Summary: When fifteen-year-old Joe tries to impress a new friend on the Ponderosa, it leads to dangerous repercussions for both Joe and Adam.
Word Count: 22, 275
I awake, coughing, and stare into darkness. A voice I know calls my name. A familiar smell hangs in my nostrils. It’s hard to breathe. I cough again, choking this time, struggling for air.
“Adam!” says the voice. “Can you hear me, Adam? Wake up! Please!”
What is that smell? Why am I choking? Yellow light flickers in tiny patches in front of my eyes. Joe. It’s Joe calling my name. Why does he sound so frightened?
Joe’s coughing too. Loud thuds vibrate close to my ear. Joe’s voice swears, on a rising pitch, and is drowned out by more thumps and bangs. There are other sounds too. Hissing noises, and cracking, and a sound like the roar of the wind. I try to locate my brother, but my head won’t cooperate. As a buzzing blackness rises to engulf me, I finally understand what’s happening.
The cabin’s on fire. We are trapped.
When Sam and Jack Deverell rode up to the house, looking for work, it was like a godsend to me. Much as I loved the Ponderosa, I’d been restless and distracted for a long time. There were times when I secretly hankered after more than ranch work, even if I didn’t say it out loud. Hoss and Joe wouldn’t have understood my discontent. This place, this life, it suits them both, as if it were made to fit, but for me, it wasn’t enough. It’s not as if I have specific plans for a life beyond the Ponderosa, just a nagging desire, an itch, to see other places, learn something new, meet interesting people who think differently and have something different to say. I think Pa suspected, even if he didn’t put those suspicions into words. After all, he’d spared me for four years, to go away to college. I wouldn’t have missed those four years for anything, but sometimes I wondered if they had made the longing worse; given me a taster for something I could not have. Not yet, at any rate. The Ponderosa needed me; Pa needed me. A place the size of ours took a great deal of management, as well as good, old-fashioned hard work. It had grown substantially, even in the six years since I’d returned from Boston, and though Hoss was now able to shoulder more of the responsibility, his strengths didn’t lie in paperwork. And just lately, there was more and more of that to be done: payrolls and legal documents, letters, contracts, inventories, accounts; the administration of a ranch the size of ours was never ending. My attempts to interest Joe in learning more about the business side of things had all been in vain. He’d never been keen on book-learning, even though he was a whole lot more intelligent than he led people to believe. I knew, with a little effort and application, he could do it, but at fifteen, he was still a restless kid with no inclination to be cooped up inside the house with a desk full of papers and ledgers. So, for the time being, at least, Pa was relying on having me around to keep our growing spread running smoothly. And so it was; my interests, outside of the Ponderosa, were necessarily limited.
I did have a couple of projects of my own I was working on, one in particular I was eager to pursue. I’d been contacted by Daniel Brayforth, an old college friend of mine who now ran a law firm in Placerville. Daniel had always had a keen business head on his shoulders, and when he’d heard about a large plot of prime building land on the edge of town, he’d spotted the potential straight away. With the population of Placerville soaring, his plan was to build houses, to let. He’d offered me a partnership, if I could raise half of the capital to seal the deal. The proposition was doubly attractive to me because Daniel had asked me to design the buildings and oversee the construction work. It had been a long time since I’d had the chance to exercise my engineering skills on a major project, and I’d jumped at the opportunity.
Unfortunately, the whole plan clashed with difficult times on the Ponderosa. With the silver bonanza, the mines were thriving. Finding men to work the ranch had become ever more difficult with higher wages in the mines luring more and more men underground. Our rates were better than the smaller ranches round and about, but even we couldn’t compete with the kind of incentives the mine companies were able to offer. Being short-handed meant I had even less time to spare for my own projects, so when the Deverell brothers rode into the yard, I jumped at the chance to hire them. Sam Deverell was six foot four and built like my brother, Hoss: a bear of a man who could take down a steer single-handedly, without even breaking a sweat, while his brother, Jack, was shorter and leaner in build, but still a force to be reckoned with. Both were seasoned cattlemen. The timing for the Placerville project was perfect; I could hardly believe my luck.
With the two men came Jack’s son, Charlie. At sixteen, he was less than a year older than Little Joe, although a stranger would have been forgiven for thinking there were years rather than months between the two boys. Little Joe was wiry and tough, but there was still more child than man in his appearance, whereas Charlie was already as tall as many men twice his age. Despite their physical differences, however, the two of them had soon struck up a friendship. I guess that was natural. Until Charlie came along, Hoss had been next closest in age to Little Joe. And Charlie and Joe had a lot in common. They both exuded restless energy, and were fearless and relentlessly competitive, especially in the saddle. Watching the two of them together made me feel about as old as Pa.
The day I hired the Deverells, Pa and Hoss were away, in Reno. By the time they arrived back in Virginia City, some days later, the newcomers had settled in, Joe and Charlie were already bosom buddies, and I was feeling exceptionally pleased with myself. Best of all, with the extra help, I could indulge my own interests, immersing myself in drawing up plans and calculations for the Placerville project, working on financial projections and investment potentials, secure in the knowledge that chores on the ranch weren’t falling behind. All was well. Or, so I thought. So when Hoss—at breakfast, three weeks after the Deverells’ arrival on the Ponderosa—put down his coffee cup, looked at me and said, “What do you make of that Sam Deverell feller?” I was taken by surprise.
What was he expecting me to say? Sure, I’d hired the man, but since then, I’d had little to do with him, other than wave him good day and pat myself on the back for finding a man so physically suited to the tough work of ranching. I spent much of my working day in the office, or at the desk in my room, working on plans and calculations. My concentration had been totally absorbed by my Placerville venture, which was now shaping up very nicely.
“Seems very capable,” I said.
I could tell by Hoss’s face he wasn’t of the same mind.
“Why? You worried about him?”
Hoss looked at Pa. “What d’you reckon, Pa?”
“Hmm,” said Pa, with that same expression of doubt in his voice that Hoss had had, “I get the impression he’s not too popular with some of the other hands.”
“Yeah.” Hoss nodded. “Me too.”
I suppressed a slight niggle of annoyance. The man was built like a human ox. He knew all about cattle, and he had the strength of four regular men. What could there be to complain about?
“Why?” I asked again. “What’s he done?”
“Oh,” said Pa, “I’m not sure he’s done anything. Yet. It’s…his manner. Sometimes he’s a little…confrontational.”
“More’n a little.” Hoss wrinkled his face. “A feller that size shouldn’ oughta bully folks like he does.”
This was all news to me; news I didn’t really want to hear. “Who’s he been bullying?”
“I’ve seen him trying to start trouble with a few of the fellers,” said Hoss.
I shrugged off Hoss’s concerns with a degree of impatience. After all, ranch hands were rough by nature. Disagreements, even fist fights, were common enough. “I’m sure things’ll settle down.”
That was the end of the subject for that day. And it seemed to me I was right; I didn’t hear any other complaints, and I put Sam Deverell out of my mind. I had more important things to be thinking about, such as raising the eight thousand dollars for my share of the Placerville deal. Then, a few days later, after I’d been working on my drawings all evening and was about to get ready for bed, Hoss tapped on the door.
He raised his eyebrows when he saw all the papers spread about my desk. “You been busy. Heard any more from Daniel?”
I folded the diagrams I’d been finishing. “Everything’s more or less ready to be signed, sealed and delivered. The bank’s agreed to the loan, and I’m planning to head over to Placerville end of next week. Want to come with me?”
My brother’s face was always easy to read. Something was troubling him. “Reckon I’m needed here,” he said.
“It’d just be for a few days,” I told him. “Pa’d spare you for that time, I’m sure.”
“Maybe,” he said, in a tone lacking any conviction.
I stopped my tidying to look at him more closely. “What’s up? Something bothering you?”
“Yeah,” he said, and I could hear relief in his voice that I’d noticed. “Matter of fact, there is. It’s Little Joe and that Charlie Deverell.
“What about them? Thought they were getting along just fine.”
“Yeah.” Hoss frowned down at the floor. “’Ceptin’, I ain’t so sure.”
I rolled up some papers and stacked them on the shelf. “What do you mean?”
“I ain’t sure Charlie’s company is doin’ Joe a whole lotta good. I mean, Little Joe’s no angel, I know that, but that Charlie, well, he’s a whole heap of trouble.”
I confess to a vague irritation at Hoss’s revelation. My new project had plenty of challenges of its own, and the petty day-to-day problems of the Ponderosa seemed mundane by comparison. In truth, I’d been so involved in my own affairs, I’d hardly noticed what my youngest brother had been getting up to. Joe’s youthful ebullience and stubborn hard-headedness were exhausting at the best of times, and I’d secretly been enjoying the peace and quiet of working almost exclusively in my own company. Surely it wasn’t too much to expect that Pa and Hoss could manage my troublesome little brother without having to drag me into it every time.
I sighed to myself, my concentration more on counting my pencils back into their box than on Hoss’s concerns. “What trouble, exactly?”
“Sheriff caught me in town ’safternoon. Seems like Joe an’ Charlie done started a fight there yesterday with some of the mining boys.”
“Started it? Why?”
“Roy said he didn’ rightly know. Couldn’ get to the bottom of why. He tol’ me ’cause he was worried ’bout Little Joe. Said when he broke up the fight, Joe was real sassy to him.”
I shrugged my shoulders as I shut the pencil box in the drawer. “So, they’re boys. They fight. I’m pretty sure Roy knows how to deal with that.”
“Yeah, but he ain’t just loud mouthin’ the sheriff. He’s doin’ it to me an’ Pa too. You tellin’ me you ain’t noticed?”
I frowned, reluctant to admit I hadn’t paid any attention to Joe for a good couple of weeks. “He’s fifteen,” I said, as though that explained everything. “Charlie’s older than he is, taller, bigger. More worldly-wise. Guess it’s natural for Joe to want to be like him.”
“Yeah. Worldly-wise is right!” said Hoss with so much feeling, I finally gave him my full attention.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s the other thing that’s worryin’ me, Adam. ’Bout Little Joe an’ Charlie. The kind of things they talk about.”
I waited for him to go on, but I could see him struggling. I knew him well enough to understand his hesitation. He and Joe had always been close, and Hoss—faithful as ever— never wanted to betray his younger brother.
I’d guessed what he was about to say, but I prompted him anyway. “What kind of things?”
“’Bout women. Hoss sighed, resigning himself to his treachery. “I overheard ’em this morning. It was like they was comparin’ notes. Jokin’ an’ laughin’.” He wrinkled his nose as though he’d detected a bad smell in the room. “If Pa’d heard the kind of things they was saying, he’d’a’ skinned Joe.”
I was amused by Hoss’s apparent prissiness. “Can’t imagine Joe has a lot of notes to compare,” I said, laughing off Hoss’s concerns. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Yeah, well, I reckon most of it was jus’ flannel, but it sure didn’t sound pretty.”
“You and I were that age once, “I reminded him. “You remember what it was like.”
“’Course I do. An’ I was full of bullshit too. What kid ain’t? Thing is, Adam, this wa’n’t the regular kind of stuff. An’ it weren’t jus’ mouth neither. Leastways, not from Charlie. You can tell when a kid’s all mouth. Charlie’s done been there. He knows it all, an’ more.”
“Oh, come on Hoss, there’re plenty of boys his age know their way around a woman.”
“Yeah, I know that. ’Course I do. It ain’t Charlie I’m worried about. It’s Little Joe. Whatever Charlie does, Little Joe wants to do the same. And if you’d’a’ heard what they was talking about, Adam….” A faint flush rose in his face and he left the sentence hanging.
“You’d better tell me,” I said, more intrigued than alarmed at that stage. Hoss had always been surprisingly naïve when it came to women, chivalrous to a fault. It didn’t take much to shock his gentle nature.
Hesitantly and not without some embarrassment, he told me what he’d overheard Charlie relating to Joe. I raised my eyebrows. Finally I understood his alarm.
“Ain’t no way to treat a lady,” said Hoss, when he’d finished, “even a painted one.”
“Does Joe know you heard?”
Hoss looked faintly indignant. “Yeah, of course. I wa’n’t gonna let that kind of talk carry on. I sent Charlie on his way, an’ I told Joe I didn’ wanna hear him, nor no one else, talkin’ like that about a woman—any woman—again.”
“What did he say?”
“He tol’ me I was fussin’. Said it was jus’ talk. I told him he was lucky it was me heard ’em. If it’d been Pa, he’d’a tanned his hide.”
“Maybe that’s what he needs.”
Hoss’s face crinkled at that. “I was hoping you’d have a word with him, Adam. He listens to you.”
“He used to,” I said. “Not so sure he takes a lot of notice these days.” I saw the pleading in Hoss’s eyes, and sighed. I was tired. I’d been looking forward to going to bed with nothing more on my mind than my trip to Placerville. Trust Joe to spoil it!
“All right,” I agreed. “I think you’re worrying over nothing, but I’ll talk to him if you think it will help.”
I’d meant it when I said it, but, somehow, the opportunity to talk to Joe didn’t present itself. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough to make it happen. To be honest, the prospect of an interview with my fifteen-year-old brother on the subject of morbid sexual appetites made my heart sink. The morning after our conversation, I had an appointment at the bank, and a wire to send to Daniel, and Joe headed out with Charlie and a couple of the other men to round up strays. The day after that, I went with Pa to Carson City to finalize a lumber contract. Saturday morning, when Hoss asked me if I’d managed to have that word with Joe, I had to admit I hadn’t.
