Words (by Jeanne)

Summary:  Adam feels underappreciated.
Category:  Ponderosa
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,100

 

 

“Sometimes I forget just how young you are.”

Thunder rolled like uneasy heartburn across too early-darkened hillside; it had nothing on the storm that was darkening Adam’s face as he stared at his father’s bleak expression. “Excuse me?” he growled back.

It had rained for two weeks, Ben Cartwright was tired, sweaty and cold from too many hours on his feet and in the saddle trying to prevent wet rot in winter hay and thrush in horses and cattle mired in muddy fields that never had a chance to dry out, and he had just about had enough cloudy mood from his oldest son. He would later regret that he had not at least made an attempt to temper his words, but at the moment he was just too bone-weary to try.

“If you’re going to act like a child, son, why don’t you go on inside with Little Joe and I’ll get Hoss in from the South Pasture to…”

“Oh no! Not this time!” Adam punctuated the angry, ill-thought words by flinging the handful of hopelessly entangled harness leather against the weathered boards of a stall. His still-saddled horse tossed his head and snorted in surprise, dancing as far away as the ground tied reins would allow. “I am so sick and tired of carrying a man’s load around here and still being treated like a child whenever it’s convenient. Enough’s enough!” He spun away and flung himself into the saddle, a hard kick sending the nervous horse lunging out the door and into the sludgy rain.

“Adam, wait…” Ben’s protest was lost and he found himself alone in a mildew-scented barn, listening to feeble rain and the low grumble of rolling thunder. He sank into a boneless heap on a wet bale of hay and dropped his head into his hands and wondered why it was always so hard some days.

*****

Days like this were one step closer to bankruptcy.

Nobody but the most hard core drunks would brave the icy, muddy streets of Eagle Station even for whiskey that wasn’t watered down. Which must mean that Jack Wolf’s place down the street was completely empty. At least Shelby had Moses Walker hunched over his usual stool at the far end of the bar guarding a headless beer like a buzzard protecting a kill. One sort of paying customer. Ruth Orowitz sat at a table near the fire, going over Shelby’s receipts for her to see if the wolf could be kept away from the door one more month. But Ruth wasn’t a paying customer either.

Shelby leaned against the bar on one elbow, her chin in her hand and surveyed her dismal domain. It was getting late for a no-business kind of day anyway. Might as well close the doors.

Decision made, she had just straightened up to head that way when her favorite citizen of Eagle Station waltzed through the doors: Jack Wolf.

Just what she needed. The perfect end to the perfect day.

If wishes were horses… he would have been run over by a runaway team on his way across the muddy street… instead, here he was, looking as dapper as if mildew wasn’t growing out his ears like everyone else in town.

She bypassed the usual pleasantries. “What the Sam Hill do you want, Jack?”

He managed to look mildly hurt. “Why, Shelby, I just thought I’d check to see if you were doing all right in this terrible weather. I’ve had to close my establishment down. People are feeling poorly with all this rain.”

With his usual casual awareness, he doffed his hat and included Ruth in his greeting. “Mrs. Orowitz, I’m surprised to see you out in all this. I would think your husband would keep you close to hearth and home.”

Ruth was incapable of discourtesy, and where Shelby would have ignored the open curiosity, she said, “It seemed a good time to work on invoices, Mr. Wolf. There’s no business at the store either.”

“You’re such a generous friend,” Jack said. “I’m sure Shelby appreciates you.”

Oh for crying out loud. Cabin fever and bone numbing cold was about to end in cold blooded murder if this nonsense kept up. Shelby fired off her mouth instead of the 30 ought 6 she kept under the bar. “As much as we appreciate your checkin’ up on us, Jack, why don’t you get to the real reason you just happened to stop by.”

“Why, Shelby…”

A rush of cold air and the stamp of multiple feet interrupted the less than pleasant exchange. Dumbfounded, Shelby looked up at more traffic than she had seen all week as four blanket and coat clad men stomped their way inside to the relative warmth of the bar. Customers. Real customers. She had a moment of snide satisfaction at the surprised look on Wolf’s face as he stared at the newcomers.

Pasting a false smile on her face and forced enthusiasm into her voice, Shelby said, “What can I do for you, fellas?”

A horse of a man, at least 6’ 4” who looked like he would have had to turn sideways to get his shoulders through the swinging doors of the bar smiled a gap-toothed grin at her as his companions headed en masse toward the welcome of the fireplace. Shelby noticed that Ruth Orowitz shifted nervously away as the muddy riders crowded near her table in search of the source of warmth.

“Well, ma’am,” the first man’s deep voice drew Shelby’s attention back, “we’ll take a bottle and a round of glasses. Nothin’ fancy. Can’t afford nothin’ imported, you know.” He laughed at his own raw humor and she found herself smiling back at him.

She turned back to get the requested bottle of ‘nothin’ fancy’ and four shot glasses.

*****

By the time Adam reached the deserted, night-fallen streets of Eagle Station, his anger had long since fled, icy rain had seeped down the back of his collar, and his horse had slowed to a mud-hampered slog.

He wanted nothing more than to turn around, swallow what was left of his pride, apologize to his infinitely patient father and crawl into the warm blankets of his own bed. Of course, that would necessitate another two hour ride and a good chance at pneumonia.

Shelby’s place and a pot of hot coffee were a lot closer and a lot warmer and a lot less likely to deliver a well deserved but dreaded lecture on the evils of disrespect than what awaited him at home though. The thought kicked some of the resentment back into fire and he spared a moment to wonder when his father was going to notice that he was a grown man and no longer a child to be held on a short rope. Of course a man wouldn’t have taken off in a full blown tantrum at the outbreak of argument.

Still, it was cold and life was unfair and it was too far to go home this late. There was a flicker of warm yellow in the window of Shelby’s saloon, a promise of heat and company, a respite from self-recrimination… and he headed that way. He tethered his weary horse to the rail under enough overhang to provide some protection from the drizzle of rain and started to step up to the walk when he heard a scream from inside. He recognized Ruth Orowitz’s voice instantly and spun back to yank his rifle from the saddle scabbard.

*****

It had been such a miserable day… a miserable week… that Shelby was feeling fairly magnanimous and she scooted a shot glass across the scarred and pitted bar top toward where Jack Wolf leaned.

“Here, Jack,” she said as she poured the glass full, “this is what whiskey tastes like when it ain’t watered down.” She cut the jibe with a smile, then grabbed four more glasses, caught the bottle by the neck and headed across the bar toward the riders already warming themselves at the fire.

With a practiced eye she registered the whole situation in the short walk… they were all armed with pistols… three of them had them shoved into their waistbands like she, herself, did; the big man she’d designated as their leader wore his in a holster along one massive thigh. Ruth looked small and anxious leaning away from them without overtly moving out of their range altogether. The fire could stand to be stoked and maybe a few more logs added before she boarded up for the night. She’d probably drag the pallet out from the back room and sleep down here tonight rather than trying to start another fire upstairs in the room she’d confiscated as a bedroom.

Paying customers or not, she hoped they didn’t plan to stay long. She was tired and fed up and ready to call it a night.

She wasn’t sure if it was a look, a feeling or merely an extension of the bad luck of the previous week, but she knew when it went to hell a bare second before everything fell apart.

They had waited until she was away from the bar—and the shotgun she and every other saloon owner in history kept there—with her hands full of glasses and bottle and the gun at her waist conveniently out reach.

Jack Wolf was still at the bar with a gun in his waistband but he was faced away from them, silently sipping at his own drink. A half second later, his own finely tuned senses would turn him to the danger but it would be too late.

Ruth… bless her… Ruth was right there, a perfectly placed shield.

The big man, his huge grin never wavering, gun magically appearing in a massive paw, met Shelby’s eyes without a word.

Jack spun around, hand already on the butt of his own pistol, eyes narrowed, instantly assessing the situation before he made a move. The odds must have been bad. His hand never touched his gun.

One of the other men stepped toward Ruth who was watching the byplay, a look of confusion on her face, fear moving in slowly. She started to rise…

“Money, pretty lady,” the man with the drawn gun said. “Just give us the money and nobody gets hurt.”

It was almost funny, Shelby thought somewhere beneath the surface of her uneasiness, that they wanted money when she had practically none. The worst business week of her life and she was being robbed.

It lost any aspect of funny in a heart beat.

Ruth never made it to her feet. One of the men collided with her chair dropping her back into the seat with a hard thump and looped an arm around her throat. She screamed, the shriek cutting off to a wheeze as he tightened his hold.

Now two more guns were out and pointed at Shelby and Jack. Ruth rocked back, her face going pale.

The swinging doors crashed open and lightning streaked across an ebony sky, doing an eerie backlight as Adam Cartwright burst through, light glinting off the long barrel of his rifle.

One of the men at the fire pulled off two shots and Adam was slammed back against the front wall, his rifle firing off a wild shot into the ceiling. He hit a table and landed face down on the wooden floor.

Shelby didn’t dare break eye contact with the man holding her pinned beneath his pistol.

A long, lonely moment of silence followed the sudden lightning and gunfire, then thunder rumbled ominously outside and the spell was broken.

The man holding Ruth released her and she clutched at her throat, gasping for air.

The man with the gun on Shelby smiled again and said, “Ma’am, you can put the bottle and glasses right there on that table, and then you can very carefully put your gun right there beside them. Don’t want anybody to get hurt now, do we?”

He waited for her to comply, then nodded at one of his men, who stepped forward, went to Jack and took his pistol from his belt, then his knife from his vest. Wolf spread his hands and offered no foolish objection.

“Dolan, get the shotgun from behind the bar.”

Pistol, knife and shotgun joined Shelby’s weapon and the bottle on the table.

“Okay,” he continued, “let’s just relax here and take care of business and we can all get back to what we were doing and be none the worse off.” His voice was deep, measured, almost relaxing. Under the circumstances, it only made him more disturbing.

Ruth was practically to her feet again before her personal guard realized she was moving and shoved her back down to the chair.

“Now where you think you’re goin’, ma’am?”

“Adam…” She lifted a hand, half demand, half supplication. “He’s hurt. He may be dying.”

The man considered her, her face still flushed from her half suffocation, her eyes huge with fear, defiance and concern, and he shook his head. “Boy shouldn’t have been invitin’ himself to private parties, ma’am,” he said amiably.

Shelby followed Ruth’s worried gaze to where Adam lay still, blood pooling beneath his body… too much blood.

She couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not.

*****

Ben Cartwright let out a long, drawn-out sigh as he found himself rereading the same paragraph for the third time in the past ten minutes. Whatever mysteries were contained in the pages of this book apparently were destined to remain mysteries if his present rate of retention was any indication.

He dropped the book to the table and sank back into the cushion of his chair, his body protesting with a creak at both the late hour and the tension that had dogged him for the last several hours.

The rain had picked up, the sluggish thunder gaining volume and an occasional strike of lightning punctuating the sleety downpour. Daylight was only about four hours away and it didn’t look like there was any useful rest in his immediate future.

It was a little late, too, to sit up by a dying fire and fret about when his oldest son was going to drag himself home from wherever he had holed up to nurse imaginary slights.

