Endgame (by freyakendra)

Sequel to: The Game. A prison break sends Alfred Whitfield, a man on the edge of madness, and Peter Nobridge, an enigma whose alliances are yet to be proven, back to the Ponderosa one year after Adam’s old classmate played a deadly game with Cartwright lives. This time, when the siege begins there is more at stake than mere blood. (This is a sequel to “The Game,” but should offer enough hints to stand alone.) The SJS & SAS are, of course, integral to the plot, and there’s plenty of angst and ES? to go around….
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  48,300


 

Joe felt…alive. That was the best way to describe the sensation of the wind’s embrace as Cochise carried him forward with a power unmatched by any other horse he’d ever ridden. The pinto moved faster with each breath, as eager as Joe to fly across the ground with all the fluidity and grace of the swiftest eagle high above them. Man and horse were one, a single entity brought together for that single moment. And in that moment, nothing else mattered. There was no work to be done, no unfinished chores, no fears, no worries. There was just Joe, Cochise and the wind — until another rider drew alongside him.

Joe glanced to his right without slowing. He glimpsed a brown and white horse, nearly the mirror of Cochise despite the coloring. Unburdened by a saddle, the horse was carrying a rider who blended with his mount more thoroughly than Joe did with Cochise. The brown-clad rider met Joe’s gaze with a wide and wild smile. Accepting the challenge, Joe smiled back and urged Cochise faster still.

It wasn’t fast enough. Soon his challenger pulled ahead. The man’s bound hair, long and the color of Joe’s saddle, flew behind him like a shadow of the horse’s tail.

Joe spent the next moments catching up, matching the challenger’s stride and then falling behind yet again. It was a cycle that repeated itself as the tree line grew closer and closer, until finally, Joe knew the race was lost. His challenger stopped no less than twenty yards ahead of him.

“Whoo-eee!” Joe called out as he closed the space between them.

“You have a good, strong horse,” the strange rider commented as Joe reined Cochise in. “Without the weight of the saddle, he would have offered better challenge.”

Joe nodded. “Maybe we can have a rematch.”

“I would like that.”

“I’m Joe.” He held out his hand in greeting. “Joe Cartwright.”

“Peter,” the rider replied, taking Joe’s hand in his own.

“What brings you to the Ponderosa, Peter?”

“You.”

Joe chuckled. “I don’t think you came all the way out here for a two minute race.”

Peter smiled. It was a strange smile, one that darkened the raw excitement in his eyes, turning it almost sorrowful.

“No,” Peter said then. “I come with news. For you. For your family.”

Joe felt his own smile fade. “What kind of news?”

“Are your brothers nearby? Adam and Hoss?”

“Why?” Joe asked, growing wary.

“We have met. Your brothers and I. They would know me.”

“How?”

Peter’s gaze hardened. “I took a job I should not have taken. I worked with your brothers to…make amends…and bring to justice the man responsible.”

“What sort of job? What are you saying?”

Peter’s jaw tensed. He pulled his shoulders back, as though in defiance. “Last year,” Peter said finally, “I took a job with a man by the name of Alfred Whitfield.”

The name struck Joe as effectively as a physical blow, stealing his breath and turning him cold. “Peter?” he repeated, the name gaining familiarity. “Peter Nobridge?”

The rider nodded, lowering his eyes. When he returned his gaze to Joe, he wore a small, sad smile. “So your brother, Adam, named me.”

His grip tightening on Cochise’s reins, Joe looked into the trees behind Peter, seeing another time and place. Minutes ago, Joe had found himself feeling as alive as ever; yet, suddenly he was imagining himself once again buried under a mountain of rocks, waiting to die — as he’d been nearly a year earlier, thanks to Alfred Whitfield and the four men he’d hired to get Little Joe out of the way. One of those four men was dead. Two others were in prison. And then there was the fourth, Peter Nobridge, a man of questionable morals whom both Adam and Hoss had credited with saving Joe’s life.

Peter Nobridge was an enigma, someone towards whom Joe felt both gratitude and rage. Usually, when Joe’s thoughts took him back to his time buried in the rocks, gratitude won out. Peter had served as a lifeline, filling Joe with a sense of hope that he would make it home again. Yet sometimes rage took over, for Peter had also been one of four men who had abducted Joe from his own bed in the middle of the night. Peter himself had driven a knife deep into Joe’s foot, preventing him from running. How could such actions be forgotten? How could they truly be forgiven?

Still, in the end, Peter had saved Joe’s life — Hoss’ too. The good had to outweigh the bad. Didn’t it?

“You said you have news,” Joe said without returning his gaze to Peter. “Why don’t you just tell me what it is?”

Peter nodded. “There has been a prison break.”

The words grabbed Joe’s attention. He could no longer look away.

“Twenty escaped,” Peter went on. “It is believed they are all headed for Mexico.”

“What does it have to do with us?” Joe asked, feeling every muscle in his body grow tense.

There was something in Peter’s eyes that told Joe he was right to be concerned. “One of these men is Alfred Whitfield.”

Joe’s chest tightened. It almost seemed those rocks were pressing down on him once again. His hands curled so tightly he could feel his nails digging into his palms. “Fine,” Joe said. “A man like Whitfield won’t survive there.”

“A man like Whitfield should not have survived prison,” Peter countered. “But even so, do not believe what others believe.”

“Why?”

“I am someone who is often overlooked. People talk as though I have no ears.”

“And what have people been saying?”

“Alfred Whitfield still holds himself to be of higher status than other men. There were some in the prison who believed him. They remain with him even now. Those men will not leave him to go to Mexico.”

“Where, then?”

“Here. To the Ponderosa.”

Moments later, Joe and Peter were both flying again, though in opposite directions. While Joe sped toward Virginia City to talk to Sheriff Coffee, Peter undertook a quest to bring Adam and Hoss home from a cattle drive. Even so, Joe could not hope for his brothers to return before Whitfield arrived. More likely, they would find the ranch already under siege.

“It would be better for me to add my gun to yours,” Peter had pressed.

“Three against how many?”

“I counted eight — six prisoners and two former guards. They are well armed.”

“Eight armed men, hungry to take everything we have.” The odds were daunting. “Whether we’re three guns or two, it won’t make much difference. My pa and I will stand a better chance of holding out against them if we know help is coming from outside. We’ll need my brothers and as many men as they can bring.”

Peter’s gaze had grown troubled. “It… concerns me to leave you again in the hands of Alfred Whitfield.”

“At least this time I have the advantage of knowing what’s coming. Just find my brothers and bring them home.”

“I owe you my life, Joe Cartwright. I do not wish to bring your brothers home only to bury you.”

“Then don’t,” Joe had answered. “Ride fast.”

And so Peter did, while Joe’s own ride was hampered by the weight of remembered rocks.

*****

Standing behind his father’s desk, Joe looked out the window into a very dark world. The new moon offered little light and actually blanketed the yard in deep shadows. Someone could be out there even now and Joe would never know. Still, he could not stop himself from watching. Time was ticking away. With each passing minute, he could almost feel Whitfield drawing closer. He could even swear he heard the sound of horses’ hooves tromping into the yard instead of the endless ticking of the grandfather clock.

“Joe?” Ben called out behind him. “Please, son, go to bed.”

“They’re coming, Pa. I know they are.”

Ben’s hand fell upon Joe’s shoulder. Joe tensed under the weight of it. “We don’t know that for sure.” Ben’s voice was calm, soothing. “We don’t know anything with any certainty. Roy said…”

Joe swung out from under his pa’s touch. “I know what Roy said! I’m the one who spoke with him. He doesn’t believe any of what Peter told me.”

“He has good reason not to.”

“He has telegrams! Messages from people Whitfield is deliberately trying to mislead! I saw Peter’s eyes, Pa. I know he’s speaking the truth.”

Ben’s jaw went tight. His gaze grew stern. “Peter Nobridge is an outlaw. He has already proven his disrespect of the law. For all we know, what he considers the truth might just be a ruse, a…a scheme to…”

“I trust him, Pa!” Joe shouted, his own gaze as uncompromising as his pa’s. “Just like Adam trusted him a year ago. Hoss is alive today because Adam trusted Peter Nobridge! I’m alive today because he did!”

“You, yourself saved your brother’s life,” his father shouted with equal intensity, “every bit as much as Peter Nobridge! And your own life would never have been threatened if it weren’t for him! He is as guilty as the other men who took you. I cannot put any faith in such a man. ” Ben’s gaze softened. His shoulders sagged. “Don’t you understand, son?” he said more quietly. “You very nearly did not survive, and Peter was responsible.”

“He made a mistake. He said it himself.”

“A mistake? He kidnapped you! No one with a moral conscience could ever consider kidnapping to be anything other than a mistake!”

Now Joe felt his own shoulders sagging. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I know, Pa. I know. But I also know Adam trusted him, and now I…I trust him. I believe him, Pa.”

“I know you do. I also know we cannot ignore his warning. And despite what he believes himself, Sheriff Coffee isn’t ignoring it either. He’ll make sure someone rides out here to check on us over the next few days, just as he promised you. It’s as much as we could ask for.”

“It won’t be enough.”

“It will have to be. Now please, go to bed. Get some sleep. If what Peter said is true, Whitfield was a full day’s ride behind him. It will be mid-afternoon tomorrow before we might expect them to be here, and if you don’t get any sleep tonight,  what good will you be then?”

“You’re right. I know you’re right. But…what if they change horses and ride straight through the night? What if…”

“We could spend a lifetime asking ‘what if.’ There comes a time when you simply have to act on what you know. And tonight I know you need some sleep.”

Joe watched his father move toward the stairs.

“Are you coming?” Ben asked the instant his hand grasped the newel post.

But how could Joe sleep? How could he go to bed knowing Whitfield was out there somewhere? Over the past several hours, every moment of those days in Whitfield’s clutches had come back to Joe with vivid clarity. How could he close his eyes when he couldn’t stop imagining four masked strangers invading his home, his own bedroom? When he couldn’t stop remembering waking in the middle of the night to the cold feel of a gun pressed against his temple?

“I’ll be up in a bit.” Even as he said it, Joe knew it was a false promise.

Perhaps his father knew it, too. Maybe that’s why he smiled sadly back at Joe, and his steps were slow and heavy as he climbed the stairs.

*****

The house was dark. The fire had burned down too low to chase away shadows. Joe tried to make sense of things around him, to settle his gaze on the clock or even simply to see a window, but nothing revealed itself with any clarity until…four darker shadows separated themselves from the rest. Four masked figures, four men, their heads hidden under burlap sacks moved toward him.

Pa! He yelled in a corner of his mind, yet the sound remained there, in his mind. His voice was gone, mute.

His limbs also had grown useless. He found himself unable to move, utterly paralyzed.

The figures drew closer with each beat of his heart, which ticked like a clock in futility.

“It will be mid-afternoon tomorrow before we might expect them to be here,” Pa had said earlier in the night.

No, Pa! They’re here now! They’re right here!

One drew a gun. A flash of white appeared on the handle. Joe’s memory painted it into a white, rearing horse on an ebony grip.

Sam Griffin’s fancy gun.

No, he shouted in silence. You’re dead. Sam Griffin is dead. Yet, even now, Joe could smell the gunslinger’s rancid breath.

They had come for him again.

Peter? he pleaded. If Peter was among them, he would help Joe this time, wouldn’t he? Peter Nobridge would not make the same mistake twice. And it had been a mistake. Adam had believed that. Joe had come to believe it as well. Peter Nobridge owed Joe his life. That’s what he said. That was exactly what he had said.

Help me, Peter!

But it was already too late. A silent explosion collapsed the house around him, burying Joe deep beneath a mountain of rocks. Fighting to breathe through the thickening debris, he gasped in a lung full of heavy, dusty air and began coughing it right back out again –until he slowly came to realize the air was as clean as ever. There was no dust, no debris. And rather than buried under rocks or even timbers, he was sitting in a chair beside the fireplace. A handful of embers were glowing red, trying to hold onto the fire within them while a richer fire fell across Joe’s shoulder, heralding the sun as it began its ascent through the window at his back.

Joe was alone. The masked figures had been nothing but a misplaced memory, conjured by his own restless thoughts. Sighing, Joe closed his eyes, listening as the ticking clock came more and more to resemble the sound of horses’ hooves.

No, Joe realized then. It wasn’t just the clock. He heard the distinct sound of a lone rider approaching the house.

In an instant, Joe was at the front door. He took his gun from the credenza. Comforted by the way it felt in his hand, he steeled himself for whatever was to come with a few deep breaths. Then he opened the door.

*****

More concerned for Joe’s emotional well-being than for the threat posed by Peter Nobridge’s warning, Ben Cartwright suffered a restless, sleepless night. He knew Joe had never gone to bed, had never even climbed the stairs. Ben also knew why. Yet he had no idea how to comfort his son, how to assure him the events of a year ago could not happen again. Even if Whitfield did return to the Ponderosa, he wouldn’t be so predictable as to attempt another abduction. Adam’s old class rival was far too astute for that, and surely prison would have changed him.

Ben felt certain prison would have hardened the pampered son Alfred Whitfield had once been. But would it have hardened him enough to seek vengeance directly? A year ago, Whitfield had done everything he could to distance himself from the violence done to Ben’s family. He orchestrated everything but did nothing himself. For a man like that, running away to Mexico made sense. Ben found it difficult to believe the man would even consider returning.

Peter Nobridge had to be wrong. Had to be.

And how dare he? How dare that half-breed bring his lie to Joe? Even if Peter believed it, he had no right and no cause to burden Ben’s youngest son with such news. It was bad enough Joe had to be reminded of the wrongs done to him, but to be given that reminder by one of the very men responsible? It was inexcusable. Peter should have gone directly to the house. He should have confronted Ben himself. Instead, he had stalked the youngest Cartwright like a wolf waiting for the right time to cull a calf from the herd.

His thoughts shifting back and forth between worry for Joe and anger at Peter Nobridge, Ben Cartwright barely slept. Still, he had been dozing when the sound of a rider in the yard pulled him from a fog. He lay in bed, struggling to find focus until the rattling of the front door pulled him to his feet.

*****

Joe uncocked and lowered his gun, surprised at his dawn visitor. Dressed in a pin-striped suit and wearing a bowler hat, the man was slight of build and seemed equally slight of character. He wore an expression of…fear. That was the only word Joe could put to it. The man looked frightened. His shoulders were tightly hunched, as though he were bracing for some sort of horrific blow.

“M-Mr. Cartwright?” he muttered as he clumsily climbed down from his horse.

Joe nodded as he warily scanned the yard behind his visitor. Someone could have been trailing this stranger. Someone else could be out there, waiting.

“M-my name is M-Maxwell M-Morgan.” He stepped nervously toward Joe, and then reached forward with a business card clutched in his fingers. He pulled away the instant Joe took hold of it.

Joe glanced at the card. “An attorney?”

Morgan nodded. “I am in the employ of M-Mr. Alfred Whitfield. He s-said I m-must m-meet him here.”

Joe tensed. He opened his mouth to order the skittish attorney off of the Ponderosa when his father’s voice boomed behind him.

“What is this?”

Morgan glanced between Joe and Ben before deciding to address his explanation to the elder Cartwright.

“M-Mr. Whitf-field s-said he has b-business to address with you. I w-was t-told to m-meet him here. I… Is he ins-side?” He gazed toward the house wearing a furrowed, worried brow.

“He is not!” Ben answered.

“How did he tell you this?” Joe asked hurriedly. “What did he say about his plans?”

“He s-sent a t-telegram. He said to m-meet here. T-today. I f-figured I s-should get here as early as p-possible.”

“Why did he want you here?” Joe asked.

Morgan shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Why did you agree to work for him if you don’t even know what he wants you to do?” Ben asked.

Once again glancing between Joe and Ben, Morgan’s Adam’s apple, bulging from his thin throat, bobbed up and down in an exaggerated swallow. “I h-had to.”

“Had to?” Ben repeated.

Another glance passed across both Cartwrights and into the shadows behind them. “Y-you’re s-sure he is n-not here?”

“No,” Ben’s voice thundered. “Whitfield is not here.”

There was another heavy swallow. “M-my s-sister m-married the w-warden of the t-territorial p-prison. She’s m-missing. Whitf-field s-says he knows where she is.”

It wasn’t hard for Joe to put the pieces together. “He’s threatening her?”

Hesitating for only an instant, Morgan nodded.

“What does the warden have to say?” Ben asked.

Morgan gulped, causing that protruding Adam’s apple to bounce once more. “H-he’s d-dead.”

Any doubts Ben had had about Peter’s message were erased the instant Maxwell Morgan told his story. The only question now was when Whitfield would arrive. Finally, Ben found himself sharing Joe’s anxiety.

*****

After inviting Morgan into the house, Ben asked Joe to stable the man’s horse and make some coffee. He’d hoped the simple chores would help ease some of his son’s tensions. Joe, however, had other ideas.

“I say we leave now,” Joe said, breathless in his eagerness to do something and seeing no value in applying that eagerness to simple chores. “All three of us. We ride to Virginia City and go straight to Sheriff Coffee.”

Ben sighed. “Joe, last night you were focused on asking ‘what if.’ Well, I’m going to ask you that very question right now. What if we run into Whitfield along the way? At least here we can fortify ourselves. And Roy did say he would ride out here today.”

“And what if he runs into them?” Joe asked.

“No!” Morgan’s shout stole Ben’s reply. The elder Cartwright closed his mouth and turned his attention to the attorney.

“I c-cannot run from him!” Morgan went on. “I m-must do what he says! S-surely you unders-stand? H-he has m-my sister!”

Ben thought back to his first encounter with Whitfield. He could not help but remember his own reaction when Joe had gone missing, and when Ben had come to realize Whitfield was at fault. What would he have done if Whitfield had insisted on his obedience to the man’s whims, compelled by threats against Joe’s life? What would he do now, if he were in Morgan’s position?

“You must fight him,” Ben challenged. “Your sister needs for you to fight him, right alongside the two of us.”

“N-no!” Morgan’s eyes grew wide. “P-please!”

“The only way to ensure your sister’s safety is to remove the threat Whitfield poses.”

“B-but I n-need him! I n-need for him to t-tell me wh-where she is. I n-need for him to tell me h-how to get her b-back!”

“What you need,” Joe shouted, “is to stop him! The minute you start playing his game, you’ve already lost.”

“Joseph,” Ben scolded softly.

“What?” Joe hollered back at him, turning the question into a demand. “It’s true! Adam did everything he could to play Whitfield’s game. His only hope — my only hope — was for him to stop playing!” He turned his attention back to Morgan. “If you want to save your sister, Mr. Morgan, you have to fight him. There is no other way.”

“Oh, my.” Morgan visibly paled.

“We will help you find your sister,” Ben promised. “But first we must stop Alfred Whitfield from doing any further damage.”

“Oh.” Maxwell Morgan held a boney hand to his mouth, appearing far more squeamish and far less supportive than any woman Ben had ever desired to know.

“Joe,” Ben said softly. “Would you please make some coffee?”

This time Joe did not argue. Instead he moved obligingly toward the kitchen. Yet as Ben studied their uninvited guest, he found himself questioning his own argument. This man hardly represented a third gun.

If he could not help them, then the best Ben could hope for was that Morgan would do nothing to hinder their efforts. Unfortunately, Ben could not shake the feeling that Morgan would do exactly the opposite.

*****

Adept at trading, borrowing, and when necessary, stealing, Peter Nobridge stopped only to change horses and fill his canteen whenever opportunities to do so presented themselves. In less than a day and a half, Peter found a group of cowboys moving a herd into the high country. A familiar Chinese cook was there as well, driving a team of horses pulling the chuck wagon. Peter sped past him without offering a greeting, believing the cook could not know him — still, Peter could feel the cook’s eyes upon his back, as though, perhaps, somehow he did.

The moment Peter spotted Adam Cartwright, he waved until Joe’s oldest brother waved back. Minutes later, he was close enough to holler. “You must return!”

Now Adam was hurrying toward him.

“Peter?” Adam’s gaze was cautious. “What’s wrong?”

“You and Hoss,” Peter answered, nearly breathless with exhaustion. “You must return to your home.”

“Why?”

“Alfred Whitfield. He has escaped. There are others with him.”

Adam’s eyes moved homeward, as though he could see all the way to the Ponderosa ranch house. An instant later, they were back on Peter. “How did you know where to find us?”

“I first brought my warning to Little Joe.”

The intensity of Adam’s gaze turned then, moving deeper and reminding Peter of the way Hoss had looked at him a year ago when Peter had first come upon him. That intensity had set the foundation for the commitment Peter had later made to all of them. These men, these Cartwrights were bonded in ways Peter had always sought yet never known. They were both family and tribe. They protected and cared for one another as no one in Peter’s life ever had — no one except his mother, and even she had finally turned him away after she had been turned away by both her white husband’s family and her own former tribe.

“I am sorry, Adam Cartwright. It was my wish to first meet with you. But when I found him alone, I could not leave the warning unspoken.”

“No,” Adam answered, his tone heavy with suspicion. “I suppose you couldn’t. He needed to know.” A moment later, Adam’s gaze seemed to grow more severe. “How much time do we have?” he asked.

“By now, Whitfield will already have reached Ponderosa lands. We cannot hope to overtake him. We can only hope to surprise him in time to save the lives of your father and brother.”

“Then we’d better get moving.” Saying nothing further, Adam spurred his horse toward Hoss, who was still too focused on the herd to have noticed Peter’s arrival.

Soon, Peter told himself. They would soon be heading back to where they needed to be. Yet he could not help but worry it might not be soon enough.

Feeling eyes upon him once more, Peter turned to find the Chinese cook sitting horseback, having left the chuck wagon behind.

“You,” the cook said accusingly. “You are the one they call Peter. Peter Nobridge.”

Peter nodded, and lowered his eyes respectively. “Yes.”

“You took Little Joe.”

“Yes.”

“You save the life of Mr. Hoss.”

“Yes.”

“They do not know what else you do.”

Peter studied him, bewildered by the statement. And curious.

“You tell Whit-a-field about mine with Chinese slaves.”

“Yes,” Peter answered slowly and softly, feeling shamed by the admission. By informing Whitfield about the mine, Peter had helped to plant a seed, one that resulted in Hop Sing’s own enslavement.

Hop Sing nodded. Strangely, his look of accusation faded as his lungs expanded with a deep inhalation. When he expelled the air, he wore a different look entirely. “All slaves freed,” Hop Sing said then, somehow seeming appreciative.

Before Peter could make sense of the meeting, the cook clucked, urging his horse away from Peter, toward Adam and Hoss.

*****

The clock continued its ticking, and Joe continued his anxious waiting. Breakfast followed coffee, and lunch followed breakfast as it on any other day, but Joe had no interest in either meal. He ate for no reason other than he knew he must. He also knew he and his pa were ready — as ready as they could possibly be — and as much as he wanted Adam and Hoss to beat Whitfield back to the Ponderosa, it was simply not possible. Realizing that, Joe actually found himself wanting Whitfield to come. He wanted to end the waiting and face the man once and for all.

When he finally heard the approach of a rider, he rushed to the window behind his father’s desk. The tick of the clock drew Joe’s attention to the cadence of the horse. It was out of rhythm, lacking a steady pattern. Then it came into view, and Joe instantly knew why.

“Sheriff Coffee,” he said softly, his breath caught deep in his chest. “Pa, he’s…”

In an instant, Ben was beside him, gazing past Joe’s shoulder — seeing for himself the state of his old friend and their last, best hope against Alfred Whitfield. Roy was slumped forward in the saddle, his hands drawn together, tied to the pummel.

“It’s a trap,” Ben said a moment later. His voice was soft, his gaze troubled.

“Maybe. But we can’t leave him out there.” Joe looked to his pa for guidance.

“No.” Ben shook his head sadly. “No, we can’t.” He glanced away, his brow knotted in thought. “Joe,” he said then, “go upstairs, to the front bedroom window. See if you can tell who else is out there.”

“What are you going to do?”

His father looked at him with uncharacteristic uncertainty in his eyes. “Mr. Morgan?” Ben called out instead, shifting his attention to the center of the great room.

The wary attorney rose slowly from the settee. “Wh-what is it? Is he h-here? I-is he out there?”

“It’s the sheriff,” Ben answered. Seeing a thin smile beginning to paint itself across Morgan’s face, Ben held up a hand. “He’s hurt, and we can only assume the men who did it are out there, watching.”

“Oh!” The smile died. “Oh, my.”

“Now since Whitfield insisted you come out here, we can also assume he does in fact have business to attend to with you. In all likelihood, he will see to it no harm comes to you.”

“What?” Morgan’s eyes went wide once more. “No! You c-cannot… You c-cannot ex-expect me t-to…”

“Yes,” Ben said determinedly. “Yes, I can expect you to do this. You must do this.”

“N-no!”

“Just guide his horse closer to the front door,” Ben went on. “That is all I am asking you to do.”

“No! P-please!”

“Yes!” Ben shout demanded there be no further argument.

Morgan’s mouth gaped open for a long moment, and then closed as he swallowed the rest of his words.

“Go on, Joe,” Ben said, keeping his eyes on Maxwell Morgan.

*****

Upstairs in the front bedroom, Joe pressed himself against the window frame, fighting memories of another time beside that very window, holding that very rifle, while Hoss was forced into a showdown in the yard below, a gunfight Joe’s middle brother had had no hope of winning. Joe had succeeded then. He had shot the gunslinger, although he had no true memory of pulling the trigger. He had succeeded, and his family had won Whitfield’s sick game.

Joe tried to hold to that victory. He had to believe they could defeat the man again. Adam and Hoss were coming. And before long, when Sheriff Coffee failed to return to Virginia City, the deputy would form a posse to find him. The Cartwrights were not without hope, and Joe was not being pulled from his bed in the middle of the night by four masked gunmen.

Taking a deep breath, Joe peered outside. He immediately set himself to studying every tree and rock within sight. He looked for oddly moving shadows, for a glint of reflection, for anything that would make it clear there were men out there, watching. It never occurred to him to look behind him, in the very room he thought was giving him shelter — until he heard the click of a gun being cocked.

“I’d put that rifle down if I was you,” a gravelly voice rasped.

Moving slowly, Joe complied, before turning to face the stranger. “Gabe Harvey,” he said, just as he had a year ago when he’d finally come to recognize the men securing him to a rock deep in the earth. “How did you get in here?”

Harvey laughed. It was a wet, thick sound, punctuated as he spat tobacco juice onto the floor. “Don’t matter. I’m here. That’s all you should care about. That and what I’m gonna do to make you pay for puttin’ me in prison.”

“You went to prison,” Joe fumed, “to pay for burying me in that mountain!”

“Shut your mouth!” Harvey’s warning was low. He glanced toward the hallway, clearly concerned about drawing attention.

Good, Joe thought. That meant the others were still outside. Pa was probably still alone with Morgan downstairs.

“Or what?” Joe prodded. “You pull that trigger, it’s gonna make a whole lot more noise than me right now.”

Harvey shook his head slowly, menacingly as he skirted the room, his gaze drifting to Joe’s discarded rifle. “I don’t need to pull no trigger to shut you up!”

When he reached for the rifle, Joe was ready. He kicked it away and grabbed Harvey’s gun hand. It was the wrong move. He should have struck first with his fists. Harvey was too strong to wrestle. Before long, Harvey wrenched the gun away and then slammed it down against the back of Joe’s head.

Dazed, Joe heard his pa’s voice calling up the stairs. “Joe? Joseph?”

Harvey grabbed Joe’s chin. “You answer him! You hear me, boy? You tell him everything’s just fine up here!”

Joe blinked, finding it hard to focus as he stared at a piece of chewing tobacco stuck to the man’s scraggly beard.

“Pa! Look out!” Joe yelled just before the gun slammed down on him once more.

*****

Ben raced up the stairs with a shotgun in hand. He reached the front bedroom, and then froze. A stranger was standing over Joe, who lay still on the floor. It was odd to see the stranger directing a friendly smile toward Ben. The man’s left thumb was tucked casually into his gun-belt as though there was nothing in the world that might concern him –even while his right arm was stretched taut, with the gun in his hand aimed at Joe’s head.

“I’d drop that cannon if I was you,” the stranger said. “‘Less’n you want to see this boy’s brains spilled across those fine, polished floorboards.”

Ben could not move. His heart pounded. He stared hard at the stranger, vaguely wondering why the man seemed familiar. Finally, he weighed the likelihood of him carrying through on his threat.

“This ain’t no game, boss,” the stranger went on. “I’d just as soon blow his head clean off as stand here kowtowin’ to the likes of you.”

This ain’t no game, boss.

“Of course it’s a game,” Ben said as he searched his memories. Both the stranger’s voice and his use of the term “boss” stirred recognition. “If Alfred Whitfield is involved, it is almost certainly a game.”

The stranger laughed. It was a grating sound—and deeply familiar. “You willin’ to bet his life on that?”

Ben remembered him then. The man had not worn a full beard when he’d worked at the Ponderosa, and that scar over his left eye had not been there before he’d been sent to prison — but suddenly it became very clear exactly who this stranger was.

