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The weight of his pistol lay heavy against his thigh. He could feel it there waiting for him, secure in the leather cradle of his holster. His left hand twitched only the tiniest bit as the connection was made between his brain and his fingers, but he held himself back. He reminded himself again that this wasn’t something worth starting any gunplay over. His opponent was a sore loser, that was all. He could handle himself here. He could.
Joe flicked a glance toward the bar. Hoss and Adam slouched against it, their backs to him and his poker game, their glasses raised in a toast to Henry Martin as they listened, grinning, to another of the old man’s wild stories. With all the raucous Saturday night celebrating that filled the smoke-hazed interior of the Bucket of Blood, Joe’s brothers certainly hadn’t heard what this man had just said to him.
Joe looked back at the stranger across the table, feeling his jaw clench as the disgruntled card player stared back at him with a slight smirk on his face, his ice-blue eyes daring him to retaliate against the insult he had just thrown out.
Stay calm. Hold your temper.
It took a concentrated effort, but Joe managed to drop his gaze from the man’s hard face. He shrugged and began to sweep poker chips and money toward his side of the table. When a hand dropped onto his, pinning it on top of a stack of bills, he froze.
“I guess you didn’t understand what I said, boy,” the stranger said. He pressed his hand down hard over Joe’s.
Joe didn’t look up. A familiar roaring, the one that always came over him when his temper took over, filled his ears, and he struggled against it. He glanced again toward his brothers.
“You gotta rein in that temper of yours, boy.” How many times had Hoss given him that stern murmur of advice? Pa was always telling him that too, in much more clipped and formidable tones.
And Adam. Adam didn’t always say much when Joe had one of his angry outbursts, but he…well, he had a way of looking at him that made Joe even angrier and yet ashamed at the same time. Like Joe was shaming Adam somehow when he didn’t behave with the same restraint that the rest of his family showed. Like he was shaming all of them when he flew off the handle and reacted in anger to some insult or slight.
He did try to control his temper. Really, he did. But sometimes it was as if his rage had a mind of its own, coming from somewhere dark and deep within him.
He could feel it gaining control over him now, even as he tried to resist. He stared at the hand clamping his own tight to the table, and the roaring grew louder in his ears. When the man showed no inclination to remove his hand, Joe slowly raised his head and looked at him…and smiled.
Burt Smith, one of the other poker players at the table, nervously cleared his throat. Burt was friends with all the Cartwrights. Had known them for years. And he knew what that particular smile meant. To a lot of people, it would’ve been an innocent enough smile, friendly even. But Burt knew better; there would be trouble, and it would be soon. His eyes widened and he swiveled his neck around to look for Hoss and Adam.
“Mister, I was just lucky. That’s all,” Joe said softly, and he never let his smile waver as he held the man’s stare. “Now, I suggest that you take your hand off of me. I’ll take my winnings and go, and we’ll both pretend that you didn’t just call me a cheat.”
Something like surprise flickered through the cold blueness of the man’s eyes, but it was quickly gone again. His hand remained where it was.
“Yeah, you’ll go all right,” the stranger said, sneering, and he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. “You’ll go, but you ain’t taking a damn thing from this table. I ain’t never let a card cheat walk away with my money, and you ain’t gonna be the first.” He looked over at his three friends standing nearby, and they smirked at one another.
Joe let the smile die upon his face.
Rein in that temper, Joe.
His heart beat so hard that he was certain the stranger could see the pulse of it through his shirt. Not from fear. No. Fear would be a good thing. It would help to crowd out some of the black rage that clouded his thinking in a situation like this. But fear rarely seemed to show up in time to rescue Joe Cartwright from his own red-hazed fury.
The stranger still had his hand pressed down on Joe’s. Then Joe realized that the noise in the room had died out, and the attention of every occupant was now drawn to what was going on in the tight little drama at their table. Over the man’s shoulder he saw his brothers shoot each other a glance before setting down their beers. They carefully made their way toward him through the sudden silence hanging in the air. Once they reached the table, Hoss stopped between Joe and the stranger. He dragged a chair up and slowly moved to rest one large boot upon its seat, leaning with both muscular forearms upon his thigh as if to carry on a long and languid conversation with an old friend. On the other side of the table, Adam leaned against a nearby support column, his hands gently clasped together in front of the buckle of his holster, his expression disinterested and even somewhat bored as he eyed the stranger and his friends. Both Adam and Hoss gave the impression of cool nonchalance to all around them.