That wasn’t fair and Ben couldn’t let himself get away with the self justification. Adam was right about some things; he was plenty wrong-headed about others, but fair was fair. The boy put in long hours for little reward, he carried more than his share of an inordinately heavy load and he seldom complained. Bitched, moaned and griped sometimes, but not really complained. If anything, Adam had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and duty, one honed by too many hard realities inflicted way too young. Sometimes it was just too much to expect him to always be the oldest, to be the reliable one, the one Ben could always count on.

Of course, it hadn’t shown much maturity for number one son to throw himself onto a horse and ride out into the middle of a night like this one either. And therein lay the roots of Ben’s sleepless night.

The weather was miserable. It was dark out there. It was lonely.

It was not the place to be when emotions were riding high and feelings were raw and tender. One of these days Adam was going to ride out of the ranch yard and he wasn’t going to ride back.

A job was going to be too good to turn down. College was going to beckon with its siren song of accumulated knowledge and the world was going to open its arms to an eager and facile mind and the responsibilities of a small ranch in the wilds of Nevada was going to pale into non-existence. Adam was going to be gone.

And the hole he left behind would be impossible to fill.

The wind picked up and the house creaked in protest, a whistle whispering through an ill-plastered board and mocking his carpentry skills. Sparks popped in the fireplace with a cheeriness that couldn’t penetrate his mood, but the heat was welcome as it washed over his back.

He cast one last, hopeless glance at the discarded book, decided that he was beyond reading or anything else that might entail thinking and there was nothing left but to go to bed. Adam was level-headed. He would have gone to ground with one of the neighbors or at the very least he would have taken shelter in Eagle Station. Morning would bring an end to the rain and they could sit down and talk, not throw angry words at each other, but really talk.

It was time he told his son just how important he was to all of them.

*****

“You can’t just let him die!”

Ruth had her breath back and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. She had watched Adam Cartwright for the last few years, growing from a gangly teenager to an intelligent, hard-working, decent young man and she was not about to sit by in a hard chair in a chilly saloon while he bled out his life on a cold wooden floor.

A nod at the man behind her prevented any interference from him, but the amiable, self styled leader of the motley gang stepped in her path, effectively halting her before she could take a single step. Either he had written her off as no threat or he intended to stop her by force.

She set her jaw. Let him try.

Instead of blocking her, he holstered his gun, took her shoulders gently in massive hands and eased her back into the chair. She couldn’t resist the irritated thought that this bouncing in and out of the chair was getting downright silly. And an innocent boy could well die while they continued their bizarre dance for position.

“Ma’am, why don’t you just sit here by the fire,” he suggested as if they were merely engaged in a cordial conversation, “and I’ll check on your friend. Okay?”

He actually had the temerity to pat her on the shoulder before he turned away and directed his attention back to Shelby and Jack. “Now, let’s get comfortable, friends, and I’ll see what I can do about all this. Ma’am…” he swept a hand toward Shelby…“why don’t you sit here next to this nice lady…”

An argument would accomplish nothing, might even result in more bloodshed, and if cooperation really was going to get something done for Adam, anger would not only be useless, it would be criminal. She blew out a frustrated breath of air and took a seat, positioning herself between Ruth and the cluster of gunmen still hovering by the fire; if that fella touched her friend again, he could count on pulling back a bloody stump. She reached out a hand and placed her fingers over Ruth’s, squeezing lightly.

Jack’s turn came next. Their robber-turned-host didn’t bother with false courtesy toward Wolf; he simply jerked a nod toward a chair at a separate table and Jack wordlessly took a seat where he was directed. After a moment’s consideration, he said, “You picked a bad time to try to rob the local establishments, my friend.” He shrugged elaborately. “No business. The till is dry.”

“Well, now,” the other man said, strolling across the room toward where Adam lay, “that’s too bad. It’d be a shame for someone to die and there to be no money, now wouldn’t it.” He bent, retrieved the fallen rifle and laid it across his shoulder, puffed out air, and stood over the motionless body, considering.

When there was no reaction to his nearness, he nudged Adam’s shoulder with the toe of a booted foot. The body rocked slightly with the pressure, but there was no sound, no response. Satisfied, he dropped to one knee and grasped one shoulder, turning the young man over onto his back. Behind him, Ruth audibly caught her breath. He didn’t waste a look back at her, simply stared down at the wounded man.

Adam’s rain-soaked coat had fallen open. His shirt was sodden red with blood, a gory crimson stain seeping almost to the knee on his right side. His face, where not shrouded in the shadow of the table, was ashen and nearly colorless with shock, his features slack in unconsciousness.

The man shook his head. “Don’t look good. He even old enough to be in a place like this?” he asked with a slight twist of smile.

“So he says,” Shelby responded dryly.

“Adam is a good boy,” Ruth protested instinctively. “He does not frequent bars.” Suddenly flushing, she glanced guiltily at Shelby and tightened her hold on the other woman’s hand. “I am sorry, Shelby, I did not mean to…”

“No offense taken, Ruth,” Shelby reassured her, “besides you’re right, he is a good boy. An’ he sure as blue blazes don’t belong there on the floor.” With a final pat to Ruth’s hand, she rose and was halfway across the room before any of the other bandits could react to her. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprising considering the set of her face, no one tried to stop her.

There was no way to avoid the blood if she was going to get a good look in the poor lighting, so Shelby knelt down, trying to ignore the feel of it soaking into her pants legs. She cupped his face with one hand… his cheek was cold to the touch… and used the fingers of her other hand to seek a pulse at his throat. It was there — faint, thready — but there. She speared a glance sideways at the man who was still on one knee beside her, dark brown eyes never wavering from hers. He would have been a handsome man under other circumstances. She had expected to find cruelty and harshness in those eyes, but all she could read there was faint amusement, an almost intimate sharing of unspoken information, and the news wasn’t hopeful.

She ignored him. “Ruth, would you go on upstairs and bring down some blankets? Heaviest ones you can find. We need to get him warmed up here.”

“How badly is he hurt?” Ruth asked, already moving toward the stairs, again without interference. Jack Wolf still hadn’t said a word. Neither of those things was encouraging to Shelby.

“I ain’t sure yet,” she answered with an even voice. “I can’t see good here. We need to move him close to the fire. I ain’t sure if he was hit once or both times.” She waited for the first sound of Ruth’s foot on the creaking steps, then looked at the man next to her. “Well, you gonna help me get him over there or you just gonna roost there and watch me do all the work?”

He laughed then, an oddly pleasant sound. “Ain’t much sense goin’ to all the trouble, is there? You know ain’t nobody going outta here. It might be easier on the kid if he just drifts off right here; don’t have to hurt no more.”

She nodded shortly. “I’ll take that to mean, you’re gonna sit and watch then.”

She started to grab Adam under his arms, but another laugh brought her attention back around to him.

“Git out the way, then, pretty lady, and I’ll move him on over so you ladies can play doctor.”

*****

Ruth finished spreading a palette of blankets close to the fire, far enough to be safe from errant sparks, but near enough to provide maximum warmth to a body chilled from shock, by the time the huge outlaw dragged Adam’s unresponsive body across the room. With surprising gentleness, he laid the young man on the makeshift bed.

Already settled on the floor, Ruth was methodically tearing her white petticoats into long strips for bandaging.

Shelby, hands fisted on her hips, demanded, “You just gonna stand there in the way, mister? Or you gonna move and let us see to him?”

The half smile reappeared. “Why don’t you call me Booker? And I can call you…?”

“Now, why’s that?” she countered. “Because none of us are going to get out of here? You reckon it’s safe to make introductions? We’re all friends now? Shove it up your—“

“Shelby!” Ruth glanced up from her careful shredding of her petticoats.

Shelby shot a sour glare at her. “I’m sure our good friend, Booker, has heard worse, Ruth. And thanks to him, Adam isn’t hearing anything right now so we’re in no danger of corruptin’ him.”

Almost as if to call her on that observation, Adam groaned, arched slightly and fought to open his eyes. The attempt at movement brought a fresh rush of blood across his shirt front and both Booker and Shelby moved to hold him still. Booker was a fraction of a second faster. Again with that odd gentleness, he held Adam down long enough for unconsciousness to end his struggle.

When the meager fight quickly ended, he looked at Shelby and the smile was gone, only a steady brown gaze that caught her eyes and held, the playfulness gone. “Shelby,” he said softly, his voice not carrying further than its intended listener, “why don’t you let the boy just rest. It’ll be a lot easier on him. A whole lot.”

“He’s not gonna die,” she said, and there was no leeway for argument in her tone.

“Everybody dies.”

“He is… not… going to die. Not today.”

“He doesn’t have to.”

Jack Wolf’s even tones cut through the stalemate and both Shelby and Booker darted quick looks in his direction. Shelby, for one, realized that she had nearly forgotten that he was still there in the darkness of the saloon.

Booker was the first to react. “And how’s that, friend?”

“Well,” Jack leaned back in the chair, deceptively calm, “robbery’s a bad deal this week. Business has been terrible, what with the weather…”

“You makin’ a point, friend?”

“Ransom,” Jack said with a curt nod. “Ransom’s a much more lucrative venture this week.”

Booker squatted back on his heels, clearly listening, but watching Shelby as she started trying to untangle Adam from his coat. “And who do you suggest we ransom? You worth anything to anyone?”

Jack laughed, a short, humorless bark. “Me? No. I’m not worth anything to anyone. But I am a great negotiator.”

“I’m listenin’.”

Shelby managed to peel the rain-soaked coat off Adam’s shivering body and shoved it aside. The site of damage was obvious now, with his shirt shredded on the right side along his lower rib cage. She went to work on the buttons of his shirt, her hands already sticky and slick with his blood.

“Ruth there…” Jack continued casually, as if there was no life or death drama taking place a few feet away from him, “her husband owns the only store in town. He’s not only well off, he’s well respected. No one’s going to let his wife be killed if they can stop it.”

“Well, now,” Booker said, “isn’t that lovely. Nice to be popular, isn’t it, Missus Ruth?”

Jack ignored the interruption. “And Adam’s pa has a ranch just outside town. He’ll be very grateful to the man who keeps his son alive. Very grateful.”

“You son of a…” Shelby gritted out between clenched teeth, her venom aimed at Jack. “You give up on hawkin’ watered down whiskey? You in the business of sellin’ folks now?”

Booker cocked his head at her. “And how about you, pretty Shelby? Who would pay to have you back?”

She laughed. “I’m what’s known as expendable, Booker. Now you boys shut up. Ruth and me, we’re busy.” She carefully peeled the ruined shirt back, ripped away the ragged undershirt and found the seeping wound. The flesh had been scored like hot butter by a knife; at least two ribs were broken, jagged edges protruding through bruised and discolored skin.

Ruth looked up at Shelby, her eyes red-rimmed and sad. Shelby didn’t like the implication of that look. Nor did she like the shallow, painful rasp of Adam’s breathing.

*****

Booker sank back to his haunches and Shelby involuntarily shifted away from the sheer bulk of his unexpected presence. This time, though, he didn’t look at her, but across the dimly lit room at Jack Wolf.

“You say this boy is worth money?”

Jack shrugged. “Not dead, he wouldn’t be.”

Booker nodded solemnly. “Then, we better see that he stays alive. Ladies? You excuse us, please?” He nudged Shelby playfully with one hip and pushed her aside, then turned to Ruth. “Missus Ruth, if you would keep on makin’ those bandages, we’ll get him ready for you. You”….he indicated Jack with a nod…“you come on over here and help me out. Andy, heat a knife in that fire, the rest of you boys…” the grin again, a flash of white teeth “…do what you do best… just stand there.”

