Hollow (by freyakendra)

Summary: Some people have devils on their heels, chasing them every step of the way. Others invite the devil to walk with them, right in their shoes. When Joe meets a man in chains for doing exactly that, he soon becomes devil’s bait in a deadly endgame for the man’s hollow soul. Can good overcome evil when the devil holds all the cards?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count: 19,600


 

Ain’t going back to Barton Hollow
Devil gonna follow me e’er I go
Won’t do me no good washing in the river
Can’t no preacher man save my soul

by The Civil Wars, http://www.thecivilwars.com/music.php

 

Someone was going through his pockets. Joe heard the rustle of paper, and then the soft crunch of footsteps moving away.

“Five thousand dollars.” The raw, gravelly voice was familiar, but barely loud enough to push past the sound of Joe’s own heartbeat throbbing in time with the pounding in his temple. “Bank note,” the voice went on. “Where’s it drawn?”

There was another sound, then. Someone sniffling…a child whimpering.

“I said read it, boy!” the raw voice shouted. “Where’s the bank this is drawn on?”

The man’s words stirred a memory. Read it, boy… Joe’s mind began to move away from the sound of boots scraping across the dry ground toward a different sound — the sound of horses running hard and the creak of springs as the stagecoach bounced along behind them. Joe saw the image of a boy seated across from him on the stage. The boy had been reading a book, his eyes growing wider by the minute, his mouth gaping open.

“What’s that you’re reading?” Joe had asked, curious by the intensity of the boy’s absorption in the story.

When the boy had failed to respond, his mother leaned over to look at the page that had so thoroughly captured his attention. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” she’d answered, smiling.

“That’s a pretty scary story,” Joe had said then, grinning. “You think you’re gonna be able to sleep tonight?”

“Oh, he knows it’s not real,” his mother had added. “There’s nothing evil in the night, is there Johnny?”

“Like hell there ain’t,” that familiar gravelly voice had answered instead.

The boy had looked up then, and his gaze had made it clear he’d been more frightened of that man than any story in his book. He’d had good reason to be frightened. Maybe they all should have been frightened.

Joe had simply been curious. He remembered focusing his gaze on the man’s dirty, calloused hands and the way they’d been locked into heavy, tight-fitting chains. Seated on the other side of the marshal who had been sitting next to Joe, the outlaw’s face had been largely concealed, as much by the bulk of the marshal — a man who could rival Hoss in size — as by his own thick, black beard.

Joe never did see the man’s eyes. Maybe if he had, he’d have known to be alert for something like this.

“Read it!”

The shout pulled Joe back into the moment, back to the fact that he was lying on the ground and struggling to piece together the reasons why.

“K-Kansas,” the boy said in a soft, shaky voice. “Kansas City.”

“Hell,” the man rasped. “That’s a damn long way from here.”

“Why’d you have to do it?” the boy cried. “Why’d you have to kill my ma?”

“I told you!” the man hollered. “Was her own damn fault. Should of stayed where she was. If she’d done that, she wouldn’t a’ got in the way a’ them bullets. Now quit your snivelin’, boy. Time for you to grow up. Got to start takin’ care of your own self from now on.”

Why’d you have to kill my ma…? Now it was the boy’s words that stirred a memory. Joe could see the boy’s mother running around the back of the stage to reach her son. She’d known trouble was afoot before Joe or anyone else. She must have seen the outlaw make his move.

“Johnny!” she’d shouted just as the bullets started flying.

Joe had barely drawn his own gun when something caught him in the side of his head. And now…now he was on the ground, his head pounding so hard he could almost believe it was cracked wide open.

“Why’d you have to kill my ma?” the boy had cried.

Was she dead? Joe felt his stomach lurch. He couldn’t be sure whether it was from the pain in his head or the thought of that woman shot dead right there in front of her son.

He heard the creak of springs then…the sound of boots on wood…the soft huff of a horse. A moment later, he felt as well as heard a heavy thud…something hitting the ground beside him. A cloud of dust brushed across his face.

His heart pounding harder now, Joe forced his eyes open, blinking desperately against the settling grit and the brightness of the sun.

The outlaw grunted as he jumped back down from the stagecoach, his boots landing closer to Joe than whatever had thudded to the ground moments earlier. “So you ain’t dead after all,” he said. “Suppose that’s one less grave I’ll have to dig.”

Joe caught a glimpse of the man’s hands; they weren’t in chains anymore.

Why’d you have to kill my ma…

He had to do something. Joe had to get the boy away from that outlaw. But when he tried to push himself upward, all he managed to do was chase the sun, the gravelly voice and everything else right back into dust.

*****

This new sound had a rhythmic flow to it. It was steady, and it had a sort of count to it, too, almost like a waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three. It was the chinking click of metal digging into sand. Must be a shovel. Someone was digging. One plunged the shovel into the ground. Two marked a foot pressing down, driving that shovel deeper. Three scooped out dirt, depositing it…somewhere.

Plunge, drive, scoop. One, two, three.

It was almost soothing…right up until Joe started to hear the boy crying again. And then all that shoveling stopped.

“No!” the boy hollered. “I won’t leave her here!”

“Got no choice, boy!” the outlaw shouted back at him. “Cain’t drag a dead body out in that desert.”

“I ain’t goin’ out in that desert, neither!”

“Like Hell, you ain’t! You’re comin’ with me. She’s stayin’ here. Now get that through your head!”

Joe opened his eyes again. He could see more clearly now. The fog was lifting. This time he looked toward the voices rather than trying to sit up. He saw the boy grab the outlaw’s arm. The man turned so fast then, Joe felt dizzy. He couldn’t look anymore. He had to close his eyes.

“I ain’t leaving her here!” the boy shouted.

There was a slap…a thud. When Joe looked again, the boy was lying on the ground.

“I ain’t playin’ games, boy! Sooner you get that through your head, the better off we’ll both be.”

The man’s back was to him, but Joe could see he was carrying something — a woman’s body…the boy’s mother. Joe saw the bottom of her dress fluttering in the light, hot breeze. And then…then she was gone, dropped into that waltzing hole.

“Momma!” the boy cried.

Joe tried to get up again, but…he couldn’t. He had to close his eyes for just a little while longer.

*****

Something brushed Joe’s leg. He saw dusty boots, toes pointed upward, heels sliding across the ground away from him. He recognized those boots. He had seen them on the floor of the stagecoach…next to his own.

The marshal’s boots.

He’d died in the stagecoach, hadn’t he? The outlaw had attacked and killed him while the rest of them were out stretching their legs and greeting the man at the way station — the rest of them except for the woman…the boy’s mother. She’d gone back to get something in the coach. The boy’s book?

“Johnny!” she’d called out. But it had already been too late.

The outlaw must’ve had the marshal’s gun by then. He’d started shooting before anyone could think to take a shot at him. Who else did he kill? The marshal was dead, the woman, too. What about the driver? The station manager?

Joe turned his head, looking toward the woman’s grave just in time to see the outlaw drop the marshal into an entirely different hole. There were two more, Joe realized then — four holes all together. The outlaw had killed all of them then, all four of them. Only Joe and the boy had survived.

“So you ain’t dead after all,” the outlaw had said when Joe had first opened his eyes. “Suppose that’s one less grave I’ll have t’ dig.”

Did that mean Joe was safe? What about the boy?

You’re comin’ with me.”

He was taking the boy, wasn’t he? The outlaw was taking him out into the desert. Joe couldn’t let that happen. He didn’t know how he could possibly stop it if he couldn’t even get up, but somehow…somehow he had to.

*****

Joe had managed to sit up enough to prop himself against the wheel of the stagecoach. He wrapped his head with the cloth and bandages the outlaw had silently and surprisingly dropped to the ground beside him, wondering as he did so, why luck had chosen him over the boy’s mother. The bullet had only grazed him. Why couldn’t the same have happened for her, or for any of the others? Whatever the reasons, he knew luck had saved him. He hoped that kind of luck would hold long enough to get both the boy and him away without any more blood being drawn.

Leaning into the spokes, Joe focused on catching his breath while the world slowed from a dizzying spin to a lazy tilt. He watched then as the outlaw finished his work on the graves, and was surprised when the man went so far as to mark each with a hastily constructed cross. They weren’t much — just sticks tied together with some twine — but they puzzled Joe. Why would an outlaw kill four people and then bother with providing them a Christian burial? He’d been a prisoner in chains. Now he would be a fugitive, one who had killed a federal marshal. The more time he wasted here at the way station, the less distance he could put between himself and the lawmen who would be going after him just as soon as this stage was missed. Of course, that wouldn’t happen for hours yet. They weren’t due in Carson City until evening. It could be a full day before anyone actually came to see what had happened here. But the sooner that man started running, the more likely he would be to get away. So why was he wasting time? Or taking time to do something most outlaws would never even consider?

“Hey, mister.” The boy’s urgent whisper pulled Joe’s attention from the barn door through which the outlaw had just disappeared. Kneeling down beside Joe with his arms curled around his belly, the boy looked scared and sick as he cast a quick glance to the building behind him. But as scared as he looked, he was brave enough to have smuggled a gun from the collection the outlaw had gathered. He dropped it into Joe’s lap and then scurried away before the outlaw could see what he was doing.

Joe’s heart started pounding even heavier than before. He took hold of the gun, checked the chamber, and then hurriedly tucked it into the back of his belt, hoping his jacket would be enough to hide it. He was still panting from his efforts when the outlaw came out of the barn guiding a saddled horse.

Joe got his first good look at the outlaw then. The man walked toward him, glaring with eyes that seemed as hard as iron — dark as it, too. Deeply hued, they flared into burning rust as soon as the man stepped out of the shadows, their fire aimed right at Joe. Something else flared then, too. The harsh sunlight painted a swath of scars across the man’s face like craters in a canyon. One long line stretched from his left eye to his beard, possibly extending all the way to his lip, which had an odd curl to it, permanently locking it into a sort of scowl. And his left eye… It seemed to sit lower than the right, probably because the brow was pushed in. Joe could only imagine it had been broken as some point, or maybe shattered would be a better way to put it. As much as Joe’s head hurt him now, he shuddered to imagine the pain that man must have had to endure with an injury like that.

“Put these on,” the man said when he got close. A moment later, something fell heavily into Joe’s lap as the man brushed past him, paying him no further notice.

Handcuffs. Joe looked at them, feeling anger rise up inside him like bile in his throat, anger he didn’t have the wherewithal to swallow. He picked the handcuffs up, his gaze moving to those four graves opposite him, his fingers gripping tighter and tighter as he thought of the four people who had died because that outlaw had refused to own up to his crimes. It was the outlaw who should be in irons, not Joe. When his fist was almost as firm as the handcuffs it held, he threw them away from him and then curled his other hand around the edge of the wheel, using it for leverage to pull him to his feet.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the man said without turning his attention from hitching the fresh horse to a post on the other side of the stagecoach.

Joe stared at him, wondering if he could really have any idea at all what Joe was doing. Deciding he couldn’t, Joe reached for the gun at his back.

He heard the click of the hammer before he even saw the man draw his own gun and swivel around to face him.

