For the Soul is Dead that Slumbers (by freyakendra)

Summary:  A Tale told in 2 parts:  Part I:  The Darkest Hour: When Joe is missing, he’s not the only one trapped in darkness.  Part II:  No One: Even after Joe comes home, a part of him remains lost.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  20,700


 

The Darkest Hour

Dark. That’s all there was. It was so dark he could almost believe the world itself had gone away, gone away and left him alone, desperately alone in a black void. A black, empty void.

He felt empty. As though he had nothing left, nothing at all. Maybe it was true. Or maybe he’d had nothing to start with. Maybe all he had was a dream. Not even a memory, but a dream, a dream born of hopelessness. It was hopeless, after all. He was nothing, no one, locked into a world that had no care for who he might have been, or might almost have been, once upon a time.

“Joe Cartwright,” he said in a voice he hardly recognized, a voice ravaged and raw, like the pull of a saw dragging through a piece of fresh timber. He caught a fleeting vision of a lumber camp, of working side by side with his brothers, cutting timber. He caught the vision, but he couldn’t hold it. It was too dark. “Joseph Francis Cartwright,” he said, as though saying the name could bring it all back — or make it come to be.

For an instant, it almost did, or it seemed to, anyway. He could see it, as through frost covered glass. There was a house framed in pine, its front door open and inviting. But he didn’t want to go in. He wanted to go out. Because outside held a blue, cloudless sky. It was a bright summer day. And there stood Hoss, laughing so hard the earth itself had to feel it. Joe could almost hear it, too. He wanted to hear it, that great big belly laugh only a mountain like Hoss could produce. But all he could hear was the slow, steady drip behind him, the belly of a different mountain, a cold, dark, empty mountain swallowing whatever was left of the winter’s snow. Swallowing it all, and leaving nothing for him, dry as he was. Dry and empty and wondering if who he’d been had ever been real at all.

*****

Hoss laughed. He laughed good and hard, and then took a long swallow of beer to soothe the scratches that laughter left in his throat. And then…then he realized what he had done. He’d laughed.

How could he? Setting his mug on the table in front of him, he looked to the men gathered around, saw their smiles, heard their laughter, and couldn’t figure out how it had all come to be.

When someone slapped him hard on the back, he turned in an instant, fist raised…only to see another smiling friend.

“Good to have you back, Hoss!” Hank Mueller said, hoisting his own freshly filled mug.

Good to have you back.

Was he? Was he really back? Could anything ever really be back to the way it had been before? No. It couldn’t. It shouldn’t. Not without Joe.

Feeling suddenly ill, he rose, stiff and slow, and then pushed his way through the Friday night crowd at the Silver Dollar saloon, his eyes focused on the endlessly swinging doors. The closer he came, the more desperate he was to breathe the fresher air outside. When he finally stumbled across the walkway, clumsy and ill-balanced, he grabbed hold of the hitching post, eased himself to the ground…and gave in to the tears his laughter seemed to have forced to the surface, tears he no longer cared to hide away. It didn’t matter who saw or heard him. He didn’t even want to know who came up behind him — not until he felt a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay to laugh, Hoss,” Adam said, setting himself down beside his brother.

“No. No, it ain’t. It ain’t right at all.”

“Even grief has its limits.”

“It ain’t grief, Adam. I ain’t ready to grieve. I ain’t ready to give up.”

He heard a heavy sigh.

“I’m not either. But it’s been two months and we’re no closer to finding him. We have to accept the possibility that we never will.”

Hoss shook his head, slow and sure, as he tucked his tears back inside, way down deep. “I ain’t giving up,” he repeated. “I ain’t ever giving up.”

*****

The light was back. It started as a tiny dot without substance. He wasn’t even sure it was real until it began to grow, getting bigger and brighter with each heartbeat. In time, he had to turn away from the painful, blinding glare, and then he heard the shuffling sound of feet moving across loose dirt. It sounded heavier than the scurrying of the rodents he’d been living with for so long. And he began to smell something. It smelled like…like beef. Like cooked beef. It might have made his mouth water if his saliva hadn’t all dried up — or close to it, anyway.

“What’s your name, kid?” a gruff voice whispered.

“I’m…I’m no one,” Joe answered as he knew he must.

“You got to tell me your name.”

No, Joe told himself. It’s a trick. It has to be a trick. They must have grown tired of the monotony in his response, maybe as tired as Joe had grown of the beatings they used to give him before he’d learned the rules.

“I’m no one,” Joe repeated, his voice barely a scratch louder than breathing.

“I can’t help you if you don’t give me your name.”

Help me? Joe dared a look. The lantern’s glow seemed bright enough to burn his eyes right out of their sockets, but he endured the pain long enough to see this man was different than the others. He showed Joe his face, his real face, rather than hiding it under a hood. Joe stared at it, enthralled by the dark whiskers and the nose that sat slightly askew, clearly having been broken at some point in time, maybe more than once. This man was real. He was real.

“You gotta tell me your name, kid,” the man demanded, his tone soft and…compelling. “I gotta leave, and you might not get another chance.”

This man wasn’t only real, he seemed…genuine, as though…as though he wanted to help. Joe studied him, saw something of compassion in his gaze. Maybe it was just the lamplight, the way it flickered across the moist surface of his eyes, softening the brown flecks of color like the warm glow of a campfire, but there was something inviting about it, something that pulled the real answer from Joe’s lips. He knew it was the wrong answer, but it was the real answer, nonetheless.

“Joe.” He flinched on instinct, expecting a blow that never came. “Joe Cartwright,” he added, flinching again.

Still the man stayed his hand. Instead of hitting Joe, he nodded and then dropped a tin plate to the ground by Joe’s hip. “Eat,” he said. “It ain’t much, but it’s better than nothin’.”

Joe watched him turn away. The man slipped a hood over his head before he walked out, taking the light with him.

As the darkness returned, Joe relaxed, welcoming the way it soothed his eyes. It wasn’t until later — minutes? hours? — that he remembered the plate. He reached toward where he believed it to be, his hand feeling heavy, weighted by the chain and the metal clamp secured at his wrist. His fingers brushed something soft and wet. Wet? Suddenly desperate, he grabbed hold of the plate, using both hands to bring it to his chest. Once again he smelled cooked beef. It seemed impossible, too good to be true. Yet an instant later, he filled his mouth with broth-soaked bread. He savored every swallow.

*****

Roast beef. It was a fine, Sunday dinner, and tonight was one of Hop Sing’s finest. But Adam had no appetite for it. He stared at his plate, almost repulsed by the sight. Even the smell taunted him, making him imagine it was sickeningly sweet and more rotten than cooked.

He knew why. He knew exactly why. He had spent the weekend scouring the desert, looking for any sign at all that Joe might have passed through it — or worse, never left. He almost thought he’d found Joe, too. He still wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t. He’d found the body of a man badly decomposed and nearly picked clean by buzzards. It was only the clothes and boots that had convinced Sheriff Coffee — and Pa, and Hoss — that it wasn’t Little Joe. Adam wanted to believe them. He wanted desperately to share their optimism. But how could he? It had been too long with no trail and not a single clue to prove Joe was still alive.

All they had was Joe’s horse. Two days after Joe had disappeared somewhere between the lumber camp and home, they’d awakened to find Cochise hitched to the rail out front. Adam could still remember the relief he’d felt at the discovery. Pa had been relieved too, relieved enough to get angry.

“Joseph!” he’d bellowed an hour later when Joe had still failed to make his presence known. “Joseph Francis Cartwright! You get in here this instant!”

But, of course, he never did. Clearly, someone else had returned Cochise, returned him in the middle of the night and then swept the trail clean. It was proof enough that Joe’s disappearance had been neither Joe’s idea nor accidental. No other proof ever came, and no reason was ever provided. If he’d been kidnapped, why had there been no ransom note? The only answers Adam could find were the worst he could imagine. Whoever had been responsible must have wanted the disappearance to be permanent. The pinto would have been too conspicuous to keep.

“Adam?” Pa’s voice pulled him back to the table.

“Sorry, Pa. I guess I wasn’t listening.”

“Eat, son. Please.”

Adam sighed, looking again at his plate, and again seeing the man in the desert. He shook his head. “I don’t think I can.”

“Well, you’d better,” Hoss said. “‘Cause I don’t need you fallin’ down hungry when we go lookin’ tomorrow.”

“Looking? Where, Hoss? Where haven’t we looked?”

“It don’t matter. We look everywhere all over again. He’s out there. You know he’s out there. We just got to find him, is all.”

And that was the problem. Weeks ago, finding Little Joe was the only thing Adam wanted to do. Now Adam was afraid to find him — afraid to find what might be left of him.

*****

The bread was barely a memory by the time Joe saw that light again. And once again, the man who came showed his face. Only this time, it was a different face. It was narrower, longer — and colder. There was something chilling in the way this man’s nostrils flared and his upper lip curled, like a wolf baring its teeth. Joe turned away, trying not to shiver.

“You look at me, boy. Look long and hard.” The voice was cold too. The man’s hand wasn’t, though. He grabbed Joe’s chin, pulling Joe’s face up close to his own. “What do you see?”

This question was new. Joe wasn’t sure how he was supposed to answer. “I don’t…I don’t know.”

“You see a man who matters. A man people listen to. A man people remember. Do you?”

Confused, Joe didn’t know how to answer. “Do…do I what?”

“Do you remember me?”

Joe stared back at him. He didn’t know this man. He couldn’t remember ever having known him. So he said nothing. He simply stared. And then he tried to brace himself, expecting a fist…or worse. Instead, the man released his hold, pushing Joe away from him with a snort of disgust, as though Joe represented a kind of filth he should never have deigned to touch.

“Who are you?” the man asked him.

“No…no one,” Joe answered.

The man pointed at him. “You remember that. I’m everything, and you’re nothing. Nothing at all. Now who am I?”

“Everything.”

“And who are you?”

“No…nothing.” It was the right answer. Joe knew it was the right answer. But the man hit him anyway. He hit Joe in the cheek with a fist that felt as solid as a rock and a punch strong enough to slam the back of Joe’s head into the rocky wall behind him.

“Who are you?”

Joe wanted to answer, but he couldn’t find the word. His thoughts swam through a dizzying stream of flashes.

The man kicked him in his side. “Who are you?”

The question was meaningless. Joe had no answers. He had no thoughts, no sense of anything except pain and cold and dark.

He felt himself being lifted, a fist taking a firm hold of what was left of his shirt collar.

“Nothing.” The word reached Joe’s ear an instant before the stench of rancid meat found his nose on the heat of the man’s breath.

Joe felt himself retching, but there was nothing for his stomach to purge.

Disgusted again, the man threw him to the ground. Only Joe never landed. He kept falling. He fell right into oblivion.

*****

Ben came awake with a jerk that pulled every muscle taut. Even his throat was locked, making it hard to breathe.

He’d found Joe. Ben had found him at the bottom of a gulley, beyond his reach. He had leaned too far, too fast. And then he’d found himself falling. But that was okay. He hadn’t been worried about falling. If that would bring him to his son, then so be it. He would fall. He would jump if he had to. No, the falling was fine. It was the ending that had disturbed him, because just before he landed, when he was barely a finger’s width from reaching Joe, he’d found himself back here, in his bed. And Joe was still out of reach.

It was always the same. Oh, the dreams were different. He wasn’t always falling. But Joe was always — always — just out of reach. Would it ever change? Would he ever touch his son again?

Weary but no longer tired, Ben pushed himself out of bed and then shuffled into his slippers and night robe. He stepped out into the hallway, stopping at Joe’s bedroom door — stopping, but not going inside. He couldn’t bring himself to open the door. He couldn’t bear to see that room empty. Not again. Not anymore.

He couldn’t bear any of this anymore. His missing son weighed down on him, a burden he had no strength left to carry. It was suffocating him, crushing him, wearing him down to nothing.

When a loud snore pulled Ben’s attention to Hoss’ door, he smiled sadly. He still had two sons, two sons who were also being crushed. Ben needed to be strong for them. He needed to find the strength, somewhere, somehow to help guide them out of this…this emptiness. He may be old and weary, but they were still young, too young to be so worn, to be so…so beaten.