Jack settled down across from the other man with only a quick, noncommittal glance at Shelby and a reassuring nod for Ruth. “What do you want me to do?”

“Help me straighten him out, then brace his shoulders. We need to drop those ribs back into place then cauterize that wound or he’s gonna bleed to death, his pa’s gonna be pissed, and we’ll all be doomed to stay paupers. He’s a good lookin’ kid; oughta keep him around long enough to break a few hearts, I reckon.”

Shelby begrudgingly edged out of the way; she didn’t want any part of touching a burning knife to the raw wound scoring Adam’s stomach, and she didn’t really want to sit too close to the man calling himself Booker. Ruth, on the other hand, refused to budge. She locked both hands around one of Adam’s icy hands and held on tight, massaging his icy fingers, willing her strength into him. She had seen too many children die in this heartless country—including her own two—she wasn’t about to sit by and lose another, not if will alone could prevent it. She felt the supportive weight of Shelby’s hands on her shoulders, the wordless pressure of understanding at her back.

Booker got to his feet, moved around Ruth and straightened Adam’s legs, then moved his hips into line. Adam groaned and tried to twist away, but Jack’s firm grip on his shoulders pinned him in place. With a squelchy snick, the ribs slid back together, another fresh well of blood soaking across his pallid skin.

Satisfied, Booker straddled Adam’s hips and took the knife when it was offered, its blade glowing scarlet and gold, reflecting macabre shadows off his face. He looked the epitome of the mad surgeon in the second that he brandished the knife over his patient. The image vanished into a more horrible one when he laid the searing blade flat across Adam’s ribcage.

Skin sizzled; a horrible sweet-sick odor of burning flesh washed over them all; Adam, still in the grip of unconsciousness, screamed and surged upward almost breaking their combined restraint. Relentless, Booker held the knife against the wound even as Adam bucked wildly beneath him.

Shelby abandoned her post behind Ruth and grabbed for Adam’s flailing left hand, pinning it against her chest. His seeking fingers found hers and grabbed on in a grip that threatened to crush the delicate bones of her hand. Instinctively she found herself, hugging the hand to her chest and rocking back and forth, whispering, “Shhhh, hush, it’s okay, it’s okay, hush now.”

But it wasn’t okay and she knew it wasn’t. It was going to be a long time before anything was okay. Jack’s get rich-by-ransom scheme might have bought them some staying alive time, but Shelby wasn’t at all sure that Adam had enough time to play around with Jack Wolf’s brand of negotiation for hire.

It had to be only seconds, but it seemed like hours before Booker finally removed the now-cooled knife.

Adam, eyes squeezed tightly shut, still struggled weakly against Jack’s hold on his shoulders, his breath rasping and shallow, his skin drenched with cold sweat, his lips moving soundlessly. Booker shoved the knife into his own belt, then ripped away the remnants of Adam’s shirt and undershirt, tossing the ruined material aside.

“Now,” he ordered tersely, and Jack lifted Adam into his arms, yanking what was left of the shirt off his shoulders and then propping him upright so Ruth could bind his ribs with the torn petticoats. Still fighting his own internal phantoms, Adam wasn’t cooperative to their efforts at saving his life, and they were all gasping for air by the time he was bandaged and wrapped in extra blankets.

With an explosive exhale, Booker sat back on his heels and wiped bloody hands on his pants. “Now, Shelby, I’ll take a glass of that whiskey, if you’re of a mind.”

Surprised to find her nerveless fingers still holding a death grip on Adam’s now limp hand, Shelby agreed, “I think I’ll join you.”

“I think I will, too.”

All eyes went briefly to Ruth; then Shelby laughed out loud. “By golly, Ruth, I think we all earned ourselves a belt or two.”

*****

Two shots of whiskey warming his belly and one of Shelby’s cigars half-smoked had gone far to mellow Booker’s mood. Over surly protests, he’d sent one of his men out in the storm to check on their mounts and another to reconnoiter the home bound residents of Eagle Station, with particular care to the general store.

Ruth’s assurance that her husband, Eli, slept like a rock with a propensity to snore hadn’t immediately calmed Booker’s concerns that there could, at any time, be a worried husband pounding his way through the swinging doors of the saloon. The later it got, however, the more convinced he was that they were going to have to wake the man up to notify him they wanted cash or they were going to make him a widower. At this rate, they might even have to provide coffee to get the point across.

He took one more, lazy draw off the cigar, cast another appreciative glance at Shelby who was staring thoughtfully into her shot glass, then turned to Wolf. “So, how do we go about this ransom thing? It bein’ your idea an’ all. I imagine you got it all figured out.”

“It’s pretty simple,” Jack agreed. “I get word to Eli—Ruth’s husband and Ben Cartwright that we have something they want and they have something we want, and we make the trade.”

Booker smiled. “We?”

Jack shrugged. “My idea.”

“And I need you for something? I got three idiots already. What makes you think I need one more?”

“Precisely because I am not an idiot. Who else you going to send? One of your men? They wouldn’t know where to go, even if they were smart enough to know what to say.” He ticked a ‘one’ off on his fingers. “Ruth?” A ‘two.’ “What are they going to do? Return her so they can pay you for her?” “Shelby?” A ‘three.’ She may not have family, but she is important to people around here, and in spite of her… modesty… she could fetch a few dollars herself. And since I don’t think Adam’s going anywhere for a while, that leaves…” He spread his gloved hands eloquently.

The chair creaked as Booker settled his weight back. “And what’s in it for you?”

“I get out of here.”

“You get out of here?”

“You think I’m stupid enough to deliver your message and come back inside to see if you turn anybody loose or start putting bullets in heads?”

A flash of lightning ushered one of Booker’s men back inside. “Ain’t nobody movin’ nowhere,” he answered shortly, heading unerringly for the fireplace by way of the whiskey bottle.

Booker returned his attention to Wolf. “And why should I believe that you won’t walk out that door an’ just head home for your own bed instead of a long ride on a bad night?”

It was Jack’s turn to grin. “Guess you’ll have to take my word as a gentleman.”

“And I’m supposed to accept that?”

“Okay.” Jack shifted in the chair and poured another two fingers of whiskey. “I own a business here. This is my town. Shelby… she’s a competitor, but she’s… an interestin’ gal. Ruth is a good woman. There’s no reason for her to die. And Adam… I like Adam. He’s a smart boy. He’s got a future. If he dies here, well, that would be a real waste. I give you my word I’ll deliver your message and I’ll do exactly that.”

The second outlaw blew in on a flurry of rain, stamped his feet and said, “Ain’t no lights, no movement over to the store. Like the lady said.”

Booker considered both the information and the man sitting across from him, then nodded. “Okay, friend, you get a free pass. You tell them folks that it’s gonna cost them five thousand each to get their people back. They bring the money here. The lady rides out of town with us and we turn her loose when we don’t see no sign of bein’ followed.”

“Five thousand?” Jack said with a whistle. “That’s a lot of money to get up that fast.”

Another smile. “You tell that boy’s pa that he ain’t got time to dicker.”

*****

Wolf shoved his gloves over his brittle cold fingers, leather fingertips barely brushing the stitched leather of his empty holster. He felt every inch of its loss. He glanced pointedly at Booker’s peacemaker but the other man only shrugged and suggested, “You might want to keep a low profile. All the way round safer that way. How long it take you to ride to his pa’s ranch?”

“An hour, hour and a half. They got a Chinaman cook does good medical stuff. Heard tell he saved a mess of folks came down with cholera. Shelby could tell you about it while you wait.”

Though he half cocked a smile at Shelby, Booker shook his head. “Nope. Don’t think we need no Chinese cooks to join our little party. I can smell the venison from here and no Chink ever done justice to American deer. You leave the Chinaman home and just bring daddy.”

Ruth Orowitz was by nature a sweet and polite woman. There was probably not a single citizen of Eagle Station who had ever heard her raise her voice in anger; so the outlaw known as Booker was in for a rare experience. Ruth slammed her now empty shot glass down onto the table top with force enough to rock the weathered wood. Raw whiskey, frustration and great concern suffused her face and put a knife edge of tension into her voice when she stated, “Jack Wolf, you WILL bring Hop Sing here and you–” a barely trembling finger stabbed at Booker’s face “–you will allow him to tend to Adam. My husband and I helped that boy celebrate his twenty-first birthday just a few months ago and I am not going to attend his funeral in the same year.”

One of the fire-hanging thugs stepped forward then–Shelby searched her mind for the name he’d been tagged with–Dolan–and tugged at Booker’s shoulder. “We’re wastin’ time. This was s’posed to be a in an’ out, take the money and hit out of town before the weather clears enough for these hayseeds to track us. What the hell you playin’ at here? Some kinda barn social?”

Still unruffled, Booker merely considered him with half-lidded eyes. “That what you think we’re doin’ here, Dolan? Just cause there’s pretty ladies and booze and young cowboys bleedin’ out on the floor?” With a rueful smile, he shook his. “I am sorry, ladies, you just can’t beat no politeness into some folk.”

The playfulness vanished suddenly and a wintry bleakness set the tones of Booker’s face into an icy grey cast. Now, here, thought Shelby, is the dangerous man who’s always been there just under the surface.

“Let’s get all this straight,” Booker spoke in even, low tones. “Just so we all know the rules of this particular game. We come to get money. There ain’t no money, but Mr. Wolf, here, he knows how to fix that and I like his idea.” He leaned back further in the chair, the rain swollen wood creaking beneath the shift of his weight.

“That’s what’s important to me, now. The money. I don’t care if it comes out of a till or if we buy it off the back of a sweet, shop-owner’s wife or through the blood of some rancher’s kid. I don’t care if one of them dies — beggin’ your pardon, Missus Ruth — in the process as long as I get what I come for.”

He took another drag of the cigar, long and lazy, drawing the smoke in and expelling it in a cloud that wreathed his grim features. “Some folks is expendable; that’s just the way life is. Now, Mr. Wolf, you go get that rancher and that store man and you tell ‘em what it costs to walk in here and take their loved ones away with them. You can bring your Chinaman cook if you feel the need.” By this time he was ignoring his own henchmen and bestowing his somber gaze alternatingly on Jack, Shelby and Ruth.

“Fact is… Jack ain’t worth much, Shelby; you, hon, is worth a little. Adam… well, the kid’s not in real good shape, so he might not be worth much for long. Ruth, I see you as my high card. You’re here, you’re healthy, and you got a husband who loves you. Be glad. You’re the safest person in the room.”

Jack risked interrupting. “It would be best if I notified Eli first, Ruth’s husband, that way he could start work on getting the money together while I make the ride out to Ben’s.”

“Works for me.”

Jack paused, poised at the threshold, dark danger on one side of the swinging doors, dark night on the other… “I’ll be back,” he said.

There wasn’t a person in the room who believed him.

*****

“Ain’t it ever gonna stop rainin’?”

“Isn’t.”

“Shut up, Hoss; you ain’t Adam. I can say ain’t.”

“You don’t shut up yourself, Little Joe, and Pa’s gonna come in here and tan your hide for stayin’ awake all night.”

