Kings Over Aces (by freyakendra)

Summary: A businessman is tired of playing by the rules and uses Ben’s sons to manipulate Ben, himself. It falls to Sheriff Roy Coffee, Deputy Clem Foster and a very determined Hop Sing to prevent the Cartwright family from falling like a house of cards. What results is a high stakes game in which Ben must gamble his full house against his rival’s hidden aces.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  33, 700


 

The dance was starting in earnest now. Men and women were twirling faster and faster, the band was playing louder…and Ben’s heart was beating heavier against his chest. Something was wrong. He checked his pocket watch and once more turned his gaze to the door, instantly relieved to see it open to admit new arrivals. He caught himself in a smile at the foolish worries of an old man. But then the door closed again without having provided so much as a glimpse of one of his sons.

“Ah, Ben!” The familiar voice did nothing to calm his nerves, and the companiable slap at Ben’s back only caused strained muscles to tense further. “This might be the best celebration Virginia City has ever known, don’t you think?” The smile Elijah Garrett shot toward Ben was wrapped around a cigar clenched between yellowed teeth.

“No,” Ben responded coldly. “I do not. These people are in for hard times if the bank can’t get the funding it needs.”

“Oh, pish-tosh. Stop worrying about tomorrow when today is right here. Especially when today is such a good day.”

Ben glared at Garrett before pulling away from the hand that refused to leave his back. “If you’ll excuse me.”

The hand moved to his shoulder and tightened into a painful grip. “No,” Elijah said, still smiling though there was nothing pleasant in it now. “I will not excuse you. We have some business to discuss, you and I.”

“Whatever business we might have had with one another is well behind us.”

“Oh, no. Not at all, my old friend.”

“What are you saying?”

“We have a contract to discuss. Or, rather, I have a contract for you to sign.”

“We’ve been all through that,” Ben argued. “You know perfectly well your terms are absurd. No one in his right mind would accept them.”

“Ah yes!” Elijah pointed a finger into the air. “Therein lies the rub. What might it take to turn that right mind into a…well, a different sort of right?”

“What?” Ben shook his head in frustration and glanced at the door again.

“Acceptance might well be but a state of mind.”

Ben tried to pull away again. “We have nothing more to discuss.”

“But we do.” The grip tightened. “Your sons, for example.”

Ben froze, his impatience to get away gone in an instant. He focused all of his attention on the man standing before him. “What about my sons?”

“They won’t be coming tonight.”

“What are you saying?”

“They’ve been…detained.”

“How dare you!” Ben challenged in a booming voice that vied with the band for the dancers’ attention.

“You’d do well to keep quiet,” Elijah warned, speaking close to Ben’s ear. “This is between you and me, two highly respected businessmen in Virginia City society. Any claims you make against me will be nothing but hearsay, completely devoid of any evidence, whatsoever.” He turned toward the crowd and smiled broadly, waving his cigar for emphasis and then slapping Ben’s back again, harder than before. “Now,” he said without meeting Ben’s gaze. “Let’s talk.”

Stunned, furious and fearful, Ben allowed himself to be pushed toward the door.

*****

Elijah Garrett’s office was as domineering as Elijah himself. It also rivaled him for shine and polish. Ben often wondered if some kings might work in more modest surroundings. “Tell me what you’ve done with my sons,” he demanded, ignoring the splendor of the ornate, mahogany desk that separated him from this man who would be king.

Elijah leaned back in his fine, leather desk-chair and lit another cigar. “In due time, Ben. In due time. Business first. That mine of yours must re-open the day after tomorrow, as soon as all these irritating Independence Day festivities are done with.”

“That mine was closed for a reason! It’s not safe!”

“You and I both know it is far from played out. What this town needs right now is a new silver strike. That mine of yours can provide just that.”

“We’ve been through this all before. However much silver is in there is meaningless if we can’t reach it!”

“But we can, Ben! We can reach it! All it will take is a little hard work.”

“Hard work at the expense of lives! No amount of silver is worth that kind of risk!”

“Nothing of any value is ever achieved without risk.” Elijah waved his hand dismissively. “That’s all beside the point, anyway. You will sign that mine over to me, allowing me to re-open it. Whether or not it’s safe won’t even be your concern anymore.”

“Sign it over to you?” Ben bellowed. “That’s outrageous!”

Elijah came forward in his chair, leaning into the desk to gaze intently — coldly — at Ben. “I’ll admit, the terms were better for you before. You would have had at least fifty percent of whatever our miners can haul out of there. But now, the stakes have changed. Now, it’s all or nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

“The clock is ticking, Ben. You sign this new contract by noon tomorrow, or one of your boys will die. It’s as simple as that.”

“You’re asking me to save my son at the risk of someone else’s!”

“I’m telling you a son of yours will die. That is a certainty. As to anyone else,” he shrugged, “that is a risk, but not a certainty. Surely you can see the difference.”

“Why?” Ben asked in a strangled whisper, his throat closing from the intensity of his growing fear.