Sighing with a heaviness that made him almost believe that crushing weight was pushing the air from his lungs, Ben closed his eyes, the lids sliding across gathering moisture, and prayed to find the strength, and the courage — and more importantly, the wisdom — to know when enough was enough, to recognize, to accept that Joe was lost to them, that he would remain forever out of reach.

And then he prayed that he would never need such wisdom.

Reaching out, he put his hand to Joe’s bedroom door, pressing against it with his palm and spreading his fingers wide. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

*****

Water. It splashed his face, touched his lips. Joe reached for the drops with his tongue. It wasn’t enough.

“Wa…water.” The word came as a struggle. He opened his eyes, blinking past the wetness. The light was still there, filling the rocks with a ghostly glow. “Water?” Joe pleaded.

“Beg.”

Joe turned his head, the effort bringing pressure and pain. But the wetness mattered more. He ignored the pain. Looking up, he saw a man standing in front of him, the man with the long face. Long face.

Longfellow. He was a poet, wasn’t he? Adam…Adam had a book. The name on the cover was ‘Longfellow.’ Joe closed his eyes, looking for Adam.

Someone kicked his leg. “I said beg!”

He opened his eyes again…his eye. Only one eye would open. The other…that was where he’d felt the pressure, pressure forcing his lid closed. He wondered at that for a moment, and then remembered the man had hit him. He’d lost all sense of time, but it had to have been days, maybe weeks since anyone else had hit him. None of those men had ever shown their faces, not until the man with the broken nose had come. Things were changing. The rules were changing and Joe didn’t know why. More importantly, he didn’t know what they were changing into.

“Beg!”

The man with the long face was looking down at him. Joe saw a canteen in his hands, and suddenly nothing else mattered. Already Joe was forgetting the rules, the old rules, the ones he had learned to follow almost on instinct. He reached upward. “Water.”

The toe of a boot kicked his knee with the force of an iron mallet. “On your knees!”

Slowly, awkwardly, like a baby discovering how to crawl, Joe maneuvered himself to his knees. There was a stab of pain from the man’s kick, but he barely gave notice to it. His entire focus held to the canteen. Once in position, he reached upward again. The weight of his chain made it feel like he was pushing a boulder uphill, but that, too, was nothing. All that mattered was the water. “Please,” he begged.

The man laughed. He laughed and opened the canteen, and then… Then the man with the long face took a long swallow.

“Ple…please,” Joe begged through a choked sob.

“Look at you,” the man spat. “Pathetic. Worse than a lame dog. I’ve waited a long time to see this. You don’t know how I’ve dreamed to see this. Little Joe Cartwright stripped of all his charm, all his wealth, all his stubborn, arrogant pride. What do you think those fine ladies would say now? Who would dance with you now?” He shook his head. “No one. You’re not even fit for a mangy, flea-bitten she-wolf in heat.”

Joe dropped his hand. He knew this man. He was supposed to know this man. So why couldn’t he remember? Without thinking, he dared to break another rule. “Who…who are you?” he asked.

“Someone you’ll never forget again.”

Forget? Had he forgotten? How was that possible? How could he forget a face like that, a man like…like that?

“You took my girl right off my arm. I waited a year to get her to dance with me, and a minute later you took her away.”

A dance? All this for…a dance?

“You don’t even remember. Even now you don’t remember. Sheriff Coffee threw me in his jail that night, while you rode on to that fancy house of yours. We were both in the same fight. And you were just as busted up as I was. So why’d I land in jail, while you rode on home?”

Joe shook his head.

“Because folks in that town saw you as somethin’ and me as nothin’. You know what happens to a man who’s nothin’?”

Joe stared at him, dumbfounded.

“He gets locked up, that’s what happens. Locked up in a dark cell. You know what happened to me after that night?”

Joe was afraid to answer.

“Territorial prison, that’s what. That one night in jail, and then nothin’ was the same ever again. Only way I could get anythin’ from there on out was to take it. Next thing I knew, I was in that prison. All on account of you seein’ me as nothin’. But all that’s finished. I know better now, know how to take what’s rightfully mine and keep it, too. Like you. Your life is mine. I’m the one who’s somethin’ now, and you’re the one who’s locked up in a dark cell. Ain’t that right?”

A dark cell? Is that what this is? No. This isn’t a prison. It’s worse. Has to be worse. They don’t make prisons out of caves. And Joe hadn’t been arrested; he’d simply been…taken.

“Ain’t it?” the man shouted.

Joe found himself nodding. He didn’t even know why.

“What do you think those folks in Virginia City would think if they saw you now, huh?”

Joe shook his head.

“What are you?”

“Nothing,” Joe whispered.

“That’s right. You’re nothin’. Don’t you forget that ever again. And no one else will, neither.”

And then the man turned away, taking the light, and the canteen, and any hope for salvation Joe might have had up until that moment right on out with him.

*****

Nothing. That’s what Roy expected. Not a doggone thing. It was the same every day, but he went every day nonetheless. It was part of his daily rounds — three times a day, in fact. First thing in the morning, again at noon, and last thing at night. Whatever information he did get from the telegraph office never had anything to do with Little Joe. He sure didn’t expect it to today. So when he read the piece of paper that was put in front of him, it was almost like he was reading words he’d never seen before, a message that was foreign and beyond his comprehension. Then he read it again.

“Son of a gun.” Roy looked to the clerk. “You sure this is right?”

The clerk stared at him, wide-eyed, and nodded. “Every word, just as they sent it.”

Roy whistled. “Well, ain’t that somethin’. Ain’t that….” He turned again to the clerk. “You know what you just done?”

The clerk shook his head.

“You just gave Ben Cartwright about the greatest gift he could ever hope to get. Now you send that warden a message back. You tell him we’re on our way. Got that?”

“We?”

“Why, me and Ben and his other two boys, of course. You tell him we’ll be there by sundown.” Roy didn’t wait for a response. He was too eager to ride out to the Ponderosa.

*****

When the light came again, Joe was too tired, too thirsty, too defeated to care. He thought it seemed brighter than all the others, but it was just a niggling curiosity. He didn’t even try to raise his head to look. Maybe his eyes weren’t right anymore, or his head. Maybe he just didn’t know what was right anymore, like he didn’t know what was real anymore.

He would probably earn a kick for lying still like he was, could be more than one kick. But it just didn’t matter. Not anymore.

“Son?”

Joe felt a hand on his shoulder. “Pa?” He barely breathed the word; it was really more a moving of his lips than any sort of utterance. He knew the voice he’d heard had been wrong. And the hand, too, felt wrong. But he really didn’t know, did he? How could he tell what was wrong, if he couldn’t tell what was right?

“Can you hear me, boy?”

Joe opened his eyes — his eye — to see the face of another stranger. The man had light hair, but it was blonde, not white. Pa’s hair was white, wasn’t it? And the uniform… Pa had never worn a uniform like that. It wasn’t Army. It wasn’t anything Joe recognized.

“It’s over, son. You’re going home.”

“Home?” Joe saw that house again, the one with the pine frame and the laughing mountain outside. But that had been a dream, hadn’t it? No, it couldn’t be real. He was afraid to believe it might be real. He wanted it too much.

“Can you stand?”

As the blonde man in the strange uniform helped Joe to sit up, something astonishing happened. Joe’s hands felt…light. He lifted his left one, puzzled and awed to see the chain gone, the shackle no longer encircling his wrist. He was puzzled and awed and…lost. It felt almost as though a part of him was missing.

“Let’s see about getting you to your feet.”

The man pulled him upward, but Joe’s legs felt like…like paper. They wanted to crumple beneath him, like the overworked scrap sheets in the wastebasket by Pa’s desk, useless and worn thin.

The basket by Pa’s desk. That was real, wasn’t it?

“Matelin?” the man called out.

And then another man took Joe’s other arm, a man with a familiar, crooked nose. “Told you I could help if you told me your name, now didn’t I, Joe Cartwright?”

Joe Cartwright. Joseph Francis Cartwright. That was right, wasn’t it? That name was real. He was real. And maybe, just maybe that house was real, too.

Overwhelmed, Joe’s head spun with thoughts and voices and memories. And then he fell into them. He fell eagerly and willingly, desperate to get out of the dark.

*****

By the time they were all ushered into the warden’s office, Ben Cartwright had endured enough platitudes to tax his patience on any given day, and this was not an ordinary day.

Mr. Curry,” he said, ignoring the usual protocols associated with formal introductions. “I demand to see my son!” There was thunder in his tone; Adam would not have been surprised to see lightning in his eyes.

“Please, Mr. Cartwright,” the warden replied with all the patience Pa lacked. “There are things we must first discuss.” He gestured toward one of two chairs in front of his desk.

Pa made no move to accept the invitation. “We can discuss whatever we need to after I have seen my son!”

The warden held his stance, his arm still extended toward the chair. “I am afraid I must insist.”

There was something disconcerting in the man’s gaze and the casual, subdued nature of his insistence. Apologetic, Adam decided. That’s what it was, as though the warden felt some degree of regret over whatever it was he had to tell them.

“It might be a good idea to hear him out, Pa,” Adam suggested, keeping his focus on Mr. Curry while moving closer to his father. He felt rather than saw Pa’s gaze shift momentarily toward him.

“Then speak quickly,” Pa said after a moment, setting himself down on the edge of the chair, making it clear he was not planning to stay seated long.

Mr. Curry took a deep breath, his chest rising as his lungs filled with the stale, dusty air in the room. Adam had the distinct impression the action was done more to boost his strength than his presence. As that air was expelled, the warden slowly, purposefully, took his own seat. It did not appear he had any intention of being quick, and Adam was feeling increasingly unsettled. He cast a glance toward Hoss, who looked equally concerned. Sheriff Coffee did not look Adam’s way; his own gaze was locked on the warden, eyes narrowed in thought — or suspicion.

“Mr. Cartwright,” the warden said, “your son had been held under conditions I would never impose upon any inmate, not even the worst and most violent.”

Adam’s hand moved to his pa’s shoulder.

“What sort of conditions?” Pa asked, his voice hard, his tone clipped.

The warden took another heavy breath. “It appears he spent the majority of his captivity, if not all of it deep underground, in absolute darkness.”

Pa stiffened.

“He was given barely enough water to survive,” Mr. Curry continued, “and even less food. When we found him, he was severely malnourished as well as dehydrated. He had recently been beaten, and my physician has found evidence of other beatings as well.”

“How could you?” Pa’s voice threatened like the low, deadly rumble of an earthquake. He rose just as slowly as Mr. Curry had lowered himself into his chair moments before, and then planted his hands on Mr. Curry’s desk, glowering down at the warden with as fierce a glare as Adam had ever seen. “How dare you subject an innocent young man to treatment you wouldn’t inflict upon your worst inmates?”

Mr. Curry kept his seat — as well as his composure. “Mr. Cartwright, I assure you what happened to your son occurred with neither my permission nor my knowledge, and it was brought to an end the very instant I was made aware of it.”

“Who is in charge of this prison, Mr. Curry?” Pa asked.

“Why, I am. Of course.”

“Then how is it something so monstrous could happen inside these walls with neither your permission nor your knowledge?”

Mr. Curry finally pushed himself up, meeting Pa’s accusing glare straight on. “What happened to your son did not take place within these walls, Mr. Cartwright. He was taken to the mines, several miles from here, and locked away in a long abandoned cavern. It is entirely possible I might never have become aware of the situation at all, if not for the astute observations of one of my best guards.”

“What sort of observations?”

“Prisoners may be incarcerated, but they are not always powerless. Some find the means to certain privileges through bribes or threats. My informant paid particular attention to one inmate who apparently managed both. He earned the respect of his fellow inmates by proving he was more…deadly than they were. And he earned the…loyalty of certain guards by promising to pay them off with funds from a bank robbery he claimed to have hidden away somewhere prior to his capture. It was that sort of loyalty which caused your son to be taken in the first place.”

“Are you saying your own guards kidnapped Little Joe?”

The warden nodded. “I am. They took him, and then they…looked after him to whatever extent they were willing to bother.” As Pa’s face reddened and his eyes grew darker, Mr. Curry held up a hand to stave off the impending explosion. “I can assure you they are all being appropriately dealt with, and it will not be pleasant for any of them. Guards who become inmates among the men they guarded can be very difficult to protect from…accidental harm. Fortunately for your son, I also have some very good men under my employ, and it is to one of these we all owe a debt of thanks.”