“Gabe Harvey,” Ben said flatly.

The laughter faded. The man’s cold grin did not. “Took you a mite longer than your boy, here.” And then even the smile was gone. “But you ought to know same as him I got no trouble sendin’ any of you Cartwrights straight to Hell.”

Still Ben did not lower his shotgun. Nor did Harvey lower his six-shooter, though his aim had markedly faltered.

“What about Mr. Whitfield?” Ben suggested. “I believe he would have trouble with it. Surely whatever game he’s playing now is not intended to end so quickly.”

“I don’t give a good goddamn about what Whitfield wants.”

Noticing that Joe was starting to stir, Ben hoped his son would remain quiet and avoid drawing back some of Harvey’s dwindling attention.

“Yet you joined with him to come here,” Ben pressed on. “You are working for him, after all.”

“Mr. Cartwright?” Maxwell Morgan’s voice called weakly up the stairs.

Ben saw Harvey’s eyes move downward in response. And then his nostrils flared, as though he’d discovered a vile stench.

“You’re right about me joinin’ with him,” Harvey said. “But I ain’t workin’ for him. We’re partners now. I got as much say as him.”

“You’re a fool if you believe that.”

“M-Mr. Cartwright?” Morgan called again.

Finally, Harvey’s aim shifted entirely away from Joe, moving toward Ben instead. “You’re the fool, Cartwright. Don’t matter who’s in charge. Fact is, you ain’t got a chance to fight all of us. That gun won’t make no difference. None at all.”

Ben watched Joe’s hand snake out, reaching for the rifle on the floor.

“Perhaps not to Alfred Whitfield,” Ben said. “But it will surely make a difference to you if I pull this trigger.”

“‘Course you won’t.” Harvey smiled again.

Joe had the barrel of the rifle in both hands now. He pulled back just as Harvey’s hand shifted toward him once more, clearly preparing to make good his earlier threat. But Harvey’s gaze followed too slowly. Joe swung the rifle upward, knocking the gun from Harvey’s hand. In an instant Ben was there as well, slamming his own shotgun against the side of Harvey’s head.

In that instant, Harvey’s gun hit the floor, firing on impact.

A thick, deadly silence followed. No one moved until Harvey dropped to his knees.

Ben dared to look toward Joe, relieved to see his son’s eyes, clear and focused, gazing back at him. When he returned his attention to Gabe Harvey, Ben noticed Harvey’s beard growing denser, darker as it absorbed moisture seeping from a wound in his neck. There was a gurgling sound as the man began to drown, inhaling nothing but his own blood. And then he fell forward, his lifeless body landing face-down at Ben’s feet, his own blood spilling across those fine, polished floorboards where he’d threatened to spill Joe’s only moments ago.

Whitfield would find his army diminished by one in his battle against the Cartwrights. Perhaps Ben should find comfort in that, as he found comfort in the fact that Joe was now rising to his feet, not quite steady but clearly sound. Instead, Ben found himself believing that Harvey was probably the first of many who would die because of Albert Whitfield’s mad whims — and he could only hope his sons would not be numbered amongst the casualties.

*****

Downstairs, Maxwell Morgan was growing increasingly nervous. When a single gunshot sounded from above him, he ran instinctively toward the front door, throwing it open and hurrying out to the yard without giving thought to the fact that he might face a greater threat there. By the time he realized his error, it was too late to turn back. It was not, however, too late to forge an appropriate alliance.

“M-Mr. Whitfield?” he called out. “Are you out there? M-Mr. Whitfield?”

*****

Gabe Harvey was dead. Dead by his own gun. Joe watched his father turn the body over; laying him out face up seemed only fitting. He had grown to hate the man. He could even have imagined shooting Harvey himself. Still, it disturbed Joe to see him die so horribly and by such a quirk of fate right there in Joe’s own house. Why?

The youngest Cartwright struggled to focus his thoughts. Of course, Joe’s thoughts were muddled anyway. Harvey’s last blow had caught him just above his left ear. His head wasn’t spinning exactly, but there seemed to be a strange tilt to the floor, and he could feel his skin tightening as the wound started to swell.

“Joe?” His father’s voice called him back to the moment.

“I’m all right,” he answered, taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders if only to prove his words to himself. “We’d better see to Sheriff Coffee.”

Yet when Joe looked out the window, he discovered the sheriff was no longer alone. Whitfield’s men had come out of hiding. At least five of them were now gathered around Roy’s horse.

As soon as Joe and his father started downstairs, they saw that the front door was wide open and Maxwell Morgan was nowhere in sight. Cautiously approaching the door, Joe tested Harvey’s six-gun in his grip, preparing himself for the fight that was sure to come. What he failed to prepare for were the words that greeted them as they stepped into the yard.

“Well, if it isn’t Mr. Benjamin Cartwright, affectionately referred to as Pa, and the young scamp, Little Joe.” Alfred Whitfield’s voice hit Joe like a blow across his spine, causing him to stiffen in reaction.

Turning toward it, Joe saw the man he’d dreaded ever having to see again. Whitfield was stepping out from around the side of the house, with one arm draped casually across Morgan’s bony shoulders.

“Those weapons will serve you no good purpose,” Whitfield said then. “My men will shoot first if they see you even attempt to take aim against any one of us. Although they are under strict orders to kill neither of you just yet, hurting or even maiming is not out of the question.”

Ben tossed the shotgun to the ground. Joe was less inclined to let go of Harvey’s gun.

“Joe,” his father said softly, nodding toward the weapon.

“Ah, there it is.” Whitfield sounded amused. “That bravado I have heard so much about. I tell you what…” Whitfield pulled away from Morgan and moved closer to Joe. Hands on his hips, he leaned back. “Why don’t we put that to use, shall we? Surely one of my men would enjoy the opportunity to test your prowess with…what is the term? The fast draw?”

“No!” Ben shouted. “Joseph, throw down that gun!”

Joe’s fingers clenched tighter around the grip. His gaze swept across the group of men Whitfield had brought with him. Remembering Peter’s warning, he tried to determine which had been the former guards and which had been prisoners. They all appeared worn and equally unkempt, yet three seemed more alert than the rest. Two had to have been the guards; they almost looked to be waiting for orders. The third was more difficult to figure out. That was a man Joe would need to watch.

“Joseph!”

Joe nearly flinched at the sound of his father’s urgent shout. Nearly. But he didn’t. He was too focused on that third, alert man.

“Come now, Pa,” Whitfield said. “Surely you see his eagerness. You would not want to deprive your youngest son of the opportunity to display his fine talents with a gun.”

“Joe!”

Finally, Joe turned toward his father. But he moved too quickly. The world began to tilt once more, and he cringed against the sharp throbbing the sudden movement awakened in his head.

“Mr. Boone?” Whitfield called out. “Perhaps you would like to ask these gentlemen what has become of your friend, Mr. Harvey.”

Boone? Joe had looked at all the men. He hadn’t recognized Jasper Boone among them.

Peter had told him there were six prisoners and two guards with Whitfield. With Harvey dead, that meant five prisoners remained.

Joe looked back at the men. How many were there? At first he had trouble counting. The throbbing in his head made him lose numbers. And then…eight. He was sure he counted eight men. But that was impossible. With Harvey dead, there should only be seven.

“Mr. Boone?”

“I ain’t no fast draw, Mr. Whitfield.” Jasper Boone’s voice came from behind Joe rather than in front of him.

Confused, Joe spun around. The motion tilted the ground right up to his knees. He lost his hold on the gun when he threw his hands out instinctively to catch his fall.

“Joe!” Ben called out again, this time sounding more concerned than angry.

“Oh,” Whitfield exclaimed. “Pity. Well, I suppose we shall just have to postpone the party for a bit. Mr. Cartwright, I suggest we step inside to share some tea before we get down to business. Simmons? Johnson? Take care of the sheriff, would you? What did you think of that ploy, by the way, Mr. Cartwright? I found it quite dramatic, didn’t you?”

“Ploy?” Ben shouted back. “It looks like you beat him half to death!”

“Oh, no. Not I. In fact, I had no intention of hurting the poor man. Not at all. But have you ever tried to stop former convicts from beating a lawman? It is quite a challenge, indeed.”

Whitfield’s words grew softer. Joe could sense him moving away, toward the house, yet Joe found it impossible to follow him. The world or his legs simply would not allow him to move.

“…need to help my son…” His father’s voice also seemed distant, too distant for Joe to ask him for a hand up.

Someone gave it to him, though. Two, in fact. Two men grabbed Joe’s arms, hauled him to his feet and dragged him roughly inside where they deposited him into the red, leather chair by the fireplace. Once there, Joe closed his eyes tightly, waiting for the world to stop shifting around him. When he opened them again, he saw the sheriff lying next to him on the settee. The man’s face was so swollen and bruised he was hardly recognizable.

There was something very wrong with seeing that image of Sheriff Coffee. Things like that just didn’t happen to a man like him. He was too smart, too in control, too aware of the dangers around him.

Be careful, Adam, Joe said inside his mind. There are too many of them. He thought of Hoss and Peter, feeling confident they would both be more alert to the signs of Whitfield’s little army than Adam would. But Adam… Adam worried Joe. Adam had too much anger in him against Whitfield, the kind of anger that could cause him to make mistakes — mistakes like the two Joe had already made himself: letting Harvey sneak up on him, and refusing to drop the gun when his father had dropped his shotgun. We can’t afford mistakes, Adam. Hoss? Don’t let him make mistakes.

Laying his head against the back of the chair, Joe found himself praying that his brothers could both, somehow, hear his silent pleas.

*****

Hop Sing left them. Adam watched as he rode away, feeling both surprised and relieved. Hop Sing’s insistence that he abandon the chuck wagon in light of Peter’s news had caused Adam to wonder as to the cook’s reasoning. While it had troubled Adam to think Hop Sing could be injured — or worse — when they encounter Whitfield again, it perhaps troubled him more that Hop Sing might choose to avoid such an encounter altogether. He was many things — cook, caretaker, strategist in chess and Xiangqi, its Chinese predecessor, as well as philosopher to those who knew how to listen, and even a healer when Dr. Martin and his medicines were unavailable or insufficient — but one thing he had never been was a coward.

Why he chose to run to Virginia City to see another of his seemingly infinite number of cousins would probably remain as much of a mystery as the hardships he’d faced in the mine. It had been obvious he had been treated poorly after being taken from the ranch and forced into slave labor at Whitfield’s command. The whole family had seen the effects in both Hop Sing’s eyes and his posture during the first few weeks after his return home. Yet no one knew exactly what he had endured. Hop Sing simply refused to discuss it.

Now, as the cook guided his horse toward a different horizon, Adam realized he needed to accept the mystery. He had something far more urgent on which to focus his thoughts. This ride was taking them too long. Whitfield was likely already at the ranch. Worse, it was entirely possible Pa and Joe were both already dead.

*****

Joe surprised himself by falling asleep. Despite his home being overrun with convicts, despite Sheriff Coffee lying beside him seemingly half dead from his beating, Joe had fallen asleep right there, in that chair by the fireplace. When he woke, he realized he should count himself fortunate Whitfield’s men had allowed him the luxury. His head felt clearer, and the world seemed more stable around him.

He looked around that world now, trying to assess what he and his pa were facing. Oddly, nothing was as he might have expected. Morgan was seated behind Pa’s desk, with Pa pacing in front of it while Whitfield sat in a chair beside them both, watching with amused interest. Joe saw no one else. No one at all.

“Oh…” Sheriff Coffee’s soft groan drew Joe’s attention.

Rising, Joe intended to go to the kitchen, to get the man some water and start seeing to the injuries no one had apparently bothered to address. A metallic click behind him stopped him cold.

“Just where do you think you’re going?” The voice was deep, intense — and unfamiliar.

“He needs water.” Turning slowly, Joe saw the gun pointed in his direction and recognized the man holding it from earlier in the yard. This was the third man, the one with a cold, attentive gaze marking him as more dangerous than any of the others.

“Ah!” Whitfield’s honeyed tone called out from across the room. “The boy has awakened from his afternoon nap.”

“Leave him be!” Ben demanded.

Joe’s eyes never leaving the gun, he stepped cautiously forward, moving slowly toward the kitchen.

“Tut, tut, now!” Whitfield said. “I do not recall giving you permission to go anywhere, Little Joe.”

Joe did look away then. He turned toward Whitfield. “The sheriff needs water!” he shouted back.

Ben had stopped pacing, his own gaze locked onto the gunman behind Joe.

Whitfield was still seated casually in his chair. “What the sheriff needs is for you to obey. You must ask permission before you make any move, any move at all. Failure to do so will result in punishment.”

“All I am trying to do is go into the kitchen to get this man some water!”

“Joe,” Ben said softly. “Please. Just sit down.”

Whitfield smiled. It was a wide, deadly grin. “Now, there you are. You would do well to listen to your pa, boy.” His smile vanished. “Sit. Down.”

Joe felt rage rise up within him. Every muscle tensed. His hands clenched into tight fists. “I am going into the kitchen to get water.” He started moving forward again, quickening his steps.

“Joseph!” Ben’s shout was urgent enough to make him stop.

Joe looked toward his father. Ben’s gaze was on the sheriff, instead. Turning again, Joe saw the gunman was no longer focused on him. The gun was now pressed up against the back of Roy Coffee’s head.

“I did say there would be punishment,” Whitfield said coldly. “I did not say against whom it would be leveled. Now, will you obey? Or will you cause this man to die?”

Defeated, Joe sighed in one great expulsion of breath that seemed to drain every ounce of strength from his muscles. He moved back toward the chair.

“No,” Whitfield commanded. “Not there. Over here, beside the desk.”

Staring back at the man, Joe hesitated for only an instant. Then he crossed the room as ordered, setting himself down in the wooden chair in front of the bookshelf.

“Yes.” Whitfield smiled. “Exactly so. Now, Mr. Jenkins, if you would please, get some rope from your colleagues outside and tie this young man securely to the chair.”

“Now, wait a minute!” Ben argued.

“No, Mr. Cartwright.” All appearance of amusement in the man vanished. He stared at Ben as though the devil himself was in the man’s eyes. “You wait a minute. Remember our discussion. This game is played by my rules, and my rules alone. It means nothing to me that you murdered Mr. Harvey in cold blood, but it does mean something to Mr. Boone. He would gladly repay you in kind. And there are others here with equal amounts of motivation who are simply angry for the time they were forced to spend in prison, and eager to take out that anger in any way they can, on anyone they can. As for me, myself, I believe you can also understand I have some anger as well. Not quite their blood lust, certainly, but anger, indeed. And it would please me to abandon our business arrangement altogether for the sake of watching Mr. Jenkins’ colleagues take out their anger on you and your young son.” He stopped to take a long breath. “However, at this time, it would please me more to go through with our original plans. I suggest you take advantage of that fact by holding your tongue and learning to obey me every bit as much as I expect your son to obey.”

Ben met Joe’s gaze then. Whatever business arrangement Whitfield was talking about might be preferable to the alternative, yet in Ben’s eyes it was clear preferable did not mean desired. He looked beaten. Whatever wounds he had suffered while Joe slept were not as obvious as Sheriff Coffee’s, but Joe feared they might be even more damaging.

*****

It was Jasper Boone who brought in the ropes. He then took great interest in tying them tightly, more tightly than necessary. Each of Joe’s arms was secured to an arm of the chair, at both the elbows and the wrists, just as each leg was tied at the knees and ankles to a leg of the chair. Joe couldn’t reach a single frayed thread with his fingers, let alone make an attempt to loosen the knots. And then Boone stood back, staring at Joe with eyes as cold as any Joe had ever seen.

“Mr. Boone?” Whitfield said. “Are you quite finished?”

Boone shook his head slowly from side to side, saying nothing.

“What else is it you have left to do?”

Boone reached behind him and eased a hunting knife out of his belt. He held the polished, sharpened blade in front of Joe’s eyes.

“Stop this!” Ben demanded.

“Oh, let the man have his fun,” Whitfield answered, sounding more amused than before. “He did, after all lose a dear, dear friend today.”

Refusing to look at the blade, Joe focused on Boone’s eyes. “I already told you we did not kill Gabe Harvey. He dropped the gun. It went off. There was nothing we could have done.”

“No,” Boone said then. “There was nothing you would have done. You wanted to see him dead since the cave. You said it yourself. You said we’d hang. You said we’d both hang. Didn’t happen, did it? And that wasn’t good enough for you. Prison wasn’t enough, was it? You wanted to see him dead, just like you want to see me dead. It’s right there in your eyes. I can tell.”

“Maybe I do,” Joe answered, feeling rage well up within him though there was nothing he could do dispel it. “What are you going to do about it?”

Boone smiled. It was a sick display of black and yellow teeth. He moved the knife to Joe’s neck and pressed the point gently under Joe’s chin.

“No!” Ben called out. “Stop him! You said there would be no killing!”

Whitfield laughed. “Come now, Mr. Boone. Do what you will and be done with it. We have business to attend.”

Boone pressed harder, slipping the blade into the thin skin. Joe could feel a trickle of blood pooling around the stinging cut. He struggled to avoid swallowing, knowing the movement would press the blade still deeper.

“Stop him!” Ben shouted.

“Mr. Boone?” Whitfield said.

Boone held still, his eyes growing colder with each passing second. Joe could feel his heart beating heavier as he waited, each pulse pounding harder and harder against his ribs and right into his throat. The clock seemed to tick too slowly, too far out of synch with his heart. He could almost believe time itself was stopping. And then, surprisingly, Boone pulled the blade away. He turned his back on Joe.

Joe allowed himself to breathe. He even started to close his eyes, relishing the feel of air in his spent lungs. But then Boone swiveled around again. In one swift, sudden movement, he slashed the blade across Joe’s left arm, just below the shoulder. And then, laughing, he strode away.

Whitfield, too, started laughing.

“There was no call for that!” Ben cried out in rage.

“Of course there was!” Whitfield shouted back, equally angry. “You know perfectly well there was!”

Ben huffed, abandoning the argument. “At least…at least let me tend to the wound!”

“Absolutely not! Business first, Mr. Cartwright. Only then will I give you the pleasure of tending anyone at all!”

Ben shook his head, dumbfounded. “You were wrong, you know,” he said a long moment later, his voice lower and colder, far more menacing than when he’d been shouting. “You feel every bit as much blood lust as every one of those men out there.”

Strangely, Whitfield started laughing once more.

*****

Peter Nobridge, seeming even more anxious than Adam and Hoss, bent down low over his horse’s neck and started racing off ahead. Adam stared after him as he disappeared out of sight, and then, surprisingly, Adam stopped.

“What are you doin’?” Hoss asked as he watched his brother dismount and loosen the cinch on his horse.

“Getting rid of the saddle. It’s slowing me down.”

“You think you can ride as fast as Peter?”

“I’m going to try.”

Hoss glanced outward and shook his head. “Adam, you know it don’t matter if I take this saddle off or not. Chubb is never gonna be able to take me anywhere near as fast as you or Peter.”

Setting his saddle on the ground, Adam turned to look up at Hoss. “I know. You’ll catch up when you can. Just…be careful when you do.”

“Don’t you worry about me none. It’s you I’m worried about.”

“Why?”

“Dadburnit, Adam! You know why! You don’t know what you’re racing off into. And maybe Pa or Joe…maybe both…” He clamped his mouth shut, refusing to say the words. “Adam? You be careful, too. That’s all I’m sayin.'”

“I’ll be as careful as I can be.” The smile Adam gave him was too small for comfort.

“All right, that’s not all I’m sayin’!” Hoss said, raising his voice. “Look, Adam, maybe we lost Pa and Joe already. I don’t know. What I do know is I don’t want anything to happen to you, too.”

“I’ll do my best to see that it doesn’t.” Adam’s smile was stronger this time around.

Still, Hoss didn’t count it as strong enough. “Just don’t go doin’ something foolish.”

Adam mounted back up. “I hope to get there sometime tonight. I’ll count on seeing you tomorrow.”

“You’d better be just as fit as you are right now when you do.”

With another smile, Adam turned his mount, kicked its flanks and started racing after Peter.

Hoss felt his stomach churn as he watched him disappear.

“Dadburnit, anyway,” Hoss complained as he urged his own horse forward again, his pace frustratingly sluggish.

*****

Joe closed his eyes to the sting in his arm. His shirt sleeve was already dampened by the slow yet steady stream of blood.

“Mr. Morgan?” Whitfield called out from his chair directly opposite Joe.

Joe looked to his father, who was now seated beside Joe and in front of his own desk, as though he were merely a visitor while Maxwell Morgan, who was still poring over the piles of documents in front of him, was the man in charge of the Ponderosa.

“Mr. Morgan?” Whitfield repeated.

“Oh. Y-yes. S-sorry.”

“Please describe the documents in front of you.”

“W-well. These are land titles for Mr. Cartwright’s various holdings. These here pertain to his investments, stakes in mines and other enterprises. These books represent bank accounts in Virginia City, Carson City, Sacramento and San Francisco, respectively.”

Joe was surprised by Morgan’s ability to speak cleanly and clearly. Apparently, he was less nervous about his work than he was about other aspects regarding the nature of his current employer.

“And this,” Morgan went on, his eyes never leaving the desk, “is a copy of Mr. Cartwright’s last will and testament, appropriately authorized and…”

“And leaving everything to his sons, I presume?” Whitfield interrupted.

“Y-yes.”

“And have you prepared the addendum in accordance with my instructions?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“Very well. Would you please explain that addendum to Mr. Cartwright now?”

“Y-yes, sir. M-Mr. Cartwright.” Morgan was getting nervous again. “Th-this docum-ment p-provides f-for an alt-alternate benif-ficiary in the event y-your s-sons do n-not s-survive you.”

“What beneficiary?” Ben’s low voice was chilling in its quiet intensity.

“A M-Mr. W-William J-James P-Peter Montague…th-the third.”

“Who?”

“Mr. William J-James P-Peter Montague the th-third,” Morgan repeated, his speech somewhat more clear than on his first attempt.

Joe stiffened. “Peter?” he asked softly.

Whitfield chuckled, though neither he nor Morgan acknowledged Joe’s question.

“Now, Mr. Cartwright,” Whitfield leaned forward in his chair, excited. “You will sign this addendum. And then you will…”

“I will do no such thing!”

“Indeed you will, Pa. Indeed you will. Oh, Mr. Jenkins?” Whitfield called out. “Would you please send in Mr. Boone?”

Ben met Joe’s gaze. “And just why do you need Mr. Boone?” Ben asked without looking to Whitfield.

Boone arrived before Whitfield even tried to respond. He stood beside Joe and once again removed his freshly cleaned and probably freshly sharpened knife.

“The thumb, if you will,” Whitfield said. “The left thumb.”

“What?” Ben shot up from his seat as Boone leveled the blade across the flesh between Joe’s thumb and forefinger. “Don’t you dare!”

Ben’s threat did not stop Boone from pressing down with the blade, drawing blood and a sharp intake of breath from Joe.

“Stop this at once!” Ben shouted yet again.

Joe gritted his teeth as the blade caught against bone.

“Will you sign the addendum?” Whitfield asked.

“Yes! Of course, I will sign it. Just stop this now!”

“That’s enough, Mr. Boone. Thank you.”

Although Boone did nothing to worsen the cut, he still hesitated before pulling the blade away. This time, Joe waited until Boone had gone before allowing himself to breathe again.

******

Ben only had one argument in him when Whitfield came up with his next demand. “I will not leave this house until I know my son’s wounds and the sheriff’s have been attended to!”

“Mr. Cartwright…” When Whitfield responded, it was clear he was not playing anymore. He was neither smiling nor poking fun at the Cartwright brothers’ common use of the term ‘Pa.’ “Have you not yet learned that I am not here to negotiate with you, and certainly not to mollify you? I am here to destroy you. It is as simple as that. I am here to take everything you have away from you, just as you and your sons took everything I had away from me.”

“We did no such thing! Your father disinherited you well before you came to us!”

“You sent me to prison.”

“You very nearly killed two of my sons!”

And then there it was; that sinister smile of his returned. “I am also not here to debate you, Mr. Cartwright. Once again, I am here to take what you have away from you. Failing that, I will have these men kill you and your sons, all three of them. The addendum to your will shall ensure I get what I have come for, but you should know I see that as a last resort. If you follow all of my demands now and going forward, I will not be forced to play that hand. Are you starting to understand me now?”

Ben’s face could grow no redder, his eyes no more desperate. “Look at what you have done to my son. Those cuts will not stop bleeding. In the time it will take for me to do what you’ve asked in both Virginia City and Carson City, those wounds could fester. Please, I am begging you to let me attend to them.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Cartwright. If you leave now, you should be in Virginia City by nightfall. You will tell the deputy that Sheriff Coffee will be staying with you for awhile, and you will be pleasant about it. You will be sincere. You will not arouse suspicion. Tomorrow morning, you will be at the bank when it opens. You will withdraw twenty thousand dollars which you will say is to be used for an investment. You will then go to the land office and see to that title transfer on the parcels we discussed, once again being sincere and arousing no suspicion. Finally, you will ride to Carson City, where you will withdraw another twenty thousand dollars from your account at the bank there. Only then will you return here. And only then will you be allowed to attend to anyone’s wounds.”

Despite the pained look in his father’s eyes, Joe actually found himself glad when Ben left. Morgan and Jenkins were riding with him, yet Joe was confident his father would find a way to outwit them. By the time Ben returned home, this would all be over. Joe focused his thoughts on that hope, even when Boone returned hours later with his knife and three of his friends, taking bets on how many times he could slice into Joe’s left arm before Joe cried out for mercy.

Joe clamped down on his teeth, making sure no one would win.

*****

Welcoming the darkness of a cloud-strewn night, Adam trusted in Peter’s instincts to get them to the house without raising any alarms from the men surrounding it. Once there, getting inside was less of a problem. Adam knew every inch of that house, both its strengths and its weaknesses. They climbed in through a back window and eased their way toward the main room, which to Adam’s surprise was unguarded. A low fire burned in the fireplace and several oil lamps cast enough light to show that there were only two people in the room. Someone was lying on the settee, though shadows made it impossible to see exactly who. Unfortunately, it was sickeningly obvious the other figure was Joe. Adam’s young brother was beside the desk, tied to a chair. His head was dropped down toward his chest. His left arm and hand were drenched in blood.

Peter grabbed Adam’s arm to get his attention. He pointed to his own chest and then toward Joe. Peter would see to Adam’s brother. Adam should see to the other one, presumably his father. It made sense. Joe knew Peter, and seemed to have come to trust him — at least more than Ben ever had. Still, Adam had to fight against the need to take care of Joe himself.

Taking a deep breath, Adam accepted Peter’s plan with a nod. He tapped Peter’s shoulder in appreciation, and then finally, cautiously, he moved toward the settee.

*****

Joe’s entire body ached. His hands and feet were numb from the tightness of the ropes, and the cuts from Boone’s knife made his left arm feel as though it was on fire. He longed for the oblivion of sleep, yet whenever exhaustion dropped his head forward, it made the throbbing from Harvey’s last blow grow worse. Occasionally, as now, he managed to doze, but he never fully lost his sense of the world around him.

When a hand clamped down across his mouth, Joe came awake in an instant to find Peter Nobridge standing before him.

The half-breed failed to see the rage burning in Joe’s eyes. Smiling, Peter held a hand to his lips. “Adam is here with me,” he whispered as he drew his other hand away from Joe’s mouth. “Over there,” Peter nodded with his chin, “with your father.”

Joe looked toward the settee. It seemed as though Adam was speaking with Roy. That Roy was alert enough to have a conversation was encouraging, but that Adam had been drawn there by Peter was not.

“Adam!” Joe called out in a low voice, ignoring Peter’s warning to be silent though still wary of drawing the attention of Whitfield’s small army. “It’s a trick! Peter’s part of it! Get out of here while you can! It’s a trick, Adam! Get out!”

Adam rose from where he had been crouching beside the settee. Joe saw confusion in his slow, hesitant movements.

“Go!” Joe said more loudly — too loudly. Shouts began to sound outside.

There was nothing Adam could do to help him now. Both brothers knew that to be true. Glancing once more between Joe and Peter, Adam raced toward the stairs. He disappeared just as the first men barreled through the front door.

Peter disappeared as well. Joe had been so focused on his brother, he failed to notice where the other man had gone.

*****

Alfred Whitfield appeared at the top of the stairs wearing Ben Cartwright’s robe.

Joe had been angry enough by Peter’s betrayal and his own concern over what harm Peter might yet cause for Adam, but seeing that image of Whitfield inspired Joe to fighting rage. Exhaustion was replaced by raw energy. Pain evaporated as every muscle in Joe’s body tensed in anticipation of the fight he had no hope of even attempting. He felt like a wolf poised to strike — a wolf that had been trapped and chained.

“What in Heaven’s name is the cause of all this commotion?” Whitfield asked from his high perch, making no attempt to descend to the level of his convict guards.

Joe had to think past his anger for the sake of his brother. Resisting the urge to glance toward where Adam had taken refuge, he conjured an explanation for the disruption. “I shouted in my sleep,” he said, his chest heaving as it always did when any nightmare woke him, real or imagined.

