Ballad of Brothers: Opus ( by freyakendra)

Summary: A sandstorm leads to a special moment of brotherly bonding between Adam and Little Joe before tragedy strikes—and then that bonding takes on a whole different depth of meaning when they look to the songs that had first given them a night of laughter to help them survive through the day. When Ben, Hoss and Sheriff Coffee go to their aid, they discover Joe is missing and Adam fears the worst.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count: 28,400


 

What is home without a brother
For a pillar and a stay?
He can love beyond another,
And forever guard our way.
Words of peace are ever breathing
From those lips we deem so dear;
While his hands are kindly wreathing
Comforts for the household cheer.

*Author unknown

Sand whipped across the desert landscape hard enough to sting every inch of exposed skin. Given time, it could scrub a man clean to his bones. The two riders caught by the storm trudged through it with determined effort, but the trail had already become little more than a blur of cloudy debris that burned the eyes and stole the smallest hint of moisture. Even breathing was a challenge through the neckerchiefs both wore to shield their noses and mouths.

Talking was not possible. Nor was there any need. The two brothers knew this land as well as they knew each other. Though the Ponderosa was no more than a half day’s ride ahead, it might as well have been on the other side of the world. Adam and Joe Cartwright were going to have to wait another night before enjoying the pleasure of a bath and a soft mattress.

Eager to get a reprieve from the wind, Adam nudged his sand-coated chestnut into the entrance of the old Kirby mine, confident his younger brother would follow. Once inside, they bedded down their horses as well as they could in the narrow confines, holding quiet all the while—neither trusted himself to speak past all the dust that had settled in his throat.

Finally, with nothing left to be done, Joe lowered himself to the ground, leaned against the rocky wall and took in a long pull of water from his canteen. “It still feels like all I’m drinking is sand,” he rasped.

“Sounds like it, too,” Adam answered, his own voice as rough as his brother’s. Water just wasn’t enough to chase away all the grit they’d both swallowed on the trail.

When he followed Joe’s gaze to his own bulging saddlebag, instinct had Adam opening his mouth, ready to turn his brother’s thoughts away from where he knew they were straying. But practicality prevented him from saying the words. Instead, Adam gave himself a moment to weigh the benefits they would both gain against Pa’s expected disappointment. The benefits won out. He convinced himself Pa would both understand and encourage the indulgence. Then, smiling, he retrieved the bottle of brandy Harold Johnson had provided as a gift for his old friend, Ben.

“Y…you…” Joe stammered, “you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking. Are you?”

“Pa will understand.” Adam sat down beside Little Joe and broke the seal on the bottle.

“He…he will?”

“We’re both bound to be coughing up sand for the next week.” Adam handed the freshly opened bottle to his brother. “He’ll understand.”

Joe stared at him, his eyes projecting a suspicious glint. “You first.”

Shrugging, Adam accepted the challenge. He took a long, welcome swallow.

“Huh,” Joe acknowledged before accepting the bottle from his brother and taking a hesitant swig. A moment later, apparently warming up to the transgression of stealing his father’s brandy, he took an even longer swallow than Adam had.

“Ease up, Joe.” Adam grabbed the bottle back. “It’s not cheap whiskey.”

Joe smiled widely, shaking his head. “Not by a long shot.” His voice was sounding better already.

*****

The wind continued to howl throughout the afternoon; and its effects were not limited to the grounds outside. The shoring timbers inside vibrated with the gusts, sending strange whistles and eerie shrieks deep into the mineshaft and causing both horses and men to grow unsettled. Contemplating more pleasant sounds, Adam leaned his head against the stone wall behind him and soon found himself humming a song he’d learned from a fellow in Virginia City. Before long, he began to sing the words.

Down in the valley
Valley so low
Hang your head over
Hear the wind blow
Hear the wind blow, dear
Hear the wind blow
Hang your head over
Hear the wind blow

“Hey, Adam?” Joe interrupted.

Adam stopped singing to give his brother a questioning look.

“Can’t you come up with a better song than that?” Joe’s plaintive appeal reached his eyes, leading Adam to imagine the lonely prisoner in the song.

“What’s wrong with it?” he asked, shaking off the disturbing thought.

Joe shrugged. “Nothing, if you want to be reminded about all that wind blowing out there and the fact that we’re stuck in here with nothing more to look forward to than some jerky for dinner and a hard dirt floor to sleep on.”

“What would you suggest?”

Joe’s expression shifted from a forlorn gaze to an impish grin in an instant.

That was something about his brother that always amazed Adam. Joe could turn off one emotion and turn on another about as fast as he could draw a gun. A friend had once told Adam Joe had the fastest grin in the west. It was also contagious.

“Oh, don’t you remember sweet Betsy from Pike,” Joe started singing.

Giving in to the contagion, Adam began to tap his hand against his leg. He jumped in as soon as Joe started the second line.

That crossed the big mountains with her lover, Ike
With two yoke of cattle, a large yellow dog
A tall Shanghai rooster and one spotted hog

When they’d finished all the verses they could remember, Adam made the next song selection, deciding on an old marching tune.

When I first came to town
They called me the roving jewel
Now they’ve changed their tune
They call me Katy Cruel
Come diddle um day
Oh little li-o-day

Chorus:
Oh that I was where I would be
Then I would be where I am not
Here I am where I must be
Go where I would, I cannot
Come diddle um day
Oh little li-o-day

Joe’s tongue twisted in the middle of the second line of the chorus — as it usually did — leaving Adam to finish it on his own while Joe laughed — as he usually did whenever his tongue tripped while trying to sing this particular song.

When I first came to town
They brought me the bottles plenty
Now they’ve changed their tune
They bring me the bottles empty
Come diddle um day
Oh little li-o-day

Joe managed the second verse just fine, and he didn’t give up trying to match Adam’s skill with the chorus. Of course, he still couldn’t master it. He had fun with the effort, just the same. In fact, both brothers had so much fun Adam started to make up his own verses after they’d finished all the regular ones. And then all that laughing stirred up a new sense of grit in their throats. It took another round of brandy to soothe them.

That’s when Joe picked his next song.

Oh, where be ye going?
Said the false knight on the road
I be going to school
Said the boy as he stood

Smiling and tapping along with the beat, Adam joined in to finish the chorus.

And he stood and he stood
And ’twas well that he stood
I be going to school
Said the boy as he stood

They continued to take turns at that point, with Adam singing the lines for the knight and Joe singing those of the schoolboy, as they’d done numerous times over the years.

Adam: Oh what do ye there? said the false knight on the road.

Joe: I read from my book, said the boy as he stood.

Both: And he stood and he stood, and ’twas well that he stood. I read from my book, said the boy as he stood.

Adam: Oh what have ye got? said the false knight on the road.

Joe: ‘Tis my bread and cheese, said the boy as he stood.

Both: And he stood and he stood, and ’twas well that he stood. ‘Tis my bread and cheese, said the boy as he stood.

Adam: Oh pray give me some, said the false knight on the road.

Joe: Oh no, not a crumb, said the boy as he stood.

Both: And he stood and he stood, and ’twas well that he stood. Oh no, not a crumb, said the boy as he stood.

“Hey, Adam,” Joe called out as his older brother was about to start the next verse.

Adam closed his mouth and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“I’m hungry.”

“Well I don’t see any bread and cheese,” Adam answered dryly.

Oh no, not a crumb,” Joe sang as he rose to his feet. “And he stood and he stood, and ’twas well that he stood.” He stretched a kink out of his back and then moved to his saddlebag while Adam sang back at him.

And what have ye got? Said the knight on the road.”

‘Tis my jerky, said the boy as he stood,” Joe continued as he retrieved the evening’s dinner and brought it to where he and Adam had been sitting. “And he stood and he stood, and ’twas well that he stood. ‘Tis my jerky said the boy as he stood.”

Oh pray, give me some, said the false knight on the road.”

Well, maybe a crumb, said the boy as he sat; and he sat and he sat, and ’twas well that he sat. Well, maybe a crumb, said the boy as he sat.”

They feasted on beef jerky, washing it down with yet another swallow of Pa’s brandy, and then spent the next few hours playing cards while the winds slowly faded from howling shrieks to much softer whispers. Finally, as the dark night settled heavily around them, Adam decided he had one song left in him. He waited until Joe closed his eyes and then started in on the first verse of a ballad he’d learned from Joe’s mother, Marie.

‘Twas on one bright March morning
I bid New Orleans adieu
And I took the road to Jackson town
my fortune to renew
I cursed all foreign money
no credit could I gain
Which filled my heart with longing
 for
the lakes of Pontchartrain

Though Joe’s eyes were still closed, Adam could see him beginning to smile much as he had the last time Adam had sung him off to sleep, so many years ago.

I stepped on board a railroad car
beneath the morning sun
I rode the rails till evening
and I laid me down again
All strangers there no friends to me
’til a dark girl towards me came
and I fell in love with a Creole girl
by the lakes of Pontchartrain

It had been a good day after all, Adam decided as he continued the song. Despite the storm — or probably because of it — he and Joe had experienced something together that was rare, and couldn’t be measured by the cost of Pa’s brandy. Time tended to pass too quickly to allow for moments like this; and too often when it passed it took with it people or things Adam had never wanted to let go. Like Little Joe. Somehow in the blink of an eye Adam’s baby brother had grown to be a man. Adam had begun to wonder whether he even knew who Joe was anymore. But today he realized Joe was still Little Joe. It was a welcome discovery.

I said, “My pretty Creole girl
my money here’s no good
but if it weren’t for the alligators
I’d sleep out in the wood”
“You’re welcome here kind stranger
our house is very plain
but we never turn a stranger out
from the lakes of Pontchartrain.”

“Don’t forget to check for alligators,” Joe said without opening his eyes.

“Trust me,” Adam answered. “If there are any alligators under this bed, they’re under solid bedrock. You don’t have a thing to worry about.”

“Promise?”

“Good night, Joe.” Adam settled himself on the hard ground beside his brother, stretching out on his bedroll and resting his head against his saddle.

“Well?” Joe said after a few silent moments.

“Well what?”

“Aren’t you gonna finish the song?”

Yeah, Adam confirmed to himself. It had been a good day. Smiling contentedly, he started on the next verse.

She took me into her mammy’s house
and treated me quite well
The hair upon her shoulders
in jet black ringlets fell
To try and paint her beauty
I’m sure ‘twould be in vain
so handsome was my Creole girl
by the lakes of Pontchartrain….

“Good night, older brother,” Joe offered after Adam’s last note began to fade into the night.

*****

Adam awoke before dawn. Something was wrong. With the sun not quite to the horizon, the world outside had gained a defused, grayish glow that barely reached the mine. Even so, it was enough to define the shadow of a small man who was trying to lead Joe’s horse quietly past him.

Cautiously reaching for the gun on the ground near his hip, Adam was surprised to hear Joe call out first.

“Hold it right there, mister.”

The words had barely left Joe’s lips when the stranger fired. From the corner of his eye, Adam saw Joe falling. He was already scrambling toward his brother when a harsh shout stopped him cold.

“Don’t!” But that shout was followed by a must weaker one. “D…don’t move.” The intruder was panting, Adam realized then. Yes, he was nervous. And young, judging by the small sound of his voice.

Suddenly aware he was dealing with a kid with an obviously twitchy trigger finger, Adam held still. But his own words were directed toward his brother rather than the boy with the gun. “Joe?”

“J…just stay where you are!” the stranger answered instead.

Joe said nothing at all.

“I need to see how badly he’s hurt.”

“I s…said stay where you are!”

“Why don’t you just take what you’re after and get out of here?” Adam shouted back. Anger was taking hold. If that kid didn’t get moving, Adam was liable to start tearing him apart — his gun be damned.

“I will!” the kid shouted. “I…I will. I j…just… You give me that there saddle.”

“Take it yourself.”

“I said give me the saddle!”

Sighing in frustration, Adam rose slowly and reached for the saddle behind him. Fine, he thought. I’ll give you the saddle. He took hold of it and then paused, letting his hands clench and unclench on the leather as he fueled every ounce of energy he could muster into his next move. Finally, he swiveled back around.

He moved too quickly for the kid to react with anything other than that twitchy trigger finger. Just as the saddle hit the kid, the gun went off again — and Adam felt fire burning through his left thigh. He dropped to the ground, grabbing instinctively at his leg and gasping from the shock.

“Y…you shouldn’t oughta have done that!” the kid cried out. “I told you not to move!”

“You told me to get the saddle!” Adam spat back

“You tricked me! I d…didn’t… I didn’t want to shoot! I swear I didn’t want to shoot!”

“Just get out of here, why don’t you?” Adam shouted again.

“Yeah,” the kid said quietly after a moment. “Okay. Yeah. I will.”

Adam struggled to think past the fire in his leg as the kid saddled Joe’s horse. After a short while, Adam gained enough coherent thought to realize he was able to see the kid more clearly. The sun had finally poked above the distant rocks. Dressed in tattered clothes and wearing a hat nearly two sizes too big, the kid looked more like a runaway than an outlaw.

“Why?” Adam found himself asking.

“Why what?” The kid didn’t bother looking Adam’s way. He was too busy fumbling with the cinch.

Adam let his gaze wander to his own holstered gun, contemplating whether or not he could grab it before the kid started firing aimlessly again. “Why all this trouble to steal that horse?”

“It’s a big desert,” the kid answered. “I’ve had enough of goin’ on foot.”

“How’d you survive the storm?”

It was no good, Adam decided. If he made a go for his gun, the kid’s wild shooting might hit either Adam or Joe again. The last thing Adam wanted to do was cause further harm to Little Joe. He still didn’t even know the extent of harm the first bullet had caused.

The kid turned to him. Adam saw a freckle-faced grin that made Adam’s fear of him almost silly, if not ironic. “I was already in here when you come in. I figured I just had to wait for first light.”

“You should have let us know,” Adam answered sincerely. “We might have been able to help you.”

The kid shook his head. “Nobody helps folks like me.”

“Folks like you?”

“Too old to be an orphan. Too young to put in what they call an honest day’s work.”

“According to whom?”

“All kinds of folks.”

“Name some.”

“The folks in that mine up yonder.” The kid pointed aimlessly eastward.

“Gephardt’s?”

“That’d be the one.”

“If they wouldn’t hire you, it was because you’re too small. They need men with strong backs to do that kind of work.”

“Well it’s the only kind of work around these parts. What’s someone like me supposed to do to eat?”

“Ask a question like that to someone like me. We would have helped you.”

“Would have. Huh. Well it’s too late for that now, ain’t it? All you’re gonna help me do is hang. Ain’t that right?”

“It depends. If you help us now, we might still be able to help you.”

“You’re lying.”

“No. I am not lying. My brother is hurt. He might be dead, I don’t know.” God, don’t let that be the case. Please, God. Don’t let Joe be dead. “Help me check on him,” Adam went on, swallowing the bile his thoughts had brought. “And then help me patch up this hole you put in my leg. You do that, and I’ll make sure you get treated fairly. And you won’t hang.”

“What cause do I have to trust you?”

“It’s a gamble,” Adam admitted. “But it’s one worth making. If you don’t, and if my brother dies because of your bullet, I promise you I will do everything I can to see to it you hang. I’ll put the rope around your neck myself.”

The kid stared at him. “I believe you.” He moved then, walking past Adam with an air of confidence that made it obvious he no longer saw Adam as a threat. “And that’s why I’m taking both horses.”

“If you take both horses, you’re sentencing us to death,” Adam said.

“If it’s you or me, I choose me.”

“Think long and hard about that. As I see it, you have enough of a conscience to make it impossible for you to live with that choice.”

“It’s the only choice I have if I want to live.”

“No. It’s not. Help us. And then let us help you.”

“I’m sorry. Really, I am.” It was the last thing the kid said before he walked both horses out of the mine, mounted Joe’s — clumsily fitted with Adam’s saddle — and rode away.

*****

Joe had gone to sleep soothed by the calming tone of Adam’s voice. The tone he heard now was disturbingly different.

“Joe?” Adam sounded frantic. “Can you hear me, Joe?”

Joe pushed himself through a strange fog. At the end of it, something sharp pressed against the side of his head. It stole his breath and replaced the fog with blinding, white flashes. His hand thrust out instinctively, grabbing for whatever seemed to be driving nails into his temple. As he came to full consciousness, he found Adam’s wrist in his grip.

“Easy, Joe.” Adam’s tone changed again. He sounded relieved. “It’s okay,” he soothed as he gently pried Joe’s fingers loose.

“What…?”

