Haunted (by freyakendra)

Summary:  After Little Joe’s testimony helps put a noose around the neck of a murderer, his nightmares are nothing compared to the reality that comes to haunt him.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:   25,550


 

That dadburned little brother of his was later than usual getting out of bed, but Hoss was none too eager to do anything about it. He was enjoying the opportunity to fill up on all the food his pa and Adam had left behind when they’d rushed out for an early meeting with the family attorney. Still…doggone it! Joe was going to have to eat, too, wasn’t he? The way that boy had been growing lately, he seemed to need more sleep and food than the rest of the family combined.

Maybe Hoss was doing a good turn by letting his brother get some extra sleep, but he reckoned he wouldn’t be doing either of them any good if he didn’t also make sure the fifteen-year-old had at least enough food to fire up what little muscle he had on that scrawny frame of his. That new acreage wasn’t going to fence in itself, and Hoss didn’t much like the idea of doing all the work himself.

“He’ll just be an ornery, good-for-nothing cuss if he don’t eat,” Hoss mumbled, eyeing the last bits of scrambled eggs on the platter. “Joe!” he hollered out then. “Hey, Joe! Get down here!”

But the more Hoss thought about it, the more he realized he hadn’t had to face Joe’s ornery side for a good two weeks or more. He hadn’t had to face his little brother’s prankster side either, for that matter. In fact, Little Joe hadn’t been himself at all since that business with Frank Carver, and had just gotten worse since the hanging.

Casting a troubled glance toward the stairwell, Hoss found himself wishing yet again Joe had never laid eyes on Frank Carver. Not in the alley next to the Bucket of Blood. And certainly not dangling from the gallows on account of Joe’s testimony. Well, on account of Joe’s and Missus Hatcher’s testimonies.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss called again as he tossed his napkin to the table and pushed himself to his feet. “I’ll saddle the horses. You come down here and eat something so we can get!”

The enthusiasm he’d built up while lingering over breakfast had vanished by the time Hoss reached the barn. Not long after, however, he found a danged good reason to let it build up again.

Joe’s horse was gone.

“Why, that little….” He didn’t bother finishing the statement. He let a smile slip into place instead.

Little Joe was back to his tricks. Not only had he already gotten out of bed, he’d snuck out of the house to beat Hoss to work. Joe was aiming to turn the tables on Hoss. He’d claim Hoss had been dilly-dallying while he’d done all the work.

“Well, I’ll show you what for, little brother,” Hoss mumbled, making quick work of saddling Chub and letting his smile grow into a grin. Yep, Little Joe was back to being Little Joe.

Hoss’ loud “Yahoo!” as he kicked his horse’s flanks scattered some stray chickens and brought an irate Chinaman outside to yell uselessly at his retreating back.

It also managed to scatter his little brother’s disturbing dreams.

*****

Joe was surprised to hear Hoss thundering out of the yard and yelling a hearty “Yahoo!” to boot. Had someone delivered good news? Who? What sort of news?

Heck, Joe could do with a bit of good news. Between the guilt he felt for causing a man to hang and his ridiculous, gut-churning fear that Frank Carver would somehow come back to kill him for doing it, Little Joe Cartwright wasn’t sleeping near as much as he ought to be. How could he sleep, with all those dark images haunting him every night? Images of blood-drenched knives and dead men hanging from the gallows with vengeful glares that were always aimed Joe’s way.

It had been well over two weeks, but in Joe’s young, active mind, it seemed like only yesterday that he’d stumbled upon a murder taking place in a shadowed corner of Virginia City — a corner Joe had been told often enough was no place for a boy his age.

He’d gone there for a glimpse of the saloon. Planning to peek over the swinging doors and see what all the excitement was about, Joe’s innocent-seeming diversion had been ill-timed. He’d walked past the alley to find Frank Carver kneeling next to a man who wasn’t moving. Frank had held a bloody knife and had shot Joe a look cold enough to freeze the dumbfounded boy in place.

Frank was going to kill him, too. Joe had known it then, and he knew it now. He couldn’t have run, not fast enough or far enough to escape Frank Carver’s longer stride — certainly not the way his head had been spinning and his heart pounding before he’d even taken a single step. Nor could he have fought back, not armed only with the punch of a small-for-his-age fifteen-year-old boy.

Yep, Joe would be dead now if Missus Hatcher hadn’t hurried after him to scold him for being where he oughtn’t. It had been Missus Hatcher’s scream that had torn Frank Carver’s eyes from Joe’s. That’s when Frank had started running — fortunately, right into the path of the sheriff. And that’s when Joe had started down a different path, one that had left him plagued with disturbing thoughts and horrific dreams.

But Frank Carver was a week dead already, hanged after a quick trial during which both judge and jury had been eager to see justice done.

And the cheerful sound of Hoss’ Yahoo! in the yard was making Joe eager to forget. Any bit of good news would provide a welcome reprieve.

Pushing himself wearily from bed, Joe filled a basin with fresh water and went to work splashing unspent sleep from his eyes. Dark thoughts were not as easy to wash away. He dressed slowly, suddenly feeling guilty. What right did he have to share in Hoss’ good humor? A man was dead because Joe had seen him with a bloody knife and had been frightened by a cold glare. Frank Carver had been hanged for murder, but Joe had not actually seen him drive that knife into the dead man’s chest. What if Carver had been innocent? What if he had stumbled across the dead man only seconds before Joe? What if…?

“What if you had listened to your father” Pa had told him just the other day, “and stayed with the buckboard as you’d been told? What if you had listened to your brothers and waited for them to introduce you to the inside of a saloon when the time was right? Joseph, those are good questions to consider the next time you’re faced with a decision to go your own way, but you can’t change what’s already occurred. If you’re not careful, you could drown in a sea of what ifs. And so could I.”

“You, Pa?”

“Yes, me. I have asked myself a thousand what-ifs about that day, too, Little Joe. What if you hadn’t come across Frank Carver? Why, he might never have been caught. He would have been free to kill someone else, maybe even one of your brothers.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Well, I have. And so did others. That’s why the jury was so quick to decide. Son, Frank Carver was…not the best of men. His reputation for violence offered as much — if not more — proof than your testimony. Surely you must realize that.”

One final, horrific thought had Joe seeing Hoss in that alley at Frank Carver’s feet. Shuddering and anxious once more to learn about the reason behind his big brother’s Yahoo!, Joe slipped into his boots, pulled a clean shirt from the bureau and ventured into the hallway before he’d even gotten one arm sleeved. He sleeved his other arm when he reached the stairs, and then focused on his buttons as he bounded down the steps to the first landing. That’s when he heard his father’s voice again, warning him about watching where he was going.

Feeling a different kind of guilt — one that was far less weighty and almost comforting in its simplicity — Joe turned his attention to the stairs in front of him…

And locked eyes with Frank Carver.

Joe stopped breathing as he stared at the man below him, a man who couldn’t possibly be there. Frank Carver stood at the foot of the stairs, his glare just as cold as it had been in the alley. But this time there was no dripping knife. Instead, he held a gun. And that gun was aimed at Little Joe.

“No,” Joe whispered. It simply wasn’t possible. Frank Carver was dead. Joe had watched him die at the end of a rope.

For a split second, Joe wondered if he was looking into the eyes of a ghost. Then he noticed the man’s fingers moving, the thumb easing back the hammer and the index bending against the trigger. And suddenly it didn’t matter if the creature standing there was a ghost or not.

Joe turned back the way he’d come just as he heard the first explosion. Wood shattered around him, splinters scraping his cheek and tapping against his left arm and torso when he moved from one step to the next. Five more explosions followed him to the top, where something slammed into his right calf, sending him sprawling into the upper hallway. Pain radiated from his toes to his hip, but need drove him to keep moving forward, starting with a crawl and progressing to a desperate, limping gait, with one hand pressed to the wall for added support. Joe was determined not to be left defenseless this time around. This was not the alley. And maybe he didn’t have a weapon just then, but he knew his father kept a loaded gun in a drawer at his bedside.

*****

“He’s going to be fine, you know.”

Adam’s voice broke Ben Cartwright out of a deep reverie, and Ben realized he wasn’t moving. He’d stopped his horse, yet they weren’t even close to the main road to Virginia City. So much for his earlier concern about reaching Hiram’s office at the appointed time.

“What happened with Carver would affect anyone,” Adam went on. “But, given enough time, Joe will bounce back to the irritating, mischievous rascal he’s always been.”

Ben smiled, despite his anxiety. “Yes. I’m sure you’re right.” Taking a deep breath, he settled back onto his saddle. “I suppose Joe’s insistence on staying home bothered me more than it should have. I don’t remember him ever refusing a trip into Virginia City.”

“Nor I,” Adam said, urging his own horse to move up beside his father’s. “And I’m sure we’ll never see it happen again.”

Adam’s smile lightened Ben’s heart enough to allow him to imagine that a quicker pace might just enable them to keep Hiram’s appointment after all — until the distant sound of gunfire drove his thoughts back the way they’d come.

“Six rounds,” Adam said, his earlier smile lost in the now thin set of his lips. “Target practice?” One eyebrow raised in consideration, he aimed a calculating gaze toward his father.

“For your brother’s sake, I hope you’re wrong.” Target practice could only mean Little Joe. And if Little Joe was the person pulling the trigger behind those shots, it could only mean he had chosen to defy his father.

“I should have been wearing a gun when I ran into Frank Carver,” Joe had insisted the week before.

“A boy your age has no business wearing a gun!” Ben had countered.

“He could have killed me, Pa!”

“Let’s just thank God he never had the chance to try.”

“If Missus Hatcher hadn’t scared him off, he would have tried. And then what? How was I supposed to fight a man like that without a gun?”

“With or without a gun, you should never have to fight a man like that.”

“Just because I shouldn’t have to doesn’t mean I won’t have to!”

“You are not wearing a gun until you’re older, and that’s final!”

Of course, it wasn’t final. Not then. Not with a boy like Little Joe. Ben’s son would continue to debate the subject until he ran out of what he felt were valid arguments. Or until he stopped being afraid…so afraid he could barely close his eyes at night.

Yes, Little Joe was afraid. Terrified, even. And Ben could understand why. The boy had found himself helpless, vulnerable. Frank Carver had threatened Joe’s young sense of invincibility, and, while Little Joe had shown tremendous courage in recent years by facing down any and all threats against him — often causing Ben no small amount of consternation — Frank Carver had posed a threat Joe had not been prepared to fight. One he was still not prepared to fight, though he was trying very hard to change that fact.

Wearing a gun, however, was not the sort of change Joe needed. A gun would only open the door to worse things than fear. A frightened man with a gun grew careless. A frightened boy with a gun was something Ben never wanted to see.

“I don’t know, Pa,” Adam said, pulling Ben from his thoughts once more. “I’d almost prefer to think those shots meant Little Joe was back to being mischievous than any other alternative that comes to mind.” The thick crease in Adam’s brow made it clear he was serious, and Ben could well understand why.

“It’s nothing good,” he answered, feeling his own brow crease doubly as much as his son’s. “We can be sure of that.”

Saying nothing more, Ben kicked his heels into his horse’s flanks to begin the race back home, leaving all concern for his business with Hiram in the dust behind him.

*****

The first thing Hoss noticed when he made it back home was that the front door was wide open. The second thing was Hop Sing sneaking across the yard with a shotgun held at the ready.

Looping his reins around the hitching post, Hoss approached the Chinese cook. “Did you see who fired those shots, Hop Sing?” Hoss asked, keeping his voice low.

Hop Sing shook his head and returned his attention to the house. “Shots come from inside. Hop Sing was in chicken coop. Get shotgun and walk all around house outside, but not see anyone leave.”

“Still inside then.” Hoss drew his own gun and started toward the door, but Hop Sing stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Maybe only Little Joe.”

Hoss shook his head. “Joe’s gone, Hop Sing. He rode out before me. He’s probably already at the…”

“Little Joe horse in back.”

“His horse? You sure, Hop Sing?”

“Hoss go see. Little Joe horse not even hobbled.”

“Was he saddled?”

Hop Sing shook his head.

“Joe wouldn’t leave his horse like that. And he sure wouldn’t shoot a gun in the house. Something’s wrong. Something’s real wrong. I’d better go inside and find out what it is.”

But Hoss had only taken a few steps when the sound of fast approaching riders turned him back to find his pa and older brother returning.

Adam jumped down off his horse the instant he reined in. “We heard shots.”

“Yeah.” Hoss nodded. “Us, too.”

“Shots come from inside,” Hop Sing added.

“Where’s Joe?” Pa asked then, his own dismount far more deliberate than Adam’s but certainly not slow.

“That’s just it, Pa,” Hoss answered. “I don’t rightly know. I thought I was riding out after him, but Hop Sing just told me he saw Joe’s horse out back.”

“Joe!” Pa shouted then, overriding Hoss’ instincts for caution. “Little Joe!”

*****

With his pa’s gun in hand, Joe made a slow, desperate trek back to the stairwell. He felt like a frightened animal, a rabbit caught in the crosshairs of a wily fox. Like in the alley, he wanted to run, but the fire in his leg made it hard enough to take the few steps from his pa’s room to the top of the stairs. He also wanted to hole up beside his pa’s bureau, to wait for the fox to wander into the rabbit’s crosshairs instead. But he couldn’t do that, either. He just…couldn’t. That felt too much like cowering, like giving up, like showing the fox he was nothing but prey.

Breathing hard and worrying about how loud his heart was thumping in his chest, Joe took one, final, lurching step away from the protection of the wall and grabbed hold of the newel post. He tossed a quick glance to the foot of the stairs, and then sucked in a deeper breath of relief. No one was there.

But Carver had to be nearby. And Joe had to figure where.

Using the newel post for support, Joe pulled himself into position on the top landing. Well aware that he would be a bull’s-eye target where he now stood, he held still for a long moment, scanning the empty space below.

Maybe Carver had left already. Maybe ghosts couldn’t stick around for too long — that’s why people didn’t see them too often. Maybe…maybe Joe was safe for now.

The waning strength of his right hand gripping desperately to the top of newel post forced him to ease closer to the post itself, where he could rest his hip and hopefully ease the pressure on his leg. Joe considered lowering himself to sit on the first stair. But what if he couldn’t get up again? He felt tired and dizzy, and his leg hurt like the devil; and he just didn’t know what to do. He wished his pa were home. He wished…

A clatter of hooves in the yard told Joe someone was in an awful hurry to get there. But who?

Steeling himself, Joe tightened his slippery, sweaty grip on his pa’s gun and aimed it toward the front door. Then he took as deep a breath as he dared without alerting the fox–wherever it might be–and he waited.

*****

Ben barreled across the threshold, driven by a combination of rage and dread. His fear for his youngest son was palpable enough to taste it in the acid that rose up from his throat. But he bit back at that fear with anger. Joe knew better. He’d been around guns all his life. He’d been taught to respect them, to handle them wisely, to use them only when there was need. How could he — how dare he — fire a gun in the house for no reason?

“Pa?” The voice calling down to him from the top of the stairs sounded…small. Still, it was loud enough to reach him and to pull his attention upward to where his frightened, careless, youngest son stood amidst the splintered wreck that had become of the upper stair railing.

“Joseph!” Ben hollered out, enraged as much over what had happened as at what might have happened. What if…? What if…? “What in heaven’s name have you done? Is that…is that my gun? Come down here this instant!”

Joe’s form was crossed with shadows, but Ben could see him well enough, even from that distance. Yes, well enough to recognize that Joe’s face was pale and his eyes glistened. Within those eyes, a brief flash of relief vanished under the weight of Ben’s harsh words.