“I said I wouldn’t do that, now didn’t I?” The outlaw’s hand was far steadier than Joe felt, his aim centered on Joe’s chest. “Way I see it, you have two choices. Die right here, right now, or put on those handcuffs. I gotta warn you,’ though. I ain’t diggin’ another grave. You die out here, you rot out here, too — at least those parts of you the buzzards and coyotes don’t get. Your choice.”

Joe eased his hand away from his back, but continued to meet the man’s stare, making no attempt to reach for the handcuffs.

“Boy!” the outlaw called out. “Put those irons on our prisoner, here.” A moment later, the man shouted louder, “Now, boy! ‘Less you want to be responsible for more bloodshed.”

Soft, hesitant footfalls moved up beside Joe. He heard the clink of metal as the handcuffs were retrieved from the ground.

“I thought you said it was my choice,” Joe said, still meeting that iron glare. “Don’t involve the boy in this.”

“Boy got involved the moment his ma jumped in front a’ them bullets. Now why don’t you make it easy on ‘im and give him your hands?”

“What about my choice?”

“You aimin’ to die?”

“I’m aiming to be rid of you. There’s no need for any of this. If you ride out of here now, you’ll be to the border before a posse even gets close.”

“Ain’t goin’ to the border.”

“Where then? Where do you think you can possibly go they won’t track you down?”

“Ain’t about that. Not yet anyway. You cash that bank note in Kansas City, then maybe we can part ways, but ’til then…”

“So it’s money you’re after.”

“I reckon it’s a start.”

“You don’t need to go all the way to Kansas City. The bank in Carson City will…”

The outlaw raised his gun to Joe’s head, his arm stiffening, his eyes burning. “I ain’t goin’ to Carson City! Got that?”

“There are plenty of banks closer than Kansas City where I can cash that note.”

“How’s that? You rich or somethin’? Got money stashed all around?”

Joe clenched his jaw, sparking a new wave of pain in his head. “My pa owns a ranch. He can…”

“I ain’t fallin’ for that!” the outlaw hollered in a voice that sounded like the devil himself, the rasp in his throat coming out in a bellowed whoosh that had Joe imagining smoke and flames. “Not now! Not…. I ain’t….” The man hesitated, his breaths starting to quicken almost to the degree of Joe’s weak panting. But then he pulled his back straight, sucked in a single, deep breath and said in his typical, menacing rasp, “We’re ridin’ to Kansas City!”

Joe felt the world starting to spin again. He had to work at calming his own breaths. “You’ll never make it that far. They’ll find you long before you…”

“Maybe they will. If so, what they’ll find is a US marshal with his prisoner. Now put them cuffs on my prisoner, boy! As for you, Mr. Damien Bujold, I reckon you better sit back down afore you fall down.”

“My name’s Joe Cart…”

“Not no more. Now your name’s Damien Bujold, a man wanted for more crimes than I can remember. Least ways, the only ones that really count are kidnapping and murder.”

“No one will believe I’m you.”

“On the trail they might, and that’s all the matters. Now be a good prisoner so’s I don’t have to do no more killin’. Sit yourself down and let that boy put on those irons. And boy? When you’re done with that, gimme back that gun you gave him. And don’t do nothin’ like that again, lest you wanna end up like Mr. Bujold, here.”

The world pushed Joe to his knees. It had nothing to do with the outlaw’s command; Joe simply didn’t have a choice. Letting out a long breath, he allowed himself to collapse further, sitting down and letting his head fall back against the wheel. He couldn’t figure this outlaw, but he really couldn’t figure much of anything just then. Closing his eyes, Joe was only partially aware of the boy fitting the handcuffs around his wrists and tugging the gun from the belt at his back.

“I’m sorry, mister,” the boy whispered.

Joe opened his eyes to meet the boy’s gaze, and saw both fear and bravery were giving way to sadness, maybe even hopelessness. Joe had to help him; he was the only one left who could. “It’s not your fault,” Joe whispered back. “None of this is.”

The boy stared back at him for a long moment.

“I’ll get you out of this,” Joe added. “I won’t let him hurt you.”

But the boy wasn’t a fool. Joe could see he knew enough to realize there wasn’t much Joe could do. When he rose and turned away, the set of his shoulders made him look maybe even less hopeful than he had a moment before, as though Joe’s promise had done more to discourage than encourage him.

I will get you out of this, Joe repeated silently, making the vow to no one but himself without having any idea how that might be possible.

*****

Ben looked down the darkening street, anxious for a sign of the stagecoach. It was late. Hours late. Night was closing in, and there was a good chance the stage might not arrive at all until well past sunup. It had probably encountered a problem. There was, in all likelihood, no reason for concern. And yet Ben was concerned. He was very definitely concerned.

“There’s room at the hotel,” Adam said, walking up beside him. “And I hear the roast beef in the restaurant is about as good as it gets.”

“Sure smells good,” Hoss added. “I can tell you that.”

“Why don’t you boys go ahead?” Ben turned his attention to the livery stable. “I think I’m going to hit the trail.”

“The trail?” Hoss asked. “What trail?”

Ben gave him a small smile. “I mean, I think I’d like to ride out and meet that stagecoach, wherever it might be.”

“Tonight?” Adam argued. “Pa, you know perfectly well it’s not unusual for a stagecoach to be late. There’s no reason to think this is any different.”

“But it is different, Adam. Very different. That stagecoach is carrying a man wanted in cities from here all the way to Alabama. It is also carrying your brother, who happens to be holding a bank note for five thousand dollars.”

And a federal marshal with more than ten years of experience transporting criminals.”

“Yes. A federal marshal who would do everything in his power to get that criminal behind bars without delay. If the stage had broken down, he would have found another way to get here. I’m sure of it.”

“There might not have been another way.”

“I hope you’re right, Adam. But I will feel much better when I can see that man in chains, and your brother safe on that stagecoach.”

“Hey, Pa?” Hoss asked. “What’d that other marshal say, anyway? What’s that Bujold fella supposed to have done?”

“What isn’t he supposed to have done would be easier to list. He’s wanted for everything from rustling to…”

“To what?” Adam asked when Ben failed to finish his statement.

Ben sighed heavily, wishing he could forget what Marshal Peterson had told him. “Some years ago, he kidnapped a ten-year-old boy. When he couldn’t collect the ransom, he…he slit the boy’s throat. He murdered a child in cold blood. He’s been on the run ever since, murdering and stealing as a matter of course. The report Marshal Peterson gave the sheriff includes a warning that Damien Bujold is to be considered extremely dangerous.”

“Then I’m sure the marshal would have taken every precaution,” Adam theorized.

“Yes, I’m sure he would have. But what if, Adam? What if….?” Ben let the sentence trail away, unfinished.

Adam nodded, making it clear he understood. “I’ll get the horses.”

“We only just got them put up,” Hoss added. “Might not even be bedded down, yet.”

Adam was already halfway to the livery. “Then Ike should be pretty quick about getting them ready,” he said over his shoulder.

*****

Joe found himself staring into the flames of the campfire, amazed at how comforting they could be when there was no other comfort to be found. The sight mesmerized him. The crackling sound soothed his aching head. Even the smoke gave him solace, easing its way into his lungs like a treasured companion. It could almost make him forget the hard, unforgiving ground that was to be his bed, the iron that chafed his wrists, and the ropes that would force him to remain locked into one position until sunrise — or until the outlaw decided to allow him a chance to stretch.

The boy had been tied as well, although, fortunately, not as thoroughly as Joe. It was clear the outlaw didn’t want to risk either of them getting away in the night. The strange thing was, Joe had no idea why. He also had no idea how far they had traveled through the remainder of the day. They could not have covered much distance. Joe’s head had throbbed in time with each step his horse had taken until he could no longer comprehend what direction he was moving. The boy had probably ridden better than he had, yet young Johnny had never sat a horse before.

The outlaw had been forced to look after both of them as well as the supply horse. He would have done better on his own. A five thousand dollar bank note couldn’t possibly be worth the risk he was taking by keeping two captives who did nothing but slow him down. So why keep them at all?

When the outlaw started snoring across from him, Joe realized he should probably try to get some sleep as well. He also realized the man snored almost as loud as Hoss, a thought that had Joe wondering what his family was doing at that moment. Since they had planned to meet him in Carson City, he figured they’d probably taken a room at the hotel. They would have had a good dinner, surely something far better than the hardtack Joe and the boy had been given — something like fried chicken, or steak, maybe a roast.

A roast sounded good — good enough to give Joe something to dream about while he pretended it was Hoss snoring on the other side of that fire.

*****

The fire was looking back at him. The flames shifted, changed, became eyes — one set slightly lower than the other on a face that scowled through a beard of spent wood, ashes and charcoal.

Startled, Joe felt his whole body spasm as he came awake, violently tugging against ropes that had no give, which further irritated his already cramped muscles. He sucked in a sudden breath of smoke, and then coughed it out again until the throbbing in his head made his vision go black. And then the fire laughed at him, rasping like wood scraping against wood.

“You’d better watch your dreams, son. Once you let the devil in, he’ll never leave you be.”

When Joe’s vision finally cleared, he saw the outlaw, Damien Bujold, watching him. The man wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t even smiling. He was simply watching. And even though the fire was as alive as ever, Joe found himself shivering as a chill washed over him with the feel of a winter, mountain storm.

*****

After the night had grown thick around them, with the moon and stars buried in clouds, Ben had had no choice but to stop with hours and miles still ahead of them. Trapped as they’d been until the sun could light their way once more, it was nearly midday before they finally reached the way station, only to find the stagecoach had never left. The stage was still packed with travelers’ luggage, including Little Joe’s, and yet the station was utterly deserted.

Worse, there were four fresh graves in the yard.

Ben looked from one to the next, his fingers tightening around the reins, his heart seeming unwilling to beat. He was aware of Hoss dismounting and walking slowly toward the abandoned stagecoach, but he could not move his gaze from those graves.

“Pa?” Adam said softly beside him. “This doesn’t mean….” He let the sentence die, unfinished. “There were five passengers,” he said then. “Add the driver and the station manager. That makes seven altogether. Three people either walked or rode out of here.”

“Rode, looks like,” Hoss called out to them. “I count four horses, heading east.”

Ben closed his eyes. “Joe,” he struggled to say, “would have gone west.”

“Yes, he would,” Adam confirmed. “If he was able to.”

When Adam dismounted to join his brother in searching for clues as to what had happened, Ben forced air into his lungs and uncurled his fists, feeling a sting from the imprints the leather left on his fingers.

“Marshal would have gone west too, I reckon,” Hoss added. “That Bujold fella, though — he might go east.”

“Someone dug those graves,” Adam said. “And I think we can rule out Damien Bujold.”

Ben felt like an old man climbing down off his horse. And then every step toward the graves added years to his gait. When his gaze landed on something small lying beside the fourth grave, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to rise again if he bent down to retrieve it. But he didn’t need to retrieve it to know what it was.

“Hey, Pa! Adam!” Hoss yelled from somewhere behind him.

Ben didn’t move; he couldn’t bring himself to look away from that small, familiar item.

“It’s Joe’s hat!”

Ben closed his eyes again.

“Pa?” Hoss said, closer now.

But it was Adam’s hand that landed on his shoulder. “Pa? What’s wro…”

Ben felt his son’s grip loosen, and then pull back. He sensed Adam moving away. Only then did Ben open his eyes. He watched his oldest son crouch down beside the grave.