“Mr. Davis?” Whitfield looked to one of the men Joe had assumed to have been a prison guard.

Davis shook his head. “I guess it’s just what he said, sir. No one got in past us; I can tell you that.”

“Well then, shut him up, will you? I do not appreciate having my sleep interrupted!”

Expecting Jasper Boone to volunteer, Joe was surprised when another man stepped forward instead. The new man tied a cloth around Joe’s mouth to gag him, and then left it at that. Joe was relieved to be spared another round with Boone’s knife; he was also puzzled it could have been that easy to divert Whitfield’s attention away from what had really happened. He watched as the new man went back outside and Whitfield went back upstairs. Apparently, they both believed him.

Despite his concern for Joe, Adam stayed in hiding for several minutes. Was it a trick or wasn’t it? Were they purposefully leaving Joe and Roy alone to give Adam a false sense of security? He had a hard time believing that. The men who had just left were pretty easy to read. None seemed particularly wise enough to play such a game of pretend. Whitfield, on the other hand, could be lying in wait upstairs. Still, Adam doubted he would go to such trouble. Alfred Whitfield probably did, simply, want to get a good night’s sleep.

Adam also found it hard to link Peter with all of this. Peter was complex and not at all a simple read like the others. There was much the half-breed had not revealed, much that remained — and likely would remain — hidden to the world. Yet what Peter had shared about his life and his thoughts Adam believed to be genuine. That Peter could perform criminal acts, Adam was certain. But Adam was almost equally certain Peter would not have come to both Joe and him with that warning only to promote some grand subterfuge on the part of Alfred Whitfield.

Adam was more inclined to believe Joe had been given false information. And from the looks of Joe’s arm, he might well have been provided a good deal of incentive to believe that information.

Deciding it was better to accept that the way was clear than to consider the likelihood of a trick, Adam finally moved from his place by the stairs. He went forward slowly, and kept himself low, avoiding the window behind the desk. Yet when he reached Joe he moved as quickly as he could, using Ben’s letter opener as a knife to slice through the ropes.

“Where did he go?” Joe whispered the moment Adam removed the gag.

“Peter?” Adam asked, distracted by his work at freeing his brother — and disturbed by the sticky wetness of the ropes confining Joe’s left arm.

“Of course, Peter! Where is he?”

“I don’t know. Right now I don’t care. I’m more concerned about getting you and Roy out of here.” Adam let the last of the ropes fall away. “Can you stand?”

Joe nodded. “It’s just my arm.”

“I’ll bet.”

Adam wrapped an arm around his brother anyway, and guided him to his feet. A moment later, and quicker than Adam had anticipated, they were halfway across the room, close enough to the settee for Joe to see it was empty.

“Sheriff Coffee?” Joe asked, clearly confused.

“He’s by the window.”

Joe looked toward the large window behind the dining-room table where Roy Coffee was hunched over and leaning against the wall for support. One hand was clutching his middle, the other holding the gun Adam had given him when they’d first spoken moments earlier.

“Don’t see anyone, Adam,” Roy said, his voice low and pain-filled. “But I don’t like it none.”

Nodding, Adam settled his brother beside the sheriff.

“I’ll go first. Wait for my signal.”

Adam stared for a long moment at Joe, hating to leave and worried over what might come next. Yet he couldn’t risk taking Joe with him until he knew they could reach the cover of the trees. They had to make it. Seeing the thick, red dampness covering Joe’s sleeve, it was clear there was no other option. They had to reach the trees — all three of them. Or Adam would die trying.

*****

A pebble hit the glass.

“There it is,” Roy whispered. “That’s Adam’s signal. Go on, Joe.”

Nodding, Joe stepped through the window. Then he turned, holding his good arm toward the sheriff.

“You go on, Joe. I wouldn’t make it ten yards with these ribs, let alone all the way to them trees.”

“I am not leaving you here.”

“You got to, Joe. You and Adam, you boys have a chance to get out, and you got to take that chance. I can’t stomach any more of what that man done to you. You can’t take no more of it neither, even if you think you can.”

“Roy…”

Sheriff Coffee held up a hand. “You’re wastin’ time, Joe, time you don’t have to waste. Now, go on. Get out of here. I’ll stay right at this window long as I need to, to make sure you get far as you can without company.”

“But, Roy, they’ll…”

“They will think I’m still out of my wits right there on that settee by the time they realize you’re gone. And now I have this.” He raised the gun. “I can use it to surprise ’em when the time is right.”

Joe stared back at him.

“I am still the sheriff around here.” Roy tried to sound as though he really was in charge of things, but the slur in his speech made it clear he was not. “Go.”

Hesitating only a moment longer, Joe gave him one, curt nod. “Don’t wait,” Joe said. “Get back in there before they realize you’re awake.”

“Now, what’d I tell you, son? I am still the sheriff. You don’t need to be tellin’ me how to handle things. Now get yourself to those trees before I have to tan your hide!”

Joe smiled sadly at the empty threat, feeling tears welling up in his eyes. Finally, he turned and started to make his way toward the dark shadow in the yard ahead, the figure that could only be Adam.

His first steps were as quick as any he’d ever taken, but the tense energy he’d felt earlier faded with each footfall. The numb feel of his arm also started to fade, awakening the pain he had almost managed to forget, a pain that stabbed at him over and over again each time his foot hit the ground — as though Boone was beside him, incessantly jabbing him with that sharp blade.

The world tilted as it had the day before. He didn’t even feel himself falling until his knee hit the ground. Steadying himself with his good hand, he got back to his feet, but two steps later he was down again. He dropped his head, closed his eyes and struggled to fill his lungs. When he opened his eyes again, the trees looked to be miles away. It didn’t matter. He had to reach them.

He started to push himself up once more. Someone grabbed him, pulling him to his feet. A hand snaked under his arm in support.

Adam.

“I just….” Joe panted. The night seemed to be growing blacker. “…Catch my breath.”

“You can catch it in the trees,” Adam whispered back. “Just try to hold on ’til we get there.”

Holding on was about the only thing Joe could do. Either he was more tired that he’d realized, or the world was doing everything it could to pull him right back down again.

Adam went as deep into the woods as he could before it became clear he needed to give Joe a rest. He settled his brother against the thick trunk of a pine tree, and then glanced behind him, expecting to spot Roy Coffee. There was no sign of the sheriff. All he could see were the dim lights shining through the windows of the house, obscured by a sea of branches and a night that was both dark enough to shield Adam and Joe, and too dark to enable him to give his brother the help he needed. Even if Adam had water with him, he couldn’t treat Joe’s arm unless he could properly see what he was doing. Still, he had to do something to at least stem the flow of blood. Not only was it stealing his brother’s strength, it was probably leaving such an obvious trail the perpetually inept Whitfield himself would be able to follow it.

Adam shook his head without even realizing he was doing it. Whitfield was inept at most things, but he was more than competent at playing games with people’s lives. Adam had to find a way to bring his games to an end — not just for the moment, for the sake of Adam’s family or even the Ponderosa — but permanently.

Still gazing toward the house, Adam thought back on his discovery of two corpses, which had prompted him to signal Roy that the path was clear. Two of Whitfield’s men had been lying dead at their posts, their blood still warm where it pooled beneath them. There was only one man who could have done such a thing, who would take any action he thought necessary to protect the family to which he had apparently sworn his allegiance, despite Joe’s accusation against him: Peter Nobridge. And though it disturbed Adam to even allow himself a moment of pleasure at the thought, he found himself hoping Peter would find a similar opportunity to eliminate Alfred Whitfield with an equal amount of quiet efficiency.

“Adam?” Although Joe’s voice was almost too soft to be heard, it effectively pulled Adam’s thoughts back to the moment. “Pa’s in Virginia City. There’s only one man with him.” Surprisingly, Joe chuckled. It was a tired, breathy sound. “Only one who matters, anyway. There’s a lawyer too, but you don’t need to worry about him.” Joe closed his eyes. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just…wait here for you.”

“Sorry, brother; I do mind. You can’t stay here.”

Adam started unbuttoning Joe’s shirt. The collar felt thicker than it should, and the first two buttons were sticky. It’s just my arm, Joe had told him back in the house. Adam wasn’t surprised now to find that hadn’t been entirely true. He found himself eager to light a fire and make a full assessment of what harm Whitfield had brought to Little Joe this time around. But he couldn’t do anything until they got further away — and they couldn’t get further away if Adam couldn’t keep Joe’s blood from marking their path.

“Too tired,” Joe said.

“Rest up then,” Adam said as he slipped Joe’s shirt over his good arm. “You’ve got a few minutes while I see about bandaging you up.”

Joe chuckled again, though his eyes remained closed. “It’s the whole arm, Adam. You’ll need more’n a few minutes, and more bandages than you have cloth.”

“What do you mean, the whole arm?” Adam tried to pull the wet sleeve from Joe’s left arm. He found the cloth sticking in several spots where a variety of small wounds were apparently starting to congeal. Joe sucked air in through his teeth, but did not complain. “God, Joe. What did they do to you?”

“Gabe Harvey’s dead,” Joe answered tiredly. “Jasper Boone’s not happy about it.”

“Boone did all of this?”

“Every slice.”

Adam grabbed Joe’s left hand, his fingers slipping across a long gash between Joe’s thumb and forefinger. Cringing in sympathy and anger, Adam adjusted his grip, and then finally finished pulling off Joe’s shirt. In an instant he was ripping it into strips. He wrapped several layers around Joe’s hand. Next he addressed the thick cut at the top of Joe’s arm. By then there was little usable cloth left. Joe had been right. There wasn’t enough cloth in the dry places on Joe’s ruined shirt to cover every cut on his arm. Instead, Adam took off his own shirt and put it on his brother, hoping the dry sleeve would absorb enough blood to keep the trail clear.

“It’s time to move.” Adam reached around his brother to lift him from the ground.

Joe let out a soft groan as he came to his feet. “Adam?” he said then. “Your shirt smells like manure.”

Adam smiled. “I was on a cattle drive, you know.”

“I wish I was there right now.”

“I do too, little brother. I do, too.”

*****

Peter was with the horses. Adam had not expected to find him there — or maybe he had just hoped Peter wouldn’t be there. Adam needed the canteens, and the cover where they’d left the horses was exactly what he needed for Joe.

Yet Peter being there was not the first thing Adam noticed. There was a man swinging at the end of a rope, hanged by the neck from the very same tree where Adam had threatened to hang Alfred Whitfield one year earlier.

“Adam?” Joe called out softly when Adam stopped cold. “Adam? What’s wrong?”

When Adam didn’t answer, Joe raised his head to follow his brother’s line of sight. Adam watched as Joe’s eyes opened wider.

“Who is it?” Joe’s voice was a whisper.

“I can’t tell. It’s too dark.”

“Joe Cartwright?” Peter’s voice pulled Joe’s gaze toward where he stood at the base of another tree, closer to the horses.

Adam felt Joe’s muscles tense in response. Joe’s breaths grew shorter, faster.

“I have learned the truth from Jasper Boone,” Peter said. “I have discovered why you believe me to be a traitor. I want you to know, it was not of my doing. Nor did I have fore knowledge it would be done.”

Adam gazed toward the hanging man. Joe seemed not to have recognized the dark implications of Peter’s words.

“That was your name,” Joe said, growing winded. “Wasn’t it? Your real name.” He tried to push himself free of Adam’s grip, but his energy had been spent. He was too weak.

“The name given to me at my birth was William James Peter Montague. It was the same name given my father, and to his father before him. Yet it was never for me to be the same man.”

“What is this about?” Adam asked.

“Go ahead,” Joe said. “Tell him. Tell him how much of the Ponderosa will belong to you as soon as Pa gets to that land office tomorrow. Tell him. Tell him about Pa’s will.” His energy seemed to be returning. When he tried to push away again, he almost succeeded.

“I will tell him what Jasper Boone has told me,” Peter went on. “But you must understand it was not of my doing. I cannot explain the actions of Alfred Whitfield. I can only honor my debt to you, as I have tried to do tonight. Jasper Boone will no longer wield a knife, or any other weapon against you.”

“What?” Joe stared for a long while at Peter, seeming confused. Finally, he turned to look toward the hanging man. “Jasper Boone?” he asked.

“He told me many things before he died,” Peter said.

Adam’s burden grew heavier as Joe’s tension and energy both seemed to abandon him at once. It was time to let Joe rest again. It was past time. Adam began to guide his brother to the ground, leaning him against another tree. Once Joe was settled, Adam rose, turning toward Peter.

“You didn’t have to kill him.” Adam spoke more out of instinct than any real concern for the law.

“Yes,” Peter answered. “I did. He took pleasure in torturing your brother.”

He wanted to trust Peter. He wanted to believe in the half-breed, even despite the ease with which Peter saw to the killing of men, dispensing justice as he himself saw fit without regard for the legal systems the Cartwright family had always — always —deferred to. It was wrong to lynch a man without a trial. Adam knew it was wrong. So why couldn’t he bring himself to care that Peter had lynched Jasper Boone?

While Adam watched, Peter’s gaze focused on Joe, and Joe’s focused on Jasper Boone. Adam did not like the aggrieved look in his brother’s eyes. Joe was clearly tired, exhausted, but there was something more there, something Adam couldn’t quite figure out.

He took pleasure in torturing your brother, Peter had said. That look in Joe’s eyes made Adam suspect the torture hadn’t stopped, because Jasper Boone wasn’t the only one causing it.

*****

“William James Peter Montague the third,” Alfred Whitfield said to the mirror. He repeated the name several times while he was shaving, and then again after he had finished trimming the mustache he’d decided to keep; it gave him a different look. He’d changed his hair as well, wearing it longer now, and parted in the middle. The man in the mirror was finally looking different enough to make him wonder if Alfred Whitfield had ever truly existed. He might as well be dead.

By the time all the pieces finally came together, he would be dead. Alfred Whitfield would be nothing but a memory, and William James Peter Montague III would begin life anew. As to where that life should take root, he’d been hearing interesting things about Australia.

“I told you that’s not possible!” A voice rose above all others in the shouting match downstairs that had been escalating in volume for the past several minutes.

Disgusted by yet another childish display among the ruffians he had been forced to recruit, Whitfield tossed his comb into its tray on the washstand, gave his mustache one, final brush with his finger, and stepped toward the stairs to make his first appearance for the day.

“Must I ask you yet again to take your petty disputes elsewhere?” Whitfield shouted from the upper landing. “You will cease this disruption at once, and from this moment forward keep your filth out of my house!”

Silence greeted him.

“Well? What are you waiting for! I ordered you all to leave!”

“Look here, Whitfield!” A yellow-toothed bandit stepped forward. “I don’t know what game you’re playin,’ but this ain’t your home, and I ain’t leavin’! We all come for money and none of us is leavin’ without it! Now I don’t know why you done this, but it don’t change nothin’ except to increase our shares of the take.”

“What in Heaven’s name are you talking about?”

“You cut that boy loose, didn’t you? You cut him loose and he went off and kilt both Dix and Smitty!”

Whitfield looked in the direction the bandit pointed out to see the young Cartwright was no longer occupying the chair by the desk. Joe Cartwright was gone.

“No,” Whitfield said softly to no one but himself. “This cannot be.” He hurried down the stairs for a closer look. “Who did this?” he demanded, eyeing each of his remaining men in turn. “Well? Speak up? Which one of you no good half-wits let that boy go?”

“Weren’t none of us,” the bandit said. “That leaves just you.”

“That’s preposterous. It…” Whitfield looked once again at the men. “Boone. Where is Jasper Boone?”

“Cain’t find him. Ain’t seen him since last night.”

Whitfield smiled. A moment later he started to laugh.

The bandit took a step back, seeming unnerved. “Mr. Whitfield?” His question sounded as though he wasn’t sure the man laughing before him was, indeed, Alfred Whitfield.

“Oh, you really are half-wits, aren’t you?” Whitfield said. “Don’t you see? Boone took the boy. He took him to kill him once and for all. He didn’t change anything. Not a single thing. He merely adjusted the timeline. Everything is still falling perfectly into place.”

“You saying Boone kilt Dix and Smitty?”

Whitfield shrugged. “Were they bloody deaths?”

“A mite. Yes.”

“Then of course it was Boone. Now leave me.” Whitfield turned his back on his men, dismissing them physically as well as verbally. When his gaze landed on the settee and the sheriff’s still unmoving body, his lip curled in disgust. But then he sighed, deciding it didn’t matter. He would simply have that particular piece of furniture burned. In fact, he might as well burn down the whole, miserable house. After all, he wouldn’t need it once he boarded a ship for Australia.

*****

Jasper Boone was carving a message into Joe’s arm. Joe needed to understand. He tried to read the words, but his blood kept obscuring the letters. What did it say? He couldn’t ask. He couldn’t speak at all. There was a hand covering his mouth. Peter Nobridge’s hand.

Pa? Joe called out for help in his mind.

But Pa wasn’t Pa. He was Alfred Whitfield. Whitfield was wearing Pa’s robe, smoking Pa’s pipe, and telling Joe he was no longer welcome in his own home.

“I will take you,” Peter whispered into Joe’s ear.

Where? Joe asked without speaking.

“Back to the cave. Back beneath the rocks. Where you belong.”

No! But no one could hear him. Or no one cared to hear him. And Joe couldn’t move.

Alfred Whitfield grinned, offering Joe a cup of tea. Only dust poured from the pot. It didn’t matter. Joe’s cup was already filled with pebbles.

“I owe you my life,” Peter said. And then he smiled, and the mountain exploded soundlessly around Joe.

Among the last rocks to fall was a body. It swung now above Joe, like the pendulum in a clock, ticking away the end of everything. Joe looked to its eyes with a silent, desperate plea for help. Jasper Boone answered by laughing at a joke only Boone and the devil himself would ever understand.

The devil was there now. Joe was certain of it. But who was it? Alfred Whitfield or Peter Nobridge?

Joe woke shivering from the cold sound of Jasper Boone’s laughter. Even as he slowly came to realize Boone wasn’t laughing at all and would never laugh again, the shivering persisted. Peter Nobridge had hanged Boone as payment for a debt he said he owed to Joe, but what if it was actually the devil who owed that debt? How could Joe accept the devil’s debt?

Closing his eyes to fight off such ominous thoughts, Joe took a deep breath and then glanced around him. He found himself on the ground, in the comfort of a bedroll rather than leaning against the tree where he’d been when he’d gone to sleep. He was still dressed in Adam’s shirt. The sleeve was nowhere near as wet with blood as his own had been; still the multitude of small cuts in Joe’s arm had managed to leave parts of the cloth damp and sticky.

“He said Pa’s in Virginia City.” Adam’s voice drew Joe’s attention.

Rising to his right elbow, Joe’s gaze fell upon the tree where Boone had been hanged. He was glad to see the body was gone now, the rope too.

“Whitfield’s forcing him to withdraw money from the bank,” Adam went on, “and file title transfers for some prime Ponderosa lands.”

“Title transfers?” Hoss asked.

Hoss! Joe smiled, turning to look to where his brothers were both standing. He felt a sense of relief he would never have thought possible. Hoss and Adam were both there. All of them were finally together, and together they stood a chance of ending the nightmare, of bringing Pa back and… and what?

Joe’s smile faded. In his mind he saw Jasper Boone hanging from that tree branch. It sickened him to realize the sight had given him comfort. It was wrong. Joe knew it was wrong. A man was dead, and Joe was glad for it, so glad in fact he wanted to see the same for Alfred Whitfield.

Every man’s death diminishes me. Adam had read that aloud on more than one occasion. It was a favorite work, written by a man named John Donne. Joe had not only listened to the readings, he had read the essay himself, appreciating the words. Every man’s death diminishes me. And yet now, today, Joe felt vindicated, not diminished.

“That’s where it gets complicated,” Adam said. “According to Boone’s last words, Whitfield had Pa sign the land over to…well, to Peter.”

Hoss’ face went redder than Joe had ever seen it. He pulled back his shoulders and bunched his hands up into fists looking like the meanest, orneriest bull there ever could be. “Why that no good, dirty, lyin’ piece of…”

“Hoss!” Adam put both of his hands against Hoss’ chest. Joe realized then Adam was wearing another shirt…one that fit, so it clearly wasn’t from Hoss’ saddlebag.

“Hold on!” Adam said. “Peter swears he had no part in it. He didn’t know that’s what Whitfield planned, and he has no idea why he’s doing it.”

“There ain’t no way your old pal Whitfield would go to this kind of trouble to give Peter somethin’ of ours without Peter even knowin’ about it!”

“First of all, don’t call him my pal!” Adam hollered back.

Joe slowly pushed himself to his feet, pausing whenever he needed to catch his breath against the fire that flared periodically in his arm.

“Second,” Adam added, “Peter’s been going through an awful lot of trouble to help us rather than Whitfield.”

“Help you? How?”

“Food. Water. That bedroll for Joe. This shirt.”

“Where’d he get it all from?” Hoss asked before Joe could.

Adam didn’t answer right away. “Well…from the house. He snuck back in during the night.”

“Snuck in?” Hoss argued. “Or was let in? Adam, how come you trust him so much? How come you don’t even consider he might be workin’ for them?”

Adam sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, his shoulders sagging. “I wish I knew, Hoss. I really do. I…” He turned, his eyes landing on Joe.

“Joe,” Adam said softly, his eyes reflecting something that looked like guilt.

“Don’t worry, Adam.” Joe’s voice was equally soft. “Part of me trusts him, too. Even though another part of me wants to…” Joe bit back the words as he once again found himself fighting the image of Boone hanging in that tree. “I just don’t know what to believe. All I do know is we’ve got to get to Pa in Virginia City before he’s already on his way to Carson.”

“Carson City?” Adam asked.

Joe nodded. “He’s supposed to withdraw money from there, too. Whitfield’s gone through all his account books. I don’t know what he’s doing, Adam, but if I were to guess, I’d say he doesn’t want to draw too much attention by taking everything at once.”

“What difference would that make?”

“What does it matter?” Hoss asked. “I’m with Joe. Let’s get to Pa and then we can figure all the rest of it out.”

“Yeah,” Adam nodded. “But…” He turned back to Hoss. “Not all of us. Joe and I will go to Virginia City. I can get him in to see Doc Martin while we’re there. But I’d like to suggest you stay here, with Peter. Keep an eye on things.”

“On Peter, you mean?”

“On everything.”

Hoss nodded. “Yeah. I reckon someone should do just that.”

When Adam moved away to get the horses ready, Joe met Hoss’ gaze.

“Be careful,” Joe said.

“Don’t you worry about me, Little Joe.”

But how could he not worry? Hoss was the most trusting soul Joe knew. If he didn’t trust Peter, that had to mean something, didn’t it? On the other hand, what if while Adam and Joe were gone, Peter got Hoss to trust him too, and in the end they discover none of them should ever have trusted him at all?

There was only one thing Joe knew for sure. He didn’t like leaving Hoss behind.

*****

Ben took a seat in front of the bank manager’s desk, while Maxwell Morgan went to the chair beside it.

“That’s an awful lot of money, Ben,” the manager said after shaking Ben’s hand in greeting. “Am I to assume that somewhat dangerous looking man out front has been hired to protect it?”

“You may assume so,” Ben answered tersely.

“I’m surprised your sons aren’t…”

“My sons have other work to attend to.” Realizing he’d spoken louder than he should have, Ben cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “Floyd, if you would please just…”

The manager held up his hand. “Not to worry, Ben. We’re pulling it together for you right now.”

“Thank you.” Ben sat back in his chair, trying to appear less impatient and as congenial as Whitfield had demanded. He wished he knew whether Jenkins and Morgan were Whitfield’s only men in town, or if someone else was out there somewhere, watching, ready to report any deviation to his boss.

“Oh. Oh, dear.”

Morgan’s soft utterance pulled Ben’s attention. He followed the man’s gaze to the newspaper on Floyd’s desk. The headline provided scathing proof that Whitfield had employed Maxwell Morgan based on a bluff.

Prison Break Leaves 17 Dead! Warden, wife among the casualties.

Morgan’s face went ashen. He looked on the verge of becoming physically ill.

“I’m sorry,” Ben offered, his voice soft and sincere.

“H-he… He n-never…” Morgan shook his head slowly in disbelief.

“No,” Ben acknowledged. “He never did. It was a lie. It was all a lie intended to…” Ben stopped himself when his gaze caught Jenkins through the window.

“Is there a problem, Ben?” Floyd asked.

“No,” Ben answered, sitting back in his chair. Yet in studying Morgan, Ben realized there would be no hiding this particular truth. “I mean, yes. Yes, I’m afraid there is something. Mr. Morgan has been awaiting word about his sister.” Ben nodded toward the paper. “The warden’s wife. He was told she was presumed safe. I’m sorry to say he was told wrong.”

“Oh, my.” Floyd turned toward Morgan. “I am so sorry, Mr. Morgan. Please accept my condolences. What a tragic thing that was. It is so fortunate they caught most of those men.”

“Caught them?” Ben asked, surprised.

“Oh, yes. They originally believed all of the escapees headed south. But when the marshals caught up with them, they discovered another group had gone in a completely different direction. The deputy believes they could be headed up our way. A telegram came in last night for Sheriff Coffee, but he hasn’t been in town. I thought he rode out to see you, but…” Floyd stopped himself, his brows pulling down in consideration. “Oh,” he exclaimed softly as his thoughts apparently began to come together. “Oh, my.” Floyd shifted his gaze to Morgan, and then to the man standing outside.

“That man,” Floyd went on, his eyes growing wide. “He wouldn’t…. He isn’t…. Ben? Is that what this withdrawal is about?”

Before answering, Ben studied Morgan for a long moment, recognizing that the attorney’s usefulness to Whitfield had come to an end. The man was utterly lost in grief.

Since Jenkins was still out of ear-shot, Ben decided there was no longer any point to hiding the truth.

“Please, Floyd.” Ben kept his voice low, but firm. “You must act as though nothing is wrong. I must have that money.”

“Your sons?”

Ben gritted his teeth and nodded, just once. “Joe,” he said then. “He was the only one home when they arrived, thank God.” Ben took a deep breath, stealing himself to move past the worry that had been eating away at him and focus instead on the moment at hand. “But please. You must not give that man out there any reason to believe you know anything about this, anything at all.”

“Yes,” Floyd nodded and tried to sit straighter in his chair. “Yes, of course.”

“Don’t tell any of your employees, either. I don’t know if someone else is watching us. If so, I don’t want to risk causing any sort of alarm.”

“I understand. Of course.”

“Just…” Ben went on, “when we are finished here, all I ask is that you make a quick visit to the sheriff’s office. Let Clem know what’s going on. Please, only that. Nothing more.”

Floyd nodded. “I will, Ben. You have my word.”

“Thank you.”

When Ben left the bank, Morgan stayed behind. Ben told Jenkins Morgan had taken ill.

“It don’t matter,” the gunman said. “He still has work to do.”

“You don’t understand,” Ben pleaded. “He is…”

“I said it don’t matter. Get him out here.”

“Or what?” Ben dared. “You can’t start shooting. That would ruin Mr. Whitfield’s plans. You can’t afford to cause a commotion.”

Ben cast a quick glance around, searching for signs that someone, anyone at all was watching. He found only three men. Three Chinese men. Certainly none of them would be working for Alfred Whitfield.

“And you can’t afford to get me riled,” Jenkins warned. “You get me riled, I can promise you a trip to Hell.”

Ben shook his head. “Not today. Not now. Not if you have any intention at all of following Mr. Whitfield’s orders.”

“I don’t take orders from nobody.”

“Oh? Then why are you here? Why are you doing all of this?”

Jenkins hesitated only for a moment, but it was enough to show Ben the type of man he truly was. Whitfield recruited Jenkins and all the others for the sake of money. It was as simple as that. And being that simple meant they could be just as easily swayed to remove themselves from Whitfield and his plans.

“For that,” Jenkins said finally, “right there.” He pointed to Ben’s satchel.

“Mr. Whitfield is not going to let you have this and you know it.”

Jenkins pulled out his gun and cocked the hammer. “He don’t have to. You’re going to give it to me right now.”

Ben noticed his Chinese watchers were drawing closer. Another glimpse found Hop Sing stepping out of the alley. Suddenly, help was closer than Ben would ever have dared hope.

Relief flooding through him despite the cocked gun hovering mere inches from his stomach, Ben waited for Hop Sing’s men to move closer still.

“Didn’t you hear me, old man? I said give me that…”

When Hop Sing’s men were just a few steps away, Ben swung the satchel into Jenkins’ arm. The gun went off just once before clattering to the wooden boards at their feet. That was all Ben needed to do. The rest was handled effectively and efficiently by Hop Sing’s companions.

“Mr. Cartwright okay?” Hop Sing asked as his friends pulled Jenkins toward the jail.

“I’m fine, Hop Sing. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“Little Joe?”

Ben’s concerned gaze and lack of words were enough to bring a knowing nod from Hop Sing. Sighing then, Ben squeezed Hop Sing’s arm companionably. “It’s time I find out exactly how Little Joe is doing.”

“We come, too.”

“We?”