“You…didn’t see him, did you?”

Floundering in that sea of what ifs he’d warned Joe about so recently, Ben didn’t have the patience for his young son’s games. “You had better start explaining yourself, young man!”

Joe’s mouth opened on words that were long in coming. “I…I couldn’t…” he said finally.

“You couldn’t what?” Ben pressed. “Listen to your father for a change? What on earth possessed you to shoot my gun in the house?”

“I didn’t. I…couldn’t reach it in time. He was already gone.”

“Who, Joe?” Adam asked while Ben was still filling his lungs with more ammunition. “Who was already gone?”

Ben’s oldest boy pushed cautiously past him to prop his foot upon the last stair and lean against the newel post. He was almost a mirror of his youngest brother at the top, despite the significant difference in their postures, with Adam’s firm and strong, and Joe’s…frightened and uncertain.

“Frank,” Joe answered quietly. “Frank Carver.”

“Oh, for the love of….” Ben threw an exasperated look toward Hoss beside him. Then he took in a long, heavy breath. “Joseph, please come down here and tell us exactly what happened.”

“I…I don’t think I can.” And then Joe sat down. He tucked Ben’s gun into his waistband so he could use both hands to lever himself to the floor. And he sat right down on the top step, bending his left leg and extending his right across the stairs in front of him.

Part of Ben wanted to rush up those stairs to close the distance between them and get straight to the heart of this…this nonsense, but if he did, he was likely to grab the boy and start tanning him right there and then. In another part of him, dread was gaining ground on his anger. He, too, was afraid. As afraid as Little Joe sounded.

“Joe?” Adam asked calmly then, coming to Ben’s — and Joe’s — rescue in a way that made Ben as proud as he was relieved. “What’s wrong?”

Ben held his tongue. And his breath. And waited for Joe’s frustratingly slow response.

“By the time I got…I got Pa’s gun and…and made it back here…he was already gone.”

“I meant what’s wrong with you,” Adam went on as he climbed to the middle landing. “Why can’t you come downstairs?”

“I don’t feel so good.”

Joe’s words might have described how Ben felt, himself. But Adam’s next words struck a blow that made him feel far worse.

“You’re bleeding.”

“Splinters.” Joe gave a small, sad smile and absently rubbed at a bleeding cheek. “There were a lot of splinters flying around when he started shooting.”

Ben could hardly remember climbing the stairs. All he knew was he was finally standing directly in front of Little Joe, close enough to know for certain that something was very wrong. Joe was far too pale. And he was both sweating and shivering. And the scrapes on his cheek were nothing to whatever had happened to his right calf. There was a small pool of blood forming on the step beneath his leg.

“Ain’t been fired, Pa.” Hoss said, holding Ben’s gun. Ben hadn’t even noticed his middle son taking it from Joe’s waistband. Now those words — ain’t been fired, Pa — struck Ben another blow.

“I don’t think a splinter did that to your leg,” Adam said, adding more fuel to the fire of Ben’s remorse.

But Joe’s eyes were on Ben’s. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to find a way to stop him. I thought…maybe…your gun….”

Ben swallowed bile. And pride. And…so much more. “Yes. Of course. I was a fool, Joe. I’m the one who’s sorry, son. I didn’t realize…”

“Ahh!” Joe cried out suddenly, drawing Ben’s attention to where Adam had been prodding at Joe’s injured leg.

“I guess it’s my turn to say sorry, Joe,” Adam said then. “It’s pretty obvious one of those bullets did more than tear up this stairwell. He’s been shot, Pa. Bullet’s still in there.”

An old, stubborn, miserable fool, Ben said to no one but himself.

*****

Adam stared into the fireplace and pinched a twig between his fingers as he contemplated the conversation behind him.

“Seems to me,” Sheriff Coffee speculated, “Little Joe must’ve surprised a robber.”

“But nothin’s missing,” Hoss answered.

“Probably got scared off,” the sheriff added, “before he had a chance to take anything. Must’ve thought the house was empty, what with the horses gone and Hop Sing out back in the chicken coop. Running into Little Joe the way he did, why, he just got spooked.”

That didn’t add up for Adam. “Spooked by a fifteen-year-old boy who thought he was looking at a ghost?”

“Why else would he fire off all six rounds, if he wasn’t spooked?” the sheriff asked.

“I don’t know.” Frustrated, Adam tossed the twig into the flames and turned around to face them. Roy Coffee was on the settee with Hoss standing beside him, one hand resting on the back and his thumb absently tapping at the wooden edging. “And why did five of those shots miss?” Adam asked them both.

It was the sheriff who answered. “Could be the robber never intended to hit Joe at all. It might just be he didn’t want to hang for murder.”

“Do you really believe a man who starts shooting out of fear would be thinking clearly enough to try to miss?”

Sheriff Coffee shrugged. “Hard to say. Could’ve been shooting blind. Joe just got hit with a lucky shot.”

“Unlucky, I’d say,” Hoss said.

“And why was Joe’s horse out back?” Adam went on. “He was secure in the barn when Pa and I left.”

“Not when I went in to saddle Chubb,” Hoss repeated what he’d told them earlier. “Joe’s horse was gone by the time I got there.”

“He couldn’t have wandered off on his own. Someone had to have let him out of that barn.”

The sheriff still didn’t seem to find any of it particularly mysterious. “Maybe the robber aimed to steal the horse, too.”

Sheriff Roy Coffee might not be concerned; but Adam sure was. “Then why not take the horse when he ran off? No, there’s something more to all of this, something I just can’t figure.”

Roy sighed heavily. “Well, there’s not much I can do until Joe starts makin’ more sense. I can’t very well tell folks to look for a man who was publicly hung a week ago.”

“If you’re waiting for Joe to make sense,” a new voice pulled the attention of all three men toward where Doctor Paul Martin was descending the stairway, “I wouldn’t suggest you count on that wait ending any time soon. That boy firmly believes he was attacked by Frank Carver’s ghost.”

“How is he?” Adam asked while the doctor finished his approach.

“The bullet was lodged against bone. The bone’s not broken, fortunately, but there is a very small fracture. Nothing to be overly concerned about. I imagine it will heal up nicely after a few weeks. He’ll be pretty sore for a while, though.”

The sheriff leaned forward, putting one hand on the armrest of the settee. “Can I ask him a few more questions now, doc?”

Paul Martin shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I gave him something to help him sleep, although, as tired as he was, he might well have dropped off on his own.”

“Then why the medicine?” Adam asked.

“Well, despite being exhausted, he was fighting sleep every step of the way. I’d swear he was afraid to close his eyes.”

“He has been havin’ an awful lot of nightmares, lately.” Hoss pushed his hands into his pockets, looking not much more than a boy himself — a dejected boy who’d found himself in a pickle he just couldn’t fix.

Paul didn’t seem to notice. “So I gathered from what your father told me. It seems that boy has a lot of healing to do that my services simply cannot address.”

“Yes,” Adam agreed. “He does.”

Hoss glanced up the stairs and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. “Gettin’ shot by a man who looked like Frank Carver sure didn’t help him none.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Adam wondered. “Maybe that’s all there is to it.”

“What are you gettin’ at, Adam?” Roy Coffee asked.

“Maybe the man looked enough like Frank Carver to make Joe imagine it was him.”

The sheriff curled his brows, doubtful. “That’d be a pretty big coincidence, don’t you think?”

“I don’t mean exactly like him, but just enough to stir Joe’s imagination.”

“Well, it’s a stretch.” Roy shrugged. “But I can at least keep an eye out for a tall stranger with blonde hair and green eyes.”

Or maybe… Maybe it really was more than that. Adam started thinking back to what Sheriff Coffee had told them just before the hanging. “Gonna have to bury him up on boot hill. Carver didn’t have any kin. Leastways, none that I could find.”

“Roy?” he asked. “How hard did you look before, when you were trying to contact Carver’s family?”

“Are you suggesting I didn’t do my job?” Roy shot back angrily.

“No. Nothing like that. It’s just… I’m curious. Where did you look? What sort of information did you find?”

“I can’t see as how that’s any business of yours.”

“What if he did have family? A brother, perhaps. Someone who didn’t want to be found, maybe, but who wouldn’t be too happy about Frank Carver being hung.”

Roy sighed, shaking his head irritably. “Well, if you must know, Adam, he did have a brother. Four of ‘em, in fact. All older than him. And all dead.”

Adam noticed Hoss’ eyes going wide…until Roy finished his statement. Then his nose curled up, as though he’d grown suddenly ill. “Dead?”

“That’s right. Killed by Indians when Frank was a youngster — four, maybe five years old, they reckoned, when they found him hiding in the woods. The boy was so shook up he couldn’t even tell them his name. It was someone at the orphanage who gave him the name Frank Carver.”

“So it is possible he had kin,” Adam considered aloud.

“No. It is not!” Roy got to his feet, his irritation boiling over into impatience. “Adam, if that boy’d had kin, he wouldn’t have grown up in an orphanage.”

“Maybe.” But Adam couldn’t feel so certain.

“Adam,” Doctor Martin laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, “I wouldn’t really put too much confidence in what Joe said about that man looking like…or being Frank Carver. His memory is not particularly trustworthy right now.”

“It was trustworthy enough to hang a man,” Hoss said skeptically.

“And that’s precisely why it’s not very trustworthy, now. He feels guilty, Hoss.”

“Yeah. I know.” Pulling his lower lip between his teeth, Hoss looked up the stairwell again.

“I’ll ask around town,” Roy offered as he started to make his way to the front door. “But that’s as much as I can do until Little Joe gets around to saying something different about the man who shot him.”

Adam and his brother saw the sheriff and the doctor off, and then… Then there was nothing left to do. Sure, there was work to be done. There was always work. But neither Adam nor Hoss had the gumption to do any of it. Instead, they returned to the great room and fell into a troubled silence, one that was broken only by the ticking of the grandfather clock and their own useless, wasted steps as they paced aimlessly about the room.

“Adam?” Hoss asked after a while. “What’re we gonna do? Little Joe ain’t been himself since this mess started. I sort of figured workin’ and ridin’ would help, but now…he can’t even do that.”

Taking a deep breath, Adam gave his attention back to the fire and tried to puzzle out all the pieces that just didn’t seem to fit together: The mystery behind Joe’s errant horse, the true target of that shooter’s bullets…and whether or not Frank Carver had really been alone in this world. “We’ll do what we have to,” he said, wishing it really could be as simple as he was about to make it sound. “We find the man who shot him.”

*****

The dreams were different this time. They were worse — darker, colder, and as nightmarish as any dream could ever be. Maybe that was because Joe’s fear had increased a hundredfold.

…Because Joe wasn’t just afraid of Frank Carver’s ghost anymore. He was also afraid of himself.

Joe had held a gun in his hand. He’d felt his thumb easing against the hammer and his finger bending against the trigger, just as he’d seen Frank Carver doing at the foot of the stairs. And it had felt good. He’d been scared, sure. But he’d also been determined, ready to take a stand. By pulling that trigger the rest of the way, Joe Cartwright would prove to the world and all the Frank Carvers out there that he was not a rabbit.

But the man who’d stepped into his crosshairs had not been the man he’d expected to find walking through his front door. No. The heavy, urgent steps moving across the porch and drawing closer with every one of Joe’s panting breaths hadn’t come from Frank Carver’s ghost. They’d come from Joe’s own pa. He’d heard his pa’s voice calling out to him, but he hadn’t believed it. He couldn’t believe it…until he saw it was true. Until his pa had stepped right where Joe had been aiming the gun.

Joe had come that close — that close —  to shooting his pa.

The realization had left him sick and shaking and…confused. He’d tried so hard to stop thinking then, to ignore all the horrific what-ifs that shot through his thoughts with as much or even more ferocity as Frank Carver’s bullets against the stair railing. But he couldn’t ignore them, and they made him feel sicker and sicker until he couldn’t fight anymore. He hadn’t even had the strength to turn away from Doc Martin’s medicine.

But now he found himself fighting again, fighting to claw his way out of the dreams that made every one of those what-ifs hauntingly real. Joe’s pa was dead — dead at Joe’s hand — and Pa’s ghost was even more fearsome than Frank Carver’s. Eyes that should fill Joe with comfort instead filled him with dread, with their scolding, scathing looks of anger…and disappointment.

“Pa!” Joe cried out, reaching toward rather than away from this new ghost. He wasn’t willing to turn away, no matter how fearsome, no matter how dreadful — no matter what the outcome.

Two strong hands pushed him back. “Easy, Joe. Settle down. It’s just a dream.”

Joe opened his eyes to find himself looking onto his father’s. Surprisingly, there was nothing dark or judgmental…or cold within them. “I shot you,” Joe said softly, confused by the compassion he saw.

Pa’s eyes widened just the smallest bit. He shook his head. “You were dreaming, son. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I had your gun. I didn’t know who was coming in. I thought…”

Pa’s warm eyes gained the dark look Joe had feared…but only for an instant. “You did nothing wrong, Joe. In fact, I’d say you did everything right.”

“No.” That made no sense. “Your gun. I wasn’t supposed to…”

“You needed to defend yourself,” Pa said in as firm a voice as he’d ever used. “That’s exactly why I keep that gun right where it is, as I’ve told you and your brothers many times over the years. You were wise to arm yourself…and equally wise to stop yourself from shooting blindly. I’m proud of you, son. You held your hand until you knew exactly what it was you were shooting at. I know men who would not have been so cautious.” Pa took a deep breath, one that pulled his back straight and loosened his grip on Joe’s arms. “I’m the one who reacted poorly. I’m sorry, Joe. I was wrong to shout at you. I was wrong to doubt you.”

“You believe me?”

“Yes, Joe. I believe in you to do the right thing, right when it matters most.”

“But do you believe me…about Frank Carver? Do you believe it was Carver’s ghost who shot at me?”

“Joseph.” Pa’s grip tightened again–tightened enough to hurt. “Think about what you’re saying. Does it really make sense that a ghost could shoot a gun? It takes a man to do that, a real, flesh and blood man!”

“But it was him, Pa. I know it was.”

“Frank Carver is dead, Joseph. He is dead and buried. He can’t ever hurt you. He won’t hurt anyone else, ever again.”

Joe said nothing. What could he say? He knew his pa was wrong. And if Pa was wrong, how could anything be right ever again?

*****

Hoss woke to the enticing aroma of fresh coffee and bacon, and the soft clatter of dishes. He’d slept through the night? The whole night?

For the past three nights, ever since the shooting, Joe’s midnight cries had grown in both volume and intensity. Little Joe’s nightmares had been bad enough after the murder and even worse after the hanging. But the shooting…well, that seemed to have opened up an even darker place in the boy’s imagination. The whole family had been drawn in night after night, woken by ghostly wails and howls that had at first made Hoss start to believe maybe Frank Carver was back after all. But then he’d seen Little Joe make those sounds all by himself, drawn from somewhere deep in his gullet as he fought his way out of whatever horrific place sleep had dragged him into.

But last night, Hoss had managed a full night’s sleep. He might even still be sleeping, if breakfast hadn’t called to him just as loudly — if far more pleasantly — than Joe’s bad dreams.

Surprised but far from disappointed, Hoss poured fresh water into the basin on the washstand and readied himself for the day ahead. His stomach rumbling, he dressed quickly, and then hurried down the hall toward the stairs, hesitating for a moment beside Little Joe’s closed door.

Joe, too, must have slept through the night; otherwise… Well, otherwise Hoss wouldn’t have. No one in the house could sleep through Little Joe’s nightmares, even if the boy could sleep through them himself. Hoss nodded happily, allowing a small grin to slip into place. Joe must finally be on the mend.