“He just grazed you,” Adam said, as though the words offered a sufficient explanation for how strange Joe felt. “The bullet seems to have bounced off that thick skull of yours.” Adam tried to sound casual. It was an act. Joe heard the truth beyond it. Adam was clearly concerned.

“Bullet?”

“He shot you, Joe.”

“Who?”

Adam didn’t answer right away. When he did respond, it was with a question rather than an answer. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

“The lakes,” Joe answered, confused why Adam should ask something like that. “The Lakes of Pontchartrain.”

Catching a whiff of Pa’s brandy, Joe smiled. “Said the boy as he stood,” he started to sing lazily. “And he stood, and he stood, and ’twas well that he st… Hey!” The nails were driving into this head again. He reached up toward Adam’s hand at his temple.

“Just another minute, Joe,” Adam said calmly. “I need to make sure it’s good and clean.”

“Sure. ‘Cause everyone knows it wouldn’t be good to drive a dirty nail into a man’s head.”

Adam chuckled. “No, I guess it wouldn’t.”

Joe blinked several times, trying to clear his vision until Adam’s face swam into view. There was something dark in his older brother’s eyes, something more than concern over whatever had happened to Little Joe’s head. Was that pain? Fear? Maybe even both?

“What happened?” Joe asked.

Adam’s dark gaze flickered to Joe’s before returning to the nails in Joe’s temple. A moment later he sighed and looked Joe square in the eye.

“He stole our horses. Both horses and one canteen.”

Joe was confused. “Who?”

“It doesn’t matter. What does matter is we’re trapped here.”

Joe thought about that for a moment, trying to make sense of it. Trapped meant…well, trapped. Joe turned his attention toward the feel of the sun and looked out the mine’s entrance. It was open. They weren’t trapped. He tried to push himself up.

Adam forced him back, pressing lightly against his chest. “Hold on, Joe. It’s not a good idea to get up too fast.”

Lightly? Adam’s touch was either a whole lot stronger than it felt, or Joe was a whole lot weaker than he should be. “We can walk home,” Joe said, ignoring his own assessment. “Ponderosa’s not far.”

“You’re not walking anywhere for a while.” Adam sighed heavily. “Neither am I.”

Joe read Adam’s eyes as he let his brother’s words sink in. “Where you hurt?” he asked.

“My leg. It was a clean shot. Bullet went straight through. But the only way I’ll get the bleeding under control is to keep it still. I couldn’t walk a mile, let alone….” He shrugged and shook his head.

Joe studied him for a while. “Okay. I’ll get help.”

“Yeah,” Adam said softly, clearly not convinced.

I will. Joe insisted — except he wasn’t entirely sure he actually said the words aloud. He just needed a little more sleep. Then he’d be fine.

*****

“Gephardt’s,” Joe said. Bill Gephardt’s mine was little more than five miles away. It would be an easy walk. He could make his way there in under two hours. He’d borrow a couple of horses and send a fast rider out to Virginia City to fetch a doctor. He’d get help back to Adam in no time at all.

Strange thing was, Adam was nowhere to be found.

“Adam?” Joe called out, confused. Adam had a leg wound — didn’t he? He wasn’t supposed to be able to walk. So where was he? “Adam?” he called again. Part of his brain told him to check for alligators under the bed; and then he chuckled as he imagined Adam rolling his eyes. There are no alligators in Nevada, Joe. It had been a nightly event for them, years earlier. Eventually, it had become a game. It was strange how Joe seemed to have forgotten all about it until last night.

Stuck in the memory, Joe began singing. “I said, ‘My pretty Creole girl, my money here’s no good; but if it weren’t for the alligators, I’d sleep out in the wood.'”

“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” Adam said from somewhere in the direction of the mine’s entrance.

Joe lifted his head to look and pushed himself up onto his elbows—until someone started driving nails into his head again. They seemed to be hammering harder this time. He let himself fall back to the ground.

“Not so fast, next time,” Adam said. He was next to Joe again. How could he move so quickly with a bullet hole in his leg? Joe was determined to ask that very question — just as soon those little nail drivers stopped their hammering.

*****

Tell me the tales that to me were so dear
Long, long ago, long, long ago
Sing me the songs I delighted to hear
Long, long ago, long ago

Adam was singing.

Joe opened his eyes and found his brother leaning against the wall nearby.

“How do you keep doing that?” Joe asked.

Adam turned to him, surprised. “Singing?”

“Moving around. One minute you’re not here, then you are. I thought you were shot.”

“I was.”

“Then how can you keep jumping around so fast I don’t even know you’re moving?”

Adam smiled sadly and gave his head a slow shake. “Trust me. I’m not moving fast, and I’m definitely not jumping around. It’s you, Joe.”

“What’s me?”

“You keep passing out.”

“I do?”

“You do.”

“Huh.” Joe thought about that for a moment — or at least he hoped it was just for a moment. “How am I going to make it to Gephardt’s mine if I keep passing out?”

“Why do you think you need to go to Gephardt’s?”

“To get help,” Joe said incredulously, finding Adam’s question to be about the strangest thing he’d heard in a very long time.

“Joe,” Adam sighed, “I’ll be happy if I can get you to sit up long enough to get some food into your stomach. Walking all that way in this heat and with that wound….” He shook his head. “Forget it, Joe. You just can’t do it.”

“Someone has to, and as far as I can tell, I’m the only one here without a leg wound.”

“You’re also the only one here with a head wound.”

“So?”

“So, a head wound trumps a leg wound.”

“Okay,” Joe decided. “That means I’ve got the winning hand.”

“Sure you do.” Adam’s tone was patronizing. “But if that’s a winning hand, I can’t exactly say this is a game worth playing.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter, since it’s the only game in town.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“So, do you think you might be able to help me sit up slowly enough to avoid getting my head drilled again?”

*****

‘Tis the gift to be simple
‘Tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

Adam was singing again. Joe was propped up against the wall next to him. He barely remembered making it that far before the nail drivers had sent him off into oblivion again.

“How long this time?” he asked.

“Not too long,” Adam answered. “About twenty minutes, give or take.”

“I’m sorry, Adam.”

“I’m the one who’s sorry, Joe.”

“What for?”

Adam didn’t answer right away. When he did, he kept his eyes away from Joe’s, searching outward. “If I had been a second faster,” his voice sounded small and angry — so different from the tone of his song, “I would have been the one calling him out instead of you.”

“Who did I call out?”

Now Adam did look at him. He seemed puzzled, as though Joe should remember. Of course, maybe Joe should remember. But he didn’t, so he’d had to ask.

“The thief, Joe. The bandit. The kid who stole our horses.”

“I called him out?”

“You drew on him. You told him you drew on him. And then his trigger finger reacted before either of us had a chance to even think about what was happening. I was closer to him, Joe. If I had acted sooner…”

“You were closer to him?”

“Yes.”

“So, if you would have called him out before I did, he would have shot in your direction instead of mine.”

“Yes, I suppose he would have.”

“And you being closer would have made for a larger target.”

“What are you getting at, Joe?”

“His bullet just skimmed me, Adam. With you, it might have been different. He might have killed you.”

“Maybe. Or I might have been just fast enough to prevent him from shooting either of us. Look, all I’m saying is I’m sorry I wasn’t faster.”

“Well, I’m not. Because as I see it we’re both alive. If things had gone differently…” He stopped himself from saying words he’d rather not consider, let alone say out loud. “I just don’t like to think about how things might have gone differently, Adam. As I said…or I think I said, anyway …these are the cards we have to play.”

“If it’s a gamble you’re looking for, the kid headed west. With any luck, he’ll pass close to the Ponderosa. Someone is bound to spot our horses. Eventually, that’ll lead them here.”

“Eventually, huh? Sort of a long shot, don’t you think?”

Adam shrugged. “We’ve both beat worse odds before.”

“Gephardt’s mine has better odds.”

“Only if you can actually stay awake long enough to make it there. You haven’t walked five steps yet, let alone five miles. And the day’s nearly half gone.”

“Okay.” Joe craned his neck around to look at the wall supporting him. “I made it this far. I’m sitting up and I don’t feel those nail drivers.”

“Yet.”

Joe shot him a grin and then started to shimmy up the wall, aiming to reach a standing position against it.

“Joe,” Adam warned. “If you fall, I’m not sure I can catch you.”

“Don’t even try, older brother. I don’t want you to cause that leg wound to start bleeding again.”

“If you end up on the ground, you’ll just have to start all over again.”

“So I’ll start over. You worry too much, Adam.”

“At least one of us needs to.”

So far, so good. He was almost fully upright and the pain in his head remained bearable.

“Careful, Joe.”

He pushed further. The pain increased from an ache to a throb, but it was still tolerable. And suddenly he was standing with his back planted against the wall. “See there?” he said. “Nothing to it.”

“Good, Joe. Now come back down, just as slowly.”

“In a minute.”

Joe cautiously pushed himself away from the wall to test his ability to stand unsupported. He swayed a little as the ground shifted beneath him. Still, it worked. His test had been successful.

“Okay, Joe. That’s enough.” Adam’s voice seemed distant, as though coming from somewhere down a long tunnel.

Joe pushed one foot forward. The mine seemed to grow darker, but at least the nail drivers hadn’t returned.

“Joe!” Adam’s voice was soft, barely audible.

Joe took another step.

*****

Early one morning, just as the sun was rising
I heard a maid sing in the valley below
“Oh, don’t deceive me; oh, never leave me
How could you use a poor maiden so?”

Joe was stretched out on the ground with his head resting on his saddle. He blinked the fog from his vision as he contemplated how he had come to be at rest in such a position. Getting there could not have been an easy task for Adam, given his own injury. And it must have taken a fair amount of time.

“That had to have been longer than twenty minutes,” Joe said.

“Almost an hour,” Adam answered.

Damn. “How’s your leg?”

Adam hesitated. That in itself worried Joe. “It’s bleeding,” Adam finally admitted.

“I’m sorry. You should’ve just left me where I fell.”

“Just like you would have left me, if our positions had been reversed?”

“I’m sorry, Adam,” Joe said again, hearing his own voice break from the weight of his guilt. “I just…I just need to do something.”

“I know.”

“Doing something, anything is better than just…just waiting for someone to maybe recognize Cochise or Sport.”

“I agree.”

“You do?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Then I don’t suppose you’re ready to help me try again?”

“You just won’t give up, will you?”

“Would you want me to?”

Adam sighed. “No, I guess I wouldn’t at that.” Wiping dirt from his hands, he reached for some sort of stick Joe hadn’t noticed before. It looked like the long handle of something — a shovel, maybe.

“I’ll help you sit up,” Adam said as he started to move toward Joe, using the handle for support, “if you promise that’s all you’ll do until after you’ve eaten something.”

“I promise.”

“You do?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Okay, then.”

*****

Fight on! said the lady
The portion is too small
Hold your hand, said the old man
And you shall have it all
Then he took them right straight home
And he called them son and dear
Not because he loved them
But only out of fear
Fa la la la, fa la la la
Fa la la la, fa la la la

Adam was pleased to see Joe was doing well this time around. He had managed to eat some beef jerky and his eyes seemed to be more focused. Adam had encouraged him to try singing to see if that would help give some order to his thoughts. So far it appeared to be working. They had sung their way through two songs, and Joe looked to be more alert than he’d been all morning. Now Joe was ready to try getting up and moving again.

Adam watched anxiously. The strength he had relied on to get them both through to this point was fading. He hated to admit it even to himself, but he knew he needed to start relying on Joe instead of the other way around.

“Okay,” Joe said. “Here goes.” He winked at Adam and then pushed himself upward. Once he was standing, he even managed to take a few steps away from Adam before he began to sway. He put his hand against the wall to steady himself.

“Joe?”

“I’m okay,” he insisted. “I’ll be okay.”

“I’m sure you will.” Adam locked his gaze on Joe’s unsteady stance, recognizing the taut muscles in his brother’s back. The effort was clearly a strain. Adam had to imagine Joe’s nail drivers were making a return visit. “But you’re not okay yet,” Adam added, doing his best not to show his disappointment. “You’ll need to give it a little more time.”

“You and I both know we’re running out of time, Adam.” Joe’s words were stilted, spoken through gasps of breath that finally revealed the emotional stress the younger Cartwright had been avoiding.

They had both been avoiding it, Adam realized. But Joe was right. They were running out of time. Adam was running out of time. He could feel a fever coming on, and while Joe’s vision was improving, Adam’s was growing weaker.

“Joe?” Adam called out after a long, quiet moment.

Joe turned his head enough to indicate he was listening without disturbing his balance.

“Try this.” Adam held his makeshift walking stick out toward his brother.

Keeping his hand to the wall for support, Joe turned slowly. A small smile confirmed Joe’s thoughts were in line with Adam’s. “Good idea,” he said as he cautiously reached forward to take the stick. “I’ll find you another one before I go.”

“No, Joe.”

“I’m sure I’ll find something back…”

“No.” The word came out harsher than Adam had intended. “Joe, I….” He took a breath and looked away briefly before settling his gaze on his brother’s. “It won’t matter,” he said frankly.

“Of course it will matter. Why wouldn’t it?” Joe asked softly. The mist forming in his eyes betrayed the fact that he understood far more than he was willing to admit. “You’ll need something to help you get around.”

“No, Joe. I won’t.”

“Sure you w…”

“I won’t have the strength, Joe!” There. It was out. Adam sank back against the wall, feeling suddenly drained. Joe stood watching him, his chest heaving from the battles taking place within him as he struggled to achieve some degree of emotional and physical endurance.

“I’ll make it, Adam.” Joe’s words came out as a determined whisper. “And I’ll be back before you know it.”

“I know you will.” Adam couldn’t bear to acknowledge Joe’s unspoken words. There was no need. They both knew it to be true. ‘Or I’ll kill myself trying.’

*****

Ben sat at the dining table, his unseeing eyes locked on his half-eaten lunch. He felt lost in a fog, adrift on some strange sea. Moments earlier, an instant of clarity had drawn his attention to the yard where Hoss was busy at work repairing the buckboard. Too busy, it seemed. The repairs should not have taken half the day. It occurred to Ben that the amount of time Hoss was devoting to the task might perhaps suggest his middle son was having as much trouble concentrating as Ben was himself.

Frankly, Ben had been unable to finish anything he’d started. His mind had wandered so far afield all morning there seemed to be no value to whatever he attempted to do. Even when he’d been able to focus, it was on trivial things: how meaningless numbers really were, or how unimportant the fragile pieces of paper on which the numbers had been written. Now that he should be eating… Well, there was simply no longer any point to trying. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t have the stomach for food; it was more that he didn’t have the will.

Ben had barely opened his eyes that morning when an unwarranted feeling of dread had settled over him. There had been no apparent cause for it. The day had dawned uneventfully. The sky was clear. He could find no recognizable threat of a coming storm, yet the sense of a storm was perhaps the best way to describe his feeling. During his time at sea years earlier, Ben had been able to sense disaster in the wisp of a subtle breeze. Now he felt confident a devastating storm was imminent, even while he knew such a storm was simply not possible under the current conditions.

Yesterday had been different. Ben had been able to sense a change in the weather, and when Hoss had returned from a run to Virginia City for supplies, one look was all Ben had needed to confirm his suspicions. A windstorm had deposited thick layers of sand in the buckboard and had blanketed Hoss enough to make it appear he had just risen out of the earth itself. The debris had become so embedded in the buckboard’s rear axle it was a minor miracle Hoss had been able to make it home at all.

Yes, if Ben had any cause for worry, yesterday’s weather would have given him reason enough to accept his feelings. Joe and Adam would most likely have been caught in the thick of that storm, while Hoss had only skirted its edge. It would certainly have made sense for Ben to have worried for his sons yesterday. Yet he’d not felt concerned. He’d known with a certainty that defied explanation they had taken shelter somewhere, and the only reason they had failed to return last night was because they’d been delayed by the winds.

Today, however, Ben’s instincts were telling him something else entirely. “They’re fine,” he’d said repeatedly, both silently and aloud. Unfortunately, he was too mule-headed to heed his own words.

“This is ridiculous,” Ben said finally. He threw his napkin to the table and pushed himself determinedly to his feet. If he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling, he might as well make use of it.

Hoss reached the front door before Ben did, pushing it open just as Ben began reaching for his hat and holster.

“Hey, Pa. I think I’m gonna take a ride out to check that fence line over…”

“There’s no need for excuses, son,” Ben interrupted. “Let’s just ride together and do what we both really aim to do — look for your brothers.”