“Marie,” Adam sighed looking at the small portrait of Joe’s mother.

“That still don’t mean he’s in there,” Hoss said in a voice almost too small to be his.

Ben took in a deep breath, pulling his shoulders back like a soldier called to duty. “We’d better find out for sure,” he found himself saying. It was almost as though the words belonged to someone else.

*****

By noon the trail was only just beginning to feel like the furnace it would become. The clouds that had painted one of the darkest nights Joe had ever seen had quickly melted in the heat of the day’s sun. Joe could almost believe it would melt him, too. His jacket was suffocating him, but with those handcuffs on he couldn’t shed it. And without his hat to shield his eyes, it felt almost as though the sun was burning a hole right into his brain — as though it sought to finish the job the outlaw’s bullet had started.

“We have to move closer to the road,” Joe argued in a voice nearly as raspy as the outlaw’s. “If we keep riding this way, before long we’ll be too far into the desert to ever get out again.”

Maybe the outlaw hadn’t heard him. The man kept riding, his gaze focused ahead of him.

“I’m sure it doesn’t matter to you what happens to the boy or me,” Joe said as loud as he could, “but you’ll die right along with us. Some say not even the devil could survive in there.”

The outlaw pulled on his reins, quietly bringing his horse to a stop, which effectively stopped the others he’d been guiding. Joe nudged his own horse alongside him, proving he was in better shape than he’d been the day before. At least today he’d been able to pretend he wasn’t plagued with an incessant headache and a dizzying nausea that had nearly unseated him more times than he could count.

Something in the outlaw’s eyes told Joe he wasn’t fooled. There was something else there as well. Was it satisfaction? The scowl on his face looked almost like a smile.

“You think you know the devil, son?”

Confused, Joe felt the pull of his brows tugging at the wound near his temple, and drawing out a new trickle of blood. He wiped at it absently, forgetting about the bandage. When his hand met the fabric, he realized the bandage had never been changed and was now soaked through. He also realized the wound had never been cleaned.

His nausea intensified then, because he knew — at that moment he knew without any doubt at all — this man was leading him straight to his death.

“You hear me? I asked if you think you know the devil!”

“No,” Joe said, distracted by the turn of his thoughts.

“Well, I do. Know him better maybe than any man alive. And I can tell you ain’t no desert on this earth he’s a’feared of.”

“What about you?” Joe asked, suddenly finding it hard to breathe.

“Ain’t you’ got it figured yet, son? I am the devil! I been the devil ever since…” The fire in his eyes cooled, went black. “Well, it’s no matter to you. I’m the devil. That’s all you need to know.”

“I don’t believe you.”

The man laughed. It was a sound that made Joe think more of ice than flames.

“What’s not to believe?” the outlaw asked then. “You saw me gun down those poor folks at that station back there.”

“I also saw you bury them. The devil would never have marked those graves with crosses.”

The fire came back. The man’s eyes blazed more orange than rust, and it happened so suddenly Joe found himself looking up at the sky, believing a cloud had just slipped away from the sun. But the sky was as blue as ever. There wasn’t a wisp of cloud to be seen.

“You’re a damn fool!” the outlaw shouted in that bellows-sounding voice of his, any sign of his smile already fallen to dust. “Fools like you let the devil in without even knowin’ it. Now get movin’. We got a long ways to go yet.”

“No,” Joe decided.

“What?”

“I said, no. I’m not going any further with you.”

The fire from his eyes reached the outlaw’s face, turning it red and raw looking. In an instant he had his gun drawn and aimed at Joe’s chest. He pulled back the hammer. “I said, move.”

“No.”

“You really do want to die, don’t you?”

“If I keep following you, I will die. We both know that. So what’s the difference whether it’s now or later?”

“Don’t.” The boy’s voice was almost too soft to be heard, but it was enough to pull Joe’s attention. “Please.”

Joe looked his way, almost surprised to find him there. Somehow, Joe could almost have believed there was no one left on earth but him and the outlaw, and no place left except the desert.

The boy shook his head slowly from side to side, his eyes welling with tears. “I don’t want to see no more killin’. Please?”

“You’re right,” Joe said in a voice almost as weak as the boy’s, his words nearly stolen by the tightness in his throat. “There shouldn’t be any more killing.” He turned his gaze back to the outlaw. “So why don’t you just leave us here? You’ll get where you’re going faster without us to slow you down. And that bank in Kansas City will never know your name’s not Cartwright.”

The man’s smile returned. His eyebrows shot up like he was surprised. “Bank?” He reached into his boot and pulled out the bank note. “You mean this worthless piece of paper?” Then, after slipping his gun back into the holster, he ripped the bank note in half and let it go. Joe watched the pieces flutter to the ground. “Think I don’t know someone’s already missin’ you, son? Think I’m fool enough to believe I’ll reach that bank afore some wire warns them I’m comin’? You really have no notion, no notion at all.” He tugged the reins of the horse the boy was riding. “I guess maybe I won’t kill you. Maybe I don’t need to. Not if you give a good goddamn what happens to this boy. He’s comin’ with me. If you’ve a notion to watch out for him, you’ll come, too.” And then he clicked his tongue and nudged his own horse forward.

Joe watched the others trailing behind until the boy looked back at him, as wide-eyed as ever.

Sighing, Joe knew he had no choice but to follow.

*****

Ben wiped sweat from his brow and looked down at the body of the woman. He felt uncomfortably guilty to be grateful, having found her rather than Joe. In the first grave, they had found the driver; Adam had recognized him from a brief meeting on the road a few months earlier. In the second, they’d found this woman. She’d been riding with her son, according to a passenger list wired to Marshal Peterson back in Carson City. While Ben desperately did not want to find Joe in either of the two remaining graves, he also did not want to find a young boy, although — God forgive him — his prayers for Joe far exceeded his prayers for a boy he’d never known.

Hoss and Adam were already working on the third grave. Digging now was easier than the original burial had to have been, since the dirt had yet to settle. Still, it was hard work, especially in the summer heat, and Ben found himself wondering yet again who had dug these graves. Could it have been Joe? Would he have had the strength to dig four graves and still ride out of there, straight into the desert, far in advance of his family’s arrival? Each time Ben asked himself that question he found the answer to be no. Joe was strong, and he certainly had as much stamina as his brothers.

But Hoss had shown Ben Joe’s hat.

“Pa?” Hoss had said while Adam went to the barn looking for shovels. “It’s…it’s Joe’s hat.” He’d been running his fingers along the brim, hesitant.

Recognizing something in his middle son that had made things more real somehow, things he could not bear to be real, Ben had turned away, knowing it was the wrong thing to do but unable to do anything else. The way Hoss’ shoulders had been set, the cast of his eyes, even the way he’d held the hat had made it very clear he knew, as well as Ben and Adam both, that Joe would not have gone willingly, leaving everything behind, particularly the picture of his mother…and his hat. Joe knew better than to go out into that desert without a hat to shield his eyes.

But even that was an excuse, an attempt to avoid facing a probability Ben simply did not want to face.

“Yes, Hoss,” Ben had said softly. “I know.”

“No, Pa.” Hoss had sounded more than hesitant. He’d sounded frustrated…troubled. “I mean, it’s… It’s this, Pa.”

The distress in Hoss’ voice had pulled Ben around to see his son’s eyes as expressive as they’d ever been, filled with sadness, worry…and apology — as though he’d been forced to do something he didn’t want to do, to share something with Ben he hadn’t wanted to share. When Hoss’ gaze had shifted downward again, to his hands, Ben’s had followed. He’d watched as Hoss turned the hat over, revealing a thick, unmistakable stain along the inner rim. Blood. There was also a dark tear in the fabric, the kind of tear a bullet might make.

Adam had returned then. He had come up behind Hoss, shovels in hand, his steps slowing with the same hesitation Hoss had shown a moment before. And then he’d broken the painful silence, handing over two shovels, prompting Ben to reach for one, and Hoss the other. Hoss had stood there a long while with Joe’s hat in one hand, the shovel in the other. Finally, he’d taken a deep breath, pulling his shoulders back as the air filled his chest, and gently, almost reverently, placed the hat on a fence post.

No one had wanted to be the first to start digging. The three men had looked to one another, fists gripped tight around the handles of those shovels, each of them desperate to avoid finding what they all expected to find — until Ben himself had taken the first shovel full of dirt.

Now, tired, winded and hot, Ben was watching his two oldest sons hard at work on perhaps the most grueling task of their lives, and thinking about his youngest. Joe would have fought against Damien Bujold — or whoever else might have done this — with everything he had. He would not have stopped fighting unless there was no one left to fight against — or he had no strength left to draw from.

“Hey, Pa!” Hoss’ voice, unexpected, hit Ben like a blow, forcing him out of his quiet, disturbing musings. Had they reached the bottom of the grave already? But Hoss was looking outward, not downward.

“Someone comin’,” Hoss added, nodding to the five riders approaching from the west.

Moments later, Ben could see them clearly enough to recognize the lean form of Marshal Peterson and the thicker bulk of the sheriff from Carson City. Strangely, he found he could breathe easier then, as though their arrival had taken a burden from his shoulders. The woman and the driver, and whoever else they might find — each the victim of a horrible crime — could become the responsibility of the lawmen. Ben need concern himself with no one but Joe.

*****

Joe was confused. Why was he in the desert, sitting a horse he didn’t know? He saw two strangers ahead of him, a man and a boy, moving at a somewhat quicker pace than Joe had a moment earlier. But now Joe wasn’t moving at all. He didn’t know why he should. What was he moving toward, except burning rocks and dust? It was too hot, the air too thick to make him want to move forward. He felt like he’d stepped into an oven, like he was the roast someone was cooking for Sunday dinner.

It had to be a mighty big someone to have this whole desert as an oven. Maybe it was God, Himself. But that didn’t sound right. Cooking cowboys seemed more like something the devil might do.

Was the devil chasing him? Is that why he was out here?

Joe turned to look, but he moved too quickly. The world spun dizzily around him. When he felt himself falling, he made to grab for the reins, only to find his hands locked together. He couldn’t gain the reach or the balance he needed.

As he hit the ground, the horse complained, danced sideways and then stepped away.

Joe didn’t bother looking to see where it had gone. He was too busy gazing up at a cloudless sky, and wondering what Hop Sing was cooking for supper.

*****

Near sundown, the stage was placed into a different kind of service when an agent for the company drove away from the way station to finish the route to Carson City. For this leg of the journey, the coach was carrying four passengers who would never complain about the state of the road.

Moments later, seven riders headed in the other direction chasing after a deadly criminal, a young boy…and Joe.

For Ben and his oldest sons, this ride meant hope — although, as grateful as they’d been to not have found Joe among the dead, they were also fearful what had become of the youngest Cartwright in the time they’d wasted looking in the ground. But for Marshal Peterson, it was clear this ride meant vengeance as well as justice. Ben had seen the set of the man’s jaw and the guarded look in his eyes when they’d uncovered the final victim — the marshal who’d been escorting Damien Bujold. There’d been something more to that look than recognition, as though the man in that grave had not simply been a colleague, as though he’d been a good friend — maybe even a brother.

*****

Joe was shivering. He was about as cold as he could ever remember being, and could swear he heard ice scraping against glass somewhere nearby.

“Might want to move closer to the fire,” a rough voice said.