Joe schooched over to the edge of his bottom bunk mattress and peered up at his older brother. “You ain’t exactly snoring yourself, Hoss,” he countered. He always wondered why Hoss had the top bunk and Adam had the lower one. If the bed broke, Adam falling onto his younger brother would cause a whole lot less damage than if…

“What’s that?”

“Rain, Little Joe. Just like it’s been rain the last thirty-seven times you asked.”

“Sounded like a horse. Maybe Adam’s back.”

Hoss heaved in a deep sigh, then let the air out in an explosive whoosh. He hated it when his pa and his older brother butted heads. Trouble was, Pa demanded unquestioning respect and obedience, and Adam had enough temper and enough stubborn in him that it was inevitable they were going to clash. If he was honest about it, his real fear was that one day Adam really was going to step foot into a stirrup and when he rode away, he wasn’t going to come back.

But not now, brother, he thought with the fervor of a prayer, not when we just lost Ma and Carlos and those wounds are still too raw and sore. Just cool off, let Pa give you the ‘I’m disappointed in you’ lecture and go back to being our Adam.

Joe’s small, worried voice wouldn’t let the subject drop, however. “You don’t think he’s really gone, do you, Hoss? I mean, he’s just mad ‘cause Pa don’t treat him like he’s thirty years old, right?”

“He ain’t thirty years old, Little Joe,” Hoss sighed, knowing he was being sucked into an inane argument, but too weary to fight it.

“Maybe not, but he sure seems to think so. Maybe he’s gone off to jump on a ship and sail around the world like Pa did. Maybe he’s gonna go to Mexico and try to make Isabella come back. Maybe–”

“Maybe if you don’t shut up, I’m gonna go get Pa myself so he can MAKE you shut up, little brother.”

The threat seemed to carry some weight as silence was all that came from the lower bunk for a few minutes, then, a plaintive, “You don’t think nothin’s happened to him, do you, Hoss? I mean, he’s okay, ain’t he?”

Hoss sighed again and gave up on any pretense of sleep. “Yeah, little brother, I think he’s fine. Just mad at Pa. He’ll come home in the morning.”

“It’s cold down here.”

“I figured.” Hoss tossed his blankets aside in invitation. “C’mon up here; it’s warmer,” and waited for the little body to scramble in beside him.

*****

“Eli?”

Jack Wolf wasn’t sure why he was whispering. The thunder had gained ground again and the lights and sounds show outside covered everything but the most obtrusive noises. Besides, as he shook Eli Orowitz’s shoulder one more time, he had already decided that Ruth wasn’t exaggerating when she said her husband could sleep through anything man- or God-made.

Unfortunately, the man was in for a rude awakening this night.

“Eli, wake up, I got a long ride ahead of me and I’ll be lucky to make it without gettin’ a case of the croup. Wake up!” The nudge at the shoulder became a hard shake, then an all out mauling until finally Eli snorted awake.

He came up off the pillow and a long barrel Winchester came with him. A little late, thought Jack, but he didn’t bother pointing out the opposite.

“Get up, Eli, I don’t have time for pleasantries and neither do you.”

“Ruth?” Eli blinked sleepy eyes, only then noticing the still smooth right half of the bed. He brought his gaze back to Jack Wolf. “You are trespassing. My wife is not here. And you have one minute to explain both of these things.”

Jack sighed, stood back up to his full height and crossed both arms over his chest. “Eli, how long it been since you got your hands on five thousand dollars?”

*****

“Don’t go…”

Shelby had to lean closer to hear the whispered words. The room was cold, even with the fire constantly stoked, and she saw Adam’s breath fog his face in the dim light.

“What is it, Adam?” she asked softly, wiping one hand across his forehead. His skin was wet and clammy and he flinched away from her touch, the darkness of his hair only accentuating the pallor of his face. “It’s okay,” she tried when he murmured something too low for her to hear. A cloth was pressed into her hand and she looked up to meet Ruth’s worried dark eyes. “He’s hot,” Shelby complained.

“Yes,” Ruth agreed, holding eye contact, “the fever has come on him quickly. He has lost a lot of blood and he is in shock. We must keep him warm, but this room… it is too big… the heat too ineffective.”

“Ruth, maybe… you…” Shelby started to push up from her seat on the floor, but Ruth’s fingers closed over her shoulder and patted her back into place. Before Shelby could protest again and try to abdicate her place to Ruth, Adam’s fever-flushed face turned toward her and he squinted his eyes open. She wasn’t sure he was seeing anything though; the blue eyes were glassy clear and vacant.

“Why?” he rasped through dry, cracked lips. “Why did you leave me… us? Why did you… leave… us?”

“What the Sam Hill you talkin’ about, Adam? I ain’t gone nowhere. I’m right here.” She used the cloth this time to wipe his forehead free of dark beads of sweat. He blinked up at her and ran his tongue over his lips. She still wasn’t sure who he was seeing as he blindly searched her face, only knew somehow that it wasn’t her, and it wasn’t even now. Adam was somewhere altogether different than lying in the dark in a cold, dank saloon with a storm raging without and danger hulking all around them inside.

“What did I do that was so bad?”

“Adam…”

“Shelby, he does not know…”

“Yeah, Ruth,” she said more sharply than she had intended, “I’m gettin’ the idea.”

Sudden tears filled his eyes and spilled over dark lashes and Shelby caught him when he tried to push himself up to a sitting position, attempting to restrain him before more blood could seep through the already stained bandages across his ribs.

“My fault,” he whispered through the tears, “It was my fault.”

“Nothin’s your fault, Adam,” Shelby soothed, cradling his head against her shoulder. “You rest now. You have to rest.”

“I killed my own mother and that’s why… that’s why you left, isn’t it?”

Shelby nearly jerked away from him. “Ruth!” She was appalled at the tone of her own voice, the trickle of fear she heard in her words. “What’s he talkin’ about?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Shelby, the child has a fever. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

With a rueful shake of her head, Shelby lapsed back into rocking Adam, brushing her free hand through his sweat-damp hair. She could feel the heat of his body through her shirt, the tremors that were shivering through him in spite of his own warmth. He felt very thin, very vulnerable and she wondered how she was going to face Ben Cartwright when she let his son die on the floor of her saloon.

*****

His slicker had long since given up hope of keeping him dry.

Jack Wolf spurred his tired, soaked horse the last few hundred yards into the ranch house yard and then sank wearily to the ground. It had been a long, cold, wet ride through sheets of rain accompanied by only the staccato beat of thunder and the occasional flash of lightning to guide his way.

By the time he had reached the Ponderosa, Jack was cold clear through to the bone, hungry, exhausted and starting to resent, just a little, being relegated to the errand boy role in this small town drama. If he hadn’t actually been worried that Adam was going to die, he would have cheerfully delegated someone else to ride out here and tell Ben the news, Big Dan or somebody. Who the hell did Booker think he was, Paul Revere?

He pounded on the locked door.

Ben couldn’t have been in bed. He was fully dressed and had the door opened before Jack stopped his knocking. His face fell when he recognized his visitor, though. Probably expecting Adam and waiting up for the boy. Yeah, there was a pure light of anger in the back of Ben’s eyes. He’d, indeed, been waiting up for an overdue son and not ready to accept excuses for that tardiness. He wished it had been that simple.

“Ben, it’s Adam. He’s in trouble,” Jack started.

He was a bit surprised when the anger didn’t shift out of Ben’s eyes.

Before Jack could launch into an explanation, Ben said evenly, “I imagine he is in trouble if he’s been hanging around with you all night, Jack.” He took in a deep breath, obviously reining in his temper and his dislike for the soaked man standing unwelcome on his front porch. “Adam is an adult as he’s so fond of reminding me lately. He can get himself out of his own trouble.”

It would have felt incredibly good to slam the door in Jack Wolf’s face, especially if he was skulking around trying to influence Adam again. But Ben figured he’d been pretty rude to the man already, so he closed it gently in his face, leaving him standing on the dark porch in the rain.

“Pa, he said Adam’s in trouble!”

Ben spun around to find both his younger boys standing in the doorway watching him with open mouths. From the drawn set to their faces and the worried looks, they probably hadn’t slept either, which only made him more angry with his oldest son.

Before he could say anything to them, the knocking repeated itself, this time much more demanding. He turned back and reached for the door again–this time with the start of a churning dread already at work in his belly.

Jack didn’t wait for an invitation and stepped in from the rain as soon as the door swung open; he simply stepped forward and started to create a huge puddle on the hardwood floor.

“You and me, we got our differences, Ben, but this is not the time to air them.”

“You said my son’s in trouble.”

“Your son’s been shot, Ben,” Jack said coldly–better to get the shock and anger out of the way. “And he wasn’t doin’ so good when I left.”

That was one step beyond too much in this long, stress filled night.

Ben grabbed him by his drenched coat and slammed him against the nearest wall. He didn’t hear either of his sons calling out to him and he barely noticed when Hoss started to pull him off the weakly struggling Jack Wolf.

It took a good solid head lock for Hoss to put an end to his father’s determined attempt to strangle the other man, but he finally got Ben removed from his victim and shoved into a chair. He was puffing himself from the exertion and a little worried at the pale, gasping man still pinned to the wall by an invisible hand.

“I’m all right,” Ben whispered to his son, “I’m sorry, Hoss. I’m so sorry.” He never got an answer because he suddenly got a lap full of twelve-year-old.

“Pa, you all right? What about Adam? Has he really been shot? Do you think he’s lyin’?”

“Whoa, son. Wait a second. Let me get some answers.” He gently displaced Little Joe and got to his feet. “Jack, I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me. Please, tell me what happened?”

Jack, still massaging his throat, still a little pale, stepped away from the wall as if suddenly released, and said, “How much money can you get together, Ben… or actually how much money can you ‘pretend’ to raise?”

*****

It had taken so long to gather the small group of would-be rescuers, not to mention they had to do it all under cover of darkness. Eli felt he couldn’t ask men with small children and that eliminated a lot. Most people lived outside town on the neighboring ranches. It would have to be up to Jack and Ben to gather help from those sources.

As it was, by the time their group of four was armed and assembled at the livery, nearly three hours had passed.

Most of the time had been spent convincing the bank president that he was interested in helping pay a ransom.

By the time Jason Adams was ‘convinced’, Eli and Big Dan Larsen, along with Track and McGregor, had been forced to brandish a few weapons and offer to ease his conscience by making it a robbery rather than a withdrawal.

Now it was down to the hard part… waiting in a darkened livery for Ben Cartwright and Hop Sing to get in from the Ponderosa. Conjecture was that Jack Wolf would consider his good deed done and drop himself off at this hotel and carry himself to a warm bed.

None of them were sure they blamed him.

None that was but Eli, who was having a hard time keeping himself planted in a chair and not crashing through the swinging doors of the saloon to rescue his wife.

Ruth Naomi Warrenstein had been thirteen years old when Eli Orowitz fell in love with her. Of course, he had been older… a mature fifteen. Those dark eyes that could see deep into his soul…

Now he faced the loss of the only woman he had ever loved. A victim of another man’s greed and cruelty. A sentence of death on her head if they didn’t do everything exactly right. And even that might not help. These men could very easily take the money and murder the three helpless people inside that saloon. They’d already shot down a boy… a boy that Jack Wolf said might not live through the night. Ben had lost three wives… surely no loving God would take his first born son also.