But there was nothing really nonchalant at all about them, and Joe knew it. They were tense and ready, concerned that their youngest brother might be about to do something inadvisable.
The man’s left hand remained clamped down on Joe’s right. The stranger was a big man, but not so big as to be slow. Joe could feel the quickness in the man’s rough palm, could detect muscles rippling against the fabric of his shirt sleeves.
And he was deadly. Now that Hoss and Adam had distracted Joe enough to slow his thinking, he was aware that the man’s right hand had dropped beneath the table. Joe knew it was a pretty sure bet that the stranger was holding a gun pointed directly at his gut.
Joe saw Adam flick a quick glance at Hoss, and then he knew they, too, were aware of the gun — and it had them both plenty scared, even if they didn’t show it.
As he pressed down on Joe’s hand, the man’s mocking sneer grew bigger, and so did Joe’s fury. A card cheat was universally looked down upon as one of the lowest individuals ever to walk down the streets of any town, and this man had called him exactly that. Twice. And now, if he didn’t back down, the man intended to shoot him in the belly.
He ought to be scared. But he wasn’t. There was no room for fear when black rage shoved everything else aside.
And Hoss knew that. So did Adam. His brothers knew what was going on inside his head, and they were moving slow and easy because they knew what the implications were. They knew he was close to leaping at the man, and every move they made was with the intention of defusing the situation.
“Trouble, Joe?” Hoss’ voice was calm and casual. He didn’t look at Joe as he asked the question; instead, he aimed his gaze directly at the stranger. But the tone of his voice was a warning, not to the stranger, but to Joe.
“No trouble, Hoss,” Joe said softly. “This fella seems to have a problem with losing, that’s all.” He purposely let the corners of his mouth tilt up in a slight smirk, gratified when the stranger’s face flushed a darker red.
Hoss pursed his lips. “I’d say it sounds like it’s time to call it a night. Mister, kindly take your hand off my brother and we’ll be takin’ our leave.”
The man didn’t move his hand. Nor did he remove his gaze from Joe’s.
“My brother politely asked you to remove your hand, mister.” Adam’s voice was cold and dark. “Apparently you didn’t hear him.”
The stranger’s eyes were still on Joe, but the threatening tone of Adam’s words was apparently not lost on him. After a short hesitation, he suddenly released his grip on Joe. But Joe left his own hand lying atop the pile of chips and currency.
“Go on, kid,” the man said. “Do like you’re told and run along home. But like I said, you ain’t takin’ one thin dime with you. Everything on this table stays here.”
Joe was aware of the glances his brothers exchanged, but he didn’t move. Everyone was waiting on him, waiting to see whether or not he’d listen to reason and get out while he could still move under his own steam.
He should stand up and walk out, just as his brothers were silently urging him to do.
But he couldn’t.
“I’m takin’ my winnings with me, mister.” Joe let his fingers curve around the pile of coins, and he was aware of Adam softly blowing air out through pursed lips. Hoss’ big body straightened almost imperceptibly. The muscles in the stranger’s arm flexed slightly, and Joe knew without a doubt that he was tightening his finger on the trigger beneath the table.
“And I’m tellin’ you again. I ain’t lettin’ no card cheat…” the man emphasized the term loudly, “…walk off with my money.”
The repeated slur fanned the flames of Joe’s temper and started to push aside what remained of his common sense. He knew he was in danger of losing control, but the fact that this poor loser was capable of goading him into doing something foolish only increased his anger. He felt the eyes of the saloon’s patrons on him.
If he got up and walked out now, what would all these people think? Maybe he really was cheating — after all, he wouldn’t have given up so easily otherwise, would he? Never figured Joe Cartwright for a coward… Little Joe, bailed out of trouble by his big brothers once again…
“Joe. Leave it.” Adam didn’t care what was running through his thoughts, and apparently he wasn’t as concerned with the opinions of the crowd as Joe was. But Adam’s short directive was hard and sharp, and if circumstances had been different, Joe would’ve thought twice about ignoring his orders.
