Summary: A What Happened Instead for the episode “Night of the Sword”
Word Count: 8432
General Jin Tsung’s black eyes glittered as he looked down on the softly glowing lights of the ranch house. There it lay, nestled comfortably among the pines—the home of the Cartwrights. It was one den of mongrels among many to be found in this ignorant, uncultured country, but the only one which concerned him.
Cartwright. It was a name he had never heard of until a year ago, when it had suddenly become a name to hate above all others. Now, at long last, the honor and peace of his ancestors would be restored.
The death of his older brother, Mu Tsung, would be avenged before the night was out.
The bunkhouse was empty, he knew. Earlier in the evening, he had watched Ben Cartwright hold court in the yard as the payroll was distributed; most of the hands had gone into Virginia City afterwards. He had patiently waited and watched the Ponderosa for the last two weeks, and he knew payday meant the hands would be in town late into the night, drinking and carousing. Only two had elected not to go along and had remained at the bunkhouse; those two had already been disposed of.
It was time.
He gave a quick nod to Major Chao, who, in turn, motioned to his soldiers. Tsung watched as they dismounted and moved quickly down the slope and into the yard. Silent as shadows, they slipped up to the house and surrounded it, posting themselves with efficient speed at every possible entrance. When a pre-appointed signal was given, they burst through windows and doors with rapid-fire precision. The sound of tinkling glass and splintering wood and deafening gunshots created a harsh cacophony against the soft quiet of the night.
Within moments, all sound ceased and Chao reappeared in the front doorway of the house.
“All is complete, General!” he called.
Seated upon his horse in the darkness, General Tsung smiled.
Ben came to slowly, his head still ringing from the blow he had received. Gingerly, he touched a hand to his brow, frowning when his fingers came away wet with blood.
He was lying on the floor near the dining table, and he lifted his head to look in bewilderment at two Chinese soldiers standing not more than a foot away from him. They looked down at him, their expressions passive and unconcerned. Identical thin mustaches hung several inches down the front of quilted tunics; each held a gun and wore a wickedly curved sword at his side. Hesitantly, Ben turned his head to the left and saw several more men dressed similarly.
They did not speak; the house was quiet — quieter, even, than it had been before the explosion of violence which had disrupted an otherwise routine evening.
A wash of fear sharpened his senses, clearing his mind instantly. He sat up, the pain in his head forgotten.
His boys. Where were his boys?
His eyes darted around the great room, searching frantically for his sons among the crowd of strange men.
There. Hoss sat on the hearth, where he and Joe had been engaged in a checkers game before all hell had broken loose. Five or six armed men stood guarding him. His mouth was turned down in an unhappy scowl, and his face sported several rapidly darkening bruises, but he appeared to be otherwise unharmed.
On the other side of the fireplace, Joseph was pinned against the wall beside the now pilfered gun rack. Ben drew in an alarmed hiss of air; one soldier had a gun aimed at Joe’s head while another had a forearm pressed brutally against his throat, crushing him to the wall and effectively restraining him. The boy’s eyes flashed with frustrated anger, and Ben said a silent prayer that his youngest son wouldn’t try anything foolish.
Two sons accounted for. Ben swept his eyes across the room, and his heart skipped a beat.
Adam lay facedown on the floor in front of the desk. A dark, wet stain was spreading slowly across the back of his shirt.
He wasn’t moving.
“Dear God.” Before he could think, Ben was on his feet and headed toward his oldest son. A barked order and a vicious jab to his ribs stopped him in his tracks.
A fierce anger flooded through him. “I need to see to my son,” he said sharply to the soldier. The soldier didn’t answer.
A rotund man, short in stature, turned from the open door to face him. “Good evening, Mr. Cartwright. I am Major Chao. You will remain where you are until the general arrives,” he stated.
“But my son…“
“You will remain where you are,” the man repeated, and the futility of arguing further was made clear to Ben by the man’s coldly blank expression.
He looked back to see both Hoss and Joe watching him, and he responded to their unspoken question with a short, sharp shake of the head before turning back to stare helplessly at Adam’s still form.
Footsteps moved briskly across the front porch, and every man who wasn’t on guard brought himself to attention. A tall, wiry man swept through the door. He, like Major Chao, wore a small cap rather than the conical hats of the other soldiers, but other than that and the fact that he carried a small riding crop, he was dressed much the same as the others. He stopped just inside the room, letting his hard gaze fall for an instant on Ben, then on each of his sons. He motioned toward Adam.
“That one is dead?”
Chao shrugged. “We have not checked, General Tsung.”
General Tsung walked over to Adam and pushed him in the ribs with the toe of his boot. When he received no response, he nudged again, harder this time.
Ben clenched his fists at his sides, squelching the urge to leap at the Chinaman. A strangled sound from the direction of the gun rack made him turn his head and shout in alarm. “Joseph! No!”
Tsung’s treatment of Adam had pushed Joe past his endurance, and he was straining against his captors. His face grew red with fury and a need for air as the man holding the forearm across his throat shoved harder. Then another soldier drove a fist deep into his belly, and he dropped like a stone.