Mr. Curry was wise to add that final statement. Adam noticed his pa’s gaze softening in recognition of that very debt. He took that as an opportunity to get to the heart of why they had come. “I’m sure we would all like the chance to meet that guard, if we could,” Adam said, giving Pa a chance to gather his thoughts. “I’m also sure we all have a lot more questions for both of you, but…we can get to that later. For now, if you could please just take us to Little Joe.”

The warden looked his way, and then he nodded. “He is not well, you understand. He is very thin, very weak. And his eyes are highly sensitive to light. The room must be kept as dark as possible. We’ve moved him to an inner room, away from windows for that very purpose. The air is a bit thick, but nothing can be done about that for now. The doctor believes he can be moved again in a day or two as he is gradually reintroduced to light. Then it will be a matter of keeping the curtains drawn.”

“Thank you,” Adam said as Mr. Curry opened his mouth again, seeming more intent on talking than on moving from where he was. “I think we understand well enough what to expect. Just take us to him, or tell us where he is.”

Mr. Curry gave another small nod, and then personally escorted them out of his office.

“Mr. Curry?” Hoss asked as they moved outside the prison proper, making their way to the warden’s own house. “I’d like to know just one thing.”

“And what is that?” the warden acknowledged.

“Who was that prisoner? And what did he have against Little Joe?”

“His name was Edgar Blakely. As to his motivations,” he shook his head. “I have yet to understand such details.”

“Edgar Blakely.” Hoss repeated the name three times before turning to Adam. “Hey, Adam? ‘Member that party over at the…”

“Missy Grady’s homecomin’,” Sheriff Coffee interrupted. “Yep, Hoss. That’s where we can remember Edgar Blakely from. He caused a ruckus when his gal gave her attentions to Little Joe instead of him. Had to lock ‘im up before he tore the whole place apart.”

“Has to be more reason than that,” Hoss said. “Don’t you think?”

“Gentlemen,” Mr. Curry stopped moving when he’d reached the steps to his front porch. “If there is one thing I have learned since assuming this position, it is that many prisoners are not willing to accept responsibility for what led them here. They will cast blame to anyone and anything that might have at some point in time offended them, and to any such offense, however slight. For a man as deranged as Mr. Blakely had become, it is entirely possible he had no more reason than the one your sheriff has suggested.”

Inside the house, Mr. Curry led them to a furnished but unoccupied bedroom, and then indicated another door on an inner wall. “Through that door, Mr. Cartwright, you will find your son. But there is one more thing I must impress upon you before you see him.”

Pa stared at the door, his fingers curling into loose fists and then opening again, as though he couldn’t quite decide whether to be angry or worried or any number of other emotions.

“He is confused,” Mr. Curry went on. “I am not entirely certain he’s willing to believe he is not still trapped in that cavern.”

“How can that be?” Hoss asked. “He can see he ain’t.”

“Occasionally we are forced to place men into isolation. Not many handle it well. Sometimes they hallucinate, making themselves believe they’re somewhere else. Your brother was in isolation far longer than any of my prisoners. Perhaps such hallucinations tricked him once too often.”

Maybe Joe was confused, as the warden said. But Adam saw confusion in Hoss’ eyes, and he felt it in his own heart as well. They all had questions, some of which might never get answered. At least one question no longer had to haunt them. Little Joe was still alive. And he was waiting for them on the other side of that door.

*****

Adam was the first to go in. He moved past his father, who was still curling and uncurling his fingers and watching as Roy prodded the warden with more questions. Adam was pretty sure Roy’s intent was to get Mr. Curry out of the room and give the family some privacy, but Pa seemed torn, as though he felt he needed to be a part of the conversation — or maybe he was just as confused as his sons. Adam decided his own confusion would be best faced with the same attitude he would use on a stubborn mustang: when it throws you off, jump right back on; don’t give it time to work up more energy.

Once Adam was through the door, he noticed the voices of Roy and the warden were already beginning to fade before his eyes had even started to adjust to the darkened room. He could almost believe it was the oppressiveness of the stale air combined with the darkness itself that caused a muting effect. But then he heard the outer door drawn closed, effectively shutting out the voices altogether. Roy’s tactic had worked. The Cartwrights were left alone.

Adam had just caught sight of a shadowed figure lying prone on a bed in the center of the small room when Hoss stepped in behind him, and he found himself grateful. The sense of his brother’s bulk standing so close somehow bolstered his courage. He had waited weeks for proof Joe was still alive, yet now that proof was right in front of him and he was afraid to face it, afraid to see that Joe wasn’t Joe anymore. After everything the warden had told them, he imagined a skeletal figure less gruesome yet similar to the corpse in the desert nonetheless.

“Joe?” Hoss brushed past him much like Adam had brushed past his pa, and uttered their brother’s name in an urgent though hushed tone.

Only then did Adam realize he could finally see clearly. Yet, he still hadn’t looked.

“Joe!” Hoss said again, his voice lighter now. “It sure is good to see you, punkin’!”

Finally, Adam looked.

It was Joe’s face after all, though swollen on one side and sunken on the other. And it was nothing like the face — or the remains of the face — in the desert. But those weren’t Joe’s eyes. Those eyes — one fully open, the other merely a slit through Joe’s swollen lid — looked at Hoss like…like he wasn’t even there. And then…then Joe’s gaze slipped away, moving without searching, looking without seeing.

“Joe.” When Joe’s eyes found him, Adam pulled the name from his throat only because his stomach helped to push it out. He felt heartbroken and relieved all at once. Relieved because Joe wasn’t just alive, he was awake. Heartbroken because Little Joe seemed to look right through him before his gaze slid past, moving to the ceiling and then closing, as though to shut his brothers away. But was he really shutting them away? Or just what he thought was the illusion of them?

“Hey, Little Joe,” Hoss said. “It’s alright now. There ain’t nothin’ more you need to worry about.”

Curious about the soothing tone in Hoss’ voice, Adam looked closer, close enough to see tears spilling to Joe’s pillow — tears that didn’t look like they belonged to Joe. His face was too calm, his brow not the least bit knitted, as though the moisture came from someone else, or his eyes held a secret the rest of him had not been privy to learn.

Adam sat gently down on the edge of the bed and reached for Joe’s hand, taking it between both of his. “Joe, this is real. We’re real. You’re not in that cavern anymore. I promise you that.”

Joe’s eyes opened again. He turned his head, his gaze landing where his brother’s hands encircled his own. Encouraged, Adam was aware of Joe raising his other hand. He came to anticipate Joe reaching for him, touching him. Instead, Joe looked away again, this time turning his attention to his other hand. He studied it as though he had discovered something odd. Maybe he wasn’t really seeing it at all. Adam saw that his brother’s gaze seemed to be studying not just his hand or arm, but the space around it, the air itself. Was he seeing something else? Or wondering about something he couldn’t see, something that was missing?

Adam’s thoughts were pulled from the puzzle of his brother’s when he noticed a bandage had been wrapped around Joe’s wrist. Concerned about what that might suggest, he plied his grip away without releasing Joe’s hand and saw there was a bandage around this wrist as well. Adam’s heart starting to pound heavier, he slowly unwrapped this nearer bandage until he saw the bruised, blistered and raw skin beneath — the damage relegated to an area just about the perfect width to accommodate iron shackles.

“Oh, Joe,” Adam breathed softly, slowly shaking his head in useless denial as he put the bandage back in place.

“Joe,” Joe repeated.

Startled, Adam looked to him again and saw that, once again, Joe’s eyes were closed.

“Joe Cartwright,” Joe went on, his voice the slightest whisper. “Joseph Francis Cartwright.” Another tear spilled to the pillow.

Adam forced back tears of his own when he felt a hand on his shoulder. His father’s hand. He turned, seeing moisture in Pa’s eyes as well, and then he rose. Maybe Pa would have better luck.

*****

They took turns through the night sitting with Joe, keeping the door open to the outer room to let in enough light to see by. No one wanted Joe to be left alone. He needed to come to understand the ordeal truly was over, to believe he was in fact free of the cavern and his family was there with him; they were not ghosts or illusions to protect his thoughts from a hellish reality.

They needed to prove to him they were not going to disappear. They were real.

Yet none of them could stay with him for long. The pain of seeing him so…broken, so unlike Little Joe, was overwhelming. And so they took turns.

When it was Adam’s turn again, deep in the night, he watched his brother sleep for a long while, comforted to see that at least in sleep Joe was still Joe. His eyes danced beneath the lids with all the life he hid from them when he was awake. Momentarily content, Adam let his gaze drift to the outer room, where Pa and Hoss both napped, lying fully clothed on top of the still made bed. He listened for the distinctive snores that could prove sleep had found either of them; silence instead proved it had not. But then Adam heard something else. A whispered word coming from his young brother beside him.

“Longfellow.”

He looked to Little Joe, finding his brother’s eyes open and looking right at him — looking so closely Adam could believe this time Joe might even be seeing him.

“Joe!” Adam smiled and reached for his brother’s hand.

Joe’s brow, smooth as it had been for all these hours, was now creased. He shook his head. “No,” he said, and somehow that small word sounded as much like a plea as it did a curse. Then he closed his eyes, tightly this time. “I’m no one!” he cried softly, the tears finally seeming like they were truly his own. “I’m…nothing.”

Adam wrapped Joe’s hand in both of his as he had before. “That’s not true, Joe. You’re not only someone; you’re my brother, Joseph Francis Cartwright.”

“No. Not…real.”

“Yes, Joe. I’m real and so are you. You can feel my hands. They’re real, Joe.”

Joe rolled his head back and forth across the pillow. “No.”

“Yes, Joe. This is real.”

“No.”

“Look at me, Joe! Open your eyes. Look at me!” Adam demanded, tightening his grip. “Joe! Look at me!”

Finally, Joe blinked his vision clear. He looked at Adam, his gaze growing more intense, his brow twisting in grief. “A…Adam?”

Adam grinned down at him, nodding until he could find his own voice. “Welcome back, little brother!”

This time, when Joe’s gaze slipped away, it did so only because Pa and Hoss had stepped into the room — and it didn’t stray for long.

“Adam?” Joe said again, looking to Adam’s hands and tightening his own grip.

“It’s over, Little Joe. You’re safe.”

And then Joe began to cry in earnest.

*****

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

 

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

 

Adam looked up from the book he’d borrowed from Mr. Curry’s extensive library, toward the room where Pa was talking softly with Joe. It was good to hear the conversation was not one-sided. Joe wasn’t saying much, but little by little, his story was unfolding. It was coming in pieces, building from the end, but it was coming. As hard to listen to as it was to piece together, the full details might never really be known by anyone other than Joe — maybe not even by him, confused as he was by the thirst, the hunger, and the darkness. Nor was Adam sure he would ever know exactly why Joe had uttered the name of a poet when he had looked at Adam. But the fact that Joe had said Longfellow’s name had been enough to encourage Adam to read through some of the man’s work. And finding A Psalm of Life seemed to have done something to awaken his own slumbering soul.

The weeks of not knowing were over. Adam could finally look ahead to imagine his brother riding too hard and too fast rather than lying still and broken in the desert.

*****

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;–

 

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Longfellow: A Psalm of Life

*****

No One 

Joe reined Cochise in at the top of the bluff and looked out over the expanse spread out before him. It was the best spot to see the true magnificence of the Ponderosa. Everything below belonged to Joe’s family. By default, he could say it belonged to him –not to him alone, certainly, but to him, nonetheless. And yet….

“I’m no one.” The words played themselves out in his head, as they had for months now. “I’m no one.”

“That’s not true, Joe,” Adam had told him when Joe had first come to awareness in a bed at the warden’s house near the perimeter of the Territorial Prison. “You’re not only someone; you’re my brother, Joseph Francis Cartwright.”

“You are very definitely someone, Joseph,” Pa had said later. “You’re someone who matters very, very much to all of us. You’re my son, Joseph. You’re my son.”