However, Joe’s pride had always been a powerful force. He didn’t lie, and he didn’t cheat, and the thought of allowing this man to pin such labels on him made the bile rise in his throat. He held the stranger’s eyes, unwilling to let him win.
Hoss this time, his voice as authoritative as Adam’s had been. And then Hoss moved forward and dropped his own massive hand onto Joe’s and forcibly lifted it from the table. Joe made one token attempt to fight against him, but a quick squeeze from Hoss’ thick fingers cleared his head, and he grudgingly pulled his hand back to his side.
Hoss never looked at him. Instead, he kept his gaze on the stranger.
“All right now, mister, we’re going to ease on out of here. You go ahead and take the money, and you can take my advice while you’re at it: get out of Virginia City and go back to wherever it is you came from.” Hoss’ voice was rumbling and ominous and Joe saw a shot of fear flicker across the icy blueness of the man’s eyes before it was quickly covered again by sullen resentment.
“Come on, let’s go.” It was Adam again. Joe didn’t know exactly when, but his oldest brother had moved around until he was standing behind Joe’s chair, and his hand had dropped onto Joe’s shoulder with the same no-nonsense force that had been conveyed by Hoss’ heavy hand.
Joe’s natural obstinacy flared for one brief instant, and then receded as he remembered the reason for his brothers’ wary caution — the stranger still held a gun beneath the table. A false move now would put not only himself in danger but Hoss and Adam as well. Pulling in a slow breath, Joe at last yielded and did as they asked. Tightening his jaw against heated words, he rose from his chair and turned away. While Hoss and Adam backed away from the stranger and his cohorts, Joe jerked the brim of his hat down low over his eyes and headed for the door.
He was halfway there when the stranger spoke again.
“Smart move, kid. Your brothers just saved you from making the last mistake you’d ever have made.”
Joe stopped in his tracks.
Adam murmured another short warning. “Joe.” It was enough. Joe pushed himself into moving forward again.
Joe kept walking. He was pushing through the swinging doors into the fresh air outside when the stranger delivered the final blow.
“Is it true what they say about your mother?”
The rest of what he said would forever remain a jumbled mess in Joe’s mind. Black rage surged through and over him as insults, cruel and dirty, dripped from the stranger’s mouth. In the next instant, he flung himself toward the man, and it was as though he saw him at the end of a tunnel. He was blind and deaf to everything else; he had to reach him to shut his filthy mouth, and that was all in the world that mattered.
He didn’t make it, and that, too, made him angry. His body jerked as the bullet slammed into him, spinning him around and stealing his breath with its force. He landed on his belly on the saloon floor, and both the impact and the pain of his wound caused all that blinding fury to wane enough to make him aware of his brothers’ shouts and more gunshots. Somewhere a woman was screaming, and a table overturned and crashed to the floor. Men shouted; the sound of breaking glass sounded close to Joe’s ear.
He ignored all of it. A few feet away from him, the stranger crashed to the floor, and Joe clawed his way over to him, leaving a trail of his own blood to mix with the spilled beer and tobacco juice streaking the dirty plank floor. The next thing he knew he was straddling the man, his shaking hands squeezed hard about the stranger’s neck as his entire being demanded vindication.
Suddenly he realized that all had gone quiet around him. But inside his head, the stranger’s vile words still reverberated with a deafening roar.
“Little Joe. Stop, boy. It’s done.” It was Hoss. He pulled gently at Joe’s hands. Joe angrily pushed him away. “Joe. He’s dead. Adam shot him. He’s dead, Joe.”
The words filtered through the thickening haze in Joe’s mind, echoing in his head as if being shouted from a great distance. Only Hoss wasn’t shouting. He spoke gently, quietly, as if to a wounded animal. Joe stiffened, but he allowed Hoss to slowly unwrap his fingers from around the man’s throat. He raised his head then and looked at his brother, but the unshed tears shimmering in his own eyes had reduced his vision to an indistinct blur of shapes and shadows.