The set of Hoss’ shoulders eased visibly, as though a heavy burden had been removed and he was finally able to relax. “I’ll get the horses…”

This time it was the sound of a fast approaching rider that cut into Hoss’ words. And this time it was Ben who let his shoulders relax with relief as both men hurried outside, eager to welcome Joe and Adam home.

Relief quickly melted into disappointment when the young man who raced around the barn instead turned out to be Clay Parker from Virginia City.

“Mr. Cartwright!” Clay called out, his chest heaving from excitement, exertion or both. “Sheriff Coffee….” Clay paused, fighting to catch his breath. “He sent me off to get you! Said for you to meet him up at that old Kirby mine.”

“Whatever for?”

“It’s Adam…and Little Joe. A kid come into town with their horses. I knowed right away it was their horses, Mr. Cartwright. I saw th…”

“Never mind the horses, Clay! Tell me what happened to my sons!”

“It was the kid. He said he shot ‘em. He shot both of ‘em.”

The words fell like an iron weight across Ben’s shoulders.

“Sheriff got the doc with him?” Hoss asked while Ben struggled to find words of his own.

“Yes, sir, Hoss. Doc’s moving slower on account he took his buggy, but he’s on his way.”

Hope, Ben realized. Roy sending for Paul Martin meant there was hope. Hoss’ shrewd question felt like a rescue at sea.

“Mr. Cartwright, sir,” Clay’s voice came softer now. The way his eyes kept moving downward made it obvious he was nervous. “There’s more you ought to know.”

“Of course, there’s more I should know!” Ben shouted, giving no further thought to the young man’s sudden bout with shyness. “I need to know why and how bad my boys are hurt. But right now I am more interested in getting to them and seeing for myself. Hoss, saddle the horses. I’ll tell Hop Sing to…”

“Mr. Cartwright!” Clay’s shout stopped the rest of Ben’s words. “Please. You really need to know.”

A quick glance toward Hoss ensured Ben his son was as startled and as concerned as Ben was himself. Both gave their full attention to Clay.

“The kid said…. Well, he said he thought maybe…. He couldn’t be sure but… it might be….”

“Stop all that stammering, boy! Just say what you need to!”

“It’s Little Joe, Mr. Cartwright. The kid thinks he killed ‘im.”

Ben couldn’t breathe.

“What do you mean ‘he thinks’ he killed Joe?” Hoss’ voice was icily calm.

“He left before he knew for sure how bad Joe was hurt.”

“This kid shot my brothers, took their horses and rode straight to Virginia City for help but he never even tried to help them himself?”

“Hoss,” Clay took off his hat and scratched his head. “I don’t rightly know if he meant to get help or to just turn himself in.”

“Turn himself in?” Hoss asked. “He wanted to turn himself in for maybe murdering Little Joe, which would maybe get him hanged…and he didn’t even know if Joe was dead or not?”

“That’s the truth of it.”

“Seems to me there’s an awful lot about that boy’s story that just don’t make any sense.”

“Seems to me,” Ben broke in loudly, anger warring with fear in his heart, “there’s far too much supposition for us to believe any of this until we see for ourselves. As far as I’m concerned both Adam and Joe are very much alive. Now Hoss, let’s get moving. I refuse to waste any more time with suppositions.” And I refuse to believe either one of my boys might be dead, he added silently.

*****

…They soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out
and down in the sand she lay rolling about
while Ike, half distracted looked on in surprise
saying, “Betsy, get up, you’ll get sand in your eyes

Sand. Joe was face down in the sand. He lifted his head just enough to spit out granules that clung to his lip as he tried to remember why he was there.

Adam.

Adam had sung him off on this journey, singing Sweet Betsy in as loud a voice as he could muster — loud enough for Joe to hear him until the sand stole the notes when Joe finally left the mine behind him.

“Keep singing, Joe,” Adam had said. “Keep your mind on the song and your eyes on the saddle horn.”

‘Keep my eyes on the saddle horn.’

Joe pushed himself to one elbow, intending to look around for his horse; but his head protested the movement. It felt as though someone was pounding iron spikes into it. Railroad spikes. He rolled over onto his back, closing his eyes to the blinding light of the sun as the spikes tore into his skull.

No, not spikes. Nails.

Joe remembered telling Adam it felt like someone was driving nails into his head.

“Adam,” he said aloud in a voice made rough from the desert heat. Joe needed to reach Bill Gephardt’s mine to get help for Adam. “Keep my eyes on the saddle horn.”

He lifted his head once more, just enough to look around for the rocky hill with a crest in the shape of a saddle horn. That’s where he would find the mine. That’s where he would find help. It wasn’t far. All told, the walk should take him no more than a couple of hours — that is, if he was able to walk at his normal gate, which he clearly had not managed to do so far. And how long had he been lying face down in the sand?

“How long this time?” he asked the sun.

Not too long,” Adam answered. “About twenty minutes, give or take.”

“Adam?”

No. Adam wasn’t there. Adam was back in the mine. Not Gephardt’s mine. Another one. A dead one. Adam was in a dead mine. Adam was dying in a dead mine.

“No,” Joe protested.

He pushed himself into a sitting position, all the while fighting off the railroad men who insisted on pounding him back to the sand.

“Oh, don’t you remember sweet Betsy from Pike.” Joe spoke the words in a breathy voice as he tried to get his mind back to the song — as Adam had said he should.

“Keep your mind on the song and your eyes on the saddle horn.”

It wasn’t just about the song, Joe realized. It was the singing. Adam had said it would help keep him focused. But maybe he would focus better if he tried different songs. He might be able to judge time better, too. How many songs would it take to reach Gephardt’s mine?

How far had he traveled already? He couldn’t really tell. The dead mine was out of sight, buried somewhere amongst the hills and rocks he’d left behind him.

Buried somewhere behind him….

Adam’s voice started singing in Joe’s thoughts. It was a sad song, one he would occasionally play on his guitar at the end of a long day during a cattle drive. It was also a slower melody — slower than Sweet Betsy, anyway — one more in tune with Joe’s slow pace and addled thoughts.

“Oh, bury me not,” Joe started to sing in a raspy voice, “on the lone prairie.” These words came low and mournfully… He grabbed the walking stick beside him and used it to push himself back to his feet, clumsily lifting the strap for his canteen back to his shoulder as he grunted from the persistent pounding of the angry spikes in his head. “From the pallid lips of a youth who lay,” Joe continued where he stood, swaying and waiting for the ground to gain some stability beneath his feet. “On his dying bed, at the close of day.”

Joe had to stop to catch his breath.

“Drink some water, Joe,” Adam said somewhere in his thoughts.

He started to do as he was told, but as he held the canteen to his lips he thought of Adam again. They’d only been left with one canteen.

“Take it, Joe,” Adam had said. “You’ll need it more than I will.”

“I can’t Adam. What if…”

“You’ll be back before I know it. You said that yourself.”

How could Joe argue that? He knew he owed Adam everything he had promised: a quick walk to Gephardt’s mine and an even quicker return. He also knew this desert had its own promises, owed to no one but God and to nothing but time. What if those promises trumped Joe’s, just as Adam had said Joe’s head wound trumped his own leg injury?

When his gaze had landed on Pa’s half empty bottle of brandy, Joe had found an answer that seemed so simple he was amazed Adam hadn’t considered it. But the grin that had started deep inside him died before reaching his lips. If Adam really hadn’t considered it, he was surely fighting far more than he let on to stay coherent despite fever and blood loss. And if he had considered it but had chosen not to suggest it, did that mean he was giving up?

“No,” Joe said aloud as he stood alone with the sun.

He had emptied out the rest of Pa’s brandy and split the remaining water between the canteen and the bottle, leaving the bottle at Adam’s side.

“Neither one of us is giving up,” Joe said. Or he thought he said it, anyway. Whether he’d said it or not, it was true. He refused to give up. Swallowing a small amount of sun-heated water, Joe replaced the cap on the canteen and turned his gaze to the saddle horn.

“Oh, bury me not,” Joe started to sing once more as he took a step forward.

… on the lone prairie
These words came low and mournfully
from the pallid lips of a youth who lay
on his dying bed at the close of day

He had wasted and pined ’til on his brow
death’s shades were slowly gathering now

He thought of his home and his loved ones nigh
as the cowboys gathered to watch him die

Joe paused, considering the words of the song, and then started laughing. “If neither of us is giving up,” he said aloud, “why am I singing about dying?”

He decided a different song might be more appropriate — maybe one used by marching troops.

When I first came to town
they called me the roving jewel
Now they’ve changed their tune
They call me Katy Cruel
Come diddle um day
oh little li-o-day

Oh that I…where I…

Joe laughed again. He would never get that chorus right. He settled for repeating “Come diddle um day; oh little li-o-day,” and then went on to the next verse.

*****

Oh that I was where I would be
then I would be where I am not
Here I am where I must be
Go where I would, I cannot
Come diddle um day
Oh little li-o-day

Adam had his eyes closed and his head resting against the hard, rocky wall behind him as he remembered Joe singing with him the night before. The memory made him smile. Joe would never get that chorus right. Maybe one day Adam should sit him down and coach him slowly through it.

Maybe one day….

Adam opened his eyes and looked out into the desert. Joe hadn’t left until early afternoon, just after the sun had peaked, making the desert about as hot as it could be. The timing had been miserable — and unavoidable. It had also been too soon. A head wound didn’t heal in a matter of hours. The blinding light of the sun and dehydration would only compound Joe’s pain.

Maybe Adam should have insisted Joe stay with him, but at least out there, Joe stood a chance of being seen, of being found. In here, Joe would have had to sit helplessly and watch his oldest brother bleed to death. Anything after that would have been as much of a gamble as a useless, midday walk through the desert. Maybe the water would’ve lasted long enough for Pa to find him. Maybe he would have struck out on his own, bound for home because with Adam gone he would have lost his sense of urgency to reach Gephardt’s mine.

Even with all those ‘maybes’ Joe himself would have had a better chance of survival if he’d stayed with Adam. Had Adam been selfish in letting him go?

“I’m sorry, Joe,” he said to the sun outside before he closed his eyes again. “I’m so sorry.”

Too tired to sing, he listened in the depths of his mind to a song he’d heard in San Francisco.

Lay up nearer, brother nearer
For my limbs are growing cold
And thy presence seemeth dearer
When thine arms around me fold

I am dying brother dying
Soon you’ll miss me in your berth
And my form will soon be lying
Beneath the ocean’s briny surf.

I am going, surely going
But my hopes in God are strong
I am willing, brother knowing
That He doeth nothing wrong.

Hark I hear my Savior speaking
Yes, I know His voice so well
When I’m gone, oh don’t be weeping
Brother, hear my last farewell.

*****

The ride was long and frustratingly slow. Hoss wanted nothing more than to spur his horse into a frenzied run, yet no matter his concern for his brothers — and especially his fear for Little Joe –there was no way he could willingly bring harm to the animal carrying him. As Hoss saw it, his horse was like a gift from God Himself, providing him with the opportunity to travel further and faster than he could ever hope to go on his own two legs. No, as much as Hoss wanted to close the gap between him and the Kirby mine, he would not do it at Chubb’s expense. And so he rode at a pace Chubb could reasonably handle, beside his father, who was clearly of a similar mindset.

For that mindset, it was a quiet journey. There was nothing to be said. Neither man knew the truth of what they would face at the journey’s end. The information Clay had shared was limited, and too strange to be trusted. On one hand, if it could be trusted, Adam might not be bad off. Clay had said Adam had been shot in the leg and seemed to have been talking up a storm with the kid who’d done the shooting. If that was true, then Hoss might breathe easy, knowing his older brother would get the help he needed before his life was truly threatened.

On the other hand, Clay had also said the kid thought Joe might already be dead. The story was his gun went off and Joe went down, and for however long the kid had stayed with them afterward, Joe hadn’t made the slightest move or even a single sound. The kid had left him like that without ever bothering to check to see if Joe was still alive.

That was the strangest part of all this. The kid walked out on Hoss’ brothers knowing full well they needed help. He’d just up and left. Why? Because he was scared? But scared of what? Was he scared of facing up to the fact that he might have killed Joe?

Clay swore he’d heard the kid say the shootings were accidental.

“Wait a minute,” Hoss had said when Clay followed him into the barn to help with the horses. “If it really was an accident, what was he so fired up to turn himself in for?”

“He said he meant to rob ’em. He never meant to hurt ’em. Just everything went wrong.”

Everything went wrong all right, Hoss said to himself now. And if that kid done killed Little Joe, I’ll kill him. I swear I will, accident or not. Hoss tightened his grip on the reins and began to imagine himself pulling a rope taut around a kid’s neck.

A kid.

“He’s just some kid,” Clay had said. “I never seen him before. Looked like he was wearing his daddy’s hat and was a long way from growin’ into it.”

He was just some plumb-fool, muddle-headed kid who didn’t know any better than to draw on Little Joe.

Or was he?

Little Joe was fast on the draw — one of the fastest Hoss had ever seen. If that kid could outdraw Joe, then shooting Joe could not have been accidental. No, that kid had to be lying. Maybe none of his story was true. But then what might that mean? Would Hoss and his pa actually find Adam and Joe at the mine, where the kid said they were? And if so, was there any reason to truly hope either of them might still be alive?

One thing was for sure: the kid had taken off with both his brothers’ horses. Hoss couldn’t imagine Adam or Joe letting someone take off and leave them stranded like that. Something bad had happened all right. And that kid was at the heart of it.

“Hoss!” Pa yelled, pulling him out of his tangled thoughts.

“Yeah, Pa?”

“How many times do I have to call you before you’ll actually start listening to me?”

“Sorry, Pa. I guess I was thinking too hard to hear you.”

“Well, thinking isn’t going to get us there any sooner,” Pa shouted in irritation. “We need to rest the horses. The last thing we want to do is run them into the ground.”

If the slowness of the ride was frustrating, having to stop for a rest was maddening. Hoss kept his eyes to the horizon, hopelessly willing himself to see across the miles and straight on through the hills. He had so many questions he could hardly bear to keep them bottled up inside him. How was Adam holding up? How much blood had he lost? And Joe… Hoss simply could not picture Joe lying dead on the floor of some dark, empty mine. Nor could he bring himself to try. Instead, he kept seeing images of Joe laughing.

Despite the nature of this ride and the gravity of Hoss’ musings, somehow he found himself smiling. There was just something infectious about Joe’s good spirits. Sure, Joe could also be annoyingly ill-tempered, but it was the impish Joe Hoss found himself focusing on now.

“What is it?” Pa asked as he moved to stand beside Hoss, straining to follow his son’s gaze deep into the desert. “Do you see something amusing out there?”

“Just thinking about Little Joe.” Hoss felt his smile slip away. “He ain’t dead, Pa. I just know he ain’t.”

Pa raised a hand to Hoss’ shoulder. “I know it too, son. At least…I want to know it.”

Hoss looked to his pa, then. It pained him to see the depth of worry casting its shadow in Pa’s eyes and etching lines deep into the elder Cartwright’s forehead.

“At least…I want to know it.”

Pa, a man whose faith could never be shaken, a man who clung to hope as fiercely as anything, was floundering in uncertainty. Suddenly Hoss found the image he had been refusing to envision. He could finally see Joe lying still and cold on the ground, his face ashen, his eyes empty and unseeing, his grin nothing but a memory.

“I think we’ve rested here long enough,” Hoss said as tendrils of ice gripped his heart. “The horses can get as much rest as they need after we reach Adam and Little Joe.” Saying nothing more, nor even bothering to listen to his pa’s reply, Hoss made quick work of mounting up. Chubb would recover from the harsh ride. It was Adam and Joe who needed attention now.

*****

Joe opened his eyes and squinted at the shimmering waves beside him. He needed to get across those waves with Adam. No, forAdam, he corrected. Joe had promised he would make it to…to somewhere.

The water is wide, I cannot get o’er
Neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I

Or…my brother and I? “Adam?” Joe rasped, calling hopelessly to the low voice singing in his thoughts. “I promised.”

A ship there is and she sails the sea
She’s loaded deep as deep can be
But not so deep as the love I’m in
I know not if I sink or swim

“I can’t…can’t sink.”

Joe struggled to his knees and reached for Adam’s walking stick, but it hissed at him. Puzzled, he stared at it. Was it his stick, or a snake — or maybe even an alligator?

‘There are no alligators in Nevada, Joe,’ Adam insisted.

“Can’t sink,” Joe said right back, as though it made all the sense in the world. It didn’t matter. He knew he couldn’t get help from an alligator. Instead, he climbed unaided back to his feet and willed himself to take one more unsteady step forward.

