Devil’s Dust (by freyakendra)

Summary: A man of God who lacks true faith heads into the desert on a quest for miracles — catching the Cartwright brothers in his flawed pilgrimage.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word count: 22,000


 

Prologue

I was face down in the dust. Seemed like … like waves of moonshine … heat shimmerin’…. Haze a’lunacy, I reckon, swirlin’ all around me. It churned up a darkness, the kind that seeps into men’s souls. Danged if it didn’t seep into me. Can’t say how I’d a’done it otherwise. Swallowed me a belly full…a…whole belly full of dark, mangy, devil’s dust.

Did ya’ ever feel your tongue grow thick? So thick on sand you was ready to chew it right off to get it outta the way … and maybe have a … a minute’s worth a’glory to let all that wet blood coat the desert in your throat? Head goes dusty, too.

Yeah, well…that’s what….

Yeah. Devil was in me, true enough. And then those men come. Three men and three horses. And words…. Words? Voices, more like. In my head, wasn’t words at all. Just … banshees, maybe. Caterwauls that sparked up all that moonshine … all that devil’s dust … like … like cannon shot.

One of ‘em…. One of ‘em touched me. Rolled me over.

I was better bein’ face down. Face up had me starin’ right into Hellfire and damnation. Bright white. Like the whole world exploded.

The sun, I reckon. But then … out there … my head all dusty … didn’t know no better. Didn’t know nothin’ at all. Not … not nothin’.

Can’t even say when the dust blew away … or the thunder died. All’s I know is … I was on my knees. Had a gun in my hand … pearl handle … barrel hot as that Hellfire desert … smell of brimstone. And that man … the one who brought all that Hellfire sun down on top of me … he was lyin’ face up … lookin’ at me. His eyes…. They were storm-cloud green, the kind’a green that makes your hair stand up … sparks fly … lightnin’ quick.

But blood was quicker. That storm-cloud fella’s blood was pumpin’ out in barrels. And there weren’t nothin’ in his holster. What should’a been there was in my hand instead. Was a … a left-handed holster. Reckon it was just natural for me to take hold’a that pistol soon’s my fingers brushed up against it … right when … when he turned me like he done.

I shot him with his own gun. Dang near stole his lightnin’. Took away any chance he might’ve had to strike me back.

But the banshees could.

Them two fellas what rode with him … one with a barrel chest and the other wearin’ reaper black … they come shoutin’ out all that banshee noise I couldn’t make no sense of. Maybe they couldn’t make no sense of me, neither. I reckon that’s why I ain’t dead now.

Way I see it, there was somethin’ a whole lot stronger than the devil out there with us that day … somethin’ that kept the lightnin’ sparkin’ in those stormy green eyes of that fella I shot … somethin’… that kept them barrels of blood of his from seepin’ all the way back into all that devil’s dust.

I shot him. Law said so and I ain’t never bothered to argue. But I know better. I reckon that reaper banshee knew it, too. And that barrel one.

It was the devil that pulled the trigger. Trouble was, the devil that done it was wearin’ my hand.

I hear tell they was brothers. All three of ‘em.

If I saw a man shoot my brother, ‘specially close at hand like that … well, I reckon I’d be the reaper, then. That man would die out there in all that devil’s dust. I’d see to it … even knowin’ I’d have a reaper comin’ for me next, I’d still see to it.

But them two … that reaper and that barrel fella… they didn’t see to it. Maybe they could tell I was already dead … tongue swellin’… eyes sparkin’ Hellfire and clouded dark with devil’s dust.

Fact is, I don’t know why I ain’t. Dead, I mean. All’s I know is I opened my eyes some time later and found myself swallowed up in cinder block walls and iron bars … locked up tight, clear away from all that Hellfire.

Different cinder block walls now. And different bars. The musty smells are strong … putrefied, but not with death … more from the stench of urine and old tobacco. And that window up yonder is streamin’ in a sun that falls more like Holy light than Hellfire.

Yessir. I ain’t dead. Might even say I’m more alive now I know what Hellfire’s like. I left that devil out there in that desert … left him behind with all that dust and moonshine haze. Ain’t even got no use for fists no more … not for grabbin’ hold of pearl handled pistols or devil’s dust or … anythin’ else. No. My hands are too busy … stayin’ wrapped around this here Bible.

 

1

They made their move during Hoss’s watch. Four shadows started to glide toward him across the desert like wraiths, leaving their wagon and horses behind them. They looked otherworldly but they weren’t invisible, thanks to the small fire at their backs and a sky filled to the brim with bright stars.

“Adam,” Hoss whispered harshly as he nudged his older brother’s shoulder.

He didn’t bother waiting to see if Adam came awake before moving on to Joe. None of them had slept deeply since they’d discovered they were being followed within hours of leaving Carson City on their way to Fort Churchill with a fresh string of horses for the Army. The fact that it was a slow, lumbering wagon doing the following – accompanied by two equally slow riders — hadn’t raised too much concern at first. But when that wagon held back rather than entering the fort, and then turned to continue dogging the brothers on the return journey, it became clear there was nothing innocent or coincidental about whatever those wagon drivers were doing.

Joe had been anxious to turn around and confront their casual-seeming pursuers head on. Hoss had been of a similar mindset. But Adam had cautioned against it. While that wagon might well hold a barrel or two of water, the Cartwrights had only their canteens. They didn’t have the luxury of playing a desert game of cat and mouse, especially not knowing for certain which of those critters the brothers would end up playing.

Of course, now maybe they did know.

“They’re not even trying to hide,” Joe said, his quiet words making him sound younger than he was — and maybe a bit like the mouse in Hoss’s thoughts.

It wasn’t like Joe to be sounding like a mouse. It wasn’t like Hoss to feel like one, either; but he was every bit as nervous as his little brother — especially since Joe was right. Those wraiths weren’t hunkered down and skirting around stray bits of scrub brush. Sure, there wasn’t much brush around, and what was there couldn’t provide any real cover, either for the Cartwrights or for those men coming toward them. But walking up tall and straight like they were, it didn’t really look like the Cartwrights’ dogged pursuers were up to no good. If it weren’t the dead of night, Hoss could almost believe those tall, gliding shadows out there were just folks heading out for a neighborly visit.

But it was the dead of night. And those folks hadn’t bothered to so much as signal a greeting in all the days they’d been riding in slow pursuit.

“That’s far enough!” Adam hollered out just as soon as those wraiths got close enough to hear him. But if they did hear him, they didn’t pay him any mind. They didn’t even miss a step. “Hold right there and state your business!” Adam shouted.

When the shadows still kept coming, Joe knew what to do. “I’d say they need a better warning.” Right on the heels of his words, he let off a shot with his rifle, aiming at the ground.

That got their attention. The figures held still.

“We don’t mean you any harm,” a man hollered back. “We just want to talk.”

Hoss shared a glance with his brothers. “Somehow I doubt that,” he said to Adam’s calculating gaze and Joe’s suspicious one.

“Go ahead and talk,” Adam yelled.

The figures started moving again. Joe let off another shot.

Adam nodded appreciatively before adding, “All I said was talk! State your business!”

“Friend….” One of the shadows raised empty hands in a supplicating gesture. “I am a man of God. My business is with Him.” The figure pointed to the sky. “It is He who wants to bring us together.”

Joe raised his eyebrows. Hoss lowered his.

Adam heaved a frustrated sigh. “In the middle of the night?” he shouted.

The figure lowered his arms. “Don’t reckon the Lord has much concern for clocks.”

“Well we do!” Adam hollered back. “Go back to your camp! We can talk at dawn. We’ll meet you halfway!”

The shadows started moving then, but not forward. No. They were staying put, but jerking about as though…. Well, as though maybe they were arguing quietly with one another.

After a long moment, the apparent leader raised his arm skyward again. “Friend, the Lord does not like to be kept waiting.”

Joe let out a huff. “It’s more like that fella’s friends ain’t much for waiting.”

“Anxious to get their hands on that Army payment, I reckon,” Hoss said.

“Well, they’ll just have to wait for dawn to try,” Adam answered. “At least then we can see what we’re shooting at.”

“Oh, I can see ’em just fine, older brother.” Joe let off another shot before taking his turn shouting out at the intruders. “The next one draws blood if you don’t start moving back!”

“Then so be it!” The leader spread his arms wide. “In this desert, blood begets miracles!”

“In this desert, mister, you lose blood, you die!”

“As you did not!”

Both of Hoss’s brothers looked pale in that starlight, but it seemed to Hoss that Joe got a mite paler; and his eyes went sort of dull. If Hoss didn’t know any better, he’d think his little brother was coming down with a sickness.

“It’s true,” the fellow out yonder hollered. “Is it not? You survived being gut shot right in this very desert!”

Joe raised his eyes, meeting Hoss’s with a silent plea. Make them stop, brother.

“Ain’t none of your business!” Hoss shouted back.

“But it is! It is, sir! My business is with God. And God’s business is miracles. I brought these men here to witness a miracle, to see proof of God!”

“Let ’em through, Adam,” Joe said, sounding like that mouse again. “The sooner we get it over with, the sooner we can get rid of ’em.”

They settled on letting that man of God sit down at their own dying fire, while his men stayed put. Hoss kept an eye — and a gun — on those fellows, while Adam got down to business, keeping an eye on Joe for good measure.

“First of all, Mister–?”

“Reverend,” the stringy white-haired gentleman replied. “Reverend Smith.”

“Of course.” Adam’s lips thinned. “First of all, Reverend Smith, I think we’d all like to know why you think my brother was gut shot.”

The reverend smiled, showing as many shadows as teeth. “A man spoke of a miracle, a single miracle that filled his thoughts day and night, a miracle of which he spoke, day and night, to anyone willing to listen — to the air itself when no human ear was present to hear his story.”

“What story?”

“The story of a man cast adrift by other men, robbed, beaten and abandoned here in this seemingly godforsaken place, a man who had gone as long as he could with neither food, nor shelter, nor water, until succumbing, falling where he stood, and then waiting for God to take him home.”

Hoss cast a glance at his brothers to find Adam tense as that granite-head Joe was always accusing him of being, and Joe…. Well, that mouse in Joe was finding spunk. He was getting angry again, just like he’d done after all those weeks of healing, after all that time spent asking questions only God could ever answer.

“I wanted to help him!” Joe shot up to his feet. “I tried to help him!”

With his little brother suddenly mindless of the threat those men out yonder still might pose, Hoss turned his attention back to the desert and the three shadows waiting there.

“He knows that,” the reverend answered solemnly. “He knows he did wrong. And therein lies the heart of the miracle. God saved him through you. And then God saved you by His own hand.”

“Where did you meet this man?” Adam asked.

There was a long silence, long enough to make Hoss look back for an instant. Then the reverend drew in an even longer breath.

“I won’t lie to you; I made a vow to God to abide by His laws.” The man took another pull of air. “I met that man in prison, as did my three companions. My companions are like sheep. They are my flock, and they’re anxious to see the work of a God their lives to this point have kept hidden from them.”

“And you’re just the man to show them,” Adam said. “Is that it?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I have always known God. I have known Him and served Him all the days of my life, from the moment my mother weaned me and my father saw to it to beat the fear of God into my very bones.”

“And yet,” Adam said after another silence, “you ended up in prison.”

“The Lord, our God, has seen to it to fill my life with trials. And now He has seen to it to show me His work. He has led me to you.”

“Who? God? Or the ravings of a madman who tried to murder my brother?”

“Is it not true that madmen are often thought to be touched by the Hand of God?”

“I’m sure that man was touched, all right. But his facts when it comes to my brother aren’t as accurate as I would expect them to be if God were behind the story.”

“How so?”

“Joe was not gut shot.”

“Oh? Then where did the bullet take him?”

“I’m right here!” Joe shouted loud enough to make Hoss jump and set the men he was watching to start moving about. “Why don’t you ask me?”

“Very well. I’m asking. Where did the bullet take you?”

Joe didn’t answer right away. And then when he did answer, he got quiet again. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I disagree. It does matter. It matters very much.”

“Why?”

“Because either your survival was a miracle or it was not.”

“It was,” Adam said softly a moment later. “It was a miracle.”

When Hoss glanced back again, he saw that his brothers were looking hard and long at one another, as though that strange reverend wasn’t even there.

“The bullet caught him in the abdomen,” Adam went on saying. “It passed right through, hitting nothing but flesh and muscle along the way.”

“He was burned, too,” Hoss added. “That madman of yours put the barrel of that gun right up against Joe’s stomach when he pulled that trigger.”

“A miracle, indeed.” The reverend sounded awed, maybe even as awed as Adam and Hoss had been after Joe survived both the ride back to Carson City and the doctor’s handiwork.

“There,” Hoss said. “You found your miracle. Now why don’t you get on out of here and leave us to our peace?”

“Why are you so eager to ignore that you have been blessed with divine intervention?”

“Look, mister….” Hoss turned from his self-appointed post. “We don’t ignore it. We thank God darn near every day. But we do it in private. It ain’t your business or anyone else’s.”

“You’re wrong. It is the business of all God’s children to learn about His wondrous works.”

“All they have to do is read the Bible or listen to a preacher’s sermon.”

“That’s well and good, but living proof is another matter altogether.”