“I’ll try and catch him today,” I promised.
But, after breakfast, Clem Foster called by the ranch, to introduce his niece, Susannah McKenna, who’d arrived in town only the day before. Miss McKenna was dark-haired and very pretty. My heart picked up an extra beat or two when she held out her hand in greeting and our eyes met. All thoughts of Little Joe went straight to the back of my mind. He and Hoss were branding, over in the corral, so the enviable task of entertaining Clem and the lovely Miss McKenna fell to me and Pa, and Miss McKenna’s eyes definitely weren’t on Pa.
“Such beautiful countryside,” said Miss McKenna, smiling at me. “Uncle Clem was telling me how wonderful the lake is.”
“You should take the buggy out there,” said Pa. “It’s well worth a visit.”
“Another time,” said Clem. “I have to be back in town by one o’clock.”
“I could take Miss McKenna out there,” I suggested, magnanimously.
Miss McKenna looked to her uncle for approval. Clem hesitated. I knew he wasn’t doubting my honor, just considering practicalities.
“I can take her back to town afterwards,” I said.
That appeared to satisfy him, and Miss McKenna and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours driving around the lake. And while she admired the scenery, I admired the way her hair fell in thick dark waves over her shoulders, and the fullness of her supple mouth, and the smooth curve of her slender waist and all her adjoining anatomy. I told her about my plans in Placerville. She was genuinely interested, asking about the houses I’d designed and how the deal would work. I like a woman with some sound sense in her head. It seemed to me Miss McKenna and I could get along very well together.
When I dropped her back at her uncle’s house, I asked her if she might like to see me again, and she said she would like that very much. I drove home to the Ponderosa in a small bubble of euphoria, more than content with my day. I had barely spared a thought for Hoss or Little Joe, but when I reached home, shortly before dinner, Hoss came out to help me unhitch the carriage, and I could tell straight away that he was fidgety about something.
“You see Little Joe in town?” he asked, standing close to me, as if afraid someone might hear him.
“In town?” I said. “I thought he was here, branding with you.”
“We finished that,” said Hoss. “Now he’s upped and vanished. Jed reckons he saw him head out with a group of other fellers, into town.”
“He’ll be back for dinner,” I said, refusing to let Hoss’s fussing spoil the memories of a good day.
Hoss turned his head in the direction of the road, as if my assurances would bring Joe cantering around the corner of the barn. I could tell he didn’t share my confidence.
“Pa’ll have something to say, if he ain’t,” he said, a glum expression on his face. “It’s pay night. If Pa knows Little Joe’s in Virginia City, on his own, on pay night….”
“If he’s done something as stupid as that, he’ll deserve it,” I said. “He knows the rules. Stop worrying about him, Hoss. Did you hear who I got to entertain today?”
Hoss gave me an envious look. “Yeah, Pa said. Clem Foster’s niece. How come you get all the luck, Adam? What’s she like?”
“Her name’s Susannah. She’s as pretty as a peach. I almost wish I wasn’t leaving for Placerville next Friday, or I’d invite her to the dance.”
“I could ask her.”
He slapped my shoulder, enjoying his little joke, but I saw him cast another anxious glance towards the road. I might have sounded confident about Little Joe making it back in time, but Hoss wasn’t convinced.
Dinner time arrived, still with no sign of our errant brother, and Hoss was forced to divulge his suspicions to Pa. Hop Sing threw up his hands in disgust. Pa’s brow lowered ominously.
“What’s the matter with that boy? What in heaven’s name is he thinking? He’s too young to be carousing in town on his own, on a Saturday night.”
Hoss forced himself to look optimistic. “He ain’t on his own, Pa. He’s with Charlie Deverell.”
That reassurance did nothing to lighten the frown on Pa’s face.
“Maybe Jack Deverell doesn’t care what his son gets up to, but I do! There’s all kinds of trouble waiting to happen in that town on a Saturday night, and your brother has a knack for attracting it. Who said he could go anyway? I’m his father, not Jack Deverell.” Pa’s frown darkened to a scowl. “Although you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, lately.”
The resentfulness of his tone brought my head up. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, all I hear lately is ‘Jack this’ and ‘Charlie that’. I thought he’d get over it, but Charlie Deverell and his father can’t put a foot wrong, as far as Joseph’s concerned.” Pa’s eyes flashed dangerously. “But this is one step too far. I won’t tolerate blatant disobedience.”
Hoss looked at me and back at Pa, and I could almost hear his brain whirring in an effort to come up with a plan that would save Little Joe from Pa’s wrath. “Listen, Pa, how ’bout me an’ Adam ride into town after dinner, jes’ to make sure he ain’t in any trouble?”
Pa’s eyes fixed on me, then on Hoss, and his brow lifted just a fraction. I couldn’t help thinking that he would never have worried that way over me—or Hoss—when we were Joe’s age. But then, in truth, neither Hoss nor I ever got into the kind of scrapes Joe seemed to attract, as easily as fruit attracts flies. But the kid was growing up. Sooner or later, for better or for worse, Pa was going to have to loosen the reins.
With some amusement, I watched him struggle with himself. Finally, he shook his head. “No,” he said, and I could sense the huge effort it took to force out that word. “No need for the two of you to ride all that way into town. You’re right. He’s with the other men.” I could see how hard he was finding it to convince himself as he said it. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.” A flicker of doubt crossed his face. Pa was no fool. He knew well enough what men got up to in town on pay night.
Hoss raised his shoulders and let them drop again, in a fair imitation of a nonchalant shrug. “A’right, Pa. Fine by me.”
Pa shot him a hard look. I kept my face carefully neutral. Pa lifted his fork to his mouth and we finished dinner without another mention of Little Joe, but the conversation was terse and strained, and Little Joe was at the front of all our minds, even if none of us said his name out loud again. Pa would never admit to a soft spot for that kid, and I guess we were all guilty of molly-coddling Joe, not just Pa. Doesn’t matter how old the kid gets, he’ll always be the baby of the family. I figured Hoss, like me, was remembering our conversation three evenings before. Just as well Pa didn’t know about that, I thought, trying to ignore my own disquiet.
Finally, Hoss put down his dessert spoon, leaned back in his chair, and stretched his arms over his head. “Well, older brother, what d’you reckon? Now I’ve put me in mind of a night out….” He left the sentence hanging and grinned at me instead.
“Hmm.” I pretended to give the matter serious consideration. “You know, you’re right, younger brother. A couple of beers in the Silver Dollar would go down well.”
Pa made a valiant attempt to look as if he didn’t care one way or the other what we did.
“Don’t be late back,” he said, gruffly, just to keep up appearances
We were a couple of miles short of town when we saw a familiar black and white pony cantering towards us through the dusk. Little Joe saw us at the same time and reined in.
“The prodigal,” I said.
“Where you been?” asked Hoss, as Joe drew level with us. “You missed dinner, you little galoot.”
Joe’s face was wary, his eyes flicking between the two of us as if he were waiting to see who would be the first to admonish him. Small flecks of dried blood clung to his nostrils and upper lip. “Yeah. I guess Pa ain’t too pleased with me.”
“I guess he isn’t,” I said. “But the sooner you get home, the better it’ll be for you.”
Joe puffed his cheeks. “I just lost track of time. It’s no big deal. Where you fellers going?”
“Thought we’d have a couple of beers in the Silver Dollar,” I told him.
“Where’s Charlie?” asked Hoss.
Joe’s eyes flicked back the way he’d come. “Still in town, I guess.”
Something in his tone told me all was not well between the two of them. “You two fallen out?”
Joe didn’t answer. He nudged his horse in the direction of home. Hoss gave me another look and wheeled his around too. I followed suit.
“I thought you were going to town,” said Joe, unable to keep the annoyance out of his voice.
I could see he didn’t want to tell us what had gone on, but I asked anyway. “Was there trouble in town?”
“So Charlie’s not in any trouble?”
Joe scowled. “Why do you keep asking me about Charlie? How do I know what he’s doing? He’s there and I’m here!”
“So you did fall out?”
The scowl on Joe’s face deepened. “So what if we did? What’s it got to do with you?”
“What happened to your nose?”
Joe put a hand to his face as if wondering how we knew. “All right, so we fell out. Are you happy, now you know? Why don’t you just go on into town?”
“Actually, we were only going there to find you,” I admitted. “You know what Pa’s like.”
The kid looked momentarily grateful for my honesty.
“We told him you’d be fine without us.”
A flash of guilt flickered across Joe’s face, and even through the dusk I could see how the color in his cheeks deepened. We rode on in silence for a hundred yards, then I said, “So what was the fight about?”
Joe pulled up short, taking us both by surprise. “Look, fellers, I appreciate your concern, but I’d kinda like to ride on home by myself now, if it’s all the same with you.”
Hoss raised his eyebrows. I gave a shrug. “Sure. If that’s how you feel.”
When Joe was out of sight, I turned back to Hoss. “Well, we’re almost there now. Might as well have those beers, since we’ve come all this way.”
After a couple of drinks and a round of poker in the Silver Dollar, I’d almost forgotten about Joe’s troubles, until Hoss nudged me and nodded his head at the entrance to the saloon. A raucous group had just pushed through the doors, in high spirits and very much the worse for drink. Jack and Sam Deverell were among them, and so was Charlie.
A moment later, they passed our table. I said, “Seen my little brother anywhere, Charlie?”
He frowned as he peered at me, struggling to focus eyes glazed with beer. Or was it whiskey? Recognizing me, he leaned across to peer into my face and give my shoulder a drunken pat. Yep, it was definitely whiskey. His breath reeked of it.
“Yeah, Little Joe.”
Charlie’s brow drew down as he considered the question. “Think he might’ve headed on back to the Ponderosa,” he said, his words slurring.
“You and Little Joe have a fight?”
Charlie looked taken aback. “Who tol’ you that?”
Charlie pulled a face at me. “Wa’n’t exactly a fight. And it wa’n’t with me.”
“Who was it with?”
The other men had moved on to the bar. Charlie looked around, then pulled up a chair and sat down heavily. “Listen fellers, it was Li’l Joe threw the first punch. He got mad. Jake Weller said something and he jus’ took it the wrong way.”
“What did Jake Weller say?”
“It was no big deal.” Charlie shrugged. “Me ’n’ Joe were finishing our beers and mindin’ our own business, then some of the fellers said we should go on over to Margie’s an’ find ourselves a good time.” He saw the look I gave him then. “What? You tellin’ me you fellers never had yourselves a good time with a willin’ woman?” He grinned again. “There’s some real friendly gals over that place. You want me to introduce you to a couple?”
“Not right now,” I told him. “How does Jake Weller come into this?”
“Jake Weller was at the bar with some other fellers. He said your pa would have something to say if them gals showed Little Joe any kind of a time, let alone a good one.” He paused, belched, and shrugged again. “Little Joe flew at Weller, ’n’ Weller took him down with one punch. That was all. Then Joe stormed out in a sulk.”
“And you let him go?” said Hoss.
Charlie gave a lop-sided grin. “The ladies were expectin’ me. Charlie Deverell ain’t never disappointed a lady.”
A man’s shadow fell across the table. Sam Deverell clapped his meaty hand onto Charlie’s shoulder. “You ain’t in any trouble, are you, Charlie boy?”
It seemed to me Charlie flinched as his uncle’s hand came down on him. He shook his head. “No, Uncle Sam. These fellers’re just asking after Little Joe.”
Sam gestured with his whiskey glass at the saloon door. “The kid went home in a sulk.” His lip lifted in a sneer. “Way past his bedtime, anyway.”
“He went home because he’s got some sense in him,” I said. I turned my attention back to Charlie. “If you’re a friend of Joe’s, why don’t you help him stay out of trouble?”
“Charlie weren’t doing nothin’ wrong.” Sam’s eyes narrowed as they measured me up. “We were jus’ after a peck of fun. A man’s gotta right to some relaxation.”
“Joe’s only fifteen,” Hoss reminded him.
“If he’s old enough to do a man’s job, he deserves a man’s wage, that’s the way I figure it. Work like a man, play like a man. A few drinks ain’t gonna hurt him.” Sam’s eyes narrowed further. “Or maybe you don’t approve of your precious little brother mixing with the low-down common folk, is that it? Maybe our company ain’t considered fine enough for a fancy Cartwright.”
The man was halfway drunk, I could see that. I wasn’t after a fight but I was beginning to suspect he might be. I shook my head. “That’s not it at all, Sam. There are rules in our house. Joe has to abide by them, or else he’s in trouble.”
“That’s his problem, then. Charlie ain’t done nothin’ wrong. You ever thought he might be doin’ that kid a favor? Showin’ him a bit of fun ’steada molly-coddlin’ him like a girl. Charlie here is twice the man your precious little runt of a brother will ever be, for all your Cartwright money.”
I put my hand on Hoss’s arm to restrain him. Even through his whiskey-stupor, Charlie was looking uncomfortable. He started to say something, but his uncle silenced him with a push to his shoulder. “You stay out of this, Charlie boy.”
I could feel the tendons flexing in Hoss’s forearm, but he kept his voice level when he spoke. “Listen, Sam, ain’t no one telling you the right way or the wrong way to raise your nephew, but Little Joe’s our brother, an’ he ain’t ready to be drinkin’ and gamblin’ and whorin’. Not yet.”
Sam turned his head and spat at the floor. “That’s it, ain’t it? Don’t want your little brother tumblin’ the likes of Margie’s gals when he could be pokin’ a thoroughbred, like that fine mare you were paradin’ round the ranch this afternoon.”