Hop Sing shouted out in a string of Chinese words. Moments later, at least ten mounted men rounded the street corner toward Ben.

“Hop Sing have many cousins,” Ben’s longtime cook smiled proudly.

“And many friends,” Ben answered, feeling more blessed than he’d felt in a very long time. He even found himself starting to believe he had good reason to be optimistic.

*****

Nearly halfway to the Ponderosa, one of Hop Sing’s recruits who had been scouting ahead hurried back to report the approach of two riders. Ben, already cautiously alert, found himself gripping his reins more tightly. Uncertainty had been such a constant companion he had grown accustomed to the building pressure in his chest and the short, choppy breaths that never quite filled his lungs. Yet when he first caught sight of those riders, he lost the ability to breathe altogether. Even from a distance he knew, as any father would know, the men coming toward him were his sons, Adam and Little Joe.

“Joe,” he found himself uttering to no one in particular, and for no reason other than to convince himself he was not simply seeing what he wanted to see. Joe was free. Adam was with him. Did that mean it was over? That Whitfield had lost his control over them all?

Ben urged his horse faster, moving up ahead of the other riders, unwilling to wait for his sons to reach him. As he drew nearer, he saw that Joe had opened his shirt to rest his hand in Napoleonic fashion against the still secured lower buttons. If his arm was bothering him so much, why hadn’t they fitted him with a sling? In fact, Joe’s shirt looked too large. And where was his hat? His jacket? His gun?

“Where’s Hoss?” Ben asked first, as soon as they reached him.

“Hoss is fine, Pa,” Adam was quick to answer. “He stayed behind to keep an eye on Whitfield’s men.”

“Is it over?” Ben dared to ask.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Not yet,” Joe added, overriding if not exactly correcting his brother’s statement. Ben was pleased to see a small smile ease the weary, pain-filled creases around his young son’s eyes. “But from the looks of that army of yours,” his smile gained strength with each word, “I’d say it will be soon. What happened to Jenkins and Morgan?”

“Morgan discovered his sister is already dead, and Jenkins is in jail, thanks to Hop Sing.”

“I should have known.” Adam’s grin was about as wide as Ben had ever seen it, though it vanished an instant later. “It seems a lot of people are surprising me lately.”

“Who do you mean?” Ben asked.

“Peter Nobridge. Or should I call him William James Peter Montague, the third.”

Ben tensed. “So. It’s true.”

“It’s his name on those titles Joe told me about. But I’m not so sure any of it was his idea. He didn’t seem aware Whitfield was doing it.”

Looking to Joe, Ben saw the creases returning, perhaps even deeper than before.

“Joe?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know, Pa. He says he owes me his life.” Joe shook his head, clearly confused and obviously hurting. “He killed two men. Didn’t give it a thought, just…just killed them. He did it so there wouldn’t be anyone watching, so Adam and I could make it to cover. And he…he hung Boone.”

Joe’s gaze met Ben’s then, seeming to search for an answer of some kind, an acknowledgement that whatever Joe was feeling about Peter’s actions, he was right to feel that way. The trouble was Ben could not see what Joe was feeling. Ben wasn’t even sure what he should be feeling about it himself.

“What about Roy?” Ben asked, lacking whatever words Joe might have been hoping to hear.

“He’s still with Whitfield,” Adam answered as Joe cast his eyes outward, perhaps still looking for those answers. “He might have a busted rib or two; it’s hard to say. He told Joe he couldn’t move fast enough to make it out. He insisted on staying behind.”

So Whitfield still had one life to bargain with. Ben shook his head without realizing what he was doing. He hated the fact that Whitfield had anyone at all against whom he could still threaten harm.

Ben sat up straighter in his saddle. “Get Joe to Doc Martin,” he said to Adam. “And then stay there. We’ll come for you after…”

“No, Pa,” Joe interrupted. “You’ve got twice as many men as he does now, but you’ll need to make sure they don’t all get a chance to barricade themselves in the house. If they do, I’d hate to think what that would mean for Sheriff Coffee. You’ll need as many guns as you can get.”

Ben met Adam’s eyes, reading in them what he felt within himself. “Joe,” he shook his head. “You’re in no shape…”

“I know, Pa.” Joe cut him off, frustration evident in the tense line of his jaw and the harsh breaths heaving his chest. “I know. I didn’t mean me. I meant Adam. You’ll need him more than I will. I’ll be fine on my own.”

Joe’s look was defiant and determined.

Adam’s was less sure. Like his pa did a moment earlier, he shook his head slowly. “Joe, you’re tired enough to fall right out of that saddle.”

“I’m fine, Adam,” Joe shouted. “I’m fine,” he repeated more softly a moment later. “I can make it to Virginia City on my own. Just go, will you? You know more about him than anyone. Get that madman out of our home.”

Ben studied him for a long time before finally, reluctantly agreeing with a small, sad nod. “Be careful, Joe.”

“It makes more sense for me to say that to you.” Joe tried to be light. He even attempted a smile. Yet the moisture forming in his eyes made it clear what was in his heart. “If anyone else is going to need Doc Martin after this, it better be Whitfield himself. I don’t want to hear about any of you getting…hurt.”

Joe looked to Adam and Ben, each in turn. Finally giving a grateful nod to Hop Sing, he kicked his horse forward and raced away from them as fast as he could, heading alone toward Virginia City.

*****

Adam was wrong about one thing; Joe was far from tired. His mind was spinning around so many thoughts — so much that could happen, or might happen, or that he prayed could not possibly happen —  that he could hardly breathe, but he could certainly stay in his saddle. He was awake enough that part of him was ready to turn right around and head back to the Ponderosa. Another part, the one his father and his oldest brother, Adam, could both take the credit for building, told Joe there was nothing he could do once he got there. He knew he was in no shape to fight anyone. He didn’t have a gun and would be hard pressed to fire one accurately if he did. And the last thing his family needed during the fight to come was to have their attention drawn away from Whitfield and his men to look after Little Joe.

No. Joe could not turn back. He had no choice but to press on to Virginia City.

He was nearly there when he saw a buggy moving toward him. A woman was driving. He studied her as they approached one another, wondering where she might be headed and concerned that the direction she was going would lead her to the Ponderosa if she didn’t take the proper cut-off further up the road.

The more Joe studied her, the more he wondered. She was older, perhaps Ben’s age. Her long, white hair was swept up into a green hat with black lace, and her matching dress was as fine as could be. It was clear she was a woman of means.

“Hello, there, young man!” she greeted him with a smile when they drew close enough to exchange words. Joe noticed a distinct southern accent.

“Ma’am,” Joe nodded and smiled, trying to reply in kind, though he found it hard — odd — given the circumstances.

“I declare!” she exclaimed, pulling her horse to a stop. “You look as though you could use some help!”

“No, ma’am. I’m fine.”

“Fine, indeed.” Her tone seemed almost scolding. “I have heard this can be a harsh country, but if the state you are currently in is considered to be fine around here, it is a wonder anyone survives at all!”

Joe raised his eyebrows, surprised by her persistence. “I’ll be fine, ma’am. I’m just heading in to see the doc.”

“Well, then,” she nodded. “I am very glad to hear it.” She nodded again and started to lift the reins once more. “Good day to you, then.”

“Um, ma’am?” Joe called out to stop her. “If you don’t mind my asking, where are you headed?”

“A ranch,” she answered. “I understand it is called the Ponderosa.”

If Joe was surprised before, he was nearly speechless now. As soon as he could gather his wits, he shook his head. “N-no, ma’am. You don’t want to go there. Not right now.”

“No? Why ever not?”

“Trouble, ma’am. You need to turn around and go back to Virginia City.”

“What sort of trouble?”

Joe looked toward his arm. “This kind of trouble. Please, just turn back.”

“Oh.” She looked into the distance ahead of her, bewildered about what to do. After a moment, she returned her attention to Joe. “You are from the Ponderosa?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know Mr. Cartwright?”

“Ben Cartwright is my father.”

“Your father? And he let you ride all this way like that on your own?”

“N-no, ma’am. I mean yes, ma’am. It-it wasn’t really his choice.”

“Oh? What on earth is happening over at that Ponderosa of yours?”

“Like I said. Trouble. Now will you please turn around?”

She took a deep breath. “I suppose there really is no choice, now is there?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Very well. I shall do as you say. But on one condition.”

“Ma’am?”

“If I see you to the doctor, will you help me to understand why your father has an interest in my nephew?”

“Y-your nephew?”

“William James Peter Montague. The third.”

*****

Alfred Whitfield closed the accounting books on the desk in front of him. Pinching the bridge of his nose to massage the corners of his tired eyes, he rose and strolled across the great room toward the dining table. As he passed the settee, he peered in curiosity at the man lying upon it.

After a moment, he grabbed a poker from beside the fireplace and nudged it against the man’s arm.

“You, there,” he said. “What are you doing?”

Roy held his eyes closed.

Whitfield poked him again. “I said, you there! Get up! I cannot excuse this sort of insolence!”

Insolence? Roy decided to risk opening his eyes.

Whitfield looked at him briefly, and then nodded, already turning away. “Very well. I am hungry. You will rise and see to it there is a meal ready within the hour. I should like something more satisfying than the eggs you prepared this morning.”

I prepared? Stuffing his gun further between the cushions beneath him, Roy dared pushing himself to a sitting position. When he looked up again, Whitfield was already halfway to the door, as though Roy wasn’t worth his attention.

“You will be quick about it,” Whitfield said. “I expect it to be ready by the time I return.” He slammed the door behind him.

Roy was left alone once more. Dumbfounded, he rose, deciding his time of playing possum had reached its end. He would either have to make a move to stand and fight, or to get out as Joe had done the night before.

He retrieved the gun and walked gingerly toward the kitchen. No one had bothered to clean up after the less than satisfying breakfast one of Whitfield’s men had made hours earlier, nor even the previous night’s dinner. Roy had helped himself to leftovers just as soon as the men had let Alfred Whitfield — or that long-named Montague fellow, whichever of the two that madman believed he was at any particular moment — have “his” house to himself. The food might have tasted like something long dead he’d found along the trail, but at least it had helped to fill Roy’s sore belly.

Looking at the mess from two separate meals, Roy couldn’t help but think of Hop Sing. That man would be mighty upset if he were to see his kitchen like this. Shoot, he’d be mighty upset about all of it, all the craziness that had left Virginia City’s sheriff alone with a lunatic and his convict army, and not a single Cartwright residing at the Ponderosa.

Shaking his head in consternation, Roy knew no one could be anywhere near as upset as Ben surely was. He could only imagine how Ben must have felt, having to leave his youngest boy in the hands of that butcher, Boone. Roy had been hard-pressed himself not to jump to Joe’s aid when Boone had been cutting on him. Of course, jumping had been out of the question. Roy could hardly even walk to the kitchen without getting winded and feeling as though Boone’s knife was slicing right through his own ribs. But at least Joe got out; that in itself was a blessing. Roy only wished Ben could know. It would sure ease the man’s mind, some — might even help him to confound Whitfield’s plans before he ever reached that Virginia City bank.

Roy started to wonder where Ben was at that very moment, but he chased the thought away. There was nothing he could do about that. What mattered then was whatever Whitfield and his men were up to.

Cautiously peering out through the kitchen window, Roy saw Whitfield talking with three of them. That left two unaccounted for. Roy was weighing the risk of slipping out through the dining room window when he caught some of what was being said.

“Have you gone plum loco?” one of the men shouted. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“You will either prepare my buggy for a visit into Virginia City,” Whitfield shouted back with equal intensity, “or you will leave these premises at once!”

“We got forty thousand dollars comin’ to us. I ain’t losin’ out on that by you turnin’ yourself in! And I sure as Hell ain’t leavin’ ’til I get my cut!”

“What in heaven’s name are you talking about? I have business to attend to.”

“Business? Mister, you’re business is already bein’ attended to. That Cartwright’ll be back here by nightfall. And we’ll be gone soon as we can see the trail. I don’t give a good goddamn what you do after that. But I ain’t lettin’ you stop me from gettin’ my cut.”

Whitfield turned his gaze outward. From what Roy could see, the man was confused. He might have uttered the name “Cartwright,” but his voice was lower than it had been, so Roy couldn’t be sure.

“Yes,” Whitfield said next, clear as day. “Of course. You go, then. See about moving them along. I have grown tired of waiting.”

Whitfield turned and started walking quickly back to the house.

Roy couldn’t possibly move fast enough to be out that window before Whitfield spotted him. Instead, he kept his eye on the yard. The three men grouped closer together after Whitfield left them, talking too low for Roy to hear. He could only imagine they were figuring how to get rid of Whitfield, now it was clear he was out of his mind.

When Roy heard the front door opening, he lifted his gun, resigning himself to confronting Alfred Whitfield once and for all. He had to do something, and as he saw it, there wasn’t a thing else he could do. He had to stop Whitfield. And then he would have to take on Whitfield’s remaining men –hopefully one by one as they came through the door.

“Where is my food?” Whitfield shouted as he made his way across the great room. “I expected that table to be…”

Roy stepped out of the kitchen, his gun aimed squarely at Whitfield’s chest.

*****

When Hoss heard riders coming, he knew it was too soon. Adam and Joe couldn’t have reached Virginia City fast enough for help to already have come this far. That either meant help had been on the way, or those riders were friends of the folks that had taken over the Ponderosa. Hoss tried to believe help was coming, but he wouldn’t dare bank on it.

Keeping himself to the thicker brush, he waited for them to come closer, straining to listen for signs of just who those riders might be. His breaths grew shorter as the minutes passed; his heart pumped faster, beating out against his chest like it was about to come clean through. He couldn’t hold his fingers still, and found himself playing them along the handle of that gun almost like Hop Sing would do when he was kneading dough to make that bread of his. Hoss started thinking about Hop Sing’s bread then. He could almost smell it coming out of the oven, and almost taste it smothered in butter.

The sound of voices began to chase away Hoss’ dreams of fresh bread. By the time he could hear the words clear enough to know he couldn’t understand them, Hoss’ bread was gone for good. Was that Chinese they were speaking?

*****

Peter stayed low as the first riders passed. He waited until the rest drew nearer, uncertain what would bring Chinese riders to the Ponderosa, especially knowing that in Alfred Whitfield’s eyes the Chinese were as appalling as Indians. They couldn’t possibly be working for him, could they?

When Peter caught sight of Adam Cartwright, he had his answer. He slipped out of hiding and raised an empty hand in greeting, not at all surprised by the cold and guarded response he received from Adam’s father and his other companions.

*****

There was something about that southern lady’s persistence that both intrigued and frustrated Joe. She simply would not let him be. She followed him all the way to Doc Martin’s office, and actually sat there watching the doc treat Joe’s arm.

“Are you sure there isn’t a thing I can do to help you, Doctor?” she asked.

“I suppose you could hand me that bottle of alcohol, over there.”

Joe looked to Doc Martin for help in getting her to leave, but the doc just smiled and shrugged.

“Isn’t there something else a lady like you ought to be doing?” Joe tried yet again.

“What exactly do you mean when you say a lady like me?”

“A lady, lady,” Joe struggled to answer, taken aback by her question.

“This is gonna hurt, Joe.”

Joe steeled himself for the sting of the needle as Doc Martin started stitching the deepest cut in his upper arm, but even though he hadn’t complained, groaned, moaned or grunted the least bit when Boone was cutting him, he found it impossible to hold his tongue now. The sound that escaped his lips was pitiful.

“My offer of that laudanum to ease the pain is still open,” Doc Martin reminded him before making the next stitch.

“No, thanks. I aim to head back as soon as you’re finished.”

“You do?” the woman asked. “Despite all that trouble you insisted was going on there?”

Once again Joe met the doc’s eyes, but he didn’t say a word. Fortunately, he didn’t groan either as the needle dug into his skin once more.

“Well,” the woman went on, “perhaps I should return with you, then. If it’s not too much trouble for a wounded man like you, it certainly must not be too much trouble for a lady like me.”

“No!” Joe turned too fast, causing the doc’s thread to pull too tight. This time Joe’s reaction was less of a groan and more along the lines of a scream. Black spots flared across his vision.

“I told you to sit still!” Doc Martin scolded.

Joe closed his eyes as the room began to tilt. He tried to steady his breathing.

“It’s not just this arm, is it?” Doc Martin asked. “Look at me, Joe.”

Joe kept his eyes closed.

“Joe? Look at me.”

Finally Joe opened his eyes to find the doc staring right into them.

“M-hm.” Doc Martin grumbled and then started feeling around Joe’s head. It didn’t take him long to find the bump behind Joe’s ear.

“Ow!” Joe complained.

“I’d say you can add a slight concussion to your list of injuries, young man. Perhaps you’d care to explain just what sort of trouble is going on at the Ponderosa?”

Joe looked toward the woman. This was why she was here, wasn’t it? He had avoided saying anything, hoping she would leave. But now that the doc had asked the question, her eyes opened wider, seeming eager to hear Joe’s story.

*****

Whitfield was surprisingly easy to persuade with a gun pointed at him. Roy decided he’d do fine to get the man out of the way for the time being by securing him upstairs, out of the direct sight of his cohorts. Ordering him to move back into the great room, Roy told Whitfield to grab the rope that was still lying on the floor by the chair Joe had sat in for all those hours.

“You…” Whitfield said breathlessly, walking backwards across the room as though he was afraid to turn his back on the sheriff. “You wouldn’t dare shoot me.”

But his eyes said different. In his eyes, Roy saw clear as can be the man thought Roy just might dare after all.

“If it weren’t for me,” Whitfield went on as he lowered himself to the floor to retrieve the rope, “you would never have escaped that prison. It was my idea that brought you here. It was my brilliance that forged the plan.”

Who in tarnation did he think Roy was?

Whitfield dropped an end of the rope and bent down to pick it back up. “Without me, that money Mr. Cartwright is bringing home will be all you’ll ever see.”

As Whitfield rose back to his feet, he seemed to gain confidence. “You need me,” he said with nearly as much arrogance as before. “You need me to finish the plan, the whole plan. It will take time, but everything he has, everything, all of it will become mine.”

Roy pulled back the hammer. The ploy worked.

“Ours,” Whitfield said then, breathing faster, his fear returned. “It will all become ours, just like we planned.”

“Upstairs,” Roy indicated the direction with the barrel of his gun. “Now.”

Whitfield moved to the stairs and put his hand on the newel post. “This will all be mine soon.” He looked up, almost rapt. “Ben Cartwright has already given me his hospitality. Soon he shall also give me his home. And no one will think anything of it. His friends will all have come to accept me as the son he’d wished he’d had, me, a man of such fine Montague stock.”

“Move,” Roy demanded, surprised by the ease with which he was getting the man’s confession and finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with whomever Whitfield thought he was at any particular moment in time.

Climbing the stairs opened up a load of pain in Roy’s ribs, but he did what he could to hold silent and press on behind Whitfield, eager to get this over with. He had Whitfield go to the furthest room down the hall, and then Roy set about tying him to a chair near the hinged side of the door. Once he was confident in the tightness of the knots, Roy turned to look for some cloth for a gag.

He found himself face to face with that half-breed, Peter Nobridge.

“Help has arrived,” Peter said. “Ben Cartwright has asked me to get you to safety.”

“Safety? I can’t move fast enough to get out of this house with all those men outside in broad daylight.”

“You,” Whitfield called out in a soft, confused voice. “You are supposed to be dead.”

Both Peter and Roy looked toward him.

“Peter?” Roy asked. “Are you saying you thought Peter was dead?”

“Those men are imbeciles!” Whitfield complained, his voice rising, his arrogance returning. “They do nothing right. They do nothing I tell them! You were to be the first. I told them you must be first to die! And yet here you are!”

“You ordered men to kill this boy?” Roy asked, stunned by the man’s admission.

“I…” Whitfield seemed to grow bewildered. “I…ordered? No. You must be mistaken. I am not an officer. I am not a military man. My family has a plantation in North Carolina.”

Roy glanced at Peter to find the young man studying Whitfield intently.

“Montague?” Roy asked tentatively when he returned his attention to Alfred Whitfield.

Whitfield smiled. “So you have heard of me. Splendid. Perhaps then you would be so kind as to undo these bindings. There is a madman downstairs who simply refuses to accept who I am.”

“Who are you?” Peter asked, crouching low to face Whitfield at eye level.

“William James Peter Montague, the third.”

Peter’s gaze darkened. His shoulders stiffened.

Glimpsing Peter’s hand move toward the knife at his belt, Roy gently gripped the young man’s shoulder. “It’s not worth it, son,” Roy said. “This man is not right in the head. Don’t go ruining your life for a man who doesn’t even know who he is anymore.”

“He tortured the Cartwrights,” Peter argued. “All of them. With Little Joe, it was blood, but with the others it ran deeper. This man would steal their home.” Peter’s muscles tensed further still. His lips tightened into a thin line across his mouth. “This man would steal the name of my birth. He deserves…”

“He deserves a trial,” Roy said.

“Who are you people?” Whitfield said. “I demand you untie me at once!”

“And,” Roy went on, “he will probably end up in a lunatic asylum. If it were me, I think I would rather be in a prison.”

“He has already broken out of prison.” Peter’s palm was resting on the hilt of his knife. “There is only one way to make sure he does not get free again.”

“Not like that, son. I…”

The sound of gunfire took the rest of Roy’s words.

Peter rose, concern evident in his eyes. “This is why Ben Cartwright asked me to get you to safety. I have failed him.”

“You’ve done no such thing. Just tell me — who’s with him? How many are there?”

“Ben and Adam Cartwright, and a dozen Chinese men, led by Hop Sing.”

Roy smiled. “Well, if that don’t beat all! Come on, son. You and me have work to do.”

*****

“I must say that is quite a terrifying story, young man,” the lady said. “Albeit an incomplete one.”

“Ma’am?”

“I shall assume you left out the most terrifying parts.” She nodded to indicate his arm. “Such as how you came by your particular injuries.”

Joe shared a look with Doc Martin. He could tell the doc was curious as well, yet he felt it wouldn’t be right to say anything about Boone just then.

“However,” she went on, “what you have told me and how you have told it has provided me with the information I was seeking as to your character and that of your father.”

Doc Martin’s eyebrows must have mirrored Joe’s then. They shot up all the way to the top of his forehead.

“M-my character?”

“It has been many years since I saw my nephew last, Mr. Cartwright. I have been searching for him since my mother died. It was she who sent him and his mother away.” The woman glanced downward, showing the slightest signs of disappointment. “My mother was a severe woman.” An instant later, the lady’s countenance was restored. “She was highly protective of the lineage. Overly protective, I must say. With her gone, it has fallen to me to be protective.”

The woman focused on Joe then, studying him. “Now that I have seen your character, you bring to mind a young Galahad. You are a man of honor, Mr. Cartwright. That shows me I can share with you my story and expect for you to be equally protective.”

“Of what, ma’am?”

“Of my nephew, and of his lineage.”

As Joe’s thoughts turned to Peter, he found it ironic that this woman was asking him to protect the man who’d kept insisting he owed Joe a life debt. Joe also found himself wondering how he could ever tell this woman the complex truths about her nephew.

When Doc Martin was finished tending to Joe’s arm, he invited both Joe and Peter’s aunt to share a bite to eat with him, in order to provide the woman an opportunity to share her story as well as her purpose in reaching the Ponderosa.

“Thanks, Doc,” Joe said. “But I need to get back.”

Eager to find out what was happening at home, Joe rose too quickly. The world tilted yet again, dropping him right back onto the doctor’s examination table.

“What you need, Little Joe is a meal and a bit of rest. If we don’t even consider that concussion, you lost a fair amount of blood, and most of those cuts were already on their way to infection. Your body needs time to recover from both.”

“I can’t just sit here while…”

“Yes you can,” the doc cut him off. “You must. Besides, in addition to that army of Chinese your father has with him, Clem and those marshals are headed there now, too. You will not tip the scales in the favor of those convicts by sitting here, but you could quite possibly do so by going there and putting yourself into harm’s way.”

“Sir Galahad, indeed,” the woman said, smiling. “Ever the protector, never concerned for your own well-being. I, however, do find myself concerned for your health, simply for what you have shown me of your character. Therefore I must ask you to do me the honor of listening to what I have to say.”

“Ma’am, I…”

“Have no choice,” she interrupted. “Sir Galahad would never neglect a lady’s honor by refusing her request. Nor would he jeopardize the safety of his king by interrupting a fight he had no business joining.”

I’m not Sir Galahad, Joe thought glumly. Nonetheless, he knew he was beaten.

*****

Roy positioned himself at the window in the front bedroom, armed with a rifle Peter had brought to him from the rack downstairs and ammunition from the stash Roy himself had hidden from Whitfield and his men. It was impossible to tell who fired the first shots he heard, but Roy had caught enough glimpses of Hop Sing’s Chinese to make some reasonable assumptions about how Ben Cartwright’s small army was positioned in comparison to Whitfield’s thugs.

As soon as it looked as though Hop Sing’s men were advancing, Roy put down some cover shots. He couldn’t quite see where Ben, Adam and Hoss had set themselves, but he was sure enough about the general direction. He also knew Peter would get to them.

That boy was okay, Roy decided. Despite all those questions everybody’d been asking about him this past year, and even despite Roy’s own wondering after the bits he’d heard about the changes Ben had made to his will just the day before, Roy could pretty much tell Peter wasn’t after money or land or anything else. And he seemed to have an honest concern for the Cartwrights. In Roy’s mind, that made him okay.

*****

The first shot surprised all of them. They had been so focused on the three men in clear view right there in Ben Cartwright’s front yard, they hadn’t expected the shot that came toward them from the left. Ben saw Adam jump from his saddle and scurry for cover. Though not nearly as fast as his son, Ben was right behind him when the second shot was fired. He watched in horror as it brought Adam down.

Moments later, Peter reappeared, rifle in hand.

Ben glared at him with cold, deadly hatred. “You did this!” he accused as he knelt beside his son’s still form. “Didn’t you? You shot him!”

Peter shook his head slowly from side to side, staring down in disbelief and perhaps even showing a trace of horror. Ben turned away from him. One year ago, that half-breed had nearly brought about the death of Ben’s youngest son, and now…now he might well be responsible for the death of Ben’s oldest.

“Did you see the shot?” Peter asked, his voice low. “What angle did it follow?”

“You should know,” Ben said, his focus on the wound in Adam’s chest rather than on the man he was blaming. “You either fired it or went right past the man who did!” Relief filled Ben’s eyes with unshed tears as he realized the wound appeared to be shallow, the bullet stopped by bone.

“I passed no one.”

Hearing confusion in Peter’s voice, Ben started to accept that maybe he had been wrong. Maybe Peter hadn’t fired that shot at all.

“I’m sorry,” Ben started to say. But his words were obscured by the sound of a third shot.

Peter lurched forward, his eyes growing wide, his gaze more puzzled. An instant later, he sank to his knees and then fell forward, blood pooling near his left shoulder blade.

Shock held Ben in place. His gaze locked onto the young half-breed as he tried to make sense of what had just happened, as he tried to understand why Peter Nobridge had been shot in the back. Even when Ben heard Adam’s soft gasp, he found himself unable to move.

Was it possible? Was it at all possible Peter Nobridge was not the devil Ben had believed him to be?

“Pa?” Adam called softly.

Finally, the spell broken, Ben gave his full attention back to his son. “It’s not deep,” he said. “Thank God. I’m sure you’ll be just fine as soon as we can get you out of here.”

With Peter, Ben wasn’t so sure. The red wetness on the back of Peter’s shirt seemed to be spreading far too fast.

*****

Though Joe sat down to lunch with Doc Martin and Abigail Hawthorn, Peter’s aunt from North Carolina, his thoughts were far away, caught up in the fight for the Ponderosa. He was only half listening to the polite conversation Mrs. Hawthorn was having with the doc. It wasn’t until she addressed Joe directly that he forced himself to pay attention.

“My brother was a fine man, Mr. Cartwright,” she said before taking a sip of tea. “He was also quite romantic. When he fell in love with an Indian, it was a long while before I could be sure whether he truly loved her, or whether she simply represented that forbidden love about which all romantics seem to fantasize.” The woman laughed softly. “Being a Montague caused him to compare himself with Shakespeare’s own Romeo. I suppose I was as bad as he was, though. I used to tease him about searching for his Juliet. Imagine my surprise when he actually found her, a beautiful, raven haired Indian woman. He even gave her the name Juliet when he tried to rid her of her Indian ways.”

Mrs. Hawthorn gazed into her teacup. “Her real name was Adsila,” she went on after a moment. “I always thought that name was lovely in itself. She told us it meant ‘blossom.’ And oh! she certainly did blossom with the love my brother gave to her. I had never before nor have I since seen two people as deeply in love as they appeared to be. I was even somewhat jealous.” Her brow knitted, if only for a moment. “I suppose I loved her, too, both her and her son.”

Joe was surprised by the woman’s romantic twist on Peter’s story. “Peter told my brother his family turned them away after his father died.”

“Peter?” she smiled. “So you do know him.”

“Yes, ma’am. But we never knew his full name.”

“Surely your father knew. After all, it was he who made all those inquiries.”