“What you call proof,” Adam said, “others call luck.”

“Why, you yourself called it a miracle.”

“Faith, reverend, that’s what you’re failing to consider. Faith was all the proof I needed. It was all any of us needed; yet it’s what everyone else seems so eager to ignore.”

“Everyone else?”

Hoss took up the answer to that one. “We had all kinds of folks like you prowlin’ around after it happened, all on account of a newspaper story. We didn’t get a moment’s peace until they hauled that fella off to prison. Even then, it took a few months before folks finally let Joe be.”

The sound of a horse nickering drew Hoss’s attention to where their own horses were tethered. He couldn’t see what was bothering them, but he did see something that started to bother him. Joe was gone.

Doggone it. Here they were talking about him again rather than getting him to talk himself, just like they’d done all those months ago.

“Excuse me,” Hoss said distractedly — after he’d already started heading toward the horses to find his young brother.

*****

“Devil’s dust,” Joe said as soon as Hoss got close enough. He was standing head-to-head with Cochise and petting the animal’s muzzle.  “That’s what he blamed it on.”

“Yeah.” Hoss stepped up to give his own horse some attention. “I remember.”

“I just want to forget, Hoss. Why won’t anyone let me forget?”

“I reckon it’s like that man said. People want to see proof that God’s out there, that He cares enough to help folks when bad things happen.”

“I’d rather if He would just stop bad things from happening.”

“I reckon everyone would like to see that.”

“Especially when bad things happen for no good reason.”

“Yeah. I … I reckon especially then.”

“I was worried about him, Hoss, worried about a man I didn’t even know, a stranger, just because he was lying face down in the middle of the desert.”

“We were all worried. You did the right thing, Little Joe.”

“I did the right thing.” Joe chuckled, but there wasn’t anything funny about the sound of it. “Then I got shot for no good reason. I made it easy for him, too. Might as well have handed him my gun and told him to do it.”

“You did the right thing and he didn’t. It’s as simple as that.”

“Is it? Is it really that simple? He said the devil pulled the trigger. I never saw a devil. I just saw a man. A man who never accepted that he was the one who did it.”

“That was easier, I reckon. Easier to blame the devil than to admit he could do something as bad as that.”

“Do you believe in the devil, Hoss?”

“I reckon … reckon I do. I reckon anyone who believes in God ought to also believe in the devil.”

“Why does there have to be a devil at all? Why can’t it just be God?”

“You know I can’t answer that, Joe. But there is a devil, and there is a God. And it’s up to us to stay on the right side of things.”

“On God’s side.”

“Yep.”

“Like that man of God back there talkin’ to Adam?”

Hoss held quiet, not knowing quite how to answer.

“Do you believe him? That he’s a man of God?”

“I reckon he thinks that’s what he is. But….”

“But what?”

“Well, I also reckon he’s so all fired up about finding proof, that has to mean he ain’t near as God-fearin’ as he thinks he is.”

“God-fearing….”

Hoss waited for him to say more; but Joe just looked up at the stars.

“I don’t, Hoss,” Joe said after a moment.

“Don’t what?”

“I don’t fear God. I fear the devil and … maybe even God-fearing men.” Joe chuckled again, and Hoss was glad to hear it sounded more like he meant it this time. “But … I don’t fear God.”

“I reckon that’s a good thing. I reckon maybe you shouldn’t ought to fear God. I reckon maybe I don’t, either.”

“I reckon maybe that’s where Reverend Smith back there went wrong.” Smiling now, Joe cocked his head back toward their campfire.

“I reckon maybe you’re right, Joe.”

“Come on.” Joe stepped forward and put his hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “I reckon maybe we ought to rescue brother Adam.”

Hoss winked and wrapped his arm around his little brother. “I reckon maybe you’re right about that, too.”

It felt good to walk companionably with Little Joe like that, especially after facing so many devils of his own since that reverend had forced him to remember things he’d rather forget, just like Joe … to remember the way his blood froze out there in that hot desert nigh on a year ago, right when he heard that gun go off … and the way Joe looked afterward, his eyes going wide, his own blood spilling out into the hand he held at his belly, a puddle forming on the sand at his back…. Hoss knew his brother was going to die that day. He knew it, right down deep into his own belly. But Joe didn’t die. God didn’t take him. And that was all the proof Hoss could ever need about miracles.

It sure would have been better if that reverend saw it the same way. But once Hoss and Joe got back to the campfire, those other three men were coming up to join them. That wasn’t much of a surprise, seeing as how Hoss had stopped holding them off with that rifle. Trouble was, they were even more dead-set on seeing proof than the reverend. And the reverend figured on using Joe to show them.

 

2

“I never believed it no-how.” The man who spoke had a hard look to his eyes, and his nose was set askew, clearly having been broken at some point, maybe even more than once. “Just another tall tale.”

Adam didn’t really care whether that man believed the story of Joe’s miraculous survival. What he did care about was that the man clearly did not fit in with the sheep of the reverend’s claims. Of the three who had followed Reverend Smith into the desert, this one stood out. He was not the type to follow anyone anywhere.

“Then why are you here?” Adam asked.

The skew-nosed stranger turned his hard eyes on Adam. “Had nothin’ else to do.”

Adam hoped his own eyes looked as dark. “You couldn’t think of anything better than to follow a fool’s quest into the middle of the desert?”

“Gentlemen, please!” the reverend intervened. “We are here to find signs of God, not to conjure up devil’s work. Mister Maltby here simply asked to see proof of your brother’s injuries. Surely there are scars, are there not?”

“You leave Little Joe out of this,” Hoss warned before Adam could unlock his jaw enough to say the same.

The reverend smiled, but there was nothing pleasant in his eyes. “Little Joe, is it? Yes, well, he is right in the middle of all this, I’m afraid. Leaving him out is simply….” He shrugged. “Out of the question.”

While Adam eyed the rifle set three steps out of reach, Hoss eased his way in front of Joe. In a rare show of sensibility, the youngest Cartwright did not object to being shielded.

Adam took one slow step. “We’ve been through this already.” He took another step. “You’d better start looking elsewhere for whatever miracles you’re after.” Finally, that one, last step…. “Now, I’m only going to say this once.” He grabbed the rifle. “Get out of here.” He cocked it and aimed for the reverend’s forehead. “Now.”

The reverend laughed. Snickers behind him proved that the reverend’s two young sheep were also finding something humorous in Adam’s actions. Only the stone-eyed Mister Maltby kept his composure.

“You seem to forget,” Maltby said. “You’re dealing with ex-convicts. Runt over there has already seen to it to empty that rifle. Don’t count on the others bein’ much use, either. We’re all handy in our own way.”

“Let’s get down to business.” Reverend Smith moved forward.

Adam decided that was the perfect opportunity to test Maltby’s threat. He pulled the trigger.

“Shall we?” the reverend said, his smile growing.

Throwing the useless weapon aside, Adam braced himself and considered the odds. There were four of them, one of whom was older than his father. Three young Cartwrights should be more than enough to hold them off, and Hoss could almost count for two, himself.

“No one is laying a hand on our brother,” Adam warned.

“It would be far easier if your Little Joe would simply reveal his scars as evidence. But….” He gave a loud sniff. “If you continue to resist this very reasonable request, I assure you there will indeed be a laying on of hands.”

“I thought you were a man of God,” Adam said.

The reverend nodded. “And sometimes, I am his soldier.”

XxXxX

The clatter of wagon wheels … squeak of dusty springs … plodding hoof beats and bluster of horses…. The smell of a sunbaked tarp … musty … old…. A sneeze threatened, but from a distance … a distance bridged by the wooden planks beneath him. Adam bounced along with those planks and rocked with every squeak of those dusty springs. And tried to make sense of where he was. And why.

“Adam?” Hoss’s voice was soft but desperate. “Adam!”

Confused and curious, he forced his heavy lids open and scanned the dust-coated canvas overhead until he met his brother’s water-blue gaze beside him.

“Doggone it, Adam! You about scared the life outta me!”

He tried to rise, but the rocking motion of the wagon seemed intent on turning him upside down. And his head … it felt like a dozen miners were picking away at his skull … digging for fool’s gold. Lying back down, Adam closed his eyes and prayed for the vertigo to pass.

“He darned near bashed your head in with that rifle butt.”

Hoss’s words spurred a memory. Adam had caught a periphery glimpse of the rifle coming toward him. He had turned away, just for an instant, because he’d heard Hoss grunt. No sooner had he discovered his brother’s shoulder had been skewered with a knife, then someone had blindsided him. Adam couldn’t remember the blow, just the flash of recognition. And then … here … this wagon.

“How…?” Bile rose into his throat, stealing away the rest of his words.

“That Maltby fella said they all had their own way of bein’ handy,” Hoss said. “I reckon he was right.”

“I don’t remember fighting.” Adam looked at his knuckles. They weren’t the least bit bruised.

“Didn’t get a chance. I hardly even noticed when that Runt fella pulled a knife outta his boot. Next thing I knew, it was in my shoulder.”

“Are you all right?” Adam looked at his brother again. Hoss’s shirt was torn and bloodied, but Adam spied a bandage beneath. And Hoss’s arm was resting in a makeshift, cloth sling.  He recognized the feel of cloth around his own head then, too, and raised a hand, gingerly touching it. They’d both been doctored?

“The reverend told that other young fella, Gabriel, to patch us up.” Hoss pulled down his brows and shook his head. “I just can’t figure that man.”

“What about….” Adam cautiously sat up to scan the rest of the wagon. All he saw was a barrel, a sack of flour, two smaller sacks of beans, one of coffee, a wooden box of tin-ware and a pile of blankets. “Joe?” He looked at Hoss again. This time, the bile he tasted had everything to do with what he saw in his brother’s eyes and nothing at all to do with his headache.

“He’s still back there.” Hoss’s answer was sheepish, as though he was being forced to admit blame. “I must’ve … passed out for a minute or two after … well….” He took a deep breath. “When Runt pulled out the knife. I’m sorry, Adam. I blacked out. Next thing I knew, I was in this wagon and they were patchin’ me up.”

Adam eased himself toward the wagon’s gate and peered out. One of the reverend’s two young sheep … the one Maltby had referred to as Runt, was trailing the wagon with all three of the Cartwright’s horses in tow. And the sun was at its zenith. “Half the day’s gone,” Adam noted, his worry rising right along with another dose of bile.

Hoss looked as sick as Adam felt. “Yeah. You been out so long, I was worried you might never wake up.”

“They left Joe alone in the middle of the desert without his horse?”

“Not alone. The reverend’s with him.”

Adam studied his brother. There was something more Hoss had to say, although he clearly didn’t want to.

Hoss glanced down and then focused his attention on the small gap in the canvas behind them. “I could hear ‘em, Adam. I could hear ‘em, but I couldn’t do anything about it. That Gabriel fella, when he was patchin’ me up…. Well, I thought I could fight him, an’ I tried to, especially when I heard Joe fightin’ outside.” Hoss met Adam’s gaze for an instant, a quick smile showing the pride of his next words. “You know Joe. He fought like a wildcat. Take another look at Runt out there. All those shadows on his face are bruises, and he’s favoring his right side.” Then the smile was gone again, as was Hoss’s willingness to show Adam his eyes. “Gabriel … he made sure I couldn’t do anything to help Joe.”

Adam waited for Hoss to say more. “What’d he do?” he asked when his brother held silent.

“He….” Hoss took another deep breath and then let it out slowly. “He made this wound of mine worse before he finally stitched it up. I kept blackin’ out.”

Adam took a deep breath of his own. He knew it was a hard thing for Hoss to admit he hadn’t been strong enough to fend off a man half his size. “So much for sheep,” Adam said, absently looking at the dusty world beyond the tiny opening. It was hard for Adam, himself, to realize he’d been knocked out before he’d even taken a swing.

“Adam?” Hoss waited for him to turn back, and then pointedly met his gaze. “That reverend, he’s about as mad as that fella who shot Joe last year. He wants to…. He….”

“What?”

“He figures on him and Joe doin’ everything just like in that fella’s story.”

“What do you mean, ‘everything’?”

“He don’t have a gun. Not like that. But … it’s just the reverend and Joe. He said somethin’ about that fella bein’ beaten and abandoned out in the desert without water. And he said it’s only right for Joe to walk in that man’s shoes. The reverend figures on walkin’ along beside Joe so he can see his miracle firsthand.”

“That’s insane.”

“Yeah. Sure is.”

“We’ve got to get back there.”

“Sure do. But….”

“But what?”

“You gonna be up to it? These fellas don’t exactly fight fair.”

“At least we know that now.” Adam looked through that little gap again. It was midday in the desert. They would have to stop soon to rest and water the horses. Adam and Hoss had both better be ready. But … could they be ready? Adam’s head was still spinning. And Hoss…. How bad was that wound in his shoulder? Sighing heavily again, Adam realized it didn’t matter. They had to be ready to fight. They couldn’t expect another miracle.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves.” The words came softly and unbidden. Adam wasn’t even sure why he said them.

“What’d you say?”

He looked at Hoss again, smiling sadly. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” he repeated in a stronger voice.

Hoss bit down on his cheek and gave those words far more thought than Adam was willing to do himself. “You reckon maybe Joe can help himself enough ‘til we can get back to him?”