“Why?” Elijah parroted. “You said it yourself. The bank is failing. Virginia City is floundering on the verge of economic disaster. That mine can put men back to work.”

“At –what — cost?” Ben’s words were clipped, his tension palpable.

“I suppose that’s for you to decide, now isn’t it?

*****

Adam tried to pull himself free of a fog. He rolled his head to the side, awakening a throbbing at the back of his skull as he turned away from the cushion of the lush pillow cradling him. The pillow was too soft, as was the mattress. He felt himself sinking into it too deeply, feeling more trapped than comforted.

This was not his bed.

Awareness struck him as effectively as the beam of sunlight escaping from a small gap in the thick curtains on the window of this room that was not his room. They’d been bushwhacked, his brothers and he. On their way into Virginia City for the dance meant to kick-off Independence Day festivities, they’d been stopped by nine gunmen.

“We don’t have much,” Adam had warily told them. “But what we do have is yours. We won’t fight you for it.” He’d caught his brothers’ eyes, getting a hesitant nod back from Hoss, and an angry glare from Little Joe. Only after Adam’s gaze narrowed in warning had Joe finally provided his own nod of acceptance. There would have been no point to fighting. The few dollars they’d carried among them had no value at all compared with their lives. Besides, they would have been facing three-to-one odds against men whose weapons were already cocked and ready, while their own were still tucked safely in their holsters.

Yet as Joe pulled his hands away from his gun-belt, making it clear Adam’s words would be heeded, one of the gunmen fired. The bullet had ripped into Joe’s left hand…his gun hand. Even now, Adam could hear his young brother crying out in shock and pain, and then cussing like a cowboy after round-up.

“I told you we won’t fight!” Adam had hollered, as angry as Joe had been moments before.

His retort had been answered with the butt end of a rifle slamming into his jaw. He could remember watching a spray of his own blood splashing across Sport’s saddle while he fell to the ground below.

“Ain’t no cause for any of this!” Hoss had shouted while Adam caught his breath, spitting the metallic taste from his mouth. “Just take what you want and get on out of here!”

“Oh, we will,” one of the gunmen had said. “We surely will.”

And then Hoss had somehow ended up on the ground beside Adam, doubled over and fighting to catch his own breath.

The rest seemed a blur. Their hands had been tied — even Joe’s, despite the wound — and they’d been dragged onto fresh horses. Two of the gunmen had ridden away, toward the Ponderosa, with the Cartwright brothers’ own horses in tow. And then Adam had watched helplessly as his brothers had also been taken away from him, and away from each other as well, each moving in the opposite direction. The only other thing Adam could remember between then and now was the feel of something hard crashing down on the back of his skull.

Now he lifted a shaking hand to explore the bandage that had been tied around his head, feeling both comforted and sickened by the attention he had apparently received. Had his brothers received the same? It was more likely to assume he had been left on the road. His brothers had been taken, and here he was, safe and secure, a guest in someone’s home.

He tried to rise…too quickly. His head throbbed, the room tilted and his stomach lurched. Pulling himself to the edge of the bed, he held himself still until he could find some sense of balance, his hands gripping the mattress to either side of him in fists not even Hoss could have pried open.

Hoss. Where was he now? How was his awakening? And Joe… Had anyone bothered to care for that wound in his hand?

Ignoring his own, small troubles, Adam pushed himself to his feet, and then maneuvered his way to the window, walking like a sailor in a hard sea with the floor moving every which way beneath him. When he reached the sill, he held onto it, making another tight fist, and then pulled the curtain aside.

It was impossible to tell where he was, exactly. The window glass was thick, his view through it as wavy as the imaginary sea beneath him, and all he could glimpse was the slanting roof of a neighboring building.

A shout from the unseen street below drew his curiosity. He tried to listen, searching for words that might indicate the location — a street name, perhaps, or reference to a particular merchant’s shop. But before any words came clear, the crack of gunfire startled him. His shoulders tightened; he nearly lost his grip on the windowsill. And then came another crack, and then what must have been ten more. No, Adam realized. That wasn’t gunfire. That head-pounding, heart-pumping cacophony coming from below was the sound of firecrackers. It must already be the Fourth of July. He had slept through the night, thanks to that head wound he’d received. Hours had already passed. His brothers could be anywhere by now. Anywhere.

It was high time he found out why.

He crossed the room, still wobbly but at least starting to find some equilibrium. Reaching the door, he braced one hand against the molding and then pulled on the latch only to discover the door had been bolted from the other side. Frustrated, he kept pulling, though his efforts did nothing except to rattle both the door and his own worn nerves. Finally, deciding it was a useless drain on energy he didn’t have to spare, he started to pound on the door, first with one fist, and then two.

“Open up!” Adam shouted. “Let me out of this room! Why am I locked in here?”

His shouts, his pounding, none of it seemed to matter. Maybe his ruckus was drowned out by the continuous pop of firecrackers. Or maybe no one cared. Whatever the reason, no one came.