It was Hoss’s turn to hold me back. I gritted my teeth. “That’s the deputy sheriff’s niece you’re referring to, so watch what you say.”
“Is that right? Well, deputy sheriff or no deputy sheriff, I sure wouldn’t mind a pretty little filly like that lifting her tail in my direction.”
My fists curled. I was on the verge of rising to hit him when Jack Deverell pushed his way through to the table. He laid a restraining hand on his brother’s arm.
“It’s the drink talking, Adam. He didn’t mean nothing, did you, Sam?”
Sam’s eyes were cold and challenging, his lip still raised in that small sneer. “No,” he said, tonelessly. “I didn’t mean nothin’.”
Charlie rose to his feet, with an apologetic half-smile, as if the appearance of his father had magically released him from the conversation.
“Your round,” said Jack to his brother. He gestured at me and Hoss. “An’ a couple of beers for these fellers too.”
I was still itching to punch Sam after his remarks about Miss McKenna. Fortunately, Hoss had more sense.
“Not for us, Jack. Me an’ Adam are gonna be headin’ on back now.” He flicked me a silent entreaty not to do anything foolish. He was right. Sam was a giant of a man, and Jack had more than enough muscle behind him too. We’d have been lucky to walk away with our bones intact.
“You should have let me hit him,” I said to Hoss, as he wheeled me out of the saloon.
“There were three of them,” he reminded me. “Big fellers too. ’Sides which, the man was drunk. It ain’t worth it, Adam. We came into town to keep Little Joe outa trouble. Pa ain’t gonna be impressed if the two of us roll in with bruised knuckles and bloody noses.”
“He was asking for it.”
“I been telling you that the last coupla weeks. That Sam Deverell is trouble. An’ the other two ain’t no different.”
As we climbed on our horses and turned their noses towards home, Hoss said, “Dang, Adam, Margie’s? Pa’ll lace Little Joe if he finds out he was even thinkin’ of goin’ to a place like that.”
“Thankfully, he doesn’t need to find out,” I said. “I won’t say anything if you don’t. Joe’s safely back home by now and there’s no harm done, this time. I’ll talk to Joe. Make sure he knows the dangers of a place like Margie’s.”
“Sure he knows,” said Hoss. “But knowin’ wouldn’ stop him if all the other fellers was doin’ it. ’Specially Charlie. Face it, Adam, Joe thinks the sun shines out of Charlie’s butt.”
Talking to Joe wasn’t easy. When I brought up the subject of Margie’s, his face fired and his eyes flashed with hot defiance.
“It’s none of your business,” he snapped.
“You’re my brother. Of course it’s my business. You can pick up a whole lot more than a girl in a place like that, Joe. That’s all I’m saying.”
He stuck out his chin. “I’m not a kid any more, Adam. All the other fellers do it.”
“And they’re all a lot older than you are, Joe.”
“Charlie isn’t. His pa don’t stop him doin’ what the other men do.”
“Charlie’s still older than you. And just because his pa doesn’t seem to be concerned what he does, doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying to take care of you.”
“Well, I didn’t go, did I? So quit lecturing me!”
“It’s not a lecture; it’s just…”
“It sure sounds like one. You an’ Pa, you’re always telling me what I can and can’t do. You never let me decide for myself. I’m not a kid any more. I can look after myself.”
“So, you told Pa then, did you? About what happened with Jake Weller?”
Joe hesitated then and some of his belligerence evaporated. “Not exactly.” A sudden doubt struck him. “You didn’t, did you?”
“No. Of course not. I’m not trying to get you into trouble; I’m trying to keep you out of it.”
He looked at me as if he was trying to decide whether or not I was telling the truth. He lifted one shoulder in a grudging shrug. “Thanks. For not saying anything.”
I should have left it there. Instead, I said, “Just because Charlie does something, doesn’t mean you have to do it too.”
His face darkened ominously.
“I wasn’t doing it because of Charlie. You just don’t get it, do you? I don’t need you interfering in my life the whole time.”
I conceded defeat with a sigh. Maybe what I’d said would sink in later, when he wasn’t so heated. “All right,” I said, turning to leave. “Just stay out of trouble, that’s all.”
Talking to Joe was like spitting into the wind. After his unauthorized Saturday night absence, Pa ruled that he would only be allowed into town if he was accompanied by me, Hoss, or Pa himself. Joe kicked up a fuss, but Pa was unmovable. He got extra chores too, so he didn’t have much time for getting into more trouble. I was as absorbed as ever, finishing my plans, and I was also keen to call on Miss McKenna, one more time, before setting out for Placerville. I took the opportunity of an appointment at the bank to visit her at Clem’s house.
“I’m leaving for Placerville, Friday,” I told her. “I didn’t want to go without calling on you to say how much I enjoyed our little sortie the other day.”
I was gratified to see she looked sincerely disappointed that I was leaving. “You won’t be here for the dance on Saturday night then? I gather it’s very popular.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to miss it, and the chance to ask you to dance. For that, I’m truly sorry.”
She smiled, dimpling her right cheek at me. “There will be other opportunities, Mr. Cartwright. My aunt and uncle have invited me to stay on for a while longer, so I shall look forward to making more of your acquaintance when you return.”
At her invitation, I stayed to dinner, spending a blissful couple of hours in pleasant conversation, while feasting my eyes and my imagination on the gorgeous Miss McKenna, and it was half past nine by the time I got back to the Ponderosa. I expected to find the house quiet; Pa in his favorite chair by the fire; Hoss and Joe playing checkers. Instead, the ruckus reached me even before I rode into the yard: Pa’s deep boom of anger, and Little Joe’s shriller protests. Darn! What had the little galoot been up to this time? After my pleasant evening at the Fosters’, my heart plummeted. I even considered riding out again and returning half an hour or so later, by which time the storm would hopefully have subsided, but a tiresome sense of duty drew me towards the door. Maybe—just maybe—there was something I could do or say that would help calm the tempest.
I opened the door in time to witness my fuming father manhandling a mutinous Little Joe up the stairs, by his collar, Joe resisting every inch of the way, and protesting loudly. Hoss hunched by the fireplace, head down, hands hanging between his knees, a picture of abject misery.
“What’s he done now?” I asked, as I hung my hat on the hook. Joe’s angry shouts, and Pa’s bellows, receded along the upper hallway.
“Dagnabbit, Adam, he’s in big trouble this time.” Hoss lifted his head, his face contorted with anguish. He gestured at the table and I saw a whiskey bottle, three quarters empty.
“Where did that come from?”
“Outa Little Joe’s pocket. Could smell it on him the instant he came through the door. Started arguing with Pa, threw in a few cuss words…well, you can imagine the rest.” Hoss lifted his eyes to the stairs and grimaced.
I picked up the bottle. “You’re serious? He drank all this? I’m surprised he’s still standing.”
“Don’t know that he drank it all. He was out with Charlie.” Hoss’s lips tightened. “Dang fool kid!”
“Swearing at Pa wasn’t wise.”
Hoss grimaced. “It was the whiskey talking, Adam. Not Little Joe.”
Both of us raised our eyes as a thud and a crash from upstairs made the china rattle on the dresser.
“Dang! He’s kicking up a fight. He’s jus’ gonna make it worse.” Hoss looked at me with a pained expression, but there was nothing I could do. Little Joe had brought this one down on his own head, and Pa would not spare the leather. Not this time. Joe was going to be lucky if he could sit down for a week.
I went out to bed down my horse and when I got back to the house, Pa was in his chair, a large brandy in his hand. Upstairs was silence. Pa’s face was grim, his mouth drawn tight. Hoss had a cloth in his hand and was making an unconvincing show of cleaning his pistol. I knew he was itching to go upstairs and comfort Little Joe. That was the way with the two of them. But Hoss knew as well as I did that Pa wouldn’t allow that. Not yet. Not until Joe had had time alone to consider his behavior.
Pa raised his eyes and acknowledged me with a grunt of my name. I sat down in the chair and there was a long, strained silence. Finally, Pa said, “Did you get everything done in town?”
“Yes. I was invited to dinner at the Fosters.”
“Mmm,” said Pa. “We wondered.”
We fell quiet again. Pa put down his brandy glass on the table and rose to prod the fire. “Hoss told you what happened here, then?”
I nodded. Hoss stopped rubbing at the same small section of metal, and raised doleful eyes to my face.
For a moment, Pa said nothing else. He stood with his back to us, poking at the logs, and sending showers of sparks up the chimney. Finally, he set down the poker and turned back to face us. “I worry about that boy. ”
“It’s not that bad,” I told him.
He shot me a hard look.
“I don’t mean his behavior tonight wasn’t foolish,” I put in swiftly. “It was. But he’s just trying to be like Charlie Deverell. It’ll pass.”
“That’s all it is, Pa,” Hoss agreed, nodding his head earnestly, eager to come to Joe’s defense. “See, Charlie’s that much bigger’n Little Joe, for all they’re a’most the same age, and ’cause of that, the men treat him different. All Joe’s tryin’ to do is prove he’s as good as Charlie.” His face creased into a troubled frown. “Trouble is, I reckon Charlie Deverell knows what he’s doin’. Seems to me like he kinda enjoys seein’ Little Joe finish up in trouble.”
Pa looked as surprised as I felt when Hoss said that. “You mean the boy’s deliberately being a troublemaker?”
“I don’t know about deliberate.” Hoss wrinkled his nose. “I figure it’s jus’ Little Joe’s so keen to impress him, an’ Charlie knows that. Charlie ain’t a bad kid, but there’s a mean streak runnin’ through him, jus’ like there is through that uncle of his. So when Joe shows willin’, Charlie’s goes jus’ that little bit too far.”
“If we weren’t so short-handed, I’d pay them off,” said Pa. “All three of them. For Joe’s sake, if nothing else. We don’t need that kind of trouble.”
“Maybe we could jus’ try keepin’ ’em apart,” suggested Hoss.
I chewed my lip, telling myself that I wasn’t responsible for Joe’s situation. Sure, I’d been the one who’d taken on the Deverell men, but there was no way I could have foreseen this kind of trouble for Joe. On the other hand, I hadn’t done much to help resolve the issue either. A thought occurred to me and I pushed it away. I’d been looking forward to my trip to Placerville for a long time, maybe with Hoss for company. I had plans, dammit. And they didn’t include Joe. I pressed my fingers together between my knees and tried to ignore my niggling conscience, but in the end, duty won. I heard myself say, “What about if I take Joe with me to Placerville?”
Hoss looked relieved, Pa surprised. “You’d be happy to take him along? I thought you had too much business to deal with.”
“I do,” I said. “I do, but he could still come with me. From recollection, Daniel has two or three children.” I frowned, trying to recall details of Daniel’s family life that had never really interested me, and found I was cloudy on the finer points. “The oldest one can’t be far off Joe’s age,” I said vaguely. “The main point would be that it would put some distance between him and Charlie, for a couple of weeks.”
Pa thought about that for a moment, his brow drawn down in a troubled frown. “He thinks a lot of you, Adam. Might do him good to get away from here for a while.”
“I think you may be overestimating my influence,” I said, already wondering if I’d made a big mistake. Why hadn’t I just kept my big mouth shut? Instead of two weeks of not having to worry about ranch business, payrolls, rustlers, stray animals—or younger brothers—I was now going to have Joe to look out for. Hoss at fifteen, I wouldn’t have thought twice about. Hoss had always been placid and level-headed and easygoing, but Joe….
Pa picked up the incriminating whiskey bottle from the table and held it in his hand as if he were weighing it.
“I think it’s time I had a word with Charlie Deverell,” he said. “And his father.”
Little Joe was less than enthusiastic when I first put the suggestion to him about coming with me. I figured he was still suffering the aftermath of his hangover, not to mention the hiding Pa had given him, making the idea of a few long days in the saddle a less than attractive proposition. I wondered if he and Charlie had made other plans that appealed to him more, but my suggestion that time away from Pa might benefit both of them after their recent fallings out finally seemed to make sense to him. By the time we set off from the Ponderosa, the following Friday morning, he’d recovered his spirits, even humming to himself as he saddled his horse and loaded his gear.
I’d been looking forward to the ride to Placerville with Hoss as my traveling companion. Hoss is easy company, plus he’s pretty good at cooking up some tasty trail food. Little Joe had always been willful and hot-headed, and now, in the difficult transition stage between boyhood and manhood, there was an extra level of stubborn resentment and unpredictability to deal with. But strangely enough, once we were underway, with home behind us and the sun on our backs, my younger brother’s mood lightened visibly. Relaxed in the saddle, there was a look of contentment on his face I hadn’t seen in months, as if he’d left all his troubles behind him at the Ponderosa. I hoped it was true and that Hoss and I had been right in thinking this time away from Charlie Deverell would do him a world of good. It certainly seemed that way that first day.
We didn’t rush. I’d allowed plenty of time for the trip. My plan was to arrive Sunday evening and take a room at the hotel, ready to get down to business first thing on Monday. The weather was warm. Camping out that first night was going to be no hardship. In fact, we were both looking forward to a night under the stars.
We stopped for the day in a sheltered spot close to a creek. We had a rabbit we’d shot earlier that afternoon, so while I collected wood for a fire, Joe took care of the horses.
I sent him down to the creek to fill the canteens while I set light to my carefully prepared kindling. It occurred to me that it was handy, having a younger brother to do the running around. I decided I’d get Joe to skin and gut the rabbit when he got back from the creek. I didn’t think he’d protest anyway, seeing as how he was in such an unexpectedly agreeable mood. While I rummaged in my bags for coffee, I was whistling a tune to myself, satisfied that I’d made the right decision, bringing Joe along. He was a different kid away from Charlie, back to his old self now he had nothing to prove.