I leaned my back up against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
But first it bended and then it broke…

“I…I promised,” Joe cried on his brother’s shoulder. Why then was his cheek pressed up against desert sand?

*****

“Adam?”

In the stark silence his world had become, Adam heard a single voice.

“Adam? Where’s Little Joe?”

Sheriff Coffee? But if Roy was here, shouldn’t he already know where Little Joe is?

“Adam? He ain’t…he ain’t dead, is he?”

Opening his eyes, Adam tried to blink the sheriff into focus. “Roy?”

“Everything’s gonna be alright, son. Doc’s on his way. He’ll be here anytime now. I sent word to your Pa, too. I reckon he might even beat the doc.”

“Joe?”

Roy studied him, eyebrows drawn in confusion. “You’ll have to tell me about Little Joe. This boy here said Joe might be….” He sighed and glanced away. “Well he said his bullet might have killed Joe. We’re all sure hopin’ he’s mistaken.”

“Boy?” Adam looked past the sheriff’s shoulder, his eyes landing on a freckle-faced boy wearing a hat that was two sizes too big.

“It was the darndest thing, Adam,” Roy said. “He rode into Virginia City, came right to the jail and turned himself in. Said he shot you and Joe and meant to take off with your horses, but his conscience just wouldn’t let him move on.”

“D…did I kill him?” the boy asked timidly.

Adam shook his head. “No.” At least…Joe hadn’t been dead when the kid had abandoned them. Not then. Not yet. But now? Adam realized he had no way of knowing whether or not Joe had survived his journey. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“What are you saying, Adam?” Roy asked. “Where is he?”

“Gephardt’s. He went for help.”

“How long ago?”

Adam looked toward the entrance to gauge the time of day. “Too long,” he said then, discouraged to see the deepening shadows in the mine were not simply the result of his faded strength. The sun was sinking. It was nearly dusk.

“Find him, Roy,” he added.

“We will, Adam. We will. Just as soon as the doc…”

Now, Roy.” Adam made a pronounced effort to lock his gaze with the older man’s.

“You know I can’t leave you alone like this. And I can’t leave the boy with you, not after what he’s done.”

Moving his attention to the boy, Adam studied his movements and his eyes. “I think you can,” he said, honestly.

“You don’t know that.”

“He’s found his conscience.”

Roy turned to look at the boy for a long while before giving his attention back to Adam.

“Find Joe, Roy.”

“I’ll find him, Adam. Don’t you fret none. I’ll find him.”

*****

Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines. Sonnez les matines
Din, dan, don. Din, dan, don

Adam? Joe wondered. Is it morning already?

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Brother Joe, Brother Joe
Morning bells are ringing. Morning bells are ringing
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong

No. Not sleeping. I have to go… Go where?

Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques

The saddle horn. I have to get the saddle horn…the saddle. I have to…have to find my saddle.

Brother Joe, Brother Joe

I have to find my saddle.

Morning bells are ringing. Morning bells are ringing

Don’t…don’t tell Pa I lost it.

“Joseph?”

Pa?

“I’m right here, Joseph.”

The saddle. I have to find the saddle.

“It’s right here, Joseph.”

What? No. It’s… I have to find it.

“It’s right here, Joseph.”

Joe lifted his head from his bed of sand to look around him. “Pa?”

But Pa wasn’t there. Joe was alone. He pushed up with his left hand to roll over onto his back, and then gazed up at the orange and gold hues of the setting sun. It was beautiful. Breathtaking. It touched the world in whispers born of the very breaths it stole and drew new colors in the sand. Joe gazed at those colors, letting them fill him with a sense of something he could not name, a sense of completeness perhaps—a sense of being complete.

“Adam?” he asked, though somehow he knew Adam was not among those whispers.

They grew into a breeze that stirred the colored sands around him until a single ray of light filtered through the dusty cloud. It was so intense—so straight and so true. Like an arrow. Joe felt compelled to follow it with his eyes to where it landed on the side of a rocky hill. And then Joe studied the hill, finding it familiar.

“The saddle?” he said aloud, his voice little more than a breathy whisper. “The saddle horn.”

He found himself smiling, remembering a promise kept as he felt the ground begin to vibrate under the hooves of a fast horse.

*****

Two hours into the second half of their ride, Ben and Hoss began to see a cloud of dust growing ahead of them.

“You think that’s Doc Martin, Pa?”

Instead of answering, Ben drove his horse harder.

“Yeah. I reckon you’re right,” Hoss said to himself as he followed close behind.

Not long after, as the sun fell low in the sky behind them casting long shadows. Hoss began to follow his own tall shadow, wishing he could move as far and as quickly — especially when the tip of his shadow-hat caught up with the doc’s buggy. Hoss watched then as the doc eased into a turn, following the trail southward to skirt the hills. The turn painted a black image of the doc’s horse and buggy that rivaled the height of the tallest hill. Colossal in scale, it made the doc appear like a character out of legend, riding in to save the day. Hoss couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe at the sight. He found himself holding to the belief this image was a message of hope from Heaven itself.

By the time they finally caught up with the real Doc Martin, it was growing hard to see the difference between shadows. With dusk closing in, the entire desert was bathed in a wash of orange and red.

“Paul!” Ben called out in lieu of a friendly greeting.

The doc eased his horse into a slow canter to enable conversation. “I’m sorry, Ben. Seems your boys had the misfortune to meet up with a no good ruffian. That boy has no business holding a gun.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“I did.”

“What exactly did he say about Adam and Joe? We couldn’t make much sense of what Clay told us.”

“There wasn’t much sense to be made. He said he’d planned to take the horses while your boys were still asleep, but Joe must’ve heard him. The boy already had his revolver cocked, though for the life of me I don’t know why, if he thought your sons really were asleep. When Joe called out, the boy’s finger pressed the trigger.”

“So,” Hoss considered, “it might actually have been an accident?”

“In a manner of speaking. He did have the gun cocked, after all. I’m not a lawyer, but to me that shows some intent.”

“Could he say anything about where Joe was hit?” Pa asked.

“I’m afraid not. Apparently he spent a fair amount of time talking with Adam while he saddled Joe’s horse, yet in all that time he said it was like Joe wasn’t even there. The mine was dark so he couldn’t see Joe clearly, but from what he could see Joe just wasn’t moving, not the slightest bit.”

“Do you really think he might be…dead?” Hoss nearly choked trying to say the word aloud.

“I wouldn’t even dream of jumping to a conclusion like that, Hoss. He was unconscious, certainly. That in itself is not a good sign, but there’s a long difference between unconscious and dead.”

“Thank you, Paul.” Pa sounded more cautious than hopeful in his response.

“What about Adam?” Hoss asked, reaching as hard as he could toward hope.

“From what I gather, Adam tried to use his saddle to knock the boy off his feet. That’s what set off the next shot. The bullet caught Adam in the thigh.”

Hoss found himself staring into the distance looming in front of them as Pa studied the western horizon.

“It’ll be dark soon,” Pa said. “Will you be alright if we go on ahead?”

“Please do, Ben,” the doc answered. “The sooner you get there the better. I could even give you some supplies — at least some laudanum to stem the pain.”

As much as it disturbed him to consider it, Hoss had another idea. “Doc? How ’bout I take the buggy and you take my horse? Adam and Joe would do a whole lot better to see you as fast as can be. And besides,” he added, “Chubb would probably appreciate the lighter load for the last few miles.” He chuckled as he patted his horse’s flanks, though he was concerned by the sweat he found beneath his fingers.

Moments later, Hoss watched his pa and Doc Martin hurry off toward the mine, leaving him behind to deal with his mounting anxieties in the solitude of a desert sunset.

*****

The sun was nearly gone, leaving nothing but a blood-red trail on the horizon by the time Ben and Doctor Martin reached the mine. Strangely, despite his eagerness to arrive Ben found himself frozen in place for a long moment, gazing toward the darkness inside. The tiny flickers of a small fire near the entrance chased some of that darkness away, but not enough to prove to Ben whether or not Joe was alive, or how badly Adam’s leg wound had fared in the hours since the shooting.

“Roy’s horse is gone.” Paul Martin’s voice pulled Ben back to the moment.

“What?” he asked, shaking the fog from his thoughts.

“There’s only one horse. I don’t see Roy’s. I can’t imagine why he would leave that boy here unguarded.”

“The boy who shot my sons?” In an instant, rage broke through the terror, driving Ben from his horse without regard for the answer he had no need to hear.

Inside the mine, he found a small figure squatting beside a man who’d been propped up against the rough, rocky wall. As his eyes adjusted, Ben saw that the man was Adam.

“Move away from my son.” His voice, low and deep, rolled through the mine like the growl of a grizzly.

“Mr. Cartwright?” The small figure turned slightly toward him but made no move to respond to Ben’s demand.

“I said move away,” Ben repeated, raising his voice.

“I…I can’t.”

“You can’t or you won’t?” Ben flexed his fingers, poised readily above the gun at his side.

“I can’t. He’s bleeding again. I can’t get it to stop.”

With those words Ben’s rage faded icily away. He was aware of Paul Martin pressing past him and then followed quickly in his old friend’s wake until both were at Adam’s side. The boy was pushed out of the way. And forgotten.

“How bad is it?” Ben asked worriedly.

“Why don’t you just let me work here for a while?” Paul said, quickly taking charge. “It’d be a good idea to find out where Roy went off to, don’t you think?”

“The sh…sheriff…,” the boy stammered. “He went to find your other son, Mr. Cartwright.”

“What?” Once again Ben felt adrift at sea. He tried to grab hold of the boy’s words, desperate to let them keep him afloat. “Joe?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Joe’s alive?” Could it really be true? Dare he believe it?

“Yes, sir. At least…he…he was, sir.”

“What do you mean he was? Is he or isn’t he?”

The boy nodded toward where the doctor was working. “Adam, he told me Joe woke up sometime after…after I…”

“Get on with it, boy!”

“Well, I guess Joe had a head wound. It weren’t all bad except he kept passing out.”

“Where is he now?”

“That’s what I’m trying to say, Mr. Cartwright, sir. Adam helped Joe stay awake. And when it seemed like he could, he…he went for help, sir.”

“He went for help? Where?”

“The Gephardt mine. Sheriff Coffee went to bring him back, sir.”

“Are you saying Sheriff Coffee willingly left you alone in here with my son? You? The one responsible for all this?”

“Yes, sir. It was Adam, sir. Adam told the sheriff to go.”

“Stop calling me sir!” Ben yelled. “You sound like a…” Like a what? Like a little boy who had done something he fiercely regretted and was trying to own up to it to his mule-headed father? Ben stared hard at the boy and saw that he was, truly, a boy. A freckle-faced, tow-headed boy, whose eyes were brimming with unshed tears. “How old are you?” Ben asked.

“Fourteen last week, sir.”

“Fourteen? At fourteen you’re already stealing horses and shooting men for no reason at all?”

The boy began sobbing — yet he held his stance arrow straight and proved himself willing to own up to his crimes. “Yes, sir. I didn’t…I didn’t know what else to do, sir.”

“What do you mean you didn’t know what else to do? Don’t you realize stealing a man’s horse and shooting him in the process is wrong no matter what?”

“Yes, sir. I do know that, sir. But….”

“But what? What possible excuse could you have to commit such unthinkable crimes?”

“I didn’t want to die all alone in the desert, sir.”

“What?”

“I was hungry and tired. And I couldn’t find work no matter how hard I tried. And the desert just seemed to go on and on. And I just knew I was gonna die out here. And then…and then your sons come in here. And they had horses and food and water. And I just…I had to take it.”

“Don’t you think it would have been easier to ask?”

The boy laughed through his sobs. “That’s what Adam said, sir. But not ’til after. And then it was too late.”

“What do you mean ‘too late’?”

“I’d already done the shooting. And Adam was so worried about Joe. And I just knew I was gonna hang. And I was just so scared and….”

“And you left them here to die, so you wouldn’t have to?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ben wasn’t sure what to make of this boy or his story. “You were free and clear. So why did you go to Virginia City? Why turn yourself in to Sheriff Coffee?”

“Adam, sir. He…he was right.”

Adam? “Right about what?”

“He said I found my conscience. I did, sir. I know I did. And I’m so glad the doc is here. And I don’t want either of your boys to die, sir. Honest I don’t.”

“I believe you,” Ben said after a long, soul-searching moment. But could he trust the boy enough to leave him alone with Adam and Paul? Could he trust him as Roy apparently already had?

“If you want to prove it,” Ben added then, “to really prove it, then you stay here and help the doctor. Do everything he says, you hear me, boy?”

He nodded. “Yes, sir. I will, sir. I swear it.”

“You keep my son alive.” Ben’s voice was a harsh whisper.

“I’ll do everything I can, sir. I swear it. On my momma’s grave, I swear it.”

Suddenly the yellow hair and freckles vanished as Ben’s thoughts moved to younger versions of his own sons. If either one of them had been abandoned, left alone in such a ruthless environment at so young an age could they have fallen along a similar, dark path?

No, he told himself. Each and every one of his sons would have known better. Ben wanted to believe it. He needed to believe it. Yet some part of him could not help but wonder.

Thank God, he decided then, I’ll never have to know the answer.

A moment later, Ben left an unconscious Adam and a very busy Doctor Paul Martin alone with the boy who’d shot his sons so he could find the one who was still missing. Ben needed to find Little Joe.

*****

The sun was setting by the time Roy Coffee found himself just about within spitting distance of Bill Gephardt’s mining operation. Still he hadn’t found Little Joe. He knew Joe had come this way. The boy’s tracks were as unmistakable as they were disturbing — too often Roy had found clear evidence Joe had fallen to the ground; and the irregular patterns where his feet hit the sand whenever he was upright made it all too obvious he was struggling every step of the way.

Joe was hurting, alright. The fact that he’d made it this far was actually pretty surprising. But where was he now? If he’d reached Gephardt, then where was everybody? Someone should have headed out to check on Adam by now — unless Joe hadn’t been conscious enough to explain what had happened.

Roy spurred his horse forward, anxious to close the final distance. After about a dozen yards taken with as much speed as his horse could muster, a shadow caught his eye. He locked his gaze on that shadow, knowing in his gut what it would turn out to be even while he prayed his gut would be wrong this time around. Yet as he moved steadily forward, his faith faded just as steadily. He could no longer allow himself to believe the shadow was not the prone figure of Little Joe.

“Good Lord,” Roy said aloud before turning the conversation inward. You could not have let him come all this way for nothing. Don’t you give me that dust-to-dust business. Little Joe’s a far cry from being ready to become dust.

Despite the silent scolding, by the time Roy reached Joe it seemed the good Lord had other ideas. Joe was far too still. Roy couldn’t even be sure he was breathing. “Joe?” he called out.

Keenly aware Joe couldn’t hear him, Roy dropped to his knees and held his hand just above the boy. Fear prevented him from going any further—the fear of discovering what he did not want proven true. He turned his eyes upward to see the sky going gray above a single, blood-red streak on the western horizon.

“No,” he told his Lord then. “It wouldn’t be right. It just wouldn’t be right, is all. I know you got bigger things on your mind, but you and I both know it wouldn’t be right.”

A breeze swept sand across his face. He turned away. Trying to ignore the sting in his eyes, Roy gave his attention back to Joe. He let his hand fall to the boy’s shoulder.

“Little Joe?” he called out again, more loudly than before. He squeezed Joe’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. “Joe, son? Can you hear me?”

Nothing.

“No, sir. It just…wouldn’t be right,” he said aloud.

Roy put his hand to Joe’s chest, hoping to feel something — the subtle rise and fall from breathing, the soft thump of Joe’s beating heart. But he couldn’t tell. He just couldn’t tell. All he could feel was the cloth of Joe’s shirt and the brush of sand across his own fingers.

Casting another glance upward, Roy uttered a final admonishment. “Don’t you do this, Lord. Don’t you….”

Roy cleared his throat, removed his hat and then dropped his head to Joe’s chest. What he couldn’t feel, he would surely hear. Joe had to be alive. Roy just wasn’t going to accept anything else.

It took a long while to find it, long enough that Roy’s faith was all but lost. Yet somehow, perhaps miraculously, he heard it. The sound was soft. But it was there, nonetheless. Joe’s heart really was beating. The boy really was still alive.

“Thank God,” he said.

Roy sat back on his haunches, raised his eyes to the darkening sky and repeated, “Thank you.”