“Inquiries?”

“A few weeks ago it came to my notice that someone was inquiring as to the birthright of my nephew. Although the messages were not sent from here, they were all sent on behalf of your father, Benjamin Cartwright.”

Joe shook his head. “Those messages couldn’t have come from my father. None of us had ever heard that name before yesterday.”

The woman seemed puzzled. “Truly?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Yet you do know him.”

“Yes.”

“Tell me. What is he like? Is he a romantic, like his father? Does he spend hours reading? Does he write poetry, or…” She stopped herself and started chuckling. “Listen to me, carrying on like a school girl. I am sorry. I miss Peter’s father very much. Whether or not it was your father who sent those messages, I am grateful they brought me here if they can reacquaint me with young Peter. Is he nearby?”

“Pardon me for asking, ma’am. But why?”

“Why?”

“Why, after all these years, after forcing him to leave the only home he knew, why is it so important for you all of a sudden to reacquaint yourself with him?”

She studied Joe for a long moment, and then nodded. “He has a good friend in you, to look out for him so.”

Friend? Joe stiffened.

“It was my mother who sent them away,” she answered. “Not I. I never agreed with her decision, but it was her decision. I am here now because what becomes of the family name is now my decision and no one else’s. Peter is the last remaining Montague son, Mr. Cartwright. I married a Hawthorn. My sons are Hawthorns. Without Peter, the Montague family name will cease to exist. I find that to be a tragic waste. Don’t you?”

Joe gazed back at her, amazed by her expectations. After a moment, he slowly shook his head. “No, ma’am. The real tragic waste is what your mother did by sending them away.” Despite all of Joe’s misgivings, there was something about Peter that made Joe want to believe in him. Now, hearing what Mrs. Hawthorn had to say caused Joe to wonder what Peter might have become had he been raised as he should have, with his family. Joe found himself believing they could have been friends, real friends. Instead, Peter was a thief, a murderer and anything else he felt he had to be to survive in a world where he could never find a place to truly belong.

Joe tossed his napkin onto the table and pushed back his chair. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said as he rose — slowly, to avoid losing his balance. “I need to get home.”

When Joe turned to walk away he could hear Doc Martin’s protests and Mrs. Hawthorn’s insistence on joining him. He ignored both. All he cared about, all that mattered, was getting home.

*****

Hop Sing’s men had gone after the three near the house, while Ben, Adam and Hoss had tried to locate the two others who had somehow managed to disappear. Hoss was sure he was on the trail of one of them when a shot was fired, pulling him eastward. A second shot told him he was close, but it surprised him, seeming to come from above ground level.

Gazing up into the trees, Hoss finally caught a glimpse of a rifle.

Hoss’ gut churned when he saw that rifle targeting the direction his pa and Adam had taken moments earlier. It churned even more when it fired again. But the thing that worried Hoss the most was the triumphant grin on the man behind it as he twisted around to drop down out of that tree.

By the time the shooter saw him, Hoss’ gun was aimed and ready. He pulled his trigger the instant he saw that man raise his rifle. Hoss wasn’t going to give him any chance at all to win this game. In fact, with that one shot, Hoss made sure this particular rifleman wasn’t ever going to win any game ever again.

After the man fell, Hoss stood for a moment looking down at him. In that moment, Hoss’ eyes saw a man lying dead, but his mind saw something else. In Hoss’ mind, the man still wore that miserable grin.

Dear God, don’t let that mean Pa or Adam got hit.

Taking a deep breath, Hoss struggled to clear his thoughts. There was one man left. Just one. Hoss would find him. He had to find him. He would find that man and end this whole nightmare.

But dangnammit, Hoss’ thoughts refused to clear. He couldn’t do a doggone thing until he knew for sure Pa and Adam were okay.

*****

Riding as fast as he dared with a fresh horse from the livery, Joe wore a gun he’d gotten in town tucked into the waistband of his trousers. The fight was probably over, and Whitfield didn’t stand a chance of winning against Hop Sing’s small army and the marshals that had gone with Clem, but Joe needed to know for sure. And if it wasn’t over, he needed to be a part of it. He felt like it was killing him inside to be so uncertain, to be so cut off from what was happening.

When he had left his father and Adam, volunteering to do what he knew was right for him to do, Joe had found himself facing a different kind of fight. He had thought he could win it, thought he was winning it — but something about Mrs. Hawthorn had defeated him. He couldn’t explain it. He couldn’t even come close to understanding it. But it didn’t matter. He had to react to it.

His reaction was to ride hard, jarring his arm, his head and his stomach as well. Yet he felt no pain and had just a vague feeling of nausea. He’d gone numb, his thoughts singularly focused. He was barely aware of his surroundings. He knew only that he was close to home, yet still not close enough.

*****

Hoss felt gut-punched. Both Adam and Peter had been shot, though Peter clearly got it the worst. It seemed strange how much that came to bother Hoss. Wary as they all had been about Peter, Hoss had come to accept every word he’d said was true. Peter hadn’t been involved in all that land transfer nonsense Whitfield had been arranging. This time around he hadn’t been involved with Whitfield at all, except maybe as a victim, just like every member of Hoss’ family. All Peter had tried to do was help them. Now it looked like that boy might be dying for it.

He didn’t deserve it.

Sure, Peter had done bad things, terrible things. Even so, Adam had seen right quick he really did have a good heart; maybe that should have been enough to get Hoss to believe it, too. But that one bad thing he did to Joe last year — kidnapping him right out of his bed in the middle of the night and then helping to make sure Jasper Boone and Gabe Harvey could leave him for dead under all those rocks — well, it wasn’t just a bad thing; it was a terrible thing, horrible enough to blind Hoss to the good in the man.

Now it might well be too late to matter.

Anxious as Hoss was to track down Whitfield’s missing man, tending to Peter and Adam was more important. He stayed with them until Hop Sing returned with news that the house had been retaken, and two US marshals had arrived with Clem.

Ben darned near collapsed, overwhelmed as he was to know it was finally over. But Hoss knew that wasn’t quite true. There was still one man on the run.

It wouldn’t be over for Hoss until it was over for that man, too.

*****

Roy had never been happier to see a crowd of Chinese men all gathered up in one place. They took care of those men of Whitfield’s with hardly a shot fired. When it was over, he made his way to the top landing to give Hop Sing a greeting unlike any he’d ever given before. But none of those Chinese men was even looking at the stairs, and Roy wasn’t any too eager to climb down them just yet. He stood up there for a while, waiting for Hop Sing, wondering what was taking him so long. But then the crowd moved outside again, cackling like a gaggle of geese in that strange language of theirs.

Returning to his window, Roy saw three men ride into the yard — his deputy Clem and two others that looked to be US marshals. Then he saw something else, something that stole that smile right out of his heart. Two men were being carried toward the house. One of them looked to be Adam. He hoped he was wrong, but when Roy saw Ben, his old friend’s ragged appearance told Roy it must be Adam after all.

Shaking his head sadly, he found himself praying the other wasn’t Hoss. Even so, it didn’t give him any comfort when he discovered it was Peter instead.

*****

Joe had to keep reminding himself he wasn’t riding Cochise. If he was, he wouldn’t have to work so hard; he wouldn’t even have to think. He would simply ride. Cochise could get him home even if he closed his eyes for a minute or two.

When his horse slowed, Joe realized he’d closed his eyes for more than a couple of minutes. As he gazed around him, making sense of where he was, he saw that it wouldn’t be long now. Home was close. He needed to focus. He needed to stay alert.

He needed to stay awake.

“Come on,” he told the animal carrying him. “Let’s go.”

He urged the horse faster until Joe felt close to flying once more. Close. But not like with Cochise. Smiling as he thought of better rides and better days, Joe filled his lungs with the sweet air rushing past him and found himself sitting taller in the saddle. He was almost home.

*****

Hoss was right on top of him. He could see it in the signs around him, and even feel it down into his bones. That man was close, all right. He was also close to the road. Too close for Hoss’ liking. Whitfield’s man was on foot. He would no doubt be looking for a horse about now. There wouldn’t be any other way for him out of this mess.

Testing his grip on his gun one more time, Hoss started reaching for another bent twig when a movement caught his eye. He turned, focusing his attention back on the road. A rider was coming. He was moving fast. With any luck, maybe too fast for Whitfield’s man.

But luck hadn’t exactly been with the Cartwrights lately. An instant after Hoss saw it was Joe coming at him, he heard a shot that echoed right through him, twisting his insides all up — especially when he saw Joe fly off that saddle, hitting the ground in what looked like a back-breaking roll.

Hoss ran up that road hardly giving a thought to that no-good yellow-bellied gunman of Whitfield’s who was too much of a coward to show himself. Fortunately, he got some unexpected cover from the horse Joe had been riding. It reared up and stomped around in agitation. That gunman wouldn’t dare shoot, not without the risk of bringing down that horse.

With the animal keeping itself between him and the trees where the gunman was still holed up, Hoss used that advantage to see where Joe had been hit. Odd thing was, Hoss couldn’t see any blood, nothing at all other than from the small cuts and scrapes a fall like that would cause.

“Joe?” He carefully rolled Little Joe from his side to his back. “Come on, Joe. Let me know you’re okay.” Hoss gave a gentle shake to Joe’s shoulder. “Joe?”

His brother surprised him when his eyes shot open wide and he sucked in a whole lung full of air. Hoss closed his own eyes for just a second to get his own breathing back to normal. But then he noticed the horse also seemed to be calming.

“Joe?” Hoss called again while his brother coughed out what was apparently too much air for his own good. “We gotta go, Joe. Get to cover.”

Joe gazed up at him, confused.

“Shooter’s still out there.” Hoss looked across the road. He saw the glint of a reflection. If it was what he thought, then he and Joe were right in that gunman’s line of sight.

Taking out his gun, Hoss prayed their luck would begin to turn and aimed for that reflection. He got off three shots, one after the other in quick succession and then crouched down over his brother, waiting for the return fire.

It never came.

“Hold on, Joe,” Hoss said, his gaze still locked on that brush.

Staying low, Hoss used the horse as a shield while he made his way across the road. The closer he drew to where he’d seen that glint, the less certain he was that it had been a gunman at all. There was no movement. Was he putting Joe at further risk? He dared a look behind him and saw his brother leaning on his right elbow, on the verge of trying to rise.

His heart pumping like the engine on a runaway locomotive, Hoss pressed forward until finally he saw what he’d prayed for. It had been the gunman after all — and Hoss’ shots had brought him down.

Whitfield’s last man was dead.

*****

Hoss was slow in turning away from the dead man. It was hard for him to really believe there was nothing left to worry about. The Ponderosa was back firmly in Cartwright hands, and there was no one left in these woods or anywhere else nearby to threaten them further — but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that some dark devil was still out there, lurking in the shadows, watching, waiting to strike.

Maybe that was what was bothering him. You can’t fight a devil if you can’t see it, even if you know where it is. And he knew there were devils about. Plenty of them. There was one sitting in the Cartwrights’ home right now, tied to a chair and spouting lies about who he really was. There was another buried in Adam’s chest. Sure, it was just a bullet, and one that hadn’t gone too deep. But whenever a bullet hits a man, it’s like a devil poisoning him from the inside out. No one is safe from that kind of devil until it’s cut away.

There was still another devil in Peter, maybe the darkest one of them all.

Now, looking toward Joe, Hoss tried to figure how many more devils he might find. But then Joe started smiling. And then Hoss’ little brother shook his head and started laughing.

Hoss approached, worry pulling his brows down about as low as they could go as he wondered if maybe that bullet had caught Little Joe in his head where Hoss couldn’t see it. When he got close enough, Joe reached out toward him, holding a gun by the barrel. Confused as all get out, Hoss grabbed hold of that gun to find the handle had a thumb-sized chip out of it.

“That’s what caught the bullet,” Joe said, still chuckling. “Can you believe it?”

Still confused, Hoss didn’t quite know what to believe.

“Help me up, would you?” Joe said then.

Hoss tucked the gun into his belt and took hold of Joe’s good arm. As he pulled him up, he noticed Joe was favoring his right leg.

“What’s that all about?” Hoss asked, concerned.

“What’s what?”

“Your leg.”

Joe grinned back at him. “My hip,” he said. “It’s where I had the gun.”

Hoss was still puzzling out the likelihood of wayward angels starting to chase away the devils when a buggy rounded the corner in the road ahead of them.

“Who in tarnation is that?” he asked aloud.

As they both watched it come nearer, Hoss began to see something green. A dress? Hoss started to realize there was a couple in that buggy, a man and woman, looking like they were out for a Sunday ride.

“Mrs. Hawthorn,” Joe answered, his grin gone and his tone low.

“Who?”

Joe sighed. “Peter’s aunt.”

“Where’d she come from?”

“North Carolina.”

Hoss stared long and hard at Joe, so full of questions he didn’t even know which ones to ask first. Keeping them all jumbled up in his head, he returned his attention to the approaching buggy. “Is that the doc with her?”

“I imagine so.”

“Well, if that don’t beat all.” Hoss shook his head. “Joe, do you believe in angels?”

Joe looked toward him, his own brows drawn this time around. “I suppose so. Why?”

“‘Cause I reckon we’re getting us a whole bunch of them visitin’ right now.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The doc comin’ in like this, before we even had a chance to send for him…”

Joe stiffened. “I don’t need the doc.”

“Yeah.” Hoss said softly. “I know.”

As he met Joe’s gaze, Hoss could tell his tone had said what he had so far lacked the words to mention.

“It’s Adam, Joe,” Hoss said finally. “And Peter.”

“What about them?” Joe asked, his tone guarded.

“They’ve both been shot.”

*****

After receiving a half-hearted scolding from Doc Martin about tearing open his stitches and some concerned clucking from Mrs. Hawthorn, Joe climbed awkwardly into the back of the buggy. There was no point to even trying to mount that horse. His hip was getting sorer by the minute.

They pulled up in front of the house while Clem and the marshals were making their final preparations for the return trip to Virginia City, escorted by two of the Chinese men Hop Sing had recruited. Four prisoners for the jail were already mounted on horses. Now five bodies for the undertaker, stacked up like supplies in the back of the Cartwrights’ buckboard, were being covered with blankets.

Looking away from all that death, Joe watched the prisoners as they passed, his gaze locking unbidden onto the man responsible for all of it — every one of those corpses, every slice on Joe’s arm, and even the bullets the doc would have to dig out of Adam and Peter. Yet Whitfield’s own gaze was blank, as though he had no idea who Joe was.

The emptiness in Whitfield’s eyes sent a chill through Joe, displacing anger with something that felt very much like fear.

Back on the road, Hoss had been talking about angels. But Joe didn’t see any angels in Whitfield’s eyes. He saw nothing to suggest any hope of redemption. He didn’t even see the devil. He just saw…nothing. Nothing at all.

As soon as the man was out of Joe’s line of sight, Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath, relishing a feeling of relief that was so complete he could almost believe Alfred Whitfield was a name that would become buried in a past none of them would ever need to relive. It was over. Everything that had started that night, all those months ago, when Peter and Whitfield’s hired thugs took Joe from his own room, from his own bed. It was all, finally, over.

Joe wanted to climb into that bed of his right then. From the moment the buggy came to a stop near his front door, he wanted to jump on down and head straight to his room.

But, of course, not everything was truly over. It was only Whitfield’s reign, his hold on all of them, that had finally reached its end.

So, while Joe kept his seat, it was Doc Martin who did the jumping. He hopped out of the buggy about as fast as Joe had ever seen him move, and was halfway to the door, black bag already in hand, by the time Hoss came by to help Mrs. Hawthorn step down wearing that fancy dress of hers.

Joe watched them all disappear into the house amidst shouts and hollers about hot water and bandages before he gave a thought to stepping out of the buggy himself. Pretty soon, even Clem and the prisoners were gone. Joe was left alone in the yard with a heart full of worry and a body too damaged to be of any help to anyone. His hip was stiff, and his whole body seemed to be hurting now from that spectacular fall on the road. The doc was right about his arm, too. He could feel the hot sting where stitches had either been pulled out or shallower cuts had been reopened.

Getting himself down out of the buggy was not an easy task, but it was one he was resigned to do without complaint. The last thing Joe wanted was to pull anyone’s attention away from Adam and Peter. They were the ones who needed the doc — and Pa, Hoss, Hop Sing, and even Mrs. Hawthorn to look after them right now. As much as Joe wanted to go inside to hear how they were both doing, as much as he needed to know every detail, to make sure they would be okay, he refused to go, intent on keeping his own wounds private for the time being.

He stood in the yard for a long while, letting his left leg bear his weight, and stared through the open door at all the people scurrying about inside to attend to his brother and his…what?

“He has a good friend in you,” Mrs. Hawthorn had said.

Joe was finally allowing himself to accept that Peter was not his enemy. But was he truly prepared to consider that bewildering half-breed his friend? Remembering the ride they’d had before he’d known who Peter was, Joe could see the smile on Peter’s face. He could even feel the one he’d worn himself.

Maybe so, Joe decided. Maybe he’d like to try to be Peter’s friend.

But would he have the chance?

Struggling through different levels and different kinds of pain, Joe limped to a chair on the porch, eased himself down into it, and started to pray.

*****

With Peter in one of the spare rooms upstairs and Adam in his own, Hoss found himself standing in the hallway between them, listening for the doc or Mrs. Hawthorn and feeling both useless and anxious to give them whatever they might need.

He looked into Adam’s room to see Mrs. Hawthorn was now wearing one of Hop Sing’s aprons, and the lacy ends of the sleeves on that fancy dress of hers were tucked up out of the way. Something about the set of her brow showed Hoss she was as determined and confident as they needed her to be, maybe even as much as Doc Martin had ever been. Pa must have felt okay with having her there too, because he wasn’t looking at her at all. His focus was on Adam, wiping Adam’s forehead with cool water and talking to him, probably trying to keep his mind off the pain.

Mrs. Hawthorn had surprised all of them when she’d volunteered to remove the bullet in Adam, letting the doc give his full attention in those first hours to the patient who clearly needed him the most, Peter Nobridge…or Peter Montague, Hoss corrected in his thoughts.

Ben had surprised them all, too, by accepting her offer.

“I assure you, I am quite capable,” she’d told them. “When my parents were responsible for the plantation, their shared opinion regarding the care and feeding of the…workers was, to put it bluntly, cruel; although they, of course, considered it practical. Accidents were not uncommon and were frequently quite horrific. Physicians, however, were considered an unnecessary expense. Therefore my brother and I took it upon ourselves to learn as much as we could, and as much as we needed to learn — which was, indeed, quite a bit.”

Hoss could see in her eyes she did not believe she was exaggerating.

“I am not a physician, by any means,” she’d gone on, “but I have removed a number of bullets, along with a variety of other…miscellanea.” She shuddered slightly then, as though from a memory, so it was particularly odd to see her smile a moment later. “Furthermore, I have not yet met my match with a needle and thread.” A quick nod and a wink were clearly intended to validate her claim.

“Even so,” Ben had suggested, “wouldn’t you prefer to be with your nephew?”

Her gaze was pensive when she looked through the open door to the room where Doc Martin was already working. “I would be of no value to him right now, I’m afraid. If he were not my nephew, I might make the attempt to treat him myself, despite that wound being among the worst I’ve encountered in a patient that was not deemed ready to die.” Her voice had lost volume, growing softer with each word, until Hoss could barely hear her.

She hadn’t let that fear or sadness or whatever it was eat away at her, though. Instead, she’d cleared her throat, returned her attention to Pa, Hoss and Adam himself, and then went on as strong as before. “As it is, however, I feel much more comfortable that it be a skilled and educated physician seeing to Peter. Please understand,” she had added, “it is because I would worry too much, not because I feel inadequate.”

“Surely you would at least like to be in there?”

Hoss could tell his father had been baffled by her willingness to keep herself apart from a young man she clearly regretted having lost all those years ago.

“And leave Adam untended?” Her expression had changed from worried to admonishing in an instant. “Absolutely not. The longer that bullet stays in your son, the more likely he is to suffer from infection. My sympathies for a nephew I have not seen in many years are no excuse for causing your son to suffer.”

As to Adam, he seemed comfortable with her right away. It was about like it had been with Peter, the way Adam came to trust her without really knowing all there was to know about her. Hoss could almost get himself to believe it was on account of the bullet not letting his brother think straight, but Ben had given her that same, trusting look. And Hoss, himself, well, he wanted to trust her. He really did. But that was Adam in there, lying on his back with a bullet in his chest. What if they all made a mistake with that trust?

Sighing, Hoss found himself shaking his head. Dadburnit all, anyway. They’d been see-sawing about trusting Peter all this time, and Peter had gone and gotten himself shot on account of it.

It was okay to trust Mrs. Hawthorn, Hoss decided. If they’d trusted Peter right off, then maybe he wouldn’t by lying there half dead right now, and maybe the doc would be free to take care of Adam, and maybe…

Dadburnit! Hoss chided himself again. There was no point to thinking about all those maybes that could never be. It was just that everything about this day was odd. Earlier, Hop Sing had boiled water and seen to the demands of both Doc Martin and Mrs. Hawthorn without even once complaining — at least, not out loud — about the state of his kitchen. Stranger still, Hop Sing had changed himself from being fighting-mean to just who he’d always been, the Cartwrights’ long-time friend and cook, and that whole change had taken place in a matter of minutes. Hop Sing had stepped outside to say something to one of his friends. When he came back in, he was just plain old Hop Sing, like always.

Much later though, Hoss would realize that the oddest thing of all about that day had been his own behavior. Standing there in that hallway was not where he needed to be, yet it was the only thing he could think to do until Sheriff Coffee came up behind him.

“Hoss?”

When he turned, Hoss saw the sheriff was standing hunched over, one hand wrapped around his middle. “I thought Doc told you to lie down ’til he can get a look at you.” Hoss figured if it sounded like he was scolding the sheriff, then so be it.

The sheriff smiled, what little he could anyway with his face still all swollen up like it was. “Son, I don’t need that ol’ doc to tell me my ribs are bruised up. They’ll heal when they heal. Ain’t much he needs to do for me right now.”

“Movin’ around like you are ain’t helping you none, neither.”

“Well, there is one thing I won’t do, and that’s goin’ downstairs to tend to those horses.”

“Horses?”

“You’ve been so hell-bent on seein’ to your pa and everybody else around here, looks like you plum forgot to unhitch those horses from the buggy. I figured I’d hold off remindin’ you until things settled down. Now I’d say things have settled down, so I think maybe…”

“Joe!” Hoss realized then, his gaze going to the wall as though he could see through it to the front yard.

“What about Little Joe?”

Hoss returned his attention to the sheriff. “You haven’t seen him, have you? Did he ever come inside?”

“Come inside? I thought he was back in Virginia City.”

“Dadburnit!” Hoss complained aloud as he hurried for the stairs.

*****

A horse snorted. There was the jingle of a harness, like a horse was shaking its head, and the sound of hoofs scraping at the dirt.

Joe opened his eyes, not even remembering having closed them. He saw the buggy still parked where it had been, and wondered again how Adam and Peter were doing. There was something about the silence within the house that both calmed and disturbed him. He knew it meant the doc was at work, which in turn meant everyone else was waiting, afraid to speak, maybe even afraid to move.

When the horse shook its head again, Joe figured there was at least one thing he could do. He could free both of those horses from that contraption. The doc wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. There was too much need right where he was.

Rising, Joe found himself stiffer than he could have imagined. Getting shot off of that horse must have given him more bruises than he’d thought. His hip, though, where that bullet had hit the gun he’d been wearing, had clearly gotten the worst of it. Joe figured it was probably blooming into about the most colorful bruise he had ever encountered. And it wasn’t just the hip. He had a stitch in his side right above his hip bone that jabbed at him with every awkward step. Before he took one step too many, he stopped where he stood and looked from the horses to the barn. It had never seemed so far away.

One of the horses nickered.

“Yeah,” Joe said aloud. “I don’t blame you. It’s no good being confined like that when you don’t need to be.” Joe’s thoughts took him back to the chair by Pa’s desk, waiting for Boone to show up with that knife of his.

Nausea coiled up like a snake inside him. Joe closed his eyes, trying to push his memories somewhere deeper inside and hoping maybe that might convince the snake to go away. But snakes need a lot of convincing. For a long while, Joe stood locked into his own darkness, knowing he needed to move but unwilling to take the next step.

At some point Joe heard the horse again. But it sounded wrong, too far off.

He opened his eyes to find a rider coming toward him.

The man looked Chinese, but he did not look familiar. He hadn’t been among Hop Sing’s friends. If he had, Joe would have recognized him. This rider was not the kind you could forget. He carried himself like he was important, like he expected everyone to recognize his importance. It was not a posture common to the Chinese people Joe had seen in Virginia City.

Coming to a stop, the man nodded toward Joe. “You are a Cartwright?” he said with barely the trace of an accent.

“That’s right,” Joe answered guardedly. “And who are you?”

The man looked at the house, studying every angle in just a few passing glances. “This is the home of Hop Sing?”

“Who’s asking?”

“An ally.”

“A name would go a long way to proving that.”

The man studied him. “You would protect Hop Sing?”

Joe met his gaze. “That’s right.”

“You, who can barely stand?”

“Just state your business.” Joe felt himself growing angry. Uselessly, hopelessly angry.

“Alfred Whitfield.”

“What?” Joe felt that snake getting ready to strike.

“It is he who did this to you?”

Standing there alone, unable to move, unarmed, and being scrutinized by a man Joe was starting to believe could be as dangerous as a hungry cougar, Joe found himself feeling like a trapped rabbit, as though maybe that snake was just a worm after all.

“You’re too late if you’re after him,” Joe said, deciding to be a defiant rabbit and seeing no point to answering the man’s question. “He’s already on his way back to prison.”

“On his way. Perhaps. Yet perhaps he will not arrive.”

A vigilante? Joe’s concern deepened. “Alfred Whitfield is in the hands of federal marshals. Law men, good men,” he added, suddenly feeling as though he should plea for their lives. “If you’re after Whitfield, you’ll have to go through them. They will either kill you, or you will have to kill them.” Joe paused, staring at the rider. “No one wins either way,” he went on, his voice softer than before as he chose to push aside defiance for the sake of honesty. “There’s been enough dying around Alfred Whitfield already. He isn’t worth any more dying.”

The man stared at him for a long moment. Finally, he nodded his head. “You speak truly, and with honor. You will tell Hop Sing it is done.”

“What is done?”

“Justice.” Saying nothing more, the man turned and rode away.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss called out at Joe’s back. “Who was that?”

Joe shook his head, unable to find his voice. He started to swivel around to face his brother when he discovered the world gaining that all too familiar tilt. It didn’t help that what had been left of his strength seemed to have abandoned him. He couldn’t move. It became a struggle simply to remain standing. Before long, Joe found himself trembling.

“Joe?” Hoss was beside him in an instant, reaching around him like a rope pulling Joe from a precipice. “Looks like you’d better get inside.”

“I can’t, Hoss.” It was the last thing Joe wanted to admit. Shuddering, his voice was little more than a whisper. “I can’t take another step.”

“You just let me do all the work.” Hoss pulled Joe closer, clearly unaware he was pressing Joe’s bruised hip right up against his own. “I’m sorry, Joe. I should never have left you out here.”

“That’s got nothin’ to do with it!” Pain and frustration added volume to Joe’s words. “And you didn’t leave me out here!”

But there was no point to yelling at Hoss for the wreck his own body had become. Sighing, Joe took a deep breath and wrapped his good arm around his brother, gripping Hoss’ arm with all the strength he had left, hoping to ease the pressure on his hip.

“I could have gone in,” Joe said more softly then, surrendering to his failing strength. “I just…didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I figured Doc’s got enough on his mind.”

“Little brother, you are about the stubbornest, muliest, dadburn…” Biting back the rest of his words, Hoss’ hold on Joe tightened. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”

Joe’s weakness was no match for Hoss’ determination. He lost all awareness before they ever reached the door.

*****

Joe felt a gun pressing against his temple. He forced himself out of a deep sleep, coming awake with a jerk that wrenched his hip. It protested with waves of sharp new pain.

“Easy, Joe,” his father’s voice called through the darkness. “Easy. Everything’s fine now. You’re safe.” Ben’s hand settled back on Joe’s forehead, the soft pressure meant to comfort.

It did comfort him. Calming, Joe opened his eyes. He was in his room, in his bed. There was no one else there except his father. An oil lamp was burning with a low flame beside him. There were no dark gunmen. There was no gun at all.

You’re safe, Pa had said.

Accepting that as a promise, Joe let his eyes slip closed once more.

*****

Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings; it is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:

Joe heard a woman’s voice. She was singing in low, hushed tones.

When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again, a season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

It was such a soft sound. She must be nearby, but not too near. An angel maybe, just beyond the window?

In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue, the theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.

Joe opened his eyes, curious to find the singer. The room was darker now. Pa was gone, but Hoss was there. He was sitting in a chair, resting his head in his hand.

Set free from present sorrow, we cheerfully can say, let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.

The woman kept singing. Joe still couldn’t see her. He looked to Hoss, wondering if he’d heard it too.