“I know he’ll try.”

“Yeah, he sure will at that. But will it be enough?”

“We’d better pray that it is.”

Hoss shook his head. “No. We gotta do more than that. We gotta believe it will be.”

A deep breath of stale, dusty air somehow seemed to pull a line from the Bible to the forefront of Adam’s thoughts. “For by grace are ye saved through faith.”

The look of deep pondering faded from Hoss’s eyes, smoothing his uncharacteristically stern features. “Faith.” Hoss nodded. “That’s exactly what we need. Joe’s gonna be okay.”

“Faith,” Adam repeated. “I have to admit, it would be easier to come by if that reverend wasn’t so Hell-bent on forcing God’s hand.”

“Rest up, older brother. ‘Cause soon as this wagon stops, we gotta do some forcin’ of our own.”

Forcing? How much forcing were they likely to do, injured as they were and in the hands of former convicts who ‘don’t exactly fight fair,’ as Hoss had said a moment earlier?

For by grace are ye saved through faith. The words pushed themselves into Adam’s thoughts again. This time, he even heard the voice of his father speaking them. Then he remembered the reverend calling himself a soldier of God, and he realized how untrue that statement had been, how delusional, and maybe even blasphemous that reverend had become. And he decided he and Hoss were the only soldiers of God in that desert that day — because they were ready to enter into a fight to protect a young man God had seen to it to protect, Himself, one year ago … a young man who was being forced to pay a price for that very miracle when he’d done nothing immoral or unethical or just plain wrong to deserve it.

And yet, Adam didn’t feel like a soldier of God, even despite his father’s words about grace and faith. He felt like nothing more than an older brother desperate to see to the safety of a younger one.

*****

Joe watched the sun climb up over the horizon and make its slow trek toward the hottest part of the day. He wondered where his brothers were and whether they were okay. Lying there on the desert floor with his hands tied in front of him and his ankles also bound, there wasn’t much else to do but think and wonder.

He’d fought the reverend’s men as hard as he could for as long as he could, but one barely grown young man couldn’t hope to last long against three ex-prisoners, no matter how driven he’d been by rage and determination — or ‘spunk’ as the reverend had called it. Of course, Joe didn’t count the reverend in his tally of brawlers. Joe had managed to knock the old man off his feet with one blow. The reverend had stayed out of reach the whole rest of the time Joe had spent getting more than he was giving.

Everything hurt. His face. His chest. His stomach. Even his legs hurt, and his hip, where they’d kicked him after he’d fallen. He didn’t care about how much his knuckles hurt, at least. Every scrape and bruise on his hands matched up with a mark on those men. It particularly pleased Joe to see the black eye the reverend was sporting.

“It’s time.”

The reverend’s words pulled Joe’s attention. He looked over to where the man was sitting, where he’d been sitting for the past few hours, spending the time reading a ragged Bible or closing his eyes in quiet contemplation.

There wasn’t any point to Joe asking what he meant. Joe’s questions and arguments hadn’t caused Reverend Smith to blink, let alone respond the entire time they’d been alone there. Only Joe’s curses had prompted any reaction at all, pulling the reverend’s brows into a puzzled scowl. It had been a long while since Joe had bothered either speaking or cursing. And anyway, his throat was too scratchy and his lips were torn and dry. He needed a drink of water, but the reverend had made sure not a drop had been left behind when he’d sent his men away with Joe’s brothers.

So Joe said nothing. He only watched as Reverend Smith mopped his face and neck with a handkerchief. After squinting up at the sun, the old man pushed himself awkwardly to his feet, one hand going to support his back. Grunts and groans followed him as he walked stiffly toward Joe, sending prickles of anxiety through the young Cartwright.

It’s time,” the man had said. Time for what? Joe was glad Reverend Smith pointedly avoided his hateful glare, because he knew the self-declared man of God would have noticed fear lurking there as well.

At Joe’s side, more groans and creaking joints brought the reverend downward again, and then he reached for the rope securing Joe’s ankles.

Joe bided his time and held his breath throughout the reverend’s slow, deliberate journey. But his chance passed the very instant it had even presented itself. As soon as the rope fell away, Reverend Smith grabbed Joe’s arm and yanked him upward in a surprising burst of strength and energy.

“What now?” When Joe finally forced words out of his raw throat, he was surprised to hear how old he sounded — old and withered, as though he’d already swallowed enough devil’s dust to brand him as part of the desert itself. But he had bigger things to focus on, like how he could find his balance without the use of his still bound hands, especially with his head swimming and his own stiff muscles cramping at the sudden movement.

…And the fact that the reverend had chosen that moment to look at him. He looked Joe right in the eye. “We walk.”

“Walk?” Caught up in the reverend’s dark gaze, Joe could barely comprehend what the man had said. He held himself still for a moment, locked into a stiff position and so hunched over from an ache in his belly that he had to look up to even catch that gaze at all. “Where?” Joe added then. He couldn’t imagine walking anywhere, cramped up like he was.

Reverend Smith slowly raised one arm and pointed to the path his wagon had traveled hours earlier.

Part of Joe longed to do just as the man indicated. Following the wagon meant reaching his brothers. But he knew better. “In this heat? Without water?”

“What has been done before shall be done again.”

“We won’t make it five miles.”

“Moses spent forty days and nights on the mountain with neither bread nor water. Jesus spent forty days in the desert.”

“We’ll be dead in forty hours.” Joe didn’t bother adding that he would probably collapse within forty minutes.

“My faith will sustain me,” the reverend said, making no effort to include any mention of Joe. “As God saved the preacher after his journey through this desert, so shall He protect me.”

“The preacher?” Joe asked, although he really didn’t care. Joe’s own journey was the only one that mattered to him.

Reverend Smith cared, though; and he looked annoyed for having to explain. “The man you encountered here one year ago.”

Joe felt his familiar rage flaring up again. It stole his breath every bit as much as the sudden rise to his feet. “The man who shot me was no preacher.”

“The man who inspired God to work his miracle has recognized the significance of salvation. He has been reborn and has earned his right to the title his fellow prisoners placed upon him.”

“You make him sound like some kind of saint! He shot me for trying to help him!” Joe’s anger somehow broke through all the cramping, little by little drawing his back up arrow straight.

“Some would say you might believe yourself a saint for having been granted a miracle.” Disgust curled the reverend’s lip. “Yet you are quick to take the Lord’s name in vain. And you raised your hand against a man of God as well as his flock.”

“You’re no more a man of God than Maltby; and your so called flock tried to kill my brothers!”

“No. The goal was simply to prevent their interference. They will not be harmed further so long as they do not disrupt this pilgrimage.”

“Pilgrimage?”

“Through the desert. You and I, the man of God and the sinner, following the path of a proven miracle.”

A proven miracle…. Joe suppressed a shudder as he recalled feeling the reverend’s dry, calloused fingers prodding at the puckered scar on his abdomen and the thicker, longer one on his back. While the others had held Joe down, he’d bucked like a wild stallion that would never be made to submit despite every inch of his body aching from the blows he’d taken. Yet for all that bucking, Joe had been hopelessly outmatched. He’d had no chance to stop the reverend from pulling at his shirt, exposing the scars and forcing Joe to remember when the wounds had been fresh, when Hoss had pressed his arms to the ground, preventing him from rolling and squirming against the pain. Nor had he had any hope of pushing away the reverend’s fingers. The feel of those fingers sliding across Joe’s tender skin had been nothing like Adam’s cautious prodding a year ago. Instead, the reverend’s touch had left Joe thinking of snakes and deadwood, and needing to retch.

Devil’s dust. That’s what that man — the preacher — had said of this desert. He might as well have been talking about Reverend Smith.

The reverend pushed Joe’s shoulder to turn him. “Now. Begin.”

Joe staggered and swung back around.

“I said begin walking!” The reverend pushed him again, hard enough to cause Joe to stumble.

Joe’s right knee twisted and buckled. He fell awkwardly, landing first on that knee and then on his already bruised hip; and he couldn’t help but cry out at a jolt that went all the way to his ankle but flared worst in his twisted knee.

“Rise, heathen.” The reverend grabbed Joe’s arm. Once more showing that odd, hidden strength, he pulled Joe back to his feet. “Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourself. They watch for your soul.”

Joe steadied himself, trying to avoid putting too much weight on his now weakened leg. “You don’t rule me, and the only one watching over my soul out here is God. Now untie me.” Joe held his hands out toward Reverend Smith, pain, anger and frustration giving him a hidden strength of his own.

“Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

“Don’t lie to yourself. You’re the one heading toward damnation. You may call yourself a reverend, but you don’t speak for God. If you did, you wouldn’t have attacked three innocent men in the middle of the desert. Now untie me,” Joe repeated.

“I did what was necessary.”

“Why?” Joe asked. “Why was it necessary to stab Hoss and try to bash Adam’s head in? What did they do to deserve that?”

“They would have resisted the pilgrimage.”

“You’re damned right, they would! We’ve already lived through this pilgrimage of yours. And we have no right to believe God owes us another miracle.”

“No faith, you mean,” the old man corrected.

“I said exactly what I meant. And I have plenty of faith in God and in my brothers. But I don’t have a lick of faith in you.”

“You are nothing but a blaspheming heathen!”

“Maybe so, but Providence, my brothers and a tired doctor in Carson City all thought I was worth saving last year. Why are you so dead-set on killing me now?”

“I am here to save, not kill.”

“Then you’re doing a poor job of it. You can’t save anything in this desert without water. Now untie me, and then I don’t care what you do. I imagine someone will stumble across your buzzard picked carcass forty days from now.”

Smith stared at him, his hard eyes softening into an old man’s look of confusion. His mouth worked uselessly for a moment while his eyes danced about, searching for something he could find nowhere but within himself. “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor,” he said finally, “especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.”

“You don’t rule well, and you don’t rule me. And God knows your labor in the word and doctrine has done nothing but bring harm to my brothers and me.” Joe thrust his hands toward Smith’s face and found himself fighting the urge to wrap his arms around the man’s neck and draw the rope against his throat, pulling as hard as he could. Then he took a long, hot breath, allowing his shoulders to relax. “I have no choice but to start walking,” he said tiredly, “whether or not I want to take part in this pilgrimage of yours. But I can’t do it with my hands tied.”

They stood like that for a long while, long enough for Joe to feel his renewed strength weakening. Finally, the old man seemed to realize the truth in Joe’s words. He nodded and started to pick at the knots that had confounded Joe for too long already.

When the rope fell away, Joe dropped his gaze right along with it, and then he turned toward the wagon’s path, putting the reverend behind him and setting his sights on reaching his brothers.

 

3

“Yea … though I … walk ….” The reverend’s halting voice at Joe’s back made it hard to think. “Through the valley … of the shadow … of death ….”

Death. Joe was walking through death, wasn’t he? Or … or toward it.

“I will fear … no evil ….”

Evil? Joe was surrounded by devil’s dust. Is that what the reverend meant?

“…For thou art with me … thy rod … and … thy … staff … they …. They….”

A dull thud behind him caused Joe to miss a step. He fought for balance in both his stance and his thoughts; then he turned cautiously, concerned that if he fell he might not be able to get up again. And he saw that’s just what had happened to the old man. He’d fallen. Smith was on his hands and knees, his chest working erratically to route careless, desperate mouthfuls of air.

“They … comfort … me.”

“Stop,” Joe said, his own breaths too similar to the reverend’s chaotic ones. He gulped in another raw swallow of dust as Smith slowly raised his head. “Stop talking.” Joe added. “Save your breath.” The words came painfully. Shouldn’t it be the same for the reverend? “Keep your mouth shut. Keep ….” Joe took another swallow of dust. “Keep it from drying out.”

“Thou art … with me.”

“I said shut up,” Joe tried to shout, but his words sounded like a whisper. He was thirsty. Oh, so thirsty. Why was he wasting breath to help the man responsible for that thirst?

A pebble, he realized suddenly. “Suck on a pebble.” That’s what one of the soldiers at Fort Churchill had told him. “Stops you from thinkin’ so much about how thirsty you are. Also keeps your mouth closed so you don’t eat all that sand.” Joe had asked how the men stationed there could bear spending all that time out in the desert. And maybe … maybe that soldier’s answer could help Joe to bear it better now.

“The valley … the … shadow….”

Ignoring the old man, Joe scanned the ground. He took three steps and then dropped carelessly to his knees, mindless of how sore his right knee was until it hit the hard ground.

“Dammit!” The word left his mouth before he had the chance to stop and think about what he’d already told Reverend Smith. Keep your mouth shut. But his knee hurt from the impact. Heck, his whole body hurt. And he had miles to walk before he would even come close to Carson City.

“Stop wasting time,” Adam said in his thoughts. “Just get it done and over with. One of these days you might even realize it takes more energy to complain than to actually do whatever it is you’re trying to avoid.” Of course, Adam had been talking about mucking out stalls in the barn when he’d said that. But somehow the advice had stuck … or at least it had lingered in Joe’s mind until that moment out there in the desert, where wasting time could be as deadly as wasting water.

“Swear not…,” the old man rasped. “Neither by … by Heaven…. Neither by….”