I heard him coming back from the creek. He’d been mighty quick filling those canteens. I raised my head to say as much, and froze.
Joe was there all right. And right behind him, a revolver pointed at the back of Joe’s head, was Jack Deverell. At his shoulders were Sam and Charlie, and their guns were pointing at me. Jack tightened his hold on Joe and nodded at my middle.
“Drop your gun. Nice and easy.”
“What are you doing, Deverell? Don’t be a fool. Let him go.”
Joe grimaced as Jack seized his wrist and yanked his arm backwards, still with the gun to his head. “Drop your gun or I’ll break your brother’s arm.” He twisted Joe’s arm tighter and the boy gasped in pain. “I might just do that anyway. We don’t owe this kid no favors!” He leaned his face close to Joe’s ear. “Thanks to you, boy, we lost our jobs.”
“What are you talking about? Joe’s done nothing.”
“No? Not according to your father. He says Charlie here is a bad influence on your precious, snot-nosed brother. Sent us packing because he figured Charlie was leading this sniveling runt astray.” Jack gave Joe’s arm another jerk. “Charlie’s worth ten of you, you girl!”
I looked at Joe, who was biting his lip in an effort not to cry out. I reached for my gun and tossed it on the ground. Charlie sprang forward and snatched up my revolver and rifle.
“Sit down on the ground and keep your hands in the air.”
I sank to the ground. There was no point in resisting, not while Jack had hold of Joe. “If this is about Joe and Charlie,” I said to Jack, “I’ll talk to my father. I’m sure we can work things out.”
Jack snorted. “Oh, we can work it out all right. We’ll just take the money you’re carrying, Cartwright, and then we’ll call it quits. Think of it as severance pay.”
I frowned in puzzlement. “I’ve got about fifty dollars.” I reached slowly towards my jacket pocket. “You’re welcome to it, if you let Joe go. Here. Take it and get on your way.”
Sam Deverell gave a sneer. “Good one! Except your big-mouthed baby brother here already did the blabbing to Charlie, didn’t you, kid? We know you’re carrying eight thousand dollars for the big deal you got organized in Placerville.”
My heart plummeted into my stomach. I stared at Joe in dismay. What blood was left in his face drained away. He dropped his eyes, looking sick.
I dragged my gaze back to Jack’s face. “We don’t have that money on us. Not in cash. I came to an arrangement with the bank.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“They have a branch in Sacramento. I’ve arranged to pick up the cash there.”
I shook my head. “It made more sense. The assistant manager in the Sacramento branch used to work in Virginia City. He knows me. Saved us carrying all that cash. I have a letter, here in my coat, from the manager of the Virginia City branch, if you don’t believe me.”
Joe’s back arched as Jack yanked his arm again. I spoke swiftly. “Joe didn’t know that until today, when we were packing.”
The three men looked at each other. Jack jerked his head at the bags stacked on the ground. “Charlie, search their stuff. If the money’s there, we’ll find it.” He looked back at me. “Get that letter out of your pocket, nice and slow, and toss it here. I want to see it.”
Sam, keeping his pistol trained on me, picked up the letter, and ran his eyes over it while Charlie emptied bags into the dirt and rummaged through the contents.
“He’s telling the truth,” Sam growled. “That’s what it says in this letter.”
Charlie scattered my spare shirts and other belongings with his foot. “Nothing here, Pa.”
Sam flicked a glance at his brother. “What do we do now?”
Jack Deverell hesitated for the briefest of moments. “Check there’s no money on these two, then tie them up, good and tight. We’ll still get that cash; just have to wait a couple of days till we can ride into Sacramento together and let Adam here withdraw it for us from the bank.”
I gave my head a slow shake. “You think I’m going to do that?”
Jack tightened his grip so hard on Joe’s arm that the boy was forced to his knees with a sharp cry of pain. “Yeah, I think you are because, for some reason, you have a soft spot for this sniveling brother of yours, and you’d hate to see him suffer, wouldn’t you? Tie him up, Sam.”
Sam hauled my arms behind me and wrapped a cord around my wrists, drawing it tight enough to make me flinch. I forced my voice to stay smooth.
“Listen, you’re upset. I understand that. Why don’t you just let us go and ride on out of here and we’ll say no more about it? You don’t want trouble with the law.”
“There won’t be any trouble if you do just like I tell you.” Jack let go of Joe and shoved him, sprawling, into the dirt. “Tie him up too, Sam. And Charlie, put some beans in the pot, and make some coffee. Then skin that rabbit these boys done caught for us.”
“Eat!” said Sam, nodding at the plate of meat and beans he’d set beside me. I’d watched the three of them eat their meal, talking in low voices around the fire. Now, Jack and Charlie were drinking coffee.
He’d untied my wrists. I rubbed the skin where the rope had chafed me. “What about Joe? You going to untie him too?”
Sam gave a short, harsh laugh. “You still worried about that brat, even after all the trouble he’s landed you in?” He shook his head and spat at the ground. “No. He gets to eat only after we’ve got our money. Until then, he goes hungry.”
I looked across at Joe, huddled against a rock on the other side of the fire, silent and miserable. He hadn’t met my eye once, all evening.
“Then I don’t eat either,” I said.
“You’ll do as you’re told, Cartwright.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Sam and Jack exchanged a look. Jack put down his coffee cup and rose from the ground, brushing off the seat of his pants.
“Hey, boy,” he said to Joe, “you hungry?” Joe lifted his head. Jack took a step closer and struck the side of Joe’s face with enough force to knock his head into the rock behind him. Joe shook his head, dazed, and spat blood into the dirt.
Jack resumed his seat and picked up his coffee cup again. “Let’s get one thing clear, Cartwright. You’ll do exactly what you’re told, when you’re told. We need you, but we don’t need him.” He jerked his head at Joe. “Except as your whipping boy. Understand?”
I finally caught Joe’s gaze. The side of his face was mottled and red, but his eyes blazed defiance. I hoped he’d understood what I’d tried to say to him, without words, in that brief moment before he dropped his gaze again.
It was a long night. I dozed only fitfully, unable to find a comfortable position with just uneven rock behind me. I was cold too. I wondered if Joe had slept. My brother’s body was slumped, but I couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed. The Deverells kept two-hour watches all through the night. It seemed they weren’t taking any chances where their eight thousand dollars were concerned. Charlie took the last watch, in the small hours. I roused, for the umpteenth time, from a troubled doze, with my shoulders cramping and my backside numb, and he was perched against a rock, whittling a stick with a knife, and muttering something in Joe’s direction.
I heard my brother’s voice say, “Then let us go.” It seemed I’d woken mid-conversation.
“I can’t,” said Charlie. “And don’t ask me again.”
“Why’d’you do it? Why’d’you tell ’em? You said you could keep a secret.”
Charlie dug the knife deep into the stick. “Yeah, well, I changed my mind. Your pa didn’t have no right to say the things he said. I didn’t make you do nothin’, Little Joe.”
“I never said you did.”
“Yeah, well, your pa said I did! Tol’ my pa I was a bad influence. That weren’t fair, Joe. Made my pa real mad.” Charlie tossed the stick at the fire and pocketed his whittling knife. “What’s done’s done. Ain’t no use you tryin’ to make me change my mind neither. You know what they’d do to me if I let you go?”
“You know what the law’ll do to you if you don’t?” I said.
Charlie’s head spun around to look at me. “It’s jus’ money. You got plenty of that. You ain’t gonna go short of nothin’.”
“Kidnapping and robbery,” I told him. “You’ll go to prison for that.”
He hesitated for a fraction of a second, then stuck out his jaw and drew down his brows in a dark scowl. “Only if we get caught. And we ain’t gonna get caught.”
Sam, rolled in a blanket next to the fire, stirred and grunted. “Quit the jawin’, will you?” He lifted his head and peered at Charlie. “They givin’ you trouble, boy?”
Sam settled back down again. “They give you any trouble, you just give that kid a hidin’, you hear?”
Charlie flicked a glance at Joe. “Yeah,” he said, “I hear.”
Morning brought some relief, even if it was only that I was untied and escorted at gunpoint to the edge of the camp to do what was necessary there, before I was given coffee and my hands bound again, this time in front of me. Then Sam stood over me with a gun while Jack repeated the procedure with a surly, silent Joe. In the light of morning, the left side of Joe’s face looked decidedly lop-sided, his cheek blue and swollen. He didn’t get coffee, only a swig of water from the canteen.
We rode all that day, Joe and I with our wrists strapped to the horns of our saddles, with only short breaks to relieve our cramped and aching muscles. By evening I figured we’d covered a good forty miles. For the most part, we rode in silence. Occasionally, one of the Deverell men—Jack or Sam for the most part—would start a brief conversation with one of the others. Charlie said little, but none of them talked for long. They were tense with each other, and curt with us. They made me ride out in front, with Joe a couple of horses behind. I couldn’t communicate with him, even non-verbally, and I was conscious that either Jack or Sam was always close to him, both of them watching us with careful eyes.
Then came another uncomfortable night, again with little sleep. At least I’d been given something to eat—stale biscuits and a meager portion of beans and bacon—but Joe was still hungry. I’d seen his eyes fixed longingly on the cooking pot as Sam dished up the food. Sam saw too. His lip lifted in a sneer of amusement. Nudging his brother, he nodded in Joe’s direction.
“Reminds me of that dog you used to keep.” Picking up one of the plates, he walked towards Joe. “Hungry, kid? Yeah, I bet you are.” He waved the food a foot or so from Joe’s face.
Joe glowered and Sam laughed. “Darn, but that bacon sure smells good! Don’t you reckon, boy?”
Charlie shifted uncomfortably. “Aw, leave him, Uncle Sam.”
Sam narrowed his eyes at his nephew. “You getting soft, Charlie? Won’t hurt this spoiled brat to go hungry for a few days. Don’t reckon a Cartwright knows much about goin’ hungry.”
Jack chewed on a forkful of beans. “Don’t reckon you do neither, Sam. Not with that belly o’ yours.” He and Charlie looked at each other and laughed, then he waved his fork in my direction. “Adam, here, jus’ better make sure we get that money real soon, or that sweet-faced kid brother of his ain’t gonna have enough teeth left in his head to manage more’n a bowl of sops, come Tuesday.”
“We should let him have something,” Charlie said. “Don’t want him dropping off his horse, do we? Let me give him some hard tack, nothing else.”
Sam’s face darkened. “You questioning my judgment, boy?”
Charlie’s shoulders stiffened. “No, sir, I ain’t questioning. Just don’t see why we have to starve him, that’s all.”
“You wanna give him your food?”
Charlie gave a sulky shake of his head.
“He can have mine,” I said, holding out my own dish.
Sam shook his head at Joe. “Your brother don’t never learn,” he said, setting his plate down on the ground.
Joe was ready that time and ducked away as Sam swung a backhander. The blow, intended for his face, glanced off the side of his head. Sam swore and aimed his boot into Joe’s thigh. Joe yelped. Sam drew his foot back for another kick.
“Uncle Sam, don’t!” pleaded Charlie.
Jack, still chewing, said, “Sam, Sit down and eat your food. Afore it gets cold.”
I thought for a moment Sam would ignore them, but thankfully, he didn’t. Instead, he jerked his head in Charlie’s direction.
“That boy’s gone soft,” he said to Jack.
Jack scraped the last of his beans into his mouth. “Charlie’s all right.”
Sam’s eyes fixed on Charlie. “You heard what ol’ man Cartwright had to say, didn’t you? We ain’t good enough for the Cartwrights, remember?”
“Yeah.” Charlie scowled at the fire. “I remember.”
“Aw, let him be, Sam,” said Jack. “He ain’t your enemy.”
Sam grunted. “Yeah, well jus’ make sure he knows that. All the time he acts like that Cartwright kid is his friend, he’s riskin’ trouble for all of us.”
Charlie stuck out his jaw. “He ain’t my friend!”
Sam’s lip lifted in a sneer. “Oh yeah? Well, prove it, then.”
Charlie looked to his father for support. Jack put down his empty plate and shrugged as if he didn’t care one way or the other. Sam hauled Joe upright, by the shoulders.
“Here you are, Charlie, he’s all yours. Show him who’s boss.”
Charlie looked again at his father. Jack gave another indifferent shrug. “We don’t owe them no favors, Charlie.”
“He’s tied up an’ you want me to hit him? Don’t seem right.”
“You wanna kiss him instead?” asked Sam.
Charlie scowled and squared his jaw. He rose from his seat on the ground and crossed to face Joe. Joe’s eyes came up to meet his, and the older boy hesitated. Then he raised his hand and brought his palm down hard across Joe’s right cheek.
Sam rolled his eyes. “Not like a girl. Use your fist, boy. Want me to show you how?”
Charlie’s face darkened. “I can do it.”
Joe flexed as Charlie’s fist flew out. The blow landed dead center of his middle and knocked the breath from his body. It would have doubled him over if Sam hadn’t held him pinned by his shoulders. Sam laughed and let go of the boy. Joe folded.
“There,” said Sam. “Feel better now?”
Charlie flexed his knuckles, watching Joe squirm. He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, raising his face to his uncle. “Yeah, I do. You were right. That felt good.”