Opening his eyes to a star-filled sky, Joe turned toward the voice to find a bearded man sitting beside a campfire a few yards away, too far for Joe to feel the warmth of the flames.

“Blame it on the boy,” the man said as he scraped a stone across the blade of what looked to be a Bowie knife. “Told him to build a fire. This is where he put it.” The rasp of his voice made it sound almost as though he was scraping another stone across his throat.

The thought scratched Joe’s own throat. More thirsty than cold now, he started to sit up. The effort drummed an ache into his head so intense his belly churned in protest. Propping himself on one elbow, he held still until his stomach settled enough to try again.

“Was the heat,” the man said –the outlaw — Damien Bujold. The name pushed itself into Joe’s thoughts. “Made you sweat like a stuck pig today. Would of helped to take off that jacket of yours. Can blame that on the kid, too. Fool boy put those things on your wrists and left the key back at that station. Waste of flesh and bones, that one. His momma oughta be glad to be shed of him.”

“She’s dead,” Joe said, remembering. He could see her in his mind, running around the back of the stagecoach, screaming for her son. That was when the outlaw — Bujold — had started shooting.

“And lucky for it,” Bujold replied.

“Lucky?” Joe asked softly, stunned by the outlaw’s cold words.

“Cain’t get no devil after you if you’re already dead. Way I see it, I did her a favor. ‘Course, dyin’s different if the devil’s already got you.”

“You seem pretty anxious to die out here.” Cold and nauseous, Joe’s voice quivered.

“Son, all I’m anxious for is to be shed a’ the devil. Cain’t even die in peace lest I can get him lookin’ elsewhere. He’s been stuck to me my whole life — near enough, anyhow,” Bujold added more softly. “Don’t never matter where I go.” He stopped scraping long enough to test the blade with his thumb. “Leastways, this here’s his favorite place to be. One of ’em, that is.”

“Doesn’t make much sense,” Joe said softly.

“What’s that?” Bujold glared back at him.

Maybe it was the cold, or the way his head was burning and spinning all at once, but Joe’s patience had been worn as thin as it could. “How do you expect to be shed of the devil,” he shouted loud enough to ravage his dry throat and pound more pain into his aching head, “if you’re going right where he wants to be?” Joe sat up, buoyed by anger, and began to explore the wound on the side of his head. The bandage was wet, useless. He focused his efforts then on untying it, though it was a struggle with his hands shaking and locked together as they were.

“Bait,” Bujold said. “It’s jest like fishin’.”

Joe looked to him for a moment, irritated, before returning his attention to the bandage.

“God an’ His kin are supposed to be fishers of men.” Bujold went on as he returned to sharpening his knife. “It’s things like that the Bible tells you, makes preachers all fired up about savin’ souls. If it ain’t in the Bible, them preachers pretend it ain’t true. But it’s them things ought to concern ’em more. Things like when God and the devil get in cahoots.”

Finally working the bandage free, Joe tossed it to the ground and then looked again at the outlaw, further disturbed by his casual discussion of God and the devil. Joe wanted to move toward the fire. He needed its warmth. But that man only made him feel colder. Maybe he really was the devil. That’s what he’d been saying, hadn’t he? Joe needed to get away from him — both Joe and the boy needed to get away.

Where was the boy? Suddenly concerned, Joe looked around, and was relieved to find him asleep on the other side of the fire. The flames dancing across the boy’s face revealed bruises Joe had not seen before. They also made him look whiter, paler than he should, almost as though the fire was coming to life at his expense. “What’d you do to him?” Joe asked in a deadly whisper, feeling those flames burning in his own belly now.

“What? The boy?” The outlaw rasped out a small laugh. “Forgot to be a’feared of the devil. Got the fool notion there’s nothing to fear in the dark.” Bujold met Joe’s gaze with his own black glare. “You don’t believe it; that’s only on account you ain’t seen it. I lived with the devil long enough to know there’s things to be a’feared of in this world whether you can see ’em or not. Jest like I told that boy in the stagecoach.” He turned his head and spat at the ground. “His momma was wrong to teach him otherwise. But here with me, he’ll learn.”

A familiar, almost comforting sense of rage built up inside Joe. “You’re trying to teach him to be afraid?” He sounded breathless and weak, which only added to his anger.

“Hell, no. I ain’t aimin’ to teach nobody nothin’. All’s I’m doin’ is fishin’. But he’ll learn, sure enough. Jest like you.”

“The only thing I aim to learn is how to be shed of you.”

When the outlaw laughed, the sound scraped itself along Joe’s spine, making him shiver all the more. He settled back to the ground, watching and waiting for Bujold to fall asleep. Trouble was, the outlaw didn’t seem the least bit tired.

*****

Riding through the night had given Ben and the others an advantage they would lose with the day’s heat, and since they’d been blessed with a clear sky and a full moon, Bujold’s path had been easy to follow. Hoss had even been able to spot something that proved Joe had passed this way. It was just a small, torn piece of paper that might easily have been overlooked, day or night, but it filled the Cartwrights with both hope and dread — hope, because they knew they were closing in on Little Joe; dread because that piece of paper was all that was left of the bank note.

Without the bank note, what could that outlaw possibly want with Little Joe? The question haunted Ben like a ghostly portent prodding him to hurry. But it was as though nature herself conspired against him. The moon slowly sank below the horizon, taking away the light that had been guiding them. Even Bujold’s careless tracks became too shadowed and obscured to follow cleanly. They had no choice but to stop their search until sunrise. And Ben had no choice but to wonder if they would be too late.

*****

A ghostly light started to cross the sky. Joe thought it strange how it seemed to make his thoughts darker, even while it chased away the blackest part of the night. There was something otherworldly in the glow. He felt a sense of hopelessness in the way it overtook the stars, snuffing them out, one by one. He watched those tiny flames fading into nothing and wondered: What would it be like to die? Did you just fade away into nothing?

“Cain’t even die in peace lest I can get him lookin’ elsewhere.” That was what that outlaw had said.

It made no sense to Joe. Most of what that man said made no sense. Joe would like to believe Damien Bujold was insane, but the man’s eyes made him look like he knew exactly what he was doing — and why. He didn’t look confused or raving. He looked like he was just thinking real hard on things — almost like Adam did when he was calculating something particularly complex.

Was the outlaw calculating how he could die in peace with the devil after him? What did it mean to ‘die in peace,’ anyway? Joe figured those stars might be dying in peace, the way they just faded into nothing. It did look kind of peaceful. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself drifting off with a fading star. But while he was drifting, he saw an image of the outlaw, and every one of those stars in Joe’s mind exploded in a round of gunfire that caught Joe in the head and sent four people to their graves.

They hadn’t died in peace, had they? No. Not a one of them had. So why should Bujold get a chance to?

Joe wished he had his gun. If he did, Bujold would be dead before he even knew the bullet was coming at him. No, Joe decided. It would be better if Bujold could see it coming. Joe could tell him to go to the devil, and then plant a bullet right between those calculating eyes of his.

Suddenly, Joe started shivering again. He hadn’t realized he’d stopped, but now… Now he was shivering more fiercely than before. But this time it wasn’t because his body was cold; it was something deeper inside him that had gone cold, the part that knew murdering a man was wrong, no matter how much that man might deserve it.

Yes, it was wrong. Joe knew it was wrong. Pa, Adam and Hoss would all tell him it was wrong. He wished he could hear them now, telling him exactly that, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t hear anything except the heavy beat of his own heart, reminding him of Indian war drums, and then, something else — a rattling buzz coming from the direction of the dying campfire.

Bujold had finally fallen asleep.

His heart beating harder still, Joe sat up, finding himself stiff and numb from the cold night and the hard ground. His head wasn’t hurting any less than it had been, either. If anything, it was hurting more — or differently, anyway. The wound itself was stinging as it hadn’t before, almost burning. He could only imagine what it must look like — and what it would feel like when the desert sun began to bake it later in the day. He couldn’t let that happen. He doubted he’d survive another day moving deeper into the desert. Even if he did survive, he figured one more day out there with Damien Bujold would be enough to seal his fate.

He had to end it. He had to end it now.

Not trusting in the strength of his legs just yet, Joe began to crawl. He moved slowly, warily across the sand toward the fire, keeping one hand to the ground, the other clutching the chain between the cuffs around his wrists to quiet its clanking rattle. His gaze never left Bujold. He watched the outlaw for any movement, any sign that he was waking. There was none. The outlaw’s chest rose and fell in a steady, slow rhythm that was broken infrequently by the catch of a snore. Only when he reached the fire did Joe let his eyes move to the boy. Johnny, too, was sound asleep, seeming untroubled by dreams.

“You think you’re gonna be able to sleep tonight?” Joe had asked him in the stagecoach. He’d been joking then, but now… Now Joe wondered how the boy could sleep so soundly knowing there were real things to be afraid of in the night, things like an outlaw who killed as a matter of course and blamed Johnny’s own mother for falling victim to his bullets.

Joe snaked around to the other side of the fire and then held still, catching his breath and trying to calm his nerves. He moved his gaze from the boy to the outlaw before quickly looking to the ghost-light above him, silently praying that neither would come awake too soon. He even seemed to get an answer to that prayer, because something changed within him. It was almost like the sky’s ghostly reach closed around his heart, making him realize the outlaw really did deserve to die.

The Bowie knife lay beside the man. Joe need only grab hold of it. He knew it was sharp; that would make the killing quicker. The throat would probably be easier than the heart. Joe could…

Suddenly ill, Joe had to stop himself short of retching up the empty contents of his stomach. He’d been contemplating murder — nothing short of cold-blooded murder. What would his pa say if he knew?

I’m sorry, Pa! Joe cried somewhere near that cold spot that was still growing deep within him.

But his pa didn’t answer, not even in his thoughts. He could hardly see the image of his pa in his head, let alone remember Pa’s voice. Joe could almost believe his pa had already turned away from him, abandoning him, knowing that cold darkness had taken hold of him.

No, Joe realized. Pa hadn’t turned away from him. It was Joe, himself, who had turned away. The course of his own thoughts was pulling Joe away from everything his family stood for, everything Joe had been raised to respect, leading him down a desert path. The desert. The devil’s favorite place to be, according to Damien Bujold.

Closing his eyes for an instant, hoping to shut off such troubling thoughts, Joe turned his gaze from the knife, and reached instead for the boy. He put one hand to the boy’s mouth.

Startled awake, Johnny’s eyes went wide and frantic. His gaze finally settling on Joe, he let taut muscles go slack, his tension easing. Joe’s did as well. He began to believe they could actually get away. All they had to do was hold perfectly quiet until they reached the horses.

Joe held a finger to his own mouth to warn Johnny against crying out. At the boy’s nod, he pulled his hand away and gave Johnny an encouraging smile.

He found it odd when Johnny sighed and dismissively looked away. Then Joe felt a sting in his side so sharp it stole his breath. He clutched at the ground, grasping for balance as the night tried to return around him, black spots clouding his vision. But then a voice broke through the looming darkness…a rough, rasping voice that made Joe think of a blinding, desert sun and heat so intense he might as well be in Hell itself.

“Should of gone for the knife. Then you wouldn’t be feelin’ the wrong end of it now, would you son?”

“Ain’t a killin’ cut,” Bujold went on. “Leastways, not yet. But could be. Up to you.”

