Word Count: 21,376
The saloon appeared to be coming apart from the inside out. Certainly the racket coming from within attested to that assumption, Adam thought, and he pulled in a bracing breath as he reined Sport to a halt.
No matter how he hoped he was wrong, Adam knew precisely who was to blame for the angry shouts and the sounds of breaking glass emanating from the saloon. He dismounted slowly, the stress of the past several weeks making his movements leaden and weary, and he sighed in resignation as he took his time tying Sport’s reins to the hitching post. As he turned away from the horse, the window of the saloon exploded; bits of a broken chair flew along with shattered glass, the shards scattering across the wooden walk and the dusty street beyond it. Adam stopped and sighed again as he brushed a few nuggets of glass from his sleeve.
Yes, he knew who was to blame, all right, and he wished with all his heart that he could push the task of fetching that person home onto someone else’s shoulders. The fact was, however, that there was no one else to do it. With Hoss missing these last five weeks, Pa and Adam were the only ones available to deal with the frustrating task of extricating Joe from his ever-increasing forays into the saloons of Virginia City, and Pa had enough on his mind without having to deal with Joe as well. It wasn’t the first time in his life Joe had taken to frequenting Virginia City’s drinking establishments – too often for his own good – and it certainly wasn’t the first time the job of saving Joe from himself had fallen to Adam. It was, however, the first time that Adam was at a loss as to how to deal with the situation.
Circumstances had changed everything. Had Adam come upon Joe in the midst of dismantling a saloon a couple of months ago, he’d have had no qualms about yanking his kid brother up by the scruff of his neck and throwing him onto his horse and herding him out of town. He’d have chewed Joe up one side and down the other, all the way back to the Ponderosa, and he’d have let him know in no uncertain terms what the consequences would be if he didn’t straighten up, pronto. And Adam wouldn’t have been alone in doing it. Hoss would’ve…
Adam sighed once more. Therein lay the problem. Their middle brother wasn’t here, nor did his family have any idea where he was. At the end of June, Hoss had ridden into town for the mail. He’d never come home.
They’d found Chubb aimlessly grazing halfway between Virginia City and the Ponderosa, the mail still tucked into the saddle bags and no sign of Hoss anywhere. An initial hurried combing of the area proved fruitless; search parties were put together and dispatched without success. The Cartwrights’ thoughts shifted from accidents to kidnapping to worse, but there were no clues as to precisely what had happened. Sheriff Coffee was completely without leads. Days passed, then weeks, and eventually the searches had been called off. Adam and Joe and Pa had continued to search, day after day, leaving the care of the Ponderosa to the ranch hands.
Now it was the middle of August; they had discovered absolutely nothing, and the family’s anxiety had gradually succumbed to all-out grief. A week ago, Pa had come to a heartrending conclusion; he had decided there would be nothing more to be gained by continuing to search. It wasn’t giving up, he insisted to his sons; it was more a matter of accepting the idea that there was only so much they could do to change matters. At this point they had absolutely no idea of which direction they should look. All they could do now was wait, pray and hope.
Adam had watched Pa age another decade as he made the decision. Grief marked time on a man like nothing else could.
It was also grief, wild and uncontrolled, that was causing Little Joe to embark on his current rampages, and knowing this, Adam couldn’t seem to bring himself to chasten Joe in the manner he surely deserved. Besides, Adam didn’t have the strength. Reprimanding Joe took a lot of energy, energy that Adam couldn’t quite dig up, consumed as he was by his own grief for his missing brother. While it seemed Joe spread his sorrow all over the Territory, Adam’s pain was inward and quiet. It made him tired and numb and foggy-headed, and lately he found himself sitting most often with his face buried in his hands, thinking about absolutely nothing. Thinking about nothing was not something Adam was used to, but since even thinking seemed to take more energy than he was willing or able to give, he supposed keeping a blank mind was as good a way as any to try and cope.
Grief wasn’t new to Adam; it had dealt him some mighty hard blows in his life, and there had been a few times when he’d thought it would kill him, but he’d somehow assumed its influence over him would be less now that he was older and wiser.
He’d been mistaken in that belief. Grief had terrifying strength, regardless of one’s age. Grief did not rescind duty, however, and it was duty that now pushed Adam up the wooden walk and through the saloon doors.
The scene before him was one he’d seen way too often of late whenever he was catching up to Joe. The inside of the saloon was in chaos; tables were overturned, broken whiskey bottles leaked their contents across the floor, and a full two-thirds of the patrons were involved in a seething brawl. And there was Joe, dead in the middle of it all, legs spread wide in challenging defiance as he threw out as many punches as he took.
Seeing Adam come in, the harried bartender threw a look of exasperated relief at him from behind the bar. “You’ve got to do something about this, Adam,” he shouted above the din. “I can’t keep having him coming in here and tearing the place apart…”
“I’ll take care of it, Sam.” Adam promised, and stepped out of the way to avoid getting hit with another flying chair. At the moment Joe was at the back of the room in the midst of a mob of fist-wielding miners and cowhands, but he was no longer standing up. From what Adam could see, his brother was now getting the worst of it; the kid was on his back on the floor and several men were taking turns walloping the daylights out of him. Joe’s face was battered and bruised and his shirt was torn, but he showed no sign of giving up. His face was empty of fear and full of anger, and he fought back with everything he had even though he was ridiculously outmanned.
Adam knew who the boy was fighting, and it wasn’t any one of the men at whom he was throwing punches. It was a faceless enemy Joe raged against. Unable to strike out at whoever had taken Hoss, he was easing his frustrations in the only way he knew how, and it was a behavior that he had been indulging in more and more frequently. Adam watched him take a particularly hard blow to the belly, and he felt a tiny shiver of apprehension move up his spine. He couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to his kid brother the day his family didn’t make it in time to help him out of the trouble he hunted so earnestly.
Today wasn’t that day, however. “That’s enough,” Adam said, and his voice carried enough power to make several bystanders look up and then back quickly out of the way. The men beating Joe took no notice, however, and Adam raised his voice. “I said that’s enough!”
Their heads swiveled around to gawk at him. Two large miners froze in the process of hauling Joe up to knock him back down. One of them, still gripping Joe’s collar in both fists, scowled at Adam, and Joe scowled along with him.
“He threw the first punch, mister,” the man growled at Adam.
“I don’t doubt it. Now let him go.” Adam kept his voice low and civil, but those who knew him darted nervous looks at one another.
This man apparently didn’t know him, though, and it was that unfortunate lack of knowledge that made the miner sneer and turn back to land another blow to Joe’s face while his larger friend aimed a boot into Joe’s ribs.
Adam never remembered moving. One minute he was holding himself in check, trying to maintain a facade of calm civility, and the next he was slamming his fist into the jaw of the man who held Joe. The connection was oddly gratifying. He felt the pain and frustration of the last several weeks surge up inside him as he delivered blow after blow to every man who moved forward to challenge him.
With an almost gleeful enthusiasm, he went after the big miner who had kicked his brother. On another day, the odds of Adam managing to gain the upper hand with such a large man would have been questionable if Adam had chosen to use only his fists. He normally would have resorted to some quick sidestepping and weaving around to turn the fight in his favor. Today, however, it seemed that his youngest brother’s rage had spilled over into his own heart, and he simply let his fists fly with grim satisfaction.
His own head snapped back several times as the miner retaliated, but the blows only added fuel to the fire. Roaring sounded in Adam’s ears as he continued to advance on the man, throwing fist after fist until the miner went down, and then he threw himself on top of him, continuing to throw punches. He hit out of despair, out of grief, out of near-madness that he hadn’t been able to do a single solitary thing to bring Hoss back. He went on punching even when his arms grew tired, even when his mind drifted into blankness.
“Adam! Stop. That’s enough.”
Something in Joe’s voice brought Adam back to himself. He stopped his fist in mid-air and looked up at Joe, noting the look of fearful concern that flickered across his brother’s face. The noise in the saloon had completely died out; the loudest sound was now Adam’s hard breathing. He looked back down at the miner and saw that the man was barely conscious. Adam released his grip on the man and slowly lowered his fist. Then, trembling, he got to his feet.
Joe put a hand on his arm. “Come on. Let’s go,” Joe said softly. He picked Adam’s hat up off the floor and handed it to him. Adam replaced the hat on his head and took several deep breaths as he looked around at the surrounding crowd. Wary faces stared back at him.
Joe moved around until his face was scant inches from Adam’s. “Let’s go, Adam,” Joe repeated, his voice low. Adam gave a halting nod and followed his brother toward the door.
As they passed by the bar, it wasn’t Adam but Joe who stopped to smooth things over with the bartender. “I’m sorry for all this, Sam,” he said, and to Adam’s ears he truly did sound remorseful. “You write up a bill for the damage and I’ll see it’s paid for.” Sam nodded curtly, but his eyes were on Adam.
“He just about killed Harry!” one of the miners exclaimed then, and a buzz of noise began to rise from the open-mouthed crowd. “He’s just as crazy as his brother! A danger to law-abidin’ citizens, they are!”
Adam stopped and looked back, but Joe continued to nudge him through the door and out onto the street. Numbly, Adam obeyed, mounting Sport and following his brother out of town.
As they rode, the fog began to lift from Adam’s brain and he struggled to get his thoughts back in order. Lucky for them both that Joe’s rare display of restraint had chosen to assert itself back there, he thought ruefully; he certainly hadn’t shown any himself. He didn’t even want to think about what he could’ve done to the miner if Joe hadn’t stopped him.
He shook his head in self-recrimination. Adam was a man who prided himself on self-control, and he was bitterly ashamed of himself for his lapse.
Control was always important, but now more so than ever. He was the stabilizing force behind his family, the one who kept everything afloat. Normally it was a position primarily governed by his father, but these were not normal times. Pa was practically out of his mind with worry and grief, and Joe—Joe was hurting so bad that he was like a lit fuse. The kid had lately thrown all thoughts of self-preservation out the window, if he’d ever had any at all, which Adam often doubted. The youngest Cartwright was now, more than ever, an accident waiting to happen.
For Joe’s sake, and for Pa’s, Adam couldn’t afford the luxury of giving way to emotion now. He had to remain in control. His family, what was left of it, was at stake.
Adam studied his brother out of the corner of his eye. Joe’s bruises and busted lip showed even in the moonlight and he rode stiffly, as if the movement of his horse’s gait was uncomfortable to him. It was no wonder, Adam thought, this being the fourth fight this week that Joe had flown into.
More guilt swept over him, even though he knew Joe’s condition was hardly his fault. Still, his kid brother had been left completely to his own devices these past few weeks; plunged into fear and sorrow and with nobody riding herd on him, he was charging down more and more dead-end paths. Adam’s fear for his youngest brother’s safety wasn’t far behind his fear for Hoss, and he felt compelled to try to pull Joe back under control.
Somebody sure needed to do it. Joe’s actions had grown decidedly more reckless as soon as Pa had called off the search for Hoss. Predictably, Joe had met the decision with abject fury and refusal and had continued to go out on his own, combing the woods and mountainsides from dawn until dusk. When he wasn’t doing that, he was in town firing questions at everyone who crossed his path. He usually ended up in the saloons, asking more questions and, when his questions produced no answers, he started in picking fights.
Adam couldn’t blame him for refusing to quit looking. Truth be told, if Adam felt he had a choice he’d have been out there with Joe, continuing a desperate search for a scrap of evidence that might tell them something of Hoss’ whereabouts. But as was so often the case, he had no choice; the Ponderosa had limped along without their attention as long as she was able, until finally both Pa and Adam had been forced to recognize that fact. Of course they would have continued to search anyway, Ponderosa be damned, if they had received the tiniest shred of evidence that Hoss might still be alive.
But there was no evidence, none at all, and so far no apparent reason to hope for any. Adam and his brothers had been taught all their lives to never give up hope, but Adam had learned that weeks of hanging on with nothing to show for it was a formidable force for even the most tenacious man to reckon with, especially when one considered the odds against Hoss still being alive after all this time.