A moment later, he did all he could to force Joe to swallow a sip of water. Then he gathered the boy into his arms and cast one final look upward. “I consider this a promise, now. Don’t you disappoint me.”

As the final red streaks died away, Roy began a much slower ride back the way he’d come, his arms wrapped protectively around Ben Cartwright’s deathly still — yet still breathing — youngest son.

*****

By the time Hoss finally made it to the old Kirby mine, every muscle in his body felt like it was part of a single rope that had been pulled as tight as it could possibly go. Just one more mile and it would have snapped for sure. Yet when he saw his pa saddling a strange horse, somehow that rope pulled tighter still.

“Pa?” he asked, stepping out of the doc’s buggy and keeping an anxious eye on the entrance to the mine. “You…you goin’ back already?”  There was only one reason he could think of to explain why Pa might be willing to go back home so soon: there was nothing worth staying for. If that were true, Adam and Joe must both be dead.

“No,” Pa answered quietly, preoccupied by more than his work with the horse. “Joe’s out there somewhere. I’m going to find him.”

Hoss’ rope about turned to jelly at the sound of Pa’s words. “Then…he…he ain’t dead?” Taking a comforting breath, Hoss allowed himself a small smile until Pa’s hands went still, his efforts abandoned. When he finally turned to face Hoss, giving his middle son his full attention, Hoss almost wished he hadn’t. Pa seemed…lost. That was about the only word Hoss could think of to describe what he saw in Pa’s eyes. But an instant later, Pa seemed to have found whatever had been missing. He pulled his shoulders back and clenched his hands into angry fists, his eyes sparking with determination despite a shadow of worry.

“He walked out of here,” Pa said. “Of course, whatever’s happened to him since…” Pa shook his head. “Only Heaven really knows.”

That made no sense to Hoss, none at all. “But he was shot. If Clay and the doc were right, he wasn’t even moving.”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“Then how could he just walk out like that?”

Pa raised his eyebrows, suggesting Hoss should already know the answer. Then, his voice rising as though in reproach, he declared, “You know you’re brother as well as anyone. When he sets his mind to something, it could take an army to hold him back. This time….” Pa’s voice softened. “This time, he set his mind to getting help for Adam.” Adam’s name barely escaped Pa’s lips. His voice cracked with the effort of holding back emotions Hoss couldn’t help but share.

“Then Adam….” Hoss mirrored his pa’s movements, turning a concerned gaze toward the mine’s entrance. “He’s hurt bad?”

“He’s lost a lot of blood.” Despite the words, Pa sounded like himself yet again, fully in control and ready to take on anyone or anything that had the gumption to come after him — or, Heaven forbid, any of his sons.

“But what about Joe?” Hoss asked, trying to hold to his pa’s strength. “Where was he hit?”

Pa’s gaze caught him once more, the dark eyes sliding downward in an almost imperceptible instant of doubt before returning to Hoss. “That boy’s bullet caught Little Joe in the head. He apparently lost his battle to stay conscious more than once before deciding to strike out into the desert.”

“Pa, if he had a head wound, he couldn’t possibly hope to…”

“Yes,” Pa broke in. “Yes, he could hope. Just like we have to hold onto hope for both him and Adam right now.”

A flicker of something sparked in Pa’s eyes, as though some new thought had come to him. Acting upon it, he started to remove the saddle he’d only just put into place.

“Pa?” Hoss asked, confused. “Ain’t you goin’ after him?”

“This animal has pulled a buggy before. And if Joe’s still…awake,” Pa said, emphasizing the carefully chosen word, “he’ll be too tired to properly sit a horse… Here, why don’t you help me with the rig? Paul said he put some supplies in the back.”

Hoss made a move to fetch Doc Martin’s things, but Pa stopped him.

“You take care of Paul’s horse,” Pa insisted, “and get this one hitched up. I’ll bring in the supplies.”

“Sure, Pa.” Hoss’ response came from habit. A moment later he realized there was something strange in the way his pa had suddenly shifted from his focus on the horse to his focus on the doc’s supplies. Pa was not the kind of person to lose track of what he was doing. Was he holding something back? Something specific he did not want Hoss to know?

“Pa?” Hoss started to ask.

“Yes?” The response seemed cursory, as though the only thing that mattered was the picnic basket he was pulling out of the back of the buggy.

Yeah. Pa was holding something back. Hoss was sure of it. He also knew his pa could be every bit as stubborn as Little Joe.

“I’ll take care of the horses,” Hoss said, leaving his question unasked.

He watched his pa walk back toward the entrance and pause, taking a deep breath as though to collect his composure. That was enough to encourage Hoss to find the answer on his own. He followed his pa into the mine.

*****

Hoss’ gaze fell instantly on Adam. His brother was groggy but conscious, which seemed to surprise Pa. The elder Cartwright took a faltering step before hurriedly setting down the basket and moving to Adam’s side.

“Hey, Adam,” Hoss couldn’t help but call out. “You had us mighty worried.”

“Hoss?” Adam answered weakly, his eyes scanning toward Hoss and then landing on Pa. “Pa?”

“We’re here, son.” Pa placed his hand atop Adam’s head.

“How? When?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Pa answered. “All that matters is we’re here now.”

“Joe?”

“Roy’s gone after him. Hoss and I were about to go as well.”

We were? Hoss realized he’d given no thought to whether he would join his pa or not. The fact was, he could barely accept that Adam was right here, needing help, and Joe was out there somewhere, also needing help. How could he think about which way to go, which brother to focus his attention on? Besides, he’d been too numb to think. He’d just been following whatever Pa said and doing whatever he knew had to be done at any particular moment. Thinking ahead hurt too much. Every time he’d done it throughout this long and heart-rending day, all he’d managed to do was worry himself sick, wondering whether or not either of his brothers was still breathing.

“It’s my fault, Pa,” Adam said then, his voice not much more than a whisper. “I should never have let him go.”

“No,” Pa said. “You know perfectly well you couldn’t have stopped him.”

“I should have.”

“And just how might you have gone about doing that?”

Adam shook his head slowly, absently. “Somehow. There had to be a way.”

“Joe did what he felt he needed to do. You can’t deny you would have done the same.”

Adam glanced at Pa and quirked his mouth up in one of those half smiles of his. Hoss would have matched it, but it died too quickly as the doc did something that caused his brother to cringe in pain.

“Keep him talking, Ben,” Doc Martin said.

Hoss took that as a sufficient cue it was time for him to go. Alone. Pa was clearly needed right where he was. “I’ll go get Joe,” he announced.

Pa looked toward him and nodded, his eyes reflecting both gratitude and apology. Hoss nodded back, and then flashed Adam a quick smile. When he turned away, his eyes landed on the boy.

That’s him, Hoss realized, freezing where he stood. Had to be. Who else could it be?

Was that what Pa had been trying to keep from him? Had Pa been hoping to prevent him from finding out the boy was there — or at least to delay him from finding out? Pa probably didn’t want Hoss to go off halfcocked on the kid. Finding Joe was more important. It made sense. Hoss would probably have tried to do the same with Pa.

It was strange, though, because the boy didn’t look like much. Maybe if the kid scrunched his eyebrows down and thinned out his lips in an “I’ll give you what-for!” sort of way he’d look more like the kind of ruffian who could shoot both of Hoss’ brothers. But as he was just standing there, seeming more lost than Pa had moments earlier; he reminded Hoss of a yearling not quite ready to go off on his own rather than a young bull ready to test his horns.

Now it was Hoss’ turn to feel lost. That yearling had nearly killed Adam, and still might have gone and killed Little Joe, for all any of them knew. Hoss should tear him apart. He should want to tear the kid apart. But oddly, he couldn’t seem to find the need.

“Hoss!” Pa called out.

“Yeah, Pa?” he answered without moving.

“Go find Joe.”

“Yeah.” Yeah, Hoss repeated silently. He had to find Joe. This kid wasn’t going anywhere. If he hadn’t yet, there was no reason to figure he would now. Hoss could decide what to do about him later.

He found it hard to pull his eyes from the boy until he’d stepped outside, but from that moment on, the only person on Hoss’ mind was Joe.

*****

Hoss did not like riding in the doc’s buggy. He felt closed in by it, oddly cut off from the world around him. The feeling intensified as the moments passed, gaining substance perhaps from the strange way his family had been pulled apart by the actions of a careless yearling. Each Cartwright was cut off from the others in some way. Hoss was out in the desert, alone, looking for Joe who was also out there somewhere, alone, and back in the mine Pa was on his own, hoping to bolster the doc’s work by comforting Adam through a battle no one but Hoss’ big brother could fight.

Hoss could remember Joe telling him a lesson Pa had given his younger brother once. Pa had said each one of them was like a strip of wood, easy to break in half when he’s all by himself. But when all those strips are bound together, it’d take a mighty force to break ’em. Right now Hoss saw those four strips of wood all scattered around, and Joe’s and Adam’s were already splintered.

Hoss didn’t like any of it, not one bit.

As the night grew thicker around him, Hoss’ sense of separation became nearly unbearable. By the time stars began to flicker into existence, casting a ghostly glow over the desert, he had half a mind to get out and walk. Maybe then he could actually see the trail, despite the darkness.

Hoss was wondering how much speed he would lose by doing just that when a distant rider caught his eye. Had to be Sheriff Coffee, didn’t it? Whoever was coming was moving mighty slow. Either he wasn’t in any kind of hurry, or he was burdened by something — or someone.

Joe.

“Hee-yah!” Prodding the horse to greater speed, Hoss’ empty gut churned with anxiety while his thoughts did some churning of their own. Hey, God? he prayed silently while he closed the gap between him and the sheriff, I reckon I don’t talk to you as much as I should, and I’m sorry about that. I really am. I’ll aim to do better, but you gotta listen to me now. Don’t take it out on Joe. I don’t talk much on account I don’t ask for much. I’m mostly fine the way things are. Sure, I get selfish sometimes. Don’t everybody? But at least I know it when I do — maybe not right away, but eventually, anyways. But doggone it, what I’m askin’ now isn’t for me at all. It’s Joe, God. Little Joe. He just…he don’t deserve this. And Adam, you know what he’s like. If he comes through this and Joe don’t, you know he’ll hold onto feelin’ guilty right to his own grave. Pa will too, even though you and I both know he didn’t cause any of this and he couldn’t have made it any different. Except maybe to wish he’d gone to Salt Flats himself rather than send Adam and Joe. So, please God. All I’m asking is just let them both be okay. That’s not too much is it? I know it’s not too much to ask. Not for you, it ain’t.

You’re right. I am being a touch selfish. I just don’t want to not have Joe around. He’s my little brother. My baby brother. Okay, maybe he’s not so much a baby anymore, although sometimes he can sure act like one. But I just can’t see him dead, God. I just can’t. I suppose you might consider that selfish. But mostly it’s not for me I’m asking, God. It’s for Joe and Pa and Adam. You’ve got to make it right for all of them, God. You’ve just got to.

Hoss had found himself so filled up with silent words that it was shocking to have them all disappear like they did the moment he finally caught up with Sheriff Coffee. It was like someone threw him a massive punch to the gut, knocking everything right out of him. Suddenly, just like that, he felt empty, his prayer forgotten.

Hoss felt empty because Joe looked empty. He looked like nothing at all sitting up there atop Roy’s horse, enfolded in the sheriff’s arms. There was just nothing to him, as though he was already gone.

Hoss jumped out of the buggy feeling far heavier than he should, especially since he also felt so empty. Once he hit the ground, his legs seemed unwilling to take him any closer.

“I’m afraid he’s in a bad way, Hoss.”

“How bad?”

“He’s still breathing. That’s about all I can say.”

He’s still breathin’. Those words were all Hoss needed to unlock his feet. He plodded forward and then reached up to relieve the sheriff of his frail burden.

Strangely, Joe became no burden at all in Hoss’ arms. He had expected Joe to feel like…well, like dead weight, same as he’d felt back that time Joe had lost a fight in the saloon and Hoss had to carry him out. Maybe Hoss was just too numb to feel anything, but he’d swear Joe felt like nothing at all. Like he was empty.

Or like he wasn’t even there.

Stop thinking like that, Hoss chided himself silently. Of course he’s there. He’s still breathing, ain’t he? That’s what counts.

Cradling Joe protectively in his arms, Hoss carried him to the buggy and gently settled him onto the rear seat.

“Why don’t you just go on and get in with him, Hoss? Keep him from jostling around.”

Roy was beside him before he’d even realized the sheriff had moved. From then on, it was as though Hoss was a child again, ignorant to the goings-on around him and confident the grown-ups would take care of all that needed to be done to get them home — or at least back to the mine. Only distantly aware of Roy hitching his horse to the back of the buggy and climbing in up front, Hoss gave his full attention to Joe, desperate to find some sign to prove to him what Roy had said.

He’s still breathing.

How could Hoss know for sure? Joe was motionless. He was absolutely, even deathly still. Hoss could see no lines of pain around his eyes, no subtle flickering of his lids. There was just nothing. Nothing at all.

He was empty.

*****

Adam was sleeping. Whether out of sheer exhaustion or the doc’s medicine — or, more likely both — Ben was glad to see him finally resting, untroubled by the worry they’d all shared over Little Joe. The elder Cartwright rested his hand across Adam’s forehead, pleased to get affirmation of Doc Martin’s prognosis. There appeared to be no infection. Ben only wished the rest of the doc’s words had been equally encouraging. If the wound was not harboring any surprises the doc had failed to catch, if his handiwork proved successful, and if Adam stayed put for a good day or two, they should not have to worry about infection or additional blood loss.

All that really meant to Ben was “wait and see.” Wait there and see. Adam’s first days of recovery were to be spent stuck in a dirty, old mine with barely enough fresh water let alone any clean sheets.

Despite all that, Adam was finally sleeping, and Ben was pleased to see it.

Pushing himself to his feet, Ben was about to ask Paul Martin if there was any coffee in that picnic basket when he just about walked into the boy. Why couldn’t he keep out of the way, for Heaven’s sake? “I thought I told you to…”

The rest of Ben’s angry words were stolen from him when the boy pressed something into his hands, a cloth of some kind, or….

It was a jacket. Joe’s jacket.

“I found it in the corner,” the boy said. “I thought it could be rolled up for Adam. I mean for a pillow, so he could be more comfortable.”

Ben ran his fingers along the napped leather, his throat constricting with every seam he touched, every nuance he explored, and his legs slowly losing the strength to hold him upright. He heard voices, saw movement, realized the boy had moved away — but all these things lacked meaning to him. He dismissed them as inconsequential. They had no bearing on his heart, where only one thing…or, rather, three mattered. His sons.

Why, God? The question arose from the depths of that troubled heart. When you took their mothers from me…from us, I came to acceptance for the mere fact that each of those precious women remained with me in their sons. Now would you take their sons as well? If you want me to beg, I will. If you want me to grovel, I will. If you want to take me in place of any one of them, I will go with you willingly, happily, and with joy in my heart for knowing they will each have the chance to know the love I’ve known: the love of a woman and the love of the child she bears for him. Whatever you want of me, I will give without question if you would hear me now. Please, Heavenly Father, give this earthly father back his sons, all of them, whole and hale.

Feeling a hand come to rest on his shoulder, Ben cleared his throat, blinked his eyes and let a deep breath restore his posture.

“Come on over here, Ben,” Paul said. “We found some old timbers to sit on. You might encounter some splinters, but it sure beats the ground.” He tried to sound casual, even humorous, but Ben could hear empathy in his tone. “I’ve got some sandwiches, too, and as your doctor, I insist you eat them. You won’t be any good to anyone if you don’t keep up your own strength.”

“Yes,” Ben acknowledged mechanically. “Of course.”

But as the good doctor began to usher him toward the cozy, rustic seating area he’d helped to create, the stars beyond the mine’s entrance caught Ben’s eye. “In a moment,” he said then, moving himself out from under his old friend’s protective arm.

The sight of those stars drew him to a sudden, intense need for fresh air. Once outside, he filled his lungs — once, twice, a third time, belatedly considering the count. One for each son, perhaps? He smiled sadly and then swept his gaze across the brightening stars as his memories painted a scene from a not-so-distant past. He saw Adam pointing out the constellations to his young brothers. He heard Hoss and Joe shouting out to one another at every newly discovered shooting star, each claiming it for his own and then arguing who’d found it first.

As the memory filled an empty place within him, another, more recent memory pulled him down to his knees. He drew his hands together, Joe’s jacket clutched tightly between them, and prayed.