Joe turned his head just enough to catch sight of the outlaw, his gaze landing on the knife and the hand keeping its point buried in his side.

“Bet you’re regrettin’ you followed along behind us yesterday, ain’t you?”

Joe could see the outlaw’s face at the edges of his peripheral vision; the man was grinning in a flash of yellow teeth that held more fire than the smoldering embers in the pit beside them.

“You followed on account of the boy, and what’s he do? Watches me come at you. Cain’t even be bothered to give you warnin’.”

Though Johnny’s reaction had surprised Joe, he refused to let Bujold goad him to anger. “What now?” he said, his own voice sounding as raspy as Bujold’s, though disturbingly weaker.

“Cain’t say,” Bujold answered. “Ain’t my game. And the rules keep changin’.”

“I suppose you’re gonna…blame it all on…the devil…as though…you never…never had a choice.”

“Never did, son. Never did have no choice. Jest got caught between ’em, is all.”

Joe was finding it hard to talk, and even harder to breathe. Each inhalation, short and quick though it may be, seemed to feed more skin to the edge of that blade. He could feel every new slice. “You have a choice…now. Leave us here. Ride away. You know…we won’t…won’t follow.”

“Devil will, though. Then there wouldn’t a’ been any point at all.”

“There isn’t any point. Never was.” Joe gasped, his fingernails clawing at the dirt beneath him as the knife dug deeper.

“There’s always been a point. All the way back to…”

The knife was withdrawn in one, quick yank that left Joe breathless and unbalanced. He fell forward, struggling to stay conscious as his vision grayed despite the bright wash of orange reaching up in the eastern horizon.

“Ain’t you gonna kill him?” Johnny’s timid voice called out from that grayness.

“Why?” Bujold asked. “Want me to?”

When Johnny didn’t answer, Joe shakily pushed himself to one elbow and looked Johnny’s way, trying to focus. At first, he thought he saw the boy shrug, as though he didn’t care. But as Joe’s vision cleared again, he could see Johnny shaking his head.

“You’re none too fond a’ him, ain’t you?” Bujold asked.

Johnny shrugged again.

“You hate him, on account of him bein’ so helpless. Ain’t been able to lift a finger for you, has he?”

Johnny pulled his knees to his chest and said nothing.

“Thinks he’s here to protect you. Cain’t even take care of his own self. They say the Lord helps those what help themselves. But how about those what cain’t help themselves? You feel like anyone’s helpin’ you, boy? Like God’s lookin’ out for you?”

Johnny’s eyes went wide, but only for a moment. Then he shrugged and rested his chin on his knees.

“Sure He is,” Joe said between short gasps of breath. “His momma is, too. You believe that, don’t you, Johnny? You can feel her…watching over you. Just like I can…can feel my own momma…watching over me.” It was a lie. Joe didn’t feel his ma any more than he did his pa. He felt more alone out there than he’d ever felt in his life. He felt cold and… abandoned. But he had to try didn’t he? He had to try to keep believing.

“His momma?” Bujold chuckled. “She’s six feet under. What good’s she gonna do him?”

“Don’t you listen to him, Johnny,” Joe said. “You know she’s watching!”

“You tellin’ me you still have faith in all that hogwash? Think that no account lord on high gives a damn about anythin’ you do? Hell, I bet He’s up there on his throne right now, lookin’ down on us here an’ figurin’ we ain’t worth His time, not a one of us. You already knew He don’t care a lick about me. But now I’ll bet you’re startin’ to see He don’t care about you neither. Ain’t you?”

“He’s lying, Johnny!” Joe tried to shout, but he couldn’t. “Don’t you believe him! He’s the one who turned his back on God! God didn’t…” Joe gasped, his head spinning now. “He would never…”

“And why shouldn’t I turn my back on Him?” Bujold hollered louder than Joe had ever heard him. “He took my boy from me! Took him for no good reason! Took him, and it didn’t make no matter how hard I prayed! He don’t care about prayin!” He looked upward and pointed his knife at the brightening sky, as though he aimed to cut into it just as he had cut into Joe. “It’s all a game to Him! Just one, big game!” He was panting now, his chest rising and falling as the fury faded. Then he pointed that blade back at Joe. “Sooner you learn that, better off you’ll be!”

“How long ago did you learn that?” Joe prodded. “Was that about when the devil started after you? Sure made you better off, didn’t it?”

Flashing Joe one final, angry glare, Bujold turned away. “Mount up. Day ain’t waitin’ on us.”

Mount up? Joe could have started laughing. How was he supposed to mount up when he wasn’t even sure he could stand? Maybe Bujold wouldn’t care if Joe stayed right where he was. Yesterday, the outlaw had been prepared to move on without Joe. Maybe he would feel the same today.

But what about the boy? Joe noticed he hesitated only for a moment before following behind Bujold. This time, he didn’t spare Joe so much as a backward glance. He really had given up on Joe, hadn’t he? Of course, Joe couldn’t really blame him. Joe hadn’t even been conscious when Bujold had done…whatever he’d done to cause those bruises to sprout on the boy’s face. Maybe Joe should wait right here, wait for the help he knew had to be on the way. He had to believe his family was coming.

That’s what Joe kept telling himself, anyway. He had to believe it. Trouble was, he wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. It wasn’t just Bujold’s words; it was…something about this desert, as though it was swallowing up hope and spitting out nothing but trouble. Or maybe as though Bujold had been right all along, only the devil wasn’t just following him; it had been right beside them — all of them — all along.

*****

Impatient with Marshal Peterson’s steady, deliberate pace, Ben and his sons rode ahead of the posse.

“He doesn’t stand a chance of outrunning us,” the marshal had said of Bujold. “We’ll catch up with him soon enough. No point in working the horses so hard it’s a struggle coming back.”

“Soon enough isn’t good enough,” Ben had answered, angered by the marshal’s casual attitude. “You might not be concerned about reaching Bujold, but I am concerned about reaching my son. Odds are he’s hurt. If that’s true, every minute out there is already a minute too long.”

The sun had barely topped the horizon when the Cartwrights set out, while the marshal and his colleagues were still clearing camp. Ben couldn’t blame them, exactly. The marshal did have a point. The desert had a way of luring men so far in they’d never make it out again, losing themselves to tricks of the sun and endless miles without a drop of water to be found. A steady ride would be better for both the men and the horses. For the men, it could help keep their heads clear enough to ration out the water and pay attention to whatever the desert had to offer to keep them hydrated…and sane. For the horses, it would keep them strong enough to carry their riders back home in the end.

But Ben knew he didn’t have time to play it safe. He had to reach Joe.

It was late morning with the sun still climbing toward noon when the Ben and his sons came upon the remains of a small camp.

Hoss was the first to dismount. He knelt down beside the fire pit and poked around the spent logs and ashes. “Still pretty fresh. Not much more’n a few hours old.”

“Good.” Ben nodded. “We’re catching up.”

“Pa?” The wariness in Adam’s voice pulled Ben around in an instant. He saw his oldest son a few yards from the fire, looking down at something Ben couldn’t see. As Ben moved toward him, Adam looked up, his brow furrowed in worry.

“What is it?” Hoss asked, rising to his feet and wiping ash from his hands.

Blood was the first thing Ben spotted. Dark red blood. His throat starting to close off his ability to breathe, Ben looked closer until his gaze landed on a discarded bandage that had been soaked clean through.

Ben clamped down on his jaw, biting off words that didn’t need to be said, and set his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Let’s go get your brother,” he said softly then, looking first to Adam, and then to Hoss.

An instant later they were riding again. Ben hoped the horses would recover. He worried that Joe might not.

*****

Joe was on the ground. He couldn’t figure out how he’d come to be there, or even where he was exactly. He knew only that he was on the ground, staring up at a sky so blindingly white he could almost believe he was looking directly into Heaven.

“Here, son.”

Pa?

Water slid down his throat, making him think he wasn’t just seeing Heaven, he was drinking it.

“Not too much, now.”

And then Heaven was pulled away from him. He started coughing in spasms that clenched at his abdomen, awakening a searing pain in his side.

“Ain’t got time for this. Mount back up. Posse’s comin’.”

Posse?

Joe tried to sit up, but his head swam and his hands were constrained.

“Time’s a-wastin’, son. Them riders ain’t slowin’ down.”

Strong arms lifted him up, the motion so quick an equally strong wave of nausea nearly had him losing the water he’d just swallowed. Then suddenly he was on an unfamiliar horse. What had happened to Cochise?

“Here.” A gun was pushed into his hand. “You’re gonna need this. Devil’s ridin’ with ’em.”

He was an outlaw, Joe remembered then. That man was an outlaw. So why was he helping Joe? Was Joe an outlaw, too? Was that why he was in handcuffs?

“Don’t let ’em catch you, son,” the outlaw said as he mounted his own horse. “If it’s the last thing on this earth you do, don’t you dare let that devil catch you!”

Joe watched him ride away with a young boy in tow. He felt compelled to follow, but wasn’t sure if he could, not with his wrists locked together and a gun in his hand. He thought to tuck the gun into his belt, but his side was stiff and bleeding.

Then the outlaw yelled back at him, “Devil’s comin’!”

Joe lightly pulled the horse’s reins, turning just enough to get a good look behind him.

The outlaw was right. But it wasn’t just one devil. It was three. There were three ghostly riders, their shapes growing and shrinking, twisting in the heat of the sun. Shapeshifters. He’d heard that word somewhere. It described men who could become beasts — or beasts who could become men. And that’s just what those riders were doing. They were shifting. One minute, they looked like men on horseback, but in the next, man and horse were one, riding on a storm of dust and breathing out smoke straight from the fires of Hell.

“If it’s the last thing on this earth you do, don’t you dare let that devil catch you!”

Joe raised his gun.

*****

Joe got off three quick shots, one right after the other, each passing right between his brothers. One struck the ground near Hoss.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss hollered as his horse danced sideways. “What are you tryin’ to do, boy?”

Ben reined to a stop and watched his youngest son sway in the saddle. “Joseph?” he said in a voice loud enough to bridge the remaining distance. “Joe? You don’t need that, not anymore.”

It was hard to tell if he understood. His arms dropped slightly, but he kept his grip on the gun.

“Joe? Can you hear me, son?”

He was clearly weak. It had worried Ben to see him on the ground moments earlier. Now that Ben was close enough to see fresh blood on Joe’s shirt and trousers, it disturbed him even more.

“It’s just us, Joe,” Adam called next, easing away from Ben and Hoss to draw Joe’s gaze, and his aim with it. “Why don’t you put that away before you hurt someone?”

Joe wiped at his brow with his arm. It was an awkward move that almost unseated him. Ben tensed as he watched his son rebalance himself.

Hoss mirrored Adam’s cautious approach on Joe’s other side. “Joe?” Hoss’ voice, closer to Joe now, startled the young man into firing another shot. “We ain’t here to hurt you, little brother,” Hoss went on. “You ought to know that.”

“You’re safe now, Joe.” Adam’s shout had the same effect as Hoss’, pulling Joe around and causing him to make another wide shot. “Let us help you.”

He would have only one bullet left.

Ben eased his horse forward. “Put your gun down, Little Joe.”

When Joe turned again to face his father, the gun looked heavier in his arms, as though he could barely hold it any longer.