And now even that began to fade and grow dark.
“He shouldn’t have said those things, Hoss,” Joe whispered.
“No. He shouldn’t have,” Hoss whispered back, and his face was very close to Joe’s. “Joe, can you…? Joe? …. Little Joe, can you hear me?”
Joe felt his body waver and begin to fall, and a strong arm went around his shoulders.
“Easy, boy, we’ve got you.” It was Adam, but a slight tremor twisted through his voice, and the sound of it bothered Joe.
His chest was on fire. God, it hurt. He dropped his head to try to see how badly he’d been injured, but he wasn’t even sure where he’d been shot. There was blood all over the front of his shirt. Hoss’ hands were passing swiftly over him, and they, too, were covered with blood.
“…can’t find it,” Hoss was saying, and Joe sighed. He had done it again. Despite his best efforts, he had let his temper get the best of him. Stupid, letting himself get shot over a card game.
No, not a card game. Over dirty lies coming from a man whose opinion meant nothing to him, or should mean nothing. Stupid, stupid…. But even as he berated himself, he knew in his heart that he could no more have stopped himself from flying toward that man than he could’ve stopped the setting of the sun. Holding back would’ve taken a strength Joe knew he didn’t possess. “I’m sorry,” he managed, and the last thing he heard before his body gave way was Adam’s soft curse.
Sound and light faded in and out. Whispers. Whispers in a saloon? His eyes flickered open, and even though his vision was dim and wavy, he made out the shapes of people standing, lots of them. Cowboys and miners and gamblers, all crowded around him, their faces solemn and grave. Like they were in a church rather than a saloon. Joe wanted to laugh with the incongruity of it, but laughter was out of the question. Mere breath was hard to come by, and with that realization came fright. He struggled against both the fear and the tightness gripping his lungs.
“Easy, Joe. You’ve…we’re going…just hold on…” In spite of his efforts to pay attention, Joe kept missing chunks of the conversation going on around him. Still, he knew it was Adam’s voice, moving in and out of his head, soft and deep. Joe flinched when the softness of his words gave way to angry shouts so loud they hurt his ears. His eyes fell shut again. “Somebody…Doc Martin!”
“Gee, Adam, take it easy.” He thought he spoke the words out loud, but as he managed to reopen one eye just a crack, he saw that Adam had his head turned away, and he realized that he himself had actually said nothing at all.
Trying to speak again was too much effort. He sighed and listened to the sound of boot heels striking the wooden floor, pounding hard as they disappeared into the distance. More whispers and murmurings.
“…bank…to get Pa. He’s…I don’t know how…coming…blood…too much…”
Hoss, sounding — well, kind of un-Hosslike, really. Scared. Breathing hard. And shaky, just like Adam.
He wasn’t given time to dwell on it. The pain was swelling now, reaching up and pulling him down, and he tried to draw away from it. For a short time he succeeded and drifted away, but too soon he was back again. His head fell to the side, his cheek pressed against the crook of Adam’s elbow, and for some strange reason, his eyes fastened onto the exceedingly grubby state of the saloon floor. As saloons went, the Bucket of Blood was more or less well kept, but he supposed lying so near boot level gave a man a new perspective. The dusty planks were strewn with old sawdust, stale beer that rose rankly into his nostrils, and spent tobacco juice from men who didn’t waste time aiming for a spittoon. There were other substances that he didn’t care to identify, and among it all, smeared across the floor next to him, he could see a dark wetness that he knew to be his own blood. He shifted and felt his shirt cling damply to his back, and again he wanted to laugh as he found himself actually hoping it was blood and not something even less appealing.
“Tobacco spit on my shirt,” he mumbled, and Hoss’ face swam into view.
“What’s that, Punkin?”
But he couldn’t gather the strength to speak again, and he knew his thoughts weren’t making any kind of sense anyway. He shut his eyes again because Hoss looked like he wanted to cry, and he didn’t want to see him looking like that. Not Hoss. Then sound started moving in and out on him again. It was the strangest thing, as if he kept getting his head ducked underwater and having his senses shut off from the outside world.