Joe lay doubled up and writhing in slow agony, and Hoss rose to his feet with a dangerous expression on his face. Ben’s fear grew. Adam was hurt, the Lord only knew how badly. Now Joe was down—the situation was rapidly deteriorating toward what Ben feared would be the point of no return. He sliced a frantic hand in Hoss’ direction. “Hoss, sit down. Sit down!” he commanded, and breathed a small sigh of relief when Hoss slowly obeyed him. Trust Hoss to do what his father asked of him, regardless of the circumstances.
“Self-control is the mark of a wise man, Mr. Cartwright.” Tsung smirked in Joe’s direction. “It is unfortunate that the father’s wisdom did not pass on to his sons.”
“There’s over a thousand dollars in the safe. You’re welcome to that and whatever else I have. Just let me tend to my son.” Ben spoke with cold fury, keeping his eyes on Adam though he addressed his words to Tsung.
Tsung threw his head back and laughed. “How typically American of you. I hold the lives of your entire family in my hands, and you offer me so little?”
What in heaven’s name did the man want? “It’s all I have here,” Ben told him. “Please, take what you want, but let me go to my boy.”
Tsung said nothing for a moment, and then jerked his head toward Adam. “Go ahead. Satisfy yourself as to whether he is alive or dead. Then we shall talk business.”
Ben wasted no time rushing over to Adam. He bent close, desperately searching for signs of life, calling Adam’s name. There was no response. He pressed his fingers against the side of his neck and was rewarded with the beat of a pulse, steady and strong. Ben shut his eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks.
Ben turned to give Hoss a quick, grim nod. “He’s alive.”
No way around it—they were in a heap of trouble.
It had been a nice evening, aside from the fact that they had been obliged to eat Adam’s cooking. Hop Sing was off visiting Number Two Cousin, and, as always, Hoss had been missing the little cook in an awful way. Somehow, pork chops and greens cooked by his older brother just didn’t have the same magic that Hop Sing’s cooking did, although they were a far sight better than the tough steaks Joe had turned out the night before.
His belly’s melancholy had been forgotten, though, due to his good luck in the checkers game Joe had talked him into. He had been careful to keep his eyes on his shifty little brother the whole time, and for once, he had actually been winning.
Then the door had crashed open and the windows had smashed inward, and this horde of Chinese militants had poured in on top of them like a swarm of red ants. Caught unaware, they’d never had a chance. Joe had scrambled for the guns in the rack on the wall, but had been too late. Pa, like himself, had almost instantly been overcome by sheer numbers, and guns fired over their heads had quickly subdued them.
Adam had been at the desk going over paperwork when the attack came, and he’d managed to pull out the gun Pa always kept in the desk drawer, but the one shot he’d managed to get off had missed.
The Chinaman who shot back at him had not.
Now Pa had managed to slow Adam’s bleeding and had bandaged him up as best he could with towels from the kitchen. Other than moving him to the settee, it was all the care Tsung had allowed before ordering Pa out onto the porch where they could ‘speak in private’.
Hoss studied Adam, worry twisting his gut. His brother lay on his back on the settee, face turned away. Hoss couldn’t see much from his seat on the hearth, but the rise and fall of Adam’s chest was visible to him, and he thanked God for it.
He looked up at the window over Pa’s desk, but could see only the night sky from this vantage point. Inside, the soldiers had given them a little more space. A few of them were now stationed out in the yard, and the ones left in the house stood across the room with guns in hand. Any attempt to escape would be quickly tamped down, Hoss knew. Beside him, Joe shifted restlessly. Hoss didn’t need to look at him to know that his eyes were darting quickly around the room, looking for any opportunity that might allow him to gain an advantage.
That was Joe — always anxious to leap, to set things in motion, desperate to move even when there was no direction to move toward. He often reminded Hoss of little Bentwood Creek after a flooding rain, burbling and alive, tumbling over itself and spilling over its banks in its frenetic hurry to run down from the mountains toward Lake Tahoe, as if rushing hard enough would take its waters to an entirely new destination.
Hoss knew in his gut that hurrying wasn’t something they wanted to do right now. Every move they made needed to be carefully considered. Otherwise, they weren’t going to make it out of this alive. By all rights, Hoss thought, they should all be dead already. If robbery was all this General Tsung had in mind, he would’ve already ordered their execution, Hoss was sure of it.
No, there was something more going on.
General Tsung. General Tsung. For all Hop Sing’s stories about his relatives, Chinese names were still foreign to Hoss’ ear. Yet he could swear he had heard this particular name before.
Joe moved again, anxious and fretful. Hoss could feel the boy’s jitteriness building, and it amplified his own. “Settle down, Joe,” he said, using the same quiet voice he used when working with green broke horses. Joe let out a noisy puff of air, but he managed to hold himself still, at least for the time being.
“Hoss…we’ve got to do something…Adam, he’s…,” Joe whispered.