Joe grabbed up two small stones before pushing himself back to his feet and limping toward Smith. “Here!” he commanded, holding his hand out with one of the stones in his open palm. “Take it! Put it on your tongue. Suck on it. Unless you’re ready to give up.”

Reverend Smith squinted at him. “Faith … I have … faith.” He took the offering between his finger and thumb, and then looked curiously at it.

“Yeah? Well so do I. But not in you. You seem to have forgotten … the Lord helps those who help themselves. Now suck on that pebble and get back on your feet and start helping yourself.” Putting the remaining pebble in his own mouth, Joe turned away to continue his slow, painful journey, until the extended silence behind him proved the old man hadn’t made a move.

Swiveling around, Joe told Smith to, “Get up or die out here.” Unfortunately, his head spun and his chest hurt from the effort. Worse, he could see that Smith was struggling to do just as Joe had commanded, but his old bones were working against him.

Joe should leave him … he wanted to … but something deep down inside refused to allow Joe to abandon an old man to all that devil’s dust, even if that old man seemed to have some of the devil inside him already. Disgusted, frustrated and wishing to Heaven he didn’t have to bother, Joe retraced his steps and grabbed the old reverend’s arm. Moments later, Reverend Smith was up and walking, supported by a smaller, thinner and heavily bruised Little Joe.

*****

It was a long shot and Hoss knew it. With Adam passed out again, he was on his own when a “Whoa!” from the front of the wagon signaled the opportunity the brothers had been waiting for. Still, a long shot was better than no shot at all. Reaching into the sack of flour, he scooped up a handful, closed his fingers around it, scooted toward the back of the wagon … and waited.

The horses trailing behind them clattered up closer. One blustered. Another neighed in complaint — must have been Cochise, based on the angle of the sound.

A tight feeling took hold of Hoss’s chest as he considered the similarities between Joe and his horse. Both were impatient, quick to anger and ready to take on the whole world if they had to. Today, all they had to take on was a merciless desert and a bunch of wolves pretending to be sheep.

“What’re you stoppin’ for?” Runt called out to whoever had been driving the wagon.

“Rest the horses,” Gabriel answered.

“Ain’t got time for that!” Runt hollered then. “Maltby’s got too much of a lead on us already!”

Maltby’s not with ‘em? Hoss was pleasantly surprised. While part of him was curious about what had caused the skew-nosed man to take off on his own, a bigger part zeroed-in on the fact that Hoss’s long shot had just gotten a mite shorter. Now there were only two fellas to worry about rather than three.

Footsteps scrunched closer. Hoss leaned forward. He took in a deep breath … and held it.

“Gonna kill the horses if we don’t rest ‘em.” Gabriel’s voice was closer now, too, but it was Runt’s hand Hoss saw reaching for the canvas.

“To Hell with the horses,” Runt answered, fueling Hoss’s determination. “Long as they get us to Carson before Maltby runs off with our money, they can fall over dead for all I care.”

The canvas moved.

Hoss caught sight of Runt’s side arm … and then his face.

Hoss blew out his held breath with as much force as he could muster, aiming all that loose flour right toward Runt’s eyes.

“Ahhh!” Runt cried out an instant before Hoss launched himself from the wagon, barreling into him with his good shoulder.

Both men fell to the ground. Hard. Runt got the worst of it; Hoss could hear him fighting for breath. But Hoss didn’t fare a whole lot better. His shoulder wound felt as fresh as ever, as though the knife had only just pierced him.

It didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter. He had to think past the pain. In fact, he couldn’t allow himself to think at all. He didn’t have time for thinking.

He rolled off the smaller man. Darkness encroached and a river pulsing with every frantic beat of his heart flooded his ears, masking the sound of Gabriel’s arrival. None of that mattered either. Hoss knew Gabriel was there. He also knew the man would be ready to start shooting. He could only pray for both luck and divine intervention as he reached blindly for Runt’s dropped gun.

There….

He wrapped his fingers around the handle and thumbed back the hammer. The very instant his eyes landed on Runt’s startled companion and the gun in his hand, Hoss fired.

The world spun when Gabriel dropped backward. Hoss felt himself propelled toward the ground right along with the man he’d just shot. Then he lay still for a long moment … closing his eyes in a useless effort to block out the white-hot pain … breathing … listening … waiting.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.” Adam’s voice pulled his eyes open again, and then drew Hoss’s gaze from the blindingly blue sky toward his brother. Adam was standing next to Gabriel … or maybe … maybe swaying more than standing. He leaned against the wagon for support, and he had Gabriel’s gun aimed and ready in his hand. At least that wasn’t swaying. Hoss didn’t doubt that Adam had Runt clear in his sights.

Runt…. Hoss turned to find the other outlaw on his knees beside him. A rock was enclosed in his fist.

“Drop it,” Adam commanded.

Runt hesitated, his eyes dancing between the brothers before landing on Gabriel’s unmoving body.

“I said, drop it!”

Runt’s fingers uncurled, allowing the rock to roll off his palm. It landed with a heavy thud and a soft spray of sand. “You shouldn’t have shot him,” Runt said. There was an odd tone of sadness in his voice. His eyes, too, had a sad look to them. “He was a good man. His momma named him for an angel. Funny though, he spent his whole life waiting for the angels to help him. They never did.”

Hoss took a slow breath. “He was murderer and a thief, same as you.”

Runt’s eyes went cold. “He was a better man than me. Ain’t never killed a soul. Animals, neither. Wouldn’t even hunt.”

“Seems to me he came out here to hunt,” Hoss said, feeling his own eyes going cold. “That’s what all of you were doin’, huntin’ for my little brother.”

Runt gave his head a slow shake. “Gabriel came out here to find them angels of his. He was countin’ on the reverend to show him how.”

“What about you?” Adam asked. “Why’d you come?”

“For the money,” Hoss answered without taking his eyes from Runt. “I reckon that bank note from Captain Randall ain’t in your saddlebag no more.”

“That was only part of it,” Runt said. “I came on account of Gabriel. Maltby came for the money. And I figured maybe … maybe that was gonna be part of the miracle. Maybe Gabriel’s angels meant for us to get that money, so we could start over without havin’ to steal from no one else.”

“Blood money doesn’t come from angels.” Adam sounded as strong as ever at that moment, as though he could lift that wagon rather than having to rely on it to hold him up.

“No one was supposed to die,” Runt said.

“What’d you think was gonna happen if you hit me with that rock?” Hoss asked.

“None of what was supposed to happen is happenin’ now. First Maltby run off. And now … now Gabriel’s dead. You killed him. He wouldn’t have hurt you.”

Hoss knew that wasn’t true. Gabriel did plenty of hurting back at that camp, in between doctoring Hoss’s shoulder. “Then why’d he have his gun on me?”

Runt shrugged. “He wouldn’t have killed you, anyhow. He never killed no one, not even Boulder.”

“Boulder?” The question left Hoss’s lips before he realized how little he cared.

“Fella back in prison. He needed killin’, after what he did to Gabriel. But I was the one who had to do it.”

“No one needs killing,” Adam said.

“Boulder did.”

“What about me?” Hoss asked, his eyes going to the rock beside him.

“You killed Gabriel,” Runt said flatly.

“Judge not,” Adam said, “lest ye also be judged.”

Runt’s gaze grew unfocused, though he aimed it toward Gabriel again. “I come out here hopin’ to believe in all that Heaven and Hell nonsense. Now I reckon it’s better I don’t have nothin’ left to believe in.”

Before Hoss could even begin to make sense of what he was saying, Runt grabbed up that rock again and cocked his arm back with a look of murder in his eyes.

Adam saw it, too. He saw it and acted quicker than Hoss could think. He did the only thing he could do. He pulled the trigger.

 

4

Ben Cartwright had had his fill of lawyers and the bullheadedness of Nevada’s political epicenter. He wanted nothing more than to ride back to the Ponderosa with his sons. But the afternoon was waning and those sons of his had yet to return to Carson City. It was clear the journey home would be delayed another day.

Glancing eastward and wishing he would see Adam, Hoss and Little Joe riding into town — wishing in fact that he had ridden with them rather than staying behind to argue about mining versus grazing rights with men who saw nothing wrong with destroying land to grow rich — Ben sighed and started walking to the hotel to finish his waiting in relative comfort.

“Mister Cartwright!” someone called from down the street. “Mister Cartwright, sir!” Ben turned and recognized the bank manager’s young assistant running toward him. “Mister Brownley sent me to find you,” the young man panted out as soon as he stopped. “About a bank note he wants you to verify.”

“A bank note?”

“Yes, sir. A man brought it in to cash it.”

“One of my sons?”

“No, sir. Said he works for you. Said a Cartwright signed it over to him.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ben said absently. “What did he say his name was?”

The young man shrugged sheepishly. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t think to ask. Would you mind coming back to the bank with me, so we can clear this up?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.” Ben couldn’t imagine who among his men would have had the need to cash a bank note in Carson City. His thoughts conjured possible explanations while he followed the young man, all of which filled him with a growing sense of dread. Had his sons been set upon by bandits in the desert?

They turned the corner, pulling into view an anxious crowd that blocked the bank’s entrance; and dread gave way to an inexplicable fear. Ben’s heart, near to bursting from its sudden, frantic pounding, prodded him to start running right along with everyone else in the street. He stopped along with everyone else too, barely an instant later, when the sheriff came out of that bank, hauling a hand-cuffed and dust-covered stranger alongside him.

“Well, Mister Cartwright….” The sheriff scowled. “Is this your man?”

Ben shook his head, puzzled. He studied the stranger, looking past the skewed nose set in the middle of an unshaven face to the darkness in the man’s hard eyes. “Who are you? What is your business with me?”

The man sneered, lifting one side of his lip and skewing his nose even more.

“He said your son, Adam, hired him,” the sheriff answered. “Milford Brownley refused to cash that note without your say-so, and this fella decided to let his gun do his talking. Seemed pretty clear that note weren’t his to begin with. Show him,” he added with a nod to the manager.

Turning to take the paper that was handed to him, Ben recognized it as the army’s payment for the horses his sons had delivered. On the back, someone using Adam’s name had signed it over to a Harvey Maltby.

Ben’s jaw tightened in fear and anger as he returned his attention to the stranger. “This is a forgery,” he spat out in rage. “That,” he shouted, stabbing a finger at the signature, “is not my son’s writing. How did you come by this?”

The stranger’s sneer became a cold smile. “Found it.”

“Where — are — my — sons?”

“Maybe God knows.” The stranger lifted his brows in a mock look of wonder and shrugged. “But I sure don’t.”

Before he even gave thought to what he was doing, Ben had the man’s collar in his fist. “Where are they?” he demanded.

“All right, that’s enough.” The sheriff pushed Ben away. “I’ve got a duty to take this man to the jailhouse. We’ll get this sorted there.”

Casting a desperate glance eastward, Ben was more inclined to saddle his horse and start riding hard and fast into the desert to find his sons. But he needed to hear what this stranger had to say. He needed to know just what he might be riding out to find.

*****

Joe lost count of how many times he’d stumbled, how many times he’d had to force himself back to his feet to continue his hopeless journey. His knee protested every step. His raw throat was coated more with sand than saliva. And his mind kept playing tricks on him, drawing him endlessly toward glistening streams that lay forever out of reach.

Nor did the tricks stop there. Joe’s thoughts began to scatter like the sand swirling around him in a furnace fueled wind, a Hellish wind that left him wondering what he’d done to offend Saint Peter. He tried to imagine pearly gates and the beckoning smile of his mother, but all he saw was the bleached white bones of a dead land.

It wasn’t so much that he thought of death; he’d lost the ability to remember life. The Ponderosa was a dream that grew more elusive than the taunting images of water he could never drink. The faces of his family faded from him mind, hidden behind endless clouds of dust. Devil’s dust….

Yes; devil’s dust. He was alone with the devil on a journey to nowhere.

Although … he wasn’t quite alone. Not exactly. There was someone with him, a man whose dead weight was Joe’s to bear. Or maybe it wasn’t just dead weight. Maybe the man was truly dead. Maybe they both were, but the devil had given Joe this burden while the other had been spared, allowed to sleep in peaceful surrender.

It didn’t matter. Not really. Nothing mattered but the fact that one step had to lead to another. It never occurred to Joe to either stop plodding endlessly forward or ease his burden by shedding himself of the sleeping man’s dead weight. Such thoughts required free will, and for Joe there was no such thing as freedom. There was only devil’s dust and the stranger he dragged behind him in a makeshift travois built of a threadbare, black coat and two leather belts someone had linked together. And one step after another toward … nothing.

*****

Hoss saw shadows growing taller and deeper in front of him as the sun dropped lower and lower at his back. He felt his hopes falling right along with it. Too many hours had passed since Joe had been left behind. The horses were hot and tired and moving far too slowly, burdened as they were by dragging along a wagon heavy with supplies. They wouldn’t be moving at all if Hoss and Adam hadn’t wasted time watering and resting them. And Joe…. Joe didn’t even have any water.

Hoss wished either Adam or he could have ridden on ahead, but neither of them was fit enough to leave the other behind. Although … that wasn’t entirely true. Hoss figured he could make it safe enough. But he didn’t dare leave Adam, not with that head wound. No, they didn’t have a choice but to take the wagon. And besides, Hoss was pretty sure they’d need that wagon for Joe, once they reached him. That little brother of theirs was tough, but the desert was tougher.