By mid-afternoon the following day, we were no more than a few miles from Placerville. On any other day we could have been at the bank before closing time, collected the money and been gone, but it was Sunday and the bank was shut. The Deverells were forced to wait until the following morning to collect their prize. For me, the delay was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the imposed wait and the men’s subsequent frustration gave me some satisfaction; on the other, it meant another uncomfortable night for me, and more misery and hunger for Joe. I’d worried about him as we rode. His head drooped, his shoulders sagged, as though the strength had all gone out of him. A few times, I wondered if he’d fallen asleep, and the Deverells apparently thought the same thing. One or the other of them would occasionally bring their horse up close beside him, and kick him in the ankle or prod him with a rifle, and he’d rouse momentarily before slumping back into his own private misery.
Sam Deverell looked back the way we’d come.
“We passed that ol’ cabin a mile or so back. Why don’t we camp out there until morning? There was a well. Reckon there could be a working stove. Might even be a bed.
Charlie looked hopeful at the suggestion of a bed. Jack shrugged. “Yeah. Why not? Might as well be comfortable.”
So we retraced our steps to the solitary cabin, built under the shelter of a small cliff. There were no signs of life about the house and the yard, but it looked empty rather than derelict, as though the owners had gone away for a few days rather than abandoned it forever. There were curtains at the window, and a chair on the porch, but there were weeds in the yard, and the house and the barn were silent. It made little difference to me where we spent the night, but I was hopeful there might be supplies in the cabin, and, if there were, that might make the Deverells feel generous enough to allow Joe at least a small portion of something to ease the emptiness in his belly.
Sam Deverell unwound the cord that tied my wrists to my saddle and hauled me down from my horse. Joe was still astride his pony. It was the closest I’d been to him since we’d mounted up that morning, since Sam and Jack were so careful to keep us well apart. Now I scanned my brother’s dusty face. His eyes were sunk in their sockets and his mouth drawn in a hard line, but as our eyes met, I saw the spark of defiance still there, behind the weariness. Joe was hungry and tired, but far from defeated. I flashed him the briefest smile, and he acknowledged it with a small twist of his own lips. Then Jack untied the rope from the pommel and dragged him down, hanging onto him by the collar.
“Take a good look at him, Cartwright. Unless you do exactly as you’re told tomorrow, your brother’s pretty little face ain’t gonna be half as pretty next time you lay eyes on him.” He gave Joe a rough shake as if to make sure his words sank in, and thrust him up the steps to the cabin.
The door was locked, but Sam put his foot to the door and the wood splintered and gave. Inside, the place was sparsely furnished, but tidy. There was a stove, as Sam had predicted—even logs in a basket—a table and chairs, and a bed. There were also a couple of stuffed armchairs, faded and shabby, but they still looked inviting to me after three days in the saddle and two sleepless nights on the hard ground. There were pots and pans too, and a storeroom at the back from which Charlie emerged triumphant, with a couple of cans of peaches and a jar of raisins.
Jack dragged a wooden chair to one side of the cabin and tied me into it, securing my hands behind me. But when Sam made to do the same with Joe, Jack gestured with his head at the other side of the room.
“Put him over there, on the floor.”
Joe made no protest as his hands and feet were tied and he was dumped, unceremoniously, in the far corner of the room. He looked as exhausted as I’d ever seen him, but uncomfortable as he must have been, trussed like that, he sank his face into the hard wooden floor, as if it were a pillow, and closed his eyes in merciful sleep.
Charlie opened the peaches and raisins, the three of them laughing as they helped themselves to the sweet fruit, joking about how they would soon be able to afford to eat in the finest restaurants in Sacramento. Sam produced a bottle of whiskey, and they settled around the table with a pack of cards and a tin of tobacco. Maybe it was the knowledge that they were so close to achieving their goal, but the tension in the dusty air between them felt tighter than ever, intensified by the confines of the cabin walls. Sam and Jack talked about the money and the things they were going to do with it when they finally laid their hands on it. It made me angry to listen to them. They didn’t appear to have any sensible plans, and the thought of my hard-earned savings, and the money loaned to me by the bank, being frittered away on prostitutes and liquor and poker games, made me seethe. Charlie, who hadn’t said much up till that moment, then surprised me by suggesting they should buy themselves somewhere to settle down.
“We ain’t the settlin’ down type,” said his uncle, with finality.
Charlie looked at his father. “Maybe you and me, Pa….”
“Sam’s right,” Jack told him. “We ain’t the settlin’ down types.”
“We ain’t never had the money to buy ourselves some place right for settlin’ down before.”
Sam fixed his nephew with a hard stare. “Why you so keen to settle down all of a sudden?”
Charlie shrugged. “A feller can get tired of driftin’. What if I wanna find me a girl, have me a family one day?”
“You got family,” said Sam. “An’ if it’s a girl you want, we’ll buy you a girl. We’ll buy you one o’ them Injun gals.” He laughed and punched his brother in the shoulder. “Hell, I’ll buy three of ’em. One each. We can take ’em with us wherever we go. What d’you reckon, Jack? I hear tell some of them Injun gals are real horny in the sack.”
“There were them Injun gals in Black Rock,” said Jack. “Worked in pairs, remember.”
“That weren’t Black Rock; that was over near Auburn.”
“It was Black Rock,” insisted Jack. “You think I don’t remember two for one?”
They fell to arguing about where they’d had the Indian girls, while Charlie watched them in silence, his whiskey glass in his hand and his eyes resentful. Bound to the hard wooden chair, I could find no position to relax my aching limbs. I closed my eyes and listened to the ridiculous argument, and tried not to think of the long hours until the bank opened in the morning. I was tired of the Deverells’ shallow lives, tired of feeling stiff and sore, of not being able to sleep, of the cramp in my arms and legs. Tomorrow it would be over, I told myself. One way or the other. Not for the first time, I wondered what would happen once I’d delivered the cash and the Deverells had their prize. Would they really release us? Let us go unharmed? I didn’t have any of the three men down as killers, but then I had never marked them as thieves either, and I’d been wrong there. I’d been wrong about plenty. So self-absorbed I had not questioned anything, until it was too late. I should have listened to Hoss earlier. And to Pa. Should have taken note of their concerns. Sam was a troublemaker. Anyone with half a brain would have seen that. Why hadn’t I seen it? Because I’d been fixed so tight on my own affairs, I hadn’t taken the time to find out, that was why. If the Deverells walked away with my money tomorrow, it was no more than I deserved. But Joe? I thought about my brother and something cold gripped my stomach. If anything happened to Joe, I would never forgive myself.
As the sun went down outside the cabin, Charlie cooked dinner on the stove. I was tired of beans and bacon, but when I saw Joe was awake again, his eyes, dark and hungry, fixed on the stove , I berated myself for that thought. There was no point in arguing. I didn’t want to see my brother hurt anymore, so I ate the food Charlie brought to me, and my arms were secured behind me once more.
Charlie found a can of kerosene in the storeroom and the men lit a lamp and went back to their cards. Jack Deverell topped up his son’s whiskey as often as he filled his own. I had to remind myself that the boy was barely older than my own brother as he knocked back his third refill. He had at least four inches in height on Joe, and his father’s thick neck and shoulders. Three days on the trail had left him with a respectable growth of beard, slightly redder than his sandy hair. Joe, curled on the floor of the cabin, looked like a child in contrast.
I must have dozed, despite my uncomfortable position, because I was jerked awake by a movement beside me. The lamp was still alight on the table. Sam was stretched out on the bed, asleep. Charlie was sprawled in a chair, legs akimbo, head hanging back. Jack’s head was slumped on his arms on the table, and only the hiss of the lamp and the men’s intermittent snores broke the silence.
I glanced down, and Joe was beside me, nudging at my leg. He must have squirmed his way across the floor, and now, still bound at wrists and ankles, he was struggling to his feet, his eyes wide and urgent. I knew what he was telling me. Cautiously, so as to make as little noise as possible, I shuffled my chair away from the wall to allow him to slide in behind me. Within seconds, his fingers were tugging at the knots securing my wrists, but the rope was pulled too tight. He fumbled in vain for almost a minute before I gestured to him with my head that it was no use and, instead, put my fingers to his bindings.
It was a frustrating task, working blind, movement severely restricted by the ropes, but finally a cord came loose and, with a few more tugs, I’d unfastened the knot. Joe’s hands were free. He swiveled. Unhampered, it took him less than thirty seconds to untie my arms. We shared a brief, silent moment of victory before bending to untie our ankles.
Joe shook off his bonds and I was mere seconds from freedom when, with no warning, Jack sprang from his chair with a bellow like a startled bull, and pounced on Joe. I tugged frantically at the ropes around my ankles. If I could just…
Something thudded hard into the side of my head. Men shouted, chairs scraped. A resounding crash vibrated through the boards of the cabin as the table overturned, and two different voices grunted in pain. The room was spinning. Joe’s voice cried out. I tried to rise to my feet, but my ankles were still wrapped in ropes, and I overbalanced, hitting something solid as I fell.
It was all over as quickly as it had started. I was pinned face down, a knee in my back. Blood dripped onto the floor below my head, and blurred the vision in my right eye. My hands were dragged behind me again and the ropes were back at my wrists. Across the room, Sam had hold of Joe. The boy was struggling, yelling abuse at his captor.
“Shut your squealing, you loud-mouthed runt!” Sam shook Joe, like a dog with a rat, but my brother, in a fit of blind rage, thrashed harder, spewing forth a volley of oaths and curses that took even me by surprise. Charlie, dabbing at a split lip with his sleeve, righted the table and straightened the chairs. His face was sour, but when his gaze flicked to Joe, still struggling in his uncle’s grip, the apprehension in his eyes made my stomach draw tight.
Jack yanked tight the cord around my wrists, and his weight lifted as his knee left my back. I blinked my eyes to try and clear my vision of blood, as Sam thrust Joe face down across the table, tugging the boy’s jacket down over his arms and throwing it in a heap on the floor. Joe wriggled and fought, but Sam held him as easily as if he’d been a chicken, about to have its neck snapped. “Grab his arms,” he ordered Charlie, unfastening the belt from his waist. “I’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget.”
“Leave him,” I pleaded, from my position on the floor. “It won’t happen again.”
“Too damned right it won’t,” said Jack, beside me, and I heard the click of his revolver. “Now get up.”
Joe cried out, more in anger than pain, his body bucking in protest as the leather struck his back. I struggled to rise. The belt came down again. Jack’s hand grabbed me beneath the arm and pulled me up. Another loud crack. And another. Anger pulsed in my head. I yanked my arm away from Jack’s touch.
“You want your money tomorrow, you’d better tell him to lay off my brother. Now!”
“You shouldn’t have tried to be clever.”
Sam’s arm came up again. The belt hit Joe diagonally across his back with a force that made me wince. Joe bit off a strangled cry, and this time, there was no mistaking the pain in his voice. He had ceased to writhe. Spots of blood seeped through the fabric of his shirt. Jack jabbed me in the back with his gun.
“Out the back.”
I stood my ground, in spite of the barrel of the gun prodding my spine. Sam hit Joe again. “Not until he stops beating Joe.”
“You get into that storeroom and I’ll stop him.”
I caught Charlie’s eye. The boy’s face was white. He looked sick. It struck me he knew Sam a whole lot better than I did, and the fear in his face scared me. Once more, the belt bit hard into Joe’s flesh. I went where Jack prodded.
It was dark in the storeroom. The only light was from the door behind us, and a few strands of sunlight filtering through gaps in the planks. Jack gestured with the revolver. “On your belly,” he ordered. I lay down reluctantly. From the room beyond, another harsh crack carried clearly through the wooden partition. I twisted my head to look at Jack.
“I meant what I said. Tell him to stop, because if he hurts Joe any more, you can damn well shoot me, and there won’t be any money.”
Something in my tone must have gotten through to him, at last. He measured me up with a calculating gaze, then turned and went out through the door without another word. I heard his voice through the open door.
“That’s enough, Sam.”
“I’ll decide what’s enough,” his brother growled, his voice ugly.
“I said, that’s enough. You’ve made your point. No need to flay him senseless. Charlie, get him off there and tie him up. He can stay in here. We’ll keep them apart so they can’t try any more tricks.”
He came back into the gloom of the storeroom and crouched to tie my ankles. I heard the table scrape, presumably as Joe was hauled off and deposited where Jack had instructed. Jack went out again, leaving the door ajar, and I levered myself to a sitting position, my back against the wall to the cabin, trying to catch the sounds that would give me a clue as to Joe’s condition. Jack reappeared, a wet cloth folded in his hand and crouched by my side, sponging in a business-like manner at the cut on my forehead. I’d almost forgotten my own injury. I winced at his roughness, and he seized my jaw with his free hand to hold me still. It occurred to me, it wasn’t my welfare he was interested in, he was just concerned my appearance wouldn’t arouse suspicions when we went to the bank the following morning.
It was still early when we rode into Placerville. Charlie waited with the horses, on the street, while Jack and I crossed the road to the bank. Of the three Deverells, Sam was the one I’d least have wished to remain behind, alone with Joe, but the decision wasn’t mine to make. Jack had woken me at sun up, from an uncomfortable doze. As I stumbled back into the main room of the cabin, my first thought was for Joe. He lay, curled in the far corner of the room, in his shirt sleeves, trussed hand and foot. His eyes were sunk deep in the hollow circles of their sockets, dark against the ghostly pallor of the rest of his face, but when he saw me, he lifted his head and his mouth curved in a defiant attempt at a smile. Hang on in there, little brother, I willed him, silently. This will soon be over. Just hang on in there!