Downstairs, breakfast was already laid out on the table. Both Pa and Adam were sipping coffee while Hop Sing set down the final dish: A fresh platter of steaming hotcakes.

“Hop Sing, that looks like pure Heaven to me!” Hoss greeted, earning a rare happy nod from the family cook. In fact, everyone looked to be about as happy as Hoss felt. Yep, maybe the whole family was finally on the mend.

“I trust you slept as well as we did,” Adam said with a sideways grin as he passed the coffeepot to his brother.

“Sure did.” Hoss let his attention drift back toward the stairs. “You think maybe Joe’s done with all them nightmares?”

“Let’s hope so,” Pa answered. “He’s been sleeping worse than we have, and he needs his sleep more than we do right now.”

Adam waited his turn for the hotcakes, his eyes widening slightly as the stack on Hoss’ plate continued growing. “Do you mind saving some of those for the rest of us?”

Hoss paused. “Sorry. I guess all that extra sleep helped me to build up an appetite this mornin’.” He quickly scooped out two more hotcakes, and then passed the platter to his older brother.

“I was thinking,” Adam said as he dished out a much smaller stack. “It might be a good idea for Hoss and me to get to work on that fence line today.”

Pa took the platter, giving his head a quick shake in the process. “No, Adam. I’d rather you both stay close to the house today. Until I finish up that estate business with Hiram, that land isn’t even legally ours.”

“But Mister Ferguson’s will…”

“Yes,” Pa interrupted. “Micah Ferguson’s will lists me as the benefactor of that land. But the paperwork must still be signed. Frankly, I’ve put that off long enough. No, I’d better ride into Virginia City today to get that business sorted, and I’d rather not leave Little Joe alone just yet.”

“He wouldn’t be alone,” Adam said. “Hop Sing…”

“Hop Sing has his own work to do,” Pa argued. “And watching out for intruders is not his responsibility.”

Hoss looked up from his plate. “Intruders, Pa? I thought you agreed with the sheriff that whoever done that to Joe was probably just a drifter and wouldn’t be back?”

“I did, son. I still do. But believing in a probability and knowing something to be true are two different things. And one night of solid sleep is not enough to prove that Joe has stopped imagining it was a ghost who shot him — or that Carver’s ghost is going to come back to attack him again.”

Another platter of hotcakes saw the table conversation dwindling until Adam set his napkin beside his plate and pushed back his chair. “I think I’ll head up and wake Little Joe. He’s bound to be hungrier than the rest of us by now, and if he waits much longer, there won’t be anything left.”

Hoss grinned again. “Yeah, I reckon you’re right. Tell you what, though.” He pushed back his own chair. “You woke him yesterday. I figure it’s my turn, today.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Yesterday, he slept so poorly he very nearly punched me in the eye when I woke him.”

“Yeah, and you don’t want that to happen again, do you?”

Today,” Adam went on, “he’s more likely to wake like a kitten than a startled puma.”

Little Joe?” Pa sounded dubious. “I’m not sure that boy has ever woken like a kitten, not even when he was one, himself!”

Sounds of soft laughter followed Hoss to the stairway. He half wanted to holler out a “Yahoo!” as he’d done just a few days before, but that “Yahoo!” had been a mistake. He sure didn’t want to jinx things this time around.

*****

Ben watched his middle son bound up the stairs looking almost like he was a child again. Or perhaps it was more fitting to think of Hoss as a young man with a child’s heart — a child’s heart that had been breaking over the torment his baby brother had been enduring.

“So what do you really think happened here?” When Adam pulled his attention back to the table, Ben turned a questioning eye on his oldest son as he refilled his coffee cup. “You don’t believe it was a drifter any more than I do.” Adam went on.

“No, son. I don’t. A drifter would have been careless. He would have left something behind. Footprints, dirty hand-marks on the door, something. We didn’t so much as smell anything strange. You and I both know Hoss would have picked up on that –unless our drifter had taken the time to bathe before barging in here.”

“Why didn’t you say as much to Hoss just now?”

“Hoss isn’t far past boyhood, himself. If you haven’t noticed, he’s been eying shadows and startled by unexpected noises nearly as much as Joe.”

Ben lifted his coffee cup for a sip when an unexpected thump from upstairs startled him, jerking his hand and causing the warm liquid to spill down his chin. “Sounds like things might just be getting back to normal after all,” he said with a quick shake of his head as he wiped the mess with his napkin.

Feeling Adam’s eyes on him, Ben looked up to see a familiar and welcome grin. His eldest boy might be farther past childhood than his brothers, but he hadn’t completely left his own boyish heart behind him, had he?

“Tell me the truth, Pa,” Adam said, his grin slipping just a little. “You didn’t really sleep all the way through the night, did you?”

Ben smiled warmly. “I kept expecting to hear Joe cry out. I’ll admit, the silence was a bit disturbing until I went in to check on him. He was sleeping more soundly than I’ve seen in quite some time. After that, yes, I did sleep well. And you?” He raised a questioning brow.

“About the same.” Adam sighed. “At least we’re not imagining ghosts like those brothers of mine.”

“Very true. Hoss has been trying to be reasonable, but it’s clear he’s putting far too much stock in what Joe’s been saying. I’d rather if he…”

“Pa!” Hoss shouted from upstairs. “Adam! Come quick!”

*****

The sight that greeted Ben in Little Joe’s bedroom was sure to haunt him every bit as much as Frank Carver’s ghost seemed to be haunting his youngest son. Joe and Hoss were clutching one another’s arms, with Joe panting, his eyes wide, his face ashen, and Hoss…Hoss looked more frightened than his brother. His brows were drawn low with worry and his own eyes were white with fear when he turned toward Ben and Adam. That’s when Ben noticed the front of Hoss’ shirt…and the edge of Joe’s bed. Both were wet with vomit.

Ben moved forward in an instant, needing to know, to understand, needing to help, to comfort, to…

When he reached Joe’s bedside, Ben’s foot kicked something, drawing his attention downward to where an empty bottle of laudanum had skittered past a small pool of liquid.

“Joseph?” Suddenly hot with horror and anger, Ben sensed Adam pulling Hoss aside, but he kept his eyes on Joe, watching the boy ease back to his pillows. “Did you drink that laudanum?” he asked reprovingly.

Little Joe looked every bit like a young man after his first experience with too much hard whiskey — or worse, too much of a dangerous, even deadly drug. But Joe’s eyes… They were wide and watery, pleading and desperate. Ben saw no sign of regret, only terror.

“He was here!” Joe said through gasping breaths. “He was! He made me. He told me…”

Clenching his jaw briefly in a vain attempt to hold in his anger — to give Little Joe an opportunity to explain — Ben forced himself to keep his voice low. “Joseph, I asked you a simple question. Did you…”

“He made me!” Joe cried out. “He…he poured it down my throat. I started choking, and…I tried to spit it out, but Pa! He…he put his hand over my mouth. He….” Joe swallowed heavily, leaning his head deeper into the pillow, exposing the underside of his jaw and two dark shadows…

No. Not shadows. Bruises.

In Ben’s mind, he reached forward, wrapping his hand around Little Joe’s throat and pressing his thumb and forefinger to either side of Joe’s jaw to force it open.

My, God… Ben stiffened, his anger suddenly and thoroughly redirected. Ben didn’t need to ask about whom Little Joe was referring, to ask for the name of this mysterious “he” who had come to him in the night, who had come to poison Ben’s young son. He had no doubt how Joseph would answer.

“He said…” Joe pressed on. “He told me I might never wake up…”

Ben’s fists curled into tight balls. No. He didn’t need to ask Little Joe. Instead, he asked God, Himself, silently. Tell me, Dear Lord! Help me to find him. Help me to…

A single phrase came into his thoughts like a whisper against a raging storm. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.

And then Little Joe’s frantic words redirected Ben’s focus yet again. “When Hoss grabbed me, I…I thought he was back. Pa, he was here! And I thought I wasn’t ever gonna wake up again. I tried not to swallow. I tried to spit it out…”

There was an abrupt change in Joe’s eyes. His pallor grew pasty. Fortunately, Adam noticed it, too; he thrust a basin between Ben and Little Joe.

And for the first time in Little Joe’s life, Ben was grateful to see the sickness coming out of his young son. It meant the poison was being expunged. It meant the boy was still alive.

But would he survive a third encounter with this mysterious intruder?

Ben Cartwright had no intention of learning the answer. He was going to find that man. He was going to find him, and he was going to bring him to justice. Not vengeance. Justice. Whatever kind of justice came to hand.

*****

Adam had promised his father he would spend the day on paperwork, but his thoughts kept drifting much farther afield. What did he care about inventories and supplies? He wanted to be outside with Hoss and the other men, searching for signs that could lead them to last night’s intruder. He wanted to find the cowardly scoundrel who would terrorize boys while hiding from men. But he knew Pa had been right. It wasn’t so much about the paperwork as it was about keeping an eye on Little Joe anyway.

Yes, he needed to be right where he was, watching over his young brother — a boy he’d helped raise in some ways, yet whom he barely seemed to know, especially lately. Little Joe had been feeling his oats in recent months, eager to challenge just about everyone, even Pa. Joe had entered that frustrating stage between boy and man, a stage Adam had practically skipped, himself. When Adam had been fifteen, he’d had two little brothers to protect and guide. His father had relied heavily upon him. But Joe… Joe had never had to protect anyone except himself. And he’d taken on that task by chasing danger rather than avoiding it. He would ride too fast, climb too high, swim too far and trade punches with any and all takers. None of it had ever made any real sense to Adam, but the changes he’d seen in the boy since Joe’s first encounter with Frank Carver made even less sense.

Or maybe they did make some sense, after all. Joe no longer needed to risk his well-being in order to prove himself capable of overcoming those risks. He no longer had to find danger. Danger had found him. And it continued to taunt him. He had no idea how to fight back…or how to prove to anyone, especially to himself, that he could.

None of them knew how. It’s as impossible to fight a man who stays hidden as it is to fight a ghost. If only Adam could make Joe see that, could get him to accept that his ghostly attacker was as real as any of them, that he was just flesh and bone, and therefore breakable — that he was real enough to be found, and when he was found, he would be stopped.

But Joe wouldn’t listen. Instead, he relived each encounter — the murder, the hanging, the shooting, and then, worst of all, the poisoning.

The poisoning… How could that have happened? How could a man sneak into their home without alerting anyone at all? Not Pa, who’d always had an uncanny sense for trouble. Not Hoss, who could ferret out a problem by smell alone. Nor even Adam, who’d taken to sleeping lightly since his years in Boston, where theft was not uncommon and locks did little to deter men who would rather take what they needed than work for it. None of Joe’s “protectors” had known anything of the intrusion until hours afterward, hours in which Joe could very well have died.

Joe could have been lying dead while Adam, Hoss and their father laughed over breakfast.

Suddenly, Adam felt as sick as Joe had been when they finally had found him. Tossing his pencil to the desk, Adam pushed himself to his feet — and then locked eyes with Joe, who’d been dozing across the room on Pa’s leather chair, his injured leg resting on the table in front of him.

“Sorry if I startled you,” Adam offered.

“You didn’t,” Joe mumbled listlessly.

Adam would have been happier to find Joe irritable and ornery. “Look Joe…” Adam moved closer. “Why don’t you go to bed? Or at least stretch out on the settee? You’re as tired as I’ve ever seen you.”

“Don’t want to sleep.”

“There’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be right here. I won’t let…”

“I’m not going to sleep, so just forget it!” Joe’s voice rose on every word, and his eyes flared with a rage that transcended mere irritability.

It was enough to catch Adam off guard. He had no idea what to say, what to do, how to help. Frustrated, he opened his mouth to shout right back at the boy, complete with a sweeping gesture to point out the pointless nature of Joe’s moroseness. But then he stopped himself, swallowing the words and running his hand through his hair, instead. Arguing would be equally pointless.

“How about a sandwich?” Adam offered then. “Hop Sing’s tending the vegetable garden, but he left some…”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Of course, you’re not,” Adam said through half-clenched teeth.

“If I want something, I can get it myself.”

The defiance Adam saw in Joe’s eyes was as unsettling as the boy’s earlier rage. But, again, what could Adam do? Part of him was encouraged that his brother was starting to slip out of fear and depression and into anger. Another part of him was worried about that very same thing. Then he eyed Joe’s leg, and his worries faded. Joe wasn’t about to go riding too fast or climbing too high with that injury. It was hard enough for him to walk, even aided with a crutch.

“All right,” Adam said with a sigh. “Just holler if you change your mind.”

But the hollering he heard then didn’t come from Little Joe. It was muffled, coming from somewhere outside. “Hey, Adam! Adam? It’s Hoss! He’s been hurt!”

*****

Anxious to join his brother at the door, Joe started to lift himself out of his chair. Though he moved cautiously as he slid his leg to the edge of the table, a twinge of pain flared up when the table gave way to air. His soft groan alerted Adam enough to make him swing back around.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Adam asked in a cold tone — the kind of tone that always got under Joe’s skin.

“I heard what he said,” Joe shot back. “Hoss is hurt!”

“There’s nothing you can do out there with your leg like that!”

Joe glared back at him, unable to respond. Heck, as soft as that shout had been, Hoss had to be somewhere past the tree line. Adam could be there and back in the time it took Joe to clear the porch, hobbled as he was. But Adam’s next words made Joe want to try anyway, just to spite his older brother.

“You stay right where you are!”

Tense with anger and that damnable, ever-present fear, Joe dropped his leg to the floor. But all he had to do was press his heel against the wood to remind him how foolish he was being. Defeated, he sagged back into his chair. “What if he’s hurt on account of me?” he asked quietly.

“Hey, Adam!” the voice called again, closer than before.

Adam glanced at the door, his jawline tightening, and then looked back at Joe. “Whatever’s happened, it’s not your fault. It’s a pretty safe bet the only one to blame is the man who did that to your leg.” He stabbed an accusatory finger toward Joe, but his gaze was softening. Joe noticed Adam’s brow curling slightly in consideration, and his eyes shifting toward the stairs.

No. Not the stairs. The gun rack.

“Here,” Adam said a moment later, taking a shotgun to hand. “Take this.” He checked the chamber and the barrel, loaded it and brought it over to Little Joe. “Just in case.”

Joe looked at him, dumbfounded. “In case what?”

Adam’s jaw tightened again. “You already know.”

Hesitantly taking the weapon, Joe eyed his oldest brother. He felt foolish and frightened and very much like the little boy he’d been trying so hard to outgrow. He wished Pa hadn’t gone to Virginia City. He wished Adam didn’t have to leave him alone. He prayed hard as he could that Hoss being hurt didn’t mean anything worse than… Well, that it didn’t mean anything really bad.

And then Adam turned away, disappearing through the door in an instant. And that’s when the only thing Joe could think about was the ghost he knew had to be coming.

*****

Despite his plans at breakfast, Ben Cartwright had no interest in meeting with Hiram or talking about the land he’d acquired with the passing of his neighbor and friend, Micah Ferguson. His first concern — in truth, the only thing that mattered to him, the thing that had driven him to ride much harder than was his custom — was what had happened to his boy in the night. But Sheriff Coffee was not in his office when Ben arrived. Ben had to wait a full hour, his patience wearing thinner and thinner with each passing minute. By the time the sheriff returned, anxiety had grown into anger.

And then he learned the reason for Roy’s earlier absence. Taken together with the news Paul Martin had told Ben when he’d first arrived in Virginia City — news about the late night passing of Judge Harris just two days prior — it almost had Ben believing in Joe’s ghost. Almost.