It can bring with it nothing but He will bear us through; who gives the lilies clothing will clothe His people, too.

Hoss’ brows came down, making him look puzzled. Was the sound of her voice doing that to him?

Beneath the spreading heavens, no creature but is fed; and He Who feeds the ravens will give His children bread.

“Hoss?” Joe whispered, not wanting to alarm the angel.

But his brother didn’t stir.

Though vine nor fig tree neither their wonted fruit should bear, though all the field should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there.

More awake now, Joe realized the sound was coming from somewhere down the hallway, inside the house, not outside.

Yet God the same abiding, His praise shall tune my voice, for while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.

Joe rose to his elbow and started to shift his legs off the bed. Pain dropped him back again. He closed his eyes tightly and clamped down on his teeth, refusing to interrupt the singing. Yet despite his efforts, the voice went silent.

Joe listened for a long while, waiting for, even hoping for the singing to continue.

It didn’t.

“Hoss?” Joe whispered again as the silence began to disturb him.

His brother’s eyes remained closed, though Hoss no longer seemed puzzled. It almost looked like he was smiling.

Throwing back his bed covers, Joe lifted his nightshirt, ready to explore the bruise on his hip. Instead, he saw it was hidden under bandages, with signs of blood seeping through—not significant, but blood, nonetheless.

Now Joe was as puzzled as Hoss had appeared. He’d been shot at, yes. But he hadn’t actually been shot. Had he? No. The bullet had hit the gun he was wearing; it hadn’t hit him. He was sure of it.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

The woman started singing again. Joe began to wonder if it was real, if any of it was real. Maybe this was all some sort of strange dream.

Deep in unfathomable mines, of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs, and works His sov’reign will.

If it was real, then the singer must be Mrs. Hawthorn. And if it was Mrs. Hawthorn, Joe was now awake enough to reason that she was probably in the front bedroom, with Peter.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break, In blessings on your head.

Prepared this time to deal with his sore hip, Joe eased himself out of bed. He rose to his feet, discovering that the pain was different. It was sharper, yet not as debilitating as it had been on the porch.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.

Joe took a tentative step, and then another, relieved to find that he could. Finally, after a quick glance at a peacefully slumbering Hoss, Joe moved toward the hallway.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.

Peering into Peter’s room, Joe found Mrs. Hawthorn dressed in a night robe, her hair pulled loose and flowing down her back like a sweet, white waterfall. She was sitting in a chair beside Peter’s bed, her gaze focused on his closed eyes, her hand smoothing his hair away from his too-pale forehead.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.

When the song ended, Mrs. Hawthorn stayed just like she was, smoothing down Peter’s hair and looking at him so long and so hard Joe could almost believe she thought her songs should have been enough to encourage him to open his eyes.

“Don’t stop,” Joe found himself saying.

She turned. “Oh, my! Did I wake you? I am so very sorry.” Her voice was a low whisper, her countenance uncertain.

Then Joe blinked and she changed. She sat up stiff and straight, like…like that Chinese man in the yard. “And what are you doing up, young man?”

Joe was dumbstruck when her tone went from apologetic to scolding in an instant. She rose and came toward him. “You are only hours out of surgery yourself. Now out with you.”

“Surgery?”

Joe’s question softened her gaze. “Oh, yes.” This time her tone was sympathetic. “The doctor did say you were slightly concussed. You don’t even remember, do you?” She tugged on his good arm, gently encouraging him back to his room. “There was a small piece of bone working its way into places it didn’t belong. The doctor had to remove it. The rest of the bone looks hearty, but it certainly needs healing. And walking around like this will do neither the bone nor my own meticulous stitch work any good at all.”

Reaching Joe’s bedroom door to find Hoss sleeping in that chair, she lowered her voice to barely a whisper. “I do apologize if my singing woke you. Now please get back in bed and I promise to hold quiet.”

“No, ma’am,” Joe said more quickly than he should have. “I mean, I liked the singing,” he added. “I think Hoss did too. It… it probably helped him to actually sleep, sitting like that. Please, don’t stop. I think, maybe it would even be good for Peter.”

“Do you?” she said with hope in her voice.

“Yes, ma’am. I do.”

Gently squeezing his arm, she nodded in a way Joe took to mean thank you. “Now go on, then,” she whispered, shooing him into his room.

Joe settled back into bed with more difficulty than he’d had getting out of it. His body was finally reminding him of the numerous aches and pains it had shielded from him during his brief trip down the hall. His hip was screaming, as though recognizing it had been too quiet before. Yet when he closed his eyes, he heard an angel singing again.

You’re safe, he remembered his father saying.

Maybe it was true.

Heal us, Emmanuel, hear our prayer; we wait to feel thy touch;

deep-wounded souls to thee repair, and Savior, we are such.

*****

Adam listened to Marie’s soft singing. He felt comforted by it, though he knew the comfort was intended for her infant son. Adam’s newest brother sure could wail up a storm, but Marie’s singing always quieted Little Joe. Her voice was like an angel’s. She conjured images in Adam’s restless dreams that made him cherish his home right there on the Ponderosa — though at other times, when she was silent, when her songs were not holding him close, he’d often found himself wanting so much more, wanting to see other lands than this, to ride the waves of vast seas that were so different from these mountains.

Marie had given Adam a sense of peace, a sense of home he’d never known before.

Adam had spent much of his young life traveling with his father, exploring places as different from each other as night was to day, from Massachusetts harbors to Louisiana swamps. Anchoring his feet in one place felt almost like giving up, like there was nothing left to do, nothing left to find. But Marie had taught him to see it differently.

“These mountains,” she would say, “and all those tall Ponderosa pine trees bind Heaven with earth. If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear the angels singing.”

And he could hear them right there in her voice.

When all Thy mercies, O my God, my rising soul surveys,

Transported with the view, I’m lost in wonder, love and praise.

Only…it wasn’t her voice, or even her words.

Thy Providence my life sustained, and all my wants redressed,

While in the silent womb I lay, and hung upon the breast.

No, Adam told himself. Marie’s dead, dead so long that her infant son had gone from child to man without the comfort of her songs.

To all my weak complaints and cries, Thy mercy lent an ear,

Ere yet my feeble thoughts had learned, to form themselves in prayer.

“Joe,” Adam said aloud, opening his eyes to his own dark room, to the quiet of a house at rest, a house that had been under attack only hours ago.

Unnumbered comforts to my soul, thy tender care bestowed,

Before my infant heart conceived, from Whom those comforts flowed.

Adam remembered the bullet before he felt the wound, as though the pain required the memory. Gritting his teeth, he found himself wishing he could forget. But he did remember. He remembered all of it now, the bullet that struck him, the one that struck Peter, and… Peter’s aunt, a woman who inspired faith in Adam just by the shine in her emerald green eyes.

When in the slippery paths of youth, with heedless steps I ran,

Thine arm unseen conveyed me safe, and led me up to man.

That must be her singing now, Adam realized. Curious, he looked about him, finding his pa at his bedside, eyes closed in slumber, his head resting against the side of a tall, wing back chair.

Through hidden dangers, toils, and deaths, it gently cleared my way;

And through the pleasing snares of vice, more to be feared than they.

Rising to his elbows, Adam forced his thoughts above the pain, once again trying to will himself to forget. When the dark flashes across his vision began to clear, he gazed out into the hallway.

O how shall words with equal warmth, the gratitude declare,

That glows within my…

Startled as the song was cut short, Adam focused all of his efforts on listening. Did he hear her saying Peter’s name?

Yes, he realized. She repeated the name, her voice still soft but her tone anxious, maybe even frantic.

Adam looked again to his father. Unable to convince himself that waking Pa was more important than letting him get the sleep he clearly needed, Adam struggled first to get himself to the edge of the bed, and then to rise.

The pain proved stronger than his will. He planted his hand on top of the nightstand, needing its support until his vision could clear once more.

“Please, Peter!” Mrs. Hawthorn sounded increasingly desperate.

Sucking in as much air as he could, Adam forced himself to let go. He could do this now; he was sure of it. Seeing that his father was still asleep, he took a step toward the door. After a moment, he took another, and then, without pausing again, he took a third and fourth. Yes. He could do this.

By the time he reached Mrs. Hawthorn, he could barely remember why he had needed to, and the world was growing increasingly dark around him.

“Oh, my dear!” He heard Mrs. Hawthorn exclaim. He felt a small hand take his elbow, leading him to a nearby chair. “Are you Cartwright boys all the same?”

Ignoring her question, Adam instead focused his thoughts on pushing aside the pain.

“Do any of you ever do what the doctor says?”

Her words started to seep into the darkness. Do any of you ever do what the doctor says?

What do you mean? Who do you mean? He wanted to say those words, but all that came out was a breathy, “Who?”

“Joseph,” she answered. “Although, bless him, how could he have known what the doctor said when he had no idea the doctor had even performed surgery?” Her tone was light, and when Adam could see her through the lifting fog, she was smiling. “Which, I suppose you could not have known either, could you?” she went on, perhaps seeing confusion in Adam’s expression. She sighed. “Where is my head tonight? I simply cannot seem to think. Your brother suffered a mishap on the road. A splinter of his hip bone was chipped away. The doctor had to remove the splinter before it could cause any further harm.”

“What kind of mishap?” Adam asked, the comfort of the chair and the shock from her words giving him the strength he needed.

“Oh, look at you! You look as though you intend to strap on a gun and go after whatever ruffian caused that mishap, your own injury be damned. I know that look. I have seen it often enough back home. But I assure you, there really is no need. Your other brother, Hoss, has already seen to the matter.”

Adam stared at her, suddenly not sure what to ask, or to say…or to even do.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “All your questions can wait until tomorrow. For right now, we need to focus on getting you back into bed.”

Adam’s gaze moved to the bed in the room with him. “Peter?” he said then, suddenly remembering the purpose of his visit.

Her smile didn’t broaden exactly, instead it…warmed. And her eyes began to glisten. “He is close,” she said, “very close to waking. He will be fine. I have faith.”

Adam thought back to what had awakened him as he studied the still form of Peter Nobr…Peter Montague.

Faith, he decided then, and the songs of angels.

*****

Hoss was dreaming of angels when one seemed to take an interest in waking him. Tired as he was, he figured he’d better oblige her. No good could come from arguing with an angel.

When he woke though, he was surprised to find himself in a chair rather than his bed. He started to stretch out the kinks sleeping in a chair were bound to cause. Only then did he remember why he was not in bed.

“Joe!” He looked to his younger brother, finding him sleeping soundly.

Little Joe wasn’t doing any of that thrashing or moaning that had caused Hoss to sit up with him in the first place. Joe must have gotten worse, though, before getting better, seeing as how messed up that blanket was and the way it wasn’t fully covering his left leg.

“Dadburnit,” Hoss muttered softly, frustrated that he’d been asleep when his brother had obviously needed him.

He was tucking Joe back in when a woman’s voice whispered over his shoulder. “Mr. Cartwright?”

Mrs. Hawthorn? Hoss turned, surprised and confused. “Ma’am?”

“Could you help me get your brother back into bed?”

Hoss looked to Joe, growing more confused by the second.

“No, not this brother. Actually, he did remarkably fine on his own. I…”

“What do you mean he did fine?”

Mrs. Hawthorn sighed. “He decided to take a little walk a short while ago.”

“A walk? But Doc said…”

“Yes, I know what the doctor said. Little Joe, however, was not aware.”

Hoss shook his head at his own carelessness. “It’s my fault, ma’am. I can’t believe I fell asleep on him like that.”

“Well, I can believe it. You, like your father, are exhausted. These past days have been about as trying as any could be, and trying days are tiring ones. You need sleep.”

“Maybe. After Doc says it’s…”

“The doctor would say the same as I am saying, I assure you. Little Joe will sleep through the night now. Surely you can see that just by looking at him. With him sleeping, you might as well take the opportunity to get some sleep of your own.”

“But ma’am…”

“I will wake the doctor if I have to, but I would rather he also get his rest. He certainly had his work cut out for him today.”

“Yes’m. I reckon you did, too.”

She smiled sadly. “No. The real work for me is yet to come.”

“Ma’am?”

“Never you mind about that.” She grabbed hold of his arm. “Now, you just come with me and help Adam back to bed. Then you get yourself into bed. Consider that an order.”

“An order?”

“Surely your father taught you to mind your elders?”

“Yes’m.”

Hoss glanced back at Little Joe while Mrs. Hawthorn ushered him into the hallway. As deeply as Joe seemed to be sleeping, Hoss found himself thinking she might be right. His own bed sure sounded tempting.

A minute later, he was heading into the room where they’d put Peter. Adam was there, sitting in a chair staring at that half-breed like…well, like the whole rest of the world didn’t exist.

“Adam?” Hoss called out softly.

Adam didn’t seem to hear him.

Hoss reached out a hand to his brother’s shoulder, but hesitated, suddenly afraid the pressure might aggravate his wound. Instead, Hoss moved to the front of the chair, intent to put himself directly in Adam’s line of sight. “Adam?” he said again.

Finally, slowly, Adam turned his gaze. Looking up toward Hoss, he seemed confused, or maybe lost somehow. “Hoss?”

“Yeah,” Hoss answered, as though he needed to. “Let’s get you back to bed, where you belong.” He started to reach forward, expecting Adam to accept his arm and lean into the support. But Adam stayed right where he was, like he had nowhere else to go.

“That bullet could have killed me, Hoss.” Adam’s words had a sad and sort of haunting sound to them.

“I know,” Hoss answered. “It sure could have. But it didn’t.”

“And Joe?” Adam met Hoss’ eyes again, his own looking more puzzled than Hoss had ever seen them. “What happened to him? On the road?”

“Shot at,” Hoss answered. “But not shot. The bullet hit a gun he was wearing. The impact hurt his hip, but…”

“But that bullet could have killed him, too. Couldn’t it?”

Hoss nodded. “I reckon it could have at that. If he weren’t wearing that gun, he could have been gut shot.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Hoss wasn’t sure what else to say. He couldn’t follow Adam’s thoughts.

“Why were we spared?”

“Come on, Adam! You know better than to ask something like that. Sometimes you just gotta count your blessings and leave it at that.”

Adam’s eyes went back toward Peter. “If we had trusted him, unquestionably, if we had worked with him rather than apart from him…” He shook his head, as though unable to follow his own thoughts now, or maybe unwilling to.

Hoss looked to Mrs. Hawthorn. Did she know Adam was talking about Peter? About how they couldn’t trust the nephew she had been so hell-bent on finding? “You know we had good reason to…” Hoss glanced away, looking for words that might not cause Mrs. Hawthorn any alarm. “To think the way we did,” he finished. “And he knew it too. Whatever happened, it weren’t anyone’s fault, no one except that man who shot you both. And he ain’t gonna be shooting anyone else ever again.”

“I just…” Adam let the words die unspoken.

“You’re just feeling guilty for something you got no cause to feel guilty about. It ain’t your fault, Adam. None of it. Not what happened to Peter. Not what happened to Joe. And not what happened to you. If it’s any one man’s fault, it’s that Whitfield fella. What you did was help end it. That’s all.”

It was odd to see Adam’s lip curl up into a half smile. “I didn’t do anything, Hoss. Hop Sing ended their hold on the house. You took care of the one who shot at Joe. And even Peter, he…made sure we had fewer men to fight. But me?” He shook his head. “I didn’t do anything at all.”

Back when Hoss had found Adam wounded, he’d felt gut punched; now he felt like it was his own brother doing the punching. No kin of his was going to get away with something like that. “What do you mean you didn’t do anything? You got Joe out, didn’t you? If you didn’t get him out when you did…” Hoss shook his head. “I can pretty much guarantee Little Joe wouldn’t be alive right now. Or if he was alive, he’d be in here, in this house with Whitfield and his men, and we’d still be out there somewhere, hiding in the trees and afraid to do anything about it on account of him being in here.”

Maybe Adam agreed. Or maybe he just didn’t have the energy to argue about it. But he held quiet after that.

“Come on,” Hoss said. “You’re going back to bed if I have to carry you.”

“I bet you would.” Surprisingly, Adam smiled in a way that didn’t seem at all sad or halfhearted. Hoss hoped it meant his older brother was finally listening to a younger brother’s advice for a change.

As he eased Adam to the door, Mrs. Hawthorn placed her hand on Hoss’ arm. She smiled at him then, and nodded in a way that seemed more appreciative than acknowledging, although he was only doing what she had asked him to do.

For the life of him, Hoss couldn’t tell if she knew anything about her nephew at all.

*****

Ben was riding with Marie when she turned toward him wearing a familiar, mischievous smile. Unable to find his voice, he simply shook his head, the gesture meant to ask her not to do whatever silly thing she was planning to do. Of course, it didn’t matter. He could no more hold a shooting star than he could hold her. Marie was the most alive, the most vibrant and the most spirited woman he had ever known. He had been lucky to hold her even for a brief instant in his life.

So she rode on ahead of him, laughing with joy. He tried to keep up, but lacked the strength. His own animal was tired. He was tired, so much more tired than she could ever be.

As he watched her fading away, his horse began to take root. The horse became a tree. The tree became his house. And he knew. This was where he belonged, rooted to this earth, to this ranch he had built with his sons, for his sons — her own son, her own blood amongst them.

And then she was gone, and Joe was there.

Little Joe’s arm and hand were bleeding, yet he wore that same, mischievous smile. Ben saw Marie in Joe’s eyes, in that smile. He could almost hear her voice on the wind. She spoke to him without words, helping him to accept that the pain would fade. The wounds would heal. The roots Marie had taught Ben to believe in had taken a firm hold in these Ponderosa lands, but even more so in the hearts of his sons.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Adam had told him when he and Hoss had sent Ben off to bed.

And despite the catch in Adam’s voice, the pain he wore in his eyes, and the too-pale cast of his skin, Ben knew it was true. Adam was fine, as was Joe. Neither of them was ready to ride off ahead of him, laughing into the wind.

And so Ben had listened. He had gone off to bed, ready to let go the burden these past days had placed upon him.

How long he had slept was hard to say. An hour? Two? Still, it was enough. He opened his eyes to the soft light of dawn, in those fleeting moments just before the sun would shoot its fire across the sky. And he felt refreshed enough to start to bring things back into order in the house Marie had helped him to recognize as home.

Rising, Ben checked in on all of his sleeping sons, one after the other, as he hadn’t done, hadn’t had the need to do for so long now. Each was a man in his own right, no longer prone to foolish behaviors, no longer requiring Ben’s wary supervision. Joe, perhaps, would always have an impish nature; his mother’s mischievousness was very much in his blood — which was precisely why Ben tended to be particularly watchful over his youngest. Yet on that morning, at that moment, Ben felt the need to assure himself each and every one of his sons was safe, secure and peacefully at rest. And each of them was — first Adam, whom Ben had come so close to losing, then Hoss, who might well have saved both his brothers’ lives, and finally Joe.

Joe, who had stoically endured hours of torture at the hands of Jasper Boone.

Ben shook his head, saddened for what had been done to his son and relieved to find Joe sleeping as soundly, as comfortably as his brothers.

When Ben quietly closed Joe’s door behind him, he sent up a silent prayer of thanks to the angels who were clearly looking out for all of his boys, and then he started for the stairs. Yet as he passed by the guest room that had been given over to young Peter Montague, Ben felt the need to perform one additional check.

Easing the door open, he was surprised to find Mrs. Hawthorn asleep in the chair by the bed, one hand grasping her nephew’s, as though even in slumber she refused to give up her effort to coax him back from the edge of death.

Nothing could have startled Ben more than to see Peter’s eyes open, the young man’s gaze riveted to the woman beside him.

“Peter!” Ben found himself saying the name aloud before he could give thought to the volume of his voice.

Mrs. Hawthorn lurched awake, and the young man turned his eyes away from her, pulled instead toward Ben.

“I am sorry,” Ben said, moving into the room. “I didn’t mean to be so loud. It’s just… It is very good to see you awake, boy. You had us worried.”

“Peter?” Mrs. Hawthorn cried out, clutching her nephew’s hand now in both of her own and drawing it to her lips. “Oh, Peter! How I’ve missed you!”

After some moments, Peter’s eyes seemed to gain focus.

“Auntie?” He said the word as though testing it, finding it familiar and strange all at the same time. His brow furrowed to show all the questions still locked inside him, even while his eyes seemed to grow brighter and his lips curled into a tentative smile. It was a show of emotion Ben was accustomed to seeing in his own son, Joseph, but not in the aloof and guarded Peter Nobridge.

Mrs. Hawthorn nodded. “Yes. Oh, I cannot tell you how sorry I am it has taken me so long to find you. I hope you can forgive me.”

Peter looked to Ben.

“It’s true,” Ben offered. “She came all the way from North Carolina looking for you.”

“And just look at you, now!” Mrs. Hawthorn went on. “All grown up. And every bit your father’s son!”

Peter’s gaze changed. The crease in his brow shifted from confusion to anger. His bright eyes grew dark and cold. And then he turned his head away, refusing to look at, or perhaps to be seen by his long absent aunt.

“I’ll get the doctor,” Ben offered, thinking Peter’s reaction might simply have been prompted by pain — although the young man’s eyes led Ben to believe there was another, deeper cause.

*****

“Oh, I just do not understand,” Mrs. Hawthorn said later when she caught up with Ben in Adam’s room. “I thought he seemed happy to see me. But then I suppose he has had a cruel life since he went away…”

“Since he was sent away,” Adam corrected.

Her gaze grew sad. “Yes,” she answered softly. “Quite right. He was sent away. A terrible, terrible time it was when my brother died. I was utterly distraught. And our mother, well, he was everything to her. She tried so hard, so very hard to turn him away from Juliet and Peter before he died. I fear it was as much to prevent his death as it was to rid her of the ruination of her lineage.”

“What do you mean?” Adam asked.

Mrs. Hawthorn took a deep breath. Glancing at Ben, she then seated herself in the chair beside the bed. “As you are likely already quite aware,” she began, “the people of the south can be rather proud of their heritage. Juliet, or Adsila as the people of her tribe had called her, represented a muddying of the bloodline, which is something many of our neighbors steadfastly reject. My brother was…coerced on several occasions to get rid of her, and of course Peter as well. But he simply would not have it. He was in love with her, as in love as any man could ever be for any woman — more in love than my own husband ever was for me.”

“Oh, I doubt that’s true,” Ben offered politely.

She held up her hand. “No, I assure you it is very true. It is also unimportant. I married the man I was expected to marry. The very fact that my brother not only defied all our parents’ expectations, but also flaunted that defiance by insisting his Indian bride be accepted into society, well…” Mrs. Hawthorn laughed softly, but even her smile was swiftly dismissed. “He made enemies. Eventually he paid the price of that defiance with his own blood.”

Ben’s heart felt cold. “Are you saying he was murdered?”

“Yes.”

Adam looked to his father before returning his questioning gaze to her. “For refusing to send away his wife and son?”

“For exactly that. Although it was never proven, of course. And no one was ever taken to trial.”

“They never caught the man who did it?” Adam prodded.

“The men, you mean. And no. They did not. It was all very clean and proper. Perfect alibis. No witnesses. Nothing at all upon which to build a case.”

“Do you know who did it?” Ben asked.

“Does it matter?”

“Well, yes. There is no statute of limitations on murder.”

“You seem to be forgetting things are getting worse in the south, not better. No. There would be no point to it.”

“If Peter knew,” Adam said, “I assure you he would see it differently.”

“Indeed? Well, then. Perhaps it is best after all that he turn us away this time around.”

Ben was shocked by her statement. “Are you saying you’re giving up?”

She smiled. “You truly do not know me very well, do you? No. I am not so easily dissuaded. When he is ready to listen, I will tell him he will be welcomed home by his family, his Auntie Abigail and the cousins who have come to know him as a phantom hero who prowls the forests and the plains looking for families in need of rescue.”

“You didn’t!” Ben found himself smiling, despite the story of her brother’s murder.

She laughed. “Indeed I did. We all did. I have always enjoyed telling stories, and I am afraid my children have inherited my tendency toward embellishment. I so longed to know the truth, but without the truth, I could hope, and I could pretend. I wonder…” She looked to Adam. “Could I have been as wrong about his heroic exploits as I was about him being pleased to see me when he awoke this morning?”

Adam met her gaze. “I doubt you were entirely wrong about that, either.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Did you mention his father before he turned his head away?”

“Perhaps. In all honestly I have no idea what I may have said.”

“You did mention him,” Ben remembered. “You told Peter he was like his father, that he was his father’s son.”

Adam nodded. “Then I would say he was happy to see you. It’s his father he’s angry with.”

“His father? How could that be? The man cherished that boy.”

“How old was Peter when he was sent away?”

“Nine. I remember it quite well. His father died exactly one week after Peter’s birthday.”

“If he was that young, it’s possible he doesn’t remember things quite the way they were.”

She studied Adam for a moment. “He has told you something about his father. Hasn’t he?”

Adam hesitated, glancing again at his own father. At Ben’s nod, he started to explain what little Peter had told him. “He believes his father saw his marriage to Peter’s mother as nothing more than a philanthropic endeavor, meant to save her from her savage ways and bring her into civilization.”

“No! Why ever would he believe such a thing?”

“Maybe because he was a child left to fend for himself in a world that has little love for half-breeds.”

“What are you saying?”

“His mother’s tribe turned them away as thoroughly as your own family did. And then his mother sent him off on his own.”

“No. She would never…”

“She was preparing herself to die. She believed she had nothing left to live for.”

Mrs. Hawthorn paled, her complexion seeming far worse than any of Doc Martin’s current Ponderosa patients. And then she did something Ben had almost come to believe she was too proud and too strong to ever do. She began to cry.

*****

Joe was staring at the sky beyond his window, wondering how he was supposed to survive two entire weeks in bed.

“Even then,” Doc Martin had told him, “you are to limit the amount of weight you put on that hip. There could be small fractures I was not able to detect, and bones in general take several weeks to heal properly. The more weight you force it to bear, and the more you aggravate it by walking around — particularly by climbing the stairs — the more likely you will be to suffer further damage. If you do go downstairs, which I do not recommend, then you had better plan to stay down there until we can be certain the bone is fully healed.”

So now here Joe was, stuck in his room, stuck in his bed and already bored. And even though he was still tired, sleep was evading him. There was too much going on, and too many people were moving back and forth in the hallway just beyond his door to allow him to close his eyes. Each time he made the attempt, more hushed words tugged at his curiosity.

Sighing, he decided to try once again. Yet this time when he let his lids slip closed the sound of someone crying called him back.

Concern was a much more effective lure than curiosity. If anything could justify a brief reprieve from his confinement, it was certainly that.

Convinced he was not defying Doc Martin’s orders and worried as to the cause of Mrs. Hawthorn’s tears, Joe used his good arm to push himself to a sitting position. Next he carefully slid his legs toward the side of the bed, and from there to the floor.

With more pressure on his hip now than while lying prone, Joe suffered a shooting pain that momentarily stole his breath. “It’ll be better when you stand,” he told himself.

To prove himself right, he grabbed the cane his father had left beside his nightstand, and then pushed himself to his feet. The pain was worse than he’d remembered from the night before. Still, it was not unbearable. He counted that a small victory and started moving toward the hallway, drawn as much by Mrs. Hawthorn’s continuing soft sobs as by the low voices of his father and Adam in their efforts at consolation.

Once in the hall, he found Hoss already standing outside Adam’s door.

“Joe…” Hoss started, eyeing Joe’s cane and shaking his head. “You know Doc won’t like you bein’ up.”

“I heard crying.” It was all Joe said, all he cared to say.

And perhaps all Hoss needed to hear. He nodded, shifting his attention back to the room. There was some hesitation with his fingers poised over the latch. Finally, he raised his hand to knock.

But the door opened before his knuckle touched the wood. And then Mrs. Hawthorn stood in the threshold, her hand jumping to her chest in surprise. “Oh! You startled me!” She smiled, even chuckled slightly, yet the redness in her eyes betrayed her recent tears.

“Ma’am?” Hoss began. “Is there anything… Well, is there somethin’ wrong? We thought maybe we heard…crying.”

The “we” in Hoss’ statement must have caught her attention. She turned, finally noticing Joe. Though she seemed about to berate him as Hoss had half-heartedly tried to do, she quickly closed the door behind her.

“What are we going to do with you?” she whispered then. “Have you no idea how concerned your father is? If he were to catch you…”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Joe said quick as he could. “I was worried.”

“Worried?”

“We both were, ma’am,” Hoss added. “Thinkin’ maybe somethin’ might have happened. Like with Peter?”

“Oh, bless you! Both of you! No, no, Peter is going to be just fine! If you heard me crying, it was only because I learned some things about his life that were, quite frankly, difficult to bear.”

One hand snaked into the crook of Hoss’ arm. She began guiding him toward Joe. “Now, Hoss, would you please get your brother back to bed and find some way to keep him there?”

“Yes’m, I…”

Before Hoss could say another word, the door opened once more, and Ben was standing before them. He looked from Joe to Hoss and then back again. His eyes didn’t look angry, but angry or not, the instant Ben caught sight of Little Joe, it was almost like Joe was a kid again, doing exactly what his father had told him not to do. Hoss opened his mouth, about to explain.