There was no $10,000. In the satchel at his feet was every penny he had ever saved all the way down to the last piece of change in the till.

There was every penny in Ben’s account. Taken illegally as the apoplectic banker kept yelling at him, nearly jumping up and down in his longjohns and flannel hat.

If the world ever settled back to normal, Eli wasn’t sure he could ever do business in that bank again without that image popping into his head. Eli had been shocked speechless with gratitude when John Track and Ian McGregor had pulled money from their own accounts, apologizing that they couldn’t give more but they had to think of their own families.

Then Big Dan Larsen had strong-armed Adams into clearing out Frenchy Devereaux’s account without so much as a scrap of authorization. Dan had then turned out his own pockets before the banker was finally persuaded to kick in a ‘private citizen’s loan.’ But when Eli sat and counted out their haul, he tallied up a figure of $8,300. Almost two thousand short.

Eli leaned back in his chair and kicked a leg against the bag to reassure himself it was real.

Lightning split the sky, sounding too much like a gunshot, and Eli bolted to his feet.

“We must go now,” he insisted reflexively, his voice an octave higher than usual with fear and frustration.

Daniel placed a huge hand gently on his shoulder and dropped him back into the chair.

“Now you know we got to wait, Eli. Ben and Jack oughta be here any minute now. We need their help. We don’t do this right, we’re just gonna get them all killed.” For Big Dan that was practically a full speech.

Eli looked up at him, searching his features in the dark and tried to draw calm and strength from him. A few more minutes, he repeated to himself, just a few more minutes.

*****

“Wrong, Pa, you’re wrong.”

“Shhh, Adam,” Shelby tried to soothe him. He was only agitating himself and wasn’t even conscious enough to realize it.

“Not goin’ home,” Adam insisted, still caught up in some internal argument.

Booker sauntered over to them and dropped to his haunches next to Shelby, again a little too close for comfort. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of moving away though.

“Well now,” Booker mused aloud, “boy kills his ma, fights with his pa… don’t seem much like one happy family.”

“He did no such thing,” Ruth snapped at him. “His mother died in childbirth. Sometimes children get confused. They think it is their fault somehow. Adam is a very sensitive boy. I have often seen him accept guilt when there should be none.”

“If he and his pa don’t get along, Wolf might be wrong about that ransom.”

Shelby snorted at him. “Did you and your pa get along when you was his age?”

Booker grinned again and Shelby was once more caught by the power of his expression. It took her a moment, but she realized who that smile reminded her of… she glanced down at Adam. It was the same grin–that heart stopping, sudden flash of teeth and light, a dazzling smile that was gone so fast that she was never quite sure it had happened at all. But in Adam it was a beautifully innocent thing. Sure she could see the hurt there working its way into his features, but he was still so very young that it hadn’t taken hold yet.

In Booker, it was all written there, scrawled right across his face like a roadmap of pain. And that briefly brilliant smile could do nothing to cover it up.

She lost the thought when he unexpectedly answered her question, “By the time I was thirteen, I’d had enough of watchin’ him beat my ma and more than enough of takin’ his abuse myself. He was the first man I ever killed.” The grin again, but this time it had no effect on her. “Before you go and feel all sorry for me–maybe you better know that I enjoyed the hell outta killin’ him.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I wasn’t going to waste any pity on you.”

*****

“Hoss, get me my rifle and a box of ammunition.”

“Mr. Cartwright?”

For a second, Ben was speechless. Did no one in this household ever sleep? “Hop Sing, Adam’s been…”

“Yes, shot. I hear. I will require time to gather what I will need to help him. Little time,” he tried to reassure before he turned and headed for the kitchen.

“I’ll go saddle the horses, Pa, while you an’ Hoss get ready. That way we can get to town fast.”

Ben rounded on his youngest son. “Little Joe, I ‘do’ want you to saddle your horse but you are NOT going to go anywhere near town.”

“But, Pa–”

“Ahh!” A pointed finger punctuated the single word.

Hoss reentered the room, hastily dressed and pulling a slicker on over his clothes. He handed his father the rifle and ammunition.

Ben took the weapon and continued, “You and Hoss will ride to Margaret’s. Hoss, I want you to get all the men and guns she can spare and get to town as fast as you can.”

“You want your horse and Hop Sing’s, Pa, or you want the wagon hitched up?”

“Horses will be faster in this storm,” Jack spoke up, a little edge in his voice, underlining his discomfort at being a part of this. A long ride in a vicious storm was nowhere near as painful as watching a family trying to control fear for one of their own. He considered himself lucky he felt no such ties.

Ben nodded. “Horse. We can borrow a wagon to bring Adam home.”

Hoss vanished into the rain and took off at a run toward the barn.

“Pa.”

“Joseph,” Ben snapped as he tugged his way into his own coat. Catching the impatient anger in his own voice, he dragged in a deep breath and turned to his youngest. “I want you to stay with Margaret. I know you want to help, Little Joe.” He forestalled the inevitable protest with a raised hand. “But what you can do to help now is to let us know you are safe. That is what Adam needs you to do right now.”

There were tears flooding in Joe’s huge eyes, but he nodded. “Yes, Pa.”

“Get your coat,” Ben said gently and steered him back toward his room. “And hurry.”

*****

“I’ve got the doctor. We’re comin’ in,” Jack called, pushing his way through the swinging doors

“No tricks, now, Jack,” Booker said amiably, meeting Wolf at the swinging doors. “What the hell is this… you got a Chinaman doc in this town?” He swung an arm around Hop Sing’s shoulders, dwarfing the slight man as he enveloped him in a virtual bear hug.

“Well, now, out here you take what you can get. And what we have is a Chinaman doctor.”

“Lemme see what’s in the bag, Chinaman.” Booker nodded toward the worn carpet bag that Hop Sing was clutching to his chest. Without waiting for a response, he pulled the bag out of Hop Sing’s hands.

Rummaging through the bag, Booker screwed up his face at the odor wafting out of the bag. “What’s this stuff?” He indicated a bunch of feathery green plant.

“Herbs,” Hop Sing said, trying to keep his attention pinned on the big man who was pawing his way through his carefully gathered medicinal plants and roots. He was trying very hard not to focus on Adam, his patient, or the two women who remained crouched on the floor beside his too-still form. As far as he could tell from his periphery vision, Adam was, so far, the only casualty. Ruth and Shelby appeared unhurt though both were ashen and their body language spoke of tension, worry and more than a lingering shadow of fear. He hoped that he could help. It would be unthinkable to have to tell Ben Cartwright that his first-born child was dead. He could put up with a little bit of racial slurs. He’d been tolerating them all his life.

“Go,” Booker said, with a tilt of his head.

Hop Sing didn’t wait for another invitation; he headed across the room to the small group huddled beside the fire, where Shelby and Ruth were trying to keep Adam warm.

“Now, you…” Booker turned his attention to Jack.

“No, not me,” Jack retorted with a spread of his hands. “You want the money? You have to let me go get it.”

Booker’s smile dropped a notch. “What makes you think I have any intention of letting you walk out of here again? You sure seem anxious to get back into that storm outside.”

Jack shrugged. “Beats sitting here waiting for a bullet in the head. If you want the money, I have to go make arrangements.”

Booker took a step toward Jack, menace crawling over his face, tension sparking through his huge body. “Now, why don’t I believe that?” Booker let out a huff of air. “Okay, you go, you get the money, but you don’t come back here unless you want that bullet. You send in the woman’s husband or the kid’s father.” He held up his pistol and mimed pulling the trigger. “But you stay the hell outta my sight. Bang,” he said cheerfully, and was treated to Jack Wolf’s back as he ducked back out in the rain. “Won’t see him no more,” he said to no one in particular.

*****

“But, Hop Sing, he’s got a fever,” Shelby protested, voice hard edged from hours of anxiety and stress of being held hostage in her own home.

“No, not yet,” Hop Sing reassured. “Infection take time to settle in. He is in pain. Fighting pain cause this.”

In contrast to Shelby’s angry voice, Ruth whispered, afraid to take away any hope, “Then, he’s not so bad?”

Hop Sing spared her a glance, tiny pinpoints of red and yellow reflecting from the fire still popping in the grater, spiking in his black eyes like miniature flares. The desire to reassure her was great, but lying out of kindness only delayed the pain. “I see no infection yet,” he said, skimming his slender hands across the blistered, penetrating scarlet of the ruined skin, a forming scar that would never forgive either the bullet wound to the cauterizing knife blade, “but he breathes harshly.”

Shelby’s head jerked up. “There ain’t no buts.” She wanted no ‘buts’ in this diagnosis. She heard Booker shift position in his chair in response to her, but ignored him. He sat there sprawled across half the space of the room, fingers idly twirling an empty shot glass for the last hour. His three men entertained themselves with another bottle and a deck of cards. What had started out as a raucous game turned silent and surly. Not a good sign as the time stretched.

Hop Sing broke into Shelby’s thoughts, “His father say he have pneumonia as child. Makes lungs weaker. This exposure bad. Too long. His breathing is not good.”

Ruth squeaked a tiny, wordless protest, and put out a tentative hand, touching nothing and no one before drawing it back to her chest.

Shelby snorted. “You mean he’s gonna survive bein’ shot, but his lungs are gonna give out on him? Ain’t that a kick in the…”

“I did not say he HAS pneumonia, only that I am concerned.”

“So what do we do?” Shelby challenged.

“What we are doing,” Hop Sing said gently, mashing green lumps into puree and forcing it all into Adam’s mouth. They had a rhythm now…. Ruth pinched Adam’s nose shut so he had to open his mouth to breathe, Hop Sing pressed the goo in, and Shelby massaged his throat to force him to swallow.

Booker had his fill of the Florence Nightingale drama playing out before him. He let the back legs of his chair clatter to the floor, stretched up all the way from his toes and ambled over to the saloon doors. He angled himself so he was masked in shadow but could see a clear wedge of the street.

It was dark with a cold that worked its way into a man’s bones. Rain poured in a stinging slant like floodgates had been opened. It was a mean night. A mean life. He could excuse the other murders and violence of his life but he wasn’t looking forward to killing two women and a kid who hadn’t even gotten a good start on life.

They’d been doing good for a few years now… hit a town small enough not to have regular law… but big enough to be pulling in some money. Every-damn-thing was getting civilized now, he mentally complained. Now folks in these hastily tossed together mining towns were forming councils, looking out for each other, very inconvenient for a man in his line of work.

“No, ma, don’t… don’t die…”

Booker turned to glance back over his shoulder. The two women and the Chinaman were trying to hold the kid still as he struggled against them.

“My fault… so sorry… my…”

With a rueful shake of his head, Booker turned back to the door and separated himself from it all. His ma had died in childbirth, but he’d never taken it so personal. Guess some folk just had over-active consciences. Thank God he wasn’t one of ’em.

*****

The livery was silent, smelled of leather and the ozone sharp taint of too much rain. Poor mortaring between weathered boards welcomed squealing gales of wind. A fireplace worked at dispelling some of the chill but it had been started late and wasn’t up to the task. By the time the few men gathered there decided that it was pointless to try to conceal their activity, the cold had taken control.