Inside the bank, things were still quiet, but no one gave us more than a passing glance. They couldn’t have known that the gun at my side was empty, and the man at my other side was ready to kill my brother if I didn’t do precisely as he’d instructed me to do. I asked for Kyle Norland, and we were shown into a comfortable, mahogany-furnished office. Kyle rose from the desk to greet me, hand outstretched and a smile of welcome on his face.
“Adam Cartwight, good to see you again. Take a seat.” He shook my hand and turned to Jack.
“Jack Deverell,” I said. “Jack works with us on the Ponderosa. We made the trip together.”
Kyle shook Jack’s hand. “So, how are things on the Ponderosa?”
“Good,” I said briefly, and we all sat down.
Kyle, looking at me and still smiling, said, “You’ve been in the wars.”
I guess I looked blank because he nodded at the swollen cut on my temple. “Your head?”
“Oh, that!” I smiled apologetically, and gave him the story Jack had instructed me to give. “Fell off my horse yesterday. My own fault. Should have been paying more attention.”
“There’s a good doctor here in town if you need that checked out.”
“Oh no,” I waved a dismissive hand. “Thanks for the thought, but it’s not as bad as it looks. I have a hard head.”
He laughed at that and Jack laughed too. I forced a smile. I reached into my pocket and drew out the letter from the Virginia City bank. “I believe you have some money for me.”
Kyle took the letter and skimmed quickly through the contents.
“Just a formality,” he said. “I know you Cartwrights well enough. If you wait here, I’ll bring the cash through. How are your pa and brothers, by the way?”
Jack shifted a fraction in his seat; a silent warning to keep things moving. I thought of Charlie waiting out in the street. Jack’s instructions to his son had been clear. Charlie was to wait twenty minutes, no longer. If we hadn’t reappeared in that time, he was to ride back to the cabin, where Sam held Joe hostage. As I smiled at Kyle, I tried not to think what Sam might do to Joe.
“All well, thanks. And yourself?”
“Expecting our first baby in the next few weeks.” Kyle’s face flushed with pride. “Tess is fine though. Thriving on it.”
Jack cleared his throat and glanced out the window at the street beyond.
“Give her my best, Kyle. I hope everything goes well.”
“Thank you, Adam. I’ll certainly do that.” Kyle flicked a glance at Jack and made for the door. “I won’t keep you long, gentlemen.”
“No delays,” Jack warned me in a low voice when Kyle had left the room. “Not if you want to see your brother alive again.”
“You said to act naturally,” I reminded him. “That’s all I’m doing.”
“Yeah, well don’t push it.”
We sat in strained silence while the clock behind the desk ticked away the precious minutes and the sweat broke out on Jack’s upper lip.
“What’s he doing?” he muttered. “How long does he need?”
When Kyle finally returned, he said, “Sorry to keep you waiting, gentlemen. I had to find the manager before I could open the safe, and he was with a customer. But, here we are.” He laid the cash on the desk in front of him and pushed a receipt in my direction.
“If you could just sign here,” he said, handing me a pen. I reached to dip the nib in the ink, and my shirt sleeve rode up my arm a fraction, exposing the chafed flesh of my wrists. I sensed Jack stiffen beside me.
“Fine clock,” he said swiftly, to Kyle.
Kyle’s eyes followed his to the wall behind the desk, where the large clock ticked soberly. “Yes, it is. Walnut casing. My predecessor brought it here all the way from Paris, France.”
Jack nodded, apparently absorbed in admiration. “Really? Well, it’s fine. Very fine.”
I put down the pen and blotted the ink. Kyle counted the money into a brown paper bag and I put that into the empty saddlebag I’d brought with me. Then we rose and Kyle shook our hands once again, and the interview was over. Moments later, we were outside in the street and Jack had taken the saddlebag from me and was slinging it over the back of his own horse, and I wondered if his heart was beating as hard as mine.
I rode back to the cabin with my hands untied, Joe’s welfare the guarantee for my co-operation. Notwithstanding Jack’s assurances, a swell of relief washed through me when I saw my brother, still in one piece. As we came in view of the cabin, Sam was sitting in the chair on the porch, with Joe at his feet. Joe’s ankles were untied, but he couldn’t go anywhere because his hands were fastened in front of him and secured by a second rope to the wooden rail of the porch. Sam had a gun in his lap, pointed loosely in Joe’s direction. He rose to his feet when he saw us.
“No. Smooth as silk.” Jack pulled out his gun and signaled me to get down from my saddle. “Let’s get inside and we can split this money. Be on our way. No point hanging around here.”
Sam gestured at me and Joe. “Want me to deal with them?”
The hairs rose on the back of my neck. I saw Charlie’s head come round. “You said we were letting them go,” he said to his father.
Jack flicked a warning glance at his brother, then looked at Charlie. “Put ’em in the storeroom.”
Charlie hesitated, then turned to unfasten the knot that held Joe’s bound hands to the porch rail. Joe’s face lifted to mine, and I saw that he knew, as well as I did, that these men were planning to kill us.
I looked back at Joe. Although his face was pinched and grey with exhaustion, his eyes were sharp. I flexed my fingers, a tiny movement, but I knew he had seen and understood. The boy kept his gaze on me, waiting for my signal, as Charlie loosed the rope that held him to the rail and he climbed to his feet.
“Get them inside,” said Jack. He jerked his head at me. “And tie him up. We’ll deal with them once you’ve taken a look at what’s in this saddlebag, Sam.” He tossed the bag at his brother. “A real sight for sore eyes!”
Sam’s eyes gleamed as he caught the bag. He was grinning as he made his way through the door into the cabin.
Charlie prodded Joe in the back. “Get inside.”
It was our best chance. There were horses, saddled and waiting. Jack had a gun in his hand, but Charlie hadn’t drawn his, and Sam was inside, distracted by the sight of all that money. Jack and Sam Deverell had no intention of leaving us alive, whatever they’d told Charlie. It was now or never.
I spun around and my fist made contact with Jack’s lower jaw, knocking him off his feet. Almost in the same instant, Joe swung his bound arms and caught Charlie a solid swipe to the chin. The blow should have sent the other boy sprawling, but the porch was behind him and the wooden rail saved him. His recovery was too fast for Joe. Charlie’s long arm shot out and seized the smaller boy by the hair.
“Adam, run!” Joe shrieked, as Charlie jerked back his head.
I already had one foot in the stirrup, but when I saw Charlie grab Joe, I dropped it back to the ground.
Jack was scrambling to his feet. Sam reappeared in the doorway and raised his pistol at Joe. I don’t even recall launching myself at him, but he went down under my weight, and his wrist was in my grip. I slammed his hand hard into the wood of the porch. His fingers let go of the revolver. Then his face exploded in a thousand shards of light as something solid hit the back of my skull with a thud that dissolved daylight into buzzing blackness.
Smoke. I could smell it through the darkness, choking in my throat, clinging to my skin, my hair, all about me. Blood pounded in my head and my vision swam. Somewhere close to my face a brightness flickered, brilliant orange. Wood hissed and cracked.
“Joe?” I called out my brother’s name, but all that emerged was a hoarse whisper. I tried to move, but even though my brain knew what to do, my body refused to respond. Instead, the air filled with locusts, blotting out the flickering brightness, their wing beats roaring louder than an angry river inside my head.
Something tugged at my arm. I opened my eyes again. Had I fallen asleep? A voice close to my ear gasped, “Adam! Adam, get up!”
Joe! I saw him through the gloom and the fog of the smoke, coughing, and tearing with his teeth at the rope around his wrists. I was back in the storeroom, where I’d spent the night. But this time, things were different. This time, the cabin beyond us was burning.
I made another effort but once again the locusts swarmed in, blotting out Joe’s form.
“Can’t,” I muttered. “You get out of here, Joe. Go on, get out.”
Did I say the words or did I just think them? The buzzing in my brain was drowning out the roar of the flames around me. Joe was still beside me, still tearing like a dog, at the rope around his wrists.
“Can’t get out,” he told me, his eyes flashing in the strange, flickering darkness. “Door’s locked.” He gave one final wrench at the rope with his teeth and the knot came loose. He shook it off and grabbed my arm. “I’m not leaving you.”
He went to the door. I watched him tug to no avail, cast round in the gloom for something to use as a lever, but the storeroom yielded nothing. The smoke was growing thicker, curling beneath the door and twisting its way through the cracks in the wood. Joe, coughing, dragged off his shirt and wrapped it around his face. I was coughing too, and the coughing brought the locusts buzzing back to my head. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear thuds, hammering, Joe’s voice shouting….
I floated in a strange dream where nothing would keep still. People spoke to me, their voices too far away for me to grasp. Flames danced around me, orange and bright; weird shapes twisted and writhed, black against the flickering brilliance, and smoke rose to form a swirling black cloud in a blue sky that revolved above me.
Help! said a voice in my dream.
“Help!” I whispered through a throat so parched, it hurt to speak even that one syllable. “Help!”
“He’s coming round,” said a voice I knew. Something cold touched my lips and trickled with exquisite coolness down my throat.
“Adam?” said another familiar voice, and a hand touched my forehead. With a gargantuan effort, I forced open my reluctant eyes. The room beyond was dim, but even that feeble amount of light sent shards of pain through my head.
“Help,” I said again, and frowned. I had no idea where the word had come from.
“Relax, son,” said Pa’s voice. “You’re going to be fine. You just need to rest.”
I tried to nod, to let him know I’d understood, but my head didn’t work. Then Hoss was leaning over, spooning water into my mouth from a cup. As I drank, reality finally began to settle into place around me and my muddled thoughts assembled themselves into some degree of order.
“My leg,” I groaned.
“It’s a nasty burn,” Pa told me, “and you’ve bruised it. Badly. But it’s not broken. The doctor says it should heal fine if you just rest.”
I let my eyes travel slowly around a dim room I didn’t recognize, frowning as I tried to recollect anything about how I’d arrived here.
“Where…?” I croaked.
“Hotel,” said Hoss, “Placerville. Remember?”
Placerville? Yes, I remembered Placerville. The bank. I’d had business at the bank. But what were Pa and Hoss doing here?
Pa must have seen the confusion in my eyes. “Kyle Norland sent us a telegram. Then the sheriff wired us too. We got here as fast as we could.”
Pa’s eyes were red-rimmed and there was dust in his hair. It made me anxious to see how weary he looked. I knew there was something important I needed to ask, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Even trying to remember was exhausting. I let my eyes do what they were longing to do, and closed them. I thought I dozed only for a few moments, but when I opened them again, Pa was gone, and Hoss was seated in a chair beside the bed. The room was still dark, but it wasn’t actually night. The blinds were drawn at the window.
“How you feelin’ now?” Hoss asked.
There was a dent in his brow. His eyes were swollen and ringed with shadow. I turned my head slowly to the other side, but there was no one else in the room.
“Where’s Pa?” Speaking made my throat and chest burn.
“Talkin’ to the sheriff.” Hoss leaned closer to me. “Adam, do you remember anything about what happened?”
I thought for a few moments, struggling to drag confused images from my battered brain.
“Kyle Norland, at the bank, told us you were there last Monday with Jack Deverell,” he prompted me. “What happened?”
Jack Deverell. Jack, Charlie and Sam, they’d all been there. I remembered Sam coming out of the cabin, pointing a gun at Joe. Joe! Memories came flooding back into my head in scrambled pieces.
“Joe,” I said to Hoss. “Where’s Joe?”
An odd look came over Hoss’s face. He stared at me and said nothing. I tried to reach for his arm, but my hand felt too heavy to lift. “Where is he?”
In the dim light from the shrouded window, Hoss’s eyes looked empty. My chest went tight.
“I’m sorry, Adam. He didn’t make it.”
It was as if my heart was trying to force its way through my ribcage. I couldn’t breathe. The room spun sideways. I don’t know if I made any kind of sound, but Hoss’s hand was on my chest, as if he could steady my wayward heart that way.
I gulped for breath. The room steadied. Hoss came back into focus. He looked scared.
“No,” I whispered. I shook my head even though it hurt. “No. No.”
“You have to try and remember,” he said. “How did the fire start?”
The fire? I squeezed my eyes shut. The fire? Yes, I did remember. There had been a fire. In the cabin, beyond the storeroom. There was smoke. And Joe, shouting, swearing, hammering.
“We were in the storeroom,” I muttered. “Joe…he couldn’t get the door open.”
I was glad Hoss didn’t throw a heap of questions at me then. He waited patiently while I struggled to sort the memories into some kind of sensible order. I opened my eyes again.
“The Deverells caught up with us. First night we were away. Tied us up. Gave Joe a hard time. Wouldn’t give him any food. Held him hostage at the cabin so I’d get them the money from the bank. We tried to escape and…someone hit me. They must’ve set fire to the cabin. I don’t remember. Joe was there with me.” I frowned as memory failed me yet again, and heard the tremor in my own voice as I said, “Dammit, Hoss, I don’t remember!”
Hoss’s hand squeezed my shoulder. Tears glistened in his eyes and made my chest hurt again. “He can’t be dead,” I whispered.
“There was a body. In the cabin.”
A body? I stared at him in disbelief. A body? No. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be Joe. Joe was fifteen. Full of life. Tough. Funny. He couldn’t possibly be dead.
“He was a good kid,” Hoss said, in a funny, tight voice. He dropped his face into his hand. Tears welled hot in my own eyes and I had no strength to resist them.
“No,” I whispered aloud to the room. “Joe can’t be dead. He was the one still fighting. Should have been…should have been me!”