“We’ll get Adam to a doctor just as soon as this all plays out,” Hoss said slowly. If the guards cared that he and Joe were talking, they didn’t show it. They stood in a silent row between the settee and Pa’s desk, staring at their prisoners with narrowed eyes but making no move to stifle their conversation.
“As soon as it plays out? Hoss, we can’t wait for that. Adam…”
“We’ll be in the same shape as Adam if we aren’t careful, and he sure ain’t gonna make it if we get ourselves killed.” Hoss kept his eyes on the guards. “You just keep a tight rein on that temper of yours, Joe. It’s going to be hard enough to ride this one out without you going off half-cocked.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Joe shut his mouth and drop his head, and he felt a smattering of relief. He was trying to think, and it didn’t help that his younger brother was like a lit fuse under his feet.
The door opened suddenly, and Pa stumbled in, followed by General Tsung. One look at Pa’s face, and Hoss felt his stomach drop. Something was very, very wrong.
“It is your decision, Mr. Cartwright. One of your sons killed my brother. I am a reasonable man. I have no desire to harm innocent people. My only wish is to punish the one responsible. Either you tell me which one it is…or all three of your sons shall pay for the one’s sins.”
Ben glared at him. “You know I can’t do that.”
Tsung smiled. “Out of the goodness of my heart, I will give you a chance to reconsider. When a man who has many sons is suddenly reduced to having none…well, there is nothing that strikes a heavier blow to the heart. A sadder sight does not exist.” He paced slowly across the room, smacking his riding crop thoughtfully across one palm as he went, then turned back to face Ben. “As I said, Mr. Cartwright, my only intent is to see that the one responsible for my brother’s death atones for it.” He waited. “No? You would sentence three sons to death for the sake of one?”
Joe watched his pa shut his eyes against the pain of what Tsung was saying to him. ‘The one responsible for my brother’s death’. What was he talking about? Apparently they were supposed to know this man, but Joe didn’t recognize him.
Tsung shrugged. “Very well.” His sword was belted at his side, and he drew it forth now. He moved over to the settee. “I do not make idle threats, Mr. Cartwright. I see that you need convincing.” He raised the heavy sword over Adam’s head.
Pa shouted and moved toward him, but was immediately grabbed and held back by two soldiers. The blood roared in Joe’s ears. He shot to his feet, vaguely aware of Hoss shouting and jumping up and moving beside him. Joe’s vision was closed to all but Tsung and his wickedly glinting sword, and he vaulted across the room at him.
He was cut down in mid-leap by a blow to the ribs, so forceful that it rattled him senseless. He lay on the floor, trying unsuccessfully to suck in air, blinking up through swirls of red and black to see Hoss standing straddled across him. His brother stood with legs splayed wide, big hands tightly gripping the arm of a soldier who had his rifle stock raised to hit him again.
A relieved gust of air left Joe’s lungs as Tsung slowly lowered his sword. Then Tsung shouted a command, and the soldier in Hoss’ grip jerked away and retreated.
“Sit down, Large One,” Tsung commanded. Hoss hesitated, and then did as he was told.
Tsung walked over to Joe and stood looking down at him. “Toothless puppy,” he sneered. “You strike me as one who must be taught again and again before learning the simplest lesson.”
Toothless puppy. The words slammed into Joe’s brain with all the force that the rifle butt had delivered to his ribcage, and memories of another Chinese general surged into his mind.
His name had been Tsung.
General Tsung. How could he have been so stupid? General Tsung had been a cruel, arrogant militant. He had been determined to retake possession of Su Ling, a slave girl who had summarily ended up under the protection of the Cartwrights. Refusing to give up his prior ownership of the girl, he had tried to take her by force. A final confrontation had ended with Joe killing the man with his own sword.
And now his brother was here to exact revenge—a revenge that was threatening the lives of Joe’s entire family.
Joe pulled himself to his feet and faced Tsung squarely.
“Joe.” Pa’s dark eyes flashed a warning at him.
Joe shook his head slowly. It’s no good, Pa. We’re in a spot we can’t get out of. He looked back at Tsung, who cocked his head and gave him an appraising stare.
A soft moan from the settee distracted Joe from saying what he knew he had to say.
“Pa?” The voice was slurred and soft.
Adam was stirring and trying to wake.
He was disoriented and confused, and pulling himself out of the nightmare was more difficult than it should have been.
He hated that feeling—the sensation of being lost and out of control. He even thought he might have called out for Pa, but he wasn’t sure. If he had, he hoped it hadn’t been loud enough to wake anybody. His heart had always gone out to his youngest brother when nightmares grabbed him like that; Joe was, for one reason or another, prone to such things.
But not him. No, never him. He abhorred loss of control in himself.
Even in nightmares.
“Adam? Can you hear me?”
Damn. He had wakened someone—Pa. He opened his eyes to apologize and to assure him that everything was alright.
But he was wrong. Everything most definitely was not alright.
Confusion grabbed hold of him once again as he realized that he wasn’t in his room. A few feet away, Joe stood face to face with a Chinese military officer holding an extraordinarily menacing-looking sword. No sooner had he taken that in than a shooting pain slammed through his right shoulder.