“It’s not a coincidence!” Ben Cartwright said gruffly. “It can’t be.” He pushed himself from his chair opposite Roy Coffee and paced over to the window of the sheriff’s office.

“I got no evidence to say it’s anything but.”

Roy’s matter-of-fact tone further chafed at the anxiety that had already made Ben feel raw inside. He turned back to his long-time friend, feeling considerably less than friendly. “Judge Harris, the man who sentenced Frank Carver to hang, is dead. Martha Hatcher, one of two eyewitnesses who influenced that ruling, is dead. And my son…my son….” He planted both hands on the sheriff’s desk to lock eyes with the man seated behind it. “…the only other witness, has been attacked twice by a man he is convinced is Frank Carver’s ghost. You can’t possibly believe it’s all coincidental!”

“Now, Ben, you know the law don’t care what I believe. I got to have proof. I got to have evidence. As for the judge, Doc said near as he can tell the man’s heart just gave out. You want to believe he got scared to death by some ghost, you go right ahead. But if I put that in an official report, you’d better find a job for me out on that ranch of yours, ‘cause it’s a sure bet those folks outside that window there aren’t gonna want me sheriffin’ anymore.”

Of course I don’t think it was a ghost!” Ben’s voice was nearly loud enough to rattle the windows. “But neither do I believe the judge’s death was a coincidence. Not when you also consider what happened to Martha this morning and the attacks on Little Joe!”

“What happened to Missus Hatcher was an accident.”

“Or made to look like one!” Ben argued.

“Her husband came home for lunch and found her at the foot of the stairs with her neck broken. Now that’s a pretty clear accident if ever there was one!”

“Be reasonable, Roy! Something is going on here and we have got to get to the bottom of it! Even if you ignore what happened to the judge and Martha, even if you ignore that they both died under unusual circumstances within days of that first attack on Little Joe, you cannot ignore that someone broke into my home in the middle of the night and tried to poison my son!” Ben stabbed his finger at the desk to punctuate his final words.

“Now there’s something we can finally agree on. And just as soon as my deputy gets back from Mister Hatcher’s, I intend to head out to the Ponderosa and see for myself those bruises on Joe’s jaw. Bruises like that can prove your boy didn’t swallow all that laudanum on his own. But I sure hope we can find some other kind of proof, too. Otherwise, I…”

The door opened, interrupting the sheriff’s words. And then his returning deputy changed the entire course of the conversation. “Afternoon, Mister Cartwright.” The man’s greeting was cursory; he was far more interested in talking with Roy. “Sheriff, I got to say, that Hatcher business makes for a pretty good ghost story. In fact, I’ve a mind to use it on those nephews of mine next Saturday, if…”

Ben stiffened. “What’s this about a ghost story?”

The deputy glanced at Roy and then scratched at his new growth of beard before answering. “I could tell Mister Hatcher was holdin’ somethin’ back when he told me about his wife’s fall. By the time I got him to spit it all out, well, I could understand why he’d been holdin’ it back. It was like some kind of silly ghost story. That Missus Hatcher must’ve been losin’ her mind or some like. Told her husband Frank Carver’s ghost has been haunting her.”

Feeling vindicated, Ben glared back at Roy Coffee…and was pleased to see his old friend’s eyebrows rise up in surprise.

*****

Joe stared at the door, listening for signs of the men outside but hearing only the heavy beat of his heart and the much slower tick of the grandfather clock. Every quick glance to that clock showed him that seconds passed like minutes, and minutes like hours. By the time five minutes had come and gone, Joe was ready to accept that he would rather deal with the pain in his leg than the torment of waiting. He licked dry lips, took one more glance at the clock…and then noticed the front door was coming open.

Joe couldn’t breathe. The beating and the ticking were silenced by the barely discernible creak of hinges as the door swung wider, the motion so slow he would have run across the room to pull at it if he could…if his leg would allow him to.

He heard Adam in his head, from a time when he’d used that very door to teach Joe about geometry. There, it reached forty-five degrees. And there, fifty. He started to count them out, desperate to turn his thoughts away from ghosts even while he readied the shotgun in his hands.

Sixty. Sixty-five. He lifted the gun.

Seventy. Seventy-five. He aimed it at the door, forcing his count to stop him from reliving that moment on the stairs when he’d aimed a pistol at his father.

Eighty. Eighty-five….

And then he saw the shadow…a shadow that gained substance as it silently stepped forward, the geometry cast by the sun slowly revealing it to be…

The ghost of Frank Carver.

Carver stood quiet and still for a long moment, unconcerned by the shotgun targeting his chest. “You won’t do it,” he said in a voice deeper than Joe remembered. “You can’t.”

Joe rested his finger lightly on the trigger. But he was afraid to pull it. If Pa and Adam were right, the shot would hit a man. It would hit him, and it would stop him from hurting Joe…or Hoss…or anyone else. But what if…? What if Joe had been right all along? What if it really was Frank Carver’s ghost?

“You can’t,” Carver had told him.

Why couldn’t he?

Because the shot would pass right through him; wouldn’t it? It would pass through and hit something outside. Or someone. Maybe even Adam.

“Y–you hurt Hoss.” Joe’s intended accusation sounded like nothing more than a quietly stated fact.

It was a fact Frank Carver’s ghost chose not to argue. “Figured it was time to get them chasing ghosts. You and me, we’ve got business of our own.”

Joe tried to brace himself, but the fact was there wasn’t much more bracing he could do. So he waited and he watched Carver’s ghost watching him; he thought about Adam’s angles and how much damage his gun would do to the house once Carver moved inside — where it wouldn’t matter if Joe’s shot passed through him or not, where it couldn’t hurt anyone else. He wondered if shooting a ghost would make it go away or just make it angrier. And he wondered how a ghost could feel as real as Carver’s hands had felt around his neck the night before. He wondered and he worried and he waited.

And then Carver’s ghost turned away.

“Hey,” Joe said softly, confused. Why was Carver walking away? “We’ve got business of our own,” he’d said. What sort of business? And how could they do it if Carver walked away?

“Hey!” Joe repeated, loud enough to reach the porch. But Carver had already moved out of sight.

“No,” Joe said to himself. “No!”

Joe couldn’t let Carver go like that. The ghost was real. He had to prove that to his family. He had to prove it to himself.

He reached for the crutch propped up beside him, laying the shotgun down on the settee so he could maneuver himself to his feet. Then he realized how useless that shotgun would be, with one arm as preoccupied as it now was. Probably just as well. Joe knew he wouldn’t use it anyway. He needed answers. Is that what Carver had meant? “You won’t do it. You can’t.” Had Carver known it before Joe did, himself?

Maybe he had. Maybe ghosts knew things regular folks couldn’t know — things that maybe regular folks aren’t supposed to know. And maybe that meant Joe should stay right where he was. But then what? Carver could keep coming back whenever he felt like it, and Joe would never get another decent night’s sleep — at least, not until the night he knew was bound to come sooner or later…the one he would never wake up from.

He was scared half out of his mind, but Joe knew what he had to do. He hobbled to the door as fast as he could, stepped out onto the porch, and then, taking a long, shaky breath, glanced around for any sign of his brothers.

All he saw was Frank Carver walking past the barn, slow as can be.

*****

Walking from where he’d been ambushed to the house was a slow process, and Hoss had to lean heavily on Adam every bit of the way. Anxious to ease the burden on his older but smaller brother, Hoss grabbed for the doorframe with his free hand as soon as he got close enough.

“I’m sorry, Adam,” Hoss said as he extricated his arm from around his brother’s shoulders. “I was plumb sure the ground wouldn’t move so much after I got to walking for a bit. Probably should have let Hank help.”

“Hank’s the best tracker we have, next to you.” Adam stepped away, moving into the house. “That trail you found is fresh. I didn’t want to hold the men back any more than you did.”

“Yeah, I reckon.” Hoss thought harder on what his brother had said. “Should’ve asked someone to stay back and help, though. I’m just glad I didn’t knock you over on the way here.”

“I’m stronger than I look.” Adam gave him a small grin, but there was something hollow to it. “Come on,” he said, reaching his hand around Hoss’ shoulders again. “Let’s get you inside. I’ll find Hop Sing to take care of that gash on the back of your head.”

“I sure wish I knew where that fella’ came from. I didn’t know he was there until he clobbered me.”

“Just like,” Adam grunted as he took on Hoss’ weight, “we never knew anyone was here during the night.” He stiffened as he eased Hoss down onto the settee.

The settee wasn’t quite empty. “What’s this shotgun doin’ here?” Hoss asked after he was settled.

Adam didn’t answer. “I’ll get Hop Sing,” he said instead. There was an odd sound to his voice, like it was strained — like Hoss was still leaning against him.

Hoss looked over to where Adam had gone. “Adam? What’s goin’ on?” The question stopped his brother, but did not pull him around to face Hoss again. “Why was the front door open when we got here? And this shotgun. What’s that about?”

Adam’s shoulders rose, showing Hoss he was taking a real deep breath.

“Adam?”

Finally, Adam turned back. “I gave that gun to Joe.”

“He brought it downstairs with him? Then where is he?”

“No, he did not bring it down. He was sitting in Pa’s chair when I gave it to him, and he was still sitting there, with that gun in his lap, when I went out to help you.”

At that, Hoss glanced around the room. “Joe?” he called out. “Little Joe?”

But it was Adam who answered. “He’s not here.”

“Of course, he is. Where else would he be? Little Joe!” he shouted again.

Hoss!” Adam shouted back at him. “He went outside!”

“We would’ve seen him if he was outside. Little Joe!”

“Stop it, Hoss! I saw his tracks when I brought you in here! They’re clear as day with that crutch of his. And they only go in one direction — away from the porch.”

“Why didn’t you say that right off? Go out there and get him! He shouldn’t be wanderin’ around by himself with that leg like it is and that fella still on the loose.”

Adam sighed. “I know. I’ll find him. Don’t you worry.”

But before he could take another step toward the door, Hop Sing came running toward him from the same path Joe had taken. “Mistah Adam! Mistah Hoss!” the cook hollered as he scurried inside. “Little Joe gone!”

“Yes, Hop Sing.” Adam sounded tired…or frustrated, maybe. “I know. I’m going to…”

“No! Mistah Adam.” Hop Sing shook his head. “Little Joe gone! Not on Ponderosa!”

“What?” Adam’s voice rose in pitch, while Hoss’ heart dropped down into his stomach.

“Hop Sing see marks in sand. Think Little Joe foolishment. But no Little Joe when marks end. Only marks from horses.”

“Horses?” Hoss was horrified to imagine what that had to mean.

“Mistah Adam come see!” Hop Sing grabbed Adam’s arm.

Adam pushed him away. “Wait, Hop Sing. You stay here with Hoss. I’ll saddle up and follow those tracks.”

“Adam…” Hoss barely got that one word out before his brother cut him off.

“Pa should be home soon,” Adam insisted. “And with any luck, he’ll have Sheriff Coffee with him. Tell them where I’ve gone.”

“Adam!” Hoss tried to get up, but the floor tilted, sending him right back into the settee. “Dadburnit!”

“Help Hoss, Hop Sing,” Adam’s voice said from behind him. “Let me worry about Little Joe.”

“Mistah Adam not only one who worry!”

“I know. I’ll find him.”

A heavy thud told Hoss that the front door had finally been closed. It also sent a stab of pain throughout Hoss’ skull. Dadburnit, he thought to himself. How could he let someone get the drop on him like that fella had done out there? And, for that matter, sneak into the house without any of them knowing, to boot?

You’d better find him, Adam. Find ‘em both — that fella and Little Joe. And you’d better find ‘em before that fella finds you.

*****

Joe trembled, both from the pain in his leg and the fear in his belly. Yeah, he was afraid. Anyone would be afraid, trussed up like he was and lying on the floor right next to a noose hitched up to the rafters. They’d hung the noose low enough to tap at Joe’s head every now and then, pushed by stray breezes coming in through an open window.

Frank Carver and the Indian were sitting at the table in the center of the room, a table where Joe had sat many times through the years, listening to old man Ferguson’s stories about soldiering and sailing and trapping and heading west. But old man Ferguson was dead, and his cabin had already grown dusty from abandonment, dusty enough to attract another man’s ghost and an Indian who seemed like a ghost himself — who Joe thought might be a ghost too — a ghost who’d ridden a ghost horse that had suddenly appeared right next to Joe, close enough for the Indian to snatch him up and carry him there, to that dusty cabin.

Joe had already given up when that Indian had come by. He’d watched Frank Carver’s ghost disappear into the trees, and had realized he would never catch up. Joe had been standing still, trembling from the effort of keeping himself propped up with that crutch, with the muscles in his arm burning almost as much as his leg had been throbbing, when the bluster of a horse had turned his attention. The Indian’s hand had come down to grab him and Joe had been hoisted into the saddle so quick he’d hardly known what was happening — and so forcefully his leg had been bumped and banged enough to make Joe believe he’d been shot all over again.

And now Joe was on the dusty floor of old man Ferguson’s dusty cabin, with his leg bleeding again and his hands tied behind his back — tight enough to make his wrists sting and his hands tingle. Sure, he was afraid. Who wouldn’t be afraid lying there like that, getting smacked in the head by a dangling noose and watching two ghosts play poker with a deck of dusty cards?

Maybe even Adam would be afraid.

“You showed a lot of courage, Little Joe,” Adam had told him not long ago. “First by facing Carver down in trial like you did, and then by seeing it all the way through to the hanging.”

“I didn’t want to,” Joe had replied, softly, meaningfully.

I know. But you did. And that took courage.”

Joe had treasured hearing his brother tell him he’d shown courage. But showing it and knowing it were different, somehow. Joe knew he hadn’t been courageous. He’d trembled back at those gallows almost as much as he was trembling now. He hadn’t wanted to watch Frank Carver die. Heck, he hadn’t wanted the man to die at all. He wasn’t even sure why the judge had said Carver had to die. No one saw Carver kill that man in the alley, not even Joe. All Joe saw was him holding a knife and looking at Joe with murder in his eyes –first in the alley, and then at the gallows.

But…Carver had been afraid, too, hadn’t he? Up on those gallows, Joe had seen fear in the man’s eyes, right before those eyes had looked his way. It wasn’t until their eyes had met that fear had turned to hatred — a killing kind of hatred.

And now those eyes were meeting Joe’s again. Carver nodded to the Indian and set his cards on the table, keeping his eyes on Joe the whole time. “You ready to get down to business, boy?”

And Joe stopped trembling. He was suddenly too cold to tremble.

****

Adam had been following a false trail. He chided himself for not realizing it sooner, for being so careless. A mistake like that could get his brother killed…if Little Joe wasn’t dead already.

But, no. That couldn’t be true. If Frank Carver’s imposter — whoever he was — had wanted Joe dead, he wouldn’t have bungled his first two attempts. No one could be as crafty as this man had been and so careless at the same time.

He’d been crafty, all right, moving through the house like the ghost Joe believed him to be. He wasn’t just any stranger, and he certainly wasn’t a drifter. He was skilled enough to shoot Joe without coming close to killing him, and to pour just enough laudanum down Joe’s throat to avoid stopping the boy’s heart. He knew what he was doing. But…why? Why was he going through so much trouble to scare Little Joe half out of his mind?

Adam couldn’t begin to guess what the stranger intended for his brother. All he knew was that Joe was in serious trouble. The boy needed help, and Adam had wasted time getting to him by following a trail he should have known had been too clear, too distinct. He’d been played a fool. Concern for his young brother had made him easy prey for that deception. When Adam had seen Little Joe’s footprints come to an abrupt end, and had found the boy’s crutch abandoned….