“Wa’n’t your fault,” Hoss told me, his voice fierce. “Them Deverells gotta answer for this.”
I knew he was right, yet a voice in my head kept reminding me that I was the older brother; I should have protected Joe; should have kept him out of trouble. He’d been the one trying to get us out of there. I’d been the useless one, lying on the floor, not able even to get up. How had it happened? How had I ended up back here in Placerville and Joe dead in the cabin? How was I still alive? Why hadn’t I died too, there in the fire? How? Why? My brain hurt trying to recall something…anything that would help make sense of it all. The last clear memory I had was of Joe, fighting to open the door. He’d been shouting…hammering….
Pa’s voice roused me. I opened my eyes, confused. When had Pa reappeared? He was standing by the door. Hoss was with him, and another man, tall, with a stern face. I wasn’t aware I’d made any sound, but I think I must have because they all looked round at me at the same time, and Pa hurried over to my bedside. His face was pinched with tiredness, his dark eyes full of anguish. All in a rush, I remembered about Joe and grief swelled in my chest like sickness.
“Adam,” he said, sitting down beside me and laying a hand on my arm, “this is Sheriff Hannigan.”
“Pa…” I began, my voice croaky and dry with sleep.
“Good to see you’re on the mend,” said the sheriff, nodding in my direction. “We’re doing everything we can to find the men responsible for this, Mr. Cartwright. We’ll have them under lock and key, soon as you like. Did your pa tell you Kyle Norland marked the bank notes before he gave them to you? They spend any of that money and I’ll soon hear about it.”
I frowned at Pa. “Kyle?” I said.
Pa nodded. “He thought something was wrong. Said when he shook your hand, he noticed your wrists were scarred, like you’d been tied up, and you had a cut on your head. He said Deverell seemed jumpy. He was worried, so he sent a wire through to Virginia City. Luckily, Hoss and I were in town, fetching supplies, so we heard about it straight away. We hired some horses and rode over as fast as we could.”
“Yeah.” Hoss nodded. “Soon as we heard Deverell’s name, we knew somethin’ was wrong. When we got to Genoa, there was another wire waitin’ for us, sayin’ there’d been a fire an’ they’d found you.”
I looked at the sheriff. “You found Joe’s body?”
Hannigan gave a curt nod. “That’s right. I’m sorry about your brother, Mr. Cartwright. Wa’n’t nothing we could do. Cabin was all burned out by then.”
I frowned. “Where did you find me?”
“Outside. By the well. You were lucky.”
“Any clues as to how I got there?”
The sheriff looked puzzled. “You must’ve gotten yourself out of there, didn’t you?”
I forced my brain to consider. Something was missing. Something important. Darn it! Why couldn’t I remember?
“I don’t know!” Frustrated by my own inability to recall the vital missing pieces, my reply was terser than I’d intended. “We were locked out back. Trapped. Joe couldn’t get the door open. So…how did I end up outside, yet Joe didn’t make it?”
“He must’ve forced the door open,” said Hoss.
It seemed like the only answer, but yet…it wasn’t right. I was sure of that, but I still didn’t know why. I looked back at the sheriff. “Where did you find…the body?”
“In the cabin,” he told me.
“At the back? In the storeroom?”
He shook his head. “Just about right in the center, I’d say.” His mouth drew tight, remembering. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, there wasn’t much left. Of the cabin, or of your brother’s body. The chimney must’ve come down on top of him. Don’t reckon he’d’a known much about anything after that.”
“Doesn’t make sense,” I said. “I couldn’t sit up, let alone stand up and walk out of that place. If you found me outside, someone dragged me out. And, if that was Joe, why’d he go back inside? It just doesn’t make sense.”
All three men were staring at me. Hoss’s face screwed into a tight frown. “You sayin’ it might not’ve been Joe in that cabin?”
“I saw what was left,” said Pa, sounding sick, “and there wasn’t enough to say who it was. Just some broken and burned bones. Could have been anyone. Who owned that cabin, Sheriff?”
“Fellow called Mason,” said the sheriff. “His wife died last year, and the ol’ man passed away a month or two back. Neighbour’s been minding the place, checkin’ it over, a coupla times a week. There’s a son somewhere back East. We’re waiting to hear what he wants done with the land.”
“He’s not dead,” I said, with rising certainty. “Joe’s not dead! You have to find him. He’s out there somewhere, but he didn’t die in that fire.”
Pa’s eyes clouded. His hand squeezed my arm with a gentle pressure. “The sheriff’s men have already looked. There’s no sign of Joe. I know you want to believe he’s alive—I do too—but the evidence….”
“No,” I said. “The evidence doesn’t make sense.” My head was thumping with the effort of thinking. I closed my eyes against the pain. What was I missing? There was something else. There was something I’d seen or heard. If I could only remember what it was!
Help! Smoke, black and evil, coiling upwards against a blue sky. And Joe’s voice. Help!
“He spoke to me,” I said, opening my eyes to meet my father’s. “I remember now. He spoke to me. We were outside. I saw the sky, so we must have been outside.” I swiveled my gaze to Hoss. “He said he was going to get help. He wasn’t in the cabin. He was right there beside me, outside. He went to find help. And something happened to him.” I clutched at Pa’s arm. “You have to find him, Pa. He’s not dead in the cabin, he’s out there somewhere. You have to find Joe!”
I could see doubt in my father’s face, and the hope he didn’t want to allow himself to feel. He didn’t believe me. He thought I was raving.
“Hoss,” I pleaded, desperately, “you have to find him. He needs help.”
A flicker of pain crossed Hoss’s face. I could see what he was thinking. If Joe hadn’t died in that fire—if he’d gone looking for help—then where was he? Why had no one seen him?
“He’s not dead,” I insisted. “I know he’s not dead. And he can’t have gone far. He was too weak.”
Something in my voice must have penetrated the doubt because Hoss finally nodded. A slow, measured nod. As if he’d weighed up everything I’d just said and seen the sense in it. “Yeah,” he said. Then he repeated it, only this time with conviction. “Yeah!” His gaze swiveled to the sheriff. “We need your help, sheriff. We need to search that area again. This time, with a fine-tooth comb. We have to find my little brother.”
I was alone and the waiting was almost more than I could bear. Pa, torn between staying with me and going in search of Little Joe, had taken some persuading that I would be fine, but finally left me on my own.
“I’ll rest,” I promised him. “I won’t do anything rash. Just find Little Joe. He’s been out there two days already. Just find him, you hear? “
But resting wasn’t that easy. I drifted in and out of troubled sleep that left me more exhausted. I could find no position for my damaged leg that didn’t hurt, and I was loathe to take the laudanum left for me, beside the bed, because I wanted my head to be clear. I wanted to think, and to be awake when Pa and Hoss returned, with Joe in tow. I didn’t let myself think they would return without him, but I couldn’t shift the fear lodged like a solid ball inside me. In the end, I got out of bed, limping pitifully on my damaged leg, and dragged an armchair to the window, so I could at least be that much closer to the manhunt.
I sank wearily into the chair, wrapped in a quilt from the bed, giddy with the effort of moving, and frustrated by my own weakness. But, at least I could now see the main street, with all its comings and goings, and watch for the return of Pa, or Hoss, or the sheriff.
Kyle Norland came by my hotel room late that afternoon, bearing a tray of food covered with a cloth.
“I saw your pa riding out with the sheriff earlier,” he told me. “Said they believe Little Joe might still be alive.”
“He is still alive,” I said, with certainty. “He was hurt, but he didn’t die in that fire.”
Kyle nodded, but he wasn’t convinced, I could tell.
I rubbed my hand across my eyes. My head still throbbed. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”
“It’s not that we don’t believe you, Adam.” Kyle sighed. “It’s just…well, it’s been two whole days.”
I knew what he was saying. My own common sense had been trying to hammer the same message into my stubborn brain all afternoon.
“He’s a tough kid. A survivor. You’ll see.”
Kyle nodded again. “I hope you’re right. I just wish I’d done more at the time.”
“No, you did right. If you’d roused Deverell’s suspicions, they’d’ve taken it out on Joe. They were holding him hostage all the time I was here in Placerville.”
“Yeah, so Hoss said.”
“You raised the alarm and let Pa and Hoss know. I can’t thank you enough for that.”
“Least I could do.” Kyle set the tray down on the table. “Your pa asked me to bring you some food. There’s broth here, and biscuits. Oh, and a bottle of whiskey. Thought it might help. Anything else I can get for you?”
“Some clothes. Mine seem to have vanished. All I can find are my boots.”
“Your pa told me you might say that.”
“Huh! So, he thinks if he takes my clothes away, I’ll do as I’m told, and stay here and rest?” I allowed myself a tiny smile. “That figures.”
Kyle looked serious again. “You were in a bad way when they brought you in, Adam. I saw the state you were in. Your pa and Hoss hadn’t gotten here yet. They took you straight to the doc’s office and the sheriff came by to ask if I could identify you. Someone thought they’d seen you in the bank that morning. Your clothes were pretty burned, I’m afraid. You’re lucky to be alive, you know.”
It was true. I knew it. I was lucky, and I had no idea how it had happened.
“Just hope Joe’s lucky too,” I said.
Kyle stayed with me while I ate. I discovered he knew Daniel Brayforth.
“I was supposed to meet with him Monday afternoon,” I said. “He’s going to be wondering where I am. Any chance you could explain the situation to him, and let him know I’ll be in touch as soon as I’m able?”
Kyle must have noticed the way my eyes kept returning to the window all the time because, when he rose to leave, he said, “Take the doctor’s advice, Adam. Stay here and rest. I’ll keep my ear to the ground. If I hear anything—anything at all—I’ll come straight on over.”
Having eaten, I felt stronger, but that didn’t help my situation. I could still do nothing but fret. Afternoon became evening, and the sun began its slow descent behind the mountains, and still there was no sign of Pa, or Hoss, or the sheriff. Dusk deepened the shadows in the room behind me, and finally there was no point in sitting any longer by the window because there was too little light remaining. I rose from my chair with some difficulty, like a man twice my age. I lit a lamp, and as I was adjusting the wick, a knock at the door made my anxious heart jump.
It was Kyle. His face was grave.
“What is it?” I asked when he hesitated before speaking.
“Sit down,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, I’d have ignored him, and insisted on hearing what he had to say, there and then. But my head felt oddly light, and the look on his face had set my battered body trembling. I sat on the bed, and he sat down beside me.
“I just heard that two of the sheriff’s men rode back into town about half an hour ago. Came to get a wagon.” He took a deep breath. “They…they’ve found another body.”
A strange sense of unreality swept around me. “Joe?” I whispered.
Kyle pursed his mouth. “I don’t know. But…I think you have to be prepared.”
I fought down an unfamiliar panic rising inside me. I had to battle to keep it out of my voice. “Right. Yes. Thanks for letting me know.”
“Are you all right? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
“You want me to stay for a bit?”
I shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said again, persuading myself as much as Kyle. “If you hear anything else…?”
He rose from the bed. “Yes, of course. Of course, I’ll let you know.”
The door closed behind him and I drew long, wavering breaths to try to steady the shaking in my limbs. Then I remembered the whiskey Kyle had brought earlier. My hand trembling, I poured a generous quantity into a glass tumbler and knocked it back in three gulps. It helped. I poured some more and took the bottle and the glass with me, back to my armchair.
I was drifting in a kind of half-sleep, plagued by restless thoughts and dreams, when I heard sounds in the hallway beyond my room, and realized they weren’t figments of my troubled mind, but footsteps, heavy and real, voices, low and urgent. The door opened and Hoss was there, and behind him, Pa, with something in his arms; a bundle wrapped in a grey woolen blanket.
“Spread a couple of towels on that bed,” said Pa to Hoss, nodding at the second bed. Hoss scrambled to find the towels. Neither of them spared me a glance or a word, as if for a moment, I had ceased to exist.
Pa put the blanket-wrapped bundle down on the bed, and his hands drew back the folds of the wool. It took me a few moments to recognize the creature inside as my brother, so caked in soot and dust was his body. His shirt was gone from his back, his pants singed and blackened. One boot was missing, and even beneath all the filth, I could see the purple swelling of his foot and ankle. But, as Pa set him down, his lips parted. He muttered, incoherently, his teeth unnaturally white against the griminess of his face.
“Joe!” I whispered, half in disbelief. I looked from Pa to Hoss. “He’s alive! What happened? Where did you find him?”
Pa poured water into a glass and raised Joe’s shoulders so he could touch the glass to the boy’s lips. “You were right, Adam. He wasn’t in that cabin. We found him less than a mile away. At the bottom of a gully.” He turned his attention to Joe as the kid choked on the water. “Easy, Joe. Take it easy, son.”
Hoss pulled off his hat and set it down on the table. “We were lucky. It was getting dark. Much longer and it’d’a’ been too dark to see him.” He drew his mouth tight. “Don’t reckon he’d’a’ lasted another night. Not without water.”
I licked my lips. My mouth felt dry too. “Kyle told me you’d found a body. I thought….”
“We did.” Hoss’s face hardened. “Jack Deverell’s. Sheriff brung him in. Someone shot him. In the neck.”
I didn’t understand, but for the moment, it didn’t matter. All that mattered right then was that Joe was alive.
Someone knocked on the door. Hoss opened it. A man in a calico apron was there with two steaming pitchers in his hands.
“Your hot water, sir,” he said, “and Ned says to tell you the doc’s on his way.”