And he remembered. It hadn’t been a nightmare at all. It had been real. Horrifyingly so.
Adam struggled to sit up, and caught a glimpse of several Chinese soldiers standing stiffly off to his right.
Pa’s hand pushed him back down. “Stay still, son. You’ll start bleeding again.”
Of course. He’d been shot. His mind rushed to a crystal clear sharpness, no doubt due, at least in part, to the keen pain in his shoulder. He remembered bending over the books at Pa’s desk, then the horrendous racket and total chaos. He had grabbed the gun out of the drawer as the strangers had burst in, and had aimed it toward the first one surging toward him. He thought he had pulled the trigger, but he wasn’t sure. He remembered the shots being fired. He remembered getting hit.
And now here he was, flat on his back, hurting like the devil, apparently being held hostage with the rest of his family by a band of Chinese thugs.
He winced as another wave of pain rippled through his chest and back. “How bad is it?” he asked, and he looked at Pa hard. No sugarcoating, Pa.
Pa smiled haltingly, and patted his hand. “You’ll be alright,” he said. “One bullet. It passed back out under your shoulder.”
Could be worse, could be better. Could most definitely be better. Adam wasn’t fooled. He forced a smile to comfort his father. “In and out, slick and clean,” he said. He knew as well as anyone that just because the bullet wasn’t lodged somewhere didn’t mean damage hadn’t been done. He needed a doctor soon, and he knew it.
He looked past Pa’s worried face to Hoss, who sat uneasily on the hearth. Hoss looked back at him, and attempted a half-hearted smile.
“Seems we got us a situation here, Adam,” Hoss said, and then his eyes shifted back toward Joe and the officer.
A situation indeed.
He turned his face back up to his pa’s. “What’s going on?” he asked.
Pa shook his head. “This…General Tsung is here looking for his brother’s killer.”
General Tsung. Looking for his brother’s killer.
He knew that name. Adam looked back at the Chinaman, and everything clicked into place. He remembered another General Tsung, and how they had protected pretty little Su Ling from him. The girl had been a delight to have in their household, and he would never forget the cruel demeanor of the man who had insisted upon owning her.
He bit back the pain in his chest and made sure his voice came out clear and strong. “General Tsung,” he said, “I do recall that your brother came here looking for Su Ling. He had kept her as a slave, and wanted to take her as one of his wives.”
General Tsung inclined his head and smiled coldly. “You catch on quickly. I am relieved at your intelligence. Such astuteness is much appreciated in a country that runs rampant with ignorance.”
“I also recall that Su Ling declined his offer of marriage, so he tried to take her against her will.”
The smile disappeared. “She was his property, and therefore not entitled to have a will of her own. A concept I would be happy to debate with you at another time.”
“Adam…General Tsung wants us to turn over the one that did it,” Hoss said carefully. “He says he doesn’t want to kill all of us. He only wants the one who did the killing.” His eyes caught Adam’s and held, and Adam understood what he was trying to tell him.
Joe would be a dead man as soon as Tsung figured out that he had been the one who had killed his brother. Adam had no doubt that Tsung did, indeed, intend to kill all of them in the end. So why didn’t he just do it?
There was only one reason he could think of for Tsung to be putting so much effort into finding out exactly which one of them had done it. He must have something special in mind for that person. Adam didn’t like to think about what that might be, so he decided not to dwell on it at all. His time would be better spent trying to figure a way out.
They had to delay for as long as possible. It was the only hope for Joe—the only hope for them all. For the life of him, though, he couldn’t imagine how they would hold on long enough for help to arrive. The clock above Pa’s desk showed a quarter after nine. The hands wouldn’t be back from Virginia City for hours. He knew a couple of them had stayed behind, but surely they would have heard the racket. No, Tsung’s men must have gotten to them.
Joe straightened and pulled his shoulders back, and Adam tensed. The fool kid. Predictably, he was going to sacrifice himself.
Sure enough, Joe started talking. “General Tsung, I…“
Adam cut him off. “You needn’t look any further, General. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
Tsung smiled. “Ah, at last the voice of reason.”
Adam nodded. “I’m your man. I killed your brother.”
Joe was in a tailspin, arguing with Adam, shouting at both him and Tsung. Adam just lay there, ignoring Joe, watching Tsung. And Pa was shouting, too.
Hoss shut his jaw once he realized it was hanging open. Whatever he’d been expecting Adam to say, that hadn’t been it.
It shouldn’t have surprised him, he knew. All Hoss’ life, his older brother had struggled to put himself between his brothers and trouble, as if he could prevent anything bad from ever happening to them if only he tried hard enough.
The favor wasn’t returned often, simply because it wasn’t necessary. Adam was always careful not to get caught in the same sort of situations that Hoss and Joe so often seemed to get bogged down in. On the rare occasions when he did, he usually got himself out before anyone had to help him.
But as far as Hoss could see, this time his brother’s normal cautious ways had deserted him. He had plunked himself right into trouble’s path, and Hoss felt an uncustomary irritation stir within him. Adam had no business putting himself out front, not this time.