“You’re hurt,” Ben went on, moving closer, “and confused. I imagine this desert is showing you things that aren’t real.”

Joe’s arms dropped lower.

“It’s just us, son. Your family. We came to bring you home.” Ben was almost right beside him. “Give me the gun, Joe.” He reached out his hand, about to close the final distance.

Joe tensed, bringing the gun up to aim it at his father, his gaze wild, tormented…lost.

“It’s just me, son,” Ben said softly. “Your brothers and me.”

“The devil?” Joe’s voice was almost too soft to hear.

“No, son. It’s just us. Your family.”

“Pa?”

Close enough now, Ben caught him as he started to fall. “You’re safe now, son,” Ben said as he held him.

“Pa! Get down!” Adam’s shout came barely a second before the crack of a rifle told Ben how wrong he was.

*****

When Adam saw the glint of a reflection in the rocks where the other rider had disappeared, he inwardly cursed. He should never have dropped his guard, but Joe had taken them all by surprise.

“Pa! Get down!” he shouted, realizing too late that glint was a rifle aimed in their direction. He had already spurred his horse into a run when the shot rang out. From the corner of his eye he saw his pa and Joe fall to the ground, and could only pray neither had been hit. He didn’t dare check; he didn’t dare drop his guard again.

He didn’t even glance to his left when he heard someone shooting beside him; there was no need to look. It could only be Hoss. The two brothers took turns then, firing off distracting shots and racing toward the gunman. Hoss stopped to reload the moment he reached cover, then he swept back out again and Adam did the same.

“Devil’ll take you. You’ll see.”

The taunt reached Adam the moment he jumped from his horse near the rocks to the gunman’s left. It was punctuated by another rifle shot. Adam saw a spray of dirt at his pa’s feet. He noticed then that Pa was shielding Joe, making himself the bigger target, but Adam still had no way of knowing whether the first shot had reached either of them. Determined to prevent a third shot, Adam clamored up the rocks until he could see the gunman clearly enough to take a shot of his own.

*****

Hoss flanked the gunman from the other side, situating himself in the rocks opposite Adam. He lost sight of his brother then, but he was able to get a good look at the gunman. The man had his rifle up and ready, clearly getting Pa and Joe back into his sights. Hoss wasn’t about to let him take the shot. Carefully aiming his own rifle, he pulled the trigger a fast second before the outlaw did, hitting the man in the right forearm and knocking that rifle clean out of position. The outlaw’s bullet ricocheted off the rocks somewhere near Adam. Hoss was relieved to see it ricochet rather than disappearing right into those rocks and maybe hitting Adam along the way, but he didn’t have time to think about how close he might have come to hurting one brother while trying to protect another. He pushed such thoughts out of his mind for now, and jumped down off of those rocks to reach the outlaw before the man tried to do anything else.

Trouble was, Hoss wasn’t fast enough. Neither was Adam. By the time they both got down there, the outlaw had his handgun pressed up against that little boy’s forehead.

“Let’s see if you folks got the devil after you yet,” the outlaw said in a voice so grating it reminded Hoss of the crunch of wet winter snow. He swore he could feel ice on the back of his neck.

“Mister,” Hoss replied, “I don’t rightly know what you’re talkin’ about, but I’d say I’m lookin’ at the devil right now if you’re even thinkin’ about pullin’ that trigger.”

“I done worse before. But I suppose you already know ’bout that boy back in Barton Holler.”

“I don’t know why you did what you did then,” Hoss went on, “but I promise you we ain’t gonna let you do this now.”

The outlaw made a show of cocking the hammer. “Reckon you can stop me?”

“One way or another,” Adam said, pulling back the hammer on his own gun.

“I reckon we’re gonna have to,” Hoss added, mirroring his brother’s actions.

The man’s laugh made Hoss feel colder still. “Folks sure is wrong, back east.” The outlaw shook his head, smiling in a flash of yellow teeth. “They say folks out here are all in it for their own selves. Don’t give a damn ’bout nobody else. And here you are, all fired up ’bout savin’ this snot-nosed good-for-nothin’, just like that other one out yonder done.” He indicated toward Joe with a cock of his head. “All that got him is dead. You prepared to die for this one?”

“You’d better hope our brother ain’t dead.”

The man’s eyebrows rose almost to his hairline. The barrel of his gun dropped a small bit — not enough to give them the advantage they were watching for. “You all three of you brothers, is that it?”

“That’s right,” Adam answered.

“What about this one? He your brother, too?”

“It don’t matter if he is or not,” Hoss said.

“Maybe it does,” the outlaw hedged.

“Then maybe he is,” Hoss went on.

“I think maybe he ain’t.”

“Let him go,” Adam said then. “Whatever game you’ve been playing out here, it’s over. You know there’s no way out for you.”

“Sure there is. There’s two ways out. One’s with the devil. One isn’t.”

Hoss figured that man sure must have the devil with him. He moved too fast for Hoss to even follow what he was doing until it was too late. He pushed that boy away from him so hard Hoss about had to drop his gun to avoid hitting the boy with it. And somehow, all at the same time, he knocked Adam’s gun right out of his hand. And then…and then he held that gun of his up under Adam’s chin.

“You want to see what game I’m playin’?” The man’s voice had steel in it now, with about the sharpest edge Hoss had ever heard. “I know I ain’t leavin’ here alive, and I got nothin’ to lose by takin’ you with me.”

“You pull that trigger,” Hoss said, feeling steel and ice inside him too, “I’m gonna tear you apart with my bare hands. I can promise you that.”

The man smiled at him. “That sounds ’bout right.”

Hoss’ own heart seemed to stop beating when he saw that outlaw’s finger pull the trigger.

*****

The gunshot echoed around Hoss like it was the last sound on earth. It wove its way into his skin, fusing itself to his bones. He stumbled, feeling weak and empty. Locking his eyes on his brother, he was stunned to find him looking back at him.

The outlaw was staring at his gun with eyes gone from steel and ice to some sort of misty fog, his brows drawn down, confused. His finger tugged once, twice, a third time, getting no response.

The gun had jammed.

“I’ll be damned,” the outlaw said, turning those lost, foggy eyes on Hoss.

They were the last words he said, the last words he could say as he started to choke on his own blood. And then he fell to the ground, his dead eyes staring up at a clear desert sky.

“He’s been damned for more years than I care to count,” the marshal said as he walked toward Hoss and Adam so casually he might as well have been out for a Sunday stroll. Hoss hadn’t even heard him arrive. “About time to let him reap his just reward.” He slid his gun back into the holster. “I’m just glad he didn’t take you with him.”

Strange thing was, he wasn’t looking at Adam when he said it. He was looking at Hoss.

*****

The marshal knelt down beside the body of Damien Bujold. “Ten years.” He reached a hand to press Bujold’s eyelids closed. “Ten years and so many dead I truly lost count. Thought sure he had you, too,” he added, glancing up at Adam before returning his attention to the dead man. “Just pure luck, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I’m more inclined to believe in a little help from above. Lord knows that shot of mine wouldn’t have made a difference.” He rose back to his feet.

“Then why’d you take it?” Adam asked.

“To save your brother from losing his soul like Bujold lost his back when his boy died.”

Hoss looked from Adam to the marshal. “What are you talkin’ about?”

“If providence hadn’t jammed that gun of his,” the marshal answered, “what would you have done after seeing your brother’s brains blown out the top of his head?

Hoss stiffened. “I would’ve done exactly what I told him I’d do. I’d have torn him apart.”

“You would have killed him?”

“I guess I would.”

“Not to protect yourself or the boy, just to get revenge. Just out of pure hate. That about right?”

Hoss cast an anxious glance to Adam before returning his full attention to the marshal. “I reckon so.”

“What do you think damned him?” He pointed to Bujold.

“I don’t rightly know that he was damned. Somethin’ like that’s between him and God, and I got…”

“He was,” the boy interrupted. “He was damned. He said it all the time. He kept sayin’ it over and over that the devil was after him. Said…said we were bait.”

The boy — his words — they cut right through Hoss. All the anger he’d felt over thinking about what might have happened to Adam, it all felt like nothing at all just then –because nothing had happened to Adam, but something sure happened to that boy. Hoss put his hands on the boy’s shoulders, as though somehow that might be enough to let him know he was safe.

“We ought not talk ’bout this sort of thing right now,” Hoss said, giving the marshal a curt nod to make it clear he meant to keep the boy out of the discussion.

“Why?” the marshal asked. “You think you need to hide the truth from him? He’s been with Damien Bujold long enough to know all about damnation, Mr. Cartwright — long enough to know it’s a thing worth fighting against.”

“We couldn’t fight against it, though,” the boy complained. “That other man out there, your brother?” He looked up at Hoss. “On the stage, he said his name was Little Joe.”

Hoss glanced at Adam. “That’s right.”

“He kept tryin’ to fight. But he was hurt, and he couldn’t. He just never could. And this mornin’, I knew he couldn’t, even though he tried again. And I didn’t…I didn’t…” He looked down, like he was ashamed.

“You didn’t what?” Adam prodded.

The boy looked at him, his brows pulled so low it looked like he was carrying all kinds of guilt. “I didn’t believe he could. And I didn’t even warn him. I saw that outlaw come at him with that knife, and I just knew it didn’t matter anymore. We were both gonna die, just like my momma did.” He started to cry softly. “He even said it himself. He said it earlier, said he knew he was gonna die; he said what’s the difference whether it’s now or later.” He glanced from Hoss to Adam and then back again, sobbing so hard he could barely get the words out. “There wasn’t nothin’ we could do. So I didn’t say anything at all. I let…I let him stab him. I let him go and stab Little Joe.”

The words stabbed Hoss right then, too. He met Adam’s gaze again, and could tell Adam was as disturbed about hearing that as he was. Joe was stabbed? He thought back to that blood on Joe’s shirt and trousers, and he started to feel sick inside. Joe hadn’t even recognized them. He’d started shooting at them like he was still trying to fight against the outlaw. Stubborn mule never would give up…

“You lost hope,” the marshal said while Hoss was starting to form that same word in his own head. Then that marshal got down on one knee to look the boy in the eye. He put a hand on the boy’s arm, and waited until the boy nodded back at him. “It isn’t a sin to lose hope. Damnation doesn’t happen just because you lose hope. Lots of folks lose hope. Even happened to me. But the difference between us and that outlaw is being able to find hope again after you’ve lost it. Once you get it back, you realize how important it really is. Do you know what I’m saying?”

The boy shook his head and sniffled.

“That outlaw,” the marshal went on, “he lost his son. A boy about your age. And when it happened, he lost hope. But he never found it again. That’s probably the biggest reason why he became the kind of man he did, because he couldn’t find that hope. But do you know why he couldn’t find it?”

The boy shook his head again.

“Because he didn’t look, that’s why. All you have to do is look for it, and it’ll be there waiting for you to be ready to get it back again. You know how I know that?”

The boy gave his head a slower, tentative shake.

“Because I lost my boy, too. And I lost hope then, too. But I knew I couldn’t let it turn me into a man like him, so I made sure to get all that hope right back again. Just like you have to do, now. I know you lost your momma, son, and I’m real sorry about that. But you still have your own life, and as long as you’ve got life, you’ve got hope. Think you can remember that?”