Yep, Hoss told himself. Joe was gonna need that wagon as much as he was gonna need the water it carried. No matter how much hope Hoss lost, he had to believe Joe was gonna need that water. He had to believe Joe wouldn’t be too far past that need. He had to. Because if he didn’t believe, then what was the point to any of it?

For by grace are ye saved through faith.” Adam had said that just a few hours earlier. And although Adam wasn’t talking much at all anymore, instead just staring out at those shadows with a furrowed brow, Hoss could still hear his words.

Faith. They couldn’t lose faith.

“Hee-yah!” he called out, urging the horses to pick up their pace. A moment later, they slowed once more. The animals were giving what they could. Hoss knew that. He just had to have faith that what they gave would be enough as the shadows grew yet longer, stretching farther out into the desert … until … until they finally reached something darker still, something that Hoss knew in his gut was the prone form of his little brother.

“Hee-yah!” he shouted again and again. He no longer allowed the horses to slow. He couldn’t. Not anymore. “Hee-yah!”

As they drew closer, Hoss saw two prone figures and any doubt he might have harbored was chased away. That was Joe, all right. It was Joe and the reverend, both. And neither one of them was moving.

*****

It was almost dusk by the time Adam stepped cautiously from the wagon seat. It hadn’t even been dawn yet when he’d last seen Little Joe. So much time had passed. Too much time. And now…. Now his little brother was lying face down on the desert floor, absolutely still.  Adam wanted to run to Joe, to at least follow closely on Hoss’s heels, but the throbbing pain in his head threatened to send him back into the black fog he’d been managing to avoid since he’d awakened in the wagon to find Hoss fighting for his life all those miles and hours behind them. Adam had only God to thank for waking him in time back then. He prayed he would be thanking God again as soon as he knew for sure that Joe was still alive.

Adam was barely able to breathe as Hoss lowered himself to the ground beside their young brother. Clearly, Joe had passed out on his feet. He’d fallen with his arms at his sides and his fingers loosely clutching the leather belts affixed to the reverend’s shredded coat. That he hadn’t used his hands to break his fall was telling. He’d gone as far as he could go.

“He’s alive.”

Momentarily stunned by Hoss’s words, Adam froze where he stood and watched Hoss turn Little Joe to his back. It seemed impossible to believe that the motionless form was still breathing.

“Can ya’ give me that canteen?”

Adam found his own breath again and used it to softly berate himself for having to be reminded. Then he moved more quickly than he would have thought possible, grabbing a canteen from the stack they’d filled while resting the horses.

“Joe,” Hoss said, reaching blindly behind him until Adam placed the canteen into his hand. “Come on, punkin. Show me you can hear me.”

There was no reaction.

Hoss nodded toward the other man without looking away from his charge. “What about the reverend?” he asked Adam. “He still breathin’?”

“Does it matter?” Adam made no effort to move.

“It mattered to Joe.”

It had mattered, hadn’t it? Their little brother had spent the last of his strength trying to drag that man out of the desert with him. How much farther could he have gone without that burden? And why had he bothered?

But Adam already knew the answer. Joe couldn’t hope to abandon anyone in need. Compassion and concern for their fellow man were traits that were integral to the men Adam and each of his brothers had become, because they were integral to the man who’d raised them. No son of Ben Cartwright could turn his back on suffering, not even one who’d suffered at the hands of the very man he was trying to help — or the brothers who were forced to address the results of that suffering.

Sighing and wishing it didn’t have to matter at all, Adam turned his attentions to Reverend Smith. “He’s breathing,” he announced, feeling no emotion … or, perhaps, the wrong emotion. He felt a sort of sick satisfaction at seeing the reverend’s raw, blistered face and hands and imagining what the man’s back must look like after having been dragged across the desert with nothing between his skin and the sand but the thin cloth of his shirt and coat.

A moment later, thinking only of Joe, Adam returned to the wagon for another canteen and set to work at keeping the miserable wretch alive.

*****

Hoss was worried. Dadburnit, it was more than that. He was plumb scared. He needed to get his brothers out of the desert. Truth was, he needed to get himself out of the desert, and that was the problem to all of it. He didn’t know if he would have the strength, come morning.

Come morning….

He’d been all fired up to get moving right after they’d found Little Joe. Riding at night through the desert was better on the horses, after all — but … not after those very horses had been ridden hard all through the day. Hoss needed the horses to be fit. He needed to rely on them, because he couldn’t rely on anyone else, not even himself. His wound was hot, inflamed and so painful he could no longer use his arm. Determination had allowed him to fight back against Runt and Gabriel hours earlier. He’d still had determination aplenty when they’d reached their little brother; but by that time the fire in his wound had grown strong enough to burn out the dry tinder of his determination. He couldn’t even lift Joe up off of the ground. He couldn’t do much of anything except to set up a makeshift camp and tend to a tiny fire while Adam tended to Joe.

Looking over at his brothers, Hoss found himself wishing his big brother could take charge. Adam always knew what to do; he’d helped both of his brothers out of all sorts of trouble through the years. But he couldn’t help them out of this, not with that head wound. Even now, Adam’s eyes were closed despite his insistence that he would watch over Joe through the night. Adam’s head was dropped back against the wagon wheel where he’d propped himself up to sit beside Little Joe. His hand was limp in his lap, his fingers no longer gripping the wet cloth he’d been holding to Joe’s lips.

Hoss figured he’d better take over, but that would mean getting up and walking over to where his brothers were. He wasn’t sure he could even continue sitting up. Getting up was altogether out of the question.

He blinked hard against a wave of pain and struggled to gulp down as much air as he could. Then his eyes landed on the reverend. It was probably time to get some more water into him, too.

Why’d you have to do it? Hoss wondered, without moving. Why couldn’t you just believe in what you’d heard, and have faith that God’s miracles are His to work? The when and how of them are at God’s choosing, not anyone else’s. No man can tell God what to do. Why couldn’t you just have faith?

“For by grace are ye saved through faith.” Adam’s voice pulled Hoss’s attention back to his brother. But … Adam’s eyes were still closed; and his chin was as limp as his hand, pulling his mouth open slightly in sleep.

Confused, yet oddly comforted, Hoss gave in to his own weariness. He lay himself down, closed his eyes and prayed for God to provide the very miracle Reverend Smith had demanded.

But … not for him, God. I don’t much care what he believes or not. But, you see, God…. It ain’t Joe’s fault what that man did out here. And it ain’t Pa’s fault. And it just ain’t right to take all of Pa’s sons away from him, all on account of saving Joe’s life last year. If You gotta take one of us, I understand. ‘Cause it ain’t right for us to take Your gifts and never give nothin’ back. But don’t take Joe, God. Please, God, not Joe. You saved him last year for a reason, and I just know he ain’t done what You need yet. And Pa needs him. And Adam … Adam’s got a whole lot to give to this world. Please, God, if you gotta take one of us, take me. I’ve had a blessed life. I’ve been fortunate. And I’m ready, God. If you need me, I’m ready. I’m….

 

5

Carson City’s sheriff had always known that Ben Cartwright tended to be as immovable as the entire Sierra mountain range whenever the wellbeing of the mighty Ponderosa was in jeopardy. When the wellbeing of Cartwright’s sons was at stake, God help any man who got in his way. The sheriff should have reckoned that. He really hadn’t stood a chance with using reason to dissuade Cartwright from riding off willy-nilly into the desert at night. If that Maltby fellow’s story were true, it was entirely possible one or more of Cartwright’s sons might not be alive come morning — if they weren’t dead already.

“Runt’s a killer,” Maltby had told them. “Don’t let his parole fool ya’. He killed plenty of men in that prison and always laughed about it afterward. Thing was, the guards never bothered to report him for doin’ it.” The man’s eyes had widened, but the sheriff knew better than to believe there was any real fear in him. He might have been telling the truth; in fact, there was no reason to think he hadn’t. But whether or not the man he called ‘Runt’ was a killer didn’t worry Maltby any. That simple fact likely meant he’d done his own share of killing. He also probably figured he’d be the one still standing if it ever came down to a fight between Runt and him.

After hearing all of what Maltby had to say, the sheriff reckoned there’d be no point to arguing with the force of nature Ben Cartwright had become. The sheriff even gathered a posse to help him; and every one of the men in that posse rode hard. They were able to, thanks to an unnaturally bright night. It seemed as though the stars cast more light than usual; and the half-moon might as well have been full for the way it shone down on that desert floor.

But just when that sheriff got to thinking they were chasing nothing but stories, right when that half-moon was near to setting, it shone its light upon two bodies lying side by side.

“Hold up!” the sheriff hollered, raising his hand in emphasis. Then he turned and took a good long look at Ben Cartwright.

Maybe it was the odd starlight and moon rays that made the rancher’s face take on that pale, ghostly sheen the sheriff saw at that moment. But it was more likely Cartwright was thinking those corpses might be all that was left of two of his sons.

“You wait here,” the sheriff ordered.

Whether Cartwright heard him or not, he couldn’t say. But the old rancher sure didn’t listen. He climbed stiffly down from his horse and started following slowly, as though he needed to see for himself but he wasn’t in any hurry to do so.

“Strangers,” the sheriff called out as soon as he caught a good look at the faces. Relieved, he turned again to make sure Cartwright listened this time. “It’s not your sons. But it’s a fair guess it was your boys who done this. I’d say that’s a pretty good sign they’re in better shape than Maltby was saying.”

Cartwright closed his eyes, drew in a long breath that pulled his shoulders back and nodded slowly. But his relief didn’t last long. “Then where are they?” he asked, renewed concern evident in the pull of his brow. “We should have passed them on the road.”

“Sheriff?” a rider shouted. “Looks like they went back into the desert.”

Cartwright sighed heavily and his brows smoothed in understanding. “Little Joe,” he said softly as he looked deeper into the shadows than any man could hope to really see. “Maltby must have been telling the truth. They left Joe behind. Adam and Hoss…. They would have gone back for their brother.” Standing up arrow straight, Cartwright’s eyes came alight with renewed strength. And then Ben Cartwright moved like a man half his age, running to his horse and mounting almost before the sheriff had a chance to think about following.

There goes that force of nature again, the sheriff thought idly. If determination alone could keep anyone alive, Ben Cartwright shouldn’t have a thing to worry about. Trouble was, that desert was as immovable as the Sierras, too. And it didn’t much care about any man’s determination.

*****

Several miles deeper into that immovable desert, after the moon had sunk too low to be of any further help, the sheriff noticed a cluster of shadows that stood out from the rest. As they drew closer, one of those shadows gained the distinct outline of a covered wagon.

The sheriff wasn’t surprised to find Ben Cartwright spurring his already straining horse into a desperate canter. The sheriff forced his own to keep pace, though he held little hope that Cartwright’s sons were still alive. There was no campfire, and not a single soul was moving.

The sheriff’s hope was nothing to that rancher’s faith, however. Ben Cartwright was off his mount the instant it had come to a stop. And this time it was the sheriff who hesitantly followed the rancher to where two men lay. Although they were propped against the wagon’s foremost wheel rather than laid out side by side, they were likely as dead as those others the posse had left behind them. Still, the sheriff held his breath as the rancher knelt down next to the two young men, one of whom cradled the head of the other in his lap. That had to be Adam sitting there, watching over his young brother, Joe. The sheriff recognized the oldest’s dark hair and clothes, and the youngest’s tousled hair.

With one hand on Adam’s shoulder and the other and Joe’s arm, Ben Cartwright gently shook his oldest boy and called out to him sharply to, “Wake up, son! Adam? Do you hear me? Please son, it’s time to wake up!”

And, surprising, suddenly, the sheriff realized he was smiling when Adam began to respond, raising his head and mumbling something about faith.

*****

“I can ride.” Adam’s voice pushed itself into Joe’s thoughts.

It was another trick. Joe knew the desert was still teasing him with wishes that could never come true, impossible dreams that placed him back with his family … that made him believe he could ever get home.

“Please, Adam,” Pa said next. “Go in the wagon with Hoss. If … when he wakes up, I don’t want him to find himself alone with that … that….”

“Reverend,” Adam provided. The word came out clipped. It sounded like … venom, and it was followed with a long, tired-sounding sigh that set Joe to wondering if there was a snake in the path ahead of him. “Sure,” Adam went on as Joe tried to open his eyes to see both the path and the snake, “if you put it that way … but ….”

Maybe the snake was behind him. Yeah, sure, it was behind him. He’d dragged it halfway across the desert … a snake that pretended to be a reverend, a snake that—

“What about Joe?” Adam said, chasing all thoughts of snakes back into the dust.

“Joe can ride with me.”

I can ride? No. the snake was just spewing more devil’s dust. Joe’s pa and brother weren’t there. Joe couldn’t allow himself to listen. It was just the desert trying to trick him again. He couldn’t ride. He didn’t have a horse. He had to keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. But … was he? Was he still walking?

“You’ll both be better off,” Adam’s voice said, “if Joe rides in the wagon. He’ll be dead weight. Both you and your horse will….”

Dead? Joe wondered. Maybe that was why he couldn’t open his eyes or feel himself walking across all that devil’s dust anymore.