Only Mrs. Hawthorn did it for him, offering up a defense of her own. “It is entirely my fault, Mr. Cartwright. Your boys were worried about me. I am afraid they heard me crying.”

Ben held quiet for a long while. Almost too long. Joe’s good arm was beginning to grow tired from leaning on the cane. He was considering how much worse his father’s anger would become if he were to admit being ready to return to his room, when Pa finally sighed and looked toward Hoss.

“Hoss? Would you please get Mrs. Hawthorn some tea? I’ll see to Joe.”

“Yes, sir, Pa.”

Watching his brother move eagerly toward those stairs like there was a big ol’ steak at the bottom and he hadn’t eaten for a week, Joe felt inclined to go after him, despite knowing he couldn’t. Two weeks, he thought miserably. He started to envy Mrs. Hawthorn as she followed behind Hoss, moving like the tortoise to Hoss’ hare, all regal and refined, and sure to win whatever it was she was racing him to get.

“Thank you, Joseph.”

Ben’s words pulled Joe’s attention back so fast it nearly unbalanced him. He had to readjust his grip on the cane. “W-what?”

Ben smiled warmly and nodded toward Joe’s cane. “For listening. For remembering to use that. I wish I could help, but there’s not much I can do without further hurting either your arm or your hip.”

“I know.” Joe had the flash of a memory, the feel of Hoss’ weight against his hip before his final collapse. He pushed it aside and started moving slowly back to his own room. “I feel like I’m about a hundred years old.”

“I imagine you do.” His father’s voice was compassionate as he walked beside his youngest son, one hand held close but not quite touching Joe’s back.

“Pa?” Joe asked. “What was she really crying about?”

There was a heaviness in his father’s sigh. “Partially,” he began, “because she came to discover how young Peter had been when his mother died and he was left on his own.”

“Partially?”

“Well, she also discovered Peter’s memories of his father are far different from her own.”

“How’s that?”

“Do you remember what Adam said about his conversation with Peter, how Peter told him his father’s only interest was humanitarian?”

“I remember.”

“Mrs. Hawthorn explains it very differently. She remembers the relationship between Peter’s father and mother as the purest form of love, a story almost Shakespearean in the tragedy it came to produce.”

“Do you believe her more than Peter?”

When they reached Joe’s room, Pa went in ahead of him to straighten the bedding, and then let Joe use his arm for support as he settled onto the mattress.

“Pa?” Joe asked after he lay back against his pillows.

“Yes?” Ben was hardly paying attention. He was more focused on tucking in the sheets and blanket.

“You believe her, don’t you?”

Finally, Ben stopped what he was doing. He eased himself into the chair at Joe’s bedside. “Yes,” he said after a moment. “I believe her. It is possible she has embellished their story somewhat, but there are certain things I find I do believe.”

Joe studied his father through the next quiet moment, seeing a depth to his eyes Joe wished he could understand.

“What she told us,” Ben went on, “is that Peter’s father was murdered because he refused to send Peter and his mother away. Because he loved them, Joe. Both of them.”

The statement confused and saddened Joe. He looked to his door, remembering the sound of Mrs. Hawthorn’s crying. “I don’t understand,” he said without taking his eyes from the door. “If his father loved him that much, Peter would have known. But Adam made it sound like…like there wasn’t any love to it at all.”

“Peter had been a very young, confused and frightened boy when he was forced from his home. He probably remembers those feelings more strongly than any feelings of love.”

Joe’s returned his attention to his father. “Are you saying he forgot? He forgot his father loved him?”

Ben’s answer came in a slow, tired nod. “But the memories are there, inside him. If he has the will to reach for them, he’ll find them.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I saw his reaction to his aunt when he woke. It… pleased him to see her. That was the response of his heart. It wasn’t until his thoughts interceded that he turned away from her.”

Neither spoke after that. Ben leaned back in the chair, and Joe let his eyes drift closed, his thoughts turning to how good it felt be there, in his room with his father at his side. “Pa?” he said after a moment.

“Yes, Joe?”

“You’ve got to tell him. Make him understand.”

“What?”

“Mrs. Hawthorn,” Joe answered as pain and sleep both pulled at him. “I think…they both need to be with each other. He needs to understand.”

“Yes, son. I think you’re right.”

Joe slipped into cozy memories of a childhood like the one Peter had forgotten, and he couldn’t help but try to conjure ways to get Peter to find his bridge. It was there, right in front of him. Why couldn’t he see it?

When he slept, Joe dreamt of bridges.

*****

It was hard to get Peter to understand much of anything over the next twenty-four hours. His pain and the doc’s medicines kept him asleep or wishing he was asleep most of the time. And when he was asleep, he actually seemed to prefer having Mrs. Hawthorn in there with him. It was even better when she held his hand. Without her there, he thrashed around a whole lot more than he did with her. It was like just her being there calmed him somehow.

But that was only when he was asleep. When he was awake, he didn’t even want to look at her.

Ben tried to talk to him, but the stubborn fool wouldn’t listen.

This time, when Hoss saw Mrs. Hawthorn step quietly out of the room yet again, he decided that boy was too much like Little Joe for his own good. Whenever Joe got mule-headed like that, his brothers were usually better at getting through to him than Ben. Their father was good for comforting, guiding and scolding, but sometimes that boy needed someone to come at him from his own level, in a way like no father was ever meant to do.

“You know who you remind me of?” Hoss said the moment he stepped into the room, leaving the door wide open to show he didn’t care who else might hear him. “Alfred Whitfield,” he answered himself.

Peter’s curious gaze turned angry in an instant.

“That’s right,” Hoss went on. “And do you know why? Because you’re just as selfish as he ever was. You don’t care about no one but yourself. You do whatever you want to do to make yourself feel better. Sure, you helped us. You even got yourself shot on account of it. But as far as I know it’s just to make yourself feel less guilty about what you did to Joe last year.”

“I did what I…”

“No,” Hoss pointed a finger at him. “You’re not talkin’ right now. You’re listenin.’ I’m talkin’. You got that?”

Peter’s gaze turned curious once more.

“Good. Now that woman you keep turning away, she’s about the finest woman you could ever hope to know. You ought to be appreciative of the fact she’s your own flesh and blood. And she cares about you, too. She came clear across the country to find you, and she’s been sittin’ in here day and night with no thought to how tired she might be herself, just to make sure you’re okay. And what do you do? You send her away like she’s nothin’.”

“You’re Alfred Whitfield, all right,” Hoss added after a moment. “And she’s like your hired help. Now I tell you what…”

“Hoss?” Mrs. Hawthorn’s voice called from the doorway.

But Hoss wasn’t ready to stop just yet. “You’d better stop bein’ so mule-headed and…”

“Hoss!” This time it was Ben’s voice, and the way it rumbled through the room made it clear Hoss ought to listen.

When Hoss turned, he saw his father, Mrs. Hawthorn and Doc Martin all standing there together. “I ain’t apologizing,” he said, despite the discomfort he felt at seeing them.

Mrs. Hawthorn was smiling as she shook her head. “I would prefer to thank you rather than ask for an apology.”

“Ma’am?” Hoss asked, confused.

“You have helped me to see that I, too, have been selfish. When I was raising my own children, there were times when a firm hand spoke louder than words, but it always pained me. I did not like dispensing punishment. Now, here, with Peter…” Her eyes moved to her nephew, who, surprisingly, did not look away. “It pained me to see the hurt I caused him. I walked away to protect myself when I should have stayed, demanding he listen to the truth. He might turn his eyes away, but he cannot so easily refuse to hear me.” She took a deep breath, looking to Hoss, Ben, and then the doc. “Now that you have caused me to hear the truth, I will kindly ask that you leave us for a while.”

As though to emphasize her request, she stepped into the room, her gaze focused on Peter. “I have some stories to tell my nephew — first, about how his father and mother came to meet, then, about the time of his birth, and finally, about the days preceding his father’s death. After he has heard all I have to say, then it will be for him to make a decision. If he wants me to stay, I will. If he does not, then I will be on my way.” Her eyes locked with Peter’s. “And I shall promise not to bother him again.”

When Hoss stepped out of the room, he saw Adam moving slowly toward him, wearing a lopsided grin. “Nicely performed,” Adam said.

“Well, someone had to say it.”

“Son, I have to admit,” Ben said then, his hand landing on Hoss’ shoulder, “sometimes it amazes me how clearly you can see what needs to be done.”

“I just got to thinkin’ of Little Joe, Pa.”

“Oh?”

“Talkin’ don’t always work with that boy, and you know it. Sometimes you just got to…”

“Speak a little louder, Hoss,” Adam quipped. “I don’t think Joe could hear you.”

“Oh, I heard him, alright!” Joe’s voice called out from his room up the hall. “He just better be careful about what he says next!”

“You know what I’m gonna say next, little brother. And if you don’t, I’ll show you, just as soon as you’re up and about again.”

“You’ll show me?” Joe shouted back. “I’ll show you, is what! You just wait for…”

No one heard Joe’s next words because each and every one of them was laughing. Adam laughed so hard he started clutching at his chest, but even that didn’t stop Hoss or Ben. They just helped him back into his bed, and then headed downstairs to see what Hop Sing was cooking up for lunch.

*****

In the next few days, Mrs. Hawthorn prepared for an extended stay with the Cartwrights, Doc Martin and Sheriff Coffee returned to Virginia City, and Peter lost the sense of who he was. Since he was also trapped by his infirmity to a room that separated him from his guiding stars, he couldn’t even hope to find the path to the man he should become. Yet, he was starting to rediscover who he had been. Fevered dreams gave him snippets of conversations and glimpses of a childhood he’d forgotten, one his auntie’s songs had brought back to him with surreal clarity. In those dreams, he started to remember laughter.

Laughter. It was such an odd sound, one that had always made him stand apart from other men. He’d heard it often enough, but could never share in it. The things that caused laughter for others had always seemed to lack meaning for him. It never occurred to him that he, too, had known laughter long ago, in the time before the stars had set him on a path where laughter had no place.

He had always believed what was never known cannot be mourned, yet when he heard the Cartwrights laughing in the hallway just beyond his door, he found himself feeling something very much like grief, something that reminded him of being a child again, yearning for his mother’s arms — and even…even his father’s.

Within that sense of grief, Peter began to unlock his hidden names, the ones he had shed from life to life, as a snake sheds its skin, layer by layer, growing further and further apart from its former selves.

The first name he had lost, the one born of laughter, had been Jisdu. It was a name his mother had given him in secret. And, even despite its clandestine nature, it was a name of which his father had approved. Had approved and accepted. Jisdu. It was a Cherokee name for rabbit, a trickster. Peter had been a trickster, building secrets and playing games intended less to trick than to elicit laughter from his parents, who would then give laughter back to him.

Jisdu.

But Jisdu had died when Wahuhi, the owl was born. Peter had stopped laughing, stopped bringing laughter, and instead had started watching. Living in the forest, hiding by day, hunting by night, Wahuhi had spent years watching people and learning how to mimic their ways. When the time of learning ended and he chose to walk among those people, he reclaimed the name his auntie had used for him — Peter, the third in a string of names he shared with his father and grandfather, and one that sought to link him with a religious figure he’d never understood — a saint, an apostle, from a legend among white men, a legend that apparently was never meant to have been shared with Indians.

Peter. It was a name accepted by white men, despite its lack of meaning, its lack of purpose to one who would otherwise be nameless. He had worn the name like a mask, hiding his true nature to gain acceptance among men who would never accept him. It was a name that had stood alone, marking him as nothing but a shadow until Adam Cartwright had chosen a new name for him, one that had both meaning and purpose. Peter Nobridge.

In the months he had worn his newest name, he had felt comfortable in it, more comfortable than he had since the time of Jisdu. Yet now… Now Auntie Abigail was trying to give him back a name he had barely known, a name he could not remember ever truly wanting. William James Peter Montague the third. It was more than a name. It was many names — perhaps too many — names founded in a history he shared only by blood. Could he ever wear such names and be anything other than a shadow, trailing along on the lives of other men, men he had never truly known?

As he lay in bed these many days, pondering his many names, he overheard conversations meant to determine what he should do, what he must do, and he began to feel like a trapped wolf. He began to feel the need to run. Such thoughts were in his head each night, as each night he awoke to the silence of a sleeping house and an opportunity he lacked the strength to accept. Yet on the fourth night, it wasn’t a desire for freedom that sought to pull him from his bed. It was a sound.

*****

Adam drifted into a nightmare, the worst kind of nightmare, the kind that was so real he could feel it happening around him. He could see his own room, as though with open eyes, but he was unable to move, locked into limbs that refused to respond, and rendered mute by the tight set of his jaw.

“No!” Joe called out. “Please, please stop! Please…stop!”

The desperation in Joe’s voice made it clear he needed Adam’s help. Yet Adam was utterly helpless.

Then somehow the room changed. It became Joe’s room. And while Adam watched, still trapped by his own useless body, three masked men surrounded Joe. They held him down against his bed while a fourth man pulled a knife across Joe’s forearm, drawing a thick, red, bloody line.

“Joe!” Adam tried to shout.

All he managed was a grunt. Still, it was enough to stir the attention of the man with the knife, who turned toward Adam wearing the face of Peter Nobridge.

“No!” Adam cried out in a strangled scream that ravaged his throat and threw him right out of the dream.

He was panting as he came awake in his bed.

“It was just a dream,” he told himself. “Just a…”

“No!” Joe’s low, anguished cry stopped Adam’s breath.

He rose in an instant, ignoring the sharp protests of the wound in his chest, and started toward the door.

“Stop!” Joe cried softly, his voice almost ghostly as it leached through the walls separating Adam’s room from his. “Please!”

Disturbed by Joe’s anguish and the year-old memory it conjured, Adam hesitated. A year ago, Adam had rushed blindly into his brother’s room, unprepared to face Joe’s armed abductors. He would not repeat that mistake tonight. Moving to his dresser, he retrieved his gun from the top drawer. After checking the chamber, he stepped into the hall.

*****

“Joe!” Hoss called out as loud as he dared, hoping not to wake the house.

He couldn’t ever remember having such a hard time rousing his brother from a nightmare. And it wasn’t just Joe’s cries that bothered Hoss, it was the way Joe was thrashing around in his bed, seeming intent on busting out all the doc’s stitches and maybe doing something worse to that hip bone Doc was still worried about.

“No. No.” Joe was panting now, but Hoss wasn’t sure what that meant. Was the dream fading, or was Joe just wearing himself out?

“Come on, Joe!” Hoss said a little louder as he pressed down hard on Joe’s shoulders, trying not to disturb that bad cut in the upper part of Joe’s left arm. “Wake up, boy!”

“He is fevered.” Peter’s voice called Hoss’ attention briefly to the doorway.

“No,” Hoss said. “It’s not fever.”

“Please, stop!” Tears were falling from Joe’s eyes now, but his cries were growing softer, and he wasn’t moving near as much as he had when Hoss had first arrived.

Hoss eased his grip and watched as Joe settled back against his pillows.

“Please,” Joe said weakly. “Please stop.”

“I don’t know what it is,” Hoss said without turning. “But it ain’t fever.”

“Are you sure?” Peter was now standing beside him.

Hoss pulled away from Joe with a sigh. “‘Course, I’m sure. He ain’t hot.”

Peter reached for Joe’s arm and started to unwrap the bandages. “If there is redness around any of these cuts, it could mean infection is…”

“What are you doing?”

Adam? Hoss turned to find his older brother standing in the doorway. He was holding a gun. “You don’t need that in here,” Hoss said softly.

Adam glanced down, bewildered. After a moment, he lowered the gun. “I’m sorry. I thought… I don’t know what I thought. I heard Joe, and…”

“Yeah, we all heard Joe, but we’re all thinkin’ different things. I thought he was just having a nightmare. Now I don’t know. I’ve always been able to wake him from one of those, but not tonight. Peter here figured he had a fever, but he ain’t hot. And you…”

“I thought it was a year ago.”

Hoss didn’t have to think hard at all to know what Adam meant. That night had haunted him a good long while, too. “Yeah,” he said, his voice just a whisper. “But it ain’t.”

“I heard a story once,” Peter said without turning away from his examination of Joe’s arm. It was strange, the way he cut in like that, as though Hoss and Adam hadn’t even been talking. But what he said next was stranger still. “About a cruel slave master,” Peter went on. “One day he tortured a man near to death. The injured man’s people became enraged. So fierce was their anger, it stole the fear out of their hearts. Without fear, bolstered by rage, they came together to murder the slave master.”

It was almost creepy, the way Peter was telling that story. But more than that, Hoss couldn’t see why he was talking about slaves. “What’s that got to do with…”

“After the master was dead,” Peter pointedly interrupted, making it clear he knew what he was doing and why he was saying what he was, “the injured man fell into fevered dreams, like Joe’s. His people believed the slave master’s spirit was trying to steal his own, bringing vengeance in death because he could not in life.”

If the story was creepy before, it just got creepier. Hoss looked to Joe, seeing the way his head still moved back and forth, slower than before but no less desperate to get whatever was going on in his dreams to stop.

“You think,” Hoss paused, not wanting to consider the possibility. “Someone killed Alfred Whitfield?” he finished then, saying only part of what Peter had planted in his thoughts.

“Hoss,” Adam’s tone was disapproving as he came up beside him, seeming eager to get a better look at what was going on with Joe. “It’s a ghost story,” he added. “It isn’t anything more than…”

“A medicine woman among the slaves,” Peter’s interruption this time was even more pointed than it had been with Hoss, “brought her people together to perform special rituals. After many hours they were able to force the evil spirit out of the injured man’s body.”

“Rituals?” Hoss asked. “What kind of rituals?”

“Hoss!” Adam scolded.

Peter turned to face Hoss and Adam wearing a small smile they might have recognized from Peter’s childhood name, Jisdu, the trickster rabbit, if only they’d known the story. “The rituals included the use of a poultice, a tincture, and heat. Your own medicine man, Doc Martin probably also uses each of these techniques to draw out infection.”

“Infection?” Hoss asked then. “You think that’s what’s causing Joe’s…nightmare?”

“It is possible,” Peter said as he shifted his attention to the bandage on Joe’s hip. “His arm wounds appear to be healing well, although there is slight inflammation around some of them.”

Adam looked doubtful. “Slight inflammation around a couple of small cuts wouldn’t be enough to put Joe into a state of…”

As Peter pulled away the other bandage, all three men could see that Doc Martin’s surgical incision had begun to swell.

“I changed that bandage myself,” Hoss said. “It wasn’t anything like that before.”

“Infection can spread quickly,” Peter said. “It is still early. If we treat it now, we should be able to draw it out, just like that medicine woman drew out that slave master’s evil spirit.”

“What do we do?” Hoss asked.

“Bring in more blankets, as many as possible so we can encourage him to sweat. This will help us to pull out the evil spirit or the infection, whichever it may be.”

“That’s it?”

“We should also prepare a poultice and a tincture. Perhaps Hop Sing…”

“We don’t need to wake Hop Sing,” Mrs. Hawthorn said then. She was standing in the spot where Adam had been a few minutes before. And she was smiling. “I am perfectly capable of preparing what we shall need to combat this infection Peter has so effectively diagnosed.” Her eyes met Peter’s. “You have your mother’s gift. She taught me nearly as much as any doctor ever did.”

“She taught me very little,” Peter said, returning his attention to Joe’s hip. “Or perhaps I was too young to remember. I learned what I needed to learn, in order to heal myself.”

Hoss was sure Peter didn’t say it the way he did to make Mrs. Hawthorn feel bad, but it was clear that’s exactly what happened. Hoss saw a sad look come into her eyes.

“I shall prepare what we need,” she said. “Hoss, please look after our other two patients. We would not want our focus on Joe to bring any harm to Adam or Peter.”

“‘Course, ma’am.” It was probably a good thing she said that, Hoss decided. Otherwise, he might not have noticed the way Peter was already starting to look peaked enough to faint dead away. He would have to wait before giving that boy another talking to.

*****

Joe was lost. He couldn’t understand it, but somehow he’d found himself alone in the middle of a desert. He turned in slow circles, seeing nothing but sand and scrub brush from horizon to horizon.

“Hey!” he called out, as though that action alone would cause someone else to appear, someone who could tell him how he had come to be there — and perhaps even where ‘there’ was.

“Hey!” he called again. But his voice didn’t leave so much as an echo; it just got swallowed up by the wind.

The wind? No. It was more like a breath than a wind, the breath of a dragon. Or the hot, fiery breath of a blacksmith’s forge.

A breath that was slowly stealing the air from his own lungs. Something else might be breathing, but Joe sure couldn’t in that heat. He needed to get away from it. He tried to walk and then to run, but as he grew stronger so did the wind — until it not only pressed against him, it pushed him back.

“No!” he cried out. “Please!”

He struggled, desperate simply to move one foot forward, but the wind gripped him with firm hands.

Hands…

The hands of the blacksmith? Was he in a desert or a forge? Suddenly Joe could no longer be certain. He was hot. That was all he knew. Too hot.

“Let go!” he demanded, finding new strength in anger. “Let me go!”

Still, he wasn’t strong enough. That blacksmith had arms like iron.

“Please!” Joe tried kicking himself free. But either that blacksmith had sprouted another set of arms, or there were two blacksmiths there. Another iron grip was now pressed against Joe’s legs.

Why?

“Please,” he begged, impossibly fighting against those immovable restraints.

Only then did Joe realize they weren’t hands at all. He was tied to a chair. And Jasper Boone was in front of him. Boone began to dig a knife made of fire into Joe’s arm, and then someone laughed.

“Come now, Mr. Boone.” The voice was like honey, barbed with the stingers of a thousand bees. “Do what you will and be done with it. We have business to attend.”

Alfred Whitfield?

“No!” Joe struggled anew. “You’re…prison…not here.”

Boone’s knife went deeper.

“You’re dead!” Joe shouted, thrusting so hard against the ropes it caused Boone’s knife to slip, tearing across Joe’s flesh.

“Joe!” another voice shouted back at him. Hoss? It was his brother’s voice. Joe was sure of it– so sure he allowed himself to relax despite the burning sting in his arm, comforted by the belief that Hoss would get Boone away from him. Only…when he looked, it wasn’t Hoss he saw. It was Peter Nobridge. And it was Alfred Whitfield…as though a man could be both at once.

“Adam is here with me,” Peter said.

Adam? It would be over soon, Joe realized then.

“Adam is here with me.”

“Thank you,” Joe whispered.

“We have business to attend to,” Whitfield countered.

“No.” Joe didn’t have to shout anymore. He didn’t have to struggle. Hoss was there. And Peter. And Adam. It would be over soon.

“I do not appreciate having my sleep interrupted!” Whitfield shouted.

“Stop this!” Pa’s shout was louder.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joe! Yes! It’s time to wake up, son!”

Slowly, Joe blinked open eyes he hadn’t realized were closed, dazedly taking in the familiar sights of his own room. Not a desert. Not a forge. Yet it was still hot enough to remind him of both.

Without looking too hard, Joe could tell Hoss was beside him. Maybe Hoss had chased the blacksmith away and was holding Joe’s shoulders to make sure…to make sure what? Joe didn’t bother thinking on that because he saw his father more clearly. Ben had his hands pressed down on Joe’s knees. There were others in the room as well, but Joe was having trouble focusing.

He tried blinking. “Whitfield?” he asked, feeling winded—as though he’d been running in the desert.

“He’s long gone, son.” Ben sounded relieved. He released the pressure on Joe’s legs and moved up to stand closer to Hoss.

“Dead?” Joe asked.

Ben shook his head. “No. But he won’t be coming here ever again.”

“Boone’s dead,” Joe said.

His father seemed puzzled. “Yes, Joe. That’s true.”

He studied his pa, seeing the tired lines around Ben’s eyes. And suddenly Joe realized there was something his father needed to know. “Whitfield doesn’t want his sleep interrupted.” Joe let his eyes slip closed once more, accepting that both Boone and Whitfield were gone, and Joe’s family was there, and there was nothing in this world or the next they wouldn’t fight to make sure he could always, truly breathe.

*****

Perched in the settee in front of the fireplace, Mrs. Hawthorn’s gaze wandered to the dining room window and the pink sky beyond while she took another sip of coffee. When she set her cup back onto the saucer, there was a delicate rattling clink — a sound that was nearly lost amidst the bangs emanating from the kitchen where Hop Sing was busily preparing breakfast.

“Abigail?” Ben spoke softly, not wanting to be intrusive. Perhaps too softly. “Abigail?” he said again.

“What?” Her brow creasing, she turned toward him. “Oh. Ben. I’m sorry. I suppose I was a thousand miles away.”

“You look tired. It might be wise to try to get some more sleep yourself.”

They had managed to coax Adam and Peter back into bed after the crisis with Joe had subsided, but Ben, Hoss and Mrs. Hawthorn had each elected to accept the fact that the rising sun signaled the start of a new day rather than the end of the previous one.

“No, Ben.” She took a deep, lingering breath and then, with great care, placed her cup and saucer onto the coffee table in front of her. “I’m afraid sleep would evade me. I am also afraid I have a confession to make.”

“A confession?” Ben smiled warmly, expecting the woman to admit even she could occasionally be rattled.

“Yes.” As her expression grew far too serious, Ben’s smile began to fade. “I like to pretend,” she went on then, “I am a physician. But it is, after all, just pretend. Although I have learned quite a bit about the medical arts, there is much I still do not know. And I have never been trained as a chemist.”

Confused, Ben found himself shaking his head. “Your capabilities have been a blessing here this week,” he assured her.

“In some ways, perhaps. But last night… I fear my lack of capabilities put your youngest son at unnecessary risk.”

“You can’t blame yourself for that. Infection has…”

“Infection can be a sly devil. And so can poison.”

“Poison?”

“Laudanum is a powerful medicine. It can also be an equally powerful poison. Very small amounts can ease terrible pain, but even one drop too much can addle the mind. It can also affect breathing, and, ultimately, cause death.”

“I know,” Ben offered. “We’ve all been cautious with administering the doses.”

“Perhaps not cautious enough.”

“But…”

“Please, Ben,” Mrs. Hawthorn interrupted, oblivious to the sound of the front door behind her.

Ben’s gaze moved briefly to Hoss as the woman continued.

“The tincture I made for the infection was a simple mixture. I used some plants I saw in your yard and blended them with alcohol. Under most circumstances, it can be quite effective. But I fear somehow combining that tincture with a drop or two too much of the laudanum…” She took another deep breath. “I fear I hindered rather than helping your son last night.”

“Ma’am?” Hoss said before Ben had the chance. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Hawthorn. I don’t mean to listen in or…or anything. But ma’am, I can’t help but think it was something else caused all that with Joe.”

“Something else?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, Pa. Peter, well, he told a story about a…a slave master who, well, he did terrible things to people. The slaves all got together and killed him for it. But it didn’t end there. The slave master, he somehow came back and tried to steal the soul of…”

“Hoss! What sort of nonsense…”

“Maybe nonsense,” Hop Sing interrupted while he placed a platter of bacon and eggs on the table. “Maybe not. Chinese people also have same kind stories. Some think real.”

“I also know people,” Mrs. Hawthorn added, “who find such stories anything but nonsense, Ben.”

Ben pushed himself brusquely from his chair. “Clearly lack of sleep has gotten to all of us. Why don’t we just…”

“Pa, you heard what Joe said. What if Alfred Whitfield is dead, and somehow he…”

“Come now, Hoss! Alfred Whitfield is on his way to prison.”

“But Pa, what if he’s dead, only we just don’t know it yet? Maybe it was him who somehow, well, maybe somehow his spirit was fighting to get Joe’s, like it was with the slave master in Peter’s story.”

Story is the word to remember, Hoss! It was a story, nothing more. You’re old enough to recognize a ghost story when you hear one! You’re also old enough not to believe in them. Perhaps the laudanum had something to do with what happened to Joe. Or even the combination of the laudanum with the tincture. The one thing we do know is infection was setting in. We have all seen what that can do.”

Ben looked pointedly at Mrs. Hawthorn and offered his hand to help her rise. “No one is to blame.” He shot a look at Hoss before adding, “Whether living or dead.”

*****

There was plenty of work to be done, but Hoss was having a hard time finishing anything at all. Both his mind and his gaze kept wandering to Joe’s bedroom. He’d stare at that window like he could see right through it — or maybe like he just wished he could — no matter that it was a full story above him.

By the time lunch came around, he figured he wasn’t doing himself or anyone else any good by ignoring his concerns. He filled his stomach, also figuring it wouldn’t do any good for him to go hungry, and then he headed upstairs, letting himself go where his mind had already been all those hours.

Hoss found Joe sound asleep. In fact, Joe was sleeping more soundly than Hoss had ever seen him. He wasn’t stirring at all. He was just lying there all peaceful like.

“Still asleep?”

Hoss turned to see Adam in the doorway. “He’s sleeping like…” Like the dead? No. There was no way Hoss would say that. “Like a baby,” he decided.

Adam smiled. “I don’t think so. Babies don’t sleep that well. Trust me. Neither of you ever slept like that when you were babies.”