For Adam, hope was dying slowly, but dying nonetheless. Hope belonged to the heart while logic belonged to the mind, and it was logic that pointed more strongly every day to the fact that Hoss was almost certainly lost to them for good. Given the choice, Adam had always clung to logic. He was in every sense a logical man, just as his father was; logic had always steered them both around life’s predicaments with a steady hand; it had always kept things on an even keel. Logic was a rock that remained fast when all else slipped and shattered; logic was dependable. When logic’s assumptions were as bitter as what they were facing now, it was painfully difficult to accept, but Adam could find no reason to doubt those assumptions. When he looked into Pa’s bleak face, he knew his father couldn’t, either. They both refused to voice their fears out loud, but they knew they were there all the same.
Logic had never ruled Joe’s head, however, and certainly not his heart. Hope, along with desperation, still guided his every move during the long days since Hoss’ disappearance; during the evenings, the oppressive quiet of the house was too much to him to bear and he almost invariably escaped immediately after supper to ride into town yet again.
It said something of Pa’s state of mind that he didn’t even seem to have noticed that Joe had been patronizing the saloons almost every night this week, that he was drinking too much and engaging in one brawl after another. It had occurred to Adam that Pa’s behavior lately was very similar to what he had displayed in those first weeks after Marie’s death; he was there with them, and yet he wasn’t.
History did seem to be repeating itself, Adam mused sadly. With Pa deep into his own thoughts and misery, Adam had very much fallen back into the role of Joe’s guardian, just as he had after Marie had died. But this time things were more complicated. Joe was a grown man, not a little boy to be held and rocked to sleep. Knowing what to do to comfort him now was beyond Adam’s scope; he wasn’t able to comfort himself, for that matter. Still, he knew he couldn’t stand back and simply watch as his brother traveled down the path of self-destruction that he seemed determined to follow. Adam hadn’t been able to protect one brother; it made him more determined than ever not to give up on the other.
So every single night after Ben trudged up the stairs to bed, Adam dutifully followed Joe into town. Every night he hauled him home, sometimes dead drunk, almost always sullen and hostile. Every night they both climbed the stairs, walked past the lamplight shining beneath Pa’s closed door, and then fell into bed exhausted. The next day they would start the process all over again—Adam and Pa pugnaciously tending to the demands of the ranch, Joe wandering over miles of the same ground over and over and over again before ending up back in town demanding answers that nobody was able to give.
And what had Adam done tonight? He’d behaved like the furious, brash youngster Joe was. His actions had been unacceptable, especially to himself, and he suddenly felt the need to apologize for them.
He looked over at Joe and opened his mouth, but Joe beat him to it.
“I’m sorry, Adam,” he said, and Adam blinked in surprise. “I’ve got no right to be acting the way I have. This…thing with Hoss… It’s killing you and Pa the same as it is me, and I’m doing nothing but making it harder. I just want you to know I’m sorry,” he said again, and his head hung so low that Adam could no longer see his face.
Adam swallowed, wishing he had some pearl of wisdom to give his brother but knowing he had no more answers than anyone else. He still felt as if he should say he was sorry, but the moment seemed to have passed. While Joe had always been as quick with apologies as he was with his temper, they had never come easily for Adam; apologies meant you’d been wrong, and being wrong meant you hadn’t been thinking in the first place, which, in Adam’s opinion, was never justifiable. He wasn’t sure it would do Joe any good to find out his oldest brother was lately as lost as he was, so he sighed and let it go, and said something his brother did need to hear.
“You can’t keep going like this, you know.” Adam didn’t say the rest of what jumped to his mind. If you keep going the way you are, you’re going to wind up dead. Pa would never survive it, not now. And neither would I. We just can’t handle another loss right now, so please, please stop tempting fate.
Joe shook his head and stared off toward the sparkle of the moon on the lake where it peeped through the trees. “Hoss—I just can’t quit on him, Adam,” he said, and Adam knew without looking that there were tears on his face.
“I know,” Adam said. And he did. Joe was coping in the only way he knew how, just as he himself was doing by throwing himself back into the work of the ranch. Adam had strong doubts that either of them was making much progress.
They rode on in silence, two men nursing broken hearts each in their own way. Joe’s voice finally broke the quiet again. “He’s out there, Adam, somewhere,” he whispered. “I know it.”
Pain had Adam’s eyes shutting against the words. “Joe…”
“If he was dead, I’d know it,” Joe insisted. “I’d feel it. Adam, please—you’ve got to listen to me. He’s alive. I know it.”
The pleading tone of Joe’s voice did nothing to ease the lump in Adam’s throat. For once in his life he wanted to buy into Joe’s flights of fancy. He desperately wanted to believe that the intuition his kid brother always relied on was more real, more solid than the irrefutable logic that he himself held fast to.
But wanting something, no matter how badly, didn’t make it real. Allowing his brother to ignore the facts would only serve to prolong the agony. Joe would slowly drown in his sorrow, and he’d drag Adam and Pa down with him.
“Joe,” Adam said carefully, “if Hoss had an accident, we’d have found him by now. You know that.”
“There are a lot of miles between Virginia City and the Ponderosa, Adam.”
Adam couldn’t help the harshness that crept into his voice. “Fine. Say he did have an accident. There’s no way on earth he could still be alive if he’s been lying out in the woods all this time.”
“A kidnapping, then. That’s what it has to be, don’t you see?” Joe pulled Cochise to a stop and reached out for Sport’s bridle to stop him.
They’d covered this same ground a thousand times before, just as they’d covered the stretch of road between town and the Ponderosa looking for Hoss. Adam looked squarely at Joe. “There’s been no ransom note. No reason for us to believe he was kidnapped. You know that.” Still the hope refused to leave Joe’s face, and Adam gritted his teeth. Anger suddenly bubbled up inside him, anger for what had been done to Hoss, anger for what had been done to them all. “Look, Joe, he’s gone. We’ve got to accept it. Some drifter came along and shot him for what little money he had in his pocket, and then buried him or threw his body in a ravine somewhere. You’ve got to grow up and accept the facts. Hoss is gone and he’s not coming back.” There. The words were out. Vile words. Words of truth, and yet he hated himself for having spoken them.
Watching Joe’s face pale, Adam felt as though he’d kicked a begging dog. Joe’s mouth opened slightly as though he was about to say something, but then he seemed to change his mind. He gave his head a tiny shake and turned away, nudging Cochise on up the trail.
Adam briefly shut his eyes. “Joe—Joe, wait.” But his brother was already gone.
Adam cursed and gave a vicious swipe at a pine bough hanging over the trail. He’d handled himself badly in the saloon, and now he’d handled Joe badly as well. He slumped in the saddle and passed a shaking hand down over his eyes. He was just so tired—tired of searching, tired of grieving, tired of keeping the ranch running while the world fell down in ruins around him.
Adam honestly didn’t know how they were all going to come through this. It was like they were going through a killing drought in one of the hardest seasons of their lives, and somehow Adam had the feeling that the spring rains would never come again.
The first trickle of hope arrived the next morning in the form of a single scrap of paper tacked to the front door.
It was Joe who found it, going out the door before dawn had broken over the mountains. During the last few weeks, Joe’s desperate, driving energy had replaced his normal morning lassitude; every morning, he was the first one out of the house, while Adam and Ben could barely drag themselves out of bed. It was another odd aspect of grief; it changed a person’s usual responses to things, shook them up and emptied them out until nothing was as it should be.
Adam was lying in bed awake, listening to the muffled thumps of his brother preparing to leave the house. In an odd way he almost welcomed the late hours Joe was forcing them both to keep; it meant fewer hours of lying in bed tossing and turning and thinking of things better left buried. In that respect, exhaustion had been an ally.
He heard Joe give a low murmur, and knew he was thanking Hop Sing for coffee. The higher pitched tones of Hop Sing’s voice drifted up the stairs; hushed though they were out of respect to the family members who were still abed, Adam could make out the cook’s worried admonishments toward Joe’s refusal of breakfast.
“Every day, no breakfast, tiny supper. Boy not keep living on so little. You make self sick, you do Mr. Hoss no good.”
Joe said something, although Adam couldn’t hear what it was. It was one of those rare times when Adam completely understood his youngest brother’s thoughts. Although Joe could little afford to skip a few meals, none of them had been eating well. They could hardly bear to look at the dining table, much less sit and eat at it. Of all the places in the house, that table was probably the most difficult spot to occupy, knowing that their big, food-loving brother was no longer there enjoying life to its fullest. Supper had become a silent, dreaded affair, something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Adam heard the soft tread of Joe’s boots as he moved toward the door, then the muffled chinks of his gunbelt as he buckled it on. Adam heaved a sigh, wincing as he rubbed a hand over the cheek where one of last night’s punches had fallen. It was time to get moving. He wondered how he and Pa would manage yet another day of going through the motions, trudging through their duties as if nothing at all had changed. All the hands had been camping up in the northwest section of the ranch for the past week, taking care of castrating and branding duties; Adam and Pa would join them this morning to help finish up before riding back in the afternoon to distribute the week’s pay. When that was finished, there was a broken wagon axle to fix, and then some barn repairs that should keep them going for the rest of the day.
As he lay in the dim light of morning, Adam grimly went through his mental tally of the day’s tasks. In a way, it was a good thing that the ranch had been hobbling along on its own for so long; catching up meant spending less time dwelling on things over which they had no control.
His thoughts were cut off by Joe’s loud shouts, the anguished tone of them causing Adam’s heart to leap into his chest. He threw himself out of bed and stumbled into the hallway where he collided with Pa.
“What on earth…?” Pa muttered, and Adam shook his head. The two of them scrambled for the stairs as Joe’s cries increased in volume.
They flew down the steps and skidded to a stop on the landing. Below them, just inside the open front door, Joe stood holding something in one raised fist. The look on his face made Adam’s heart beat harder, and something like hope tried to flutter to life within him before he managed to beat it back again.
“Joe, for heaven’s sakes, what is it?” Pa asked, and he stiffened as Joe raised shining eyes to them.
His shouting done for the time being, Joe stammered out a reply. “It’s him. Hoss. They have him, and he’s alive.”
They were in the saddle and moving briskly southeastward before the clock struck the next half-hour. While Joe was tense with optimistic determination, Adam and Ben carefully corralled their own newly-budded hope within a high wall of restraint.
They have him, and he’s alive. Joe’s voice still rang in Adam’s mind.
It still wasn’t clear who “they” were. The note had been addressed to Ben Cartwright. Pa had read it several times over, as had Adam. Only a few lines, terse and vague, offering a chance of hope—or, just as likely, Adam thought, someone’s cruelly fraudulent attempt to cash in on the Cartwright family’s misfortune.
The same thought had crossed Pa’s mind; he had said as much to Adam. Even so, there was more life in his father’s face than Adam had seen in days. Even though Pa struggled to brace himself for yet more disappointment, Adam knew he was aching to reach for what that note offered. Adam was terrified to think of how hard his father would take it if the message did turn out to be a hoax.
It was an unavoidable risk; they had no choice but to move forward, regardless of the note’s authenticity. It was the only clue they’d had, false or otherwise, and they had to follow it.
For all that the note carried such a vague message, it had been quite explicit in its instructions, the first of which gave them a direction in which to head.
Be at Yellow Rock Canyon no later than daybreak tomorrow. Bring only yourself and your sons. If you want to keep Hoss alive, don’t involve the law.
They had twenty-four hours to make a ride that took a day and a half when riding at a normal pace; they would have to push the horses as hard as they dared in order to reach Yellow Rock Canyon, even riding through the night.
The message had left so many unanswered questions. Who were they dealing with? Why had the kidnappers waited five long weeks before contacting them? Why did they not ask for a larger ransom amount?
We know you have the week’s payroll in your safe. Bring it.
The week’s payroll was a substantial amount to be sure, but the request had surprised them all. It seemed as if anyone who had gone to the trouble of kidnapping and holding a Cartwright for almost a month and a half would have directed them to make a trip to the bank to draw out much more.
Yellow Rock Canyon was a small fissure surrounded by desert, a desolate place notable only for its isolation. If they got into trouble, they’d have only each other to dig them out again.
As the day wore on the steep mountain trails gave way to the more rolling terrain of the foothills, then to the flatter aridity of the desert lands. The horses were hot, well-lathered and blowing hard by the time they came to a small stream, and they pulled up to water them. They’d have to dismount and give the animals a chance to cool down or risk pushing them past endurance, Adam thought. Almost immediately he heard Joe urging Cochise out of the stream and up the opposite bank.
Pa called to him, but Joe continued on as if he didn’t hear.