“…where…who the…doctor!” Even though Joe couldn’t catch all the words, Adam was shouting as loud as he had ever heard him. If he could find the energy, he’d sure clap his hands over his ears, for his oldest brother was sure enough going to burst his eardrums if he didn’t cut out all that yelling.
Something wasn’t right. He felt odd. Loose, disjointed. As a kid, he’d often had dreams where he was able to float up off the ground and soar up over and above the trees, just like a bird. He felt as if he could do that now—go flying up over all the buildings of Virginia City, over the trees, over the mountains. Just float along, with nothing but the sound of the wind in his ears until the sky just swallowed him up.
He was hurt bad, he knew. Dang, he’d messed up. Should’ve listened. Should’ve walked away as soon as Hoss and Adam had told him to. If he had, he wouldn’t be here now, lying in blood and rank beer and spit and God only knew what else. He wanted to get away, away from the pain, away from the smells that were beginning to make his stomach pitch. He thought of the clean, cold air high over the mountains…
“…away, Joe…stay with us, boy…”
Adam was shaking him slightly, just hard enough to make Joe force his eyes open. There they were, both his brothers, heads brushing against one another as they peered down at him. They looked scared and desperate, and they were both talking to him, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. They wanted something from him, and he felt bad that he couldn’t seem to rouse himself enough to figure out exactly what it was. As he drifted away again, it was to the sound of both of their voices calling his name.
He watched the man’s broad hand come down on his own.
”You’re a cheat.”
“Mister, I was just lucky. That’s all.”
Just lucky. Just lucky.
“Your mother…is it true what they say?”
Is it true what they say? Just lucky. I’ve always been lucky.
“You’re a cheat. And your mother…”
He thought he must’ve slept, because when he became aware of his surroundings again, he had the distinct impression that time had passed. How much, he didn’t know. Ten minutes, an hour — a week. No way of knowing. He became aware of a warm palm resting against his cheek, and he instinctively turned into it. Pa.
“…be fine, son. Doc Martin…just hold on…”
Joe blinked. Pa’s face was near his, dark eyes clouded with anguished worry.
Joe clutched at his father’s shirt, a sudden inexplicable panic moving up in his throat. “He shouldn’t have said it,” Joe whispered. The stranger’s words seemed to be all his head was capable of holding onto. “He…Mama…” He didn’t know if Pa could even hear him, but it suddenly seemed important that he know why Joe had lost his temper this time.
Pa’s voice, questioning, only Joe couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. Hoss said something, and then the low tones of Adam’s voice came from somewhere behind Joe’s head. At Adam’s words, Pa’s hand gave a tiny, spasmed jerk, but if Pa said anything in return, Joe missed it. His eyes shut again, and he was too tired to hang on even though everyone kept telling him to, and he sank down once more into soft, comforting darkness. This time, he dreamt of his mother.
He stirred awake again, and the smell of smoke and stale beer was gone. In its stead was the scent of clean linen and something else he couldn’t define, a cloying, sweetish scent, something he had smelled before but couldn’t place in his memory. The slightly metallic smell of blood hung over everything else.
“…Paul…you save my boy…I won’t…”
“….critical….long haul…can’t promise…”
More disjointed conversation. Frustration built within him over his apparent inability to keep his hearing connected to his brain. He shivered, and realized that his shirt was gone. He struggled to open his eyes, and saw that he was covered from foot to chest with a sheet; the whiteness of it glowed like snow as the light from the room’s one window fell across it, the cloth marred only by a large red stain where it covered his chest. He could feel the slight itchiness of the muslin against his bare thighs and torso, and he thought about squirming out from beneath it, but then a gray shadow leaned over him. He squinted to make it out. “Doc…”
Doc Martin’s face shimmered into view. “…have to keep still, Joe…won’t be long…you need….”
Everything was so hard to understand, and Joe hurt too badly to try. Again he let his eyes fall shut. At least he was able to place the odd smell now; Doc Martin’s appearance had slipped that puzzle into place. Ether. The smell grew stronger, and then stronger still as something came down over Joe’s face, suffocating him. Panicked, he struggled against it. Doc Martin’s voice was washing over him in soothing tones, but it did nothing to quell his fear. He heard Doc shout, and then strong hands pressed against him, holding him….