Eli Orowitz was fraying at the edges; he’d been calm and rational about as long as he could keep his imagination at bay by forcing himself into activity. Now, though, there was nothing left to do but wait. Wait and wonder what was happening to Ruth. He was trying, and trying very hard, to maintain his composure if for nothing else than Ben Cartwright’s sake. The man had a child in there that he didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and that was one thing Eli could empathize with more than he wished. Only he knew his children were dead and for a split second resented Ben because he still had hope.

Finally, he walked over to Ben and placed a hand on his shoulder. Ben lifted weary eyes in silent gratitude.

Big Dan couldn’t tolerate any more inaction. He jumped to his feet, sending his chair clattering to the floor behind him, the noise all but muffled by the roar of wind and rain outside the livery. For just a moment, he had the fanciful image of standing in the middle of a waterfall, deaf from the noise, blind from the spray.

“Let’s just give ’em the money and get our people back,” he thundered.

Ben shook his head, when he looked up his eyes were red-rimmed and weary. “They’ll take the money and kill the hostages, Daniel. You know that.”

Daniel was startled when the hand that Ben scrubbed over his face had a slight tremor to it. “All right,” he countered, “Let’s give him part of the money and the rest when we have them back.” For some reason, he found that he couldn’t put names to the hostages, as if it would make the whole thing too real. What he wanted to do was march out into the rain and rip the saloon apart a board at a time and get their people out. Of course, all that would happen was their dying before he had dismantled the first floor of the saloon.

“Ben, tell us what to do,” McGregor demanded in a tired, hoarse voice. “We just gotta know what to do.”

“Yeah,” Track echoed the sentiment. “We want to get them outta there as much as you do, Ben, but we don’t know how to do it without gettin’ them all killed.”

“That’s the point, Track,” Ben answered wearily, “neither do I. Other than wait a few more minutes to see if Jack can get the rest of the money out of the bank.

“That’s just it, Ben,” Track said, scratching at an invisible itch on his forehead. “Why’d Jack go and not you?”

Ben’s lips narrowed. “Jack can be… more persuasive than I can.”

Track settled back into his uncomfortable chair. “Well, I gotta give ya that.”

“Besides,” Ben said, “Hoss should be on his way back with Margaret Greene’s men by now. Just a little longer.” It had become a litany.

Big Dan shook his head. “Ben, that’s a long ride for them two young boys in a storm on a pitch black night. Don’t get your hopes up that they get Maggie’s boys here soon enough.”

“They’ve got motivation, Daniel. The best motivation.”

*****

“Hoss! I can’t see nothin’!” Little Joe swiped a hand across his face, his hat doing nothing to prevent the icy rain from sweeping across his eyes. He coughed and shivered in his heavy coat, legs clamped so tight to the saddle he was getting cramps in his thighs.

His older brother shouted to be heard above the wind. “Stay close, Little Joe.”

The darkness closed in, Hoss’ image faded into black, and Joe caught a sudden glimpse of being totally and helplessly alone. With all that had happened in his short life, the good and the terrible, he had never been completely alone.

At the unbidden image of losing sight of his brother occurred to him, Joe kicked Paint hard

The mare lunged forward at the unaccustomed harsh treatment colliding solidly with Hoss’ mount’s hindquarters, hooves slipping in the mud, threatening her balance. Paint caught herself with a surge of muscle and broke into a gallop. Off guard, Joe fought to rein Paint into a controlled canter. His gloved hands clenched the reins so tightly his fingers hurt. Hoss was gonna yell at him for ramming his horse. It wasn’t his fault, darn it. It was the rain, the darkness. It wasn’t his fault.

Hoss didn’t yell.

That only made it worse.

That meant it was bad. Very bad.

Adam was going to die, he thought, and they were going to be lost out here in the dark and the wet and the night. He hadn’t cried since Ma had been killed.

In the rain, no one would notice if he cried now.

*****

Jack Wolf hunched his head and pulled his collar up, dashing from the bank to the livery, slipping and sliding in the treacherous mud. If this downpour didn’t stop soon, they were going to have to build a dam to keep Eagle Station from washing into Lake Tahoe.

And just when had he become so damned involved? This just wasn’t like him. Self-preservation was more his style.

Clutching the bag of coveted money close to his body, he leaped onto the wooden boardwalk, throwing himself into the relative warmth of the livery. Every man in the room was on his feet staring a single question at him.

“Got it.,” he said tersely. “Now what?” He found Ben Cartwright’s eyes out of the tense faces and breathlessly pointed out, “You know if we hand this over, we got three dead folks on our hands.”

“That’s why I take it inside,” Ben said

Wolf dumped the wad of damp greenbacks into the bag.

“How’d you talk him into it?” McGregor demanded.

“Don’t ask.”

“Ben…” Eli stepped forward, one hand wrapping around Cartwright’s upper arm. “Let me take it in. You’ll be more valuable outside when they come out. I’m no good with a rifle.”

Raw pain tore the truth out. “Eli,” Ben said quietly, clasping the bag shut, “I have to see Adam. I have to know he’s alive.”

There was no answer to that. Eli released his grip and nodded, stepping back.

“Like I said,” Jack interrupted, “what now? You’re not just going in there and hand them a sack of money while they’re holding three people hostage.”

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Daniel…” Ben finished with the bag, and glanced up. “You know the building better than anyone else here. What’s the best way in?”

Larsen snapped his rifle shut. “The side door where Shelby puts the garbage after meals is the weakest. It’s got a broken hinge. I can take it down with one kick.”

“Yeah,” Jack groused, “you’re good at kicking doors in if I remember correctly.”

That brought the big man’s attention around to him. “You know that broken board over by the fireplace, Jack? The one you said almost broke your ankle when you stepped in it a few weeks ago?”

Leery, Wolf nodded.

“You’re going under the porch from the East corner. The crawl space is big, plenty big enough to get through without making much noise, not that it’ll matter much in this storm.”

“I am?”

“Yep. Once you’re under there, you’ll see the light from the fire, that’s where you said three of them was. All it’s gonna take is one pull on those rotten boards and you come out from under like the devil rising from the bowels of the earth.”

“I do?”

“You do. Track, McGregor, you go up the side stairs. You’ll come in through Shelby’s bedroom. You’ll have clear shots at all of ‘em from the upper floor. Eli, you’re behind Ben on the front walk, off to the left. You come in when you hear all hell break loose.” He pushed his hat low over his ears and clenched his rifle in his massive hand. “Jack, you mind it under the floor there. Snakes like it under there sometimes in this kinda weather.”

“Snakes?” Jack shook his head, puffed out a breath and grabbed a handgun from behind the counter. “Don’t even kid about snakes,” he grunted, heading back into the storm.

Dan grinned, checked his rifle once more and followed. “Wasn’t kiddin.’”

*****

A shutter must have come loose, Margaret decided with a growl of groggy irritation, and from the sounds of things, Tess wasn’t going to wake up enough to go fix the darn thing. Then she woke a little more and recognized that it wasn’t a shutter at all but someone knocking hard and frantically on the front door. That and voices yelling her name.

Young voices.  Full of fear.

Margaret slipped out of bed, grabbed a night coat and forgetting her slippers, she ran downstairs, nearly colliding into Tess who was on her way down too, her face pale.

“It’s Hoss,” Tess said as her mother swept by her.

“Yes, I know,” Margaret replied, not slowing.  Lightning lit the entire first floor of the house with a splitting crack that made her hesitate a second, thinking she’d been shot.  She shook off the sensation and flung the door open.  Thunder rolled in behind the lightning, obliterating anything the boys were trying to shout at her.

They looked like drenched mice, huddled next to each other, obviously exhausted, their faces so pale they almost glowed in the dark.

Margaret swept them inside out of the torrential rain, wrapping her arms around them both, oblivious to the fact that she was ruining her expensive house coat.

Ten minutes later, ten vaqueros and Hoss, led by Margaret herself, were headed toward town at a full gallop, leaving an exhausted and protesting Joseph with Tess.

******

“Is…” Adam’s eyes were unfocused, his gaze going somewhere over Ruth’s shoulder.  “Is it here?” He licked dry lips, tried to find her eyes, see her expression, but she was blurred as if she were an image on the surface of a pond.

He wondered what had happened to her face to make it all wavy like that.

“The book,” he tried to explain, “Mrs. Orowitz, has it come?  ‘Tale of Two Cities’?  Remember?  I ordered it.  Really wan’ read…” His words slurred and his voice trailed off.  He stirred again though he didn’t open his eyes.  “I wan’ read it to L’il Joe.  He should know the classics.  Wish we had more…”

He lost the thought, his mind going blank on him.  Sleep nearly claimed him when a monstrous clap of lightning and roll of thunder shook the building.  He lunged up in Ruth’s arms, but Shelby and Hop Sing were both there to help her hold him down.  Fear caused him to struggle and pain sparked the fear.  He fought them until he passed into unconsciousness.

Ruth, tears in her eyes, eased him out of her embrace and onto the floor again.  She was angry.  Furious with these men that they’d let a boy like Adam die on the floor of a saloon.  No, no, she chided herself, he’s not going to die.  He’ll be all right.  He will.  He’s young and strong and Hop Sing is here to take care of him.  She tucked the blanket around him, then placed a hand gently on the side of his face, gazing at him wonderingly.  Would her son have looked like this, felt like this if he’d been allowed to live long enough to grow up?

“Be safe, Adam,” she whispered and a single tear splashed down on her hand.

*****

Damn it, it was dark and the echo of thunder and crackle and pop of lightning above them didn’t help.  Jack wasn’t real pleased that Ben had assigned him the crawl space as he hunched his way over to the faint glow in the floor above, brushing spider webs away from his face.

Oh, he knew why Ben had done it.  It wasn’t pride either.  He was probably the best shot of the men gathered to try to save the people held captive in the room above and the one most likely to take down at least one of the outlaws.  Not to mention the one least likely to hesitate when it came to that killing bullet. That part didn’t bother him.  The spider webs and the stumbling through pitch did bother him.

He kept his eye on the tiny yellow glow of light that stared at him like a beacon in the blackness, guiding him toward where the three men supposedly stood.

*****

Daniel was soaked to the skin, his beard a soggy weight on his lower face as he hugged the side of the building, creeping his way around the back to the door Shelby used to get rid of slop and trash.  He wasn’t so sure Ben was right in sending him alone to break in this way; certainly not that he was afraid, just that two could dodge separate directions, cause more confusion for the men inside.

Of course Ben was right, more people meant more noise and this had to be quiet.  It was almost funny to think of himself on a mission of stealth.  He was more the type to barrel into a situation, roaring like a grizzly.  Not tonight though.

The stakes were too high.

*****

Ben hefted the bags and gave Eli one more encouraging look, wishing someone would do the same for him.  Then he stepped out into the rain and started the long walk from the livery to the saloon.

Each step was agony.  He fought with himself every step of the way, rain streaming in his face, soaking through his clothes.  His heart wanted to hand the money over only after Adam was out of the saloon.  It insisted with each beat in his chest.  It demanded.

There were two other people there inside that saloon.  Their lives were just as important.

Not as important as Adam’s.

Another step closer, another doubt.

Lightning flashed a streak of gold across the ebony sky and illuminated the face of a man in agony.

Ben’s face.

*****

“Ya know it’s not too late to do the right thing,” Shelby said, canting her head to look upward at Booker, studying the man’s face in the golden glow of firelight.  It was hard to tell what a man’s face was saying beside a fire.  The features were distorted.  Kind men looked suddenly demonic, wicked men were rendered harmless and rosy.