“Joseph!” A louder, sterner shout had Joe pulling up and turning to look back at them, frustration clouding his features. “Joe. Come back here and get down off that animal.”
“Pa, it’s midday already…”
“Don’t you think I know what time it is?” Pa’s words were clipped and short. He didn’t have the energy or the presence of mind to deal with his youngest son’s obstinacy, but still he slowed himself enough to try to reason with him. “Joe, we certainly won’t make it in time if we kill our horses.”
Joe opened his mouth as if to argue further, then seemed to think better of it. His jaw was clenched, but he did as he was told, dismounting and leading Cochise back to the water.
“Get his head up until he’s cooled off some,” Adam advised. “You don’t want him to drink too much while he’s hot…”
“Don’t tell me how to take care of my horse!” Joe snapped, and then immediately bowed his head in contrition. “I’m sorry, Adam,” he sighed, pulling Cochise’s head out of the water. He fumbled with the girth, loosening the saddle to further aid in cooling the horse off. “I just keep thinking about Hoss waiting for us out there…”
Adam shrugged and loosened the girth on his own horse. “It’s all right. We’re all worried.” Sick with worry, delirious with worry, eaten up with worry. Worry and sorrow had gnawed at them all until they were raw with it. He understood Joe’s touchiness; he was touchy himself.
“I’ll walk the horses down some,” Joe mumbled, and he gathered the reins of all three horses and started to turn away.
“Joseph.” Ben’s voice stopped him from moving. Ben walked over to Joe. He reached out and gently but firmly held Joe’s chin between his fingers, studying the boy’s face as he turned it this way and that. In the full light of the sun, last night’s bruises layered themselves in royal splendor over the ones that he’d obtained over the last several days, and Ben frowned, his eyes opening for the first time to what had been going on around him. “Good Lord, boy, what have you been doing to yourself?” Joe dropped his gaze to the ground, and when Ben turned to Adam for answers, Adam carefully turned his face to hide his own bruised cheek and jaw. Ben nodded. “I see. So neither of you has anything to say.”
“Got to get the horses cooled down, Pa,” Joe said softly, and turned away, pulling the horses after him and leaving Adam to envy the boy’s prowess in avoiding their father’s scrutiny.
Adam himself wasn’t as lucky.
“Adam. Look at me.”
Adam let a tiny sigh slide out before he turned to fully face his father.
Upon seeing his son’s face, Ben’s eyes widened for an instant before his heavy brows lowered over them, and then he turned away, shaking his head and lowering himself to a seat on a nearby boulder. “I’m assuming you were both brawling in some saloon.”
“Pa, it was just…” Adam’s attempt at explanation was cut off by his father’s raised hand.
Ben shook his head again. “Old fools make poor fathers,” he muttered.
Adam had heard the words before whenever his father was especially disgusted with himself. “Pa…”
“I’ve been remiss in my duties as a parent.” Ben’s voice rumbled in self-accusation. “Joe looks like he’s been half-bludgeoned to death, and you, even you…” His voice gave a tiny, almost inaudible crack, and he swallowed.
Adam carefully sat down beside his father. “None of this is your fault, Pa.”
Ben turned to look his oldest son in the eye. “I’ve been wallowing in my own sorrow all this time, completely forgetting I still have two sons who need me. It is my fault.” He shook his head. “I thought I had learned my lesson…all those years ago.” He sighed and continued. “After Marie died, after those first awful weeks, after I could feel and think and see once more, I swore I’d never again…” His voice broke fully this time, and he looked away to stare out over the sage-studded plain where his youngest son walked the horses.
Adam’s heart clenched as he watched his father’s throat working up and down. “It’s all right, Pa. We know what you’ve been going through. It isn’t right for you to have to worry over us. Joe and I are grown men; we can take care of ourselves.”
Ben heaved a heavy sigh, and he turned to give Adam a sad smile. “Is that how you ended up in a bar fight? By allowing Little Joe to take care of himself?” When Adam started to protest, Ben shook his head. “None of us can make it through something like this without the others. I’d forgotten that—again. Fortunately for Joe, you didn’t.”
Ben gazed in Joe’s direction again, but Adam could tell he wasn’t really seeing his youngest son. “When Joe’s mother died, there were days—weeks—when I didn’t care if I lived or died myself,” he said softly.
It wasn’t anything Adam hadn’t already known. Pa’s words set off a wave of reminiscent anguish in Adam’s own head but he stayed silent, listening to the pain in his father’s voice.
“I left for a few weeks, trying to get myself together, trying to heal—you remember that. Leaving solved nothing, as I soon learned. When I returned home, I was no better off. I remember staying in my room for days on end. Hop Sing would bring me dinner and I would barely touch it, if at all. That went on for quite some time until, one day, Hoss came in and plunked himself down on my bed and refused to leave until I’d eaten.” Ben’s mouth turned up in a tiny smile. “He folded his arms and jutted his chin out and stared me in the eye and said ‘Pa, I’ve had about all of this I can stand. It seems to me if Hop Sing can go to all the trouble of cooking for you day after day, the least you can do is try to eat it. He’s bound to be gettin’ his feelings hurt.’”
Adam had to smile. “Hoss always was particular about anyone ruffling Hop Sing’s feathers. So you did as he asked?”
“I had no choice. Like I said, he refused to leave until I did. Every meal from then on. He was only eleven but he could be quite obstinate when he felt the need.” Ben grinned, but the smile faded almost immediately. “So then, thanks to Hoss, I was eating again, but I was still too caught up in my own pain to think about anyone else’s. I stayed holed up in my room, unwilling—unable, I thought, to go back out into a world that didn’t have Marie in it.”
Several moments passed before Pa continued. “Then one evening Hoss came in and sat beside me and said nothing. Just sat. When I finally noticed how quiet he was and looked at him, his bottom lip was trembling and big tears were rolling down his cheeks. I assumed he was crying for Marie, but when I asked him about it, he shook his head, and then he asked me something I’ll never forget.”
Ben was still staring off into the distance, and when he spoke again his voice was so soft Adam had to strain to hear him. “He asked me if we were going to bury you beside his mama. Beside Marie.”
“What? But why…”
“That was my reaction, too. I told him we didn’t need to be worrying about where you would be buried, because that wouldn’t happen for many, many years, not until you were both old men. But he would hear none of it. He told me you were sick—here,” Ben said, putting his hand over his heart, “and getting sicker every day, enough to where it was starting to show on the outside as well as eating you up on the inside. He was sure that you were sick enough to be in danger of dying.”
Confused, Adam shook his head. “But I wasn’t sick…”
“Hoss was convinced you were. He was so sure of it that it frightened me. He was so sure that he managed to talk me into going with him to the barn to see for myself. I hadn’t left my room in—oh, who knows how many days, but he was so certain that you were in trouble that he pulled my head out of my self-pity long enough to see…”
The pain and self-loathing in Ben’s voice made Adam want to stop him from continuing. He opened his mouth, but Ben shook his head, determined to tell the story.
“Hoss led me into the barn and over to the back stall. One of the horses had gone lame and there you were on your knees, applying hot compresses to its leg. You were in a rather awkward position, working with one arm while you held onto a sleeping Joseph with the other. Hoss whispered into my ear, ‘Little Joe cries every time Adam puts him down, so Adam just keeps holding on to him while he gets his work done.’”
Adam was staring at his father, not needing to hear the rest. He remembered the hours spent in the barn that night, working on the horse with his brother clasped against his chest. It had been weeks since Marie’s accident, but the finality of her death had just started to sink into Joe’s five-year-old mind, and he had been inconsolable for days. As Pa continued to be distant and distracted, Joe had turned more and more often to Adam for comfort. He began to physically cling to him as though terrified that Adam would disappear if he were out of Joe’s sight.
So Adam had done what he could to calm the tearful child, singing to him, telling him stories, carrying him around. Every time he would drift off to sleep Adam would try to lay him down, but the child would jerk to immediate, hysterical wakefulness, screaming without stop until Adam feared for his health. Finally Adam gave up trying to reason with the boy and simply held him—held him continuously, all night while they both slept, and all day as well, regardless of what duties Adam had to attend to.
His memories were interrupted when Ben cleared his throat. “I asked Hoss how long you had been lugging Joseph around like that, and he told me you hadn’t put him down once in over three full days. He said he and Hop Sing and some of the neighbor ladies had tried to help you with him but Joe would have none of it.”
Adam wasn’t sure exactly how long it had been, but three days would probably be a good guess. Adam remembered his arms being numb from Joe’s weight, but he had continued to hold him simply because he didn’t know what else to do. Marie was gone; Joe had to be tended to, and there were certain aspects of ranch life, such as the horse’s sprained tendon, that just wouldn’t wait no matter how sad or tired a person was. Carrying a five-year-old boy, even a small one, was a ridiculous manner to go about his daily tasks, but if there was another option, he couldn’t find it.
It had been a dark, confusing time, a terrifying time. Adam had heard people whisper that Ben Cartwright would never be the same, and he had begun to fear that they might be right. Any hope Adam retained for life returning to normal was worn as thin as his strength. Things were not going to get better—how could they? The mother he had come to call his own was gone, taking the light out of their lives just as surely as the sun setting in the evening; they had all been left cold and bleak with despair.
It would have been easier for Adam to close himself off as his father was doing, to just sit in the rocker holding Joe and allowing the grief to flood over him. And yet Adam kept going. Not because of hope, but because it was his duty. Adam Cartwright never, ever shirked his duty. Never.
Ben continued on. “I stood looking at you, kneeling there in the dirt, and…and dear God, you looked so exhausted,” he rasped out. “You had lost so much weight, and the shadows under your eyes… No wonder Hoss thought you were sick.” He shook his head. “He wasn’t far off the mark. You were on the edge of collapse. You were only seventeen, not much more than a boy yourself, and you were carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. And I, in my selfish misery, had let it rest there.”
Adam shifted uncomfortably. “It’s all right, Pa. Really…”
“No. No, it’s not. I was wrong, Adam, wrong to let my own pain blind me to the needs of my sons. I shudder to think what might have happened if you hadn’t been there to pick up my slack during that awful time.” He looked at Adam and smiled slightly. “Do you remember what happened that night in the barn?
Adam considered. He remembered working on the horse, leaning his forehead against the warm flesh and having to struggle to keep his eyes open and then—nothing. He shook his head.
Ben answered his own question. “I took Joseph from you. You were swaying on your feet and arguing about the horse still needing attention, but Hoss took you by the hand and led you into the house and up the stairs. You hardly even knew where you were going. Hoss and I finished up with the horse, and you slept for two days straight.”
Adam didn’t remember any of that. What he did remember was the relief, the soul-quenching feeling of crushing responsibility being lifted. And things had been different when he’d woken up, he remembered. Not quite normal, not like before the accident, but…closer. His father was once more with them, really with them, and some of the dark pall cast over the house had been lifted. The grief was still there, but life once more pulsed beneath it. Hope had entered their house once again, shredding through a black blanket of despondency to let in a few warm rays of light.
“Who knows how long such an impossible situation would have gone on if it hadn’t been for Hoss?” Ben said softly. “He was so worried about you, and so determined to open my eyes and make me see… Sometimes I wonder where I would be—where we all would be if it hadn’t been for that strong, determined little boy.” Ben’s voice cracked again, and he fell into silence. Adam reached out to grasp his father’s hand in his own.
“We’re going to get him back, Pa,” Adam said quietly. His own words surprised him. Earlier he hadn’t been able to accept Joe’s unflagging optimism, and yet, here he was, offering his father words of hope, words whose glimmering truth he could not possibly predict or control. An instant’s panic made him want to snatch the words back. Surely false hope was worse than none at all.
Pa squeezed his hand back and looked at him with such blatant gratitude that it eased Adam’s misgivings. There were times when a man needed truth, and there were times when he needed hope; both sometimes came in one merciful package if heaven saw fit, and if not, all a man could do was grab with both hands for whatever he could reach. Right now it was hope his father needed most of all, and Adam was fiercely glad to give it to him.
They rode hard throughout the rest of the day and night, making Yellow Rock Canyon just before dawn. As they carefully navigated their exhausted horses down the sloping walls of the narrow canyon, it at first appeared that they were alone, and Adam’s heart sank into his stomach.
“There!” Joe pointed toward a man’s silhouette stepping from behind a mass of boulders about a hundred yards away. Several more men joined the first. The group of them stood still, guns drawn and held loosely at their sides, hats pulled down low as they waited for the Cartwrights to approach.