The stranger with the ice-blue eyes clapped his hand over Joe’s.
“Is it true what they say?” the stranger asked, and his laughter echoed against the inside of Joe’s skull.
Joe strained to pull his hand away.
“….more ether…don’t let go…”
“…keep Ben…those boys out of here…”
The crash of what sounded like metal cutlery hitting the floor resonated like thunder in his head, and he heard Doc swear. That struck him as kind of funny, even under the circumstances. He hadn’t realized that Doc Martin ever swore. Then his breath was being cut off again, and it wasn’t funny any more. He struggled, trying to twist away from what felt like a huge, smothering hand across his mouth.
”Give me your hand, Joseph.”
His mother smiled at him. He grinned back at her, but he didn’t obey.
“You don’t need to hold my hand, Mama. I’m four years old, not a baby.”
“…hold…hold him down…”
“…strong young buck…Ben…out!”
”Joseph, give me your hand.”
He cocked his head and looked at Mama, wondering how far he could press her. “Why? Will you always have to hold my hand?” he asked. He knew his tone was grumpy and petulant, but he didn’t care.
“I will hold it as long as you need to have it held.”
“I don’t need it held anymore. I’m big enough to cross on my own.”
“Joseph…” she said warningly. He hesitated, and then he sighed and held out his hand. She clasped it tightly as they crossed the little stream, stepping from rock to rock until they reached the grassy bank on the other side.
“There it is, Mama! The wild strawberry patch!” he said, and pulled away from her to dash into the tangle of dark green plants with their glistening gems of fruit. “And the bears haven’t eaten ‘em all up! Pa said they would, but they didn’t.”
“So they haven’t. We’ll be able to fill the basket in no time, Little Joe.”
“And we can have strawberry pie after supper,” Joe reminded her, sitting down in the dirt and popping a ripe berry into his mouth.
“Yes, and we can put away some jars of strawberry jam as well.”
“Hoss loves strawberry jam,” he said, filling his mouth with another sun-warmed strawberry.
“Yes, he does.” Mama smiled again as she began to quickly relieve the plants of their small burdens.
Joe got up and dropped a few berries of his own into the basket, but the sweet taste of the fruit beckoned him back, and soon he was busy chewing again. With the woods quiet around him, he watched his mother. Moving among the plants with her mossy brown eyes and creamy skin, she seemed like one of the fairies of the forest she often told him about, and it made him think of something he had wanted to ask her for some time now.
“Is it true what they say?”
“Is what true, Joseph?”
“That you have secrets?”
She turned her head sharply to look at him, and straightened. “Secrets?”
He nodded and stuffed two more berries into his mouth. “They say you have secrets you don’t want anybody to know about. Is that true?”
She set the basket down and walked over to him, lowering herself to the ground and facing him squarely. “Who says I have secrets?”
He shrugged. “People.” He put out his tongue to lap up the dribble of juice running down his chin.
“They say this to you?”
He noticed a bush a few feet away, heavily laden with bright red berries, and he started to move toward it, but she caught him by the arm.
“Joseph. Do they say this to you?”
He looked up at her, startled by the tremor in her voice and the tightness in her grip.
“No, Mama,” he whispered. “They don’t say it to me. I just hear people talk about it sometimes.” Now his mother was visibly upset, and he wished he had never brought the subject up. He had been only mildly curious about the talk of Mama’s “secrets” that he had heard ladies whispering about from behind gloved hands. But obviously that talk involved something that was distressing to her.
He brought his red-stained fingers up to touch her cheek. “Don’t worry, Mama,” he told her solemnly. “It’s okay if you want to keep secrets. I do it sometimes.”
She caught his hand and kissed his palm, and then held it pressed against her lips. Dismayed, he watched tears appear at the end of her dark lashes. The droplets trembled there for a moment, glistening in the sun like dew on strawberries before they fell and slid down her face.
