chapin shot him a puzzled look. “What do you mean, home to your pa? I thought you said he was dead…”
Hoss’ voice was soft. “We thought he was, mister. Turns out we was wrong.” He hung his head and stared at the floor. “This might be enough to do him in, though.”
“He wasn’t killed?” Colonel Chapin repeated the question as if he couldn’t quite grasp its meaning. “Billy didn’t…“
Adam’s dark eyes sharpened. “Didn’t what?” Warning bells began going off in his head.
Chapin gave his head a dazed shake and didn’t answer, and Adam lurched forward and grabbed the man’s lapels in both fists. “Billy didn’t what?” he gritted out.
Chapin looked at him, and for the first time, uncertainty flooded his face. His skin paled, and perspiration beaded his forehead. “There’s been a mistake,” he mumbled.
“What?” Adam shook him. “For God’s sakes, man, what do you know?”
And then he was pushed out of the way as Hoss picked the man up and threw him into the wall. Then Hoss hauled him upright again and began to hit him.
“Hoss! Stop! Stop it, I said!” Adam was pulling at Hoss’ arm, but his interference was about as effective as a silk thread tying down a mustang. He kept shouting and yanking at him until Hoss finally looked at him, his red eyes glistening with unshed tears.
“He knows somethin’, Adam. He knows somethin’ about little Joe!”
Adam was shaking with the physical effort of holding him back. “I know it, Hoss. But we need him, and we need him alive and conscious.” He looked at Chapin, who was dabbing at the blood dribbling from his nose. Shouts and pounding were coming from the barred door. When he spoke again, it was through his tightly clenched teeth. “So help me, Chapin, if my brother comes after you again, I won’t stop him. If you’ve got anything to say, you’d better say it now.”
Colonel Chapin glanced nervously at Hoss and nodded. “Your brother…I was going to let him go. I had every intention of letting him go. I told him to leave. If he had just given up and gone home, everything would be alright.”
“But he didn’t leave.”
Chapin shook his head. “No. I made the mistake of leaving my son there to see that he got off my land and out of town. They got into a scuffle, and your brother brought him back to me…to turn him over to the law.”
“And you decided against that.” The statement was filled with impatient disgust.
Chapin stared up at Adam, and resigned surrender flickered across his face. “I couldn’t let my boy go back to prison, Mr. Cartwright. A murder charge…it would have been the end for him. But if the charge were lowered to attempted murder—there’s a chance a jury might be more lenient. Billy might not have to spend the rest of his days behind bars…”
“Colonel Chapin, at this point I don’t much care what happens to your son.” Adam’s words were clipped. “Now, where is my brother?”
“I told my foreman to kill him,” Chapin continued dully. “Billy interfered and shot him first.” He looked at Adam. “It was a wild shot that went shy of its mark. Your brother was hit, but he escaped into the woods.”
Air hissed between Adam’s teeth. “What?” He gave his head a bewildered shake. “So where is he?”
“I sent my men after him to finish him off.” Chapin was now emotionless and subdued.
“Adam…” Hoss looked at him with the beginnings of hope in his eyes.
Adam grabbed Chapin’s arm. “Come on. You’re going to take us there before it’s too late.”
“Cartwright, don’t you understand? It’s already too late. My men will find him, and when they do, they’ll kill him, simply because I gave them orders to do so. And if they don’t, my son will. We’ll never make it in time.” His head sagged forward. “It’s probably already been done.”
Joe staggered to a halt and breathlessly leaned against a tree, his chest hugging the bark. He slid down the tree’s rough surface until he was on his knees, and there he stopped. He wanted to lie down for a few minutes, but if he did, he was afraid he’d never get up again.
He knelt there, his face and his good shoulder propped against the tree, and listened to the sounds of his pursuers echoing off to his right.
He couldn’t afford this break. They were too close, and he needed to move.
Hell, why was he so tired? The wound wasn’t bleeding that much.
He looked up at the tree, towering over him like a guardian, its needles whispering in the dark, its unmovable trunk supporting his sagging body. He pressed his cheek into the rough bark, and he thought about Pa.
Pa had been like this tree; solid, comforting, strong, supportive.
You did the right thing, Joe.
“Did I, Pa? It doesn’t seem to be the best decision I’ve ever made,” he whispered, but he knew that if he had the chance to do it again, he still would not have killed Billy Chapin. Pa’s lessons were too ingrained.
Joe had always been told he was so much like his mother. But right now, at this moment, he realized just how much of a man was made up of his pa.
The shouts were closer, and he sighed.
“Got to get moving,” he mumbled to himself, and he held onto the tree and pulled himself to his feet. He leaned there for a few seconds, and then shoved himself away from it.
He took four steps before his legs went out from under him, and he hit the ground hard, jarring his bad shoulder. He cried out before he could stop himself.
He pulled himself up onto his hands and knees.
“Come on, get up,” he whispered, and struggled to obey his own command. A mighty effort brought him to a halfway standing position, but just like that, he was back on the ground, flat on his back.
He lay there, heaving for breath, staring up through the tree’s branches at the cold, pale moon, the pungent scent of crushed pine needles wafting around him, the drum of horses’ hooves beating toward him. The urgency to get up and run faded away, replaced by a curious detachment.
He thought again of Pa, wondering if he’d died easy. He hoped so.
Then his thoughts turned to his brothers.
“How are they gonna make it, Pa?” he whispered. He thought of Hoss and Adam, sitting alone in the great room in front of the fireplace, and his heart constricted with sympathy for them.
He had promised he’d find his man and bring him back—and now he wouldn’t be back at all.
“I didn’t keep my promise, Pa.”
But you did, son. You kept your promise to me—your promise that you would always do what was right.
Then there were loud voices, close by, and the tramp of boots running over to him.
He shut his eyes and waited for the end.
The corners of Joe’s mouth turned up in a tiny smile as he thought how clearly he could imagine Pa’s voice.
“Little Joe, come on, son. It’s time for you to wake up now.”
Startled now, he forced his eyes open, blinking to clear the cobwebs from his mind and his vision.
Pa’s worried face loomed into view, smiling as Joe shook his head in bewilderment.
“Pa?” His voice came out soft and rough with disuse. He squinted and gave his head a slight shake as if to deny what he was seeing.
“Yes, son, I’m here.”
Joe ran his tongue over his upper lip, trying to think, trying to wrap his mind around the fact Pa was here, solid and alive. “But you…you were…”
“Shhh. No. I’m fine. And so are you.”
“Mighty fine to have you back, little brother,” Hoss’ contented voice boomed out from his right.
Adam moved up behind Pa. “Only you could sleep for two whole days.” His teasingly sarcastic tone was tempered by his smile.
“You hungry, Little Joe?” Hop Sing chirped. “You tell Hop Sing what you want, I cook it right up.”
Joe looked around slowly, trying to get his bearings. He was in his own bed, in his own room—and Pa was here.
Pa was here.
“But I thought…”
“We were wrong,” Adam said simply.
Joe nodded, his eyes welling up. “Pa.” He was suddenly engulfed by his father’s tight embrace, and nothing in the world mattered except the people who were in this room with him. He felt his father’s grateful tears mingle with his own, and he smiled.
“I kept my promise, Pa,” he choked. “I kept my promise.”