They drew near to the men as dawn’s light strengthened, and as they approached, one of the waiting men pushed his hat back and smiled. Adam felt as if he had been punched in the gut.
“Bill Enders,” Ben growled, and Enders’ grin widened.
“Surprised to see me, Mr. Cartwright? I have to say, I wondered if you would make it here in time. I told Mary to make sure you got the note first thing yesterday morning, but you know women. I wasn’t sure she—“
“Mary? You dragged your wife into this scheme?” Adam asked sharply, and Enders lost his smile.
“You always did have a soft spot for her, didn’t you? She’s my wife, Adam. She’ll do whatever I tell her to do.”
“She didn’t go along with you trying to cover up the murder you committed two years ago,” Joe snapped.
“She didn’t know she was pregnant with our twin sons two years ago,” Enders snapped back. “If she had, I guarantee that she would’ve done things differently.”
Adam shut his mouth and let that bit of information sink in. Events seemed to be taking a bizarre turn, he thought. A few years back he had partnered up in business with Bill Enders and a couple of other men; they had bought shares in a potential mining claim. Bill’s wife, Mary, was an old friend of Adam’s, and he had no reason to have anything but respect and trust for her husband.
It had come as a hard shock to discover that the man was a murderer.
The Goat Springs stage station had been a ramshackle affair, run in a lackadaisical manner by old Toby Barker. Having caught stages at Goat Springs before, Adam wasn’t overly surprised when one morning he found himself waiting through the night and most of the morning for a missed stage connection. He hadn’t even minded, not really. Toby had a way of making a man want to stop and take life just a little bit slower, and he and Adam had done exactly that. They had spent a couple of drowsy hours sitting on the station’s sun-drenched porch talking about mostly nothing.
Then gunshots had shattered the quiet. Two gunmen charged in, gunny sacks covering their heads and torsos, and held Adam and Toby at gunpoint. The men took whatever was of value and fled, but not before shooting and killing Toby when he tried to stop them.
And not before Adam recognized the shooter as Bill Enders, even though the sack had covered Enders’ face.
Unfortunately, Adam had been the only person convinced of Enders’ guilt. Goat Springs was a hard two-hour ride from Virginia City. And yet, two reliable witnesses were able to vouch for the fact that they’d seen Enders in town only an hour and a half after Toby’s murder. It seemed that Enders had a ready-made alibi.
The only way to prove that Enders could have done the killing was to show that the ride could indeed be made in an hour and a half—a time deemed impossible by almost everyone. Desperate to keep Toby Barker’s killer from going free, Adam made the ride from Goat Springs to Virginia City himself, pushing himself and his horse as hard and fast as he thought possible, switching to a fresh horse halfway up the trail.
As it turned out, he made it without a minute to spare. Ironically, his hard-won proof had no longer mattered. As the crowd had stood in the street, watching the clock and waiting to see if Adam could make it in time, Mary Enders had broken down and confessed to her husband’s guilt. Enders had tried to make a break for it, shooting Roy Coffee in the process, and was finally brought down by a shot from Ben Cartwright’s gun. Subsequently, Enders was brought to trial and convicted of the murder of Toby Barker, among other charges.
Almost immediately after Bill was sent to prison, Mary left town.
“You don’t have to go,” Adam had told her. “People will forget…” He didn’t mention that he himself hadn’t forgotten how she had claimed to anyone that would listen that she and Adam had been involved in an affair; she had said that Adam had wanted Bill out of the way so that he could have her, and that was the reason he was determined to blame Toby Barker’s murder on Bill. Still, Adam had known Mary a long time; he hadn’t wanted to see her suffer.
But Mary hadn’t forgotten the lies she had told to save her husband, either. Neither had she forgiven herself. She had shaken her head and smiled sadly at Adam. “Even if I thought I could handle all the talk, the memories would be too much. No, I think it’s better that I leave and start over someplace new. You understand.”
Adam had understood. Sometimes a fresh start was the only way to keep going. “If you need anything, anything at all, you know where I am,” he told her.
“I know.” But she’d gotten on the stage and Adam had never heard from her again. According to what Enders had just told them, she’d already been pregnant with his twin sons at the time she’d left.
And now her husband was here, in Yellow Rock Canyon, with the claim that it was he who had ripped Hoss out of their lives and had the power of giving him back again.
“What do you want, Bill?” Adam said carefully. “If it’s money…”
“You brought the payroll, didn’t you?”
“We brought it.” The look in Ben’s eye was deadly. “Just give me my boy and you’ll be free to take the money and leave. You have my word that we won’t follow you.”
Enders snorted. “Your word. Yes, the word of a Cartwright carries a lot of weight, doesn’t it? Enough to get a man thrown in prison. Isn’t that right, Adam?”
“Your own actions got you put in prison, Bill,” Adam said quietly. “I don’t know what you’re doing free, or what you hope to accomplish here, but don’t pile new mistakes on top of old ones. You heard my pa. Take the money and go. It’ll be enough for you and Mary and your sons to make a new start…”
Enders laughed out loud, and the sound had a broken, chilling sound to it. He looked at Adam, a sad smile on his face. “My sons. Ah, yes, my sons. The stress of my trial and conviction was hard on my wife, Adam. And then my not being there with her…” His eyes grew colder. “The babies were born too early, and Mary lost them both. The doctor says she can’t have more.”
Adam ducked his head. Dear Lord, poor Mary…first the ordeal with her husband and now this…
“Yes, our sons, mine and Mary’s, dead before they ever had a chance. I blame you for that, Adam. And so does Mary.”
“How on earth do you think Adam is to blame?” Ben asked. “The death of your children was a tragedy to be sure, but certainly not one that Adam had anything to do with.”
“Oh, but he did, Mr. Cartwright. He could’ve dropped those accusations against me when everybody thought he was wrong. Nobody would’ve thought any the less of him for it; anyone can make a mistake.” Enders glared back at Adam. “But no, you wouldn’t quit. You kept on. I went to prison, Mary suffered, and our sons died because of it.”
Adam shook his head. “I would never do anything to hurt Mary. But I couldn’t just walk away and pretend I hadn’t seen what you did, Bill.”
“I never meant for Toby Barker to be hurt that morning, either,” Enders gritted out. “It just happened. But you were determined that I would pay. Well, I did pay; I paid dearly, and so did Mary. And now you and yours will pay, too.”
So, Adam thought, now they were finally coming down to the truth. Enders had lured them into an ambush, a trap set with Hoss as bait. Adam moved his hand surreptitiously closer to his gun. Joe and Ben stiffened in their saddles.
“Did you drag us out here just to kill us then, Enders?” Ben asked. “You know we won’t go easy. We’ll take as many of you with us as we can.”
“Now, now, Mr. Cartwright,” Enders protested, holding his arms out in mock surrender. “Did I say I was going to kill anyone? No—at least not right away. In fact, let’s keep this civil—I’ll need all your weapons, gentlemen.”
When they hesitated, Enders nodded at his men. Pistols and rifles snapped into position, all with a bead on the Cartwrights.
“Your weapons, please,” Enders repeated softly. “Any knives, too. We’ll be searching you later, so don’t try anything stupid.”
Reluctantly, their guns and pocketknives were tossed into a pile at Enders’ feet.
Adam’s patience was at an end. “Do you have my brother or not?” he snapped.
“Oh, I have him,” Enders said softly. He motioned toward one of the men, and a cloth-wrapped bundle was brought out. Enders tossed it up to Ben.
Adam watched his father’s hands tremble slightly as he pulled the dirty cloth back to reveal Hoss’ leather vest, the leather garment unmistakable in its size and appearance. Adam tore his eyes off the vest and reached down and unbuckled his saddle bag, tossing it to Enders.
“There. You have the money. Now where is my brother?” Adam said, his voice low and dangerous.
Enders smiled grimly at him. “Seems to me you should be just a tad more grateful, Adam.”
“Grateful?” Adam almost strangled on the word.
“That’s right. The day we took Hoss, I was really hoping to get you. Planned on shooting you outright and taking my revenge that way. But Hoss came along instead, and I decided to take what I could get. At first, I just thought to kill him and leave him for you and your family to find, just so you could know some of the heartbreak that I’ve known.” The hatred that flashed in Enders’ eyes was lethal.
Adam stared at him. Doubts of his brother’s well-being were growing ever larger; they swirled around in his brain, making it hard to think. “All right, so you took my brother instead. You held him all this time… Wouldn’t it have better suited your purposes to request ransom right away? You could have taken the money and been long gone by now.”
Enders shrugged. “The money is the least of my reasons for doing this. That’s why I didn’t demand more. Besides, I didn’t want to give you a chance to get into town and make a huge mistake by involving the sheriff.”
“If it isn’t money you want, then what?”
“Oh, I want payment, Adam, just not in money. See, here’s the deal; I’ve never been given the chance to be a father, but thanks to you I’ve suffered the kind of torment only another father could understand. The loss of one’s sons is a hard force to reckon with—wouldn’t you agree, Ben?”
When Ben didn’t answer, Enders took a long draw on his cigarette and then drawled, “Like I said, sitting out here all this time, I got to thinking. I suffered for months in prison, thinking about my sons and the life they’ll never have. After what was done to my family, I decided it was only fair that the suffering be drawn out for yours as well, Adam.”
“All right, Enders, it worked,” Adam said, and he had to work to keep his voice steady. “You can congratulate yourself. We’ve suffered plenty. Now hand my brother over.”
Enders’ smile thinned into a predatory line. “Not just yet. You see, Adam, now is when the suffering part really starts for the Cartwrights. If your brother dies, it will be because of what you do—or rather what you don’t do.”
“A race? You’re telling me my son’s life depends on a race?” Ben’s disbelief showed in the indignant tone of his voice.
“What the hell are you trying to pull, Enders?” Joe’s voice had that tight sound in it that meant he had just about reached his limit. Adam wished Enders wasn’t standing so close. He wouldn’t put it past Joe to launch himself off Cochise and proceed to try to beat Hoss’ whereabouts out of him. They couldn’t afford to do that, not yet. They had to find out if Enders really did have Hoss—and where he was keeping him.
“Easy, Joe,” Adam murmured, and Enders grinned.
“That’s right, Adam, keep a tight hold on that baby brother of yours. You could easily end up an only child yet.”
Only a sharp rebuke from Pa kept Joe in the saddle and off of the man.
“Say your piece and let’s get this over with,” Adam snapped to Enders.
Enders smirked and nodded. “All right. Here’s the deal.” His face grew hard. “I’ve thought long and hard about what sort of vengeance I wanted, and I believe what I’ve come up with is a true piece of poetic justice. Here’s the deal: my life was destroyed by you—all because of a race you ran. You rode twenty-five miles in an hour and a half when the entire population of Virginia City said you couldn’t. You’re going to race again, Cartwright, the same distance. Only this time it will be to save your brother’s life. If you make it in time, you’ll all be free to leave. If not—well, you’ll be minus one Cartwright.” Adam had to fight to keep from shivering at the malicious threat in Enders’ smile. Enders eyed them all thoughtfully. “I should also probably mention that covering the twenty-five miles will be a mite tougher this time, as there will be no change of horses. And you’ll need to make it in an hour, not an hour and a half. After all, I do want this to be a challenge for you.”
Adam spat on the ground. “An hour? Twenty-five miles? You know that’s impossible.”
Enders shrugged. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t care. Don’t try then. But just know that your refusal to act will end in Hoss’ death.” He smiled at the helpless anger surging across Adam’s face. “There’s something else you should know.” Enders pulled out a length of rawhide and wound it slowly, thoughtfully, around one hand. “There’s an old Indian trick that I’m sure you’re all aware of. When rawhide gets wet, it stretches. As it dries, it shrinks.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed. “What are you getting at?”
“Hoss will be waiting at the end of the course with a rifle pointed at him. One end of a strip of wet rawhide will be tied to the trigger; the gun will be set to go off as the rawhide shrinks and pulls.” He grinned at the horror registering in their eyes. “Don’t worry, we’ve tested it a few times. A length about—oh, this long—takes just about one hour to shrink back to original size. Give or take five or ten minutes either way. If you make the ride in time, you’ll be able to push the rifle aside before it fires. If not, your ineptitude will cause your brother’s death.” Enders flashed a wide smile. “Plain enough?”