*****

“Amen.” The word fell like a proclamation from Ben’s lips. It gave him the strength to climb back to his feet despite his protesting knees. More importantly, it gave him hope.

He glanced briefly up at the stars once more and then swept over the dark expanse of the desert with eyes that seemed clearer than they’d been all day. Looking from left to right and back again, scanning for any sign that Hoss or Roy was returning, he repeated the action once, twice, a third time. Finally his gaze landed on a shadow moving toward him.

Time stopped. Ben’s lungs held to his last drawn breath, refusing to expend it. His heart was clutched in God’s firm fist, preventing it from beating for one interminable second — one agonizing and desperate second that made him feel like a grandfather clock wound too tightly, the coil inside threatening to snap. Once released, the second hand would fly too hard and too fast until time itself lacked meaning.

Perhaps it already lacked meaning, because when the moment ended, Ben stumbled forward, overwhelmed by a resurgence of life within him. The blood in his veins seemed to rush like a wild river, flooding his head with an intense belief that the hours behind him had no bearing on those to come.

In the next moments, the pace of the world itself increased in tempo, from whole notes to half, to quarter and faster still, lifting and swirling desert sands around him like the swish of ladies skirts at a country dance. Ben had to reach blindly forward through the dust, hoping to steady himself against the rocks until the desert settled back into its natural rhythm.

It was then that the jingle of a harness and the creak of wagon wheels brought an end to his waiting.

Seeing now with both his eyes and his heart, the approaching shadow gained substance, becoming a buggy — Doctor Paul Martin’s buggy. Ben then saw that Hoss was no longer driving. The man riding in front had none of Hoss’ characteristic bulk, unique to him alone on the Comstock. The hat was different, too. No, Hoss was clearly not driving. Roy, then.

As they drew nearer Ben saw that Hoss was in back with a third, smaller figure, one that rested against his chest.

Joe.

Ben could not help but be reminded of a mother bear protecting her cub in the way Hoss’ arms protectively enfolded his young brother, and Ben’s heart swelled with pride for Hoss even as he felt his own mother bear instincts kicking in, causing him to worry over his youngest son. Worry was fitting. It was natural. He could allow himself to worry. What he could not allow was fear. As the buggy crossed the final yards, Ben closed his eyes, steeling himself to hold to the faith his prayer had given him only moments before. He would not fear for Little Joe. No. He must believe. He must have faith. While he knew full well the Lord would take each of his sons in their time, he also knew this was not Joe’s time. Nor was it Adam’s.

And so he stood tall, planting himself firmly on the ground like the rocks around him, aiming to appear solid, aiming to be solid and ready to ease the burden he could already see in the slump of Hoss’ shoulders.

“Ben,” Roy greeted as he brought the buggy to a halt. His mouth worked for a moment longer, but he seemed unable to find words.

Ben nodded in understanding and more, meeting his old friend’s gaze in the hope the true depth of his appreciation was reflected in his own. Thank you for bringing them both back to me. Thank you for being there when the boy came to you. Thank you for being there when my boys needed you. Thank you for being here now.

“Pa?” Hoss’ voice, too small for his girth, too small for the man he’d become in these past years under his pa’s watchful eye, pulled Ben’s attention to the back of the buggy.

“I know, son,” Ben said, seeing fear in Hoss’ eyes and hoping to quell it with the faith in his own. But when he reached in to allow Hoss to let go the care of his young brother, Ben realized he didn’t even know if Joe was still alive. Neither Roy nor Hoss had said anything at all. With that, had they said everything they’d needed to say?

No. Ben must believe. He must be strong. It had been many years since Hoss had needed Ben’s strength. Tonight he needed it more than ever before. No. Ben could not falter. He could not stop to question. He could not even stop to pray. The time for that had passed. This was the time for nothing but strength.

Ben took Joe from Hoss’ arms, and then, ignoring the agony in his heart, he carried his pale, motionless young son into the mine, letting faith and belief guide his every step.

*****

Two Cartwright brothers, the youngest and the oldest, wounded, treated and now waiting for time and God to set things right again, were laid out side by side on the dirt floor of an old, decrepit mine. They should be home, in the comfort of their own beds. They should be just resting, not fighting for their lives. They should be arguing or laughing or maybe sharing a song or two — they should be doing anything other than this.

Hoss, the third brother, the one in between, could do nothing but watch over them. It was a useless, meaningless effort. He felt a sense of helplessness that ate away at his insides and left him anxious to plant his fist into someone. Trouble was, there was no one he could really take aim at. He couldn’t avenge his brothers when the one responsible was just some scatterbrained, good-for-nothing, little punk kid who didn’t know any better than to take whatever he wanted.

Ah, dangnammit anyway. Who was Hoss fooling? He couldn’t muster up enough anger with the kid to consider vengeance, no matter how hard he tried. The boy was just a kid after all, one who didn’t have a pa or anyone else to teach him right. No, Hoss couldn’t hope to come close to avenging his brothers. He couldn’t help them either. Apparently, not even the doc could do that, or so Hoss had gathered from the words Doc Martin had used.

“I’ve done all I can,” the doc had told them after he’d finished fussing with Little Joe.

Hoss had watched him do all kinds of poking and prodding, even stitching up the wound on the side of Joe’s head — and through it all Hoss’ little brother hadn’t so much as flinched. Comatose, the doc had called it. All that meant to Hoss was Joe was there, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t asleep, exactly. He was lying somewhere on the edge, between this world and the next, and there wasn’t a thing the doc could do to drag him back firmly to this side. If Hoss knew where to pull him from he would, but he was pretty sure his kind of strength wasn’t what Joe needed.

If anyone had the right kind of strength, it was Pa. Hoss looked over at him sitting tall on that busted up piece of timber, looking like he had the power of God right there on his shoulders. Hoss didn’t know how his pa had come to that strength. It hadn’t been there when Hoss had left earlier with the buggy. But it sure as shooting was there now — now that things looked grimmer than he’d dared imagine. Adam, he might be okay. But Joe… Hoss just couldn’t see how Joe could come through this. It seemed too much like Joe was already gone.

Hoss had seen his pa fretting before, at times when things looked bad for any of them. But somehow today, the worse things had got, the stronger his pa had gotten right along with them. While Hoss was watching and fretting over his brothers, his eyes wandering right along with his thoughts, Pa’s gaze was focused solidly on Adam and Little Joe. Hoss could almost believe there was some kind of power in that gaze, as though Pa could heal them both with his faith alone.

Hoss could almost believe it…but not quite, no matter how much he wanted to. Instead, Hoss found himself worrying over how much harder it would be on his pa if that faith of his just wasn’t good enough. They’d all learned long ago that God would do what he would. Ain’t no amount of faith strong enough to change His mind. Pa might be stubborn, but Hoss was pretty sure God had a stubborn streak that not even Pa could match.

No, if God had his mind set on taking Little Joe, Pa wasn’t gonna change it.

A strange image came into Hoss’ mind then. He saw Pa and God on opposite sides of a rope, playing a sort of tug-of-war with Joe right there in the middle between them. And then the more he thought of it, the more Hoss started to wonder if he got himself on Pa’s side of the rope and added his own strength to his pa’s — might that be enough to at least show God they meant business?

Realizing it couldn’t hurt to try, Hoss squared his shoulders, crossed his arms determinedly in front of him and did the best he could to match his pa’s strong gaze. Maybe there was some power to it, after all.

*****

Adam awoke to a cacophony of snoring. For a moment he wondered why he was in the bunkhouse, but the moment passed quickly when he realized he wasn’t even on a bunk.

As his groggy thoughts gained substance, his body began to awaken as well, his back and shoulders protesting the hard feel of the ground beneath him and his leg screaming reminders of the events of the day. Or the day before? Adam recognized the dim glow around him to signal the beginnings of a new dawn. A full twenty-four-hours had passed since the boy had shot them. Both of them. Adam and Little Joe.

Joe! Adam tensed as thoughts of his brother suddenly made him desperate to know whether Little Joe had been found — more importantly, whether he had been found alive. But as Adam’s muscles tightened, his vision darkened, forcing him to lay back and wait out the resulting spasm. When it finally passed, he took a deep breath, blinked his eyes clear and began to look around him. In an instant his eyes landed on Little Joe.

In that instant, Adam stopped breathing.

They’d found him. They must even have found him alive or they wouldn’t have placed him beside Adam as they had. But at some point during the night, they’d all succumbed to exhaustion. And somewhere between then and now, Joe had breathed his last.

“Joe,” Adam choked out in a strangled whisper after his lungs pulled in the air they demanded.

Little Joe was dead. He was lying right there beside Adam, but he was already dead. His skin wore that unmistakable gray pallor of death and his chest was still. Joe was deathly still.

“Joe,” Adam sobbed softly, dropping his head back to the ground and closing his eyes around the tears he didn’t bother trying to keep at bay. “Oh, God, I’m sorry.”

“Adam?” Hoss called out.

Lacking the heart…or the courage to face his other brother, Adam kept his eyes closed and let his tears flow freely. “It’s my fault,” he struggled to say. “I let him go. I…let him….” It was as much as he could say and more than he could bear.

“Adam?” Hoss’ voice was closer now. Adam felt a hand gripping his arm. “Hey, Doc! Pa!”

No! Adam screamed into the maelstrom of his own mind. He couldn’t face them now, not any of them. But he would have to. He could already feel them gathering around him.

“Joe’s gonna be all right,” Hoss said. “You hear me, Adam? He’s gonna be just fine. Ain’t he, Doc?”

No, Adam knew. Look at him, Hoss. It’s too late.

“Come on, Doc,” Hoss went on. “Tell Adam Joe’s gonna be just fine.”

“Hoss,” Doc Martin said in a guarded tone. Adam could picture the doc shaking his head –because the doc knew, even if Hoss refused to see it.

“Of course he will,” Pa answered when the doctor said nothing further. Pa’s proclamation was made loudly, as though the sheer volume of his voice would be enough to make the words true. “Little Joe is going to be fine. You have to believe it, Adam. We all have to believe it.”

“Ben,” Doc Martin said cautiously. “There’s no change.”

Of course there’s no change! Adam thought. He’s dead. Can’t you see it? Joe’s dead!

But the doctor hadn’t actually said Joe was dead. All he’d said was there’s no change. Did that mean…? Dare Adam even begin to hope the worst hadn’t happened, at least not yet?

Cautiously, Adam forced his eyes open to look around him with a searching gaze. When he met his pa’s eyes, he locked onto them, knowing they would reflect the truth he needed, even if it wasn’t the truth he wanted.

“Joe’s holding on, son,” Pa said. “Paul says he’s in God’s hands. As far as I’m concerned, that means he’s going to be fine. I need you to believe that. I need us all to believe that.”

“Pa?” Adam whispered.

“We’ve got to have faith,” Pa insisted, seeming blindly intent that faith could be enough to save Little Joe, despite his deathly pallor, despite the doctor’s silence. Yet Adam saw an instant of uncertainty in his pa’s gaze. It was the very presence of that uncertainty that proved to Adam Joe really was still alive.

Adam closed his eyes once more, this time in gratitude. As long as Joe was alive, there was room for hope. He was every bit as determined as his pa to hold to that hope as tightly as he could. He wouldn’t let go until Pa himself pulled it from his grip.

*****

As the dawn brightened, Doc Martin checked on Adam, Pa did what he could to get Joe to swallow down some water, Sheriff Coffee readied two horses to take him and his young prisoner back to Virginia City…and Hoss wandered about feeling every bit as useless as he could possibly feel — until finally he realized the least he could do was help Roy.

“I’ll get word to Hop Sing soon as I get back,” the sheriff said by way of a greeting as Hoss came toward him from the mine. “I’ll send him out here with the buckboard and some more supplies. I sure do hope you can bring them brothers of yours home before too much longer.”

“You and me, both,” Hoss answered honestly.

“Boy?” Sheriff Coffee called out behind him. “Hand me that there….” When he turned his attention away from his horse, he saw that the boy had disappeared. “Now where in tarnation did he go?”

Hoss looked behind the sheriff. “I heard him out here not five minutes ago.”

“I can’t imagine he’d try to run now, not after that heap of opportunity we gave him last night.”

Hoss considered the sheriff’s words, shaking his head. “No. I can’t imagine he would. Especially not on foot. He’s got at least enough wits to know he wouldn’t get far.”

“Well, wherever he’s gone, I got to find him. It’s high time we get back to town.”

“Hey, boy?” Hoss called out as he started moving around the rocks. But when he noticed a recent trail he took to following it quietly. It wasn’t so much that he was trying to sneak up on the boy; it was more that he was curious what had drawn the kid away.

Within minutes he had his answer. The boy was down on his knees, facing the rising sun.

“God?” the boy said as he clumsily pushed his hands together, seeming uncertain about the positioning. “I don’t rightly know how I’m supposed to do this, or what I’m supposed to say. I mean no disrespect by talkin’ to you directly, but I don’t know no preachers and it don’t seem I’m gonna have any time to find one.”

Hoss’ first reaction was one of embarrassment for having intruded on a private moment. But he couldn’t bring himself to move away. Instead, he held back and listened.

“My momma,” the boy went on. “She always said you’d punish me if I done wrong. She told me the hand of God would smite me down like you done my Uncle Ray. I suppose I done plenty wrong by now, so my disrespecting You ain’t but another sin I got against me. And I really do need to talk to You. You see, these Cartwrights, they don’t talk about You the way Momma did. I don’t rightly understand none of it, but they seem to think You’ll listen to them. Ever’ last one of them is doing more telling than asking when it comes to that one they call Little Joe. Can they really do that, God? Can they tell You what You got to do?”

Hoss appreciated the boy’s question. The fact was he had found himself wondering the same thing even as he’d felt inclined to do more telling than pleading. God had to hear them. He just had to.

“But that don’t matter with me none, I guess,” the boy prayed. “‘Cause I’m not telling. I’m asking. I’m begging You, God.”

The boy seemed to realize he should have removed his hat to be as respectful as he could. He stopped to place it under his arm, and then quickly put his hands back together to continue. “Please, God, don’t let him die. What I done ain’t right. I know that, and I’m sorry about it, about as sorry as anyone could be. ‘Course, Momma would say being sorry ain’t worth nothin’; it’s having nothin’ to be sorry about what counts. But, God, if You give them all that hope and then You just go and take it away again, well that ain’t right neither.”

No it ain’t, Hoss thought.

“So you see God, I ain’t praying none for me. I know I done wrong and if You got to smite me, You got to smite me. Ain’t nothin’ I can do to stop You. But these Cartwrights, they ain’t done nothin’ wrong. Fact is, they seem more right than anyone I ever knowed. They’s good folks, God. You got to see that. So please listen to them. Save Joe, God? Please?”

The boy started to rise and then, reconsidering, placed his hands back together for a quickly added, “Amen.”

Hoss didn’t move. The boy’s words had stunned him so much he couldn’t think clearly enough to consider moving. Before he realized the boy himself had started moving, he was looking right at him.

“Sheriff’s looking for you,” Hoss said after his initial shock began to fade. He tried to sound casual, as though he’d only just arrived. Of course, he wasn’t feeling too casual. He took off his hat and wiped a hand through his hair while the boy continued to stand in front of him, looking nervous.

“You know, boy,” Hoss started fidgeting with his hat. “I, ah….” He what? He felt inclined to thank the boy for the prayer. But was it right to thank him after what he’d done? An odd thought occurred to Hoss before he’d decided. “What’s your name, anyway?” he asked, suddenly curious.

“Why?”

“I figure I ought to know who I’m talking to.”

“Folks talk to me all the time, don’t never ask my name.”

“I’m asking.”

The boy stared at him, as though considering whether or not he should answer. “Danny,” he said then, dropping his gaze.

“That’s it? Just Danny?”

Danny looked up at him once more, his expression shifting from confusion to curiosity. “Daniel Jacob Muldoon,” he offered before quickly adding, “but that’s not why I prayed.”

“What?”

Danny shrugged. “I figure now you know what to put on my grave if I hang. But that’s not why I prayed. I don’t want your brother to die, but not so they don’t hang me for killing him. That’s not why I prayed.”

Hoss felt cold and hot inside, all at once. The boy’s words struck him like a blow straight to the heart. He wanted to hate this boy. He wanted so badly to hate this boy. But how could he?

“I believe you,” Hoss answered softly. “And that’s not why I asked you your name. I just…I wanted to thank you.” Not two minutes ago he was about ready to thank a boy without a name. Now that the boy had a name, the words felt strange somehow. Whether they were insufficient or inappropriate, Hoss wasn’t really sure.