There was nothing harmless about Booker, but she couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t still some remnant of a good man deep inside there.  A man who wouldn’t let a boy bleed to death in front of him while a Chinaman cook tried to save his life with herbs and other magical potions.  She didn’t have much faith in Hop Sing’s skills as a doctor.  He was one helluva cook but a doctor… she wouldn’t have sent him in to save her own firstborn child, if she’d had one.

That was funny.  She was never going to have a child, much less one like Adam.  Ben Cartwright had done right by his boys, raised them the way they should be raised.

There had to be some way to convince Booker to let them get the boy out of here.

She met Hop Sing’s eyes then by accident, started to let her gaze slide away, then riveted her eyes on him.  He didn’t make a gesture or a sound, simply stared at her with that intent, black gaze, and she understood.

Ben wasn’t coming in to pay a ransom.

He was coming in for his boy.

*****

The only thing that wasn’t screwed up about this little shindig was the fact that he was inside with the fire instead outside with the rain.

Booker had just about had it with all of them and the situation as a whole.  If there hadn’t been a town full of people out there who would kill him the minute he walked out the door, he would get on his horse and ride, leaving the Idiot Gang well behind him.

This should have been a simple operation, just a bump in the road, pocket change to get them to the next town.  Instead they had two frightened but obstinate women, a dying kid and now, God help them, a Chinaman, and the entire town waiting just outside the doors.  It was just a little late for ‘take backs’. Ah, why hadn’t I lived an honest life, he wondered wryly.  A little woman who maybe looked a bit like that Shelby, but without the bite.  Three or four grubby faced kids running around barefoot like little Comanches.

Well, it was a little late for that. Hard facts were that he was a thief with a bounty on his head and a few dead men on his conscience. It was a shame that the boy lying there in the firelight was going to be another one, but that couldn’t be helped now.

At least the kid wasn’t dying alone.

Before this night was over there was going to be more blood shed in this little town.

Booker could feel it in his bones, smell it on the night air.  As if on cue, lightning arced across the blackness outside and thunder cracked.  The rain drummed the roof and battered at the windows as if seeking entrance.  It was a hell of a night, Booker decided, and he wished they’d just moved on instead of stopping in this dirt-street town for that inevitable drink.

But there’d been no signs, nothing to indicate that it was all going to go bad, that things were going to degenerate into this farce.  He should have just been able to relieve an angry Shelby of the night’s take and ridden into the night while she fussed and fumed.  But all it took was one dumb ranch kid to walk into a hastily fired bullet and everything was falling apart.

Sure, the town was supposed to be raising the money to buy their people back. But that was a plan just made to fall apart.  More holes in that idea than that little graveyard he’d seen as they rode into town.  Obviously they couldn’t give up all their hostages when they got the money or they’d just be gunned down before they got outside the city limits.  The town wasn’t going to want to let go of the money bag unless their people were free.

How was that going to work?

And if they kept one of the hostages for safe passage… which one?  Not the kid obviously.  He would probably be dead before they cleared the edges of town. Shelby… she would be a nice addition, but she just wasn’t that important to anyone that they could hold a whole town back from going after their money. That left Ruth.

Ruth, beloved wife, gentle, sweet woman, who probably had a lot of friends here besides that husband who wanted her back.

So Ruth it was.

*****

Ben started the walk toward the saloon and was amazed at how far it seemed, how the closer he got, the more he expected a shot to ring out and drop him where he stood.  The bag of money was heavy in his hand and rain slashed at his face, icy and relentless.  It seemed like it had rained for a week.

Each step, a separate trudge closer.

He was terrified at what he’d find inside.

They had no guarantee that Adam was still alive, that he hadn’t died since Jack had left.  No guarantee that when the firefight started that one of the innocents wouldn’t be caught in the crossfire.  But no one had come up with a better idea.  There was no way the men inside would free the hostages, whether they received the money or not.  Best case scenario, they only took one hostage with them after they got the money, but Ben wasn’t about to be the one to try to determine which hostage was worth what.

And his heart only cared about his son.  He felt guilty about that, sorry about it.  But he couldn’t change it.  That was his child in there.  Adam was grown now, or at least nearly grown, Ben knew it was hard for him to relinquish control, see the man in the boy.  But Adam was still the inquisitive, sensitive little boy he and his wife had brought into this world as their own small miracle.  He couldn’t imagine losing the boy as he’d lost his mother.  If it was wrong for his heart to be murmuring his son’s name with each step, then so be it.  He would be wrong.

Finally, he hit the boardwalk, felt his boot strike against wood, and stepped up.  Just as he did, the doorway swung open and the man called Booker stared at him from the safety of the dry room as Ben stood there, rain streaming down his face.

“Did you bring what you were supposed to bring, my friend?” Booker asked simply.

“I have the money,” Ben said, the words equally simple.

Booker gave him a smile, pulled the door open. “Then by all means, come on in.”

Soaked to the skin, Ben stepped inside the saloon, his eyes automatically searching for the one thing he had to see right now.  He found it, by the fire, his oldest son, huddled on the floor, covered by blankets, his face sweat-speckled and his skin sallow. Adam’s breathing was shallow, as if it hurt to merely draw in air.

Ben dropped the bag of money where he stood, abandoning it on the floor as if it had no value… for now, for him, it no longer did.  It had gotten him inside with his son; it had served its purpose.  He had no idea if it would get them outside these doors, ever again.

He ignored the drawn guns, Booker’s barked, “Stay still,” and knelt beside his son, his hand going to Adam’s forehead, feeling the heat of sickness there.  Hop Sing placed a hand gently on his shoulder.  Ben met Ruth’s eyes, then Shelby’s.  Ruth merely stared at him with a single tear tracking down her pale cheek.  Shelby shook her head, unable to speak the words.

Ben brushed the damp hair out of Adam’s face, stroked his forehead, then said softly, “You’ll be all right, son.  You’re going to go home with me.  Don’t be afraid.  I love you, Adam.”

“Now ain’t that touching,” one of the men lolling by the fire sneered, then looked up at Booker. “Well, ain’t you even going to count the damn money?  Who knows what’s in that sack, it could be torn up newspaper for all we know.”

“No,” Booker said, not making a move to retrieve the bag.  “It’ll be there.  It’ll all be there, won’t it, Mr. Cartwright.  He’s not going to sell out a single hair on his boy’s head.  Not just for money.”

Finally, Booker shoved his gun back in the holster and leaned over to pick up the bag.

His hand never reached it.

*****

Jack burst up through the floor like Satan, himself, ascending, the glow from the fire casting scarlet and amber across his features and he was yelling insanities as he came up, two guns drawn.  By sheer chance and a calculation of the odds, one barrel was pointed straight into the face of one of the men by the fire.

Reaction caused the three men at the fire to scatter, but the one caught in Jack’s sights like a pinned moth squawked like a demented chicken and scrabbled for his pistol.

The back door exploded in a shower of splinters as Big Dan crashed his way through, a rifle raised to his shoulder, filling the entire doorway.  Ben flung himself over Adam’s body, trying to shield as much of his son as he could, one hand dragging Ruth down with him.

For that one moment, time and everyone in it, stood dead still.  It could have gone either way.  No one had to die; no more blood had to be shed.  Then glass exploded upstairs and men with rifles appeared at the head of the stairs and along the railing and the outlaws panicked.

The man in Jack’s sights couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to draw on him.  But stupid he was, and a part of a second later, he was also dead.  The other two who had been standing at the fire, eager to count the money, tried to dart for the door, shooting upward as they went.  The men upstairs were careful.  They hardly wanted to be tossing lead around like it was the Fourth of July with two women hostages and an injured boy down there on the floor, but that didn’t make them hesitate to take the shots they could get.

From the wild firing of the two men trying for the door and the returning shots from those above, the room swirled with smoke and the acrid scent of gunpowder.  A stray slug hit the fireplace and the fire jumped its bed, catching the hem of a curtain beside the fireplace, sending it up in a burst of flame and smoke.  Hop Sing lunged for the curtain, yanked it down and stomped the fire out of it before it could do more than add smoke to the already hazy room.

One of the men upstairs yelped as a bullet creased along the outside of his upper arm.  Then one of the outlaws spun as in an awkward ballet, a crimson blossom exploding in the center of his chest, and went down.  The other tried for a mad dash for the door, but two bullets cut him down before he was halfway across the room.

“Hold your fire!”

Amazing how some voices seem to carry over chaos.

Not a man in the room failed to hesitate at the barked order.  Then as the smoke began to clear, they stilled even further.

Booker stood in the center of the room with one arm around Shelby’s throat and the barrel of his pistol prodding into her temple.

Even Frenchy, who had come in through the front doors couldn’t take a shot from behind.  There was too much chance the bullet could go through Booker and into Shelby as well.  Bullets were like that, Frenchy knew, they went through things you didn’t want them to go through and just pinged off those things you did want them to pierce. So even Frenchy held his fire.

“Let it end,” Ben said softly, knowing that Booker could hear him very well in the sudden silence.  Willing the man to stop the bloodshed now that there was no hope for his plans; there simply was no need for him or Shelby to die.

Adam’s hand twitched within his own, tightened, and he automatically looked down at his son.  Blue eyes stared blankly up at him and Adam licked dry lips, then tried to speak.  “Wan’… wan’…”

The entire room seemed suspended in a cocoon of silence waiting to hear what the young man was trying to say, even the outlaw and his hostage.

“Wan’ go ‘ome,” Adam finally managed.

Ben squeezed his eyes shut, then placed a hand on his son’s face.  The skin was warm beneath his touch.  He looked back up at Booker.

“Take your kid home, mister. Get him well,” Booker said. “Me and Shelby, we’ll go for a little ride; I’ll let her go, unharmed, after a while, if I don’t have no company on my trail.  Nobody gets hurt, at least no worse than they already are, and we all go back to our lives. I ain’t even asking for the money.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, “you know I can’t do that.  There’s no need for you to die here, mister, and there’s certainly no reason for Shelby to be hurt. There’s a time when it’s over. Don’t die here.”

“You going to sit there and talk while your boy dies, sir?” Booker asked with an odd sort of courtesy.

“Let him go,” Shelby said then, her voice a little strangled from the hold on her throat. “Let him go, Ben, take Adam home. He’ll let me go. He’s a son of a bitch, but he’ll keep his word.” Booker eased his hold on her and she nodded. “I’ll go with you, don’t you worry about that.”

Adam hitched in breath again and Ben’s heart broke.  He met Shelby’s eyes, started to shake his head, but something there stilled him.  She wasn’t being foolhardily brave, or simply resigning herself to her situation.  She was handing him his son’s life and she knew it.  After looking into her eyes, he knew it too.

“No harm will come to her,” Ben said and it was half demand, half question.

“No harm,” Booker agreed, and backed the two of them out of the saloon.  Word had already passed its way to the street and people backed away from the both of them as rain slashed down on their heads.

Booker snagged the reins of two horses from the hitch rail, handed one pair to Shelby and mounted his own horse.  Shelby complied with the unspoken order and together they kicked their mounts into a gallop into the pouring rain.

Within fifteen minutes, a ragtag posse was on their trail.

In the end it was one of rancher Hanson’s summer hands who did the deed.  He was little more than a youngster, not much older than Adam, and the thrill of riding a man to the ground had the blood rushing through his veins.