Only he already had, and Hoss had no idea how to pull him back.
For now, maybe he could at least prevent Joe’s mouth from getting his neck wrung.
Joe was still yelling, only now it was all at Tsung. Hoss knew what Joe had in mind—he was making a desperate attempt at turning Tsung’s attention away from Adam and back onto himself. From the alarmed looks on Adam’s and Pa’s faces, they also knew what he was up to.
He was dangerously close to the man, and his protests had now turned to insults—not the smartest thing to do when the recipient of those insults was holding onto a crescent-shaped sword that looked like it could chop a whole beef in two with one good swing.
Apparently Tsung didn’t think it was very smart, either. His face darkened with rage, and he tightened his grip on his sword. The soldiers quickly moved forward, but he waved them back with an impatient hand. “Your impudence is surpassed only by your witlessness,” he said, staring at Joe like he was an undiscovered species of bug.
Hoss sucked in his breath. Two brothers, one gravely wounded yet still trying to take charge, the other throwing himself into the fray like a moth drawn to a flame.
Both of them dancing perilously close to death’s door.
He did the only thing he could think of. He stood up, ignoring the guns swinging in his direction, and stepped toward Joe. With one mighty swing, he backhanded his younger brother across the jaw and watched him fall to the floor.
He was back on the floor again, trying to shake the stars from his eyes. Some days it seemed that he spent an inordinate amount of time being knocked down and picking himself up again.
This was one of those days.
This time, though, the blow itself hadn’t stunned him nearly as much as who had delivered it.
Incredulous, he blinked up at Hoss, who flicked him only a quick glance before turning his attention toward Tsung.
“You’ll have to excuse my little brother,” Hoss said. “He’s young and… and…”
“Impetuous?” Adam provided. The look he was giving Hoss was one of astonished disbelief, and Pa’s face mirrored the same shock.
“Yeah, im…im…look, General, he’s just a kid, and he don’t always think before he jumps,” Hoss said.
“If you are trying to convince me of your brother’s consummate foolishness, I assure you, there is no need,” Tsung said coolly. “I can see it for myself.”
“Then it’s pretty hard to imagine that he could have gotten the drop on your brother, ain’t it? Would your brother ever have been outsmarted by a wet-behind-the-ears youngster like this?”
Tsung cocked his head and stared down at Joe, lips pursed in contemplation.
Joe clambered to his feet. “Don’t listen to him, General. I killed your brother, alright. He was…”
He saw Hoss’ fist coming this time, but he still couldn’t manage to move quickly enough to get himself out of the way. His cheek slammed hard against the wooden planks of the floor. He rolled slowly onto his back, wanting to say more but not sure if he could get his smarting jaw to comply. He touched it gingerly, and winced as he moved it experimentally back and forth.
Tsung was still looking at him. “Perhaps you are right,” he said thoughtfully. “I do find it hard to believe that Mu Tsung was taken in by one so inconsequential.”
Joe glared back at him. Then his stomach sank as Tsung turned away to look at Adam.
“But this one…yes, this one is clever.” He nodded decisively. “I will accept this one’s confession as truth. I do not believe he would be stupid enough to lie.”
“My brother Adam is smart, alright,” Hoss said. “But he’s more a man of books and words than action. Your brother was a great military leader, ain’t that right? Do you know exactly how he died?”
Joe sat up slowly, still rubbing his aching jaw, and looked at Adam and Pa. Their expressions told him they were at as much a loss for words as he was.
Hoss, what are you doing?
Tsung’s eyes narrowed. “I was told that he was stabbed with his own sword.”
Hoss nodded. “No offense to my brother Adam, but do you really think he would have the strength to grab the sword away from a man like your brother and kill him with it? I don’t think so.”
“Damn right, I would!” Adam bellowed. He was staring at Hoss like he’d grown an extra head. It was rare to hear him yell like that. Joe would have laughed out loud if the situation hadn’t been so serious.
“Silence!” Tsung stared at Hoss, his eyes calculating. “Exactly what are you trying to say, Large One?”
Hoss shrugged. “There’s only one of us that would have the strength to overpower your brother enough to be able to yank that sword away from him.”
“You are saying that you—you?—are responsible for my brother’s death?”
“Yessir, I reckon I am.”
Adam groaned. “This is ridiculous,” he muttered.
Joe picked himself up once more, but Adam noticed he was careful to move out of Hoss’ reach before he opened his mouth again.
“Come on, General, don’t you see what he’s trying to do?” Joe spat. “I’m the one who killed your brother. Me.” He shook his head. “General Tsung and I had fought, and his sword ended up on the ground. I picked it up and threw it to keep him from shooting me.” He stared hard at Tsung. “I was lucky enough to hit him with it, and I can’t say I’m sorry. So do what you think you have to do, but leave my family out of it.”
Adam shut his eyes.
The room was quiet for a moment, and then Tsung exploded.