Danny clearly found them to be inappropriate. He squinted up at Hoss and shook his head, dumbfounded. “Thank me? I done caused all this.”

“I know you did. And it was wrong, ain’t no question about that. But, what you did there, just now, asking God to help Joe. That means something. Maybe all it means is your heart’s got more sense than your head. But it means something to me to hear you say what you did. And for that…I thank you.” Hoss had his own answer then. His words had not been inappropriate.

The boy stared at him. Hoss stared right back, equally stunned about the turn of things. Where were they supposed to go from here? What were they supposed to say? This boy, Daniel Jacob Muldoon, dang near killed both of Hoss’ brothers, and here Hoss was thanking him for praying Joe would be okay — worse still, Hoss was feeling bad for the boy.

Hoss was going to need to have a good long talk with Pa. Or Adam. Or both. But how could he even begin to explain any of this?

“Hoss?” Sheriff Coffee’s voice ended the standoff, allowing the strange moment to pass. “We’d better get going.”

Hoss nodded, put on his hat and turned away, as confident the boy would follow as he was unsure why.

*****

Doctor Martin was leaving. Adam could understand why. Paul Martin was the only doctor for miles. A lot of people depended on him, not just the Cartwrights.

It didn’t matter — not to Adam, not in that mine with his dying brother at his side. Adam needed the doctor to stay there with them.

Fear. That’s what it came down to. Adam was afraid. He was afraid for Joe, but it was more than that. He was also afraid for his pa. Pa had already lost three wives and had given everything he had left within him to build the Ponderosa — and with it, a life for his sons. If Joe died, despite Pa’s absolute faith, he’d be fine…. Could that turn out to be the last great tragedy Ben Cartwright could handle?

Hoss was another concern. Adam had been watching his middle brother stalking around the mine like a bull maddened to the edge of rage and just waiting for a red cape to finally draw his anger out. If Joe died, who would become the cape? The boy? Adam had a difficult time imagining that. The boy was, after all, just a boy. But if it did happen, if Hoss did let his rage come out on the boy, that could destroy Hoss. For all his size, Hoss was a gentle man. He would never forgive himself if he hurt a boy, no matter what that boy might have done.

Adam struggled through such thoughts while Pa, Hoss and Paul Martin talked outside. The tone of their discussion rose and fell, words drifting in like notes in a symphony reaching an occasional crescendo. But it was not the kind of symphony Adam needed to hear. The notes were too often focused on his own name or Joe’s.

In need of a reprieve from both his musings and the conversation outside, Adam forced his attention to a song that could take him to another place, even another time, if only for a few moments. His voice was weak and the lyrics were more spoken than sung, but it at least gave him some separation from a discussion he had no desire to hear.

I said, “My pretty Creole girl
my money here’s no good
But if it weren’t for the alligators
I’d sleep out in the wood”

Adam’s voice, what there was of it, began to break on sobs he fought to keep inside. He could hear Joe speaking in the back of his mind, telling him to make sure there were no alligators under the bed.

“There are no alligators in Nevada, Joe,” Adam had always answered. But suddenly he wasn’t so sure that was true. There seemed to be one under Joe’s bed right now, dragging him down under the waves and threatening to keep him there until it was too late to pull him back.

“You’re welcome here kind stranger
our house is very plain
But we never turn a stranger out
From the lakes of Pontchartrain”

Reaching his hand across to Joe, Adam wrapped it around his brother’s arm. He found himself relieved to feel the warmth of life beneath his fingers.

She took me into her mammy’s house
and treated me quite well
The hair upon her shoulders
in jet black ringlets fell
To try and paint her beauty
I’m sure ‘twould be in vain
so handsome was my Creole girl
by the lakes of Pontchartrain

Adam looked over at Little Joe, seeing the remnants of Marie Cartwright, the woman who had given him life. Surprisingly, he saw something else as well. Joe’s lips moved. For a long while, Adam found himself watching, waiting to see them move again, or to see some other sign — any sign — that his brother was awakening. But as time passed, Joe remained as still as ever.

Wishful thinking, that’s all it had been, Adam’s own wishful thinking. Discouraged, he laid his head back without releasing his grip on Joe’s arm.

I asked her if she’d marry me
she said it could never be
for she had got another
and he was far at sea
She said she would wait for him
and true she would remain
’til he returned for his Creole girl
by the lakes of Pontchartrain

Adam heard a whisper.

Pausing to look once again toward Joe, he held his breath, anxious to prove out both his own wishful thinking and his pa’s faith. But just as Joe wasn’t a child anymore, neither was Adam. He was old enough to know it would take more than a wish to save a life. Neither seeing nor hearing anything further, he closed his eyes and took up the next verse.

So fare thee well my Creole girl
I will never see you more
but I’ll ne’er forget your kindness
in the cottage by the shore
And at each social gathering
a flowing glass I’ll raise
and I’ll drink the health of my Creole girl
and the lakes of Pontchartrain

After Adam had sung that last line just two nights earlier, it had been the comfort of his brother’s voice that had sent him off into that too-deep sleep.

“Good night, older brother.”

No, Adam said now in his own mind. Enough ‘good night.’ You need to wake up, Joe!

He heard another whisper. This time he was sure he hadn’t imagined it.

Adam’s eyes shot open. “Joe?” he called aloud, tightening his grip on his brother’s arm.

And this time he had no doubt he saw Joe’s lips move.

*****

Before Paul Martin left, Ben was determined to take in every bit of advice he could for the care of his sons — until he thought he heard another conversation coming from inside the mine. How could that be? Adam was in there alone, except for Joe.

Joe?

His heart racing, Ben pulled away, letting Hoss and the doctor continue speaking while he focused his attention toward his two injured sons. Though the softly spoken words were difficult to hear, it only took a moment for Ben to realize he’d been mistaken. There was no conversation going on in there at all. He picked up enough to tell him Adam’s voice was the only one he heard. And Adam wasn’t even speaking. He was singing.

Closing his eyes, discouraged, Ben let his thoughts take him to a past that was too distant to truly touch, yet still close enough to fill him with the warmth of a precious memory. Marie was sitting on the front porch, coaching Adam through the lyrics of a song that was dear to her, one that reminded her of the home she’d left behind to become a Cartwright.

Marie had been a godsend for Ben and his two sons. From the moment she came into their lives she had given enough love to Adam and Hoss to make the world at large believe she was their true mother. And then she had given Ben a third son, one of her very own, Little Joe. Ben had found himself loving that woman more with each passing day, right up until the day God took her from him so suddenly he never had the chance to pray, or hope, or even dream of her recovery. Now, all these years later, must her son be taken from him as well?

“Pa?” Hoss sounded concerned. “You okay?”

“Ben?” Paul Martin’s hand gripped Ben’s arm. “You’re tired. Get some rest. You won’t be able to do anything for those boys of yours if you don’t take care of yourself along the way.”

Ben started to wave them both off, claiming he was fine.

Adam’s shout made the effort unnecessary. “Pa! Hoss!”

In an instant all three men were beside Adam, their attention focused on him.

His was focused on Little Joe. “He said something,” Adam told them. “Or at least he tried to.”

“It’s unlikely, I’m afraid,” Doctor Martin announced after a quick check of the youngest Cartwright. “There’s no visible change. What you saw, Adam, was most likely reflexive.”

“I’m telling you,” Adam insisted. “He tried to speak. I heard him. I saw his lips move.”

The doctor met Ben’s gaze, saying everything his words did not. There’s no change, Ben. Joe’s no better off than he was an hour ago.

Even so, either to appease Adam or whatever he saw in Ben’s eyes, the doctor dug through his bag, pulled out a stethoscope and pressed it against Joe’s chest. And then, while Ben looked on, Paul Martin’s raised eyebrows and encouraging nod suggested his skepticism might be fading.

“I will say his heart is sounding a bit stronger,” he said.

The sense of relief Ben gained from those words nearly undid him. As he looked to each of his other two sons, he found their eyes reflecting the same unspent tears he felt in his own. That recognition gave him a renewed sense of strength as he listened for the doctor’s next words.

“It is a hopeful sign,” Doctor Martin added as he put the device back into his bag. “But don’t count on any conversations just yet.”

“He said something,” Adam repeated, his voice ragged and pleading.

Ben looked at him and nodded, that simple motion saying the words faster than he found himself able to speak them aloud. I believe you.

“Hey, doc!” the excitement in Hoss’ voice drew both Ben and Adam away from the desperation of that quiet moment. “I’ll be danged if Adam ain’t right. Look!”

There was no longer any need for Ben to speak. Joe’s own soundless muttering said enough for all of them. The movement was slight, but it was real. Joe’s lips really were moving.

Ben knelt down beside him, taking Joe’s hand in his own. “Joseph? Can you hear me, son?”

Without looking up, Ben heard Doctor Martin close his bag with an audible snap. “Another hopeful sign, certainly. Keep encouraging him to drink as much as you can get into him. Once he comes around, I’d suggest you stay here for another day or two. The trip home will be hard on him. On Adam, too. This might not be an ideal hospital, but it will simply have to do.”

“You’re not still leaving?” Hoss asked, dumbfounded when Doctor Martin started to move back toward the entrance.

“I have to, Hoss. The folks in Virginia City need me more now than your brothers do. Adam’s healing just fine. And Joe….” He gave his head a slight shake. “As I’ve said, there is nothing more I can do. He has to come through this on his own.”

No, Ben realized. Not on his own. With us. All of us.

Almost as though Joe could hear his thoughts, Ben felt his young son’s fingers press lightly against his own.

“He’s at it again,” Hoss said. He leaned across Joe, placing his ear up near his brother’s mouth, the best effort any of them could make to hear whatever it was Joe was trying to say.

“Gators?” Hoss asked then, clearly confused. “It sounded like he said ‘gators.'”

Ben smiled. He even found himself chuckling when he turned to Adam and saw him wearing a tired smile of his own.

“I promise you, Joe,” Adam said as he laid his head back in relief. “We will all keep the alligators from getting under your bed.”

*****

Hop Sing arrived by early evening with more than just the buckboard and a few supplies. He also brought the chuck wagon and two ranch-hands to help out. Sheriff Coffee’s rider had said there was no telling how long the Cartwrights would have to stay in that mine. Hop Sing wanted to make sure they had everything they needed — or at least no less than they would have on a cattle drive.

When he saw Adam and, particularly Joe, he was saddened, but he knew they were being taken care of — which was more than could be said for Ben and Hoss. Hop Sing was disturbed at how worn they appeared. His priority must be to get them promptly fed and then off to sleep.

The first task was met with great enthusiasm, at least by Hoss. The second was more difficult. Hop Sing felt as though he were trying to round up a couple of bull-headed steers determined to go in one direction despite his insistence they go elsewhere. It took a solemn promise that he would wake them if Joe showed any new signs of coming around — any at all — before the elder Cartwright gave in to his demands to go to bed. With Ben Cartwright sufficiently corralled and Hoss suddenly outnumbered, the middle Cartwright boy sagged noticeably — and wearily — in defeat. Hop Sing had won. Almost from the moment they lay down, both were fast asleep.

Three hours later, while Hop Sing sat at Joe’s side darning socks under the glow of a lantern, he heard a ragged voice utter softly, “Saddle horn.” Turning his attention quickly to the youngest Cartwright, he saw that Joe’s eyes were open, if only to mere slits.

“Songs,” Joe added.

“Little Joe?”

Joe turned his head slightly, his eyes remaining mostly closed. It was enough to prove he’d heard Hop Sing, but not enough to show whether or not he knew who had called out to him.

“Adam,” Joe rasped.

“Adam asleep, Little Joe.”

“Help,” came Joe’s disjointed reply. “Adam.”

His brother’s name slipped off his tongue with a sigh that emptied his lungs, and suddenly he was breathing more deeply than before as he faded back to sleep. This was a heavy sleep, nothing more. Joe had fought his way free.

Smiling, Hop Sing glanced over at Joe’s father and brother across from him, both of whom were snoring loudly. He saw no point to waking them simply to watch Joe’s chest rise and fall in his own sleep. Of course, both Ben and Hoss would be angry at him for breaking his promise. It was no matter. He would argue that the promise had not truly been broken, because Joe had shown no new signs of coming around; instead, he had actually awakened, and only for an instant.

Hop Sing returned to darning socks, serenaded by the sounds of slumber all around him, content in the knowledge that all might not be fully well, but it would be soon enough.

*****

Hoss was snoring. The sound was as loud as it was unmistakable, and it was not muffled by the walls between Joe’s room and his. Was he in Joe’s room? No. Not unless a whole pack of people were there, too. Judging from a variety of other sounds Joe heard around him — snoring, shuffling, heavy breathing –Joe and Hoss were not alone. As he came to greater awareness, Joe also began to recognize the hard-packed ground beneath him was a far cry from the comfort of his own bed.

Why was he finding it so hard to figure out where he was? A cattle drive, maybe? No. The musty smell of stale air surrounded him, a clear indication he was not out under the stars. He tried to open his eyes to look, yet found — for the moment at least — it just wasn’t worth the effort. Instead, he let himself drift through snippets of foggy dreams.

One dream in particular taunted him — only, it seemed more than a dream. He felt as though there was something he was forgetting, something important. He tried to find it among the stray images that floated through his thoughts, but there seemed to be nothing of significance: a stick, a snake, a sea of sand and islands of rocks. And then somewhere atop a tall island in the shape of a saddle horn, he saw the image of a man he barely knew. Why Bill Gephardt? Was Joe supposed to find him? Did his pa send him?

No, it was Adam. “Keep your eye on the saddle horn.”

Joe needed to find Bill Gephardt, somewhere near a tall hill in the shape of a….

“Saddle horn.” Joe said the word aloud — or he thought he did anyway.

He was supposed to keep it in his sights. Was it, still?

Struggling through the effort of opening his eyes, only darkness greeted him. No, not complete darkness. There was a soft glow. Maybe if he let his eyes focus for a while….

“Keep your eye on the saddle horn and your mind on the songs.”

“Songs,” he repeated. He must remember the songs. It was critical that he remember the songs. But what songs? And why?

“Little Joe?”

The voice was familiar. Hop Sing? No, Hop Sing wasn’t with Adam. Adam was… Where? He was hurt somewhere. In a mine.

“Adam,” Joe tried to say.

“Adam asleep, Little Joe.”

Asleep? Did Hop Sing already know about Adam?

“Help,” Joe tried to tell him. “Adam.”

It was good that Hop Sing was there, Joe realized then. Hop Sing would do whatever needed to be done. And Adam was asleep. Joe’s foggy dreams could wait a while longer. For now, he could allow himself to give in to the relentless pull of sleep.

*****

For hours — days? — Ben Cartwright had been weighed down by dread. It pressed so hard against his chest nearly every breath was a challenge, and a constant ache had settled into his back and shoulders that could not be fully attributed to the night spent on the hard-packed earth. Yet as he awoke to the smell of bacon sizzling and the squeal of his Chinese cook admonishing one of the ranch hands, he noticed, if not an absence then at least a lessening, of the heavy feel to his bones. He felt hope seeping in, and caught himself wondering if it was merely the presence of Hop Sing giving him a sense of home, or…

Sighing, Ben decided there was no point to wondering. He must instead accept that perhaps he had a good reason to cling to hope.

Ben rose feeling less stiff than he should. In fact, he’d slept so soundly, he’d wakened to find himself in the exact position he’d taken when he’d first closed his eyes the night before.

“Hey, Pa!” Hoss sounded like…well, Hoss. He was cheerful and probably eager for another of Hop Sing’s fine meals — although this time it was apparently something other than food that had spurred his chipper mood. “Come on over here! Looks like Joe’s starting to come around!”

Hope, indeed! Ben was fully awake in an instant. He joined his sons — all of them — in the corner where Adam and Joe lay together, and then gazed intently at each one in turn. On Adam’s face was the quirk of a smile. In Hoss, Ben recognized a familiar, childlike enthusiasm his middle son had never, and with God’s blessings would never, outgrow. In Joe, Ben saw eyes darting behind closed lids and brows furrowing, as though his youngest son were pondering a challenging problem.

And finally, Ben found himself smiling. “Joe? Joseph? Can you open your eyes? Look at me, son.”

Joe turned his head slightly, the furrow in his brows deepening, his eyelids fluttering but not quite opening. Pa? His lips formed the word though he had yet to find the voice to utter it.

“Frere Jacques,” Adam began singing. “Frere Jacques, dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines. Sonnez les matines. Din, dan, don. Din, dan, don.”