Hoss, too, had tried. “Now you know that ain’t true, Little Joe,” he’d said more times than Joe could count. “Why don’t you get that notion right out of your head?”

Over the past three months, they had nearly convinced him but not completely. Now, standing there and looking out at all that land, Joe realized he really was no one. He was a brother, a son, a part of a family that owned all this land. And yet he was nothing. This land owned him far more than he owned it. He was no more permanent on it than any one, single tree. Less, even. A tree could stand far longer than he could in this small, insignificant life of his. If he were to let himself fall right now, those trees down below would not part for him. They would not shield him or comfort him. They would kill him. It really was simple as that, wasn’t it? This land could kill him, and nothing would change. The land would remain. The trees would remain. Tomorrow would still dawn. He would be gone, and it wouldn’t matter at all.

What right had he to ever have thought himself special, or deserving of anything at all? Besides that, what right did ownership of anything give anyone to stand above others? No one, single man could ever be more permanent than any other. Not a soul on this earth was as significant as all this land, as all these trees.

No. Joe really was no one. He was no better than anyone else, no more important. Edgar Blakely had been no less important than Little Joe. He’d had no less right to happiness than Joe. And yet Joe had ignored him. Joe hadn’t even been able to remember the man — because Joe had viewed him as no one worth remembering. Joe had danced with the girl Blakely had been counting on to bring him happiness. Joe had danced with her and forgotten her, all in a single night, without ever realizing what that girl had meant, what that night had meant to Blakely.

Joe had destroyed Blakely’s future simply by seeing him as no one. How could he blame the man for trying to take Joe’s future away from him in return? Blakely had imprisoned Joe as he had been imprisoned himself. It was the simplest form of justice, an eye for an eye, after all.

But every prison sentence has a beginning and an end. Joe’s imprisonment was over; it was time for him to stop living as though it wasn’t.

Feeling a strange sense of peace settle over him, Joe turned Cochise back to the road. He was ready to reclaim some small part of his future — at least enough to allow him to accept that even no ones like him deserved some happiness. Maybe then his family could find a sense of peace as well.

*****

After feeding more wood to his small campfire, Joe lay back against his saddle and looked up at the stars. It still amazed him how much comfort those stars gave to him every night. Once, before the darkness, his house had given him that kind of comfort. It had been a sort of sanctuary, a safe haven from whatever troubles might burden him. But it couldn’t protect him from the troubles the darkness had brought him, the darkness Edgar Blakely had forced him to know.

Three months had passed since Joe had been freed from the depths of a black, empty cave, and five since Joe had enjoyed the comfort of his house. Five months ago, his house had been home to him. Now, he had no sense of home at all. The house had come to feel as confining as the cave. He would look at the walls and feel rocks instead. Even the air, fresh though it may be, filled his thoughts with black dirt and mildew until he was sure he would suffocate.

It was ridiculous and he knew it. His family’s house was nothing like that damp, dark cave where he’d been held for all those weeks. He had no chains now around his wrists. His clothes were clean and new, devoid of the tatters and blood stains that had ruined the ones he’d worn when he’d been taken — and had still been wearing when he’d been found two months later. He was given more food than he could stomach and as much water as he could drink.

He had everything, yet he had nothing.

“You remember that,” Blakely had told him. “I’m everything, and you’re nothing. Nothing at all. Now who am I?”

“Everything.”

“And who are you?”

“Noth…nothing.”

The voices called to him relentlessly. He heard them over and over again in his head, in his dreams, the voices of men with no faces, men who had come to him wearing hoods and whose voices were as cold as the cave — and the voice of one man in particular, a man who’d worn no hood, the man with the long face. Edgar Blakely, the man Joe had forgotten months earlier, the someone Joe had carelessly treated as no one at all.

Joe closed his eyes to push the voices away, hoping to pull in other thoughts, better thoughts, just as he had in the cave. But the comforting visions that had saved him once were more elusive now. And the voices were never fully silenced. They spoke to him from the walls, the rocks, even the trees. They were everywhere. They were everything. And he…he simply could not rid himself of the rote response they had beaten into him. He was nothing. He was no one.

“Joseph Francis Cartwright,” he would sometimes utter in defiance — but only when he was alone with the darkness. Or, like now, with the stars.

Even at home, he had taken to sleeping outside. It was the only way he could keep the nightmares from creeping in, turning his bedroom walls into black rocks strewn with shadows of men with long faces or wearing ghostly hoods. His family could not understand it, and he could not explain it. In some ways, it was as though he had never left the cavern — or perhaps a part of him had been left behind, the part that made him not only Joseph Francis Cartwright, but also ‘Little Joe.’ No one or not, at least he’d had a name.

With each passing day, and then each passing week, he had hoped to reclaim what was lost. But after three months, he was coming to realize he never would — not without going back to personally retrieve it.

“I’ll go with you,” Adam had said when Joe had first announced his plans to pay a visit to the old mine just beyond the grounds of the Territorial Prison.

“Why don’t we all go,” Hoss had added. “We can…”

“No,” Joe had argued. He had to go alone. His family had come to feel as confining as the walls, crowding him in their desire to protect him. Without intending to, they were helping to keep the darkness alive within him.

No. The only way to fight the darkness was to face it directly. And he needed to do it alone.

“Joseph Francis Cartwright,” he said again, focusing his words on a single star high above him. But as he looked away, he caught a flash of light and then glimpsed the tail of a shooting star — as though the stars themselves saw him as no one at all.

*****

Coffee. It was the one thing Joe appreciated the most since he’d been home. Somehow it filled him as nothing else could. It gave him something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, some sense of comfort he couldn’t even come close to understanding. But he didn’t have to understand it to appreciate it. And so coffee was one of the few necessities Joe had been sure to pack for this journey.

He sipped it now as he watched the sun start to climb above the horizon. He’d been awake since the first fingers of light had begun to chase the stars away, when the sky was neither dark nor light — as was his custom now. Gone were the days of Little Joe Cartwright sleeping late and then waking slowly, still in the grip of some distant dream. He barely dreamt anymore. And he never overslept. He couldn’t. He didn’t dare, because that hour or so before true sunrise was the time of day he’d come to find the most disturbing. It was a time that seemed to set him teetering on the edge of some vast precipice. He always woke to it now, as though he felt he needed to — almost believing if he didn’t rise to watch the light return he would fall back into the black void forever.

“You wouldn’t happen to have some coffee to spare, would you, friend?” The voice called to Joe from a safe distance off to his right, in shadows he’d been keeping an eye on for a while now.

Joe was not surprised. The visitor had made no attempt to hide his approach. “I would,” he answered. He waited as the man first settled his horse beside Cochise and then settled himself across the fire from Joe, holding his own cup ready.

“Help yourself.” Joe nodded toward the pot.

“Much obliged.”

The man’s voice was familiar, and as Joe watched him pour his coffee, Joe found something familiar about his hands, too. While the flames licked toward them, highlighting thick veins and long, roughened fingers, Joe’s mind threw him glimpses from the cave, glimpses of the hands that had hit him, or threw moldy bread at him like he was an animal they dare not approach, or tormented him with water, spilling it to the ground in front of him, wasting precious drops when Joe was so parched his tongue felt thick enough to choke him.

The images were more familiar than this man’s hands or his voice. They didn’t bother him. He took another sip of his own coffee and said nothing.

“Don’t get many visitors around here,” the stranger said.

“I don’t suppose you do.”

“So what brings you, friend?”

Joe looked at him. The man’s face was veiled in shadows, as hidden as any of those faces back in the cave. He might as well have been wearing a hood. “I could ask the same question.”

“I reckon you just did.”

Joe felt his lips curl up in a small smile. He figured he should be concerned, but he wasn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to worry. Maybe he’d just grown too numb to worry. Instead of tensing up, he smiled. But at least he could exercise some caution in his words. “Then if you don’t mind, I’ll let you answer first.”

“And if I do mind?”

Joe shrugged. “I suppose that would mean you have something to hide.”

“I suppose it would. And I suppose I do, at that. But I don’t reckon you’d much care about any of my secrets.” The stranger took another swallow. “Tell you true, you’re what brung me up here. Saw your fire last night. Figured I’d like to know who it is campin’ out near these dead mines we got here.”

“Why would it matter?”

“It weren’t too long ago a young fella got trapped in one of them mines. I wouldn’t want to see it happen to no one else.”

“You sure about that?”

“Friend, that cave’s a one-way ticket to Hell. I got men down there in that prison yonder who belong in Hell, and I wouldn’t make none of ’em rot in a cave like that fella was like to do.”

Joe did start to tense then. He even found it harder to breathe. “So you weren’t part of it?” His voice betrayed him, starting soft and then cracking like an adolescent boy.

“No, sir, I was not.”

Sir? Joe didn’t deserve to be called ‘sir.’ But he couldn’t argue with the man. He didn’t even know what to say anymore. He stared into those shadows, willing the sun to rise just a little faster, fast enough to show him who this man was.

“You know what I’d like to know, friend?” the man asked.

Joe didn’t say a word.

“What earthly reason would make a fella want to go back to Hell after he’s broke free of it?”

Joe felt eyes boring into him, eyes he couldn’t even see. He found himself looking away, suddenly nervous. It was a strange sensation, as though the numbness that had been like a second skin for so long was losing its hold on him.

Amazed and curious, Joe forced himself to show his own eyes to the hidden ones studying one. “Maybe…maybe because he never really broke free.”

After a moment, that shadowed face nodded. “I reckon Hell can have a pretty long reach at that.”

“Who are you?” Joe asked finally, his voice soft and childish again.

The man leaned forward, reaching around the flames to extend his hand. “Name’s Matelin. Howard Matelin. Most folks just call me Mate.”

Joe finally saw his face. He recognized the crooked nose right away. This was the man who’d saved him, the man responsible for getting Joe out of that cave.

Nervousness gave way to a wash of emotions Joe could make no sense of at all. He wanted to laugh, to cry, to run screaming for his life — and to pull this man toward him, to hug him like a brother, like one of his own brothers, both of whom he’d been pushing further and further away.

“Well, son,” Mate chuckled softly. “Hell might still have a grip on you, but you sure are gripping back strong enough.”

Joe realized he wasn’t only shaking the man’s hand, he was squeezing it as though…as though he didn’t dare let go. “Sorry,” he said, letting go after all.

“Now, Joe Cartwright,” Mate said, leaning back and pouring himself another cup of coffee. “What do you suppose we can do to get you free once and for all?”

Joe stared back at him. “I wish I knew.”

*****

Ben stepped out onto the porch to take in the sunrise. The first streaks of pink were just beginning to chase away the illusive gray veil of pre-dawn. Little Joe would be watching too now, as he did every morning since they’d brought him home from the nightmare he’d endured at the hands of Edgar Blakely. Ben could only wonder what thoughts stirred in his young son’s head when he gazed up into the sky, seeming lost in the stars or the blessed rays of the sun…or even the clouds. It was almost as though Joe was looking for something up there, a part of himself perhaps. Maybe that’s what Ben was looking for now too — a sign of hope, something to tell him Little Joe would return to the impetuous young man he’d been before.

“I’ll get the horses saddled.” Adam’s voiced pulled Ben back to the moment.

“What for?” He turned, confused.

Adam hesitated in his approach and regarded his father with a curious gaze. “I figured you’d be about ready to go after Joe.”

“Son, I was ready to go after him the moment he left. But…” Ben took a deep breath of the early morning air, welcoming to coolness of it. “He needs to be ready for us.” He shook his head. “No, he hasn’t had enough time yet to find what he’s looking for.”

“I’m not sure he even knows what he’s looking for.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t. But he’ll find it nonetheless. He has to.” Ben’s voice softened on those last words, added as much to appease the cries of his own heart as to comfort the silent ones he knew lingered even now in Little Joe’s.

“Maybe he’d have better luck if he knew he wasn’t alone.”

Ben gave Adam a small, sad smile. “But he is, Adam. That’s the whole problem. He knows we want to help him any way we can, and we want to understand. But as much as we try to, as much as we want to, we simply can’t. We weren’t there; we can never truly know what it was like for him, what it’s done to him, deep inside. And as much as he tries to explain, to help us understand…. What he experienced was unthinkable, unimaginable. There aren’t enough words in the English language — in any language — to truly describe it, and…”

“And?”