“Maybe so, but…” His thoughts shifting from Joe to Adam, Hoss started to realize his older brother shouldn’t be there at all. “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of the work that’s been piling up around here?”

“I couldn’t stop thinkin’ about what Peter said last night.”

“What was that?”

“You know. About that slave master’s spirit fighting in that injured man’s body.”

“You’re not serious?”

“‘Course I’m serious. What if that’s what happened to Joe last night? What if Alfred Whitfield…”

“Hoss, Pa already told me what happened with Joe. Too much laudanum, a poorly mixed tincture and…”

“We don’t know that’s all it was, Adam. We just can’t be sure.”

“So what are you going to do? Wait here for Joe to wake up, and leave all that work undone outside?”

Hoss chewed on his lower lip, giving thought to Adam’s words and his own gut instinct. Finally he gave a quick nod. “Yep. That’s what I’m gonna do.”

“Well then, how about a game of chess while you’re at it?” Either Adam was bored plumb out of his mind, or somewhere inside him he was as worried as Hoss.

Whichever it was, Hoss wasn’t going to argue. “Make it checkers and you’re on.”

They were halfway through their third game when they heard a rider outside.

“It’s Clem,” Hoss said, looking down from Joe’s window. “Wonder what he wants?”

“Prob’ly to haul you two off to jail.” Joe’s voice, soft as it was, might as well have been a lasso for the way it pulled Hoss back toward the bed. When he got there, he saw Joe’s eyes were still closed, but the concentration showing in Adam’s gaze made it clear Hoss wasn’t the only one who’d heard.

“Joe?” Afraid to find it wasn’t really Joe at all, Hoss spoke the name almost softer than Joe had spoken himself.

“You two get any louder,” Joe went on, still not bothering to open his eyes, “all Hop Sing’s cousins in China will hear you.”

“Sorry, Joe,” Adam said. “You were sleeping so deeply we didn’t think anything could wake you.”

“So you decided it was okay to shout at each other right here in my bedroom?”

“We weren’t exactly shouting.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“Headache?”

“Everything ache. How ’bout some of that laudanum?”

“Not a good idea, Joe.”

“Yes. It’s a very good idea.”

“Sorry, Joe,” Adam said again. “No laudanum. At least for now. That might have been what did this to you in the first place.”

Joe finally opened his eyes, though it was to little more than a squint. When he looked to his brothers, Hoss shrugged.

“I’ll tell you what did this to me,” Joe mumbled. “It was Alfred Whitfield. And Jasper Boone. And someone else I don’t even know. But it wasn’t the laudanum.”

At Joe’s mention of Whitfield, Hoss stiffened. He tried harder to look into his little brother’s half open eyes.

“I meant,” Adam answered, “what happened last night.”

“What happened last night?”

“You don’t remember?”

Joe’s brow creased. “Maybe. I…I’m not sure. Why don’t you tell me?”

“You were half out of your mind, that’s what.” Hoss didn’t mean to make it sound like an accusation, but somehow it did.

“You were delirious,” Adam said more softly.

“Delirious?”

“Delirious.”

Joe closed his eyes again, the creases in his forehead easing to nothing. “Good.”

“Why’s that good?” Hoss asked.

“Because it means Whitfield wasn’t really here.”

Hoss looked over at Adam. “You see, Adam! You see, I was right!”

“Hoss!” Joe called out in something more than a whisper but not quite the shout he might have intended. An instant later his brow creased again. He laid his hand across his eyes. “Please be quiet.”

“Sorry, Joe,” Hoss whispered. “Why don’t you go back to sleep. We’ll leave you be for a while.”

“No laudanum?” Joe asked.

“No, Joe,” Adam answered. “No laudanum.”

When Little Joe sighed, it sounded almost like a whimper.

*****

“Alfred Whitfield’s dead,” Clem said.

Hoss’ throat got so tight he could hardly breathe. “Dead?”

“That’s what the telegram said. He died somewhere along the way back to the prison. Just went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up again.”

“Don’t that sound sort of strange to you?”

“‘Course it sounds strange, but that’s all I know, and all I’m bound to know. Roy figured you’d want to know, too.”

“Yes, Clem,” Ben said. “Thank you. We do appreciate you telling us.”

When Pa started guiding Clem into the house to talk about whatever else the deputy had come to tell them, Hoss noticed Hop Sing staring after them, looking sort of wide-eyed. But then Hop Sing’s gaze moved to Hoss. Seeing Hoss’ eyes on him like they were, the Chinese cook dropped his head and shuffled away toward the kitchen.

“Hop Sing?” Hoss called out, hurrying behind him. “Hey, Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing have work to do. Number two son have work to do. Too much work for talk.”

“Hold on, there, Hop Sing. This isn’t just regular talk and you know it.”

Surprisingly, Hop Sing stopped, though he didn’t bother to turn around.

“Why’d it scare you to hear Whitfield’s dead?” Hoss asked.

“Hop Sing not scared.”

“Yeah, Hop Sing. You were.”

Finally, he turned. “It is better number two son not know.”

“Why’s that?”

“The Tong.”

“The…the Tong?” Now it was Hoss who went wide-eyed. “You mean all that stuff Wang Sei was threatening me about with that whole mail order bride mix up*?”

“You see. It is better Hoss not know.”

“No, Hop Sing. I don’t see. What has that got to do with…” Suddenly Hoss remembered a lone, Chinese rider talking to Joe all those days ago when Doc was just starting to fix up Peter and Adam. “Wait a minute. That man, that Chinese man Joe said looked like a general. That one who rode in here with a message for you. Did he have somethin’ to do with this Tong, whatever it is?”

“Hop Sing see no rider.”

“Yeah, Hop Sing. I know that. But Joe said that rider came here to tell you something. If I remember right, he said to tell you justice was done.”

“Maybe number two son memory no good.”

“No. No, I remember all right. That’s what Joe told both of us after he was feeling better. He said the rider told him something like ‘tell Hop Sing it is done.'”

“Maybe number three son memory no good.”

“You seemed to believe Joe when he told you.”

“Hop Sing not know what Tong do. Hop Sing know only Whit-a-field dead. Hop Sing glad Whit-a-field dead. That enough. Work now.” He turned and moved faster than usual, anxious to get away from Hoss.

*****

As Ben watched Clem ride away, he found himself wondering how Peter would respond to the choices about to be placed before him. That young man had spent the better part of his life fending for himself and answering to no one, even abiding to his own laws. Now…well, now it was time for Peter to become a part of the world around him, rather that continuing to hold himself separate from it. The adjustment would not be easy, yet Peter was intelligent and had been eager to do whatever he must on behalf of Ben’s sons, particularly Joe. Perhaps he would be equally eager to do what he must for himself and his own family — or at least for his Aunt Abigail.

“What’d Clem have to say, Pa?” Hoss asked, moving up to stand beside Ben.

“He said the judge is willing to give Peter a chance. He will need to provide a full statement, explaining the history of his upbringing and his involvement with Joe’s abduction last year, and to sign a confession to the hanging of Jasper Boone.”

“A confession? But Pa, won’t that…”

“The confession will simply provide evidence that he recognizes it was a crime. It will not cause him to be put on trial for murder.”

“How can that be?”

Ben smiled. “We were fortunate the judge remembered how well Billy Horn* adjusted under our guidance two years ago. That, combined with statements from each of us explaining how Peter has tried to help us, and…” Ben took a deep breath. “And a signed agreement from me or Mrs. Hawthorn to take full responsibility for him. Well, as I said, the judge is willing to give Peter a chance, thanks in large part to the precedent that was set with the Billy Horn incident.”

“You or Mrs. Hawthorn?”

“That’s right. Peter needs to make a choice to stay near us, where he knows the lay of the land and the character of its people…”

“Or?”

“Or to go back home, where he will face both love and, quite probably, a great deal of animosity.”

“You don’t think he should go back to North Carolina?”

“I think it would be a hard adjustment.”

“Maybe too hard?”

“Maybe. But that will be for Peter to decide.”

“What about Mrs. Hawthorn?”

Ben chuckled softly and draped an arm across Hoss’ shoulders. “I have no doubt Mrs. Hawthorn is quite capable of handling whatever challenge is put before her.”

*****

Mrs. Hawthorn’s current challenge was to provide comfort to Joe.

“I have every confidence you will represent Peter’s best interests,” she’d told Ben before breaking away from the discussion with Clem, having learned Joe was awake and in obvious discomfort. “You can tell me what is to be done after Joseph is feeling better.”

As Ben had watched her walk away, leaving him to discuss the future of her nephew on her behalf, he’d come to realize how very much alike she and young Peter were. Her devotion to paying debts was uncannily like Peter’s. She felt she alone was responsible for the ill effects Joe had suffered the night before. Now Ben found himself in Joe’s bedroom doorway, peering in as Peter’s strong, dedicated and resourceful aunt paid her own debt by cooling Joe’s brow with wet cloths — and singing.

The sight filled Ben with an unexpected pang of loneliness. He found himself imagining Marie sitting in Abigail’s place, as it should be, as it should have been all these many years.

“Looks like it’s working,” Hoss said softly.

Ben had barely been aware of Hoss’ approach. “Hmm?” he responded absently, still holding to the memory of Marie.

“It looks like Joe might finally be falling back to sleep.”

Ben sighed, coming back to the moment. “Yes, Hoss. Yes it does.”

“I’m sorry, Pa. Adam and I, well, we shouldn’t of woke him like that.”

“You shouldn’t blame yourself any more than Mrs. Hawthorn should. All any of us can do is what we think best at any given time.”

Did it matter what Ben thought might be best for Peter? Dare he even begin to believe he knew everything he must to help the young man make the right decision?

No, Ben realized.

“And learn whatever we can from our mistakes,” he added a moment later.

Abigail Hawthorn and her nephew, Peter, had both made mistakes that had affected and would undoubtedly continue to affect one another. Both were also equally committed to taking responsibility for their actions. Together, they could surely find the right decision, the best decision for both of them.

Before Ben turned Hoss away from Joe’s door, leaving Abigail to finish her ministrations, he allowed himself one, final instant of reverie about Joe’s absent mother. And then he gave a silent thankful prayer for having been able to keep his sons close beside him all these years. Yes, Ben had suffered loss, but he also counted himself infinitely blessed.

*****

In the short time they had known him, Peter had tended to be quiet, watching everything but saying little. Over the next few days, however, that changed. Peter began to spend much of his time talking with Joe and his brothers. With Adam, Peter tended toward questions about life back east and Adam’s experiences at Harvard. With Hoss, Peter explored what it was like to run a ranch. Yet with Joe it was less about learning and more about sharing.

He spoke with Joe as a friend would, describing experiences and wondering what life would be like if things had gone differently — if Peter’s father had not been murdered, if Joe’s mother had not died. The discussions varied widely in topic and depth, often resulting in laughter — sometimes even enough to help them both forget about Whitfield and Boone, and, particularly, about their first meeting a year earlier.

Joe found himself looking forward to Peter’s visits in his room. With most of their discussions focused around riding, Joe also found himself growing increasingly anxious to test the strength of his hip and prove the doc wrong. His anxiousness became greater still now that Adam and Peter were both recovered enough to spend the better part of the day downstairs or out on the porch.

Joe was alone and bored, and recovered enough himself to regain the stubborn attitude his father had always said he’d shared with his mother. He rose, stiff and weak, though that could perhaps have been as much the result of his confinement as of his injuries. Reaching for the cane, he decided instead to try standing without it, and was rewarded by the feel of something more describable as an ache than true pain.

He grabbed the cane anyway. The pain could return before he reached the bottom of the stairs. Joe also could not help but remember the doc’s warning that, if he was careless, he could end up with a permanent limp.

The stairs weren’t as difficult as he’d thought they would be. Holding the cane loosely in his healing left hand, he used the banister for support, grabbing hold of it with his right and leaning his weight into it. Then he hopped down, step by step, putting no pressure whatsoever on his sore hip.

By the time he reached the bottom, he was laughing at how simple the whole trip had been. Yet as he moved his gaze and his thoughts to the great room before him, the laughter died. Even his smile was gone.

Simply standing there, looking ahead of him into the room, Joe’s thoughts forced him back to days he’d prefer to bury in lost memories. He saw the settee where Sheriff Coffee had lain, seemingly half dead. He saw the red chair where Joe himself had sat for all those anxious hours, waiting for the inevitable arrival of Alfred Whitfield. And then, tensing, he turned to face his father’s desk.

It looked innocuous enough. It was just Pa’s desk, the same as it had always been. Someone had even moved the chair.

…The chair where Joe had spent so many hours, watching his pa surrender to Whitfield’s plans for no reason other than to prevent further harm to his youngest son.

…The chair from which Joe had watched Alfred Whitfield parade before him in Pa’s robe.

…The chair in which Joe had been forced to endure Jasper Boone’s sick games.

Yes, it looked safe now, and that hated chair had been moved away. It didn’t matter. Joe’s memories put everything back just the way they had been when Whitfield had been there.

Rage and fear took hold of Joe then. He found himself cold with it, even trembling. Without thinking, he wrapped his good hand into a tight fist around the tip of his cane, and then threw that fist outward, sending the cane flying across the room.

It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough. Joe found himself desperate to throw his fist into Whitefield’s face, or Boone’s — or both. It was strange to imagine he actually felt cheated knowing both were dead. Cheated out of the chance to give them something of what they’d given him. Cheated out of his chance at vengeance.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. That’s what the Bible said, and Ben Cartwright would say something similar.

Joe didn’t care. He needed that chance at vengeance because at that moment, standing there at the foot of those stairs, Joe realized Whitfield had stolen something from him he wasn’t sure he could ever get back.

Alfred Whitfield had stolen his ability to find comfort in his own home.

*****

The day was bright and the breeze invigorating. With the effects of Whitfield’s latest — and last — visit quickly fading, Adam found himself enjoying every minute of his time out on the porch with Peter. In fact, he could hardly remember when he’d last felt so untroubled. He even allowed himself to get excited when Peter said he might be willing to consider studying medicine, perhaps at Harvard.

“Men like Alfred Whitfield are not typical among the students?” Peter asked.

Adam felt himself grimacing. “I can’t say you wouldn’t encounter some who might see you as a threat. If they discover your mother’s heritage, you could also face additional…challenges.”

“I am not unfamiliar with such challenges.”

“I’m sure that’s true. But you wouldn’t be able to handle them the way you’re used to. You would need to follow rules and laws, and they might not always go in your favor.”

“You would teach me these rules and laws?”

“I will teach you what I can.”

“Then I will do what I can to obey them.”

“There are other things you’ll need to learn as well. We could check with Doc Martin, to see if he would be willing to help prepare you.”

“Do you believe he might?”

Adam smiled. “I believe he might. As long as you’re willing to help him in return.”

“Then perhaps my decision will be to study medicine.”

“Splendid!” Mrs. Hawthorn said with excitement as she stepped onto the porch to join them.

Peter’s gaze grew concerned. He was clearly taken back by his aunt’s unexpected arrival. He might even have blushed a little. “You would not be disappointed if I do not follow you to North Carolina?”

“Dear, sweet Peter! Of course I would miss you! But disappointed? Heavens no! I would be proud as can be!”

Adam was beginning to feel like an intruder. “Why don’t you two talk this out a bit more?” he said as he started to rise. “I’ve got some paperwork to get to anyway.” He gave them a smile he felt all the way through him. Simply put, he felt good. He reached for the latch on the front door with an eagerness to get back to work, even if it was the kind of work that would have him sitting behind his father’s desk.

His smile actually grew to a grin as Adam opened the front door, but it faded again when something clattered to the floor inside the house. Puzzled, he instinctively followed the sound to find a cane sliding across the floorboards. Joe’s cane.

Spotting his young brother at the foot of the stairs, it was obvious something was wrong. Joe’s face was buried in the crook of his arm, which was propped up on the newel post.

Adam’s good humor was gone in an instant. He quickly yet quietly closed the door behind him, and then moved to retrieve the cane. “Joe?” he called out as he approached.

Joe stiffened, but did not respond. He didn’t even raise his head.

“Joe?” Adam said again, placing a hand gently on his brother’s shoulder. “Why don’t you come have a seat? You shouldn’t…”

“Don’t tell me what I shouldn’t do!” Joe shot back, his eyes flashing with rage.

Adam drew his hand away. “Sorry, Joe. I…”

But as quickly as it had come, Joe’s rage vanished. His gaze softened as his chest heaved from the pressure of whatever had caused his outburst. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything.”

“What’s wrong?” Adam asked, worried.

Joe looked toward the desk. “It feels like…like Alfred Whitfield is still here.”

Adam felt himself relax, relieved to find Joe’s problem was due to a memory, nothing more. “He’s dead Joe. He’s not here, and he won’t be coming back.”

“It doesn’t matter. I can still…I can see him standing there. I can still hear him forcing Pa to…to sign over…” Joe closed his eyes for a moment. “He was in charge, Adam,” Joe said, his voice softer than it had been, perhaps suppressed by sobs he refused to release. “He acted like the Ponderosa was already his. And Pa… Pa was…like hired help.”

“Joe,” Adam sighed. “The Ponderosa was never his. It never would have been. You and I both know Pa was just biding his time.”

“It would have been legal, Adam. All those papers… They would have legally given…”

As Joe’s eyes moved toward the front door, Adam could imagine how the sentence would have ended, had Joe decided to complete it. Those papers would have legally given everything to Peter — or rather to Whitfield after he’d assumed Peter’s identity.

“Only after he’d killed us all,” Adam said. “Including Peter. But that didn’t happen, did it?”

“It could have. It might have.” Joe raised his left hand, looking to the bandage still covering the cut across his palm. “Pa should never have given in.”

“What?”

“Pa gave in because Boone was going to cut off my thumb. He shouldn’t have. It wasn’t worth the risk of losing everything.”

Adam’s gaze settled on Joe’s hand as nausea welled up within him. This was a detail he hadn’t heard before, and one that could not be taken lightly. “It was, Joe,” he said through the tightness in his throat. “It was worth it. I would have given in, too.”

“Think about it, Adam! Whatever Boone did to me, or whatever he could have done, it wasn’t worth signing over everything Pa has! Everything he spent all these years building.”

“Yes, Joe,” Ben’s voice called softly from behind them. “Protecting you was very much worth it. The only thing I regret — the only thing — is that I allowed him to force me to leave you behind, to leave you in the hands of that madman. I’m sorry for that, Joe. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

When Joe met his gaze, Ben saw such turmoil in his young son’s eyes it tore at his heart. But then Joe turned away again, and Ben felt stricken. He was responsible. He had failed to protect his son, allowing Joe to endure Boone’s cruelty for all those hours.

“Joe,” Ben said softly as he moved closer and then placed a hand on Joe’s back. “Please, son. Sit for a while.”

Joe shook his head, keeping his eyes away. “The Ponderosa is your life, Pa.”

The words hit him like an accusation despite the sound of guilt he heard in Joe’s voice. “No,” Ben said. “It most certainly is not. The Ponderosa is a part of my life, yes. It is a part of all our lives. But… Haven’t I always taught you the value of a man should be weighed by who he is, not by what he has?”

“That’s not what I’m…”

“Isn’t it?” Ben interrupted. “You are weighing the value I place on the Ponderosa against the value I place on you. Joe, the Ponderosa is something I have, something we all have, nothing more. I would be among the poorest of the poor if I were ever to consider protecting any part of this land at the expense of my sons.”

“I should have done more, Pa. I should have fought harder. I should have…”

“Harder? Joe, you fought as hard as anyone could hope to. Harder than most. There was nothing else you could have done.”

Joe looked toward Ben’s desk. “I went to that chair for no reason other than…just because he told me to.”

“No reason? Of course you had a reason! You did it to save Roy Coffee’s life. Joe, you and I both know if you hadn’t done what he said, that man would have shot Roy. You had no choice!”

“And neither did you, Pa.” Adam’s words came as a surprise, drawing Ben’s attention away from Joe. He found his oldest son’s eyes and felt…bewildered.

“When you left Joe here,” Adam went on, “you did it because you had no other choice. You had to weigh the risk of what they might do without you there to protect Joe, against what they were sure to do while you watched. You both did what you had to do. And the fact is, it’s over. Alfred Whitfield is dead. Jasper Boone is dead. If you want to wallow in guilt, I have a fair amount of my own to add, you know. After all, Whitfield would never have come here in the first place if it weren’t for me. And if you think for one minute I didn’t give a great deal of thought to that fact when I saw Joe in that chair…”

“Stop it, Adam!” Joe shouted.

“Why? Because you want to bear all the guilt yourself?”

When Joe stared back at his brother, obviously at a complete loss for words, Ben felt an impossible, ridiculous urge to smile. “Thank you, Adam,” he said.

“For what?”

“For reminding us what matters most is that we all did what we could, and we all survived.”

“Thanks to Hop Sing,” Adam answered wryly.

“Not entirely,” Joe said.

If Ben had been surprised by his own ability to smile, he was happily shocked to see a small smile coming to Joe’s face as well.

“Hop Sing might have saved the Ponderosa,” Joe went on. “But from where I sat…” Joe paused, and then pulled his eyes away from the desk, looking directly at Adam. “You’re the one who saved…me.”

Ben heard the catch in Joe’s voice. Only then did he realize how strange it must have been for Joe, having to be rescued from his own home.

“And don’t you ever forget it, little brother,” Adam said, grinning.

“I won’t.” Joe’s voice was small then, as though…as though he knew it was such a solid truth he didn’t need to say it out loud — as though it was a truth borne in his heart.

“I’ll hold you to that.” Had Adam heard that catch, too? Was that why he turned away for an instant before providing his response?

Ben cleared his throat. “Now, Joseph, will you please listen to your father and get your weight off of that hip like the doctor ordered?”

Finally, Joe looked at him, grinning as his brother had even while a tear spilled out from the corner of his eye. “Sure, Pa. But…outside. I could use some fresh air.”

“Of course.”

Ben let his gaze sweep across the desk while he helped Joe to the front door. His desk, he reminded himself. This was his home, and that was his desk, and not even the ghost of Alfred Whitfield would deny him that, not as long as his sons were safe and secure under this roof.

He could only hope Joe would soon be able to recognize that truth.

*****

The ghost of Alfred Whitfield haunted Joe for weeks.

He felt like a prisoner, locked into a cell that was too big and crowded with ghosts and memories. Thanks to his impulsive decision to venture downstairs before Doc Martin had said he could, Joe lost the ability to withdraw to the sanctuary of his own room. Of course, he’d tried. As soon as the memories had started attacking him, Joe had been determined to defy the doctor’s orders about remaining downstairs for the duration of his recovery. He’d be damned if he was going to allow Alfred Whitfield to steal his sleep or even just his comfort ever again.

Neither Mrs. Hawthorn nor Joe’s family, however, would allow him the luxury of giving in to that defiance. In fact, Mrs. Hawthorn was worse than his father or Hoss or even Adam could ever be. Joe didn’t stand a chance when she exerted her authority — an authority that came naturally to her, whether or not she had any real claim over Joe’s decisions. He’d been forced — like it or not — to move into the main floor guest room.

Joe very definitely did not like it. All he had to do was open the door to the main room and the images and feelings would flood back to him, raw as ever. Joe relived it all again and again and again. Every night in his strained sleep. Every day when he saw the rooms Whitfield had lorded over as though they had always been his to control.

Joe began to wonder if he would ever be able to accept that Whitfield’s reign had ended. Compared with the years during which this house had been firmly under the control of Joe’s own family, those hours of Whitfield’s should have meant nothing. Instead, they meant everything.

It was as though Alfred Whitfield was still there.

And not just Whitfield. Boone was there as well. Joe could almost believe Whitfield was still ordering Jasper Boone to jab that knife into him — only now it was digging into Joe’s thoughts rather than his arm. He could practically feel Boone stabbing at his consciousness, and though the blade may have been dulled over time, its dullness just made it that much more destructive.

At least Joe knew Boone was dead, knew it with a certainty that had been solidified by the sight of Boone’s corpse swinging above him from the limb of that tree. Yes, Joe felt the blade, but the ghost that held it was fleeting. The only thing keeping it there was Whitfield.

Joe had no such certainty about Whitfield’s death. He’d been assured Alfred Whitfield had died in his sleep on his way back to prison. Joe had even seen Whitfield’s death image, photographed for a front page story in the Territorial Enterprise. When Adam had read the article aloud, Joe’s entire family — along with Hop Sing and Mrs. Hawthorn — debated about whether or not that lawyer fellow, Maxwell Morgan, should get jail or prison time for his part in Whitfield’s scheme. But Joe had stayed quiet through it all, his own thoughts still so locked on Albert Whitfield he didn’t much care what happened to Morgan. While the discussion dragged on, Joe found himself staring at the photograph, disturbed to see that the flat, black and white picture made the man look like any other dead outlaw. It did nothing to help Joe see that Albert Whitfield really was dead and gone.

“Dadburnit, Little Joe,” Hoss had complained when Joe’s temperament grew darker rather than lighter after seeing that picture. “When are you gonna get it through that thick skull of yours he ain’t never comin’ back?”

Joe had glared at him like it was Hoss’ fault, though he knew perfectly well it was his own. He was letting Whitfield haunt him. He knew that, but he couldn’t accept it because he also knew he couldn’t do anything to stop it from happening.

“I just…” Joe tried to explain one day when Peter encouraged him to join him on the porch. Clamping down on his jaw while he weeded through words that could never really describe the emotions whirling within him, Joe finally settled on the best ones he could find. “I can’t stop seeing him. I should be able to, but I can’t.”

“Then he succeeded,” Peter said flatly.

Joe studied him. “What do you mean?”

“Alfred Whitfield was jealous of your brother. He wanted to take everything your brother had.”

“I know all that!” Joe shouted back. “You’re not say…”

“He wanted to take everything,” Peter cut in. “Not to keep it for himself; just to take it. He wanted to take Adam’s home away from him. He also wanted to take Adam’s family away from him. He did not succeed with your father, or with Hoss. But he did succeed with you.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Joe argued.

“Where is Adam now?”

“I don’t know. What has that got to…”

“When did you last speak with him?”

Joe closed his eyes, frustrated. “At breakfast, I guess. Why?”

“What did you talk about?”

“You were there!” Joe was getting angry. “What does any of this have…”

“You speak at breakfast. You speak at supper. You listen to talk of cattle and horses and ranch hands. When Hoss and Adam talk of other things, you do not hear them. With you, there is nothing more to discuss, except Alfred Whitfield.” Peter glanced in the direction he had seen Adam walking earlier, and then returned his attention to Joe. “Adam, Hoss, and your father, they each want to forget. But you will not forget. And the more you lock yourself into remembering, the less they know what to say to you.”

Joe stared at him for a long while as his thoughts took him back to breakfast, and then to supper the night before — and he came to realize Peter was right. “How…” Joe found himself asking. “How do I forget?”

Peter smiled. “Try listening when your family speaks of other things.”

“How can that… How will that help me forget?”

“When other things become more important to you, Alfred Whitfield will become less. So it has been with me.”

“With you?”

“I could not forget that my father’s family had abandoned my mother and me. But then I listened. And now I can accept that my aunt is well intentioned. It is time to face other things that are more important. It is time for me to forget.”

Joe stared back at him feeling almost awed by the half-breed’s ability to simply forget all those years of struggling on his own. And then, slowly, Joe came to realize something he had already forgotten. Peter had not always been a friend. In fact, Joe still bore the scar Peter’s knife had left in his foot.

A moment later, Joe found himself smiling. “Just like that, you decided you can forget?”

Peter’s own smile widened. “The decision came after the forgetting had already begun. But with you,” he shrugged, “perhaps the decision must come first.”

“Just like that,” Joe said again. Then he leaned back in his chair and took in a deep breath of fresh, Ponderosa air. “I suppose it’s worth a try.”

*****

The forgetting came slowly, but it did come. Joe discovered Hoss was sweet on that gal down at the mercantile, and Adam had ordered a new poetry book along with all those books in Latin and Greek he was getting to help Peter prepare for college. But the most surprising thing Joe learned was that his father was thinking about taking a trip with Mrs. Hawthorn. She wanted to see San Francisco, and said she would appreciate having an escort.

As for Joe, all he could think about was going for a ride — a long, fast ride to make up for his long, slow recovery. He felt pretty sure Cochise would appreciate that, too.

***The End***


End Notes:

*Hoss refers to the fifth season episode starring Marlo Thomas, titled “A Pink Cloud over Cathay.” Hoss ordered fireworks from a Chinese trading company, but received a mail order bride instead. The Chinese foreman for a railroad crew, her intended recipient, took offense, and Hoss found himself “on trial” in front of Weng Sai. The Tong was mentioned, and overt threats were made to Hoss’ life.

*Billy Horn was a young white man who had been raised by Indians in the fourth season episode, “The Beginning.” The Cartwrights took him in and helped to teach him how to adjust to the white man’s world.

Songs used, in order, all by William Cowper (1731-1800):
“Sometimes a Light Surprises”
“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”
“Hear Us, Emmanuel, Hear Our Prayer”

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