I watched as Pa and Hoss sponged the grime from Joe’s body. Hoss put a pillow under his swollen ankle, and they turned him carefully onto his side. I could see why. Beneath the dirt, the skin of his back was raw and angry.
“They flogged him,” I said. “Sam Deverell took a strap to his back.”
Hoss muttered under his breath. Pa poured fresh water into a bowl, took a clean cloth and dabbed gently at the broken welts. Even through the fog of delirium, Joe recoiled, protesting. Hoss steadied him, speaking softly. I looked on uselessly, my throat strangely full.
The doctor arrived. I had no recollection of him, but his serious face lightened when he saw me.
“You’re looking a whole lot better than when I saw you last,” he said.
I recalled Kyle, the day I was in the bank with Jack Deverell, telling me there was a good doctor in town. I was glad to see he hadn’t been exaggerating. The doctor nodded in approval at what Pa and Hoss had already done to clean up Joe’s ravaged back. Then he set Joe’s foot with painstaking precision, and when he’d finished, he patted my father’s arm.
“You’re a fortunate man, Mr. Cartwright. You have sons who are determined to stay alive, whatever it takes.” He gestured with his head at Joe. “What this boy needs is water and rest. And send out for some milk. Milk will do him the world of good. Get some flesh back on his bones. I’ll leave you this salve for his back, and for the burns on his hands and arms, and I’ll be back in the morning to see how he’s doing.”
Then he turned to me. “Since I’m here…” he said.
He checked me over and pronounced the wound on my head to be healing nicely. “That’s a very neat stitching job, even if I do say so myself,” he told me with a smile.
It was news to me that I even had stitches in my head. He asked me if I was still in pain, or experiencing any giddiness or nausea, and I told him I was fine, even if that wasn’t entirely true. Then he unwrapped the dressings from my leg, and I saw clearly, for the first time, the damage to my left shin: the blistering burn that had cut a groove almost from ankle to knee, and the swollen bruising, blue and purple, that surrounded it. But there was evidence also of a deep and ugly puncture wound in the muscle to the side of my shin bone. I stared in surprise, and some distaste, at the mess and shook my head in bafflement.
“I just don’t remember it happening.”
“Whoever hit you on the head, hit you hard,” the doctor told me. “I’m not surprised you don’t remember much after that. Looks to me as if something fell on you. Something heavy to cause that amount of bruising. Didn’t just burn you, it impaled you here.”
He wrapped my leg again with fresh dressings.
“Rest, Mr. Cartwright,” he stressed as he tied off the bandages and rose. “That’s the ticket for both of you.”
I wasn’t fit for much else other than rest, although my mind still refused to relax, struggling in vain to recall the missing pieces of the day of the fire. After the doctor left, I was unaccountably exhausted, yet when I drifted into sleep, my dreams were so troubled and vivid, I jerked awake with my heart thudding uncomfortably, and my thoughts still racing. Joe woke me too, several times. His muscles, starved too long of food and water, seized in violent cramps that convulsed his whole body. Pa tried to help him by giving him laudanum, but it only made him vomit. His tortured cries tied my own insides in knots of anguish for which there was no relief.
I don’t know when I finally fell asleep and stayed that way, but when I awoke, the sun was high in the sky beyond the open window, and for the first time since Joe and I had ridden away from the Ponderosa, I felt rested. I savored the sensation for a full few moments before turning my head to look across the room at the other bed. Joe lay asleep, finally quiet. Hoss sat in the armchair between us, head back, mouth open, snoring intermittently. On the cupboard beside my bed, a small pile of three books rested. I frowned, wondering. They hadn’t been there when I went to sleep.
I sat up in bed, disturbing Hoss.
“Adam,” he said, surprised, “you’re awake, at last.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“No, that’s a’right. I ain’t s’posed to be sleeping anyways. I should be keeping an eye on you two.”
“You don’t need to keep an eye on me.”
“That’s a matter of opinion, older brother. You ain’t back to rights yet, you know.”
I smiled at his earnestness, and put out a hand to the books. “Where’s Pa?”
“Over at the sheriff’s office. Some of them marked bank notes turned up in a saloon in Sacramento.” He nodded at the books. “Daniel Brayforth sent those over. Said they might keep you occupied while you’re on the mend.”
I picked up the top book. “Madame Bovary. This should certainly be entertaining.”
Hoss’s eyes brightened. “Ain’t that the book you tol’ me caused all the fuss in Europe?” “Maybe I could read it after you, huh, Adam?”
Joe stirred in his bed. “Adam,” he muttered. “Adam?”
“I’m here, Joe,” I said, but he didn’t hear me. His eyes were closed, his head moving restlessly, his lips, cracked and peeling, repeating my name.
Hoss rose and leaned over him, touching his arm. “Sssh, Joe. Adam’s here. Try and rest, buddy.”
The soothing didn’t work. Joe jerked away from Hoss’s touch, his face creasing and his voice rising in panic.
I threw back the blankets. Hoss shook his head at me. “Adam, you stay in that bed.”
But I was already up and hobbling across the room. “It’s all right,” I assured Hoss, as he rose with an anxious face, to steady me. “Let me talk to him.”
I sat down on the edge of Joe’s bed. He was lunging restlessly beneath the quilt, the calling of my name punctuated by cries of pain caused by his own tossing and turning. I held him by the shoulders to prevent him hurting himself more, but he fought me, still trapped in the dark bubble of his nightmare.
“Joe!” I said, and then again, more sharply, “Joe!”
His eyes, still sunk too way too deep in their sockets, sprang open. He stared at me blankly then, gradually, comprehension dawned on his face.
“Adam?” he said, his voice far from certain.
He stared in silence for another long moment, confusion in his eyes. His voice cracked. “I thought you were dead.”
I gave a little laugh. “I thought you were dead.”
“I went to get help. I….” He closed his eyes and a tremor of pain wrinkled his face. “I must have gone the wrong way. I…I fell.”
“That’d be about right,” said Hoss, beside me. “You done fell down a gully and broke your foot.”
Joe opened his eyes again and gave a small nod. “Yeah. I remember.”
“Joe,” I said, “Do you remember what happened in the cabin? Before you went for help?”
He stared at me, saying nothing.
“Do you remember the fire?” I asked him.
Still he didn’t speak, but I could see he did. Eventually, his voice barely more than a whisper, he said, “Yes. We were locked in the back.”
My heart jumped. “That’s right. How did you get the door open?”
“I couldn’t. I couldn’t open it.” His eyes clouded, sank deeper still. “Charlie….” He frowned. “Charlie let us out.”
“Charlie?” I opened my own eyes wide. “Charlie came back?” All at once, the puzzle began to make sense. Something cold clutched at my belly.
“I couldn’t wake you.” Joe’s voice was hoarse. “The cabin was on fire. We couldn’t see the way. Couldn’t breathe. The roof was falling in around us. It fell on you and…and Charlie.”
His voice caught. He closed his eyes, his face contorting. I waited until he was able to continue, sensing his body trembling beneath the covers.
“I dragged you outside, but Charlie…I don’t know what happened. I couldn’t see him anymore. I tried to go back. I tried to help him. But the fire…it was too hot. It was just too hot….”
His voice rose and broke again. I rubbed his arm in an attempt to offer some small comfort, struggling to take in what he’d told me. I could still remember nothing of our escape. “It’s all right, Joe, you did your best. You did your best.”
I looked up at Hoss, standing beside me. Horror filled his eyes, like pain. “Dagnabbit!” he muttered. “So it was Charlie the sheriff found.”
“I’m sorry,” whispered Joe. “So sorry!”
“Listen,” I told him, leaning close to his face so he’d hear me through his grief, “you have nothing to be sorry about, you hear me? You did everything you could.”
“I told Charlie about the money in the first place. If it hadn’t been for me….”
“No,” I told him firmly, “that’s enough. We all make mistakes. I took the three of them on in the first place, so it was as much my fault as yours. But it doesn’t work like that.”
“I should have kept my mouth shut. None of this would have happened.”
“Yes, and if wishes were horses…”
He sank back against the pillows when I said that, and turned his face away from me, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Don’t you go blaming yourself for what happened to Charlie,” I told him, sounding, even to my own ears, like Pa. “What the Deverells did, that was down to them. You’re not responsible for the way they behaved. We all mess up sometimes and we all have to decide how to make things right again. That’s the true measure of a man, Joe: not how many mistakes he makes but how he deals with them.”
“Charlie came back,” he whispered. “He tried to make it right. And now he’s dead.” His voice cracked on a dry sob.
I could think of nothing else to say to ease his grief. Nothing would ever make sense of the horror and the waste of what had happened. Hoss put his hand on my shoulder and I was grateful for the gentle pressure of his touch. I clasped Joe’s arm and hoped he’d find the same comfort from a brother’s touch.
Strange how good things so often come out of something bad. That’s how it was for Joe and me, after what happened on that trip to Placerville. Our relationship changed. I stopped dismissing him as a child. I hadn’t even been aware I was doing that, but watching him during that trip to Placerville, I saw him as the man he was soon to be, a man of courage and determination, someone I could rely on when times got tough. Those nightmare days made me reassess my own priorities. I realized how distant I had grown from the things that should have mattered most to me. It’s too easy sometimes to focus on a distant dream and, in the process, miss what’s right under your very nose.
Sheriff Hannigan caught Sam Deverell, thanks to Kyle Norland’s foresight in marking those notes. Sam Deverell was a changed man too. When they brought him to court, he was no longer the arrogant bully he’d been only weeks before. He’d lost weight, his eyes were red-rimmed, his skin sallow. Turned out, he was the one who’d shot his brother. Not deliberately. It happened because of Charlie. With the smoke rising from the cabin behind them, Charlie finally realized things had gone too far, and turned back to let us out of the burning building. Sam shouted at him to stop but Charlie refused to listen, so Sam took out his gun and fired a shot after the boy. Sam broke down when he related that part of the story; said he hadn’t intended to hurt Charlie, just to make him take notice, and stop. But Jack, seeing a gun pointed at his son’s back, had launched himself at Sam, in an attempt to stop him pulling the trigger. The bullet caught him in the side of the neck. He’d bled to death in minutes. Sam, scared, had tried to hide his brother’s body in some scrub, done his best to cover the bloodstains in the dirt, fled the scene, taking the money with him. But, he told the court with downcast eyes, his voice trembling with emotion, there was no joy left in it. He’d lost what really mattered.
It was sobering to watch that giant of a man break down in the court. I might even have felt some pity for him, but I could not erase from my mind the image of him swinging that strap at my brother’s back. Joe sat beside me in the courtroom, his body still bearing the marks of Sam Deverell’s savagery, and I saw how his hands shook in his lap as the big man wept. I don’t think Deverell even cared when the judge told him he would be going to prison for twenty years.
Joe bounced back, though. His resilience amazes me. He’s still walking with a crutch, but he gets around the house and yard faster than any of us, and is desperate to be back in the saddle. He’s back to laughing and joking and pulling pranks. When you’ve gotten that close to dying, every new day feels like a blessing. The memories haunt him, though. He doesn’t admit it, but I know they do. I’ve heard him cry out in his sleep when the nightmares come. They come for me too. I wake in a sweat with the stink of smoke in my nostrils, and my chest so tight, I’m gasping for breath. And yesterday, I found him, alone at corral, leaning against the rail, staring into empty space. He jumped when I spoke to him, and rubbed his arm hastily across his face. I pretended not to notice he’d been crying.
“You were miles away,” I said, leaning my back and elbows against the wooden rails. “Everything all right?”
He kept his face averted from my gaze. “Yeah,” he said. We stood side by side in silence for a long while, with just the sound of the warm breeze whispering through the dry grass around us. Finally, he said, “I was just thinking about Charlie.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I still don’t understand it,” he said. “I thought we were friends.” He looked around, at the empty corral, the dusty grass, the cloudless sky above our heads.
I turned around so we were facing the same direction. “Yeah, that’s tough. He was pulled too many ways. It’s difficult to choose when your loyalty’s divided.” I paused momentarily, brought up short by the truth of what I’d just said. Turning my attention back to Joe, I said, “But he proved himself in the end, didn’t he? He came back. He saved us both. That’s what friends do.”
Joe didn’t answer. I let him be. The soft wind ruffled our shirt sleeves and dried the trail of tears on Joe’s cheeks. Eventually, I stirred and turned my head to look at him properly.
“There’s something I wanted to say to you.” He didn’t respond but I knew he was listening. I fumbled for the right words. “The whole time we were…the whole time we were prisoners….The way you handled yourself. You showed a lot of courage. I just wanted you to know, I was…proud you were my brother.”
He looked down at the fence rail. His jaw flexed a few times. Then he raised his face to me. “You mean that?”
“Of course I mean it, you galoot. I don’t say things I don’t mean.”
I saw his eyes grow brighter. His mouth relaxed into the beginnings of a smile. “Thanks.”
“You going to be all right?”
He nodded. After a moment or two, he said, “Are you?”
I hadn’t expected the question. I smiled. “Yeah,” I told him. Then I added, “Thanks for asking.”
I’m going ahead with the project in Placerville, with Daniel, but once that’s over, I plan to concentrate on my work here, on the Ponderosa. Pa, Hoss, Joe and I are a team, a team that works well together, and a man mustn’t let himself be pulled in too many directions. Those dreams of other horizons, that’s all they are, simply dreams. This is my world and what happened to Joe and me just helped me figure that out. I consider myself a fortunate man. For now, at least.
Besides which, tonight I take Susannah McKenna to the dance.