Defeated for the moment, Adam rested his forehead against the dark wood and forced his lungs to take in air while he waited for the worst of his shaking to subside. Then he went back to the window, determined to leave this strange room one way or another — until he discovered that route had also been rendered useless. The window had been nailed shut.

*****

Ben was running out of time. If he’d had his say, he would have been on the road before dawn. But Hop Sing had insisted he wait.

“I go without you,” Hop Sing had told him. “No one notice. But I go with you, everyone look!” He’d spread his arms wide for emphasis.

It had been a point Ben could not argue. Men like Elijah would pay no attention to a lone Chinese man wandering into town at daybreak. And Hop Sing had needed time to put things in motion. Neither Ben nor Hop Sing could get word to Sheriff Coffee directly; Elijah Garrett’s threats had been too severe to risk calling his bluff. But Roy Coffee needed to know what was happening, and Hop Sing’s Chinese connections would see to it he found out.

And so Ben had waited. He’d tended to his sons’ horses, all three having been delivered right to his own front door at some point in the night. And then he’d taken his time saddling his own, his heart sinking whenever Cochise nickered, or Chubb stamped his foot, or Sport swished his tail.

“The clock is ticking,” Elijah had warned him. “You sign this new contract by noon tomorrow, or one of your boys will die. It’s as simple as that.”

Ben had found traces of blood on both Joe’s and Adam’s saddles, enough to leave him feeling cold — enough to force him to believe Elijah’s threat would be proved true if he failed to do what he’d been told. But it was mid-morning already, and Ben was still a few miles from town. First, a stranger had flagged him down to help with directions. Then Buck had picked up a stone. It seemed like the world was conspiring to make him late.

*****

Adam figured he might have three options for getting out of that room. The first was to break through the window glass, although that would not happen easily or quietly. The second was to remove each nail that had been driven into the window frame. His third and final option was to remove the hinges from the door. In either case, he was going to need a tool of some kind. Barring anything else, a coin might do to remove hinges or nails, but any coins he’d had were with his clothes, and he had no idea where his clothes might be. All he knew for certain was they were not in the room. He’d thoroughly checked the bureau drawers and the grand, mahogany wardrobe; each had been conspicuously empty. If he did manage to get out of there, he was going to have to do it in the nightshirt someone had dressed him in — but his current attire was not a matter of concern at the moment.

Aside from the bureau and wardrobe, there was also a desk and a small table in the room. The desk contained pens, ink, paper and a magnifying glass — nothing that might prove helpful for removing nails. The table was spread with an engineering drawing and a set of mechanical drafting pencils, looking curiously as though someone had walked away from his work.

There was something about the drawing that caught Adam’s eye. He started to move toward it, forgetting for an instant his need to get free — forgetting, also, to stay alert. He failed to notice the sounds of soft footfalls in the hallway beyond the room. When the door began to rattle lightly, he jumped with a start.

Instinctively grabbing the magnifying glass, he hurried to the door and then planted himself against the wall beside it. A moment later, panting in anticipation, Adam watched it edge slowly inward, dry hinges creaking softly with the pressure.

Adam’s heart beat a crescendo in his chest. He raised the magnifying glass above his head as though it were a much larger, much weightier club. But then a tiny hand and thin arm came into view as the door opened wider. Startled again, Adam’s tension eased. He lowered his hand and pulled away from the wall to watch a young, Chinese girl enter the room, carrying a tray of food.

The girl jumped much as he had moments earlier, her eyes darting up toward him. But she recovered quickly, moving her gaze to the floor. Thick, black hair slid forward, hiding her face as she shuffled toward the desk.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” Adam offered.

She placed the tray on the desk. “I bring food.”

“Thank you, Miss…?”

She did not look at him, but instead kept her eyes to the ground. “I return later for dishes.”

“My name is Adam Cartwright. Will you tell me yours?”

She tensed. “I return later.” She began to shuffle back toward the door.

“Will you tell me at least who my hosts are? Who owns this house?”

She grew rigid enough to begin to shake. There was something in her stance that concerned Adam. “I return later,” she repeated.

“Please.” He took hold of her arm. “I need to know.”

She shook her head. “No.” It came out as a whisper…an urgent, frightened whisper.

Gently, Adam reached for her chin, drawing her head upward. Her arm trembled in his soft grip. As her hair fell away from her face, she met his gaze with terror in her own. There was a red and purple bruise on her right cheek. Her lower lip had been split. Barely a second later, she pulled away, her hair once again covering her face. Even so, she had shown him enough to prove he was not the only prisoner in the house.

“I return later for dishes,” she repeated, rushing through the door.

Adam caught a glimpse of a man’s thick arm in the hallway just before the door slammed shut again. If there had been any doubt before, it would have vanished at that moment. Adam had to get away. With any luck, that young woman might well have given him the opportunity to do just that. He hurried to the desk to explore the tray, and then smiled, picking up a knife and testing its rigidity with his thumb. Finally, he went to work on the nails in the window frame.