“Mama?” He heard the shakiness in his own voice, but he was frightened by the sadness he seemed to have caused her. She shook her head and dashed the tears from her face with her free hand, but she held tightly onto him with the other. She pulled him onto her lap, not minding that his trousers were dirty and might spoil her dress, and she gave him a bright smile that shook only a little.
“I do have a secret, you know.” She leaned forward to rest her forehead against his. “A secret treasure.”
His face brightened. “You do? What kind of treasure?”
She squeezed him tightly. “A strong, brave little boy who is worth more than his weight in gold, more than all the wealth in the world. I am so very lucky, Little Joe. So lucky…”
Is it true what they say? Is it true…?
“…Joe? Can you hear me? Joseph…”
“…out of it…time…”
He sat in the dirt, playing marbles with Hoss while Adam leaned against the spindly trunk of a shrub oak watching them. Pa and Mama were inside a tent building buying supplies.
Joe had been disappointed when they had arrived “in town.” Didn’t look like any town he’d ever seen, not that he’d seen that many. But he’d been to both San Francisco and Sacramento this past year, so he knew what a town was supposed to look like, and this wasn’t it. More like a rabbit trail with a row of tents on both sides, he’d told Mama, and she’d laughed.
“It will be a town someday, Joseph,” she’d said. “Wait and see.”
That might be, and it wasn’t as far from the Ponderosa as Sacramento or San Francisco, but for now it wasn’t a very exciting place, which was why he and Hoss were busying themselves with marbles and dirt while they waited.
He was winning, even if Adam occasionally chastised him with a mild reproach for constantly changing the rules of the game. But Adam winked at Hoss every time he said something, and Joe knew he wasn’t really mad. He suspected Hoss was a little perturbed, though, so he turned his best smile toward him and was gratified to see the frown on his brother’s face disappear.
The right kind of smile at the right time could work wonders, he was learning. His opponent appeased for the moment, Joe went back to trying to shoot the marbles in the direction he wanted them to go.
A shadow fell across him and the game, and he looked up, surprised.
“You don’t look much like your pa, do you, boy?”
Joe glanced at Hoss, who was staring open-mouthed at the man casting his long shadow over them. Joe looked back at the man, and realized that it was him, Joe, who the man was talking to. And it was true enough what the man said, too. He did look more like Mama than Pa. Everybody said so, even Pa.
Off to the side, Adam slowly pushed himself off the shrub oak to stand up straight. Joe looked at his face for a clue as to how to react to this man, but Adam’s face was as still and expressionless as stone. Beside him, Hoss began to scoop the marbles back into their little leather bag.
“Come on, Joe, it’s time to quit playin’,” Hoss said, and Joe noticed that he no longer made eye contact with the man standing over them. “Pa and Mama will be along soon.”
The man leaned down close to them. He reached out and roughly patted the top of Joe’s head.
“Nope, you don’t look much like Ben Cartwright. Handsome little cuss, though, ain’t you? All those soft curls… I reckon you must take after your mama’s side of the family.”
Adam took a step toward them. Uncertain, Joe looked up at the man and offered him a smile. He didn’t seem like a bad man, especially when he grinned back at Joe.
“What do you want, mister?” Adam’s voice was so hard and sharp it made Joe jump, and he glanced back at his brother as the man removed his hand from his head. Adam’s face was still calm, but Joe had seen that look in his eyes before. He meant business, and it wasn’t the same kind of business he used with little brothers. At seventeen, Adam’s height was ahead of his weight, but he was strong, and when he looked like that, it meant he was getting ready to tangle with somebody.
Why he looked like he wanted to tangle with this fella, though, Joe didn’t know.
Joe looked up at the man again, wondering if he had any idea of what that look in Adam’s eyes meant, or of what a good fighter Adam was.
Apparently he didn’t, because he hunkered down and held out his hand. “Come here, Joseph.”
“No, Joe,” Hoss blurted, but Joe placed his hand in the man’s rough palm, having already decided that both his brothers were being overly cautious. The man knew his name, for Pete’s sake. Knew Mama and Pa, too, apparently. Couldn’t be much of a stranger, then, could he?
The man chuckled and pulled Joe closer, and Joe eyed him with interest.