“Enough!” he roared. “I tire of all this childish foolishness.” He took a breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was controlled. He started to pace, slapping his riding crop in his hand, looking at each of them in turn. “I am a respected leader in China, and I have no desire to worsen relationships between my country and yours. Therefore, I have tried to be fair and lenient with all of you, even after what your family did to mine. And what have you done? You have taken my good will and thrown it back in my face by wasting my time, leading me in circles.”
“General, your brother was killed in self-defense,” Pa said. “Surely you can’t…“
“Oh, but I can, Mr. Cartwright. And I will.” Tsung’s pacing stopped, and he stood in front of the settee. “I have been extremely foolish to believe that I would be able to deal with a group of Americans in an intelligent manner. Perhaps I should have simply killed you all in the beginning.” He paused. “I am sure you have all wondered why I have not done exactly that.”
“I thought you said it was because you had no desire to damage relationships between our country and yours.” Though the words were civil, the sarcasm dripped thick as molasses from Adam’s tongue.
“Come on, Adam, we all know that General Tsung here could care less about that,” Hoss said softly. “By the time anybody finds us, he’ll be long gone. Won’t nobody be able to figure out who done it.”
Tsung inclined his head. “Congratulations, Large One. You are almost as clever as your brother. I could easily kill you all and ride away. Ah, but death would be too easy. That is the sole reason that you are still breathing. Oh, you will all die. But first, the Cartwright family must suffer as my family has suffered. Our honor demands it.”
He looked down at Adam and smiled, and the sight of it chilled Adam’s heart. Then, in a lightning fast movement, he brought the crop down across Adam’s chest.
It stung, but not as badly as he would have thought; he was too shocked for the pain to register. But the second strike, dealt immediately after the first, bit like fire. It had him gasping and throwing up an arm for protection.
Pa was trying to move between him and Tsung, but some of the soldiers pulled him away, struggling and shouting.
Little Joe was shouting again — screaming, really — still trying to lunge at Tsung even though several guards had moved in to subdue him. He was calling Tsung names that Adam was shocked he even knew, thrashing against the men restraining him, and getting pounded for his efforts.
Hoss was on his feet, but a couple of guns aimed at his head quickly prevented him from moving further.
The riding crop came down again, and yet again, and Adam rolled to avoid it, falling off the settee and hitting the floor hard. He tried to scramble to his feet, but the bullet wound had left him weaker than he had realized. He made it up to his hands and knees, and then another lash from the crop had him crashing back to the floor, only to be hit again.
At last he stopped struggling, and lay with his cheek resting against the rug which lay between the settee and the fireplace. As the blows continued to rain down, his vision swam, mixing the rusts and blacks and greens of the rug together into a kaleidoscope of muted colors.
His mind began to run from the pain, and latched, curiously, onto the rug. It was Indian in design, having been a gift to his stepmother Marie many years ago from Chief Winnemucca. Over the years, the rug had moved from room to room according to Hop Sing’s whims. Marie had loved it. She said its colors always reminded her of nature, of moss and rocks and earth.
Now those colors were being muddied by his own life’s blood.
Adam heard Pa calling to Tsung, trying to reason with him, and he turned his head to find him. There he was, tied into the blue chair in front of the gun rack. The strain and desperation in his voice as he pleaded with Tsung was palpable, and the pain on his face was enough to drown out Adam’s own agony.
Unable to deal with the sight of his father’s anguish, Adam turned his face away and looked up at Hoss. Hoss stood with fists clenched and teeth gritted, and he was looking hard at the gun barrels pointed his way. His control was teetering on the very edge. Adam knew it was only a matter of seconds before he charged, regardless of how many guns were waiting to mow him down.
Don’t break, Hoss. Don’t break.
Joe was still screaming, still fighting. His voice had begun to crack, making him sound even younger than he was. Through a misty haze, Adam could see his green eyes, wild and shimmering with unshed tears.
Then, with one sudden yank, Joe was miraculously free of the guards and lunging toward him.
Joe, don’t. You’ll never make it. Dear God, please don’t.
But he did. He leaped at Tsung, who whirled and struck out with his sword. A red line blossomed on Joe’s forearm, and he stumbled back. Tsung was right on top of him. In an instant, Joe was lying on the floor with Tsung’s sword blade pressed against his neck.
Joe’s chest heaved as he labored to breathe, sucking in gulps of air between words. “You’re wasting your time…tormenting my brother when…when you should be dealing with me,” he panted. “I chased your brother down, Tsung. Chased him down and…and let him beg for his life before…before I killed him.”
Adam lifted his head from the floor, ignoring the flashes of pain igniting his body. “Joe…” he whispered, his eyes glued to the sword drawing beads of blood from the skin of Joe’s throat.
If Joe heard him, he didn’t pay him any attention. His eyes were fastened on Tsung’s. “What do I have to do to convince you that it was me?” His throat convulsed under the pressure of the blade, and more crimson droplets appeared. “I swear, it was me. It was me.” He shut his eyes, and Adam wanted to call to him, to tell him to deny everything.
“You may stop your yelping, toothless puppy,” Tsung sneered. “I do not need convincing. I know you are the guilty one. I knew immediately.”
“You don’t know that. How can you be so sure?” Hoss growled.