*****

Sheriff Roy Coffee was an observant man. Ben Cartwright’s stern refusal to so much as look his way last night had struck him as peculiar enough to have him consider a late night ride out to the Ponderosa. He might well have taken that ride, too, if it hadn’t been for Sam Miller and his boys stirring things up at the Bucket of Blood saloon. As it turned out, the sheriff had to house the boys overnight at the jail. Roy and his deputy, Clem already had their hands full with keeping the peace around Virginia City. Whatever had been on Ben’s mind was just going to have to remain Ponderosa business until and unless he decided he needed to share it with his old friend.

Roy had come close to forgetting the matter altogether, but then a young Chinese boy made it clear something was going on with the Cartwrights, and whatever it was, it needed his attention. The boy ran into him on the sidewalk. If that had been all there was to it, Roy might have passed it off as an accident. But the boy had said something to him before running off again.

“Hop Sing at Fung Wu’s,” the boy said.

Roy watched him skedaddle toward his friends and wondered why he should care where Hop Sing happened to be. Then he glanced around to see if anyone else might have an interest in whatever he happened to care about. That glance showed him three different sets of eyes trained his way. Some could call that coincidence. But in Roy’s line of work, it was never smart to chalk anything up to coincidence. He decided maybe he should care about Hop Sing’s whereabouts after all. He also decided he ought not to make his caring any too obvious, so his journey to Fung Wu’s was slow and casual, made to look just like he was doing his regular rounds, checking out various neighborhoods in the town he’d taken the responsibility to protect. He’d surely had no way of knowing there was a clock ticking away with each and every step he took.

*****

Hog-tied and gagged, Little Joe was in a hayloft in the old livery at the edge of town — close enough to holler for help, if he could get any sound past the thick knot the outlaws had seen fit to tie into the bandana used to gag him. But try as he might to do just that, his cries had had less volume than those of the yowling barn cat keeping him company.

With the single exception of that barn cat, the outlaws had left Joe alone there. At first, he’d figured that had been their mistake, and he’d instantly set to work trying to loosen the ropes binding him. Then he’d discovered he had neither the strength nor the leverage to make any headway. His left hand was useless; the outlaw’s bullet had damaged the joint at his thumb. Even if the pain hadn’t been enough to stop him, he simply could not move his thumb; and without his thumb he couldn’t grasp the rope.

Eventually, exhaustion had pulled at him, and he’d dozed on and off through the long night. Still, when the sun rose, spilling its light through a thousand cracks in the rotting timbers around him, Joe felt even more tired than before. He continued to doze until he heard voices approaching. Then, suddenly, he was as awake and alert as ever.

*****

“Well, Ben,” Elijah said when they met in front of the mercantile as planned. “You’re dead on time! And here I was thinking you weren’t going to make it after all.” He held out his hand and smiled, like they were good friends meeting for lunch.

Ben glared back at him, keeping his own hands to his sides. “Where are my sons?” he demanded.

Elijah’s smile never wavered. “That’s not part of this particular deal. I told you a son would die. I never said anything about giving you your sons’ whereabouts.” He tipped his hat to an elderly couple passing by, and then glanced toward the alleyway. “Now, do you have that contract for me? Or are you going to force my hand?”

“Where–are–my–sons?”

Shaking his head, Elijah casually took hold of Ben’s arm. “Come along with me for a moment, Ben.”

“Why should I?”

“So you can see for yourself I do not make idle threats.”

Fear overrode anger at that moment. Ben allowed himself to be shepherded away from the store and across the alley, his eyes darting all around as they walked. He looked into every crevice, every shadow, wanting to and yet afraid to find a trace of his missing sons.

“There, Ben,” Elijah went on, then. “Have a look.”

Still, Ben saw nothing. “What? Where?” He followed Elijah’s gaze down the alley, toward the old livery, and noticed a figure up high, at the upper door. Then he squinted, forcing his eyes to adjust to the noon sun. As the figure came into focus, he couldn’t help but recognize the set of the shoulders, the defiant stance…and the almost equally defiant curly hair.

“Joe!” He said the name in a horrified whisper. Joe’s hands were tied in front of him, one looking darker and larger than the other — swollen, certainly. His good clothes were torn, his tie, gone altogether. The new shirt he’d purchased specifically to catch Ellie Lindstrom’s eye was covered with dust and pieces of straw. But his youngest son’s disheveled state was nothing to what could become of him at any moment. There was a rope around Joe’s neck. Ben was afraid to breathe, afraid even to blink. Joe was just one step away from hanging.

“Now, Ben. Do you have that contract?”

If Elijah’s voice had angered him before, it infuriated him now. But Ben’s only recourse against him was to do exactly what the man wanted. Reaching into his vest pocket to retrieve the envelope he’d placed there, Ben hissed, “Release him at once!” Still, he held the envelope in a tight grip, intending to hand it over only after Joe was safe.

“Need I remind you yet again, that was not part of the deal? First, the signed contract, then I promise you your son will not die today.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we have a few more things to work out. Today’s deal involves that signed contract. Let me see it, and then we can discuss tomorrow.”