Adam heard the strained curse fly from Joe’s mouth just before he saw the green flash of his jacket as Joe flung himself toward Enders. Adam threw himself off his horse and into Joe, hitting him from the side just before Joe was able to reach his target. They both hit the ground, Adam landing on top of Joe and scrambling to hold onto him. An instant later Pa was beside them both, helping Adam to restrain the youngest Cartwright.
“Joe! Stop it!” Ben shouted. “There’s too many of them.”
His words seemed to have the desired effect. Joe stopped struggling, and Ben cautiously eased his grip as Adam did the same. Joe sat up, his chest heaving as he glared up at Enders.
Enders laughed. “You always were too hotheaded for your own good, Joe. It would have been pretty tough for you to ride in a horserace if I had to shoot you, now wouldn’t it?”
“Wait a minute, Enders,” Adam protested. “I thought I was running this…race of yours. You don’t need my father or Joe. For that matter, you don’t need Hoss, either. Forget the race. We can’t cover that kind of distance in such a short time, and you know it. I’m the one you want revenge against. Just take me and let my family go.” Adam ignored the sputtered protests from Pa and Joe. “Come on, Enders. Just me and you, man to man.”
Enders refused to take the bait. “Well, now, what good would that do me, Adam? While it’s true that I hold more hatred for you than I do for any man alive, I know you well enough to know that the best way to break you is through your family. Besides, killing you too quickly just wouldn’t be as satisfying. No, Cartwright, like I said, I want to see you suffer.” Enders’ dark eyes glittered, and Adam felt the hair rise up on the back of his neck. Things were going badly. Very badly.
“Now, then, here’s how it’s going to be,” Enders continued. “You’ll run the race. Your father will be held here, just so you don’t try anything foolish.”
“And Joe?” Ben asked.
“Oh, he’ll be racing, too. More of a sporting chance, you know. Rather generous of me, don’t you think? Makes it a bit more exciting, for me, of course. You never know what will happen when running a horse over rough terrain at that speed, and I’d hate for an accident to end the whole thing too quickly. Better to have two riders. That way one can carry on if the other has an unfortunate accident, don’t you agree?” He pursed his lips. “Of course, there is always the possibility that they could both be…hurt.” He grinned.
Ben shook his head. “You haven’t thought this thing through, Enders. Our horses were pushed hard all night. They’re in no condition to be ridden in the manner you’re speaking of.”
“As I said, Mr. Cartwright, I’m in the mood for an exciting race. I will provide the horses.” Enders laughed out loud at the look on Ben’s face. “Such distrust! Don’t worry, they’re good, strong horses. As I said, I don’t want this race to be ended prematurely. I plan on enjoying every moment of it.”
“How do we know you’re telling the truth about Hoss? How do we know he’s still alive?” Adam asked. “And how do we know you won’t just kill us all in the end?”
“You don’t. You’ll have to take my word for it all.”
“You’re insane,” Ben growled.
“Insane? Probably.” Enders stared at the rawhide in his hand for a moment before looking back up at Ben. “But you tell me, Mr. Cartwright. How sane would you expect to be if you lost all your sons?” He sighed into the heavy silence that followed his question. “And remember, just to show you what a generous man I really am, I’m not even going to force any of you to go through with this. I’ve given instructions for the rawhide to be wet down at exactly ten o’clock. You can either choose to start the race at ten, or you can all ride away.”
“Do you honestly expect us to believe that you’d just let us leave?” Adam asked.
“Why not? I’d still win, because you’d still suffer.” Enders walked slowly forward until his face was close to Adam’s. “Because if you decide not to race and just leave, you’ll always wonder if you let your brother die at the end of a strip of rawhide.”
The desert sun was unrelenting; as midmorning approached, the light became more and more harsh, giving everything a washed-out appearance. Adam sat beside Ben in the dubious shade of a clump of chaparral while Enders and his men laughed and joked nearby.
A few feet away, Joe was pacing, his fists clenched, his wiry body taut with suppressed energy. Adam looked up at him and wondered how his brother kept it up—that never-ending flurry of life that whirled about him wherever he went, even out here in the heat of the desert with disheartenment twining its grip on all of them, even with the certainty that no matter how hard they tried to do what Enders was asking, it wasn’t going to be enough.
Adam himself felt drained and empty, despair making him as tired and sluggish as he’d ever been in his life. Logic was at work in his head again, insisting on telling him over and over that not only was it impossible to do what Enders wanted them to do, but also that, in all likelihood, Hoss had already been killed and unless they tried to get away soon they were probably next. Adam was still convinced that they had come out here not so that they could save Hoss, but so that Enders could play out a cruel game of revenge. Twenty-five miles in an hour over ground that was anything but gentle—it was impossible to do. Enders knew it, and Adam knew it.
Adam sighed. Would there ever again come a time in his life when he didn’t feel so weary? He couldn’t help but doubt it. Again he compared the inertia seeping into his bones with Joe’s seemingly endless energy, and he knew what was most to blame for this difference between them; cold logic still insisted on creeping back in to tether him to hard, unforgiving facts while wild hope kept Joe buoyed up beyond all reason. He wasn’t sure whether to pity his kid brother or envy him.
Adam looked away from Joe and glanced at his father. Ben sat with his head bowed and his eyes closed; his lips moved the tiniest bit, and Adam knew he was praying.
If there was anything Pa relied on more than logic, it was prayer. His belief in God was strong and unyielding, and he had instilled that same belief into his sons. Ben believed wholeheartedly that God’s hand was at work in everything. Adam believed it, too. He also believed that man’s ability to reason was God-given and therefore should be used when necessity dictated it. The difficulty, Adam thought, was in determining exactly where faith left off and reason picked up.
It occurred to him that Hoss had always known how to combine the two. Hoss had more common sense than any man Adam had ever known, and yet his faith knew no bounds.
The loss of his middle brother was suddenly so fresh and strong and raw that Adam could hardly bear it.
Faith and reason. Adam knew he didn’t possess Hoss’ confounding ability to merge the two. So he did the best he could; he set reason aside long enough to send up a prayer of his own. He prayed for the safety of his father while waiting for his sons to run an impossible race. He prayed for Joe’s safety and his own. He prayed for God to give speed to the horses that he and Joe would ride. He prayed for the race to end with the miraculous recovery of Hoss, and he prayed that Enders would honor his word to allow them to leave with him.
But most of all he prayed for strength—strength for them all to accept the worst if Hoss wasn’t waiting at the end of the line.
“I’d feel better if I was on Cochise.” Joe was sitting on the ground with his saddle across his lap, checking every buckle and strap of leather for at least the fourth time.
Adam glanced away from examining his own equipment to look at his brother. “I know. But like Pa said, our mounts are worn out from traveling all day and night. They wouldn’t have a chance of making a ride like this.” No horse had a chance of making a ride like this, rested or not, Adam thought, but he didn’t say it. “Anyway, these are decent horses.” He stood up and walked over to where their borrowed horses patiently waited and patted the big bay’s neck. “Wide chests, powerful rumps. Enders isn’t shortchanging us in that respect.”
“But we don’t know what they’re made of, how much heart they have. Cochise would run as hard as I asked him to.” Joe moved to the black horse’s side and thoughtfully ran his hands up and down its legs.
“And you’d kill him trying,” Adam pointed out, although they both knew it was a sacrifice Joe wouldn’t hesitate to make if it helped to rescue his brother. “We’re going to have to be careful with these animals, Joe. There’s going to be a fine line between making them get us there in time and running them into the ground. Push them too hard and we lose everything.”
Everything—as in Hoss. Joe nodded and lifted a hoof to check for debris.
“Adam…Little Joe…it’s almost time.” Pa came up behind them, and Adam felt new fury at Enders when he saw the heavy lines of worry etched across his father’s face.
“We’re ready, Pa,” Joe said. He placed a hand on Ben’s arm. “We’re going to make it, don’t worry. When you see us again, we’ll have Hoss with us.”
Pa smiled, even though the smile didn’t reach his eyes. He was having his own battles between faith and reason. “I know you’ll both do everything humanly possible to pull this off. But…boys, I have to remind you that it’s entirely possible that Hoss won’t be there at all. Even if he is, it will be very, very difficult for you to make it in time. If that happens…” Ben’s voice faltered, and he waited a moment for it to steady. “If that happens, neither of you is to blame himself. Do you understand?”
Adam ducked his head and Joe mumbled something in reply as they both studied the ground. Ben raised his voice. “I mean it. None of us is to blame for this, and I won’t have either of you killing yourselves with guilt because…because this man has forced us into an impossible situation. Hoss wouldn’t want that. I want you both to promise that you’ll do what you can, but that you won’t hold yourselves accountable if things don’t turn out as…as we hope. Promise,” he said. Neither of them answered. “Promise,” he repeated more sternly.
“Promise,” Joe whispered, and Adam nodded.
“Promise,” Adam echoed, even though he knew what Pa was asking of them was no more feasible than winning an impossible race.
“Here he comes,” Joe muttered, and Adam turned to see Enders sauntering toward them.
“Well, well, anxious to get started, I see.”
Adam ignored Enders and edged a step closer to his brother. They needed to spend what time they had getting prepared, not getting involved in Enders’ baiting games. He turned his back on the man. “Joe, don’t forget. Don’t push your horse past his limit. Speed is important, but you’ll have to pace him.”
Enders laughed. “That’s right, baby brother, you listen to Adam. If you make it through this race without breaking your neck, maybe you’ll live to be old enough to follow your own orders someday.”
Adam automatically started to put out a hand to hold Joe back, but surprisingly, his interference wasn’t needed. Joe didn’t move. A tiny muscle jumped in his jaw as he clenched his teeth, but other than that he ignored Enders’ goading.
Enders looked mildly irritated that his prodding had fallen flat. “You’re losing some of your spunk, boy,” he said to Joe. “Then again, it could be you’re satisfied just doing what you’re told. Spoiled and coddled your entire life—I guess it’s no wonder you’ve got to always have someone telling you what to do.”
Adam tensed further and held himself poised to leap if necessary. Enders’ tactics were obvious; all he wanted was to incite Joe into attacking so that Enders would be free to gun him down. Then it would be one Cartwright down, three to go—and if Hoss was already gone, only two. Adam had no doubt that he, Adam, was last on Enders’ list. It was all a plan to make Adam watch his family be slowly murdered, one by one. The only reason Enders didn’t just kill them now was because, as he had said, he wanted to draw out Adam’s suffering.
Adam stared at Enders, and Enders stared back. Suddenly the workings of the man’s mind became crystal clear to Adam. He really did intend to let Adam go—free to spend the rest of his life wondering how he could have saved his family.
It was a horrifying realization, worse than the thought of Enders killing him outright, and it brought a cold sweat to Adam’s forehead despite the heat pushing against him. A blur of images went through his mind: Joe lying dead in the dirt, Hoss long buried under a few rocks and branches, his father’s heart broken and his will to live extinguished before Enders put him out of his misery—and Adam himself, wandering blindly back to the Ponderosa to walk into an empty house.
He moved a shaking hand to wipe the perspiration from his face.
“Something wrong, Adam?” Enders asked. “You look a mite peaked.”
Adam looked at Enders and opened his mouth to deliver a sharp retort, but then he faltered. He didn’t trust his voice not to betray his fear. Instead of speaking, he turned away from Enders to look at Joe. Joe stared back at him, his gaze steady and unwavering. Joe’s jaw was set; intensity rolled off him in waves so strong that Adam could almost feel it. The concentration on his face was so fierce that it took Adam aback.
Under other circumstances, Enders’ attempts to arouse Joe’s aggression would have met with almost instant success; indeed, Enders had played him like a fiddle with his earlier provocations. But now Joe had channeled his entire being into completing the job at hand. Enders was an irritation, but one to be ignored. Joe was focused on one thing, and one thing only—getting to Hoss.
Adam’s lips parted slightly as he searched Joe’s face. Pa wasn’t the only one guilty of missing what was going on around him, he thought; at some point while he had been looking the other way, his kid brother had gained a mature strength that now caught Adam by surprise. That strength was making some unexpectedly well-timed appearances—first during Adam’s loss of control in the saloon, and now again. It wasn’t that Enders’ taunts weren’t infuriating to Joe—his green eyes sparked with suppressed rage. But he was managing to do what Adam had never thought to see him do: he was controlling his anger in order to meet his uppermost objective—working with his oldest brother to help win the race of their lives. When, Adam thought, had his baby brother gone from being a kid to being a man?