“And he probably wouldn’t really want to if he could. Think about it. If you were him, would you want to put that burden on us, the burden of knowing with absolute certainty everything you went through?”

Adam took a deep breath and dug his hands into the back of his belt. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t. But I still feel as though we ought to be there with him.”

“I do, too. Despite all I’ve just said. In a way, I like to think that we are. At least he knows we want to be.”

“I’m glad we let the warden know to keep an eye out for him.”

“Yes.” Ben nodded. “Getting that telegram back from Mr. Curry yesterday was probably the only reason I was able to get any sleep at all last night. Joe’s in good hands.” Ben’s gaze strayed once again to the sunrise. “In more ways than one.” Finally, he turned back to Adam, draping his arm across his son’s shoulders to draw him into the house. Breakfast wasn’t ready yet, but the coffee should be finished brewing.

In his thoughts Ben imagined Joe sitting beside a warm campfire, gazing up at the sunrise. He was probably well into his second cup of coffee by now.

In his heart, Ben wanted him to be upstairs, fast asleep, well on his way to over-sleeping.

*****

“Joe Cartwright?”

Joe returned his attention to his visitor.

“Looked like I lost you there for a minute,” Mate said when their eyes met once more.

“Sorry. I was just… That name of yours — Mate. Makes me think of the sea, like a first mate on a ship.” In truth, it went further than that. Deeper. It made Joe think of his brother, Adam, and he found himself wishing Adam were there now. But if he were, what would Joe say to him? What could he say? He never knew what to say to anyone anymore. Words were never good enough. They were never real enough.

“Looked like I lost you there for a minute.” A minute? No. Joe had been lost for months now.

Mate chuckled. “Kind of strange to think of the sea out here in the desert, but you ain’t half wrong.”

“How’s that?”

“My pappy was a sailor. Rode the waves into port, then he rode my momma ’til it was time to sail on out again. Never did come back.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For losing your father.”

“Can’t lose somethin’ you never had. Momma did just fine on her own. Took a new name, came out here, and took it on herself to see to it folks treated her with respect.”

“Must be a strong woman to do all that.”

“Oh, she was.”

Hearing the past tense, Joe stopped himself short of saying he was sorry again. He was surprised when his unspoken apology prompted Mate to smile.

“Didn’t lose her, neither.”

“She’s still alive?” Joe asked.

“No. But that don’t mean I lost her. She was a good woman, a fine woman. Taught me well. You don’t lose someone like that unless you want to.”

Joe stared back at him, trying to puzzle out what he was saying. Joe had lost his mother many years ago, when he’d barely been old enough to even know who she was. For all these years, he had clung to every reminder of her he could find — people and stories from her past, possessions she’d cherished, like the music box Pa kept in the great room. Joe had clung to these things because they were all he had of her, all she’d left behind. Yes, Joe had lost her, but not because he’d wanted to.

“What about you, Joe Cartwright? Who’d you lose?”

The question was asked in a harmless, friendly tone. But it stung like an accusation. I didn’t want to lose her! he argued silently. I had no choice! It wasn’t…wasn’t my choice. Anger built up within him. It was a familiar yet odd sensation, one that used to come naturally. But this… This wasn’t natural. It burned within him, its flames sucking strength from the oxygen in his lungs. He couldn’t breathe.

Joe climbed to his feet, tossing the rest of his coffee into the campfire where it sizzled and cracked, and spat right back at him. It wasn’t my choice! he wanted to shout. But the flames had more strength than he did. He barely had the energy in his legs to walk to the dead tree where Cochise was tethered. Then he leaned against a gray branch to look again at the fire in the sky. It was getting bright now, bright enough to see the truth, whether he wanted to or not.

He decided he had better things to look at. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out the picture of his mother, the one he always carried with him. He’d thought it lost all those months ago, after Blakely’s paid guards had taken Joe from the road. But someone had found it and sent it back to him. There had been no note, no mention of where it had been found or how it had come to be recognized as belonging to Joe. It had simply arrived one day in Virginia City, in a package bearing Joe’s name.

“She was a fine woman too, I reckon,” Mate said without rising. “I could see it in her eyes. Eyes don’t lie, Joe Cartwright. It would do you well to remember that.”

“You?” Joe found enough air to breathe that single word as he turned to face his visitor.

Mate did not look away.

“You’re the one who sent this back to me,” Joe said a moment later.

Mate did not argue.

“Where’d you find it?”

“In the cave. Not far from where you were.”

“Not far?” All that time in the cave, Joe had thought it lost on the road. He’d imagined it getting pressed into the hard ground, trodden by horses’ hoofs — and worse.

“Not far at all,” Mate answered. “It was almost like she was sittin’ beside you the whole time.”

No, Joe told himself. It couldn’t have been. It was lost. He’d known it was lost. Everything had been lost to him in that cave.

He looked at the picture again, saw his mother’s eyes gazing knowingly — accusingly — at him.

“You don’t lose someone like that unless you want to.” Mate’s words stung him again.

I didn’t want to lose her! Joe argued. I didn’t want to let go!

But he had, hadn’t he? He’d let go. And now he had nothing left. Even the picture was lost to him, lost of the warmth he’d seen in it before. Because she knew. She knew what a no one he had become.

“Eyes don’t lie, Joe Cartwright. It would do you well to remember that.”

Joe looked into the brightening sky and wondered what his eyes were saying right now. I’m Joe Cartwright! he wanted to shout. But what good were words if his eyes betrayed him?

*****

“If you were him, would you want to put that burden on us,” Pa had said. “The burden of knowing with absolute certainty everything you went through?” The words dug deep into Adam’s thoughts, stirring up memories he’d thought well-buried. He’d hidden them from himself nearly as well as he’d hidden them from his family.

“The burden of knowing with absolute certainty everything you went through?”

Joe had been tortured. There was no other way to describe it. Adam would never know exactly what Joe had endured. No one but Joe would ever know with absolute certainty everything Joe had been through. But Adam did know something of it, something Pa and Hoss could not know, because Adam was not a stranger to torture. He had endured it to some extent himself at the hands of Peter Kane, a man so twisted he had done everything he could to compel Adam to kill him. To prove that even a man with Adam’s convictions could be driven to murder, Kane had tormented him with hunger, thirst, utter exhaustion. And yes, Adam had been pushed enough to feel the desire to attack Kane, maybe even to kill the man. But he’d refused to act upon it, no matter the cost.

“If you were him, would you want to put that burden on us, the burden of knowing with absolute certainty everything you went through?”

No, Adam realized. He had never wanted to burden his family. Telling them exactly what he’d endured, if sufficient words even existed to truly describe it, would have done none of them any good. But it was more than that. It was…deeper. Kane had forced Adam to see himself as something less than he’d always believed. Adam had endured what he had for one reason only: to prove he could not be broken. Yet he had been, hadn’t he? He’d been broken.

With Joe, it had been different. Joe hadn’t been given a choice. He had simply been broken. He’d had no chance to fight. He could do nothing except endure. For two agonizing months, he had endured. And by enduring, he had been forced to see himself as barely a man.

“I’m no one,” Joe would say for no reason. Adam would find him in the barn or in his room, staring into the darkness and claiming to be nothing at all. To be no one. And Adam had been helpless. He’d had no useful words to offer, none that could ever turn Joe’s thoughts. He couldn’t tell Joe to just forget what had been done. He couldn’t hope to convince Joe the damage was past. It was over. There was nothing to do but move on.

You can’t expect a man who has seen the worst of what he could become to simply ignore it, to pretend it wasn’t him, it wasn’t real.

No, Adam had never known what to say to help Joe find his way back to the man he had been before. Maybe that was because Adam knew Joe could never be that same man.

He could be better.

To Hell with waiting for Joe to be ready. Adam saddled Sport and told his pa and Hoss he’d be back in a few days. He said nothing more than that, and he gave them no chance to argue before riding out of the yard.

*****

“Tell me about him,” Joe asked as he saddled Cochise.

Mate watched, his arms crossed in front of him. “Who you asking about?”

“Blakely. What’s he like in that prison of yours?”

“You really want to know?”

Tightening the cinch, Joe stepped around his horse to confront Mate directly. “Yes.”

“Well then….” Mate lifted his hat, scratched his head and then tapped his hat on his leg to shake off the morning’s dust. “Guess I’ve a mind to tell you.” He settled the hat back onto his head before meeting Joe’s searching gaze. “Edgar Blakely’s the devil. Simple as that.”

Edgar Blakely’s the devil.

Joe could almost believe it. In his mind, he could see Blakely standing over him again, pulling back his fist, ready to strike, telling Joe he was nothing. Yes, Joe had seen the devil in Blakely’s eyes then. But it had been Joe himself who’d put it there, hadn’t it?

All on account of you seein’ me as nothin’, Blakely had told him.

Fighting to breathe once more, Joe pushed the image away, as he’d been learning to do ever since…ever since he’d come awake in that dark room at the warden’s house to find Adam standing over him instead.

“Nothing’s ever that simple,” Joe said.

“Sometimes it is. You look in that man’s eyes, it’s the devil lookin’ back at you.”

“Maybe so. But he wasn’t always that way. It was something… Something turned him.”

“You,” Blakely had said. “You took my girl right off my arm. I waited a year to get her to dance with me, and a minute later you took her away.”

“Don’t bet on it,” Mate’s voice came like a reprieve, chasing away the memory. “He was born that way, more like.”

“No one’s born with the devil in him,” Joe countered softly.

Mate didn’t say anything for a moment. He held quiet until Joe’s eyes locked onto his. “Don’t bet on it,” he repeated then. “Eyes don’t lie. And his eyes say he was always the devil.”

Eyes don’t lie? What about Mate’s? Joe studied them, looking for truth. But he wasn’t sure if he knew what was true in anyone anymore. Finding no answers, he returned to Cochise.

“You gonna tell me now where you’re headed, Joe Cartwright?” Mate asked as Joe swung into the saddle.

Anger spun Joe around to face Mate again. “Stop calling me that!”

“Your name?”

“I’m Joe. Just…just Joe.” Looking away, anger almost gave way to the numbing indifference he’d known for so long now. Only his hands remained tense, tightening into fists as he gripped the reins.

“Fair enough,” Mate answered. “You’re Joe. But you’re also a Cartwright. In my eyes, that’s worth something.”

“It’s just a name. Nothing more than that.”

“It’s a name folks respect.”

The fire within him hot again, Joe gave his attention back to Mate. “Well, maybe folks ought to spend more time respecting people than names!”

“Ain’t just your name I’m respectin’, Joe Cartwright.”

“I’m not talking about me!”

“Who are you talkin’ about?”

“Everyone!” Joe shouted. Cochise nickered and danced sideways, clearly disapproving of Joe’s tone. “Everyone deserves respect.”

“Not the devil. Devil don’t deserve respect.”

The fire in Joe was stoked good and strong now, stronger than he’d felt it in months. Joe hadn’t been driven by anger to do anything at all since he’d returned from that cave. Now it drove him to dismount, to look this man dead in the eye.

“And just who are you,” Joe said coldly, “Howard Matelin, to decide whether someone’s the devil or not?”

“I told you, Joe Cartwright. Eyes don’t lie. Yours tell me you deserve respect, whether you believe it or not. Blakely’s tell me he don’t. Simple as that.”

“And what about you, Howard Matelin? How much respect do you deserve, Howard Matelin? How do you like me reminding you over and over again who you are, Howard Matelin?”

Mate shrugged. “Don’t bother me none at all. ‘Course, I don’t need to be reminded who I am.”

Joe glared at him. Eyes don’t lie, the man had told him. This man’s eyes looked like…like Pa’s. Or Adam’s. Like Joe could trust him. But how do you trust a man when you can’t trust yourself?

Confused by emotions he barely recognized, Joe turned back to Cochise.

“You gonna tell me now, Joe Cartwright, just where it is you’re aimin’ to go?”

Joe took hold of the saddle horn and gazed up at a sky as blue as any he’d ever seen. “To look into the devil’s eyes,” he said after filling his lungs with dusty air. His voice was barely more than a whisper. It made him sound childish once more. He felt like a child, too, when he swung back atop Cochise and started toward the prison. He felt like a child afraid to face the monsters under the bed. But he was the only one who could. Because he’d pushed his family away. And he didn’t even know why.