God. Even thinking about it now gripped his heart. When he’d found that crutch, it was as though he’d been lassoed by emotions he simply had neither the strength nor the gumption to push aside. Fear and anger cocooned him until he couldn’t breathe, like a rope pulling tighter and tighter and forcing the air from his lungs, leaving room in his head for only one thought: He had to find his brother. He had to reach Joe.

So he’d found a trail and he’d followed it without question.

Now… Now, Adam was as angry at himself as he was at Joe’s ghost.

Kicking his horse hard, Adam raced back home, desperate to return to the point from which Joe had vanished, his crutch tossed aside like useless junk, like something unneeded, or like something that would never be needed again. Adam had to find the real trail, and then…

Thank God! Around that last copse of trees Adam saw two familiar figures. Pa was there. Pa was home. And Sheriff Coffee was with him.

His chest filling with air, Adam discovered he could breathe again. And perhaps even think again. Joe’s life was no longer in his hands, alone.

Rushing to close the final distance between them, Adam watched his father and the sheriff examining the ground he, himself, had spent too little time inspecting. “Hang on, Little Joe,” he said in his thoughts. “Roy Coffee is a whole lot better at tracking than I’ll ever be. He won’t let you down.”

And then Adam prayed to God that finding the trail would be enough to make that promise true.

*****

Frank Carver’s ghost stepped closer. Little Joe shimmied back to the wall, pushing himself up to sit against it. His bound hands and the reopened wound in his leg hindered his efforts, and Joe had to fight his way past waves of pain. But his thoughts were focused exclusively on the ghost.

“You’ve had luck on your side, boy.” Carver squatted down in front of him, close enough that Joe could smell tobacco on his breath and the animal scent still embedded in his soft, fringed leather trousers. “I don’t know why, and I promise you I don’t like it. But you’ve been lucky so far. Clyde, here, says it’s the will of the spirits.” The ghost indicated toward the Indian with a nod of his head, and Joe felt his brow curl in confusion.

An Indian named Clyde seemed as peculiar as a ghost with a puzzled look to his eyes…and as odd as Frank Carver wearing Indian trousers. Joe had heard men saying Frank Carver was about the biggest Indian hater in the territory, yet here he was playing cards with one and wearing Indian clothes.

Had he been wearing those trousers when he’d shot at Joe on the stairs?

“Me,” the ghost went on, “I’m not so sure, anymore. Those spirits…well…they let me down is what they did.” His puzzled look turned sad. “All these years, I thought my baby brother was as dead as the older ones. When those Comanches took me, I thought sure they’d killed him.”

With everything the ghost was saying, none of it was telling Joe what he needed to know. “Why?” he asked, disappointed to hear himself sounding like his fifteenth birthday was a long way to come, rather than a few months behind him.

“He was too young,” Frank Carver’s ghost answered. “And the others were too old, had too much fight in them. But me…” He shook his head. “I was young enough to learn how to follow their rules and old enough to do a day’s work.”

Frustration edging out his fear, Joe sat up straighter against the wall. He didn’t much care what had happened during some long-ago Comanche raid, not when he had more important things to worry about. “Why’d you take me?” he asked with a show of defiance roused by the not-very-ghostlike emotions he’d watched brewing in Carver’s eyes.

But fear took root again, sprouting quickly into terror when the ghost re-emerged. Carver’s eyes flared with every bit of that hatred Joe had seen at the top of those gallows back in Virginia City. “To give Clyde’s spirits one more chance to get it right!” Carver hollered out.

He grabbed Joe by the shoulder and hauled him forward. Joe tried to struggle, but he was too small, too weak — too frightened — especially when he saw Frank Carver’s free hand taking hold of the noose.

“It’s not my fault!” Joe cried out, squirming in a useless effort to keep Carver from pulling the noose over his head. He felt the heavy rope brush his shoulders and then draw tighter around his throat — not quite tight enough to choke him, just enough to let him feel the chafing edges of the coarse fibers.

Wide eyed and suddenly too afraid to struggle, Joe saw Carver nod to the Indian, Clyde. And then…then that Indian started pulling the other end of the rope, taking up all the slack that had left the noose dangling near the floor before.

“I told that judge I didn’t see the killing!” Joe shouted. The rope above him was beginning to move upward. “All I saw was the knife! Ask him! I didn’t want them to hang you! I told him that! Ask him! You…” The rope at his neck pulled Joe’s chin upward until it was clear he couldn’t sit on the floor like he had been any longer. He had to reposition his legs to get his knees under him, and there was nothing he could do to protect his wound in the process.

“It’s too late, boy,” Carver’s ghost said in a low, raspy voice. “The judge is already dead. Same as that Hatcher woman. At least the spirits gave me two good turns.”

Talking wasn’t worth the effort as that noose moved higher, lifting Joe agonizingly to his feet. The wound in his right calf screamed out at him even when he didn’t dare pull a scream from the thinning tunnel of air still open in his throat.

Hearing that the judge and Missus Hatcher were dead struck Joe hard in his belly — but not for the reasons it should. The news didn’t awaken any sense of sorrow or grief. All it did was tell Joe he was bound to be next.

*****

Ben’s heart sank when he saw his eldest son racing toward him alone. “What did you find? Do you know where Joe is? Is he all right?” The questions blustered out of him like gusts in a storm. And every one hit Adam with a palpable blow, curling his brow, thinning his lips and tightening his jaw.

Adam shook his head once as he reined in. “This trail led nowhere,” he complained as he dismounted. “There’s more than one man, has to be. Someone made a calculated effort to send me the wrong way.”

“There’s two of ‘em, I’d say.” Sheriff Coffee rose to his feet. “One’s unshod. Impression’s a mite deeper right after Little Joe’s tracks stop.”

“Like he’s riding double?” Adam asked.

“Looks that way.”

“Adam?” Ben touched his son’s arm, hoping to turn the young man toward him; but Adam crouched to the ground instead, giving his full attention to the marks in the dirt.

“This set of tracks is heading east,” the sheriff pointed out.

Adam followed the direction with his eyes. “Then what are we waiting for?” Rising to his feet, he started back toward his horse.

“Adam?” Ben asked sternly, this time taking a firm hold of his son’s arm to pull him around. “How was he? How was Joe when you left him?”

Adam’s eyes darkened. “That’s just it. I left him! Alone!” He turned away abruptly, mounting in an instant and then bolting eastward.

“Adam!” Ben shouted, but his son did not slow. That fool boy! he thought angrily. Adam did what he had to do. Why can’t he realize that?

“Ben?” He looked up to see that Roy had already mounted. “Maybe you ought to stay here, look after Hoss.”

“Hoss is fine,” Ben answered tersely, hurrying now to join Roy and, eventually, Adam. “Or at least I know he will be. Let’s find Joe.”

A moment later, he was following Adam’s dust but staying close to Roy Coffee — and a trail he didn’t dare lose sight of.

*****

The rope was high enough now that Joe had to stand on his toes to keep from choking. The strain on his injured calf was unbearable, but he had no choice, none at all. He must not only endure the pain, he must ignore it, focus every thought on catching one more breath — and then another.

Blinking fast and hard, his eyes already tearing, Joe saw Frank Carver turn away while Clyde tied off the far end of the rope.

“P…pl….” Joe wanted to beg the Indian to help him, but he couldn’t even manage to spit out a single word. The effort put too much pressure on his throat, drawing the rope fractionally — excruciatingly — tighter.

But something in Clyde’s expression told Joe he understood. He glanced toward the door, and then stepped silently toward Joe, the soles of his moccasins stirring dust but making no clatter on the floorboards.

“You will not die here today.” Clyde was right in front of Joe now, his face swimming into view through the fog of Joe’s tears. “The spirits of the land do not will it. They directed Daniel’s bullet when he shot you. He assured me he closed his eyes to let it be so. I believe him. The spirits also protected you from the poison. They wish you to live, so today, you will not die.”

The words were meaningless to Joe. He just wanted to be released, to breathe free and easy and to rest his leg. “Pl….” he tried again.

Clyde breathed deeply, his chest expanding. To Joe, it was a cruel display, however unintended. “I cannot help you. Daniel was my brother among the Comanche and the Kiowa. He is still my brother, even now. We have shared hardship and blood. We endured together the trials of slavery and the later trials that prepared us to become Kiowa warriors. Those trials are what marked us as brothers. Now this trial is for you. And for Daniel. It is not for me to change.”

Joe closed his eyes tightly, desperate to will the pain away, silently begging Clyde to reconsider.

“An old wound came open in him,” the Indian went on, oblivious — or not caring. “It has changed him. He was mistaken for another in Carson City, a man named Frank Carver. Now he knows his young brother did not die long ago. He feels pain for not helping this brother sooner. He does not recognize that the spirits did not will it to be so.”

Joe tried to meet his eyes, tried to plead for help with his own.

“Just as the spirits do not will you to die.” Clyde nodded. “Someone will come.” Then Joe felt a gentle tugging at his waistband. “This paper holds the names of Daniel Fisher’s brothers and sisters. Help them to be remembered. Then maybe the spirits will allow my brother’s wound to heal again.”

With that, the Indian turned away. A moment later, Joe heard a thud and knew it to be the door closing. He was alone.

Please! he begged silently. He was sure not even Clyde’s spirits could hear him. If they did, Joe would hear horses approaching, not riding away. Please!

The tears now came from a different kind of pain. He found himself praying to feel the comfort of his pa’s strong, protective arms lifting him out of this trap. It was a trap, wasn’t it? And he’d stumbled blindly into it because he was the rabbit again. Maybe he was destined to forever be the rabbit. Is that what Clyde’s spirits had in store for him?

No, Joe told himself. If he survived this, he would never be the rabbit again. He would fight the whole world if he had to, and he would do it with his eyes wide open.

If he survived. But how could he survive? He couldn’t even try to work his hands free; every time he did, the movement left him choking.

Please! he cried once more in silence when a bright ray of sun eased in through a far window. Joe saw it raising a bridge of dust motes and wondered briefly if it led straight to Heaven — although it really didn’t matter. Joe wasn’t ready to follow such a bridge. Not yet. Not today.

“You will not die here today.” Clyde had promised him.

Joe could only pray that the Indian was right and someone would come before his leg gave out completely or he simply passed out from the effort. He truly was in the hands of the spirits or angels — or maybe even God Himself.

Oddly, that thought gave him comfort. Don’t let go, he prayed then.

And that was all he could do. From that moment onward, he focused all of his efforts on staying upright and collecting one short gasp of air after another.

*****

When Adam saw that the trail made a sudden turn, all the pieces came together just as suddenly in his mind. He knew then how two men could be responsible for all of it, for the false trail he had followed, for the trail Hank and the men would have taken after Adam and Hoss had left them, and also for the attacks that had left Hoss dazed and Joe…gone.

Those two men would have to have made camp somewhere nearby, somewhere within a reasonably short distance from the Ponderosa — and the ends of both false trails — a central point that would have given them time to carry out each calculated move.

A place with an empty barn to hide their horses and an empty cabin to hide the men, themselves. The very place to which this new direction was bound to lead: Micah Ferguson’s cabin.

With a fierce kick and a scream of complaint from his already straining horse, Adam flew toward the cabin, compelled by a sense of urgency that stole all conscious thought. Joe was there. He knew Joe was there. But in what condition? Was he even still alive?

As the southeastern corner of the cabin came into sight just beyond that last hill, Adam tried to push faster, but his horse was already at its limits. Time felt immeasurably slow. He could almost believe he was crawling when he needed to run.

Then he rounded the hill. A flash of movement caught his eye. He saw riders. Two riders were racing from the cabin, looking every bit as desperate to flee as Adam was to arrive.

Acting on instinct alone, Adam drew his gun and fired. Once. Twice. A third time. And then a volley of bullets started coming toward him.

Damn it! You fool! Cursing himself for his carelessness, Adam ducked low in the saddle, but he wasn’t fast enough or low enough to avoid the barrage as they fired back. A bullet dug a furrow across the top of his shoulder. Another sent his hat flying and left a hot tingling in his scalp. He had no choice but to take cover.

With the cabin so close, Adam, himself, had made it unreachable.

*****

Ben abandoned the trail the instant he heard gunfire. Turning Buck toward the sound, he kicked his horse into a gallop, certain that Roy Coffee would do the same. It wasn’t long before he caught view of two gunmen in the distance. They were in the trees beyond that hill, that…hill?

The hill that sat just behind Micah Ferguson’s cabin. The cabin!

Ben had been so focused on reaching Adam, he’d paid no attention to the direction he’d been headed. But now, suddenly, he knew. Yes, he knew Joe was inside that cabin.

Adam had known too, hadn’t he? Had he reached it safely? Was he inside? Had he found his brother?

Ben kicked his horse harder, rounding the hill to discover that the men weren’t shooting at the cabin itself. They were aiming at a collection of boulders at least fifty feet to this side of it. There. Adam was there. Ben could see Adam’s pistol, his hand reaching over the boulder to fire, a tuft of dark hair.

Enraged and desperate to reach both Adam and the cabin, Ben opened fire, only then realizing that Roy had already done the same. In fact, Roy and Adam weren’t the only ones shooting back at those gunmen. A passel of men had come blazing out from around the other side of the hill — a passel of men led by Ben’s foreman, Hank. And they already had those gunmen on the move. The direction of the shots had changed, leaving Ben free to holster his gun and focus on getting to Adam.

He found his son leaning back against the rock with his eyes closed and his chest heaving. “Adam?” Then Ben drew closer and saw that Adam’s hair was matted with blood. “Adam!”

Dropping to his knees, Ben reached toward the yet unseen wound, but Adam grabbed hold of his arm. “I’m fine, Pa. I just needed…to catch my breath.” He sounded winded certainly, but also confident.

Ben curled his fingers inward, hesitantly drawing his hand away. He would tend to Adam after. After he saw to the cabin. After he learned whether Joe was there, and whether the boy was…. After he was able to know, to truly know that Joe was all right.

Swallowing back his thoughts, Ben started to rise, and then noticed blood on his son’s shoulder — evidence of yet another wound. “Stay here,” he said simply, firmly, keenly aware that there would be no point to arguing about Adam’s own assessment of his wellbeing. “I’m going to check the cabin. I’ll come back just as soon as I…”

“I’m coming with you.” Adam’s words were as firm as Ben’s at that moment. The only indication of his pain was in the grimace he wore as he pulled himself stiffly to his feet, using the rock for leverage.

Having no choice but to grit his teeth in acceptance, Ben blinked back a disturbing twitch in his eye…and then turned his attention to the cabin.

*****

The sound of gunfire outside somehow awakened a spasm in Joe’s calf muscle, shooting a jolt of sharp, agonizing pain through his leg. He would have cried out if his throat had been open enough to allow for the sound. Instead, his cry emerged as a heavy groan, almost a growl that sounded so raw he could hardly believe it had come from him. For the flash of a second, he thought an animal had clawed its way into the cabin.

Then he lost his tenuous balance. On instinct, he’d tried to shift his weight entirely to his good leg, but propped on his toes as he’d been, the effort was careless…clumsy…futile.

He fell, drawing the already taut rope firmly around his neck.

Little Joe Cartwright had sucked in his last gasp of air. Nothing more would come. He couldn’t even so much as growl anymore.

His ears rang from the pressure. His eyes throbbed.

The pain in his leg was nothing to the thick feeling in his head and the uselessness of his lungs, but he couldn’t seem to get his feet under him again. He couldn’t anchor his toes.