Adam recognized the feeling that moved upon him then as the same one he’d felt all those years ago after Marie’s death, that night when Pa had stepped up and taken the weight of his brother out of his arms. It was a sense of aching relief, pure and sweet, at the knowledge that he wasn’t in this alone. He didn’t have to carry this overwhelming load by himself. He had another brother to lean on, not one with Hoss’ quiet strength, perhaps, but one with unstoppable courage and determination.
Pa’s earlier words went through his mind again. None of us can make it through something like this without the others. I’d forgotten that—again. Fortunately for Joe, you didn’t.
Pa was wrong. He had forgotten. He’d been struggling to get through this nightmare under his own steam, worrying about Pa, worrying about Joe, but never reaching out to them for help in assuaging his own pain.
He glanced at Enders again and then back at Joe. For the life of him, he still couldn’t figure out how to separate hope and logic. Until he learned how, though, he would draw upon the hope in Joe’s heart—after all, the Lord knew the kid had oceans of it.
He felt a grin spread across his face as he turned back to Enders, and he wanted to laugh at the confusion spreading across the man’s face.
“No, Enders, nothing is wrong,” he said, and this time he didn’t have to worry about his voice betraying him. It came out loud and clear and strong. “Just point us in the right direction, and we’ll run your damn race. And we’ll win.”
The well-known landmark could be seen for miles, a mass of boulders heaped one on top of the other until the resulting jumble resembled nothing so much as a man’s closed fist. Hand of God, the Indians called it. Adam had noticed the formation several times before during occasional treks through the area, but it was always at a blue-hazed distance; the curiosity of getting a closer look had never quite overridden the effort required to get there.
Now it seemed that he would finally see the oddly shaped promontory from a much more intimate vantage point, for it was at the base of the Hand of God that Enders said Hoss waited.
Enders and one of his men had ridden ahead to wait at the course’s end; the rest of the men were left behind to guard Pa and start the race at ten o’clock—precisely the same time that orders had been given to wrap soaked rawhide around a rifle aimed at Hoss’ head.
The image of stretching rawhide worked its way into Adam’s mind and he shook his head to clear it. He needed all his wits about him during the next hour. Visualizing the worst served no useful purpose.
Like Joe, he settled into the saddle and glued his eyes onto the terrain ahead. Taking a firm grip on the reins, he waited for the starting pistol.
The shot sounded and the race began on a less than optimum note as both horses bolted forward. The big bay Adam rode was unnerved by the sudden shot and very nearly unseated him before swerving violently to the side and ramming into the rear of Joe’s horse. The black snorted and reared, and for one horrible instant, Adam was afraid both he and Joe would go down and the race would be finished before it even started. Then Joe spurred ahead, and Adam was able to breathe more easily as both horses settled into long, ground-eating strides.
Twin plumes of chalky dust streamed out behind them as they flew over the parched earth. Adam glanced back one last time. Pa stood with clenched fists, his expression grim beneath the brim of his hat. Just before he was obliterated from view by the powdery dust sifting up behind the galloping horses, Adam saw him raise his tied hands high into the air in a silent salute, and Adam, still staring back, raised one hand in return.
Then Pa was gone and there was only Adam and Joe and the horses. The wind rushed against their faces and made their eyes tear, and the world tore by in a muted blend of soft colors—beige, ochre, ivory and sage. The steady pounding of hoof beats sounded in their ears, beating out a desperate cadence that drowned out all other sound except for the rhythmic grunting of their mounts.
Precious as gold, the minutes trickled through their fingers, slipping from their grasp and spiraling away never to be seen again. Pa had offered his watch before the race began, but Adam had refused it. It would do no good for them to know without a doubt how little time stood between them and devastation. They would be giving their all; their knowing precisely how much time had passed would neither increase nor diminish their efforts.
So they carried no watch. Instead, they counted the seconds in every beat of hoof against earth, listening to the rhythm of it until it began to take on a voice of its own.
We’re coming Hoss we’re coming Hoss we’re coming Hoss.
Time sped by on the fleetest of wings, and looking back later, Adam would always think of that hour as the quickest—and at the same time the slowest—hour of his entire life. He kept looking up at God’s rocky fist, and it did seem to be growing ever so slightly nearer—but still the ground between them and it stretched endlessly into the distance. Despair kept raising its head, and Adam kept kicking it back down with every dig of his boot heel into his horse’s flank.
We’re coming, Hoss.
They ran on and on. Joe followed Adam’s lead in how much they asked of the horses. It took supreme power of will not to push them past their endurance during the first half of the race, but they kept the pace slightly lower than full speed. When at last Adam determined that they were over halfway, it was a relief to them both to let out the reins and kick the horses into the fastest gait they could manage.
Adam knew the period of time the animals lasted couldn’t be long. Still, his heart sank when he realized the horses were tiring. Their stride was rougher, their breathing more labored. Droplets of moisture began to fly into Adam’s face, and he looked up at the sky in surprise before realizing that it wasn’t rain, but sweat off his own heavily lathered horse.
We’re coming, Hoss.
The horses had been well matched in speed and endurance, but now the bay was starting to fall back, his breathing sounding more like heaving groans. Adam turned his head to see Joe’s horse slowly pull ahead, its glossy black coat flecked with streaks of white foam.
The bay faltered, and Adam barely managed to pull him out of a stumble. The distance between the two horses widened. Joe looked back at him, questions in his eyes.
Adam shook his head. “I don’t think this one’s going to make it,” he shouted. “Keep going. Go!”
Joe gave a clipped nod and dug in his heels. Adam looked up at the horizon and blinked. The edges of God’s hand had sharpened, and its blue tones had evolved into distinct bands of russet and cream. They were so close. Surely they would be in time. Surely.
He urged his wheezing horse on in Joe’s wake.
Joe lay low over his horse’s neck. His wiry body was tight and compact over the withers, and Adam had to look hard to tell where the horse left off and Joe began.
The corner of Adam’s mouth turned up in a tiny smile as the black pulled steadily away. Damn, but his kid brother could ride. He’d been a terror in the saddle since the first time he ever climbed into one, always charging around at speeds that had gotten his hide tanned by Pa on more than one occasion. Adam himself had often shouted at him for his reckless riding habits. Ironic, Adam thought, that he now wanted to praise God for Joe’s fearlessness on horseback.
And then it happened.
Joe’s horse stumbled; horse and rider tumbled limb over limb and skidded to a stop in the hot dust. Joe was flung off to the side where he instantly curled into himself.
“Dear God,” Adam gritted out, and he whipped his own horse with the end of his reins to catch up to them. By the time he reached them, the black had shaken itself off and stood back up, but Joe still lay writhing in the dirt. Adam threw himself out of the saddle and staggered over to his brother.
Joe’s eyes were scrunched closed, his face ashen. He held his right arm close to his body in a manner that made Adam’s heart sink.
“I think it’s broken,” Joe choked. “My arm, when I hit the ground…”
“Let me see”, Adam murmured. He helped Joe sit up and gingerly pulled his jacket off. Cautiously rolling up Joe’s right shirtsleeve, he bit his lip when he got a look at Joe’s forearm. It was already swelling. “I think you’re right,” he admitted. He sighed. “I’ll see if I can find something to use for a splint…”
“No!” Joe shook his head. “You’ve got to go, Adam. Take the black. He’s still got some life in him. You can still make it.”
“I can’t leave you out here…”
“Damn it, Adam! You get on that horse and ride, and you do it now!” Joe hauled himself out of the dirt, angrily brushing Adam’s assistance away with his left arm while he held his right bent close to his side.
“But you’re going to need help—I can’t…”
“I don’t need your help!” Joe barked. “What I need…” Joe blanched and shut his eyes against a wave of pain, his mouth tight with fear and pain and frustration. “What I need is for you to save my brother.”
Adam froze under the weight of indecision. Abandoning a hurt brother in order to ride to the aid of another who might not even be there…
Joe bellowed out a curse. “Adam, go!”
Choices. Why did it seem that he never had a true choice? “All right, I’m going.” Adam began to back toward the black horse, keeping his eyes on Joe. “Don’t move. Stay right here. I’ll be back.” He climbed into the saddle. “Stay here,” he ordered once more, and then urged the tired horse back into a gallop without waiting for Joe to agree.
The black did his best, and gainfully ran on. More time passed; Adam was afraid to try to guess how much. Seemingly all at once, then, the enormous rocky fist was towering over him. His eyes darted around its base, and several yards away—several yards away he saw a man sitting with his back against a post, his head tipped forward and his big white sugarloaf hat hiding his face. The hat was so achingly familiar that Adam felt the sting of tears burn his eyes before he blinked them away. He could see another post set in the ground a few yards away from Hoss; the rifle was attached to it.
At this distance, he couldn’t tell if the rifle had already gone off or not, and he refused to let his mind dwell on it. Instead, he dug his heels deeper into the horse’s ribs and began to whip the reins back and forth on either side of its neck. Then the distant sounds of a galloping horse came from behind him, and he jerked his head around.
There was the bay with Joe atop him, hundreds of yards behind but coming hard, the bay apparently getting a second wind with Joe’s lighter weight.
“Crazy kid,” Adam muttered, and drove on. He should’ve known his brother wouldn’t have stayed put like he was told.
And then he put it out of his head. He didn’t know how Joe had managed to get mounted with that arm, much less ride. It didn’t matter. They were so close now. All that mattered was getting to that rifle…
The horse shuddered beneath him and gave a mighty groan. Just like that, the animal went down, and Adam heaved himself out of the way to avoid being rolled on. He hit the ground running, his eyes glued to the rifle lashed to the post.
And then he was almost there, his eyes on the rawhide strip that stretched tight as a piano wire between trigger and post. He stumbled forward, his hand reaching out for the gun. Behind him he could hear the bay’s hoof beats stumbling to a stop and then a pained grunt from Joe as he jumped out of the saddle and began running toward him, shouting for him to hurry.
Adam knelt on the ground beside the rifle. His first thought was to simply push the barrel of the gun up and away from its target, but whoever had strapped the gun to the post had done a good job; it wasn’t going to give. With shaking hands, he fumbled with the rawhide, his fingers clumsy and wooden. The knots in the leather had shrunk and were drawn tight and hard as pebbles, effectively repelling his efforts.
“Come on, come on, come on,” he breathed.
Then Joe’s face was next to his, and his voice was high and tight. “Jerk it loose!”
“I’m trying! I can’t get it…” Adam’s fingers scrabbled at the hard leather; he watched in horror as the trigger’s almost imperceptible movement became more obvious.
“It’s going to go off!” Joe shouted, and then suddenly he was no longer beside Adam but running toward Hoss.
The end of the hour chugged to a halt, winding down as though the seconds were mired in molasses. Adam’s heart was slamming in his chest. He heard himself shouting at Joe, and then the roar of the rifle drowned out his words. A puff of smoke emerged from the barrel…Adam’s hands were falling away from the rifle…he lunged upright and staggered forward as Joe jerked and spun around before falling into the dirt.
Adam stumbled through the dust toward Joe, calling his name over and over in a voice he didn’t even recognize; he received no reply. He looked up at Hoss and saw that his head still sagged forward, his face still hidden by his hat. Hoss hadn’t moved when the rifle fired; that must mean…it had to mean…
Adam’s knees buckled as he realized his middle brother was gone after all. He crawled the final few steps to Joe on his hands and knees, clawing at the dirt in an effort to move faster. Joe was sprawled on his belly, a red stain blossoming under his right shoulder blade. Adam placed a trembling hand against his brother’s back but there was no movement.
Adam heard laughter somewhere off to the side. He rocked back onto his heels and then slowly became aware of a harsh, low howling sound. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered what kind of animal could be making such a cry, because it certainly couldn’t be human.
And then he felt the rawness in his throat and realized that the sound was coming from him.
He’d failed them. Failed both his brothers. Failed his pa.
Enders had lied about Hoss being alive, just as Adam had feared. There was no reason to believe Pa hadn’t met the same fate; Enders’ men had probably shot him as soon as Joe and Adam were out of sight.