*****

What started as a mildly annoying smell quickly grew to an unbearable stench. Joe had noticed the warden put a handkerchief to his nose just before he’d ushered Joe to the outer office. Now Joe knew why. The warden had anticipated the odor preceding the guards as they brought the prisoner inside. Still, that wasn’t what stole Joe’s breath or made him want to turn away, abandoning all his questions…and maybe even his only hope of climbing out of the dark emptiness he’d fallen into. No. It wasn’t the smell of a man who’d been held too long in a small, dark hole that made Joe’s knees want to fold beneath him. It was the eyes.

The warden must have expected Joe’s reaction. He’d been determined not to grant Joe’s request. “There are very strict protocols to follow with regard to prisoners receiving visitors. And prisoners in solitary confinement are to receive no visitors at all.”

“Are you telling me Blakely’s in solitary confinement?” The idea had appalled Joe, bringing his thoughts back to the cave, where he’d been forced to sit alone in a darkness blacker than the blackest night for two solid months, his only visitors hooded men with iron fists who were more likely to beat him than feed him.

“I am. I almost believe he prefers it that way. Every time he finishes a term in solitary, he does something to make us send him right back again. This last time, he very nearly killed a man. I almost wish he had,” the warden had added in a voice soft as a whisper.

Joe had heard him, nonetheless. “How can you say that?” he’d asked, startled by the warden’s admission.

“Blakely’s victim was another scoundrel, barely more civil than Blakely himself. He would have been no loss to humanity. And murder would have given us just cause to be rid of Blakely once and for all.”

“These aren’t wolves or pumas killing the stock,” Joe had argued. “They’re people, men who deserve the chance to be treated like men, not animals.”

The warden had given Joe a curious look, his brows drawing down as though puzzled. “Edgar Blakely is hardly fit to be called a man. Surely you of all people could see that.”

“I know a thing or two about solitary confinement, Mr. Curry. It can make a man feel like an animal. Maybe even make people like you see him as an animal. But he’s still a man.”

“Son,” the warden had leaned forward in his chair then, seeming almost like a concerned father, “I might find your attitude commendable were you speaking of just about any one of my prisoners other than Edgar Blakely. But I have to admit I am having a great deal of difficulty understanding how you can be so quick to defend a man who quite frankly treated you worse than an animal for so long it would have killed anyone less fit and perhaps even less determined than you proved to be.”

“I’m not…not defending him. All I’m saying is… I guess I don’t know what I’m saying. I just…I need to see him.”

And now Joe was looking right at him. And he didn’t see a man at all.

“You!” Blakely growled like a rabid wolf. Joe felt himself backing away, but it wasn’t Joe the man was looking at. It was the warden. “I’m gonna kill you! You done this to me! You done all of this! You miserable prick bastard!” With each word, the man’s voice gained volume, growing from a growl to an outright roar. And suddenly he was lunging forward, guards on both sides of him straining to hold him back. Despite the chains on his feet and hands, Joe had no doubt he could overpower those guards, given enough time.

“You have a visitor,” the warden said, amazing Joe with the calm sound of his voice and the impassive nature of his gaze. He turned toward Joe, drawing Blakely’s attention, pulling Blakely’s eyes Joe’s way.

It wasn’t just the devil in those eyes then, it was Satan himself. And suddenly Joe could almost believe he was back in that cave, cowering, desperate to press himself deeper into the walls to escape.

“Who the hell are you?”

The words fell like a splash of water, bringing Joe back to reality. He closed his own eyes, took a deep, shuddering breath — and realized what Blakely had asked. Who the hell are you?

“You don’t…don’t know?” Joe asked.

“If I did I wouldn’t be askin’, now would I?”

Joe looked to the warden, who merely shrugged and shook his head.

“You…” Joe pressed on. “You told me you had a girl in Virginia City. Can you just…just tell me her name?”

“One girl?” Blakely laughed. It was a breathy sound, like a damaged bellows wheezing out as much air as it took in. “Why would I bother rememberin’ one girl’s name?

The fire of Hell Blakely had brought with him began to fuel the embers still settling in Joe. Confusion threatened to melt into hot rage. He bit it back, held it in. “You said I took her from you. You blamed everything on…”

“Cartwright?” Blakely said softly, looking deeper, his gaze sweeping Joe from head to foot. “Cartwright!” Blakely shouted then, the volume in his voice startling, unexpected. His face burned now along with his eyes. “You done this! I’ll kill you! I swear I will!” He struggled against the guards, harder, fiercer than before. And this time he broke free.

He was on Joe in an instant, wrapping his wrist chains around Joe’s neck. Joe tried to fight back, but the devil’s rage gave Blakely more strength than Joe could muster. He could feel the chain tightening, its jagged, metal links digging into the soft skin beneath Joe’s chin. His throat closed tighter right along with it. He sucked in one quick, small breath and then nothing at all.

The cave tried to pull Joe in, its dark void gathering force with every twist of Blakely’s hands until it began to swallow sound, leaving Joe floundering in a tunnel of distant echoes — sounds of yelling, wood striking flesh and bone, chains clanking. He began to find himself deep in the belly of that cave once more.

And then…the world came back in a flash of color. Joe fell to his knees, thrusting one hand out to stop himself from falling further. The other went to his throat, desperate to pull away something that wasn’t there. Not anymore. The chain was gone.

Joe coughed hard against the darkness as a hand fell to his shoulder.

“Bring the doctor!” The warden’s shout came like a lifeline, pulling Joe back into daylight. “Mr. Cartwright?” the warden called to him. “Now do you see, Mr. Cartwright? Do you see why I was so reluctant to have you face him? What will your father say? He will be…”

“Nothing!” Joe shouted in a voice as jagged as the chain had been. He coughed once more and then pushed himself to his feet, casting his gaze around the room to find it empty now, except for the warden and him. There were spatters of blood on the floor. He had little doubt it was Blakely’s. “He’ll say nothing,” Joe went on then. “My father doesn’t need to know about this.”

“But I have an obligation…”

“What obligation? He told you to look out for me, didn’t he? That’s why you sent Howard Matelin, isn’t it?” Joe was angry again. But at whom? His pa, for interfering? The warden, for conspiring with Pa? Blakely, for both forgetting and remembering?

“Your father said you were coming, yes. But I did not send Mr. Matelin. He went of his own accord. It seems he feels a sense of…responsibility to you. As do I. As would any man who…” There was a strange tone to the warden’s words. His voice grew softer, and then died altogether.

Joe’s thoughts shifted, turned to the man beside him to find the warden gazing away, seeming to avoid Joe’s eyes. “Who what, Mr. Currie?”

He was slow to look at Joe again, but when he did, he at least had the fortitude to hold Joe’s gaze, even despite his next words. “We failed you, Mr. Cartwright. We failed you, pure and simple. First, we enabled the situation to happen. It wasn’t until a full month after you were taken that we came to realize something was seriously amiss.”

“A month?” Joe asked softly, the implications of the man’s words igniting a different kind of fire, a cold, acidic burning in the pit of his stomach. “You knew after the first month?”

“We knew something was going on. It took another week to figure out what.”

Joe stared at him, unable to speak. They knew? They knew three weeks before his rescue? Three weeks in that cave might as well have been an eternity.

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright. Five weeks into your captivity, we knew someone had been taken. We even suspected it might have been you. News had been circulating about your disappearance, and the timing fit perfectly with shifts we had detected in the behavior of some of the guards. Adding to that Blakely’s link to your own Virginia City, and, well, yes, we suspected. But we could not inform your father on mere suspicions. We needed proof.”

“You knew,” Joe said again as the acid stole the last of his energy. He stumbled to a nearby chair and sank down into it.

“We suspected. We still could not determine exactly where you were. It took time for Mr. Matelin to insinuate himself into Blakely’s group of co-conspirators. When he did…frankly, we assumed we were already too late. The guards were taking less and less interest in slipping away to wherever they had left you. When finally they gave the task to Mr. Matelin he…”

“He said I had to tell him my name.”

“Yes, we needed to be sure.”

“Why? Why would it matter who I was?”

“Being who you were gave us access to resources we otherwise would have had to do without. Your father has a good many friends in high places, young man. Those resources enabled us to trap Edgar Blakely and the guards who were working with him. We gave him an opportunity to escape, and…”

“And you let him come for me. He could have killed me.”

“The strategy was recommended by Captain Hendrickson’s man. I accepted the Army’s judgment in that regard.

“If I had been anyone else…”

“If you had been a weaker man, regardless your name or your father’s position, you would have died. If you had been exactly who are you, but had given us another name, you likely would have been trapped for at least another day or two. Maybe more. I am not sure even a man like you would have survived.”

“A man like me?”

“You have a powerful will, Mr. Cartwright. Your ability to…persevere is unprecedented by any situation to which I have ever borne witness. It has already been the fodder for a good many stories circulating within these prison walls. Frankly, my men admire you, and for good reason. It is men like you who offer proof that the Edgar Blakelys of this world aren’t fit to be called men at all. With each passing day, he grows wilder, more uncontrollable, while you…”

“Became docile, like an obedient lamb.”

“Hardly. You did, after all, encourage me to allow you to see the prisoner, despite my insistence against it. No. You did not become docile. You became…rational. Even now, you try to reason between right and wrong. Blakely? He lacks the ability to reason. And his only distinction between right and wrong is based on what he deems as right for himself at any given moment. He is selfish beyond description. He would have died in that cave if you and he had switched places. His rage would have been the death of him.”

“If we had switched places, he would never have ended up in that cave.”

“Quite so. And therein lies the distinction between the two of you. You are a man, and one deserving of respect with or without your name. He…is a beast, hardly a man at all. There is no one to blame for the wrongs in his life but himself.”

“He said I took his girl, but he can’t even remember her name.”

“Excuses. Some men live and die by them. You, on the other hand, look for reasons. You are on the right path, young man. You would do well to let it take you home where you belong. Get back to the life you were born to. Leave us to handle the Blakelys of this world.”

“I wish it were that easy.”

“I’m sure it will become easy, once you put your mind to it. Now here, let the doctor have a look at you.”

Joe hadn’t even heard the doctor arriving, but suddenly there he was, pushing at Joe’s collar to examine the marks on his neck. Joe pushed right back at him, standing so quickly and awkwardly he toppled his chair. “I’m fine!” Joe insisted. He didn’t know why it mattered, but it did. No doctor could fix the harm done deep inside him, and what Blakely had done to his neck…well, maybe there was a reason for that, too. It could serve as a reminder that Blakely’s eyes had shown him no trace of the poor, woe begotten soul Joe had personally destroyed by dancing with a girl. Maybe that soul had been nothing but a subterfuge all along — a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“Eyes don’t lie,” Mate had told him.

“You are a man, and one deserving of respect with or without your name,” the warden had said. “He…is a beast, hardly a man at all.”

And strangely, Joe was starting to believe them both.

*****

Joe was not surprised to see Mate waiting for him. The man had seemed to appoint himself as Joe’s personal caretaker — a position Joe would relieve him of soon enough, now that he knew the cause behind it. What did surprise Joe was the smile Mate was wearing. Curious, Joe took a quick look behind him, but all he saw was the prison; it wasn’t exactly the kind of sight to inspire good humor.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, feeling those embers inside him begin to catch fire again.

“I ain’t laughin’.”

“Well then, what’s got you grinning like that?”

“You.”

The fire was taking hold. “I don’t need to be the butt of your jokes,” Joe fumed, “and I don’t need for you to be looking after me because you feel guilty!”

Mate’s smile faded from his lips, but not from his eyes. Eyes don’t lie. “I got nothin’ to feel guilty about.”

“It seems he feels a sense of…responsibility to you,” the warden had told Joe. “As do I.”

Mate was just playing with words. It was a game Adam might appreciate, but Joe was tired of it. “Mr. Curry told me everything,” he said. “He told me how long it took between the time you knew what was happening and the time you came to get me out of that cave. I don’t blame you. It wasn’t your fault.” Joe did blame him, though, didn’t he? He could have been freed weeks earlier. Not days. Weeks.