He couldn’t hope to avoid the inevitable. He could only close his eyes to fend off the dark spots swirling around him, letting spill a wash of tears.

“Joe!”

The sound of his pa’s voice over the roar of an ocean pulled Joe’s eyes open again. He saw images of Pa and Adam floating through the encroaching blackness, and he painted Hoss in among them. He knew the vision wasn’t real, but found solace in it just the same. His family was there with him. Even if they weren’t, they were, as thoughts of what they’d given him in his fifteen years of life wrapped around his heart even tighter than the rope at his throat — at least until the blackness was complete.

*****

Adam was no stranger to fear, but never before had he felt it so thoroughly, so completely as that which overtook him the moment he stepped across the threshold of Micah Ferguson’s cabin. All conscious thought gave way to a numb, detached sensation that froze time for one horrific moment. He watched helplessly as the world floated around him, painting an eternity of seconds in such excruciating detail the moment might as well have been branded on his soul.

Little Joe was hanging by his neck like the worst of criminals, his hands tied behind him, his body jerking in a desperate, final struggle for life. The boy’s face was as red as the growing stain on the floor where the reopened wound in his leg bled freely. Joe’s teeth looked far too white surrounded by all that red as they parted for his ever-thickening tongue. And his lips looked far too blue.

Adam could feel his own blood go cold when Joe’s too-red eyes found his.

And then….

Little Joe’s eyes rolled upward. His lids shuttered closed. His jerking motions stopped.

The taut rope creaked in complaint at the limp body swaying like a pendulum in a clock that had reached the end of time.

And Adam slipped on his brother’s blood. He had to throw his arms wide to regain his balance, awakening a raw pain in his shoulder.

“Adam!” Pa shouted. His hands were clasped tightly around Joe’s waist so he could hoist the boy upward and ease the pressure on Joe’s neck. “The rope!”

But Adam was already reaching for it. He clumsily dug shaking fingers into the fibers and drew back the knot, cursing his shoulder wound for hindering his efforts.

“Hurry!” Pa hollered.

Adam had barely managed to lift the rope up and over the boy’s head before Pa started moving. Pa crossed the room in three strides and tossed Joe to the bare mattress on Ferguson’s cot. There was nothing gentle in his actions. He moved like a madman intent on thrashing Little Joe back to life.

Adam could do nothing but look on, mired in horror.

Breathe, boy!” Pa held Joe’s shoulders in what had to be a bruising grip and frantically shook him. “Do you hear me, Joseph? I said breatheBreathe, son!” His voice faltered, cracked…faded. “Please, Lord,” he added softly, raising his eyes to look upward. “Not now. Not this.”

As though in direct answer to that prayer, Adam began to hear a quiet rattle. It was a ragged, raspy sound, but it might as well have been an angels’ choir. Joe was breathing.

Pa sat heavily down on the cot beside Adam’s little brother as Joe’s quiet rattle evolved into a series of shorter, frenzied gasps. That the boy was coming awake was made even more evident when those gasps became so frenzied they caused Joe to start gagging. Adam was sure the boy would have coughed, had he enough air to do so.

Pa abruptly took Joe in his arms, clutching the boy to his chest. “Easy, son. Easy, now. It’s over, Little Joe. I promise you — I swear to you it’s over. That man will never bring harm to you again.”

Trembling and suddenly feeling ill, Adam stumbled backward toward a chair at Micah’s table and fell into it, barely steadying his descent with his good arm. He tried to concentrate on lengthening his own quick gasps of breath while Joe’s spasms slowly gentled into quiet sobs. Joe is alive, he told himself. Despite everything Adam had done wrong, Joe was alive.

Adam watched his father holding his brother as his own breathing grew stronger. Yes, Joe is alive, he repeated silently. Perhaps Adam had done enough things right — just enough. And Pa had done the rest.

Brushing absently at a trickle of sweat that traced its way from his own forehead to his chin, Adam dropped his hand back to his lap and then noticed that the drops of moisture he saw there were red and thick. Blood.

“Adam?” Pa called to him softly. “Could you help me with this rope?”

Adam’s eyes moved instantly to the rope overhead.

“Joe’s hands are still tied,” Pa added, his tone sounding far calmer than Adam knew he must feel.

Quick to respond, Adam started to push himself to his feet, but his head swam and his sense of nausea grew troublingly strong. “Sorry, Pa.” He swallowed back a rising pool of saliva as he settled back into the chair. “I…I’m not sure I can just now.”

Two sets of eyes met his then, both Pa’s and Joe’s. In Pa’s, he saw a trace of renewed worry, followed by an understanding nod. But in Joe’s… In Joe’s eyes, Adam saw that noose again. The boy’s eyes looked raw, more bloodshot than Adam would have thought possible. And his nose was bleeding, slow but steady drops falling to Pa’s shoulder. Surely both effects were a reflection of that rope being drawn so tight…so tight that Joe should be dead now, that he would be dead now if Pa and Adam had arrived a moment later.

And suddenly Adam didn’t feel anything at all. Not the burning ache in his shoulder or the pulsing pain in his head. He went numb in mind and body, seeing only what his brother had just endured — was still enduring. Rising without even being aware of the motion, Adam was beside his father and brother in an instant, kneeling by the cot and pressing his neckerchief against Little Joe’s nose. “Take this, Pa,” he said in an oddly commanding voice, one that sounded too strong to be his own. “I’ll get his wrists.”

“Adam?” Pa’s voice was a whisper.

“I’ve almost got it,” Adam lied. Not quite as numb as he’d thought, his shoulder protested his efforts and left him fumbling with the knots.

“Adam?” Pa said again. “I can…”

“Almost there.”

“Adm?” Joe’s quiet rattle and the subsequent gasp stilled Adam’s hands.

“Try not to talk, Joe,” Adam urged.

“Srry.”

“You’re sorry?” Adam asked, suddenly more confused by Joe’s apology than by the unnatural strength in his own voice.

Joe bobbed his head in a very small nod.

“Sorry for what? Joe, you didn’t do anything to be sorry for!” Adam returned to the knots with added vigor, until, drawn by his brother’s silence, he looked to Joe’s raw, red eyes and saw them exploring the cause of his profound headache and the blood tickling his cheek. “This isn’t your fault.” Adam sighed, giving his attention back to the knots. “Look, Joe, if anyone should be sorry, it’s me. I should never have left you alone.”

From the corner of his eye, Adam noticed Joe’s head moving slowly from side to side. It was the best argument the boy could give at that moment. The only argument. “Hss?”

Joe’s soft hiss was not lost on his brother, and it provided a welcome distraction from the course of their stilted conversation. “Hoss will be just fine.” Adam tried to smile as the last of the knots began to come loose. “His head’s much harder than mine.”

“I left…” Joe lost the rest of his words to another round of choking, painful sounding gasps. The instant his hands came free, he reached them around his father, twisting his fingers into the fabric of Pa’s shirt with a grip every bit as fierce as Pa had used moments earlier.

“Shhh, Joe,” Pa soothed while Adam moved from his knees to sit cautiously on the floor, resting his good shoulder against the frame of the cot. “Easy. Leave the talking for later. There’ll be plenty of time, plenty of things to say after we get you home. After I get you both home,” he corrected.

There was a trace of guilt in his tone. Bizarrely, Adam came close to laughing when he heard it. Joe, lying half dead on that cot, felt guilty for a grazing wound in Adam’s scalp. Pa felt guilty for relying so heavily on Adam, when it was clear that Adam, too, would soon need help. And Adam, himself, felt guilty, for leaving Little Joe to face the man –the men — responsible for all of it.

Yes, Adam almost laughed. And when he held the bubbling laughter in check, he very nearly cried, instead.

Shock. Panic. Adam could think clearly enough to know there were words for what he was experiencing. But he couldn’t think clearly enough to combat it. Shakily catching another trickle of blood with the back of his hand, he began to realize why. He’d been shot, after all. Or, at least, shot at.

But, craning his neck for another look at Joe, at the boy’s chafed neck and wrists, and then at the blood-drenched pant leg they’d yet to address, Adam reached a different conclusion. He had witnessed the unthinkable: A boy he’d eagerly welcomed into this world, a brother he’d taken it upon himself to protect at all costs, had been clinging to life — barely — at the end of a rope, leaving smears of blood on the floor from a leg wound the sheriff had tried to dismiss as the work of a drifter.

And then Adam looked at his father, at the man who had given that boy life…and he marveled at Pa’s ability to keep his own shock at bay.

*****

Ben Cartwright had lost three wives over a period of years. He could very well have lost all three of his sons in a single day.

Still reeling from the sight of his youngest boy hanging from a crossbeam, Ben sank into a chair at Micah Ferguson’s table and looked to his oldest. Adam was sitting beside his brother in Micah’s rocking chair, his head and shoulder wrapped in bandages Ben had found in Micah’s cabinets. Two bullets had hit Ben’s first born — or rather, those bullets had skimmed him. The fact that Adam was sitting in that chair resting his eyes was as miraculous to Ben as seeing Joe resting on the cot. A bullet could very well have dug its way into Adam’s skull, just as that rope had very nearly robbed Little Joe of his last breath.

Anger, fear and a bevy of horrific what-ifs filled Ben’s stomach with acid as he sat quietly at that table and wondered what he should do. Reason told him to wait for Roy, Hank and the other men. They could help him get his boys home where they belonged, where they could rest securely in their own beds — along with their other brother, Ben’s middle son, who had been struck from behind with a blow that might have bashed in a smaller man’s head. Or a boy’s.

Good Lord.

Little Joe had been worried about a ghost. Clearly, there’d been so much more than a ghost at work, both in Virginia City and on the Ponderosa. And right there, in Micah Ferguson’s cabin. Yes, so much more than a ghost. It might even have been the devil himself.

Ben couldn’t wait for the others. He had to get his boys home. He had to…

Startled by the distant clatter of riders approaching, Ben turned toward the door and started to rise.

“The sheriff?” Adam asked.

Ben looked to him and saw a mirror of his own concern. What if it wasn’t Sheriff Coffee returning? What if…?

“Must be,” Ben answered, forcing himself to believe it. Still, he loosened the gun in his holster before reaching for the door handle. He was determined to be ready, should the need arise. He was determined to see to it no further harm came to any of his sons.

And then Adam was moving toward him, a gun already in hand and a similar determination overshadowing the weary pain in his eyes.

Ben wanted to protest, to send his son back to that chair. But Adam wasn’t a boy to be scolded or told what to do. He hadn’t been for quite some time. And he was very clearly his father’s son. Sighing, Ben pulled open the door and was instantly relieved to see his foreman, Hank.

“We got ‘em, Mister Cartwright,” the foreman said as he dismounted. “Sheriff’ll be along soon with the two of ‘em in tow. Shorty and me didn’t want to wait. We wanted to see if…well…. Did you find Little Joe?” Tying the reins at the post out front, Hank’s eyes shifted toward Adam and then back again, his concern evident after having caught sight of the bandages.

Ben nodded brusquely. “He’s inside. He needs the doctor. So does Adam.”

“I’ll send Shorty.” Hank tried to look past Adam into the cabin, but Ben knew there was no way he could spot Joe from where he stood. “He rides too fast most of the time, but sometimes it comes in handy.” When he smiled, Ben knew it was a test. Ben’s response would help him to gauge the gravity of Little Joe’s injuries.

Ben did not smile back. It was enough to prompt Hank to turn abruptly and holler at Shorty to, “hightail it to Virginia City and fetch Doc Martin.”

Letting out a long breath, Ben felt his shoulders sag as the weight of all that gravity fell away from him. Joe’s life was no longer threatened, he told himself. Adam, too, would soon heal. “Do you think you can ride?” he asked Adam.

“I can ride,” his son answered just as Ben had expected he would.

“Mister Cartwright?” Hank hollered out. “Should I fetch a wagon for the boy?”

Grown man or not, Ben would insist that Adam travel by wagon along with Joe if they had far to go, but the house was close. At least, close enough. And fetching a wagon would take too long. “No,” Ben hollered back. “That won’t be necessary.” Then he turned to Adam. “Let’s go home.”

*****

Joe didn’t remember falling asleep. He didn’t even remember closing his eyes. He only knew that when he opened them again he saw his father leaning over him.

“We’re going home, son.”

Pa’s words pulled Joe to his elbows more from instinct than thought. His head still fogged with sleep, Joe liked the idea of going home even before he could figure where he was — or why rising made his head swim.

“Hold still, young man. I just want to make sure this bandage is good and tight.”

Following his pa’s line of sight, Joe was surprised to see that his trouser leg had been ripped away at the knee, and a fresh, white bandage had been wrapped around his calf.

Coming fully awake in an instant, Joe’s encounter with Frank Carver’s ghost — or, rather, Carver’s brother — gained new life in his thoughts. Apprehension drove his gaze upward, where he caught sight of the rope. And then it all came flooding back into his mind, pulling his throat as tight as that bandage.

“Easy, Joe.” Pa’s hand gripped his shoulder. “It’s all right. It’s over. Sheriff Coffee caught up with the men who did this. I promise you, there is nothing more to worry about.”

Joe looked into his eyes and saw something…different. A trace of doubt, perhaps? But Pa turned away before Joe could ask — before he dared try to ask, tight and sore as his throat was.

Then Pa slipped one arm under Joe’s knees and the other beneath his back. “Now let’s get you outside.”

Pa was going to carry him? Joe was too old to be carried. If the sheriff was out there, if Carver’s brother was out there…. No. Joe couldn’t let his pa carry him outside like an infant. “Walk.” The word fought its way past Joe’s closing throat as weakly as his hand pushed against his pa’s arm, and his eyes began to tear with the effort of preventing another coughing fit.

“Please, Joe, stop struggling. You’ve reinjured your leg and I won’t have you making it worse by putting weight on it.” Pa’s voice was soft but commanding.

Even so, it was Adam who made it possible for Joe to relax into the welcome feel of his pa’s arms. “Don’t fight it, Joe. Pa’s strong enough to carry me if he had to, and I wouldn’t argue if it was my leg that’d been injured.”

There was an easy smile in his brother’s voice, one that made Joe believe he was being spoken to as, well, as an equal brother, rather than just a little brother. It was enough to enable him to accept being lifted from the cot. He gave in to a moment of comforting remembrance, sensing the protection he’d known — he’d counted upon — in years past, in the childhood he’d been trying so hard lately to shed. He was even glad to discover that his pa intended for him to ride double on Pa’s own horse.

Joe settled into the saddle, sharing a weary smile with his oldest brother after Adam mounted up beside him, but then it all fell away from him again as a ruckus stirred up behind them. Adam turned, his smile dying and his eyes narrowing. Leery of what he might find, Joe turned as well. And his eyes locked with those of Frank Carver’s brother yet again.

Joe lost both his breath and his balance. Wrapping his hands into Buck’s mane to keep himself from falling, he wondered why his pa hadn’t mounted yet. He wanted to race that horse all the way home, to put Carver’s ghost far behind him once and for all. But Pa was…where?

Casting a frantic glance around him, Joe saw that his pa had taken several steps toward Sheriff Coffee and the two men the sheriff was leading back to Virginia City: Frank Carver’s brother and an Indian named Clyde. Words were exchanged, but Joe might as well have gone deaf; he heard nothing but the sound of his own blood rushing through his ears like a river in flood. Then, in the blink of an eye that lasted far longer than it should, Joe saw Carver’s horse edge close to the sheriff. Too close. Though his hands were bound in front of him, Carver made a grab for the sheriff’s gun. And before the sheriff could do a thing to stop him, Carver had that gun aimed right at Joe.