“Don’t you worry about me, young man. You just get into that wagon. The sooner you do, the sooner we can get all three of you boys to a doctor.”

No, I don’t need a doctor, Pa, not if I’m already dead.

“How many times do I have to tell you I’m fine?” Adam’s shout fell like a slap in the dark.

Joe’s muscles tensed, triggering pain in his knee … his shoulders … his throat. Was he supposed to feel pain if he was dead?

“Oh, you’re fine, are you?”

Pa? Joe said silently. It hurts, Pa.

But Pa couldn’t hear him. He just kept talking. “Then why was it so hard for me to wake you up when we got here? And what was it you were babbling about when you finally did wake up?”

“I wasn’t babbling.”

Adam? Babbling? No, that didn’t make sense.

“You couldn’t put two cohesive words together.”

“Because I had just woken up!” Adam shouted again, and Joe tensed even more … and hurt even more.

Nothing was making sense. Joe had been in the desert. Why was he hearing his pa and brother shouting at one another? And why did he hurt if he was dead. And why … why was he starting to shiver?

“Stop fighting me on this, Adam. You’ve been injured, whether you want to admit it or not.”

“Pa?” Adam said softly.

But Pa didn’t hear him. “I need to know that—”

“Pa!” Adam shouted. “It’s Joe.”

Something … someone kicked up a splash of devil’s dust across Joe’s hand … his cheek. “Joseph?” the voice of his pa rumbled. A blanket was draped over him, and then strong hands gripped Joe’s shoulders. They were warm … familiar hands.

Pa? Joe felt his cracked lips scratching across the desert bleached bones of his teeth. He was so dry, so….

“Joe, son, you’re going to be fine, just fine.”

Joe’s eyelids were scratchy, too; and they didn’t so much slide as scrape across his dry eyes when he forced them open. “Pa?” But the word was a razor in his throat. It hurt like the devil coming out; and he couldn’t help but close his eyes again.

“Here, son.” One of Pa’s strong hands levered Joe up while the other pressed a canteen to his lips.

How could Joe go from Hell to Heaven so quickly? He decided it didn’t matter and greedily drank down all that soothing moisture. He would have happily drowned in it if his pa didn’t pull the canteen away again.

“Not too much, now.”

Joe scraped his eyelids open once more. He was almost afraid to look, afraid to unmask the illusion and find the devil beckoning him forever forward on his endless march through Hell, weighed down by the devil’s own snake of a man he’d never met before. But he did look. He had to look. And what he saw would have brought tears of joy to his eyes, if he’d had any tears still within him.

“Pa?” This time the word had more substance, replacing razors with knives. But Joe didn’t care. His pa was there. God had seen fit to give him another miracle. And as he pressed his face against his pa’s firm shoulder, he reveled in the smell of home.

“You’re all right now, Joseph. I promise you, everything’s going to be just fine.”

No, Joe decided. It wasn’t going to be fine. It already was fine. Pa had chased the devil back to Hell.

*****

Adam closed his eyes. He was grateful to realize they were nearing Carson City even as the sun was nearing its zenith. The heat and dry air were reawakening something akin to the headache he’d endured the day before. It was not as debilitating — thank Heavens — but with Carson City so close, he was already starting to look forward to the feel of a soft pillow to help keep the worst of the pain at bay. He was also grateful to be on the wagon seat rather than trapped in its bed. He would have preferred the feel of the saddle beneath him to the rigid bench. Even so, he’d been wrong to argue with his father before — not because riding would have been hard on him, but because his father had elected to drive the wagon himself. It felt oddly comfortable to have the entire family together in that wagon, trundling westward toward home.

Pressing aside a disquietingly skewed sense of déjà vu, he opened his eyes again and peeked through the canvas behind him. Both of his brothers looked miserable. Hoss lay stretched out with his head resting on the sack of flour. His face was flushed red and dripping with a steady flow of perspiration, and his chest rose and fell with deep, uneven breaths of the stagnant air. Joe didn’t look much better, although, unlike Hoss, he was awake. Sitting propped against the water barrel, he kept his glazed and unfocused eyes locked on his middle brother.

“You should try to get some sleep, Joe,” Adam said.

Joe glanced at him, his own face looking redder than Hoss’s and way too dry for Adam’s liking. “Can’t,” he breathed softly before returning his attention to Hoss.

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t.” He dropped his chin in a weary attempt to point out the other man in the wagon.

Adam sighed in understanding. Reverend Smith hardly posed a threat. He was still and quiet, and apparently well on the road to meeting up with Saint Peter himself. But he was the cause of … all of it. Joe was as angry at him as he was hurting and worried.

Adam was worried, too, for both of his brothers. Hoss’s wound was red and inflamed and getting worse by the hour. As for Joe, the boy’s knee was swollen to twice its size, his face had as many bruises as blisters from the unforgiving sun and he was both dehydrated and dangerously feverish. Still, Adam’s worry was tinged with hope. Hoss was the strongest man he had ever known. And God had been doling out a fair amount of Cartwright miracles in the hours since Adam and his brothers had invited that wretch of a reverend into their camp. One more, small miracle would get them to Carson City’s doctor before Hoss’s strength gave out and Joe succumbed to heat stroke. That shouldn’t be too much to ask the divine being who’d clearly been watching over them. After all, nothing short of a miracle could have kept Joe alive and moving despite his lack of water and the effects of the severe beating Reverend Smith’s men had given him before his journey had even begun.

How Little Joe had walked for as long as he had before collapsing, particularly given the fact that he’d ended up dragging Reverend Smith behind him, well…. Yes, a miracle was the only explanation Adam could find.

Of course, in between all those miracles, Adam still had a role to play in caring for his brothers. “At least drink some water,” he told his young brother.

When Joe looked at him again, he seemed puzzled. That was as bad of a sign as the fact that Joe wasn’t sweating enough.

“The canteens are right next to you, Joe,” Adam reminded him. “Take a drink, and then get Hoss to—”

“Whoa,” Pa called out, pulling hard on the reins.

The action drew Adam’s attention forward once more. “Why are you stopping?”

Pa looked at him, his eyebrows raised. “Because you’re right. We all need to take a rest and drink some water, especially the horses.” His eyes moved to the wagon bed, making it clear that he, too, was concerned that Adam had had to remind Joe to drink when there were three full canteens sitting right next to him and his back was supported by a half-filled barrel of water.

*****

Adam didn’t bother trying to climb down from the wagon seat with his father. While his eyes assured him they weren’t moving anymore, his equilibrium said differently. It felt as though the wagon was still rolling forward. Adam held little hope that having his feet on the ground would feel any different, and he doubted his legs would be particularly effective at keeping him upright. So he acquiesced when his father told him to stay where he was; and he watched quietly while his father attended to his brothers … and angrily while the sheriff attended to the reverend.

A few moments after the sheriff began to press water from a drenched cloth into the reverend’s mouth, Adam saw signs of movement. The reverend’s head began to bob ever so slightly. And then, “No.” The cry was soft and ragged. Several more drops of water lent strength to his next attempt. “Not leave … my … soul.”

“Hold still!” the sheriff demanded. “Ain’t no use talkin’ right now.”

“Not leave my … soul … in Hell.”

The words, whispered though they were, pulled Pa from where he’d been hovering over Hoss.

“Show me,” the reverend went on, dribbling the sheriff’s gift of water as though he didn’t care to drink it, “the path … of life….”

“Suit yourself.” The sheriff threw down the cloth and jumped from the wagon bed, leaving more room for Pa.

Adam saw rage flare up in his father’s eyes when the reverend uttered more words from an increasingly familiar psalm. “At thy right hand … pleasures … forevermore.”

“How dare you!” Pa challenged, his voice booming enough to make Hoss begin to stir and cause the reverend to open his eyes. “How dare you demand the pleasures of Heaven!”

Reverend Smith’s clouded eyes grew wide. One hand rose weakly toward Pa. “The Lord … my God …. In thee … my trust….”

“Trust?” Pa shouted back. “You put my sons through Hell because you had no trust! No faith!”

“Thy son … died for … for my sins.” The reverend’s hand hovered in the air between Pa’s chest and his own. “Thou art … my Lord….”

“Stop that, damn you!” Adam felt his own eyes widen at his father’s choice of words. “You have no cause to recite the Bible to me when its words so clearly have no meaning to you!”

“The words … your words…. Thou art my Lord.”

And suddenly Adam realized what that reverend thought he was seeing … or rather, whom. The white hair, dark brows and eyes blazing with a fury that had caused as many men as boys to stutter and step nervously backward….

“Pa,” Adam said softly just as his father’s mouth was coming open to lash out at the reverend once more. He waited until he met those blazing eyes before adding, “He thinks you’re….”

“I don’t care what he thinks!” Pa shouted. “This man expects to be welcomed into Heaven with open arms and showered with Heavenly pleasures, yet look what he’s done to you, to all three of you!” he added loudly, arousing Hoss and sweeping a glassy-eyed Little Joe into the conversation. “He told you he was a man of God, but that’s absurd! He has no faith! His lack of faith brought harm to my sons. Our Father in Heaven would never—”

“Pa….”

Hallowed be Thy name….”

“That’s right,” Pa rumbled then. “Pray. Pray long and hard that—”

“Thy kingdom come….”

“Pa, I think he thinks you’re—”

“God,” Joe said, surprising Adam to have such keen perception when he’d had to be told to take a drink of water — especially when Pa, himself, had failed to recognize the rapt expression in the reverend’s fevered eyes.

“What?” Pa asked breathily, clearly taken aback.

“Thy will be done….”

Adam lifted one eyebrow as the reverend tried — and failed — to raise his hand further.

“Why, that’s even more absurd than—”

“On Earth as … in H-Heaven….”

Pa looked back at the reverend.

“Give us this day … our … daily bread….”

“No.” Pa shook his head, dismissing what two of his sons had told him. But Adam saw the reverend’s awe grow into horror; and he knew the reverend believed his God was refusing him succor.

“Forgive!” the reverend rasped, his eyes furrowed in desperation. “Forgive … transgressions….”

Disturbed, Adam’s father turned away, giving his attention back to Hoss, who’d been watching with a peculiarly rapt expression of his own. The dismissal left the reverend crying. And that, Adam noticed, soothed the anger in Little Joe. Adam’s little brother finally relaxed enough to take a sip of water, settle back and allow his eyes to drift closed.

 

6

Hours passed, days even, but they were all jumbled together in Ben’s thoughts. He could barely comprehend where one ended and another began. He knew only that he was bone-weary and … lost. Yes, lost. He didn’t know quite why, or even how. He knew only that he felt a sense of displacement or … disconnection.

Just tired, he told himself. When had he last slept? Or eaten? He couldn’t really remember. It was almost as though he was just beginning to emerge from a dream — a nightmare that filled his head with muddled moments … arriving in Carson City … giving his sons over to the care of the local doctor … settling back into the hotel with Adam, and then anxiously dividing his time between the hotel and the doctor’s clinic where his two youngest sons needed more care than his oldest ….

Yes, he was tired. And suddenly he found himself standing on a street corner, unsure which of his sons he had just left behind him and which he was trying to reach. He closed his eyes, filled his lungs, and then looked to what lie ahead of him. He swept his gaze out past the wagons and horses and the endless clouds of sandy dust from their passing, to focus further eastward, toward the heart of the desert. He could almost believe he was waiting once more for his sons to return, as though he could erase what had happened.

“You can go inside, if you’d like,” a man said, coming up beside him. Smiling warmly, the man nodded in response to Ben’s bewildered expression. “The church is always open.”

Following the man’s gesture, Ben saw that a white building with a tall steeple lay directly in his path. “No,” he answered dismissively. “Thank you, reverend,” he added, noting the man’s collar. “I was just … on my way to ….” To where? He still wasn’t quite sure.

“You look like a man who could use a cup of coffee … and perhaps a bit of friendly conversation.”

Ben shook his head. “No,” he said again. “My sons…. I need to … look after them.” Gazing about him once more, he finally began to get his bearings. “Adam,” he said as much to himself as to the reverend. “Adam should be waking up soon.”

The reverend’s brows rose. “Adam?” he asked. At Ben’s absent nod, he added, “I presume you are Mister Ben Cartwright?”

Startled, Ben finally gave his full attention to the reverend. “How do you know me?”

“The sheriff told me about what happened out there.” He indicated toward the desert. “In fact, I’ve just come from the jail, where I had a rather lengthy if fragmented conversation with the reverend Smith.”

Ben scowled. “Reverend? He is no more a man of God than … than—”

“Doubting Thomas, perhaps?”

Grunting in only partial agreement, Ben turned his thoughts once more to his sons. “Excuse me,” he added, “I should see how my son is doing.”

“Adam?”

“Yes.”

“I understand he suffered a concussion but is healing nicely.”

“Yes,” Ben repeated.

“And your other sons are also on the road to renewed health.”

Ben nodded once more. “Excuse me, reverend, but—”

“Have faith, Mister Cartwright. From what I’ve heard of their experiences out there, I have faith that they have all been well looked after, right from their first encounter with Smith and his followers. I think, in your heart, you, also, have such faith.”