Adam had made all the wrong choices. He should’ve insisted that they go to the sheriff first, regardless of what the note had threatened. He should’ve refused to go along with Enders’ ridiculous idea of vengeance. He should’ve listened to what his head had been trying to tell him about the improbability of Hoss’ survival, and most of all, he should’ve hardened his heart against the hope—useless, baseless hope—that Joe had continuously waved like a banner in the smoky heat of battle. For it was that hope which had now destroyed what was left of Adam’s family.
He had known Hoss had to be gone, and he should’ve been smart enough to accept that, as horrible as it was. If he had, it wouldn’t have made any difference as to Hoss’ fate, and Joe and Pa would still be alive. Hurting, grieving, but alive. Now, because Adam had allowed himself to hold onto impossible expectations, he had made a score of bad decisions; as a result, he was the only Cartwright left—and even if Enders allowed him to live, Adam would still be a dead man walking. And it was all his fault.
He looked up at God’s hand looming over him and he asked forgiveness for his failings even though he knew he’d never forgive himself.
The laughter rang out louder, and he slowly lifted his head. Enders was walking toward him. As Adam watched him approach, he whispered one last prayer.
He prayed that Enders would be merciful and end his nightmare quickly.
Enders was still laughing. “Well, Adam, I never knew a Cartwright was capable of bungling things so badly. Frankly, I’m disappointed in you. Not only were you not smart enough or man enough to save Hoss, you managed to get your kid brother killed as well. What do you reckon your daddy will have to say about that? Oh, don’t worry—I didn’t have him killed. After all, I want you to see the look on his face when you tell him.”
His mocking voice continued, but Adam was no longer listening. Pa was still alive—but for what? To hear that he had lost another son in addition to the one he had lost all over again? Enders had one hell of a flair for revenge, he’d give him that.
Adam lowered his head and stared at his white-knuckled fists, and Enders’ voice became a droning hum that went on and on, wrapping itself around him, slicing into him, suffocating him. It was several moments before he gradually became aware of another sound, a booming, outraged roar of a voice that sounded as full of anguish as Adam’s own heart.
Enders was shouting at someone. Adam lifted his head, his heart pounding, and then he stopped breathing entirely. There, on a rocky ridge about forty feet above the desert floor, was Hoss, pounding his big fists into the face of one of Enders’ men while two more men struggled to overtake him from behind.
Adam shook his head in confusion and decided he must be losing his mind. He looked back at the man tied to the post and then back to the man fighting on the ridge, almost expecting him to disappear into thin air.
But there was no doubt; it was definitely Hoss up there, wearing nothing but his longjohn pants. A gag was loose and slipping down off his chin, and a tangle of loosened ropes hampered his movements, but the palpable anger in him made him a formidable force. His captors were hard-pressed to try to regain control. Hoss bellowed and flung out one arm, striking one man and sending him screaming over the edge of the ridge. He slammed another one senseless against a rock and then grabbed his gun. He pivoted and shot at the third man.
Adam’s wits were snapped back into place as Enders raised his gun and pointed it up at Hoss. Adam sprang to his feet and charged, head-butting Enders hard in the back. Enders’ gun flew from his grasp, and he cursed, turning and punching Adam full in the belly.
Adam fell back. Over Enders’ shoulder, he could see Hoss scrambling down from the ridge. Adam drove at Enders again and they tumbled over each other into the dirt, both of them grappling for control. A fistful of sand caught Adam in the eyes; Enders jerked out of his reach and clawed his way over to his gun. He straightened up and pointed the gun at Adam.
Enders cocked the hammer back and grinned. “Well, Adam, all good things must come to an end. I really had more fun in store, but it’s unfortunately being cut short. Looks like it’s time for you to say adios.”
Adam braced for the bullet, and yet when he heard the shot, he felt nothing. Enders’ face was full of shock as he stared back at him, and then Adam watched him fall face first into the dirt. A few yards away, Hoss stood with a smoking pistol in his hand.
Adam, are you all right?”
Adam nodded, still baffled as to why he was now speaking to Hoss when he knew good and well he had seen him tied to that post. But there was no time to dwell on the questions in his mind, for Hoss was running over and pulling him onto his feet and lunging ahead toward Joe.
Joe. Still lying dead on the hot, dusty desert floor. The searing pain of it hit Adam anew, and he pulled back against Hoss’ grip, grabbing him and turning him around to stare him in the face.
“He’s gone, Hoss. I lost him.” He choked down the sob that threatened to rise from his throat and shook his head. “I lost him.”
Hoss stared at him for the briefest of moments before turning loose of his arm and running on toward Joe. Adam ran a hand down over his face, and then he walked slowly over to the man tied to the post to find out his identity. Shock rose up to greet him as he lifted Hoss’ hat from the man’s head.
It was a dummy. Nothing but dried weeds and sticks stuffed into Hoss’ clothing.
A red haze of anger swarmed over Adam’s vision. He stared at the dummy, and then he shouted up to the heavens in fury and drove his fist into the post. The rough wood flayed the skin from his knuckles and started the blood flowing freely down his wrist, but he felt no pain.
Stupid—he’d been so stupid. Adam Cartwright, a man who valued intellect and reason above all else had been well and truly duped, and his kid brother had paid the ultimate price for it.
None of it made any sense. He stared up at the huge Hand of God and silently asked why he had been given the gift of one brother’s return only to lose the other. It wasn’t right, any of it.
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Words he had been taught since childhood to accept, and yet he found he couldn’t do it. Someday, perhaps, but not now. Not when the Lord had taken and given and taken so much in the span of one hour.
One hour. The difference between redemption and hell on earth.
He turned to see Hoss hunched over Joe. Hoss looked back over his shoulder at Adam.
“Adam, he’s breathing.”
“Any of ‘em still kickin’?” Hoss asked.
Adam shook his head. He had commandeered Enders’ gun and climbed back up the canyon wall to ensure that none of Enders’ men would be sneaking back up on them, but had soon discovered that they were all three past causing trouble.
He saw the look of regret pass over Hoss’ face, and he briefly placed his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. His softhearted brother, the one who never wanted to be the cause of anyone’s pain, apparently still had his gentle soul intact even after all his weeks of captivity.
Adam wanted to ask about those weeks, but so far they hadn’t had the chance to talk about it. Seeing to Joe had taken up all their time. Removal of the boy’s shirt revealed an exit wound under his right arm that was slightly larger than the small, neat hole under his shoulder blade. The trajectory of the bullet appeared to be mercifully shallow. They had pressed neckerchiefs and strips of Joe’s shirt against both wounds and had finally gotten the bleeding to stop, but Joe hadn’t come to.
“We should see about setting that arm while he’s still out,” Hoss decided, so Adam retrieved the rawhide from the booby-trapped rifle and the shirt from one of the dead men’s bodies so that it could be fashioned into a make-shift sling. Hoss broke a couple of branches from a spindly cottonwood tree and they dropped the whole mess on the ground where Joe lay, the shade of the Hand formation protecting him from the burning sun.
They dropped to the ground beside their little brother. Hoss felt carefully along Joe’s swollen arm until he nodded in satisfaction. “Right about…there,” Hoss murmured. “You grab hold right here, Adam, at his wrist. When I say pull, you pull, and don’t turn loose till I say. You ready?”
Adam took a firm grip on Joe’s wrist and nodded. “Ready.”
“All right, now…pull!”
Adam pulled and tried to close his ears to the faint sound of bone grating against bone. Joe shuddered, and his eyelashes fluttered; his face, already pale, drained of all color. Adam looked away and instead focused on his other brother; Hoss grimaced in concentration as he felt and listened for the barely audible ‘click’ that meant the bone had been realigned.
“That’s it, we’re there,” Hoss breathed. “Go ahead and let go and hand me them sticks.” Adam passed the cottonwood branches over and then helped Hoss lash them to Joe’s arm with the rawhide. Finally they tied it all up with the shirt. Except for the brief shudder when they set the bone, Joe never moved.
“That’s it,” Hoss decreed. “That arm should be good as new in no time.”
Adam nodded and looked back up at the ridge. “Enders and his men had water with them, surely. Where did they leave their horses?”
“They’re tied to a picket line on the other side of those rocks over there.” Hoss directed him with a jerk of his head as he picked cactus needles out of his big toe, making Adam realize for the first time that he was barefoot. Of course—Hoss’ boots were adorning the dummy. Adam fetched them along with his brother’s hat, pants and shirt, squelching the urge to punch the dummy in the face as he did so.
“Here you go,” he told Hoss. “Go ahead and get dressed, and I’ll go get the horses. Then we’ll decide what to do to get Pa.”
Hoss grinned as he took the boots. “Mighty glad to get these back. This ain’t no place for a man to be without his boots, that’s for sure.”
Adam regarded him thoughtfully. Hoss had lost a little weight but for the most part he looked fairly fit. Adam was still astounded by the fact that he was here, alive and from all appearances, unhurt. He knew they still had business to attend to, but suddenly, he had to know.
“How did they treat you?” he asked softly.
Hoss shrugged and pulled on his pants. “Not bad, once Enders decided what he was going to use me for. They kept me locked up in an old barn somewhere. I’m not sure where, being as they kept me blindfolded all the way there. They gave me food and water, at least. All Enders cared about was hurting you. He wanted to make sure I was around long enough to help him do that.” He looked at Adam. “Did he tell you about Mary and the babies?” Hoss shook his head sorrowfully.
Adam nodded. “He told me.” It was all he said, and Hoss didn’t ask any more.
Adam looked out across the sand. Several yards away, the black horse’s body lay stiffening in the sun, its coat rough with dried sweat. With head hanging low and flanks sunken in, the bay stood nearby.
Adam looked down at Joe and then back at the two horses.
“He sure didn’t deserve that,” he muttered, more to himself than to Hoss.
Hoss looked in the direction Adam was staring, and frowned. “The horse? Yeah, it’s a cryin’ shame, all right. Looks like he was a fine animal.”
Adam shook his head. “No, I mean Joe. He didn’t deserve to get hurt like this. Maybe I did, but not him.”
Hoss’ brow furrowed in confusion. “What? Why do you even…” His frown grew. “You ain’t makin’ sense, Adam. What in tarnation are you getting’ at?”
Adam sighed. What would Hoss think when he told him how his older brother had quit on him? It was as shameful a piece of self-knowledge that Adam had ever known, and he wished he could keep it to himself for the rest of his life, but he knew he owed Hoss the truth. He turned to face his brother squarely.
“Joe never gave up on you, Hoss. He never stopped looking, never stopped hoping, even when Pa and I decided there was no place left to look. He was determined to find you.” Adam turned his head toward the dead horse once more, staring at it as he talked. “Oh, Pa still had hopes, still prayed for a miracle. So did I. But we knew what the chances were of finding you. We were out of options. We had no idea what to try next. So we decided—we decided to stop looking.” God, the words sounded so cold! “We didn’t want to, but…” He dropped his head. “Joe kept going, even after I quit. He kept insisting that you were alive, and I—I insisted that you weren’t.”
Hoss had pulled on his boots and moved to stand beside him. “It weren’t your fault, Adam. How could you know? I was gone a long time…”
Adam whirled around to face Hoss. “Hoss, don’t you see? I quit on you. Gave up. Threw up my hands and walked away. Joe kept pushing that infernal hope of his into my face and I refused it.” Adam watched Hoss’ face, waiting to see the condemnation he knew he deserved.
But Hoss only gave him a gentle, peculiar smile. “You’re a numbers man, Adam. Just like Pa.”
Adam stared at him. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It’s how your mind works. You weigh the odds, this against that, and then you make a decision based on those odds. You know I ain’t good with numbers, but I’ll be the first to admit that there were times these last several weeks that I didn’t think my odds of making it were very good. After so much time passed, I knew what you and Pa were probably thinkin’, and it pained me somethin’ awful to know what you had to be goin’ through.”
“So you…you did believe that we were no longer hunting for you?”
“I figured you had looked as long as you were able. And I knew when the initial searches were called off after the first couple of weeks; Enders made a point of telling me.” Hoss scuffed at the ground with the toe of his boot. “Later, when I found out about this crazy race Enders had in mind, I thought I was sunk for sure—I just didn’t think there was any way a horse could go that fast that far. But he said you and Joe would be doin’ the ridin’, and I decided if there was any way it was goin’ to happen, you two were the men to do it.” He looked back at Adam. “If it had been left up to me, I wouldn’t choose anybody else to make that run for me.” He shrugged and then turned to move back over to Joe’s side, sitting down and tearing another strip from the boy’s shirt.