Then one sound finally made it past Joe’s river: A single gunshot.

And Joe felt…nothing.

Stunned to see Frank Carver’s brother falling to the ground, Joe looked to his pa and saw an image that would be forever branded in his thoughts. Pa’s eyes, dark and determined, were locked on the outlaw. His arm was extended, and the gun in his hand was still smoking.

As fast as that gunman had been on the draw, Joe’s pa had been faster. In the blink of an eye, he’d shot down Joe’s ghost.

“It’s over, Little Joe,” Pa had told him back in the cabin. “I promise you…I swear to you it’s over. That man will never bring harm to you again.”

*****

When Adam had first caught sight of Joe in the cabin, time had slowed into perceptible fragments that seemed intent on forcing him to remember minutia he would rather had remained murky. Now he felt time was pulling him backwards, showing him the face of a man he couldn’t be seeing, a man he’d watched choke to death at the end of a rope hanging from a gallows in the streets of Virginia City. Adam knew he was looking at the ghost that had been haunting Little Joe — a flesh and blood man who could well have been mistaken for Frank Carver if not for the buckskin trousers and streaks of white in his hair.

“Good lord.” The words came out in a whisper — and then quickly evaporated in the thunder of a gunshot.

Time sped up so fast Adam hardly knew what he was seeing. His stomach lurched as the fragments of seconds coalesced to show him Frank Carver’s ghostly twin taking aim at Little Joe with the sheriff’s gun, and then falling to the ground, leaving Joe — thank God — whole and, if not entirely hale, at least alive.

Yes, Joe was very definitely alive, and apparently as stunned as Adam. But Joe’s eyes moved quickly away from the fallen outlaw and toward Pa. He gasped softly, causing Adam to tense, anticipating his brother to start coughing and choking once more. But Joe didn’t cough. He might actually have been holding his breath.

Curious about his brother’s reaction, Adam looked toward Pa to discover what Joe had already seen. Pa had fired that thunderous shot. Impressed and relieved, Adam watched his father slowly return his gun to his holster. Even so, Pa kept his eyes locked on Carver’s twin, as though the man could still pose a threat.

Could he?

Following Pa’s line of sight, Adam saw the man rise awkwardly to his knees. Clearly, Pa was just being overly protective. Any threat that gunman might still pose was minimized both by the spreading stain of red darkening the fabric of his shirt at his shoulder, and by the imposing presence of Sheriff Coffee, who Adam had no doubt would keep the man under far tighter scrutiny than he had a moment earlier.

But what of the other outlaw, the man who’d been riding with Carver’s twin?

It was a question Adam didn’t have time to answer. Or rather, he didn’t take the time to find the answer. Adam could hear his brother fighting to breathe again. More air was going out than in, judging by the soft, almost silent gagging cough Adam’s young brother was enduring.

Pa must not have noticed. He was moving forward, heading toward the outlaws and the small crowd that had formed around them. So Adam sidled his horse up beside Little Joe’s. Reaching for the boy’s shoulder, “It’s all right, Joe,” he said softly. There was nothing more he could do.

Joe tensed at Adam’s initial touch, but, little by little, his muscles relaxed — until his “ghost” started shouting.

“Damn you! Damn every last one of you!”

Joe’s shoulder went rigid.

“You almost killed my boy!” Pa rumbled.

“He’s still breathin’, ain’t he?”

Breathing? Adam thought, his jaw tightening right in synch with his grip on his brother’s shoulder. The boy was fighting to breathe, and that man was the reason why.

“My folks watched their boys bleed to death!” Carver went on. “Every last one of ‘em, ‘cept me. Me and…” The name was lost to a softer tone. But Carver’s next words were louder, sharper — colder — than ever. “Your boy ought to have left well enough alone! He’s the reason my last living brother got hung ’fore I even knew he was still alive!”

“Your brother killed a man in cold blood!” Pa shouted back.

“Maybe that man deserved killin’! Like that boy of yours! He deserves killin’, Clyde’s spirits be damned!”

Adam didn’t know who Clyde was, and he didn’t care. He knew only that it wasn’t doing his brother any good to wait out this conversation. They had to get Joe home. For that matter, Adam, too, needed to get home. The world was starting to tilt. “Pa,” he called out. Or at least he thought he did. He couldn’t be sure, and the only response he heard was Sheriff Coffee shouting.

“That’s enough out a you! You men! Get this fella’ patched up enough to ride!

The cacophony of voices that followed started to plunge Adam into darkness, but something moving at the edges of his fading vision somehow called him back. He blinked, clearing the fog enough to see Little Joe prodding Pa’s horse toward the melee. The boy was hunched in the saddle, looking small and uncertain. He was moving forward even so, inching closer and closer to the man responsible for the wound in his leg and the swelling in his throat. Only he wasn’t looking at Carver’s twin. He was looking at the other one, the Indian.

Straightening slightly as he drew nearer, Joe reached into his waistband and pulled out a piece of paper.

Pa turned. Maybe Joe called out to him, Adam couldn’t tell, despite drawing up beside his young brother again. He only knew that Pa’s eyes widened upon seeing Joe so close. A moment of hesitation brought Pa’s attention to that paper in Joe’s hand. And then he took it. He read whatever was written there, looked to Joe and then read the paper again.

“That family has been forgotten.” A strong, composed voice silenced the surrounding chaos with its quiet intensity.

Adam looked through the small crowd of cowhands that was moving away with Carver’s twin in tow, until he saw the Indian sitting tall in his saddle.

Unfazed by the rope binding his hands, the Indian moved his eyes from Pa to Adam before returning to Pa. “Those are the names of Daniel Fisher’s brothers — the boys his parents watched bleed to death. You will also see the names of his sisters, and the names of the parents, the man and woman who gave them life.” The Indian looked to Carver’s twin.

And the outlaw dropped to his knees again, pulling against the efforts of the cowhands who’d been tasked with leading him away. “Damn you all!” His voice was softer than before; there was a tone of sadness to it.

“But the list is not complete,” the Indian said then, once more returning his attention to Pa. “I see that now. I was wrong to leave two names unwritten. That paper should also bear the name of William Fisher. William Fisher,” he repeated. “Remember that name. It is the name of a boy who lost his spirit at the hands of the Comanche. The man you came to know as Frank Carver had nothing left of William Fisher within him.”

“No!” The outlaw’s shout did not draw the Indian back, but he did draw Adam. “Billy was alive!” On his knees with his back to the Indian, Frank Carver’s ghostly twin raised his eyes to the sky. “He was alive! All these years, he was alive!” Anger shifted to sorrow, quieting his next words. “I didn’t know! He’d still be alive if I’d known! You didn’t give me a chance!” When his shoulders began to tremble with mournful sobs, the cowhands backed away, uncertainty guiding their steps.

Adam, too, turned away. He looked to his young brother and felt a trembling fear rise up within him, unwarranted though it was. He found himself trying to imagine what would have become of Little Joe if he’d been left alone in the world years ago — if, as a small child, he’d had no memory of who he’d been born to be. Could Joe have grown to know such hatred, such anger as that which had driven Frank Carver? Could Joe have become a cold-blooded killer?

No, Adam decided, fighting hard to prevent himself from thinking too hard about the role of Frank Carver’s brother, and whether he, himself could have been driven to such cruelty as that which the outlaw had imposed upon Little Joe in order to avenge his brother’s hanging.

“William Fisher,” the Indian went on, “died that day, years ago, allowing Frank Carver to be born.”

“Damn you,” Carver’s brother cried out soberly.

“That paper,” the Indian said, “should also bear the name of Daniel Fisher.”

“No,” Carver’s brother sobbed.

“He, too, died that day when the Comanche took him as a slave, as they had taken me only a few months before. We became brothers among the Comanche, and we remained brothers when the Kiowa took us in trade. But…” He shook his head slowly, casting a quick glance at the still trembling shoulders of Carver’s brother. “Today, I see that the man I called brother is no more. I watched the darkness of Frank Carver pulling him away. I was powerless to stop it. I knew the spirits would protect you,” he added, turning his sights on Little Joe. “I only wish they would have done the same for….” His chest puffed outward with a heavy breath. “…my brother.”

Marking his speech as complete with a terse nod, the Indian turned away and began to guide his horse toward Carver’s brother. “Remember the family of Daniel Fisher,” the Indian hollered then, keeping his back to Adam and his family. “Mourn for them, as I will mourn for my brother.”

“Damn you all!” Carver’s brother cried out to the Indian’s back.

But the Indian sat tall and still, holding his gaze ahead of him and leaving his brother behind.

*****

Hoss’ relief when his family returned fell quickly to dread. Adam’s shirt was wet and sticky with drying blood, and Joe’s neck…. Good lord! Joe’s neck was raw and red, bearing the clear signs of a rope burn under his chin. Cursing his own infirmity, Hoss hated having to watch as Hank and his men ferried both of his brothers upstairs and out of sight.

Hours later, after Doc Martin had come and gone and the house settled in to a dark, quiet night, Hoss lay awake in his bed, wishing his thoughts could go as quiet as the house. He struggled against the images conjured by Pa’s guarded words and the ramblings of both of his brothers as the doc’s medicines began to go to work. And it wasn’t just his own imaginings that horrified him; it was what he had seen in their eyes, and the set of Pa’s tight jaw when he’d said they’d found Joe hanging by his neck.

By his neck!

Hoss felt sick and sad and angry. But his pa and Adam…well, what Hoss saw in their eyes made him think it was like they were being haunted every bit as much as Joe had been these past days. Of course, Joe’s ghost proved to be a man, after all. But what was haunting Pa and Adam might be even worse than a ghost. It wasn’t something imagined or fleeting. It was something real, something they saw and weren’t likely ever to forget.

Little Joe hanging by his neck….

Dadburnit! Hoss just couldn’t stop imagining it, no matter how hard he tried. Maybe Hoss was being haunted now, too. He knew he ought to be sleeping like Doc said, but how could he?

With his head throbbing and his belly churning, Hoss counted off the chimes as the clock downstairs struck the hour. He wasn’t surprised to discover it was midnight. The witching hour. That’s what some folks called it. The witching hour — a time for ghosts and goblins and other ne’er-do-wells.

Yeah, Hoss was being haunted, all right. Here it was the witching hour and he couldn’t stop seeing his little brother twitching at the end of a rope. Stifling a shiver, he realized he was as helpless against what was haunting him as Joe had been when that Fisher fella came calling today. Or yesterday, Hoss corrected in his mind, seeing as how it was midnight already.

Dadburnit! How do you fight a ghost that ain’t even a ghost, let alone a flesh and blood man?

Maybe, maybe if he looked in on Little Joe… If Hoss could see his little brother sleeping in his own bed, maybe then that sight would chase away that dangblasted image he wished he’d never been able to imagine at all.

Yep, that’s what he would do. He would check in on Little Joe. Of course, he had to move slow and cautious, since his balance was all a-kilter.

“You’re a lucky man, Doc had said after he’d already seen to Little Joe and Adam. “If he’d have struck you any harder, you’d likely be dealing with a skull fracture. In fact, you’ve all been pretty fortunate today.”

“Angels,” Joe had said earlier. “It was angels protected me.”

Maybe there were some angels helping them all out yesterday — or spirits, as Adam and Pa said that Indian had claimed. Whatever it was, Hoss would have been happier if they’d have focused more on Little Joe and less on him, if that would have kept Joe from being hung half to death.

The clock struck the quarter hour by the time Hoss reached his brother’s threshold. The eerie sound of the chimes drew his eye nervously toward the pale moonlight spilling in through the open window. And then he got nervous for a whole different reason. Why was that window open? There was a chill in the air that sure wouldn’t do Joe any good.

Distracted by his determination to reach the window without stumbling, Hoss nearly toppled when Adam called out his name in a ghostly whisper. “Hoss?”

After grabbing hold of Joe’s desk to steady himself, he whispered right back. “What in tarnation are you doin’ out of bed?”

But his attention wavered when he saw Adam seated in the bedside chair. Pa had left that chair vacant only because Hop Sing had cajoled him out of it with complaints about having enough to worry about taking care of his three “boys.”

“Mistah Cartwright no sleep, then Mistah Cartwright sick. Mistah Cartwright sick, then Hop Sing waste time look after Mistah Cartwright. Have no enough time to care for Mistah Cartwright boys.” Hop Sing had thrown in a whole bunch of Chinese words and about a half dozen foolishments while he’d chased Pa down the hallway.

“I could ask the same of you.”

Confused, Hoss returned his thoughts to the room around him and noticed how odd Adam looked with his arm in a sling, his head wrapped in a ghostly white bandage and washed as he was in the moonlit glow of the witching hour.

“What are you doing out of bed?” Adam asked, his lips drawn up in that sort of half smile of his.

“It’s chilly. Thought I’d close the window.”

“That’s not why you came in here.”

Hoss looked at his brother for a long while, his head spinning, his thoughts jumbled.

“Sit down, Hoss, before you fall down.”

Hoss did as he was told without question, pulling out the desk chair and plopping heavily down into it. Then, finally, he looked at Little Joe. “He looks kind of peaceful sleepin’ like that, don’t he?”

Hoss could hear Adam sighing across the room.

“If it weren’t for that rope burn around his neck.”

“Aw, dangnammit, Adam! What’d you have to go and say that for? I been tryin’ not to think about that all night.”

“So have I.”

“Yeah, I…reckon you probably have, at that.” Hoss sighed just about as heavily as Adam had a moment earlier. “Doc sure was right about one thing.”

Adam looked at him, waiting.

“We were all lucky. Joe, especially. If you and Pa hadn’t found him when you did….” He didn’t bother finishing.

“We would have reached him sooner if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on stopping those two.”

“But you got to him in time. That’s what matters. Maybe it was just pure dumb luck, but….”

“But what?”

Chewing the inside of his cheek, Hoss shrugged. “I don’t know. Just seems to me luck that good has got to be something more than pure luck. Like, maybe…”

“…ghls.”

Interrupted by the thin sound of Joe’s raspy voice, Hoss looked to the bed to find his little brother trying to prop himself up on one elbow.

“Angels,” Joe repeated after he’d achieved his goal.

“Stop trying to talk, Joe,” Adam said softly. “Doc gave you strict orders to rest your voice until the swelling goes down.”

Joe shot older brother a dark glare before rattling off a whole string of raspy words, and, although Hoss couldn’t hear them clearly, he was pretty sure his little brother said something about Clyde calling them spirits, but Joe knew they were angels.

“Who’s Clyde?” Hoss asked.

“The Indian,” Adam answered so fast Joe didn’t have a chance. “And don’t encourage him. I’ll put a muzzle on both of you if I have to.”

“Well, then,” Pa called in from the hallway, “maybe we ought to rig up a hobble for you. As I recall, the good doctor ordered you to bed — both of you — just as strongly as he ordered Joe to silence.”

Adam grinned. “And, as I recall, Hop Sing ordered the same of you.”

“Which is precisely why we all ought to keep our voices down.” Pa chuckled softly, but his eyes…his eyes still looked haunted. “Especially you, young man!” Pa added, singling out Little Joe. “Tomorrow you can tell us anything you want…in writing. But tonight, we all need our sleep, each and every one of us. Now up and out, both of you. Say goodnight to your brother and get back to bed.”

“What about you?” Adam asked.

Wearing a small, tired smile, Pa turned to Joe. “Is there anything you need, son? Before we go?”

Joe smiled back and slowly shook his head before dropping wearily back to his pillows. Hoss was pretty sure Joe would be asleep again before Hoss himself even made it back to his room.