His gaze moving between Little Joe and Elijah, Ben released the envelope, and then locked his sights on his youngest son. He heard the rustle of paper beside him as Elijah unfolded the contract. “Get him down from there,” he demanded, refusing to look away from Joe.

“Good, Ben. Very good.” From his peripheral vision, Ben saw Elijah raise his hand. An instant later, Joe was jerked out of view — pulled or pushed…perhaps even thrown back into the building. The rope was left swinging on its own in the hot, summer breeze. “Now let’s head over to my office,” Elijah went on. “And then we can talk about tomorrow.”

“I am not going anywhere until I can see my son!” Ben took two steps toward the old livery. Two steps. That was all he could manage, because as he raised his foot for that third step, a thunderous explosion nearly knocked him backwards. And then he watched in horror as the livery went up in flames amidst an onslaught of pops and whistles.

“Now, what kind of idiot would store fireworks in a rotted, timber building?” Elijah said lightly. “Are you coming, Ben? Or do I need to reschedule the execution of today’s deal?”

Something in the man’s tone pulled Ben’s gaze slowly away from the fire. “Joe?” he asked in a strangled whisper, daring to hope.

“Your boy should be nearly a quarter of a mile away from here by now, assuming everything has gone according to plan. I do not make idle threats, Ben. At the same time, I also count myself a man of my word. That explosion would have happened one way or another — either as a diversion, or a deception. After all, we can’t have the sheriff saying Joe was murdered, can we? Caught in an unfortunate accident…that’s a much better story for both of us.” He patted Ben on the back, and then started to turn Ben around. “Now, let’s discuss what happens next, shall we?”

Ben felt icy cold and blistering hot all at once. Elijah Garrett seemed to be holding all the cards. Somehow, Ben was going to have to come up with a few aces of his own.

He had no way of knowing he already had one in play. Hop Sing’s cousins had come through. Roy Coffee knew what to look out for; his deputy did, too. And Deputy Clem Foster was as observant as the sheriff. He’d followed Ben Cartwright’s line of sight right to the livery. He might not have been quick enough to stop the three riders from high-tailing it out the back, but he was at least quick enough to follow their trail.

*****

Seconds after Joe hit the saddle, one of the outlaws tugged on the horse’s reins, forcing the animal to a full out run before Joe had any chance to get his balance. He grasped for the saddle horn, but it offered little help. His hands were still tied, and his left thumb was still useless. Several moments passed while he struggled to stay seated. Then he started to ask himself why he should bother. Why should he make their getaway any easier?

He still didn’t even know what was going on. He’d thought maybe he was being ransomed, but then he’d seen his pa with Elijah Garrett. Mr. Garrett was not the kind of man who needed to rely on kidnapping to fill his pockets. Though he was a greedy sort, he earned plenty of money through business deals, fair or otherwise. But then why had Joe been released from that noose right after he saw his pa hand something over to Mr. Garrett? And yet if it was ransom, why was Joe still being dragged around by two common outlaws?

At the sound of an explosion behind him, Joe lost both his train of thought and his tenuous balance. Frustrated and angry, he gave up all attempts to stay in the saddle. Instead, he used his legs to propel himself away from the horse’s hooves and rolled into the fall as he’d learned to do when trying to break particularly stubborn broncos. Of course, knowing how to minimize the effects of a fall was no guarantee against getting hurt. And since he was instinctively cradling his left hand, he fell too hard on his shoulder. Making matters worse, there was just enough of a slope where he landed to work against him.

By the time he reached the bottom of the small hill, none of it mattered. He had sunk into a painless oblivion.

*****

Clem was too far away to take advantage of Joe’s fall. When the outlaws stopped running, he had to move behind some boulders to avoid being seen. If he’d been closer, he could have confronted them, drawing on them before they had even an inkling they might need to take their own guns to hand. As it was, he was out of range. He had no choice but to sit tight and watch as they went back to retrieve Little Joe. The poor kid was dragged up the hill like a sack of grain, and then thrown across the saddle like he was already dead.

Maybe he was already dead.

The deputy took a deep breath and told himself not to reach any conclusions just yet. He had a job to do. Whether at the end of that job he found himself rescuing Little Joe Cartwright or simply retrieving his dead body…well, that was a matter for God and circumstance to decide. For now, at least Joe’s dead weight would slow those outlaws down some. And Clem had enough of an idea about the general direction they were heading to veer on up to the hills. If he had it figured right, he had the perfect spot to get the drop on them.

*****

The knife was too soft. It was bending and twisting, and doing more to chip the paint on the windowsill than to actually remove any nails. Even so, Adam had managed to edge one nail up out of the wood by perhaps a quarter of an inch when his efforts were interrupted by the sound of an explosion. He rose, gazing out the window and instantly spotting a cloud of smoke already drifting above the roof in his line of sight. It was clearly in the distance, too far, perhaps, to be of immediate concern for him in this wooden prison. Still, it had to have been close to someone. Had anyone been hurt? He found himself eager to run outside and lend a hand, to join up with the crowd already calling for water in the street below. Anyone could have been hurt, maybe one of Adam’s own friends…maybe even Hoss or Little Joe.