“You’re right. It wasn’t. I did what I could, when I could. Couldn’t do any different.”

You could have worked faster, Joe thought, clenching his teeth. But Joe didn’t know that, not really. Maybe the man had done what he could, when he could. After all, eyes don’t lie. “He said you both felt a sense of responsibility to me.”

“No man can talk to what another man’s feelin’. I can’t talk for Mr. Curry, and he can’t talk for me. But I do know for a fact the only one responsible for you is you yourself.”

“Then why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you looking out for me?”

“A man sees someone needin’ help, it’s the least he can do to offer what help he can.”

Joe studied the man’s eyes and found no reason to doubt him. He was a puzzle even so. “I don’t understand you.”

“Don’t need to. Only one you need to understand is yourself.”

Confounded, Joe moved his gaze toward the distant rocks. “Why were you grinning just now?”

“I could see your visit was worthwhile. Got you thinkin’ the right way.”

Joe gave the man his full attention once more. “How could you tell that just by watching me ride up?”

“When you went in, you didn’t look at none of the folks in there at all. Just kept your eyes on the road in front of you. But on your way out, you like to meet the eyes of every man you passed.”

“You find that funny?”

“Not at all.”

Joe didn’t know what to make of Mr. Matelin. He didn’t know what to make of anything just then. All he knew for sure was something was changing. He wasn’t numb anymore. He was angry, frustrated, relieved — and oddly pleased to hear Mate telling him he was “thinkin’ the right way.” But he sure wasn’t numb.

*****

It was almost full dark by the time Adam reined in just beyond a small campsite. He’d been drawn first by the fire and then spurred on when he’d spotted Joe’s pinto alongside an unfamiliar palomino. But now it bothered him that he saw no sign of Joe. There was only one man stretched out near the fire, a tall man whose silhouette reflected an odd feature: a crooked nose.

Matelin. Recognizing the guard responsible for saving Joe’s life, Adam’s concern eased only slightly. “My brother around?” he asked after a cursory exchange of greetings. His gaze swept the bare landscape.

“He is.” Matelin nodded.

“Mind telling me where?”

“Inside.” He indicated the rocks behind him with a turn of his head.

“Inside?” Adam repeated. He was confused until he noticed the break in the rocks, a dark hole that signified an opening in the earth itself — the entrance to a mine. And not just any mine. It looked to be the very one Joe had been captive in for all those weeks. “My God,” Adam whispered, finding himself almost afraid to breathe. Joe could hardly stand to be in the house anymore. Adam couldn’t imagine him willingly spending time in the black depths of that mine. “Why aren’t you with him?” he asked without turning his gaze.

“Asked me not to.”

Adam looked to the man then, puzzled by his casual attitude. He of all people knew what Joe had experienced. He knew better than Joe’s family ever would. He’d been there. He’d seen Joe as Adam could only imagine — as he had been imagining — and he’d hated every bit of what his mind had conjured. But perhaps Joe’s family knew something Matelin could not. Matelin couldn’t possibly know the wounds that mine had left on Joe’s character.

“Asked me not to.”

That mine had been haunting Little Joe. It had wounded him with fear, planting it deep, like an infection in his soul.

Sometimes the only way to fight an infection is to cut it out. And the only way to fight a debilitating fear is to face it directly. Joe knew that. He knew it as well as anyone. But some infections go so deep a man can bleed to death once you start cutting. What can happen when the infection is in your soul?

Looking back to the mine, Adam took a heavy breath and squared his shoulders, steeling himself to find his brother bleeding in ways too disturbing to imagine.

*****

Just inside the mine’s entrance, Adam found a lantern already lit. He glanced back toward Matelin, wondering if the man was really being as casual as he appeared. Had Matelin placed the lantern there? Curious, but more concerned about Joe, Adam took hold of the lantern, turned up the wick, and headed deeper into the mine.

Before long, he came to a tunnel so narrow a man the size of Hoss might not have made it through. “Joe?” he called out, but the tunnel seemed to swallow the sound. He waited until the passageway widened, and then tried again, squinting into the darkness ahead of him, hoping to see some sign of light. “Little Joe!” This time, his words echoed into the darkness ahead him.

Adam took several more passageways, descending deeper into the earth with every step, and turned his ankle more than once on the uneven ground, though he was able to pull back each time before any damage was done. “Joe!” he called again.

Finally he began to see a tiny glow ahead of him. “Joe?” Adam pressed forward, encouraged to watch the light grow. “Little Joe!”

“Adam?”

The name came so softly he couldn’t be sure he’d heard it at all. Maybe he’d mistaken. The sound of water dripping somewhere further in could have confused him. But then Adam saw a lantern set on the ground just inside the entrance of what appeared to be a natural cave. “Joe?” he called more softly as he stepped inside.

“Adam.” Joe’s voice sounded small, but it was real enough. It almost made Adam smile to hear it, until his eyes landed on his brother. Joe looked as small as his voice. He was sitting on the ground several feet from his lantern, knees pulled to his chest, hands wrapped around as though to hold them there.

“You alright, Joe?” When Adam kneeled down beside him, the lamplight revealed dark red stains on the sleeve of Joe’s shirt.

Adam reached forward instinctively, forgetting that Joe had lately taken to pulling away rather than welcoming any sort of physical contact — until he realized Joe didn’t even flinch at his touch. “What happened?” Adam asked, as hopeful by his brother’s reaction as he was disturbed about seeing the blood.

Joe gave him a weary smile. “It’s not mine. Might be Blakely’s. I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure?”

“They were hitting him. I heard it, but…I couldn’t see it.”

Adam studied him. Joe looked more tired than troubled. And when Joe’s gaze moved away from him, Adam discovered something more disturbing than the stains on his shirtsleeve. He reached forward again, gently tugging at Joe’s collar. There were flecks of blood there as well. Looking closer, Adam saw Joe’s neck was bruised and marked with tiny cuts that had been allowed to congeal without being treated.

“Tell me what happened,” Adam said, trying to sound calm despite the anger rising up within him against whoever had caused the damage.

“It looks different from here.”

Confused by his answer, Adam followed Joe’s line of sight to where chains had been secured to the rocks opposite him. Adam felt ill and enraged in equal measure, remembering how Joe had looked while in the warden’s bed, his wrists bandaged from the bite of shackles.

“I imagine it does.” Adam said, forcing the words through his tightening jaw and hoping they sounded softer than they felt.

“I couldn’t…couldn’t fight them.”

“I know.”

Joe shook his head slowly from side to side. “I tried. At first, it was all I could do. I tried to fight them. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t fight anymore, Adam.” He looked to Adam again, desperation now showing in his eyes. “I just… I couldn’t.”

Adam squeezed Joe’s shoulder, feeling a sense of desperation of his own. “No. You couldn’t. Not like that.”

Joe closed his eyes.

“Tell me what happened today,” Adam went on. Watching Joe try to slow his breathing, Adam was surprised when his young brother seemed to abandon the effort, opening his eyes once more and turning to give Adam a small smile.

“I went to see Blakely. I thought he was a man. Just…a man who’d never been given a chance. He had me believing it was my fault.”

“He was the only one at fault, Joe. A man like that can be given all the chances in the world, and he’ll squander every one of them. It’s not about being given chances. It’s about taking them. No one gave the Ponderosa to Pa; he took a chance on building it. And we all took a chance on him, building it right alongside him.”

“I know. But…”

“But what?”

“I still thought… I’m not sure what I thought. He had me believing I took his girl, but he couldn’t even remember her name. And, Adam, he didn’t know me. He didn’t recognize me, not at first. Not until I reminded him what he’d told me. And then…” Joe’s eyes were still open, but Adam could tell he wasn’t looking at anything in the cave. He was looking deep inside himself, and he seemed to be confused about whatever he was seeing.

“Joe?”

“It wasn’t like he was a man at all. He was more like an animal, like a rabid animal, the kind you can’t control. Before I knew it, he had his chains wrapped around my neck.”

“The warden should have known better than to…”

“No. It wasn’t the warden’s fault. I talked him into letting me see Blakely. And there were enough guards they should have been able to hold him. But I’ve never seen anything like it. An animal is the only way I could describe it. He didn’t care that the guards were there, that he didn’t stand a chance against them. He didn’t care about anything at all, except maybe killing me.”

“A man gets into that kind of rage, there’s no controlling it.” Adam fought against a memory that left him cold. He could almost feel his own hands wrapped around Peter Kane’s throat, driven to the point of murder by exhaustion, starvation and a thirst so severe he could barely speak. “He does become an animal,” Adam went on then, “until and unless he can rationalize what he’s doing. If he can just focus on reason, if he can…”

“Adam?”

Joe’s voice rescued him from his reverie. “Sorry, Joe. I was… I guess I was thinking about Peter Kane.”

“You’ve never talked about him.”

Sighing, Adam settled himself beside Joe, leaning against the cavern wall. “I could never figure out what to say. I didn’t think anyone could ever understand. But what you described with Blakely just now, it reminded me of…me.”

“You? Like Blakely? I’m more like Blakely than you could ever be! And even I’m not like him.”

“I was, Joe. Believe me, I was. I vowed Kane could never drive me to the point of murder. But suddenly, there I was, with my hands wrapped around his throat. I could have killed him. Ultimately, I guess I did.”

“No, you didn’t. The desert killed him. It almost killed you, too.”

“It killed him only because I left him wounded and weak.”

“The desert killed him because he was weaker than you to start with.”

“Joe, the point is, I was driven to act like an animal. I stopped myself as soon as I realized what I was doing. A man like Blakely — probably even Peter Kane — men like that won’t let reason stop them.”

“That’s pretty much what the warden said. He said I looked for reasons while Blakely looked for excuses.”

“He’s right.”

Joe studied Adam for a long moment, seeming to consider and maybe even accept Adam’s conclusion. But what he said next had nothing to do with his own behavior or reasons. “I don’t think you acted like an animal, Adam. You acted like a man who needed to take a stand for his own well being. You fought for your life, Adam. I’m the one who acted like an animal. Not you.”

Little Joe had never held a look in his eye quite like what Adam saw at that moment — as though he knew, really knew, what was in Adam’s soul, even while he completely ignored what was in his own.

“How, Joe?” Adam lashed out, angry that his brother could get it all so wrong. “How did you act like an animal? Did you try to kill Edgar Blakely? Did you go after him with your teeth bared, using your hands to tear at his throat only because you didn’t have claws or fangs to get the job done right?” Struggling as much to breathe as to force the memory from his thoughts, it took several moments before Adam realized Joe had gone silent. He also realized Joe was staring at him. Joe looked confused, almost hurt.

“No,” Joe said, shaking his head. “He was like that. Not me. He called me a…a lame dog. Not even fit for a mangy, flea-bitten she-wolf in heat.” Joe’s lips lifted into a small, miserable smile. “He was right.”

“He was wrong, Joe. There’s a difference. You were treated like an animal. That didn’t make you become one.”

“But I thought about it. I thought if I could just get someone close enough… I thought about using my chains the same way Blakely did today. At first — when they first brought me here — I could have killed any one of them. I wanted to, Adam. I wanted to kill them. All of them. Any of them. But then I figured killing a man wasn’t going to get me out of here. It wasn’t going to unlock those chains.”

“Reason,” Adam offered. “Rationalization. It’s what separates man from beast.”

Survival. That’s what stopped me from trying to kill a man. And it’s what drove you against Peter Kane.”

“That’s a pretty good rationalization, Joe. I’d say that makes you a pretty good man, and very definitely not an animal.”

Joe gave him another one of those small, sad smiles; Adam could almost believe he saw more life in it this time. “All I know is I wasn’t a man while I was in here.” As Joe’s eyes moved to the chains, the smile vanished. “I learned the rules and did whatever they told me to do. I was no better than a trained dog. I knew I would die in here if I didn’t. I figured as long as those men kept coming with food and water, I thought maybe I could stay alive long enough for…for you and Pa and Hoss to find me.” Joe looked down then, seeming unwilling to meet Adam’s gaze.

Adam felt stung. He’d failed his brother. No matter how much searching he had done, it hadn’t been enough. “But we never came. I’m sorry, Joe.”