“Faith?” Ben countered angrily. “That man of God, that … that scoundrel who calls himself a reverend … he tortured my sons because of his own lack of faith!”

The reverend nodded. “Like Thomas in some ways.”

“How can a man of God have no faith?”

“Thomas also thought himself a man of God. Did he not?”

Ben’s scowl deepened.

“There are men of God and men of faith, Mister Cartwright. Unfortunately, the two don’t always intersect. A good reverend or pastor, or a rabbi for that matter, lives by and teaches the word of God and has faith in both God and mankind. After all, mankind was made in His image. Those who don’t have faith, like our Reverend Smith, are more inclined to cast judgment than to trust in the judgment of God. They spout words that are often based more on their own interpretations of the Bible than on what it actually says. And … they press God to show them miracles they’re too blind to see.”

“Why?” Ben demanded to know. “Why did he have to use my sons to find his miracle?”

“Because the miracle with which your son was blessed last year was profound, far more profound than anything Mister Smith had encountered in a lifetime filled with torment. He was desperate to prove that his faith had not been displaced for all these years.”

“You sound as though you approve of what he did!”

“No, of course not. But it is not my approval that matters. It is only for God to pass judgment, not I … nor you, Mister Cartwright.”

“Me?”

The reverend nodded. “You blame Reverend Smith for the harm done to your sons. That blame is understandable, perhaps even justified. But … don’t hate him for his own lack of faith. Pity him, but don’t hate him. Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. You have been blessed. Pray for him, that he, too, can be so blessed.”

“Pray for him? After what he did to my sons, you expect me to pray for him?”

“He thought you were God, Mister Cartwright. Did you know that?”

“Excuse me, Reverend.” Ben tried to step forward, but the reverend took hold of his arm. It wasn’t the man’s strength that held him back, however. His grip was gentle, more asking than demanding that Ben remain.

“He thought you were God. He now fears for his immortal soul. He knows that he was wrong to use your son to prove his own faith. He has confessed his sins. He now spends his lucid hours — of which there are few — begging for forgiveness.”

“You can’t expect me to forgive a man who tried to kill my sons!”

“He didn’t try to kill your sons. He used your sons, yes. He even put them in danger and was directly responsible for the harm done to them. But he did not try to kill them. What he tried to do was validate his own faith.”

“Once again, you sound as though you believe his actions were justified!”

“What I believe, Mister Cartwright, is that he tested his faith, and now your own faith is being tested.”

My faith?”

The reverend nodded. “You’re tired, are you not?”

“Of course, I’m tired! I’ve been—”

“You’ve been looking after your sons and paying no heed to your own wellbeing. It is time for you to have faith enough to see to your own needs. After all, God helps those who help themselves. Part of looking after your own wellbeing means letting go of your fear and your hate.”

“But he … he almost killed my sons.”

“He did not succeed. If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. The reverend Smith trespassed heartily against you and your sons. But he is trying to repent. Put him — and yourself — in God’s hands. And rest easy, Mister Cartwright. There are no better hands in which to place your faith.”

By the time Ben finally moved away, he felt more contemplative than confused … and more tired than weary. Had the reverend — whose name Ben hadn’t managed to learn — eased his troubled thoughts or merely exhausted him beyond any ability to think at all?

Somehow, it didn’t matter. Maybe he was just too tired to care.

He was numb when he reached the hotel, feeling neither anger nor fear. And then he opened the door to the room, and his numbness was chased away with relief at finding his oldest son awake, partially dressed and shaving.

“Well,” Ben said, smiling, “you’re certainly looking better.”

“I’m feeling better,” Adam answered. “Thought I’d go over and see how Hoss and Joe are doing.”

Ben closed his eyes and sighed, prompting Adam to utter a worried, “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing,” Ben answered quickly. “Nothing’s wrong. Not anymore. Hoss’s fever has finally broken and Joe’s anxious to get home.”

“Make that two of us.” Adam splashed his face with water.

“Make that all of us!” Ben tossed his hat toward the rack by the door, but missed the peg. Sighing again, he stared at the hat where it lay on the floor until Adam squatted down to pick it up, swaying slightly as he rose. “I’m sorry, son. You didn’t have to do that.”

“You look worn out, Pa. Why don’t you get some sleep?”

“I’m fine,” Ben scoffed. “But you—”

“I’m fine, too.” Adam smiled. “Finer than you right now. Get some sleep. Then later we can have some of that roast beef Mary’s been telling me about.”

“Mary?”

Adam’s smile became a grin. “Mary Rayburn. She brought the fresh towels.”

“Well, can you imagine that?”

“Imagine what?”

“I’ve been staying in this hotel for well over a week now, and the only person I’ve managed to meet is that Mister Dougherty at the reception desk. As far as I knew, he ran this entire hotel by himself.”

“You’ve been a bit preoccupied.”

“I suppose I have at that.”

“Get some sleep, Pa. I’ll wake you for supper.”

“Thank you, Adam.”

“I should thank you.”

“For what?”

“For finding us out there.”

“I didn’t do it alone.”

“Well, you and the sheriff and his posse.”

“That’s not who I meant.”

Adam studied him for a moment before recognition dawned in his eyes and he nodded.

Moments later, Ben lay down atop the bed covers and his oldest son began humming a familiar hymn. As the unsung words drifted through his mind, Ben realized that the sense of disconnection he’d felt outside the church had vanished. He felt … complete.

I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.

Yes, something had changed, something profound enough to cause him to wonder at the astute wisdom of Carson City’s local man of God. And before he allowed himself to drift off to sleep, Ben Cartwright issued up not only a solemn prayer of thanks for returning his sons to health, but also a prayer for the conscience and the soul of the man who’d come so close to taking those very sons away from him … a man whose fevered fear Ben had both noticed and shunned out of his own concern … his own fear … for his sons.

‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,
and Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.

 

7

Hoss awoke from a light doze. A breeze was brushing his cheek, a cool breeze, so unlike the desert heat he’d come to expect. He wasn’t in the desert anymore. Nor was he in Carson City. No, as he came back to his senses, he realized he was on his way home, seated in the back seat of a rented buggy. Little Joe sat right beside him, while Pa was up front, driving the team. Yep. They were all on their way home.

As the breeze pushed at his hair, Hoss could almost believe it was a kiss from Heaven itself. Smiling, he filled his lungs with air so clean and pure it even tasted like Heaven while it soothed his raw, dry nose with the scent of pine.

He opened his eyes to find the buggy rolling down the road in the heart of Ponderosa pine country. “Smell that, Joe,” he said, slapping his brother’s thigh, and then uttering a quick, “sorry,” when the boy shouted in complaint about jostling his sore hip and bad knee. Hoss felt too giddy to let guilt or worry creep in. He’d done enough worrying in the desert. They all had.

“Whoa!” Pa called out then, reining in the two-horse team.

“Hey, Pa? What’cha stopping for?” Hoss asked. “We’re close enough to home I can almost smell Hop Sing’s apple pie!”

“We may be close, but we’re not quite close enough. The horses need to rest. And frankly, so do I.”

Hoss watched his pa’s eyes land on Joe and then stray outward to Adam, who was riding his own horse and leading his family’s horses in tow. Hoss looked at Adam, too, then. It wasn’t often he could tell what might be going on in his older brother’s mind, but he knew pain when he saw it. And at that moment he could tell Adam was hurting; he also looked mighty tired.

“I’d just as soon press on,” Adam said as he came up alongside the buggy, “if you don’t mind.”

“I do mind,” Pa answered gruffly. “You need rest, too, even if you refuse to admit it.”

Adam’s jaw tightened. “I’ll rest when I get home.”

“Let Adam and I switch,” Joe added. “He can take this squeaky buggy seat and get all kinds of rest, long as Hoss here doesn’t squeeze him out.”

“And just what do you plan to do?” Adam asked pointedly.

“Ride,” Joe answered with equal vigor.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Joe,” Adam countered. “That knee of yours is—”

“I walked halfway across the desert with this—”

“All the more reason you need to rest it, now!”

“I could ride just fine!”

“Boys!” Pa hollered. “Why in Heaven’s name are you arguing? After all you’ve been through together, I should think arguing would be the last thing you’d want to do!”

“We’re not arguing.” Sighing, Adam closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’re just—”

“We’re not?” Joe interrupted.

Adam looked at him. “Well, I’m not.”

“Could’ve fooled me!”

Pa looked as disappointed as Hoss felt. “Hey, Joe.” Hoss tapped his little brother — on the arm this time — hoping to pull Joe’s attention away from whatever it was that had him so all fired up. “I think there’s some of them cookies left in that basket the reverend gave us.”

Joe’s eyes blazed back at him with a look that triggered a cold feeling in Hoss’s stomach.

Reilley, Joe,” Adam explained, his voice a whole lot softer than it had been a moment before. “Reverend Reilley, from the church in Carson City.”

“Joseph….” Pa’s voice was equally soft. “It’s all right to be angry about what happened, but don’t take that anger out on your brothers.”

“I ain’t!”

“Then why are you shouting?” Pa asked.

Because! B…because I’m mad!”

“At your brothers?”

“No! Of course not!”

Pa’s brows rose up. “Are you angry with me?”

“At you?” Joe was the one who looked startled then. “Pa…. No. I got no reason to….” Taking a deep breath, he let his shoulders sag. “No, Pa,” he added quietly. “I’m not angry with you.” And suddenly he seemed more sad than angry.

Hoss felt bad for him. “Aw, Joe’s just wore out, is all. The way this buggy’s bouncin’ around, I’m sure that knee of his is—”

And suddenly Joe was angry again. “Cut it out, Hoss! It ain’t my knee that’s botherin’ me!”

“Then what is it?” Hoss asked.

Joe glanced from his brothers to his father and back again. His eyes held so many different emotions, Hoss couldn’t quite tell whether he was mad or sad, or maybe even afraid. After a moment Joe shook his head. “It don’t matter,” he said softly before forcing a small smile. “That’s a good idea about the cookies, Hoss.” Then he reached toward the side of the buggy, like he was aiming to get out.

“Wait, Joe,” Pa said. “Let me give you a hand.”

But Adam beat him to it. “It’s all right, Pa,” he offered, dismounting. “I’ve got him.”

And then Joe got angry all over again. “I don’t need help!” He swatted Adam’s hand away and determinedly hopped to the ground, quickly grabbing the side of the buggy for support when that hopping jostled his knee a whole lot more than Hoss had a moment earlier.

Adam was just as quick to take hold of Joe’s arm. “Hoss? Can you hand me that cane the doctor gave him?”

Joe wasn’t having it. He wasn’t having any of it. “Stop it!” He shook himself loose of Adam. “Why don’t you all just stop?”

“Stop what?” Adam asked.

“We’re just tryin’ to help ya’,” Hoss added.

“Yeah? Well what about you? You’re not in any better shape than me! They could have killed you, Hoss! They almost did! Adam, too.”

“They didn’t succeed,” Adam said.

“That don’t change the fact you both almost died out there. If I hadn’t been with you, they would have left you alone.”

“Is that what you’re angry about?” Adam asked. “You’re blaming yourself?”

“It weren’t your fault, Joe,” Hoss said then. “You ought to know that.”

Joe just looked at his brothers, the pull of his brow making it clear he didn’t know, not really.

Adam picked up on that, too. “If you’re so eager to blame someone other than the reverend Smith, go ahead and blame me. I’m the one who let them into our camp.”

“Oh, come on, Adam!” Joe said finally. “None of this was your fault!”

“It certainly wasn’t yours.”

“I know. I know that! I just…. I don’t know. Forget it.”

Pa’s eyes were on Joe, just like Hoss’s and Adam’s. “Can you, son?”

Joe looked away from all of them. “It don’t matter.”

“It does matter, Joseph. You’re angry over what’s happened. We all are. But justice will be served. Two men are dead, and the others are going back to prison.”

“That’s what doesn’t matter, Pa,” Joe answered, keeping his head down. “I just keep….” He took a deep breath and looked at Pa again. “I keep wishing it had never happened. I wish I’d stayed home. If I hadn’t ridden out to that fort with Adam and Hoss, the reverend wouldn’t have bothered them and they wouldn’t have been hurt. I even wish I’d never stopped to help that man out there last year.” Joe got rigid then, real rigid. “But God knows it doesn’t make any difference what we wish for, does it?”

“Joseph…,” Pa started.

Joe didn’t seem to hear him. “Wishes couldn’t bring my mother back, and they sure couldn’t make it so that son of a bitch didn’t shoot me last year!”

“Joseph! Keep a civil tongue!”

Why? Why, Pa? Keepin’ a civil tongue won’t change anything. Bad things happen no matter how civil we are. All I did was try to help someone, and what did it get me? A bullet hole and a bunch of fellas chasing miracles who almost killed my brothers on account of it!”

“The one they almost killed outright was you, Joe,” Adam said.

Hoss nodded. “It sure was a good thing God saw fit to give us another one of them miracles.”

“I’m sick of miracles!” Joe hollered back.

Hoss tensed, expecting his pa to get angry. But Pa just looked … sad. “Well, I for one am grateful for them, Joseph, if miracles are what kept you and your brothers alive.”

Adam saw it differently. “Would it make you feel any better if we stopped referring to any of what happened as miraculous? Good fortune doesn’t always require divine intervention.”