Don’t go borrowing trouble, Pa said somewhere in the back of his mind. Adam’s brothers were both probably miles away. He could personally attest to the fact that they’d been taken in directions parallel to, not toward Virginia City…presuming, of course, this was Virginia City; he’d yet to actually get his bearings. The rooftops offered few clues.

A series of smaller explosions and eerie whistles pulled him from his straying thoughts. He could only imagine it had been a cache of fireworks that had exploded. If that were the case, no one could get close enough to douse the flames or rescue any unfortunate souls trapped in the debris until there was nothing left of the cache to explode — and perhaps nothing left of any unfortunate souls.

He prayed no one was trapped — and wished to heaven he knew where his brothers were.

Lost in the bitter imaginings caused by his own entrapment, Adam almost didn’t notice it when the door started to rattle again. By the time he cued into that small sound, the door was already coming open. He turned from the window, belatedly moving the knife behind his back just as his visitor came into view.

When the girl entered, she went straight to the tray on the desk without once looking up at Adam. But seeing the food untouched must have puzzled her. She hesitated, and then started moving things around on the tray, as though she was looking for something. Only then did Adam realize she must have noticed the missing knife. He remembered the bruises on her face and found himself feeling ill. Would his selfish act cause her to get hit again?

As he watched, she turned, slowly, raising her head until her gaze reached Adam’s waist. When her eyes widened just a fraction, he noticed she wasn’t looking directly at him, but rather slightly past him. Curious, he turned his head just enough to realize he hadn’t managed to shield all of his handiwork. The chips of paint on the sill extended further than he’d thought.

He felt like a repentant child, caught with a cookie he wasn’t supposed to have taken. If she was going to be punished for his crime, he owed her a confession, at the very least. Sighing in resignation, he moved away from the sill, letting her see exactly what he had done. “Are they counting the silverware?” he asked softly.

She raised her head further, finally meeting his eyes. Her own looked so small and dark-dark enough to remind Adam of an old convict he’d met once, a man who could never stop looking backward to the crimes of his troubled past…too dark for a girl who should be looking only to the future. He could feel his brow furrowing in concern for her, a girl he hadn’t even truly met because she’d yet to give him her name.

“Will they punish you for this?” He held the damaged knife out to her.

Her eyes widened further, enough to make Adam wonder whether fear or hope was driving her reaction. Before he could decide which it was, she abruptly turned back to the tray on the desk. Grabbing up some paper, she set 3 slices of toast upon it, careful to keep crumbs from falling to the fine wood of the desktop, and then onto the pile of toast she laid four strips of bacon. An offering for Adam to eat later, perhaps? Considering it was already noon, he had to figure his next meal would be supper — if, of course, his hosts were planning to give him a next meal.

Adam continued to watch as she unfolded the napkin and laid it atop the plate, hiding his untouched eggs. With that finished, she hesitated again. Her hand hovered uncertainly above the plate for a moment before she reached down to lift a corner of the cloth that had been placed between his meal and the tray itself. Adam glimpsed something white, and then watched her tug it out from beneath the cloth. As more of it came into view, he realized it was an envelope.

She turned again, slowly this time, her eyes once more downcast. She held the envelope out to him.

“What is this?” he asked, taking it gently from her. He doubted she knew, and was not surprised by her continued silence, though he found he was disappointed when she swiveled back around, hurriedly took up the tray and shuffled from the room, seeming eager to get away from him. He might be a man who tended to enjoy solitude, but this bizarre imprisonment was growing increasingly maddening — just as that young woman was growing increasingly intriguing.

*****

Dear Adam,

We have to get that old Hellcreek mine up and running again. The foreman here told me you would be figuring out a plan to shore up those old timbers. I hope you can, else the whole thing could turn into a big grave. I know you know that. I’ll do everything I can to keep anyone from dying in there, even if I have to hold it up myself.

Joe’s hand won’t be getting any better any time soon. Might get even worse. From what I hear, could be a whole lot worse.

The sooner you can get us those plans, the better. Work starts at nine sharp, the day after tomorrow.

Your faithful brother,

Hoss

*****

Adam read the note a dozen times. It was Hoss’ writing, and those were Hoss’ words. No one had fed those words to him, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been told what to write — or what not to write. He clearly wasn’t saying everything — and it was the words between the lines that had Adam most concerned. Was someone using Joe to get to Hoss, and to Adam, too? It sounded like Hoss was telling him exactly that. They’d both better do what they’re being told to do, or Joe’s life could be at stake.

Absently curling the paper into a ball in his tightening fist, Adam glared toward the drawing on the table. He’d ignored it long enough. Too long, perhaps. He’d been playing with nails when he should have been studying that drawing. Of course it had been there for a reason; he’d been a fool to think otherwise. Everything about this room had been part of a plan…the empty bureau and wardrobe, the locked window, even the girl had to be a part of it, somehow-unwilling, perhaps, but a part nonetheless.