Adam stared at him. Enders had told Hoss when the searches had been called off. Hoss had known—while he was still at Enders’ mercy, he had lived with the knowledge that his family wasn’t even looking for him.
Adam watched him dab at their brother’s perspiring forehead, and then he slowly walked over and squatted on his haunches on Joe’s other side. “How did you stand it, then, Hoss?” he whispered. “Thinking none of us were looking for you—what kept you going?”
Hoss looked up and grinned. “I never said I thought nobody was looking for me. I said I knew the searches had been called off. Like I told you, you and Pa are numbers men. But…” He grinned bigger. “…Joe ain’t. I figured he wasn’t givin’ you two a minute’s peace.”
“Adam.” Hoss looked him hard in the eye. “You’re probably the smartest feller I know. You’re so smart that when your head starts arguing with your heart, your head’s a lot louder and it almost always wins—even when your heart is right.” He smiled. “Our baby brother, though, is just the opposite—more heart than head.” He chuckled. “You know it ain’t that he ain’t smart, ‘cause he is—it’s just that he’s got way more heart than he knows what to do with. It always overrides whatever his head tries to tell him.”
“So what are you saying? That you knew Joe would find out what had happened to you even if Pa and I didn’t?”
Hoss shook his head. “I knew God would use the three of you to do what should be done. I didn’t know for sure if that would mean finding me or not, but I decided to trust that it would happen.” He smiled at the unconvinced look on Adam’s face. “There you go, thinkin’ too much, just like always.”
Adam had to laugh, but the laughter broke off abruptly. “I wish I had your faith, Hoss. If I had been the one being held for so long, I don’t think I would’ve been able…” He broke off, shaking his head and staring down at Joe. “I wish I had your faith,” he said again.
“Adam…when Enders told you how far and fast you’d have to ride, did you think you could make it?”
Adam looked up at Hoss. “What?”
“Did you think there was any way you and Joe could make this ride in time?” Hoss repeated patiently.
“No,” Adam answered slowly, “I didn’t. I told Enders we would, but deep down—no, I didn’t think we could make it.”
“But you tried anyway. Why?”
Adam shrugged. “There was nothing else to do.”
“Well, Adam, that was faith.”
“But Hoss, I didn’t…”
“Faith ain’t really faith until it’s all you’re holdin’ onto, Adam. It’s steppin’ forward even when you can’t see the whole trail.”
Adam stared at Hoss for a long moment, and then shook his head in wonder. “You’re wrong, Hoss.”
Hoss stuck his chin out in irritation. “Dadburnit, Adam, no I ain’t! I swear, you’re the most stubborn…”
Adam laughed. “No, no, not about the faith part. What you said about me being the smartest man you know.” He smiled as Hoss frowned in confusion, and then he said quietly, “The smartest man you know looks you in the eye every morning when you shave.”
A fierce blush surged across Hoss’ face. “Aw, shucks, Adam, that ain’t…”
“You’re both wrong,” a soft voice slurred, and they both looked down to see Joe, his eyes still shut but his ears apparently wide open.
They bent over him as his eyes fluttered open, full of pain but lucid. “Neither one of you is as smart as Pa,” he murmured, “and he’s going to be madder’n a wet hen if we don’t hurry up and rescue him. Now quit wasting time and let’s go.”
There was a loud and heated discussion over who would stay and who would go. Adam thought he should go while Hoss stayed with Joe, and Hoss thought it should be Adam who stayed. Joe told them they were both crazy; it would take all of them to get Pa out from under Enders’ men.
“You’re not going!” Adam roared for the fourth time.
Joe tried to shift into a more comfortable position and shot him a sulky glare.
“Adam’s right,” Hoss said. “You ain’t got no business gettin’ on a horse right now.”
“I’m gonna have to get on a horse to get myself out of here!” Joe shouted, his face red with frustration.
Hoss looked at Adam. “He does have a point, though, Adam.”
“You think he should be riding right now?” Adam looked at Hoss as if he’d lost his mind.
“No, not that. He’s right about it taking more than one of us to get Pa. You said Enders left a bunch of ‘em back there with him.”
“So you want to leave Joe here by himself?”
“Well, no, I don’t want to, but…”
“Will you two stop talking about me like I’m not here?” Joe yelled. He shook his head and struggled to his feet, causing both brothers to reach out and grab him. “I can sit a horse just fine,” he insisted. “Pa’s in trouble, and the two of you are wasting time arguing. Let’s go.”
“Dadburnit, Joe, I didn’t patch you up just so you could rip everything loose again.” Hoss scowled at him but kept a steadying hand against his back. “You still need some stitches to close up those holes you managed to get punched into you. If you try to ride, you’re liable to start ‘em bleedin’ all over again. And I don’t need to tell you what your arm’s gonna feel like if you start bouncin’ across the desert on horseback.”
“You’re right—you don’t need to tell me,” Joe shot back, and pulled away from his brothers. “I’m going. You two can follow just as soon as you get done flapping your jaws at each other.” He marched over to one of the horses Adam had retrieved from the picket line.
Then he stood there staring at the stirrup while his brothers stared at him. He cleared his throat but didn’t turn around. “Uh, I’d appreciate a lift up, fellas.”
Hoss looked at Adam. Adam raised a dark brow and looked back at Hoss.
“Well, hell,” Adam muttered.
Hoss shrugged, and his mouth pulled up in a half-cocked smile. Then they both moved forward, and Adam held the horse still while Hoss lifted his kid brother into the saddle.
“Hoss,” Adam said suddenly, “get him back down.”
“What?” Joe looked at him in disbelief. “I told you…”
“Oh, you’re going to ride, all right,” Adam said. “But there’s something we need to do first. I’ve got an idea.”
The shadows grew long and the sun slipped near the horizon and the desert’s colors began to lose their bleached appearance. The light of late afternoon gilded everything in gold; the very air seemed tinged with a honeyed glow. Even the sand sparkled and shimmered as if with the promise of a prospector’s dream.
The stark beauty of it was lost on Ben Cartwright. He stood slightly apart from the men holding him captive, his eyes locked on the three riders moving toward them from the east. For long minutes, he held his breath, unable to make out the faces of the three men on the horizon. His heart beat hard within his chest and the possibilities that his mind had been tormenting him with sped faster and faster through his thoughts.
As he had been doing all day, he silently uttered another prayer.
Minutes went by while the riders drew closer.
“It’s Enders,” the man beside him finally said. “Looks like he’s got Baker and Wilson with him. Well, Cartwright,” he said, “I guess that reunion ain’t gonna happen for you after all. Looks like your boys must’ve ended up getting’ themselves killed.”
“Must’ve been some trouble, all right,” another man noted. “Enders is ridin’ kinda funny, like he’s hurt. And Lester and Smith are missing.”
Ben was no longer listening. The riders were still too far away to see their faces clearly, but he could quickly see that none of them were his sons. He sank to the ground, his mind blank.
Hope. He couldn’t let go of it now. The alternative was a yawning black void that would swallow him whole. And yet, what was there to hold onto? He felt as though he were drowning, reaching desperately for a handhold that wasn’t there.
Around him the other men were going about the business of gathering blankets and saddles as they got ready to ride. It was over, all of it. His sons were gone.
“I suppose then, that you’re not going to let me go?” Ben asked dully, and then wondered why he bothered to ask. He certainly didn’t care. If they were going to shoot him, he wouldn’t try to stop them.
The man nearest him shrugged. “Don’t know. Have to wait for orders from Enders.”
Ben shut his eyes and waited, and time stretched out before him in an endless, empty stream. Time passed; he didn’t know or care how much.
The first shots caught him by surprise. When he jerked his eyes open, he was astonished to see Enders and the other two riders almost upon them—and they were shooting. Men scattered, dropping saddles and diving for their guns, and Ben looked around wildly as he tried to determine what was happening.
Then Enders rode headlong into the men scattering over the ground, and his hat flew off to reveal a head full of dark, unruly curls. Curls that looked amazingly similar to Joseph’s.
Ben gasped as realization dawned and hope claimed victory. He whipped around to look at the other two riders and sure enough, the shirt of one of them was stretched uncomfortably tight across his barreled torso.
“Hoss,” Ben whispered. It was a word of thanksgiving, love and praise, all in one syllable, and it was all Ben had time to give. The reunion would come later; for now, he had business to take care of. With a fierce kick, he knocked the feet out from under the man running past him and grabbed his gun.
His boys were back.
The element of surprise had served them well. Confusion reigned as Ben’s sons galloped the horses among the men, shooting as they went. It was a matter of moments before only Cartwrights remained upright.
Hoss was jumping off his horse and running toward him, and all Ben could do was shake his head and repeat his son’s name, over and over again.
“Pa, are you all right?”
Was he all right? Dear God, he’d never been more all right in his life.
“Here, let me get these ropes off you…” Hoss murmured. Ben wanted to curse at the knots at his wrists as Hoss’ big fingers struggled to loosen them, because they were all that prevented him from throwing his arms around the son who had been lost to him for so long. When the rope was finally removed, he did just that, marveling at the fact that his son, his strong, gentle son, was really here.
“Joe!” It was Adam, and there was alarm in his voice. Ben turned to see Joe, white-faced and unsteady, slipping out of his saddle. Ben surged forward even as Adam caught the boy, easing him to the ground.
“Is he hit?” Hoss was reaching out, feeling over Joe’s torso.
“Naw, I ain’t hit,” Joe gasped. “It’s just this—danged arm. One of them tried to drag me off the horse, and he—darn it!” His breathing was fast and shallow, and Hoss met Adam’s gaze as they leaned over him.
Ben’s questions were met with short, sparse answers as they prepared to reset the arm.
“I hate to have to tell you this, Punkin’, but it’s gonna hurt a lot worse this time, being as you’re awake,” Hoss told him as he and Adam removed the splints.
Joe nodded. “Just do what you have to do,” he breathed. Ben sat on the ground behind him, supporting him as Hoss and Adam nodded at each other and took hold of Joe’s arm. Hoss gave the command and they pulled the broken ends of the bone back into place. Feeling Joe’s body convulse, Ben shut his eyes. He listened to his youngest son release one soft whimper from the back of his throat, and then Ben implored God to indulge his appeals one more time.
And then it was done.
They camped in the desert that night, traveling only far enough to put some distance between them and the bodies of the men that had meant to see them dead. They lay on their bedrolls near the fire, staring up at a clear, crisp desert sky, and the talk between them was slow and easy. The Cartwrights were whole again for the first time in weeks, and the contentment of it warmed them like old brandy.
Ben turned his head to look at his boys, their faces touched with the soft glow of the fire, and he wondered how he had come to be so blessed.
“How are we gonna get Joe home?” Hoss asked softly. “Might need to go over to Salt Flats and get a wagon or somethin’. It’s a long ride back to the Ponderosa in his condition.”
“I’ll make it just fine.” Joe’s voice was slurred with drowsiness. “It’s almost as far to Salt Flats, and I’m not waiting around here for a wagon to come and tote me along.”
Ben wasn’t convinced. “It is a long way for you to ride, Joseph.”
“Like Joe says, he’ll be fine. Have faith, Pa.” Adam’s voice came quietly from the other side of the fire.
“Sounds like you’ve got a better idea than ridin’ all the way to Salt Flats for a wagon, older brother,” Hoss observed.
“No, actually I don’t.”
There were a few moments of silence before Ben raised himself up on one elbow to look at Adam over the fire. A few seconds later Hoss sat up, and then Joe carefully maneuvered himself into a sitting position. They all stared at Adam, waiting for him to say more. But he simply lay with his hat pulled down low over his eyes, a peaceful smile on his face. His pa and brothers looked at each other, then back at him.
Hoss was the first one to break. “Then how are we gonna get him home? You really think he can ride all that way?”
At first Adam didn’t answer, and didn’t move. Then, with a long, slim forefinger, he pushed the brim of his hat up far enough to reveal one eye, which he pinned on Hoss.
“A very wise man once told me that faith is moving forward even when you can’t see the whole trail,” Adam said. He pulled his hat back down to cover his face once more and settled more deeply into his bedroll. “We don’t need to know how; let’s just move forward.”
And so they did.