Tsung smirked. “Strength and intelligence alone would not be enough to gain the upper hand with a man like my brother. It would take passion to do that. And this one has passion.” He leaned down, his face inches from Joe’s, and Adam’s heart hammered in his chest. “Ah, but passion without wisdom is like a lion without a head. Always chasing, but blind and easy to cut down.”
“Then do it,” Joe whispered. “Do it, and leave my family alone.”
“And deprive myself of the pleasure of watching you suffer?” Tsung shook his head. “No, I do not think so. Not yet. First, you shall be entertained with the spectacle of watching your family’s lives drain away, one by one. Then, and only then, shall I release you from your pain on earth.” He lifted the sword and stood, giving a nod for the guards to grab Joe again. “Before you are immersed in the pain of your family, I will, however, allow myself the pleasure of giving you some pain of your own.”
With a rapid movement, he slashed the sword along Joe’s arm. Adam felt his own body jerk as Joe tried to twist away.
I’ve got to do something.
Hoss was shouting to him, he realized. He tore his eyes from Joe to look up at Hoss, surprised to see his younger brother glowering at him. Adam shook his head, trying to clear the webs of confusion and fear from his brain.
“Adam, for heaven’s sake, get up,” Hoss barked. “You’ve got to try and get up. Help him!”
“What?” He shook his head, baffled at his brother’s words and tone. He was beaten, defeated. He was still grasping for ideas, but he doubted he could get to his feet even if he tried. Exactly what did Hoss want him to do? Then, to his astonishment, Hoss threw up his hands and simply sat down on the hearth. “You’ve gotta help him, Adam. I can’t do it, not with these fellers holding these cannons in my face.” He bowed forward, dropping his head low.
Tsung laughed. “You are indeed more intelligent than you appear, Large One, even if you are more cowardly than I might have expected. No, if you are not man enough to stand up and fight, I do not believe you can expect your brother to be of any help. Look at him. He is weak as a kitten. Yes, he is finished.” Tsung shrugged and turned back toward Joe. “Just as this one will soon be.”
Tsung’s cruelty had not shocked Adam any more than Hoss’ actions were now doing. For Hoss just to quit, to give up… It was just so out of character for his brother. Maybe they truly were finished. He looked again at his brother and shook his head slowly, not quite believing that it had come to this. In that instant, Hoss raised his head and pinned him with a vivid blue stare. Then he dropped his head back down to look at the floor.
And Adam understood.
Carefully sneaking glances up through his lashes, Hoss watched Adam slowly rise to his feet. He watched, very deliberately not allowing himself to look toward the four men helping Tsung to hold Joe down, because, guns or no, he knew he wouldn’t be able to prevent himself from plowing into them. Tsung was wrong; Adam wasn’t finished, not yet. Adam always seemed to have reserves left, pulling them out of nowhere just when things were darkest.
No, Adam wasn’t finished. But he, Hoss, was. His body was trembling with the effort of holding himself back.
It was taking all his strength to wait…wait…
He stared at the edge of the rug bunching up against the fireplace, and then he looked at his hands. Big, thick hands, strong enough to bend a horseshoe when he put his mind to it. He flexed his arms, watching the muscle cord up along his forearms.
And he said a prayer that his strength would be enough now.
Adam was moving, lurching toward Tsung. The two soldiers standing closest to Hoss shouted a warning, and the two who had been watching the proceedings jerked their heads up and rushed toward Adam, reaching him just before he got to Tsung.
In that instant, Hoss reached for the edge of the rug, grabbed it hard in his fists, and yanked.
Men fell like dominoes to lie in a tangled web of clattering guns and thrashing arms and legs. Hoss snatched up the fireplace poker resting to his right and surged forward, lashing out with the heavy iron rod, immediately felling two soldiers as they tried to regain their feet.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pa, still tied in the blue chair, jerk his legs straight out and ram his boots hard into a man’s kneecap. The man went down, dropping his gun, and Adam scrambled to grab it. He hit the floor, rolled over and pulled the trigger just in time to shoot a soldier leaping toward Hoss. Before the man could fall all the way to the floor, Hoss had his gun and was firing it alongside Adam. Three shots, four, five, six. They shot without aiming, firing at every soldier lunging toward them, picking up fallen guns to replace their empty ones and then shooting some more.
In the center of the maelstrom, Joe was locked in a hand-to-hand struggle for Tsung’s sword. Hoss knocked another guard out of the way to try to reach him. Before he could get there, the front door banged open, and the guards posted outside surged in. Hoss emptied his gun into them as Adam did the same.
The noise of gunfire and shouts was deafening, but not as much as the booming silence which followed. Hoss became aware of the harsh sound of his own breathing mixing with Adam’s as they stood, waiting, until they were satisfied that it was over.
Slowly, Hoss bent to pick up a sword. He staggered over to Pa to cut him loose, and when he turned back, Adam was sinking to his knees. Hoss reached out and caught him before he lost his balance altogether. Gently, he pried the gun, slick with Adam’s own blood, out of his brother’s hands.