And like it or not, it was a plan Adam was going to have to follow.

*****

Five long, two wide.

That was the size of Hoss’ prison. He marked it out in steps without even realizing what he was doing.

Five long, two wide….Five long, two wide.

The count seeped into his thoughts, became a part of him.

Five long, two wide.

It was all he could do to keep himself from clawing endlessly…uselessly…at the rocky walls surrounding him.

He’d tried to climb out, but even when he managed to get firm handholds, his clumsy feet and his bulk had betrayed him. He slid back to the ground every time, often landing flat on his back. He was sure he had the bruises to show it, too, both on his backside and on his hands. He could feel the burning tears in his nails and the moist sting of his raw fingers even if he couldn’t see them; it was as dark as could be down there, almost darker than he could stand.

No, he told himself. It was definitely darker than he could stand. But he was standing it, if only on account of the fact he had no choice. Dropping him down into this hole was a sure-fire way to keep him from tearing those men apart, the ones who’d dumped him. He’d rip them limb from limb if he could — but only after he got them to tell him where Joe and Adam were, Joe in particular.

Adam was alright; Hoss was pretty sure of that. He was alright for the time being, anyway. These folks needed him. They’d made that clear when they’d forced Hoss to write that letter. They needed Adam to help them shore up this mine. Hoss had chosen his words as carefully as he could, trying to make it sound like it was safety that mattered, but all these men really cared about was getting out as much silver as they could. If the mine was safe for miners, that also meant more silver was coming out than was being buried in rockslides. None of the outlaws cared about men being buried. But Hoss sure did, and he knew Adam would, too.

And Adam sure as heck had to care, because if he didn’t, Little Joe would suffer for it. The men had made that clear, too. If Hoss and Adam did everything these folks wanted them to do, if they did everything right and without complaining, then maybe Joe wouldn’t lose that injured hand of his to infection. That was the best they could hope for. As to the worst…well, the men had made that pretty clear, too. Joe was going to suffer a whole lot more than Hoss with his bruised fingers and his sore backside.

That was the only reason Hoss had stopped trying to climb out. He’d stopped not to protect his own self; he’d stopped to protect Joe. He’d mine this whole mountain himself if he had to, if that meant Joe wouldn’t suffer any more than what that bullet had already done to his hand. His left hand. His gun hand. These men had known that, too. They seemed to know an awful lot…enough to make it clear to Hoss every detail about his own imprisonment — and whatever each of his brothers was going through — had been carefully planned, right down to the bullet in Joe’s hand.

Hoss was afraid whoever had planned all this was as cautious and calculating as Adam. But that didn’t mean Hoss wasn’t hopeful he was wrong. Maybe Adam could still outsmart whoever that might be. “But, doggone it, Adam,” he whispered into the black silence surrounding him, “don’t even think about calling their bluff when it comes to Little Joe. They’ll kill him. I know they will.”

Reaching a wall again, Hoss slammed his fist into it, and then began counting once more. Five long, two wide. It was all he could do…at least for now.

*****

The newspaper offices were closed up as tight as everything else in Virginia City. No one had any plans to be working on the Fourth of July — unless, of course, it was absolutely necessary.

According to Elijah Garrett, a special edition was absolutely necessary, based on the business he intended to address. He made that point very clear to Mr. Goldenberg’s apprentice the moment Elijah’s men had tracked him down.

“I’m sorry, sir,” young Zachary Mullins replied, running his hand through his hair until he caught it on a piece of straw. His face reddened as he tossed the straw to the street. “N…nothing short of a declaration of war will…will get that press going today. Mr. Goldenberg is planning to-”

“We have a declaration of our own!” Elijah loudly cut in, “Ben Cartwright and I!”

Ben tensed as Elijah wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

The apprentice pulled his brow curiously, perhaps recognizing Ben’s less than amiable attitude toward the other man. “Are you….” He cleared his throat, gazed around for passersby, and then continued in a softer voice. “Are you telling me you and Mr. Cartwright are at war?”

“On the contrary!” Elijah roared jovially. “Quite the opposite, in fact! We are going into business together. Isn’t that right, Ben?”

Zachary’s gaze was doubtful.

“Yes,” Ben replied after a moment, his voice almost a soft purr compared with Elijah’s roar.

“Mr. Cartwright is apparently still somewhat stunned,” Elijah explained, “by our recent ability to strike up an agreement.” The man’s eyes bearing into Ben seemed as threatening as any weapon.

Ben could only glare back.

“Nonetheless,” Elijah went on, “we must move forward quickly, which is why we need this edition to go out today, the sooner the better.”

Zachary shook his head. “I don’t believe Mr. Goldenberg would…”

“It doesn’t matter what you believe! You get Mr. Goldenberg or you start that press up all by your lonesome. I don’t care how you do it; just do it!” He pulled a sheet of paper from his vest pocket. “Now this is what it must say. Get it right and I’ll pay you what it’s worth. Make it fast, and I’ll see to it there’s a little something extra for your efforts. You’ll be able to buy a trinket to keep that gal you left back there from being angry with you for leaving just now.”