“Then goodnight, Little Joe. Pleasant dreams.” Sighing heavily, Pa closed the door behind him, joining Hoss and Adam in the hallway.

“Did you see that, Pa?” Hoss asked then, his eyes going to Joe’s bedroom door and his thoughts reaching inside.

“See what?”

“Joe. He didn’t look… Well, when you said ‘pleasant dreams,’ it almost looked like he knew he would.”

“He would, what?” Adam asked.

“Have pleasant dreams.”

“Maybe,” Adam answered, “that’s because he believes angels were looking out for him, and he knows his ghost is locked up good and tight in Sheriff Coffee’s jail.”

Pa took in a long breath. “I’d say those are both very good reasons for all of us to have pleasant dreams.”

But Adam didn’t look convinced. “I wish it could be that easy.”

“It can be, son. If we allow ourselves to accept that Joe is safe, that we are all safe. Now….” Breathing in long and deep once more, Pa smiled again, only this time, the smile reached his eyes. “I hope you both have pleasant dreams.”

“You, too, Pa,” Hoss said.

Pa nodded. “I think — now — maybe I finally will.”

“Hey, Adam?” Hoss said as he and his brother began to move back down the hall under their pa’s watchful eye. “You know that smile Joe gave Pa just now? And how peaceful he looked when he was sleeping?” He stopped walking, and then waited for Adam to look at him before continuing. “When you close your eyes, think on that.”

It took a moment, but little by little that half smile of Adam’s started poking through. “Goodnight, Hoss.”

“’Night, Adam. Pleasant dreams, older brother.”

“Pleasant dreams, younger brother.”

When Hoss finally eased himself back into bed, he closed his eyes and imagined Little Joe smiling like he knew angels were watching over him. By the time the clock struck one, Hoss was no longer awake to hear it.

*****

Epilogue

Joe glared at a knot in the center of an old tree stump. In his mind, it was neither a knot nor a stump. Instead he saw the shadowed face of Frank Carver’s brother. The man was about to draw. Joe had to let him draw first.

The fingers of Joe’s left hand twitched. He resisted the impulse to make a fist or draw too soon. Either action could steal precious seconds he couldn’t afford to lose. Then he realized he was holding his breath. That wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all. Joe had to breathe steady and easy. He had to keep calm. He couldn’t allow himself to grow nervous.

Not quite a year ago, Joe had seen his pa outdraw that very man. Pa sure hadn’t been nervous. He’d been angry, though. That was enough to tell Joe he couldn’t do everything exactly the same as his pa. He was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a good idea to let himself grow angry like Pa had. There was something about Pa’s anger that, well, just didn’t quite fit the same on Joe. No. For Joe, anger wouldn’t be any better than nervousness. A gun was a dangerous thing in the hands of a nervous man. It was maybe even more dangerous in the hands of a hot-headed one like Joe knew he could be sometimes.

Yep, Joe had to stay calm. He breathed in and out three times, keeping that knot in his sights and watching for the slightest movement.

The thought had barely formed when he grabbed hold of the ivory handle of his brand new revolver and slipped it out of his equally new holster.

Doggone it! He shouldn’t have made the shot. He’d felt the barrel catch the slightest bit on leather — just enough to slow him down and mess up his aim. Heck, not only had he missed the knot, he’d missed the stump, sending his bullet into the ground a good six feet back.

Frustrated, he spun the weapon on his finger and returned it to the holster. Then he turned back to the knot, ready to try again.

Five shots later, Joe’s gun was empty and the knot remained very, very safe.

“Joe!”

He heard Adam’s shout before he realized a horse was approaching at a fast gallop, and he cursed himself again. What was wrong with him? A man who was in danger of being gunned down couldn’t ignore the possibility of other threats just because one was already right in front of him.

Frustration, fear, nervousness and anger all seemed to vie for Joe’s attention when he looked toward his brother. He could feel his heart racing a whole lot faster than Adam’s horse.

“You swore you wouldn’t treat that as a toy!” Adam hollered as he reined in. A heartbeat later he had his feet on the ground and his finger driving hard into Joe’s chest. “How many times do you have to be told? You don’t play with guns! Ever!”

“I wasn’t playing!” Joe hollered right back.

Adam didn’t seem to hear him. “Do you have any idea what went through my head when I heard those shots? I thought you were in trouble! I thought…”

“You’re not even supposed to be out here!”

“I thought you might want some help!”

“Well, I don’t!” The words were out of Joe’s mouth before he realized how wrong they were. He did want help. Only…not the kind of help Adam had intended to offer.

Seething, Adam turned his back on Little Joe and raised his eyes heavenward. His back rose and fell with several deep breaths before he rubbed a hand over his mouth and swiveled around to face Joe again. “Give it to me,” he demanded, his voice soft but chilling as he reached a hand out, palm upward. “Your gun,” he added when Joe said nothing. “Give me your gun. It’s clear you weren’t as ready as we thought you were.”

Joe took a step backward. “I am ready, Adam,” he challenged. “Or at least I’m trying to be ready. I can’t get any good if I don’t practice.”

“You’re supposed to practice at home, under supervision.”

“How?” Joe shouted. “Standing still and aiming at something that’s just as still?”

“Oh?” Adam’s eyebrow’s shot upward. “You mean you want a moving target like that stump?”

“Yes! I mean…. No! Not like….” After filling his own chest with hot air, Joe let his shoulders slump. “I’m the one doin’ the moving.”

“Why? To make it harder for the stump?”

Joe took another breath as he tried to ignore the insult. “It’s not just about hitting a target, Adam. It’s about hitting a target when I don’t have time to aim, when I don’t have time to think about taking aim. I want to make sure I can be ready if I ever have to be. I want to be able to handle a gun quick as I need to, without hesitating. Like Pa.”

“When Pa draws his gun, he doesn’t play games.”

“Neither do I!”

“Is that right? Then what do you call that fancy trick you were doing?”

“What trick?”

Adam’s jaw tightened. “Twirling a loaded gun around your finger!”

“It’s not a trick!”

“Of course, it’s a trick! It’s what gunmen do to dazzle audiences. And, by God, I will not stand here and watch you turn yourself into a gunman!”

“I’m not! That’s not what it’s about, Adam!”

“What else could it possibly be about? Dazzling the boys in town? Or is it the ladies you prefer to dazzle?” Adam shook his head, disappointment evident in the turn of his lips and the heavy sigh that passed between them. “Don’t you realize all you’ll do is draw the attention of men who’ll want to prove they’re quicker than you? Men who wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you down to prove it?”

Joe hated to see his brother’s disappointment. But even worse, he hated feeling as though he’d let his brother down when he knew it wasn’t wrong for him to be doing what he’d been doing. “It’s not like that. I don’t care about dazzling anyone. It’s about….” How could he get Adam to believe him? “It’s about balance. If I have to draw fast, if the speed and accuracy of my shot is my only hope of stopping someone else from shooting first, I can’t afford to be off balance.”

“Joe, the only place you’ll encounter something like that is in the streets of Virginia City if someone calls you out.”

“No, that’s not true.”

“And the only reason anyone would have to do that,” Adam went on, as though Joe hadn’t spoken, “would be if you were showing off.”

“It’s already happened, Adam!” Joe shouted.

Adam paled. “What?” he asked, suddenly breathless. “When? How? My God, Joe. Did you…”

“You saw it yourself last year at Mister Ferguson’s cabin!”

Adam’s brows drew down, puzzled.

“Carver…I mean, Fisher… He was going to shoot me, Adam. He went for his gun, but Pa was faster. He would have shot me if Pa’s balance was off. Pa didn’t have time to take aim. He just drew his gun and took a shot. And he hit him, Adam. Pa hit him. I can’t even hit a doggone tree stump when I try to draw fast like that!”

Adam closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath before shaking his head slowly. “Pa’s got a good number of years on you, Joe. He’s handled a gun often enough to–”

“What if something happens a month from now, or even a year from now? What if I don’t have time like Pa’s had? What if…”

“Didn’t Pa tell you a man could drown in a sea of what-ifs? Joe, you can’t…”

“I’m not looking backward, Adam. I’m looking forward. I have to ask what-ifs like this.”

“Why, Joe? Why are you still so afraid? I thought you came to accept that the likelihood of someone else coming after you the way Daniel Fisher did is…”

“Not me, Adam. It’s not me I’m worried about.”

Joe’s brother gave him another puzzled look.

“I want to be able to protect my family…like Pa protected me.”

“Joe….” Adam pinched the bridge of his nose, clearly frustrated. “I think we’re all quite capable of…”

“What if your back’s turned? What if you’re already hurt? What if…”

“Stop it, Joe! You will drown if you keep thinking that way!”

“I won’t drown if I’m confident. If…if I know I can do what I need to. Even if I don’t ever have to. If someone’s life depends on my aim being true… Adam, I just… I couldn’t bear to miss because I was clumsy. If I keep practicing that…that fancy twirling, I’ll know how to keep my balance true. I’ll be able to settle the grip in my palm just right, no matter what. Then I won’t ever draw clumsy, and I won’t keep hitting the ground instead of the stump.”

Adam gave his head a slow shake and blew out a long breath. “Okay. All right. I won’t fight you on the…twirling. You’ve got yourself too convinced to listen to me, anyway. But, Joe, that’s an awfully dangerous thing to do with a loaded gun.”

“Oh, no. No, it’s not. Not anymore. I’ve been doin’ it long enough to….” Joe stopped himself, realizing his error. “I, uh, I mean, I practiced with it unloaded lots of times before coming out here to try shooting that way.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve only had that gun for a week.”

“Well, yeah. I’ve been practicing with it all week. And I’ve…”

“You’ve been practicing with your gun for a week?”

Joe flashed his brother a nervous grin. “Yeah. A week.”

“Whose gun did you practice with before?”

How could Joe answer without getting in more trouble? He gave his brother a sick look and a small shrug.

“So that’s why you were so eager to clean our guns for us all these months, isn’t it?”

“They…they weren’t loaded. It didn’t harm anything.”

“You do know if Pa had caught you…”

“I know! Oh, believe me, I know. Th…that’s why I made sure no one was around to see me.”

“Uh huh.” Adam stared at him with narrowed eyes. “And that’s why you volunteered to fix the fence line way out here.”

Joe rubbed a hand through his hair, shrugged and then, holding his hand at the back of his neck, finally nodded.

“And here I thought you were starting to be more responsible.”

“I was! I am! I’ve been workin’ hard as anyone, and I’m…”

“Yes,” Adam cut in. “You have. And not just since you got that gun, either.”

Grown wide-eyed at the unexpected — and maybe even unintended — compliment, Joe stared at his brother, unsure what to say.

Even more surprising, Adam raised an eyebrow almost conspiratorially. “Don’t let that go to your head.” An instant later, his brows curled downward and he looked off into the distance.

Several uncomfortably quiet moments passed before Joe decided to risk interrupting his older brother’s deep thoughts. “Adam?”

Hearing his name called, Adam filled his chest and turned back to Joe. His eyes had a softer look at that moment. He even gave Joe a small smile. “Pa was pretty impressive that day, wasn’t he?”

Joe’s eyes widened once more. He quickly nodded in reply.

“I don’t think I could have made that shot.”

“You?” Joe’s voice rose a notch too high, a clear sign of either his youth or his shock, or maybe a bit of both. “Sure, you could have!” he added, hoping to compensate. “I’ve never seen you miss, Adam! You wouldn’t have any trouble hitting that old stump.” He gestured toward the target that had confounded him so far.

Digging his hands into the back of his belt, Adam cocked his head. “Oh, sure I wouldn’t,” he said confidently. “Standing still and waiting until I had my aim just right, then sure, I’d hit it just fine.” He paused to meet Joe’s eye. “But in the blink of an eye like Pa did? Just drawing and firing? Now that, little brother, is a whole different story.”

“Ha-have you ever tried?”

“Maybe. A time or two.”

Maybe?”

“A time or two.” Adam grinned.

“How ‘bout trying now?” Joe asked tentatively.

One brow climbed upward again. “That wouldn’t be particularly responsible of me, now would it?”

“Why not?”

“After barreling in here the way I did, scolding my baby brother for playing with guns, I assure you, Little Joe, it would most definitely be irresponsible of me to start playing the same game.”

“But I told you, Adam! I wasn’t playing! And it…it’s not a game.”

Adam’s grin deepened. “The way you told it, no, I don’t suppose it is.” Then, suddenly, the grin vanished. “But I’m warning you, Joe.” His finger pointed hard into Joe’s chest once more, and his eyes blazed. “Don’t you ever show off. To anyone. For any reason. Got it?”

Gulping down a sudden onslaught of anxiety, Joe nodded as hard and as fast as he could. “I…I got it.”

“Promise me, Joe.”

“I promise, Adam. I’ll never show off. It’s not about showing off, anyway. I already told you. It’s about…”

“Yes.” Adam pulled away. “I know. It’s about protecting your family. Trouble is, I can’t say as I like the idea of my little brother having to protect me.”

“But if your back was turned? Or…or you were already hurt?”

“Or you were faster on the draw than I was?”

Joe was sure his eyes couldn’t go any wider. Was Adam jealous? “M-me? Faster than you?”

Adam curled his lip. “Nah. You’re right. What was I thinking? You could never outdraw me.”

“Sure I could! I just need to practice some.”

Cocking his head sideways, Adam nodded. “Then I suppose I’ll just have to practice, too.”

“Y-you?”

“Now what was it you were doing, Joe?” Adam asked, crossing his arms against his chest. “Why don’t you show me?”

“Y-you want me to show you?”

“Yes, Little Joe. Show me.”

Still, Joe waited another moment, trying to look deep into his brother’s eyes to find the reason for his apparent change of heart. When he decided it was worth whatever risk he was taking, Joe reached for his gun.

But a hand shot outward a moment later. “Wait. Make sure it’s not loaded, first.”

“It’s not. I fired all six shots. It’s empty.”

“It doesn’t hurt to check, now, does it?”

Shrugging, Joe clicked open the cylinder and spun it, making sure Adam could see that all six chambers were empty.

Adam nodded. “All right. Now slip it back into your holster.”

Joe did as he was told, eying his brother the entire time.

“You know, Joe. I think you ought to turn around and give that look to the stump out there. I wouldn’t trust it, if I were you. It might draw down on you before you can even…”

Not waiting for his brother to finish speaking, Joe swiveled around, effortlessly slipping his gun free and then clicking the empty chamber at precisely the right moment. “Hey!” he cried out enthusiastically. “I did it! I mean, I would have done it. If my gun would have been loaded, I would’ve hit the knot!” He flashed Adam a proud grin.

But Adam curled his lip again. “The stump, maybe. But the knot? Not a chance.”

“Oh, yeah?” Angered by his brother’s disbelief, Joe reached in his pocket for his extra bullets. “I’ll prove it!”

“Not that way, you won’t. First, you’re going to show me that move again. And then I’m going to show you what you did wrong. And then, maybe, after about another week or two of showing each other how it’s done, then, maybe, just maybe, I’ll decide it’s safe enough to try with real bullets.”

“Y-you’re gonna practice with me?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“And you’ll show me what I’m doing wrong?”

Adam nodded. “Yep.”

“You’ll help me to get good? I mean, really, really good?”

Adam cocked his head. “Only if you listen. I mean really, really listen.”

And suddenly Joe was grinning like it was his birthday all over again. And from that moment on, he couldn’t even remember whose face he’d been seeing in that old stump. All he saw was a knot.

That is, until three weeks later, when he and Adam shot the stump so full of bullets there wasn’t anything left of the knot at all.

***The End***

 

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