Now Joe did look at him. There was no accusation in his eyes, no anger, nothing to indicate he blamed Adam for anything at all. “How could you come? You didn’t even know I was alive, let alone where I was. The warden, he could have at least… He should have told you.”

“Told us what?”

“I was alive.”

“He did.”

“Earlier, I mean. Three weeks earlier. When he first realized I was being held here.”

If Adam had felt stung before, he felt pierced now. For a long while he couldn’t breathe. He stared at his brother and saw himself riding through the desert, looking for a corpse he dreaded having to find. “Three weeks?” The word came as a breathless rasp. Three weeks seemed a lifetime. If Adam had known three weeks sooner, he would never have abandoned hope. And Joe… Could they have reached him sooner? Could they have spared him those last agonizing days? Could they have prevented him from finally falling into the empty shell he had become, the wounded soul Adam feared might never be whole again?

“God, Joe. I’m so sorry.”

But the look in Joe’s eyes had no use for an apology. It told Adam there was nothing to forgive.

*****

Adam wasn’t sure when the conversation shifted — or how it shifted — but it did. Suddenly they were talking about a stallion Hoss had managed to round up from a small herd of mustangs.

“He’s a real beauty, isn’t he?” Joe said.

Adam could hear a smile in the easy tone of Joe’s voice. He was disappointed to realize it was too dark to actually see that smile, but he did notice Joe’s posture had changed. Little Joe had his legs stretched out in front of him now, one ankle crossed casually over the other.

“He won’t be easy to break.” Adam turned up the wick in his lantern and then watched for his brother’s reaction.

The words seemed to nudge Joe’s smile wider. “The best ones never are.”

“Maybe I ought to be the one to break him.”

The smile died. Joe threw Adam a heated glare. “Why? You think I can’t cut it anymore? Is that what you’re saying? That I’m not as good as I used to be?”

“Are you?”

“I can still outride anyone in the territory, and you know it.”

“You sure about that?”

Adam could almost believe Joe was ready to start throwing punches, but then something in Joe’s eyes showed a spark of realization.

“Yeah.” Joe sounded surprised. “Yeah, I’m sure. If anyone can break him, I can.”

“I agree.” Adam found himself grinning. “Now maybe you can answer something for me.” He waited for Joe to look at him. “Why are we still in here?”

Joe raised his eyebrows and slowly cast his gaze around the dark space even as the cave grew darker, his own lantern finally snuffed itself out, the wick having been left unattended for too long. “It doesn’t matter.” There was a touch of surprise in Joe’s voice that caught Adam off guard. “Adam?” he asked then. “Why did you come?”

“To help you.”

“Because you feel a sense of responsibility to me?”

“You are my brother, after all.”

“But that’s not why you came. If it was, Pa would have come, too. And Hoss.”

Adam sighed. “I came because I thought I might have a better understanding of how to help you than they could.”

“Because of Kane?”

“Yes. But it was different. It was very different. I’m not sure I could have survived what you went through.”

“Sure you would’ve. But I’m pretty sure I would have tried to kill Peter Kane by the end of your first day.”

Adam softly matched Joe’s small chuckle. “No you wouldn’t.”

They looked at each other for a long while, smiles fading as both began to recognize the truth of each other’s words — and Adam started to see something different in Joe’s eyes, something similar to what he had grown accustomed to seeing in his own mirror. He felt oddly humbled when Joe’s next words seemed to validate this observation.

“He made you see something in yourself you didn’t want to see.”

“Yes,” Adam admitted.

“He also got you to believe something about yourself that wasn’t true.”

“No. It was true. I never thought myself capable of murder.”

“You’re not.”

“I strangled him, Joe.”

“But not to death. And besides, you were fighting for your life.”

“What are you saying, little brother?”

“I guess I’m saying…thank you.”

“What for?”

“For coming here. For understanding. I’m sorry you understand. I’m sorry about why you understand. But at the same time, I’m glad you do, especially since I hardly understand any of it myself.”

“I suppose that makes two of us.” Adam could see Joe’s face was still marked with shadows, yet he had a feeling they had more to do with the sparse lighting than anything else. He wondered about his own shadows then. Suddenly, in a single night — there in a dark cave — he had said more about his time with Peter Kane than he’d ever thought possible. And Joe had listened — not with pity, or anger, or even regret, but with a sense of understanding Adam had never expected to find in anyone, let alone his little brother. Like Joe, he was sorry about why his little brother understood, but he was also glad. That realization caught Adam off guard once more. He had come intending to help Joe. Somehow, Joe had helped him instead.

“How about we call it a night?” Adam suggested as he pushed himself to his feet. It was time to get them both clear of these particular shadows.

Apparently, Joe agreed. He took hold of Adam’s hand and allowed his brother to help hoist him up. “A little food would be good. Maybe a thick, juicy steak.” When Joe smiled at him, Adam could almost believe the past few months had never happened. He felt like he was looking at Little Joe again. It was hardly as big a grin as Adam would love to see, but it was comforting in ways he could never have expected.

Adam grinned back at him. “Unless you have steak in those saddle bags of yours, I think you’re going to have to settle for jerky and hardtack.”

“I hope you have a lot more than I do. I’m half starved.”

Feeling a sudden chill, Adam pressed the working lantern into Joe’s hand and ushered his brother along ahead of him. Then he glanced back at the chains, barely visible now that Joe started to move away with the light. He couldn’t help but imagine Joe lying on the ground right there, locked into those very shackles, battered and considerably more than half starved.

“Adam?”

He was grateful when Joe’s voice chased away the image. “Yeah. I’m coming.” Adam grabbed the other lantern and then stepped out to follow his brother. “You know, Joe,” he added after a moment. “We could pay a visit to the warden. I have a feeling he would be more than willing to have his cook prepare whatever you want.”

Joe stumbled, but righted himself without need of the support Adam offered on instinct. “I have a better idea,” he said as he started moving forward again. “How about we work up a good hunger so we can really appreciate the special meal Hop Sing is gonna cook up for us tomorrow?”

“What makes you think he’s planning a special meal?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’s not planning it yet.” Joe paused to look back at Adam, flashing a grin that made it clear the worst was finally over. “But he will.”

Adam smiled, too. “I guess he will at that.”

*****

Matelin was gone by the time they emerged back at their campsite.

“He has a way about him,” Joe said. Less surprised than Adam about Mate’s disappearance, he quickly turned his attention to a fresh stack of wood; it had not been present when he’d gone into the mine earlier that evening. “Always seems to know when he’s needed — maybe even when he’s not.” He stole a quick glance to his brother before going to work on the dying fire.

Adam’s gaze was directed outward, toward the prison. “He does have a way about him, I’ll give you that. I’m just not sure what kind of a way it really is.”

“You don’t trust him.” Joe’s thoughts shifted to the man who had saved him. He could not stop himself from believing Mate could have helped more than he had. He could have come sooner. He could have left more food and water when he’d first spoken with Joe. He could have made sure Joe’s family knew he was still alive. Yet there were other things he’d done, subtle things Joe barely knew how to describe, things beyond saving Joe’s life. Somehow, during this visit, Mate had managed to give Joe back his life. Or he’d started to, anyway. It was Adam who seemed to have finished the job.

“Do you?” Adam asked.

“Yeah,” he decided. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Then I suppose that’s what counts.”

Joe was startled when Adam patted him on the shoulder; he hadn’t even noticed Adam moving toward him.

“Let’s get those cuts on your neck cleaned up. Seems he left more than just the wood.”

Confused, Joe turned to find Adam holding a battered tin flask and something else that drew his eye: a clean, though worn, dark shirt. “He must have heard me.”

Joe wasn’t even sure he’d said the words out loud until Adam asked, “What?”

Flashing his brother a quick grin, he explained, “In the warden’s office. I…I told Mr. Curry I didn’t want Pa to know what Blakely tried to do.” He raised his arm, displaying the blood-splattered sleeve. “It’d be kind of hard to keep him from seeing this.”

Adam matched Joe’s smile with a lopsided one of his own. “He’ll know something’s up when he sees you wearing this shirt. And those marks on your neck are not going to disappear overnight.”

Joe let out a long sigh and traced his fingers along the tender skin at his throat. “I guess you’re right.” He wanted to put it all behind him; it would be a whole lot easier if Pa could, too.

“At least the new shirt will temper his reaction,” Adam offered, “long enough to see you’re okay.”

Was he okay? Joe wondered. Then he realized he wasn’t even sure what it meant to be okay. He felt different somehow, different from what he’d been before his time in the cave, but also different from what he’d become after. And as much as he wanted to go home, he was almost afraid it wouldn’t feel any more comfortable now than it had a week ago.

“It will fade,” Adam said softly.

Joe looked at his brother.

“The memories,” Adam went on, “the questions, the…emptiness. None of it will go away, but the immediacy of it all will fade.”

Sitting down beside the fire, Joe stared into the flames and started to see an entirely different variety of memories. “Remember the Johnson’s wedding last year?”

“Yeah.” Adam’s answer had a cautious edge to it as he settled himself beside Joe.

“I must’ve danced with every girl there. Had fun with every one of ’em, too.”

“I remember.”

“But last month…”

“James Ellington’s birthday party.” Adam’s tone remained guarded.

Joe kept his eyes on the flames. “I couldn’t… I just…” He couldn’t even say the words.

But somehow Adam understood. He gripped Joe’s shoulder. “You will.”

“I don’t know.”

“I do,” Adam repeated. “Trust me, I know. Give it time, little brother. Before you know it, you’ll be kicking up your heels and breaking hearts as vigorously as ever.”

Joe tensed at the thought of breaking hearts. The last thing he ever wanted to do was break anyone’s heart. But Adam’s gaze was sincere, and his smile, genuine. Joe believed he had no choice but to trust his wiser, older brother.

Older... Suddenly Joe realized he felt older. But more than that, he felt old. He sure didn’t feel wise, but he did feel old — older than Adam, maybe even older than Pa. And Pa could dance up a storm when he wanted to. If Pa could enjoy himself after all the heartache he’d endured over the years, then maybe Adam was right. Maybe Joe could start enjoying himself again, too. And maybe then he wouldn’t feel so old anymore.

“Now take off that filthy shirt of yours so we can get you cleaned up before Pa gets a look at you.”

And suddenly Joe was the little brother again. He smiled as he started unfastening the buttons. “Sounds like something you would have said about a dozen years ago.”

“Maybe that’s because I was thinking about that time you said Mitch pushed you into a mud puddle after Pa warned you to stay clean for Reverend Parker’s visit.”

“He did push me.”

“Ah-huh. And that’s why you started throwing punches.”

“He pushed me! What was I supposed to do? Say ‘thank you’?”

“Well, you could’ve avoided a whole lot of trouble if you hadn’t added a bloody nose to the mess you’d already made of your clothes.”

“I seem to remember you helped me avoid a whole lot of trouble with Pa. And Reverend Parker was none the wiser.”

“You still had to deal with Hop Sing, and he was not happy about having to clean those clothes.”

“How’d you get him to keep quiet with Pa, anyway?”

“I didn’t.”

“Then why didn’t Pa ever say anything?”

“He figured Hop Sing was yelling enough for the both of them.”

Joe found himself chuckling while he slipped off his shirt. “Maybe we can save ourselves a whole lot of trouble this time by burning this right now.”

“Good idea.”

A quick look at Adam’s eyes made it clear he wasn’t joking. Joe hesitated only a second before he balled up the shirt and threw it into the flames. It was wasteful and impractical. The shirt hadn’t been ruined; it just needed a good cleaning. Yet there was something unexpectedly satisfying about watching it burn.

*****

The next day, Joe found himself once more looking out over the expanse of the Ponderosa. He still felt small, standing there on top of his world. But that was different. This was his world, he realized. He was as much a part of it as it was a part of him. He worked this land. He cut trees and planted new ones. He moved cattle from one grazing spot to another. He built fences and took them down. He’d marked his presence on this land nearly every day of his life.

Yes, the land could kill him as easily as he could kill it. At that moment, he felt pretty sure it could save him, too.

“Let’s go home,” Joe told Adam as he turned away from the view.

It was almost strange to realize he wasn’t afraid at all.

***The End***

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