Sobbing heavily now, the boy threw his arms around the marshal and buried his face in his shoulder. And the marshal put his arms around that boy, too. And Hoss felt something hard lodge itself deep in his throat, like he could feel what it was like for that boy right then — something that reminded him what it was like to be a kid, sobbing over the loss of his mother…or the woman Hoss had called his mother.

Hoss sniffed and started to turn away, turning also from his memory of Marie, but then the marshal looked up at him with eyes that were like no other marshal Hoss had ever seen. They reminded Hoss almost of Roy Coffee. There was something like compassion in that man’s gaze, but it was more than that, too. It was something that made Hoss feel…well, it made Hoss feel protected in ways he couldn’t quite explain, protected from things he couldn’t even see — things like whatever devil had been chasing after Damien Bujold.

“You’d better go make sure that brother of yours doesn’t give up on hope,” the marshal said.

“He doesn’t know that brother of ours.” Adam’s voice pulled Hoss’ attention. He saw his brother give him a small smile, but there was sadness in Adam’s eyes, too. “Joe’s about the last person who would ever give up anything,” Adam added.

“Yeah,” Hoss found himself answering. “I reckon so.” Yet somewhere deep inside him, he knew every man had his limit, a point at which he just couldn’t imagine going on. He sure hoped none of his family would ever discover just where that limit was. He also realized that limit — wherever it may be — is why what the marshal said was so important. It wasn’t about losing hope; it was about seeing how to take it back again, and allowing yourself to do it.

Right then Hoss felt a whole lot of hope. He prayed none of that outlaw’s shots had reached either Pa or Little Joe, yet somehow he already believed none of them had. If providence could jam that gun right when it needed to be jammed, then there was no reason to think it couldn’t also stop a bullet from reaching folks it should never reach. Of course, providence hadn’t stopped those bullets from reaching that boy’s mother, or any of the others back at that station — just like it hadn’t stopped that arrow from reaching Hoss’ mother before he could even know who she was. It hadn’t stopped that marshal from losing his boy, either.

So when was it providence chose to do things like that? Hoss had asked that question often enough to know no one on this earth could ever answer it. All he could do was accept that he hoped Joe and Pa were okay.

Sighing, he followed after Adam, leaving the boy with the marshal, confident he was as protected as could be.

*****

Fortunately, providence chose right for Joe and Pa, just as it had for Adam. One of the outlaw’s bullets had carved a small crease in the left flanks of Joe’s horse, but the rest had hit nothing but sand. And while the lawmen slowly erased what remained of the outlaw, burying Damien Bujold in a grave nothing but coyotes and buzzards would ever cry over, the Cartwrights worked together in an attempt to erase what that outlaw had done to Little Joe.

Though the bullets had missed him this time, the one that had caught him a couple of days earlier was still causing damage. The wound, left too long untreated, had started to fester, oozing blood and causing angry red swelling that gave his family enough reason to worry without also having to consider the blood loss Joe had suffered from the morning’s equally untreated stab wound. Now they were using more water than they had to spare, trying to clean both wounds as well as they could.

Adam handed his pa another canteen. “There might be more in Bujold’s supplies,” he said.

Pa only nodded, not bothering to turn his attention away from Joe’s head wound. Hoss didn’t even seem to have heard Adam, but there was no point to repeating what he’d said. The way Hoss had his tongue between his teeth — like he always did when he was concentrating as hard as he could on something — made Adam hold his own tongue. What Hoss was concentrating on was too important; he was stitching up the stab wound, working with a needle and thread the marshal had provided from his own trail supplies.

Taking another long look at Little Joe, Adam tried to tell himself it was a good thing Joe had passed out, but there wasn’t even the slightest twitch to indicate he was feeling any pain at all. Adam would feel more assured if he could see Joe flinch, or maybe hear a soft moan as Hoss’ needle stabbed again into Joe’s flesh and pulled a line of thread through it like he was nothing more than a sock that needed darning. But this silence, this lack of any movement at all returned Adam’s thoughts to the dark place they’d found back at the way station, when he’d been digging into the earth, expecting to find this — an empty, hollow shell that used to be his brother.

“As long as you’ve got life, you’ve got hope,” the marshal had said. It was a message Pa had shared often enough, too. So why was Adam feeling such as sense of hopelessness?

Clamping down hard on his teeth, Adam knew he couldn’t bite back that feeling any more than he could interrupt Hoss’ concentration. At least there was one thing he could do; he could check Bujold’s supplies for extra canteens of water.

*****

On his way back with two nearly full canteens and a third that was half empty, Adam found the marshal with the boy, examining a desert bush — creosote from the looks of it.

“Gather up as many of these small leaves as you can,” the marshal was telling young Johnny. “You don’t need to fill the whole saddle bag, but maybe get it to about yeah high.” He drew a line across the bag with his finger. As he did so, his gaze met Adam’s, and he nodded in acknowledgment. “Now remember,” the marshall added as he started to walk away, leaving the boy to his task. “Keep your eyes peeled for snakes. These bushes are like a home to them. They might slither in without you even noticing if you don’t keep a careful lookout.”

The boy studied the bush, seeming to concentrate as hard as Hoss had with Joe. The sight brought Adam back a number of years; he could almost imagine that was Hoss as a boy, concentrating on doing something exactly the way Pa had taught him to do it. “I’m sure he won’t let you down,” Adam said softly when the marshal was close enough to hear him.

Marshal Peterson pulled down his brow and looked back at the boy. “I’m sure he won’t. But I’m more interested in not letting him down.”

The response surprised Adam. He wondered what would make a federal marshal so concerned about one, little boy. “We’ve been too preoccupied to even remember he’s here,” Adam admitted. “I’m glad someone did.”

“You don’t owe him anything. In fact, he seems to think he owes your brother. As soon as he heard me say we can make a poultice out of those leaves to help heal up your brother’s wounds, he was ready to take the whole bush apart. At least he feels he’s helping now.”

“He is helping. And so are you. Thank you.”

It was almost as though Peterson was disturbed to hear Adam’s appreciation. The marshal took a deep breath and moved his gaze toward the boy again, although he seemed to be focused on something much further away. “I’m just doing what anyone ought to do. You help who you can, when you can and how you can. Way I figure it, if you turn your back on folks, you might as well turn your back on God, just like Bujold did. I won’t do that. I can’t do that to the memory of my son.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I.” With another deep breath, Peterson returned his attention to Adam. “Not a day goes by I don’t feel sorry for what happened. But I can’t change it, and I won’t let it turn me into someone who makes such things happen.”

“Like Bujold.”

“Exactly like him.”

“He’s what happened to your son, isn’t he?”

Peterson held Adam’s gaze with eyes that understood. He nodded. “He is.”

“You’ve been after him ever since.”

“In a way, I suppose I have. Maybe not him directly. At least, not all the time. I became a lawman to stop men like him. I only wish… I wish I could have stopped him from becoming what he did. I should have been able to, but nothing I said could reach him.”

“You knew him before?”

“Back in Barton Hollow. We were neighbors, Bujold and I. I was the local preacher, if you can believe that.”

“I can believe it,” Adam said, and he could. The marshal’s talk with the boy about hope had reached Adam, too — and remembering it now was easing the hopeless sense he’d had looking at Joe. As long as you’ve got life, you’ve got hope. Adam tried to hold on to those words as his own gaze strayed to the boy collecting leaves. They were days away from reaching a doctor, and Joe’s head wound was already infected. But Joe had a preacher-lawman and a boy with a debt to repay in his favor. Maybe those leaves really would make the difference.

“When his boy died,” Peterson went on, pulling back Adam’s attention, “no amount of preaching mattered. He stopped listening. He said it was God’s fault. He blamed me. Makes sense, I suppose. I was as close to God as he could get with flesh and blood.” The marshal’s brows curled down again, shadowing eyes that were looking into a past it pained him to see. “He blamed me,” he repeated. “But he took it out on my son. Kidnapped him, then demanded a ransom we couldn’t pay even if we’d gathered up every penny from every single person in that town.” He glanced at the ground before returning his attention to Adam. “It was just an excuse. He never meant to give me my son back. Somehow, he figured killing my son would make up for him losing his. Also figured he could blame me for the killing — make it my fault for not paying the ransom. Only…” His eyes grew clear again, clear and open, and looking at Adam rather than the ghosts of his past. “I don’t think he expected to feel the guilt that he did, after. Instead of facing that guilt, he ran from it. He ran from it for ten years. Coming out here… I guess he figured he was ready to stop running.”

“Why bring my brother into it? And the boy?”

“Hard to say, exactly. Fact is, I doubt he knew — exactly — what he’d do. But I’d guess he wanted to get your brother angry enough, or maybe confused enough to kill the boy.”

“Kill him? Joe would never…”

“Most people would never. But he wanted to see someone else do what he did. Then maybe he could go to his grave knowing it was just the weakness of his own human flesh that caused him to do it, and he wasn’t as damned as he thought he was. Funny thing, though; he’s the one who damned himself. There was never any devil involved, none but him, anyway. Any day over the last ten years he could have stood before God and said ‘forgive me, Lord, for I was weak.’ But his guilt wouldn’t let him. Once before….” Peterson took in a long breath and blew it out before going on. “Damien Bujold was about the most God-fearing man I had ever known. Those crosses he put on the graves back at that way station prove he still has…had that in him. Only he couldn’t accept that God would forgive him for what he’d done, so he never forgave himself. And he just kept doing those things — kept killing, stealing, doing all those things no God-fearing man ought to do — like he was trying to prove he didn’t deserve forgiveness. How do you fight that? How do you stop a man like that?”

“Exactly like you did,” Adam said, honestly.

“I suppose so. I’m just sorry it took so long; sorry for all those folks back at that station. Sorry for the boy…and your brother.

Adam saw Joe as an empty shell once more, and turned his attention back to the boy. The leaves would help, he told himself. Then he looked at the marshal again. “You can’t change what’s happened. You can only help who you can, when you can and how you can.” He gave the man a small smile along with his recitation of Peterson’s own words. Oddly, he began to feel that smile building inside him as well, as though all it took was one, small smile to start building a sense of hope.

Maybe the marshal sensed that, too. He smiled back. “That boy ought to have enough leaves by now. I’ll get the poultice made up so we can help your brother.”

“And you’ll accept my thanks for doing it.” Adam held out his hand. “There’s nothing wrong with accepting a bit of gracious appreciation along the way.”

When the marshal shook his hand, Adam felt that hope growing, and his smile grew right along with it.

And that image of Joe in his mind laughed back at him.

And suddenly, he couldn’t even remember having ever seen Joe any different.

*****

The dreams were varied and strange, but in every one of them Joe was confronted by a devil in the guise of a bearded man.

“Devil’s comin’,” the man said through a yellow smile. “Don’t let him catch you!”

But you’re the devil, Joe told himself. And you already caught me. He looked to the boy, Johnny, knowing he should warn him, but Johnny wasn’t interested. He turned away.

And then that one devil became an entire herd. Joe couldn’t possibly shoot them all. He tried anyway. He had to. There wasn’t anyone else who could do it. Only, then it was Joe who was the devil, and that herd he was shooting at wasn’t a herd at all. It was his own family.

“Pa?” Joe called out into the cloud of blood-red dust — fearing, begging, praying none of his bullets had reached their targets. Would God answer a devil’s prayers?