“Turn loose of him.” Adam’s voice was dark and frightening, enough to cause a thread of unease to crawl up the back of Joe’s neck. Still kneeling in the dirt with the bag of marbles clutched in one hand, Hoss looked up at Adam as if waiting to be told what to do.
The man ignored Adam. He kept his eyes on Joe’s face. Joe decided to ignore Adam, too. It wasn’t often that a grownup man chose to direct his attention toward him rather than his older brothers or Pa, and it made Joe feel kind of important, actually.
The man kept smiling. “Yessir, I’ll bet your mama thinks the sun rises and sets in you, don’t she, boy? I’ll bet she’d do just about anything to keep you safe, wouldn’t she?”
Joe nodded. Yep, his mama would do anything to keep him safe. He knew that.
“What do you want?” Adam asked again, and he kept his teeth gritted together while he said it. The suppressed anger in his voice made Joe squirm, and for the first time it occurred to him that maybe there was something going on here that he knew nothing about. Seemed like there were always secrets he wasn’t privy to. Not like Adam. Adam was pretty much a grownup, and he knew lots of grownup secrets.
For the first time, the man directed his words directly toward Adam. “What do I want? Why, nothin’, Cartwright. ‘Course, now, if that sweet stepmama of yours was to ask me that, why, I’d want somethin’, all right…“
Joe had seen Adam move quick before, but he’d never seen him move anywhere near as fast as he did then. One minute he was standing a few feet away, leaning with his weight on one leg like he did when he was thinking or listening, and the next minute he was leaping forward and throwing a punch at the man’s chin with his right hand and grabbing the back of Joe’s collar with his left. Hoss jumped to his feet, the bag of marbles spilling forgotten into the dust. Joe stumbled across them as Adam shoved him toward Hoss.
“Get him out of here!” Adam shouted.
Then Joe’s breath left him with a “whoomph” sound as Hoss tucked him under one arm like a bag of flour and started running for the shanty where Mama and Pa were still looking over supplies. Hoss was hollering for them both at the top of his lungs, and his running jounced Joe up and down so hard his teeth rattled. Joe looked back, and then he started yelling, too, because the man was beating Adam up.
Maybe it wasn’t always good to know grownup secrets. Sometimes they got you hurt.
“Little Joe? Can you hear me, boy?”
He blinked, and his father’s face shimmered into view.
Is it true what they say?
“Joseph.” Pa’s hand was warm around the back of his head. Joe felt long, strong fingers thread gently through his hair. “Son. Can you hear me?”
“Pa?” One word, and it took so much effort.
“That’s right, son. We’re here, all of us.”
He didn’t miss the worry in Pa’s voice, and he felt a twinge of guilt, for he knew he was the cause of it. He should talk more, let Pa know that he was all right. He’d been lucky, he knew; otherwise he wouldn’t still be here.
Talking took a lot of strength, though, something he was becoming increasingly surprised to find out.
“Do you know where you are?” His oldest brother’s deep, quiet voice, full of intensity. Joe moved his eyes to Adam’s, dark and sharp and as full of worry as Pa’s.
Adam knew lots of grownup secrets.
“Doc’s?” Joe whispered in answer to Adam’s question, less because he was sure of his surroundings and more because it seemed a good guess. For such a puny answer, though, it seemed to satisfy his family, because they all looked at each other and smiled.
“You’re a darned lucky little cuss, you know that?” Hoss said. His big hand lay on Joe’s leg in a protective gesture, and Joe wondered briefly how long it had been there. He drew comfort from the feel of it now, the heat and size of it lying like a shield across his thigh. Adam stood over him like some kind of fierce guardian. And Pa’s hand, still lying warm against his cheek…just as he had done since he was very small, Joe rubbed his face against it.
Lucky. Always been lucky…
Your mother…is it true what they say?
There were things he needed to know. Old secrets that he needed to dust the cobwebs off of. Answers he needed to hear.
But he didn’t need to hear them today.
He drifted back off to sleep.
”Give me your hand, Joseph.”
“Will you always hold my hand, Mama?”
“I will hold it as long as you need to have it held.”