“Easy, now,” he murmured. “You look like you just did a jig with a big ole’ she-bear, older brother.”
Adam made what almost passed for a chuckle, but the sound was too pain filled for that. “Had to be more than one bear,” he sighed.
Then Pa was on his knees beside them. “Dear God,” he whispered, running his hand over Adam’s pale face. “Dear God.” It seemed to be all he was capable of saying. Hoss knew how he felt.
Together, they braced Adam upright, but he was shaking his head and pushing them away.
“Get Joe,” he said, but Hoss was already turning in that direction.
Hoss could see the dusky gloss of Joe’s hair peeking out from beneath a tangle of arms and legs, and he began to crawl over the sprawled bodies to reach him. “Joe. Joe, it’s all over,” he called.
Joe didn’t answer, and a wave of numbing fear iced Hoss’ veins. He grabbed hold of a soldier’s leg and pulled him off of his little brother, and then stopped cold.
Tsung lay face down on top of Joe, and a pool of blood flowed like water around them, puddling up in garish contrast to the ashen whiteness of Joe’s face.
The heavy weight made it hard to breathe. He wanted to push it off, but he couldn’t seem to summon the strength to do it.
Then someone was doing it for him, and his breath came easier. Now, all he wanted to do was rest, to turn away from all the fear and pain and horror. His arm hurt something fierce, his ribs hurt, and his head hurt, too; somebody had fallen on him and hit him just over the ear with a rifle stock, and it was pounding like everything, and he was so dizzy he thought he might lose his supper.
His name was being called again. He just wanted to escape, but no, somebody was insisting on keeping him around.
“Joe, come on, boy! Open your eyes!”
Giving up, he groaned, then sighed and forced his eyelids open. Hoss’ face was inches from his own, and it crumpled into a shaky grin.
“Confound it, boy, you had me scared to death.”
Scared? He was still scared, scared half out of his mind. He looked to his right, and saw Tsung staring sightlessly into space, his sword buried to the hilt in his belly.
He was suddenly aware of the wet stickiness pooling around him. He felt warmth trickling down his neck and across his arm, and he swallowed and shut his eyes again. He shuddered, and heard Hoss mutter a soft oath, and then his brother was picking him up and carrying him.
And still he was scared.
He whispered, afraid to know. “Pa and Adam—are they alright?”
“They’re fine, Joe.”
Well, he knew that wasn’t true. Adam was badly wounded, and had been near beaten to death when he had last laid eyes on him, and Pa’s face had been rigid with fear for all of them. No, they weren’t fine.
He could hear Pa murmuring Adam’s name softly, somewhere in the background, and some small amount of his fear was lifted. He opened his eyes, but his lids felt weighted, and insisted on drifting shut again.
“Where’s Adam?” he sighed.
“You don’t need to worry none about Adam. He’ll be alright, and so will you, just as soon as we can get the doc out here.”
And still the fear refused to let him go. “Where is he?” he asked again. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe his brother. It was just that Hoss was sometimes worse than Adam, always trying to protect him even when protection wasn’t an option. “Where is he?” he repeated, aware that his voice carried a shade of panic in it but unable to do anything about it.
Then Adam himself answered back, his voice shockingly weak but decidedly Adam-like, practical and calm. “Right beside you. Now hush. Save your strength. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
Relief flooded through him. He forced one eye open and wearily regarded his oldest brother. Angry red welts crisscrossed Adam’s shoulders and chest. His bullet wound was bleeding again, and blood was smeared on his face, his chest, his hands.
Joe snorted softly. “Did I lose it all over you?”
Adam lifted one corner of his mouth in a half-smile, and said again, “Hush, Joe.”
And so he did.
Several weeks later, they stood in the yard, watching thick black smoke curl up from the burning rug.
It brought a pang to Ben’s heart, seeing Marie’s favorite rug go up in flames, but there was nothing to be done for it. Hop Sing had tried every cleaning trick he knew, but there was just too much blood embedded in the rug’s fibers to coax free. It was there to stay.
The rug had remained on the porch for a time, and Hop Sing had scrubbed and wiped and brushed to no avail. The dark stains marring the rug’s woven designs had been a painful reminder of what they had been through that night, and finally, Ben had decided enough was enough.
Beside him, Hoss gave a long, regretful sigh. “Mama sure loved that rug. I sure do hate that Hop Sing wasn’t able to save it. It was right pretty.”
Ben smiled at him, but said nothing. He looked over at Joe and Adam, their handsome faces staring soberly at the growing fire, and thought how ironic it was that a thing of beauty that Marie had doted upon had become the very thing that had saved them all.
His gaze fell back onto Hoss. His middle son’s wide face was quiet with contemplation. Ben was still amazed at the presence of mind Hoss had shown in the midst of terror and chaos. He thanked God every day for this strong, brave boy—this beautiful son.
He remembered something he had once heard Hoss’ mother, Inger, say.
Sometimes the most wonderful surprises come from the most plainly wrapped packages.
“Oh, Inger,” he whispered. “You were so right. So very, very right.”