Being young, being foolish, he didn’t take the precautions that the other men in the posse did and that was what inevitably spilled blood that night.

When the posse came within gun range of Shelby and Booker, their horses were blowing hard and they were too. Excitement had given way to anger and anger had left for rage.  If it had turned out another way, there might have been a hanging that night.

As it was, young Malachi Kittering jerked his horse to a sliding halt, rain sluicing through his face, blurring his vision even with the protection of his drenched hat. When Shelby raised a hand to the posse and yelled out, “Wait! You men wait right there!”

Malachi didn’t even hear her. He saw a bad guy and glory and that Peterson girl who would look at him all googly-eyed when she found out that he was the one who brought down the man who killed Adam Cartwright.

Booker had just turned away from Shelby when the bullet caught him full in the chest.  He only had a fraction of a second to look startled, then the impact drove him backward into a tree.  He hung there a moment, then slid almost gracefully to the ground, his eyes already closed in death.

Shelby stood there in utter shock, staring at Booker, then went to one knee beside him, spoke his name, gently, as if he were simply sleeping.  When she touched his cheek, only ice met her fingers.

Turning to face the posse, her tears obscured by the insistent rain, she yelled, “You son of a bitch, he was surrendering!”

*****

Big Dan took one look at Adam, huddled in the blankets beside the fire, and said, “I’ll ride for the doctor, Ben; he’s at the Morgan place.  I can have him here in a few hours.” And he was gone into the darkness and the rain.

Eli stepped through the doors, slowly, almost reluctantly, not knowing what to expect after the barrage of gunfire.  He’d lost both children to this country.  If it took Ruth too…

And there she was, on her knees beside the Cartwright boy, her eyes on Adam’s pallid, still face. As if feeling his presence, she brought her eyes up, met his almost disbelieving gaze, and gave him a smile.  She had barely made it to her feet before he was across the room and swept her up into his arms, swinging her around in a full circle. “Oh, my love,” he whispered in her ear, “my love.”

And then, finally, Ruth cried.

Horses, at a full gallop, then sliding to mud-slick stops, were audible even inside the building, just before Margaret stepped through the door, one hand on Hoss’ arm, trying to hold the boy back in case there was still danger inside.  One look at his father and brother, though, and her entire crew of vaqueros couldn’t have held Hoss back.  He went to one knee beside his brother, his face stricken, then looked up at his father.

“Pa?”

“He WILL be all right, Eric,” Ben said firmly, but the fear was scrawled over his own features. Not a person in the room didn’t know that Ben Cartwright was facing the possibility of losing his first-born son and the doctor was at least five hours away by buggy.

“It is not as bad as it look, Mr.  Cartwright,” Hop Sing said then. “There was much blood and pain, but Adam will recover. He is young, strong, and he has will to live. He will be fine, as you say.”

Ben gave him a grateful, sickly smile, but it was clear that he wasn’t anywhere near as convinced.  Ruth kissed Eli one more time, then held his face in her hands for a moment.  Just a moment.  Then she said, “We will need more wood for the fire.  It would not be good to move him until the doctor has had a chance to examine him and we must keep him warm.”

“Stay with Mrs.  Orowitz,” Dan said, “Frenchy and I’ll get the wood and stoke up the fire.  You stay with your wife.” He wasn’t sure why he’d not gone with the posse, perhaps because there had been more than enough riders–Margaret’s men hadn’t stopped, but had headed in that direction too–or perhaps he simply felt his loyalty lay here with a man he respected who was afraid he was losing his son.  Either way, he shoved Frenchy toward the wood pile and started working the fire up into something that would provide enough warmth to keep Adam as comfortable as possible and shock at bay.

Eli enveloped his wife in his arms and started to lead her over to a chair, half afraid she was going to collapse herself, she was trembling so hard and her face the color of parchment.

“No,” she protested at the gentle urging, “Adam, I must stay with Adam.”

“Shh, my love,” Eli cooed in her ear, “Ben is here, his father is here.  You have kept him safe for Ben to arrive.  Now it is your turn to rest.  Come, sit.  We will not be far away.”

She allowed him, then, to pull her away from the boy’s body and settle her into a chair close enough to the fire to feel its warmth but not near enough to Adam to see if the youngster were to die in the next few minutes.  What he wanted was to get her home, put her in their own bed and hold her in his arms until she stopped shaking and finally fell into a healing sleep, but he knew she wouldn’t leave Adam until she knew… well, whether he would live or die.

Poor Ben, he thought, seeing the man’s tortured features, mutated by the dancing colors of the flames.  Eli knew very well what it felt like to lose a child.  He wrapped his arms around his wife and prayed for the boy lying beside the fire, and for his father who watched him in agony.

“Pa?” Ben’s head jerked up at the too familiar voice.  “Pa, he’s gonna be all right, ain’t he?”

Sighing, he wondered why on earth Margaret had allowed the boy to ride with them, why she hadn’t left him at the safety of her ranch with Little Joe.  But then one look told him the answer.  Hoss wasn’t a child anymore.  Maybe not a man yet, but at that awkward stage with one foot in both worlds.  He had the right to be here with his brother.

Ben lifted a hand and settled it gently on his son’s shoulder.  “He’ll be fine, Eric,” he said and prayed he wasn’t lying to him, “Daniel will get here with the doctor and he’ll be fine.  We just have to wait.  And pray.  It would be good to pray.”

Hoss smiled faintly at that. “I can pray, Pa. I can sure do that.”

*****

When Dr.  Stevens pulled Ben aside, he could have sworn the entire saloon full of people moved with them and not a person breathed while he spoke.

“He’s lost a lot of blood, Ben,” he said gently, “but it looks worse than it is.  Your Hop Sing did a fine job of packing the wound.  I don’t think we’re going to be looking at infection here because of his treatment; I could use him as an assistant, to tell you the truth.” Now, he could swear that the entire room let out that breath of air en masse. He offered Ben a smile, placed a hand on his shoulder. “He’s going to be laid up for a while, don’t take me wrong.  It’s a bad wound, but he’s young and strong and he’s going to be fine.”

“Yes!” Big Dan said, then stepped behind the bar.  “I don’t think Shelby will mind and we got enough money on the table there to pay for it anyway thanks to the generosity of our fine banker.  I need a drink and I reckon most everyone else could use one too.  Even you, Ben.”

Ben breathed long and slow, then looked over at the bar. “Even me, Daniel,” he said finally, “and make it a big one.”

Dan whooped out a laugh and started pouring, making sure the first two went to Ben and the doctor. Even Eli and Ruth joined in, though Hop Sing assured them that he would have a cup of tea when they returned to the ranch.  Ben clinked his glass against the doctor’s, drained it dry, then settled back to a seat on the floor beside his son while Ruth, insisting on doing it herself, made up a room for Adam upstairs.

Hoss hadn’t wanted to leave but Ben sent him with the Orowitz’s to get what was left of a night’s sleep while he sat vigil with Adam.

After the doctor had treated the ugly wound, wrapped broken ribs, and gone home himself for the rest of the night, Ben curled up in a chair beside the bed.  Adam woke only twice during the rest of the night.

Ben had almost drifted off himself when he heard a faint voice, “Pa?”

He startled awake and sat straight up in the chair, then leaned over toward the bed, managing a smile in spite of the pallor of his son’s face, the confusion he read there in the usually sharp eyes.

“I’m right here, Adam, right here.  You rest now, son.”

“Is everyone okay?” The words were pushed out with effort against pain and drugs.

“Everyone is fine now,” Ben skirted around the truth.

“Shelby?”

He sighed, having hoped that Adam had been unconscious for that part of the night.  “They’ll bring her back, son.  Don’t worry about her.  You know Shelby.  She’ll have him begging her to let her go.”

The weak attempt at humor sailed right over Adam’s head.  “He wouldn’t want to hurt her, Pa.”

I hope not, Ben thought, but didn’t dare say.  “No, he won’t, Adam, she’ll be fine.”

“‘Mm, be fine,” Adam slurred.  “Love you, Pa.”

Ben’s eyes flooded and he cupped his now sleeping son’s face with his hand.  “I love you too, son,” he whispered.

The second time he woke was nearly an hour later and Ben was still watching his still face.

“Shelby?” Adam croaked, looking over Ben’s shoulder.

Ben turned and started to get to his feet.

“No, no, stay where you are, Ben,” Shelby said, standing there in a pool of water, her hair hanging lank and damp around her face.  “I just wanted to check on Adam, see I if he was all right.”

“Shelby,” Adam fought off sleep, trying to sort out what had happened in a drugged mind, “he took you.  Did he… are you… did he hurt you?”

She laughed but Ben could hear the strain in the sound.  “Me?  You gotta be kiddin’.  Take more than a washed up bank robber to hurt me, kid.  I’m fine.  I just wanted to check on you, then I’m going to take a hot bath and get me some shut eye.  You go on to sleep, you, too, Ben, you look almost as rough as Adam there.”

“Shelby…”

“They killed him, Ben.  He was going to surrender and they killed him.”

And before Ben could answer, she was gone.  He almost followed her, but Adam’s hand on his arm stopped him.  “I think he was once a good man, Pa,” he said, just this side of sleep.  “I think something happened that changed him.”

Ben sighed and brushed Adam’s hair out of his face, leaving his hand there against his son’s pallid cheek as he slipped away into sleep.

*****

Shelby wasn’t quite sure what she was doing here.  It had been weeks, it was over now.  The hole in the floor was repaired, the banker was appeased with the return of his money… well, all except for the cost of the celebratory drinks, but even he didn’t dare say a word about that when it was Big Dan who returned the money and explained the shortage.  Even bankers have a sense of self-preservation.

Booker had been laid to rest in a grave with a simple marker, again at the expense of the town and Margaret’s young ranch hand had basked in the glory of killing the notorious outlaw for as long as anyone would listen.

Adam Cartwright had healed with that almost miraculous ability of the young and healthy and though he wasn’t out wrangling horses or building fences yet, he was out of bed and taking walks and the occasional short ride.

So here she was at the grave of a man who had tried to rob her, threatened to kill her, kidnapped her and been the near cause of a boy’s death.  What on earth was she thinking?

She heard the rustle of wet leaves, the swish of an overcoat, but she didn’t turn to see who was coming up behind her.

He stood there for a few minutes, silent, breathing a little harder than the walk should have required and finally Shelby turned and looked at him.

“You look like hell, Adam; you shouldn’t be here.”

He nodded.  “I came to pay my respects.”

A laugh, harsh, guttural. “For him?” She snorted out another sharp laugh. “I’d think you’d be glad to see him in the ground, Adam.”

Adam ducked his head, grunted as the movement pulled something she couldn’t see beneath his coat, his clothing, bandages. It reminded her. “You really should be in bed, Adam.  Your pa know you’re out here?”

“Oh, he will by now,” Adam said cryptically.

“Your brothers?”

“Oh they’ll tell him in a heartbeat,” he said with a laugh, but it was the careful laugh of a man who knew it could hurt. “So what are you doing here?”

She laughed then too. “Same thing as you, I guess.  I don’t reckon anyone else in this town or anywhere else will do it. Guess it’s up to you and me.”

“Yeah,” he said softly, and put an arm around her shoulders, “I guess it’s up to you and me.”

***The End***

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