“Good fortune?” Joe countered. “Good fortune would have had us never meeting up with Reverend Smith. I don’t care what you call it, Adam.  Good fortune, miracles or the luck of the draw, for that matter. God could have stopped that reverend. He could have stopped all of it. But He didn’t. All He did, all He ever does is … sometimes, if He feels like it … help out after bad things happen. Why doesn’t He just stop those bad things from happening?”

“Joe?” Hoss asked hesitantly, uncomfortable about what he was hearing. “Are you mad at … at God?”

The look Joe gave him, his eyes shifting from sad to guilt-ridden, provided the answer Hoss had expected. Hoss didn’t quite know what to do or say to help his little brother past those feelings.

But Adam sure did. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, offering a different kind of support this time, a kind Joe wasn’t as quick to push away. “Don’t blame God, Joe. It’s easy to do.” He took a long breath, glancing at Pa and Hoss as he did. “I imagine we’ve all done it a time or two. But there’s no point to it.” Adam’s jaw tightened and his eyes grew dark, but just for a second. It was so quick Hoss could almost believe he hadn’t seen it at all. But he knew better, because he knew Adam. Hoss’s older brother was hurting, all right, except there was more hurt inside than out.

“Look, Joe,” Adam said next, his own hurt tucked down deep again, “there was nothing of the divine involved with what that reverend orchestrated in that desert.”

“But He could have stopped it, Adam. God could have stopped all of it from happening.”

“No. He couldn’t.”

Joe shrugged out from under Adam’s grip. “Of course He could! He can do anything!”

Except interfere with free will,” Adam said.

“He should,” Joe countered quietly.

“If He did … well … it wouldn’t exactly be free, would it? No one would ever do anything bad. There would be no need for prisons or sheriffs or judges.”

“Or guns,” Joe added, absently stroking his abdomen where the bullet had pierced him a year earlier.

“Or guns,” Adam repeated, quirking his lips into a small, sad looking smile. “Face it, Joe. This isn’t Eden. All we can do is be civil and ethical, and do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

“And pray,” Pa added, “for divine intervention when we need it; and then either appreciate it when those prayers are answered, or … accept God’s will when they’re not.”

“I did, Pa,” Joe said. “I did appreciate it when I realized you’d come, when you found me … us,” he corrected, glancing at his brothers. “But then…. I don’t know. Maybe it was all that devil’s dust I swallowed out there. But when I realized how sick Hoss was back at that doctor’s, and when Adam didn’t show up and you kept telling me he was sleeping…. I got worried all over again. And now that we’re heading home, it’s like … like none of it’s supposed to matter anymore. Like we can just ride away and pretend it never happened.”

“No, son. I don’t expect that any of us could ignore what happened. But we do have to put it behind us. We can’t let our anger … or our fears consume us.”

“How, Pa? How do I put it behind me when … when it’s all bound to start all over again?”

“What is, son?”

“All those strangers … all those people who came looking for miracles last year.”

“That won’t happen this time,” Adam said.

“Why wouldn’t it? Once people find out about—”

“They won’t,” Pa answered. “The only story the newspaper printed was about a robbery … about a group of ex-convicts who set out to steal the Army’s payment for those horses.”

Joe didn’t look convinced. “Rumors will start soon enough.”

“If they do,” Pa said, “we will deal with them, together. You’re not alone in this, son.”

“But how … how do I….” Joe shook his head.

Pa put his hand around Joe’s shoulders and turned him slightly. “Look there, son. What do you see?”

“Trees.” Joe looked as puzzled as Hoss felt. “The road….”

“And where does that road lead?”

“Home.”

Pa nodded. “The closer we get to home, the further we put all that devil’s dust you keep talking about behind us.”

“But….”

“Son, every step forward will put what happened out in that desert further and further behind you. You won’t forget. None of us will. But the rawness will fade, given time.” Pa’s free hand balled into a fist, making it clear it would be a long, long time before any of his own rawness managed to fade.

“Every step forward…,” Joe repeated in a whisper.

“Joe?” Hoss asked.

Joe looked up at him, and then returned his attention to Pa. “When I was out in that desert, I couldn’t let myself think about anything else, anything other than putting one foot in front of the other.”

“That’s a start,” Adam said.

Something passed between the two of them then, something Hoss couldn’t quite follow. Whatever it was, it seemed to ease the lines around Joe’s eyes. The boy even gave Adam the trace of a smile after a moment. “Is that really all there is to it?”

Hoss wasn’t too sure whether Joe was asking Pa or Adam, but it was Adam who answered. “No. That’s another thing about free will.”

Pa nodded knowingly. “We all have to find our own way through all the devil’s dust that clogs our path.”

Hoss exchanged puzzled looks with Joe before asking, “You, Pa?”

“When Joseph’s mother died, I swallowed a belly full of that dust myself. I asked the same questions that Joe’s been asking. How could a loving God allow such a terrible thing to happen? But you and your brothers helped me to … well, to put such questions behind me, to put my trust in God’s purpose, whatever that purpose may be, and to move forward, putting one foot in front of the other until I could appreciate that even small miracles can provide enough light to help me see through whatever darkness — or devil’s dust — might get in my way. As for the larger miracles, like the ones that might well have kept all three of you alive out there, well, I am more than appreciative. I am blessed, just as you are, all three of you.”

“Pa?” Hoss asked after a moment. “I’ve been thinking, and, well…. Ya’ think maybe God’s purpose back there in that desert had more to do with the reverend than Little Joe?”

Pa stiffened, and his eyes went dark just like Adam’s had. “Whatever God’s purpose was with that reverend, it is not for me or any of us to judge.”

“I know, that. But that reverend, he … well … when he saw you back in that wagon, he thought you were God.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. He was delirious.”

“Delirium or not,” Adam said, “he did think you were God.”

“He did, Pa,” Hoss went on. “You know he did. And when he saw how angry you were at him, he knew exactly why. He knew he done wrong. He knew it and he was sorry for it.”

Adam scrunched down his brows. “He was sorry for it only because he was scared.”

“Scared of making God angry?” Joe asked. “Or scared of Pa?” Hoss was surprised to see a trace of his little brother’s grin. But he knew Little Joe even better than he knew Adam. Joe wasn’t fooling him with that smile. He was nervous and trying to hide it.

Mister Smith,” Adam answered, “was scared of being denied a place in Heaven.”

Then Pa got about as angry as he’d been back in that wagon. “He should be afraid! If he’d had any faith, he would never have tried to use Joe to … to….”

“Find the faith he’d lost?” Adam finished while Pa was still struggling for the right word.

Pa’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you’re starting to feel sorry for that blaggard!”

“Not sorry, no. But I can certainly see why he would be afraid. He used Joe to force God’s hand. And he got more than he bargained for.”

“He didn’t get enough if you ask me,” Joe said softly.

Adam nodded. “I happen to agree. But it’s over; and he’s going back to prison.”

“And,” Hoss added, “he’s a whole lot more God-fearin’ than he was before.”

Joe scrunched up his eyes at Hoss. “You think he … repented?”

“I think maybe … maybe he did. He went out there lookin’ for your miracle. But … maybe he got one of his own. Maybe what happened out there was God’s way of savin’ that reverend’s soul.”

Joe didn’t look too happy about that. “Am I a bad person to wish he was past savin’?”

But Pa didn’t look upset at all. “I’d say you’re an honest person, son. Still….” He took a deep breath. “It would do us all good to remember something from our prayers. How often do we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us?”

“Have you forgiven him, Pa?”

Pa looked at all three of them with dark eyes that said he hadn’t, and he wasn’t bound to any time soon. “No,” he admitted. “But I am trying.”

Adam thumbed the brim of his hat. “I think that’s all any of us can do, right now.”

“Reckon it’s enough?” Hoss asked.

“I reckon it has to be.” Adam answered before turning to Joe again. “Now, how about letting us help you get off of that knee, Little Joe?” And just like that he pushed Pa’s rawness and Joe’s devil’s dust deep down inside him again.

“I reckon that’s probably a good idea,” Joe answered, his own eyes still raw, but his grin a bit wider than it had been.

Then Hoss felt another Heavenly breeze. “Yeah. I reckon maybe it is enough, at that.” Because, like Adam said, it had to be.

Hoss liked to think that maybe Reverend Smith had found redemption through a miracle he hadn’t deserved. But at the same time he liked to think about that man being locked behind thick iron bars and impenetrable concrete walls. Forgiveness didn’t come easy.

As Hoss watched Joe limping away between Pa and Adam, he couldn’t help but remember the way Joe had looked when they’d found him in that desert, half dead. No. Forgiveness didn’t come easy, at all. But, like Pa, Hoss was willing to try. That would certainly have to do.

With a wink shared between no one but him and God, Hoss used his good arm to lever himself up out of the buggy, and then turned his attention to the basket Reverend William Maxwell Reilley had given them on behalf of the ladies’ auxiliary, “For the unfortunate victims of the wretched souls” the ladies had been relieved to know were locked up tight in the Carson City jail.

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.

 

Epilogue

Yeah, most folks call me the preacher. I reckon I don’t … don’t have no other name no more, anyhow. Whatever I was … or who … whoever I was back a’fore I shot that fella in the desert … well, that part of me don’t…. That part of me died out there.

Yeah. I died out in all that devil’s dust. But you … you’re still dyin’. Your eyes … it’s … you’re a’fear’d of dyin’. I reckon maybe that’s what’s different ‘tween you and me. I ain’t a’fear’d. God saved me out there … saved us both, that fella and me. He didn’t save you though, did He? No. Not … not in the way what matters.

I ain’t never called myself no preacher, but … I guess that’s what I am. An’ you … you called yourself a reverend, but you ain’t. Maybe … maybe it’s God’s callin’ that matters. Maybe….

So now, I’m … I guess I’m the preacher. ‘Cause He called and I … I heard Him. But you … you called Him. An’ it don’t …. It don’t work that way.

You thought your words mattered more’n His, didn’t ya’?

‘Course ya’ did. You’re lyin’ to yourself, you know. Just … just yourself. Can’t lie to God. He hears through your lies just fine.

You think you saw Him? Think you saw God out there? Eyes a’blazin’ fire? Ya’ sure it weren’t the devil? Yeah, okay. Maybe it was God, then. But ya’ angered Him. That’s what happened. It’s like I said, you don’t call God, it’s Him calls you. But you were deaf. Deaf and blind, too.

You ought to be scared … ought to be a’fear’d. You owe God. An’ that fella, too. All of ‘em, I reckon, the one in reaper black and that barrel chested fella, too. You tricked ‘em. It’s the devil that tricks folks. God don’t work that way. You tricked ‘em.

I reckon these walls is where you belong. Ought never to be nowhere else. Maybe … maybe if you’re lucky, or if … if you can start hearin’ God for a change … maybe ya’ spend your breathin’ days here, then He’ll take ya’ home when it’s time. Won’t need Purgatory. Maybe.

Me? Oh, sure. I reckon I could leave, in time. Warden said …. He said my sentence … my crime against man … against that man out in that desert … my crime weren’t a sin. Said my head was addled. I weren’t right in … in the head. And my crime weren’t … weren’t a sin. But I know better. Me and God, we know better. I let the devil in, is what I done. I let him in. Swallowed him up whole. And I can still feel him. He like to choke me most days. It’s that Holy light saves me. Saves me ever’ day. Streamin’ in through them bars up yonder. It’s that … that Holy light.

Sure, I’m a’fear’d. If I walk out a’here, that Holy light won’t look the same … won’t feel the same. I might choke once and for all. Can’t let that happen. No, sir. Devil’s out there. Holy light’s in here. No. I ain’t leavin’. Warden knows I belong here.

I let the devil in. Swallowed up all that devil’s dust.

Ashes to ashes … dust to dust. That’s me. Preacher made of dust.

But you…. What are you? I ain’t so sure.

Might be your kind put that dust there to begin with. Might be you didn’t swallow that dust. It weren’t the dust that turned you. No, it weren’t the dust. It was you churned up the dust. It was you.

It was you, weren’t it?

You. You’re the devil. The devil….

It’s you been chokin’ me all this time!

It’s you what put that bullet in that fella! It’s you what took his gun! You what pulled that trigger!

Don’t lie! That’s all ya’ do is lie!

Ya’ see what ya’ done? My hands ain’t mine no more! Ain’t … ain’t mine! But … hallelujah! Ain’t the devil workin’ ‘em now, is it? No. It’s God.

Don’t run now. Don’t fight. You just stand right there. You stand there and heed God.

Devil pulled that trigger out in that desert. But God … it’s God wrappin’ my hands around yours, wrappin’ em’ good and tight around this here Bible. Hurts, don’t it? Has to hurt. Has to be tight enough to choke the devil right out of you.

I told ya’, don’t fight! Don’t talk, neither. Don’t … don’t even think. Just … just listen.

It’s God’s word what matters. God’s word an’ all that Holy light. Burn the dust out of any man … any man who’ll wait long enough to let it.

***The End***

Historical note: In 1863, the Reverend William Maxwell Reilley was appointed to serve as the first missionary and pastor to Carson City’s Episcopalians.  He arrived on October 29th and set about organizing a parish.  The church was built between 1867 and 1868.

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