They came closer, and the dust got thicker, and suddenly he wasn’t sure who they were. Devils? Angels? His family? All he could see was that dust. And all he knew for sure was they were running hard, like a stampede of wild horses.

“Pa?” But the stampede swallowed Joe’s voice. There was too much noise for him to even hope to be heard. Men were shouting. Horses were screaming. And there was the rattle of wheels as a blood-red stagecoach swam out of the cloud.

It came to a stop beside him.

Joe came to a stop as well. He couldn’t move. He knew he should run — felt it down into his bones that’s what he needed to do — but his feet were rooted to the ground, secured like fence-posts Hoss himself had hammered in. A raging bull couldn’t budge one of Hoss’ fence-posts; there sure wasn’t any way Joe was going to.

Standing rigid as a fence-post, his heart pounded hard against his chest. He didn’t want to see what came out of that stagecoach. He didn’t want any part of it. Desperate for help, he looked to the driver…but the driver wasn’t the driver at all — it was the headless horseman from that story the boy had been reading.

“Johnny!” the boy’s mother shouted.

And then the door opened. And a blood-red devil came out, laughing at Joe with yellow teeth and the blazing sun in his eyes.

Panting, Joe forced his own eyes open and was relieved to be looking up into wooden rafters rather than at a laughing devil. He was on a cot in a small room with plain, plank-wood walls. Something inside him said he was at the way station, but if that were true, then at least part of the dream must be true, too. He didn’t want any of that dream –or any of the dreams to be true. Hoping to prove them false, he tried to rise but stopped when it felt like Hoss was driving a fence post into his skull. He raised a hand to find a bandage wrapped around his head. Then he saw the bruises on his wrist — on both of his wrists — and his memories chased away all traces of those horrific dreams with a more horrific reality: he had held a gun in his hand, and he had pulled the trigger on his own family.

Suddenly nauseous, Joe pushed past the pain of Hoss’ fence-post driving and the feel of a knife twisting at his side until he was seated on the edge of the cot. He sat still for a few minutes, catching his breath, and began to hear muffled voices. He didn’t hear words — not at first — but then one word came clear.

“Joe…”

Pa? The sound of his father’s voice — not quite calling out to him but reaching him just the same — pulled Joe to his feet. Stabs of pain in his side dropped him back to the cot. Frustrated, he closed his eyes and listened as he gathered up the strength to try again.

*****

It was almost noon on their second day at the way station when Hoss hollered out there was a stagecoach coming in from Carson City. All three Cartwrights watched its approach, the great clouds of dust it churned up growing larger as the coach drew nearer. Each of them was anxious and hopeful it carried the doctor they’d asked the marshal to send, but none was more anxious than Ben. When it arrived, the marshal himself was the first to emerge.

“Marshal Peterson,” Ben greeted, extending his hand. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

Mr. Peterson,” the man corrected. “Or Nathanial, if you prefer.” Peterson smiled at Ben’s obvious confusion. “I decided it’s time to go home. I’ve had my fill of marshaling.”

Ben nodded, but before he could offer his intended reply, his gaze landed on Doc Harding stepping down from the coach. His attention shifted so quickly he walked away as though he’d already forgotten Peterson was even there.

“You’ll have to excuse my father,” Adam said, stepping in. “He’s worried about Little Joe.” And no doubt concerned about the doc as well. But the doctor’s troubles with drinking were not worth mentioning to the former marshal. Besides, Harding appeared to be sober now.

“You’re not?”

Peterson’s voice pulled Adam’s attention away from the older men. He shook Peterson’s hand and offered a half smile. “I think Joe’s going to be just fine. The infection hasn’t spread. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s getting better. That poultice you made probably saved his life.”

Hoss had come up alongside them while Adam was speaking, and now extended his hand as Pa and Adam had done. “I don’t think any of us ever thanked you for that.”

“I only did what anyone ought to do,” Peterson said as he accepted the greeting, “if they could.” His gaze swept the yard. “Looks to me like the stage line has a bit to thank you for. You’ve been putting in more than your share of work. By the time that new manager arrives next week, you won’t have left him anything to do but wait on the next stage.”

The man’s words churned up a memory in Adam much like that stagecoach had churned up all that dust. He didn’t see any particular moment, but he did hear himself as a small boy, singing a song about the importance of an honest day’s work. “In works of labor or of skill,” Adam said aloud, “I would be busy too, for Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.”

“Quoting children’s hymns to a preacher, Mr. Cartwright?” Peterson grinned.

“Preacher?” Hoss asked. “I thought you stopped doin’ that to be a marshal.”

“Somehow I doubt he ever stopped,” Adam observed, “or ever could.”

“I suppose you’re probably right,” Peterson said. “God’s work tends to get into the blood and stay there. I hear it’s in yours, too.” It was hard to tell who he meant; his gaze moved across both brothers.

Hoss turned to Adam, his brow pulled down in confusion. “Where’d you hear that?” he asked Peterson. “We ain’t preachers.”

“You don’t have to be a preacher to do God’s work. And as Doc Harding says it, ‘the Cartwrights are a God-fearing breed who won’t let well enough alone.'”

“Doc Harding said that?” Hoss asked, perhaps even more confused than he’d already been.

“He did,” Peterson answered. “He also said he’s grateful. You’re not letting well enough alone got him to put down the bottle.”

Adam smiled, his gaze moving back to his father and the doc. “He’s a good man, and a good doctor. I’m glad to hear he fought his way free of those demons he’d been carrying with him.”

“Thanks to you and yours,” Peterson said.

“We only did what anyone ought to do,” Adam replied, grinning, “if they could.” He was glad to see his pa smile, his hand moving to Doc Harding’s shoulder as the two men turned to make their way to the main building. It was time for the doc to do what he could. And Adam felt more hopeful than ever. There wasn’t a devil anywhere near them.

Notes:  The children’s hymn was written by Isaac Watts in the early 1700s. Doc Harding is an original character of mine, introduced in “The Letter of the Law.”

*****

The table in the outer room was laden with odds and ends — possessions, Joe realized, pieces of people’s lives. He saw his own hat, ruined though it was, and the small portrait of his mother. He also saw a woman’s locket. His gaze swept across it while his mind painted the image of Johnny’s mother fingering the heart-shaped pendant around her neck. The chain was broken now; Joe could only imagine those delicate fingers grasping at that golden heart and then pulling on the chain while Damien Bujold’s bullets cut her down.

The thought made Joe nauseous and dizzy. He reached for the table’s edge to steady himself, but his hand landed on something other than wood. A book — Johnny’s book. Joe ran his thumb across on the cover. Johnny’s mother had died for this book. That was her blood staining the spine and spilling across the ivory pages. What would it be like for Johnny to see this now? Would he treasure it for providing him with a small part of his mother? Or would he loathe it for what it represented, the way it had taken her away from him?

It wasn’t right. None of it was right. All those graves, all those people dead for the sake of a man running from the devil in his own soul. Joe should be dead, too. It was nothing more than the grace of God that had kept that bullet from boring into his skull. Why hadn’t God’s grace chosen Johnny’s mother, instead? And why hadn’t it saved Joe’s mother, all those years ago?

Tears began to blur his vision. He swayed on his feet, but took hold of the book instead of the table, and then held it to his chest as though it were his own mother’s portrait. “I’m sorry,” he said to the ghosts in his mind. “I’m so sorry.”

“Joe!”

Joe looked up to see his pa rushing toward him from the open door. “I couldn’t help her, Pa,” Joe said in a small voice that barely made it past the tightness in his throat. “I couldn’t…I couldn’t help her.”

“I know, son. I know.”

And then Pa’s arms were around him, and Joe felt like a small boy again, younger even than Johnny and crying for the loss of his mother. He gave in to his father’s strength, let it propel him back to the cot he’d abandoned moments before. “It isn’t right, Pa,” he said as sat on the edge of the thin mattress. “It isn’t right that she’s dead, and I’m…”

“No, Joe,” Pa grasped his shoulders and knelt down in front of him. “It isn’t right that she’s dead, or that any of them had to die. But… Look at me, Joseph!”

The command pulled Joe’s gaze from the dust Pa’s heavy boots had sent skittering across the floor.

“It is very right that you survived!” Pa went on. “It is…very right.”

“But it should have been…it should have been her, Pa. It should have been her!”

“It should have been all of them,” Pa said, his gaze as stern as ever. “But, God help me, I’m grateful it was you. Do you hear me, son? I thank God it was you who survived!”

“In everything give thanks,” an unfamiliar voice spoke in the doorway to the small room, but Joe couldn’t tear his eyes from his father’s, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless.”

Finally, Joe looked toward the stranger. All he could see was a shadowed figure standing between and somewhat behind his brothers.

“God chose you,” the stranger went on, sounding like a preacher who knew the will of God as well as His word. “Because of that choosing, Johnny survived and there’s one less devil in the world to cause this sort of thing again.”

“But, Johnny’s mother…” Joe couldn’t find sufficient words to express the pain in his heart from losing his own mother; it was as though all the years between then and now had vanished.

“Is with God,” the stranger finished for him. “And Johnny has a whole herd of older brothers and sisters to see him raised proper. They were all in town when we got there, every one of them. Besides, you ought not be worrying about a boy who’s in better shape than you are right now.”

Confused, Joe looked to his father again. “I…shot at you,” he said, pulling the memory from the fog the stranger in the shadows had somehow given back to him.

Pa smiled. “You missed.”

“But I shot at you. At all of you.” Joe looked to his brothers. “I could have…”

“Didn’t you hear me?” the stranger interrupted, though he spoke lightly, almost playfully. “I believe I said God would hold you blameless. Isn’t that what I said?”

Joe saw his shadowed profile looking toward Adam.

“That’s what you said, alright,” Adam answered, smiling just like Pa and leaning casually against the doorframe.

“I don’t…I don’t understand,” Joe felt as foggy as the wisps of memories haunting him.

“God’s will is not so much about understanding,” the stranger said, “as it is about accepting.”

“Well, there’s one thing I wish all of you would accept,” Doc Harding’s voice called from the outer room, “and that’s the fact I came here to treat a patient I can’t even see with you in the way!”

“He’s right, boys.” Pa patted Joe’s shoulder and started to rise to his feet. “Let’s leave the doctor to his work.” He gave Joe’s shoulder another squeeze. “It sure is good to have you back, son.”

Joe looked up, seeing his father’s smile and the warmth in his father’s eyes — and the strength in his shoulders, in the stoic way he stood so tall and straight, no matter the pain he’d known in his life, the despair of losing three beloved wives. And somehow, despite everything, despite the bloodstained book in his hand and the ghosts in his thoughts, Joe felt…good. He felt lucky and thankful — and maybe even a bit hopeful he could accept the fact that he was alive while Johnny’s mother was dead.

Joe let his gaze drop back to the book, and he decided Johnny would be better off if he never saw his mother’s blood on those pages.

“Pa?” Joe said softly. “Would you do me a favor?”

“What’s that, Joe?

“Burn this?”

Pa’s grip was gentle as he took the book from Joe’s hands. And even Adam, who counted nearly every book as precious, nodded in agreement.

***The End***

 Note: The Biblical excerpt is from 1 Thessalonians 5:12, King James version.

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