“Hey,” Hoss said, “I remember that one!” And then Hoss added to the song. “Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping, Brother Joe? Brother Joe? Morning bells are ringing. Morning bells are ringing. Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.”

And suddenly all three of them, Adam, Hoss and Ben, were singing the song in the round.

“I’m up.”

Joe’s voice was soft, yet somehow they all heard him. The song ended as quickly as it had begun as the singers focused instead on the Brother Joe before them.

“I’m…just…a few more minutes.” His eyes opened for only an instant. Even so, it was clear he had finally awakened.

The song had been a familiar ritual in years past. Joe’s response was familiar as well. It was one he’d made countless times in his attempts to gain those last few, precious moments of sleep before having to face the morning chores.

And suddenly his pa and older brothers had shifted from singing to laughing.

Hop Sing looked on from the mine’s entrance, his own brows furrowed in confusion, his head shaking in dismay, as though he believed the family entrusted to his care had, to a man, gone utterly mad.

*****

Ben sat at the table feeling full from more than just the meal he’d finished moments earlier. He was full, too, of life, of family — of home. Joe and Adam were both resting upstairs, in their own rooms, in their own beds, safe and well on their way to recovery. And Hoss…. Hoss was on his way into Virginia City to fetch the cause of all of it — all the pain, the fear, the heartache, and maybe even the healing.

Ben had argued bitterly against it the night before.

“I can’t believe what you’re saying, Adam!” he’d shouted. “He left you both to die out there. He…he took away any hope you had for survival.”

“We did survive, Pa.”

“Yes, but only because he told Roy where to find you!”

“I’d say that qualifies for redemption. Wouldn’t you?”

Later, Hoss had told him about the boy’s prayer back in the desert. “He wasn’t praying for himself, Pa. He was praying for Joe.”

After Sheriff Coffee had left, dumbfounded and muttering that he hoped Adam knew what he was doing, Ben’s thoughts had returned again and again to the mine. He’d started to see with a new sense of vision the boy’s remorse, his fear and even his youth. In the end, Ben had forced himself to recognize the truth of Adam’s words. What the boy had done was wrong, yes, and he certainly needed to be punished. But punishment alone would not set him right. He needed guidance, not prison guards. He needed to learn not just how to survive, but how to live with others as well as with himself. And he needed time to grow into the man he was to become, not to get it beaten out of him — or into him.

“He’ll work hard, Pa. I’m sure of it,” Adam had said to help appease Ben’s grudging acceptance of the idea.

“Yeah,” Hoss had agreed. “I reckon he would at that. But we’re sure gonna have to teach him a thing or two.” The look in Hoss’ eyes and the way he’d chewed on his lower lip had said more than his words let on.

“Do you have something specific in mind?” Ben had prodded.

“Well, Pa…way I figure it…he’s gotta learn how to handle a gun.”

“A gun?” Ben had felt his blood boiling at the absurdity of that idea above all others. “I don’t want that boy within ten feet of a gun. Why, I’d just as soon…”

“Hear me out, Pa.” Hoss had held up his hands in a calming gesture. “You can’t just expect he’ll never be around a gun. It’s when he is around one that worries me. He’ll need to learn the right way to handle it, ’cause if he don’t, I don’t want Joe or Adam or anyone else anywhere near him.”

Eventually, Ben had given into that idea as well. And now Hoss was heading into town to get that boy, that trouble-maker, out of jail and bring him home to the Ponderosa where he could work off his crimes against Adam and Joe and learn how to handle a gun. Was it absurd? Absolutely. But as Adam had finally convinced him, it was the only right thing to do.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Ben tossed his napkin to the table and pushed himself to his feet.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” he said to God as much as to himself.

*****

Daniel Jacob Muldoon had asked for one thing when Sheriff Coffee brought him back to the Virginia City jail: a Bible. He wasn’t exactly the fastest reader. Still, he knew enough to make some sense of words, and he figured he’d have plenty of time to give to the Holy Word itself…or was that supposed to be the Holy Words?

The idea had come to him during the ride back with the sheriff. He’d found himself wishing he’d kept his momma’s Bible, but truth be told, he’d found no purpose for it after she died. A Bible couldn’t help him get work, put food on his table — or for that matter give him a table to begin with. No, a Bible wasn’t going to help him get by in this earthly world on his own. At least, that’s what he’d thought before. He wasn’t so sure anymore. Something about his thinking had gone different since he’d shot those Cartwrights — or maybe it wasn’t so much the shooting as it was all what came after.

That Adam, he’d almost had Danny believing they would have helped him, if only he’d asked rather than making that clumsy attempt to steal one of their horses. ‘Course, by then it had already been too late. He’d done the shooting and had no way of knowing whether the other one, Joe, was even still alive.

As I see it,” Adam had told him just before he’d left them to die, “you have enough of a conscience to make it impossible to live with that choice.”

“It’s the only choice I have if I want to live,” Danny had answered.

“No. It’s not. Help us. And then let us help you.”

Those words had stayed with him, haunting him, plaguing him, making it impossible for him to forget the two men he’d accidentally shot. For a while, he’d started to believe Adam had cursed him, on account of the fact that before he knew it he was riding into Virginia City, the very place he knew he should avoid. By then, he’d figured he’d had no choice but to tell the sheriff about what he’d done.

And that wasn’t even the whole of it. The sheriff had made Danny ride back with him to make sure he’d find just where those Cartwrights were stranded. To make sure there weren’t no mistakes is what the sheriff had said. When they’d arrived to find Adam looking much worse than he’d been right after that bullet had first struck him, Danny had come to realize Adam really truly might have died if Danny had followed through on his original plan. Shooting and then riding away, those things in themselves would always have left him guessing. Since guessing alone wouldn’t make anything true, he might never have believed he’d killed a man — or two men. But going back…that had made everything more real. And watching Adam bleeding near to death while they’d waited for the doctor…and then watching the pa of both Adam and Joe worrying himself near to death wondering whether Joe was still alive out in that desert… All that watching and all that worrying had made Danny feel smaller and smaller. Like he weren’t nothing, nothing at all.

His excuse for his crime had been that he’d wanted to survive, yet while he’d waited there with all them Cartwrights in that mine, Danny’s own survival had seemed less and less significant. One Daniel Jacob Muldoon was not worth two Cartwrights, nor even just one Cartwright. When he’d realized that is when he’d started praying. If God could make right all the harm he’d done, then at least Danny might start to find some worth in himself.

“Hey, Sheriff!”

The greeting Danny heard in the other room pulled his thoughts away from his wandering thoughts and the pages of begets he’d been trying to decipher.

“Hoss,” the sheriff responded. “I was sort of hopin’ you’d all have changed your minds by today.”

“I think Pa was hopin’ that, too. But when Adam’s got his mind set on something, there’s not much that can change it, and he sure does have his mind set on this.”

“What about Little Joe? I guess I figured with that hot head of his, he’d have the biggest problem with the idea.”

“Yeah. But Little Joe don’t really remember anything at all about that boy. He don’t even remember getting shot. He keeps saying if this is the way Adam believes it ought to be, then it’s the way it ought to be.”

Danny heard keys rattling.

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. That boy needs a heap of watching. Seems he’s been on his own a good while. Makes a lot of bad choices.”

“He’ll be looked after. Don’t you worry ’bout that.”

Danny rose from his cot when the door opened, and then watched the sheriff approach his cell, with Hoss following close behind.

“Well, Danny,” the sheriff said as he started unlocking the cell door, “I don’t know what you done to deserve it, but it looks like you’re getting a second chance. I’m releasing you into the custody of the Cartwrights. You do everything they say now, you hear? They’re about as good a folks as you’ll ever come across, so bring any more harm to them — any at all — and I’ll be comin’ after you.”

“Sir?” Danny stayed where he stood, unable to make sense of what was happening.

“You’re coming with me, Danny,” Hoss said.

“What about… Ain’t there gonna be no trial?”

Hoss shook his head, just once, slowly, from one side to the other. “Not this time. You live right like we tell you, and you won’t never need a trial. But if you don’t, the sheriff won’t be the only one you have to worry about.”

Danny stared at him, trying to see whether he should fear or appreciate the determination he saw in the large man’s eyes.

“You darn near killed my brothers. I aim to make sure you don’t come close to doing that to anybody else.”

Danny found himself taking a step backwards. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I mean no, sir. I mean I ain’t never gonna touch a gun, sir. It was a mistake. I made a mistake. I was wrong. I know I was wrong. I…”

“Will you stop with all that yammerin’!” Hoss looked different somehow. His face contorted into a mess of odd expressions, seeming less fearsome and maybe even a touch comical. “We know it was a mistake. A great big mess of mistakes. And that’s why we’re taking you in. You’re gonna come work for us, and we’ll even teach you some things, like how to handle a gun.”

“Why would you do all that? After what I done to you, to your brothers?”

“I reckon it’s because if we don’t do it, no one else will. And because it’s a mite better way for you to learn than prison.”

“But I ain’t worth it.”

“Who told you that?”

“No one had to tell me. I just know it’s true. Your brothers, they’re worth a whole lot to you and your pa. But me, I ain’t worth nothing to anybody.”

“My brother, Adam, sees some worth in you.”

“He does?”

“This was all his idea.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yeah, well, I think we’re all having a hard time understanding it. All any of us can do is try to prove him right. Think you can do that?’

“I hope so.”

“Me, too. Now come on. Day’s about half done already, and you’ve got a pile of chores waiting for you.”

“Yes, sir.” Danny started to follow Hoss out of the jail when he remembered the Bible back in his cell. He stopped, but hesitated before turning back. “Is it alright if I take that Bible?” he asked the sheriff.

“Go ahead,” the sheriff answered, seeming surprised.

“I’d say that’s a pretty good start,” Hoss said to the sheriff then. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Maybe so,” the sheriff answered. “But don’t let your guard down just yet, Hoss.”

The sheriff watched Danny closely all the way out the door and to the street. But that was alright with Danny. He knew he deserved the sheriff’s distrust. One thing he didn’t deserve was this chance the Cartwrights were giving him. All he needed to do now was prove to them he was worthy of it.

*****

When Danny first settled into the bunkhouse back on the Ponderosa, the other ranch hands weren’t quite sure what to do with him.

“He’s just a kid,” Ed Curtis complained. “He’ll get underfoot.”

“You just mind your own self,” Hoss told him. “And Danny’ll mind his.”

But as it turned out, Danny had plenty of folks to mind him once they got to know him. Foremost among Danny’s ‘minders’ was the Irishman, Mike O’Brien. Seems he found a kinship for no reason other than the fact young Danny’s grandpappy had come from Ireland himself. Old Mike took Danny under his wing before Adam even had a chance. Still, it wasn’t long before Adam took his own turns with the boy, and while Mike’s attention focused on teaching him things like chopping wood and tending the horses, Adam’s focused on things like reading and music.

“I just don’t get it, Pa,” Hoss said one day as he watched from the barn while Adam taught Danny guitar chords on the porch. “Adam had us all convinced Danny should come here to work; but all Adam ever has him doing is playing that guitar or reading poetry.”

“Maybe that’s because Danny is willing to learn those things. I seem to recall Adam tried to do the same with both you and Joe.”

“Yeah, but Pa. Danny ain’t…well, he ain’t Adam’s brother.”

“Maybe that’s why he feels obligated to listen.”

“You think that’s all it is? He learns those things because he thinks he has to?”

“I think he learns those things because he respects Adam enough to believe if Adam finds it important, then maybe he should find it important as well.”

“Are you saying me and Joe don’t respect Adam?”

“No, Hoss. I’m not saying that at all. But with Danny, it’s different. I think Danny’s found a sort of salvation in Adam. With you and Joe, Adam’s always been there to…well, to steer you in the right direction. For Danny, this is all very new to him.”

“You reckon?”

“I reckon.”

*****

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
was blind, but now I see.

“Not like that,” Adam said as he reached forward to position the boy’s fingers correctly on the neck of his guitar. “Like this. See? Now try it that way.”

The boy strummed the strings and smiled.

“Sounds like he’s getting the hang of it,” Joe said, taking a seat opposite his brother on the front porch. “I guess practice really does pay off.” He winked at the boy and bit into a fresh apple from the bowl on the table in front of him.

“Practice,” Adam nodded, “and knowing he doesn’t have to strangle his guitar with one hand while he tries to fit an arrow into the strings with the other.”

“Hey!” Joe called up his best expression of mock offense. “I had to do something fun with it. You made me play the same notes over and over and over again.” He rolled his eyes to emphasize the grueling nature of Adam’s lessons, and saw the boy grinning widely beside him.

“Maybe that’s because you never got them right.”

“Maybe that’s because you never taught them right.”

“Danny’s learning well enough.”

“Maybe that’s because you’re teaching him better than you taught me.”

Adam looked at Joe for a moment and then cocked his head. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Maybe… What?” If Joe had heard correctly, Adam was admitting to the kind of thing Adam would not normally admit to.

“I said, maybe you’re right. If I remember correctly, I might have been a little…impatient with you.”

“If I remember correctly, you were more than a little impatient.”

Adam nodded. “Fair enough. Would you care to try again?”

The boy started strumming the guitar, oblivious to the brothers’ conversation, and Joe watched him as he considered Adam’s offer. There was definitely something different about Adam since their encounter with young Danny Muldoon in that old mine in the desert. It wasn’t so much that Adam was a different person; the change was more subtle.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed

Joe had first noticed the change when Adam had refused to press charges against Danny, telling Sheriff Coffee the whole thing had been a series of unfortunate mistakes. Since Joe had no memory of any of it, and since he trusted in Adam’s judgment, he’d found no reason to argue. Anyway, Pa had argued well enough for all of them — although Pa had lost that argument, and what a sight that must have been to behold. Joe had been in his own bed, still struggling against jumbled thoughts when he’d heard them talking in Adam’s room down the hall.

“You sure I heard you right, Adam?” Sheriff Coffee had said moments earlier. “You won’t press charges?”

“You heard me, Roy.”

“Why, I can’t just let that boy free to roam the streets. He’s liable to kill someone in no time at all.”

“We can put him to work here. I’m sure I can help steer him in the right direction.”

“Ben? Are you okay with this?”

“No, Roy, I am not. But unfortunately, it’s not my decision to make.”

“Talk to him. Will you, Ben?”

“Oh, we’ll talk, alright. You can count on that.”

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
’tis grace has brought me safe thus far
and grace shall lead me home

Now, nearly three weeks later, Joe found himself smiling at a boy playing Adam’s guitar — a boy who had nearly killed both of them. Maybe Adam wasn’t the only one who had changed.

Remembering Adam’s question to him, Joe shook his head. “No,” he said finally. “Not the guitar.” He looked at Adam. “But maybe that song.”

“Katy Cruel?”

“How’d you know that’s the one I meant?”

“Joe, you murder that song every time you try to sing it. And besides, I think you’re reading my mind.” Adam grabbed the cane he’d been using since his leg had healed enough to let him move around some. “Why don’t you and I go inside?” he said then, pushing himself to his feet. “We can start with a few tongue exercises and let Danny here have some peace and quiet before he has to get back to work.”

“Tongue exercises?” Joe thought that sounded miserable, far more miserable than all that miserable work Danny insisted on doing to compensate for his careless and nearly deadly attempt at stealing their horses. Still, Joe let himself fall under Adam’s protective and guiding arm to lead him back into the house.

Yes, something had definitely changed. Suddenly it seemed more rewarding to do something miserable with his brother than to do something remarkable all alone.

*****

As Hoss looked on, Joe came out of the house to join Adam and Danny on the porch. Joe and Adam seemed closer than they’d been before the shooting. It was a good thing, Hoss knew. Still, he couldn’t help but feel somewhat secluded. And watching the three of them up on that porch…well, it kind of hurt.

Dangnammit, he said to himself. You’re being plumb foolish. When Joe and Adam went into the house together, Hoss turned back to his own work. It wasn’t any of his business what they did, anyhow.

“Hey, Hoss!” Joe called out a moment later. “You gotta come in here! Adam said he’s gonna teach me tongue exercises so I can sing better. Tongue exercises, can you believe it?” Joe was laughing his fool head off. “Come on! If I have to suffer through this, you do too!”

Tongue exercises? Hoss wondered. Well, that ought to be good for a laugh.

As he hurried past the porch to the front door, Hoss heard Danny singing the song Adam had finished teaching him.

Yeah, Pa, Hoss thought. I guess you’re right. Danny has found a sort of salvation, ain’t he?

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
as long as life endures

***The End***

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