The young man grew redder than before. “B…but I don’t think-”

“I won’t hear another argument!” Elijah shouted angrily. “Just get it printed or….” Ben noticed the man’s gaze shifting from enraged to…perhaps afraid. He’d been about to slip up. He’d been about to use his threats against an outsider.

“Or…or what?” Zachary asked, his face going from red to white.

“Just get it printed,” Elijah said in a voice far less boisterous than it had been a moment before.

Yes, Ben realized. Elijah was afraid. He had caught himself this time, but he’d come close to providing that young man with clues he dare not disclose, not without potentially ruining his entire scheme. A slip like that could cost a man severely in a game of poker, telling his hand before any cards were ever shown.

Ben found himself breathing easier. For the first time since he’d learned his sons had been taken, he found a reason to hope. This man may be gambling with lives, but he might just be setting himself up to lose.

*****

Clem was positioned in the rocks looking out over the trail. He caught sight of the outlaws well before he could hear them. It was strange, though. The two riders kept looking back at Little Joe, who was still hoisted belly down over the saddle. With all that looking back, they weren’t making much progress. Clem even found himself getting restless. He wished they’d get close enough so he could get this over with. All this delaying wasn’t doing Little Joe any favors either-assuming he was still alive.

Poor kid. However he’d started the day, from what Clem had seen, he’d spent the better part of it nearly getting hung, running from a heck of an explosion at the livery, and then flying off his horse and ending up riding it like no living man ought ever to ride. It was the kind of story cowboys would buy a round of beers to hear for a laugh, even though they’d never believe a word of it. But Clem would never tell a story like that for a laugh or a beer. Truth was, it sure hadn’t been funny watching Joe’s pa watching Joe get nearly hung, and it sure hadn’t been funny to see Joe flying off that horse like he’d done.

And Clem sure hoped Joe wasn’t dead.

“…down from here!”

The distant shout startled Clem out of his wandering thoughts. He could swear it had sounded like Joe.

“You try ridin’ like this!” By gum, that was Joe, wasn’t it? “Hey!”

As they drew closer, Joe’s words grew easier to hear. “Hey!” he shouted again. “Let me ride like I ain’t already dead! Or…or just kill me and get it over with!”

The outlaws stopped and turned around again. For a moment, Clem tensed, thinking maybe they just might do as Joe said: kill him so it made sense to have him ride like a corpse. Clem leveled his rifle, judging the distance and figuring he might hit one of them; but he was pretty sure the minute he pulled that trigger, whichever outlaw he didn’t hit would shoot Joe.

“Hey!” Joe shouted again. “Come on! Get me down!”

But the outlaws didn’t even draw their weapons. Instead, they turned back to the trail. Relieved, Clem put down his rifle. Just a few minutes more, and he’d have them. Just a few…minutes…more….

*****

Adam threw down his pencil and pushed back his chair, moving so quickly and aggressively he knocked the chair backwards to the floor and nearly fell forwards himself. His head swam. The room spun. He grabbed the table for support and cursed himself for ever having allowed those outlaws to get the drop on him and his brothers. And whichever one of them had caused that knot on Adam’s head was going to get a worse knot of his own, if Adam ever got a hold of him.

The door rattled.

Adam drew a deep breath, trying to control his anger. That poor girl had seen enough of anger, judging by her bruises. She didn’t need to see Adam’s as well.

But it wasn’t the girl who entered. It was a man…the one who belonged to the thick arm Adam had glimpsed earlier. Throwing the door open with a bang, the brut thundered in and then scanned the room until his gaze landed first on Adam, and then the overturned chair. His stance softened some at that point; he was apparently satisfied to discover the cause of the noise that had drawn him in.

When his eyes settled back on Adam, the eldest Cartwright brother met the man’s fierce glare with one of equal intensity, although it frustrated him to have to look up at the ridiculously tall ruffian, and he wished to heaven his own glare could reflect more ferocity than a wounded man in a nightshirt could ever possibly display.

“It can’t be done,” Adam said after a moment.

The ruffian didn’t so much as blink.

“The mine,” Adam clarified. “It can’t be made safe.”

The ruffian didn’t move.

“You tell your boss that silver can’t be mined,” Adam said coldly. “Do you hear me? It cannot be done! Not with the lumber he has showing in inventory, if those records can be considered accurate; not even if he cut and moved a hundred more trees by tomorrow night. It simply cannot be done!”

The ruffian shook his head slowly, filled his chest, and started to turn away.

“You’d better also tell him I demand to see my brothers!”

When the ruffian pulled the door closed behind him, Adam felt like a floundering wreck at sea, the storm of his tirade having left behind nothing but flotsam. What had he done?

Joe’s hand won’t be getting any better any time soon, Hoss’ letter had said. Might get even worse. From what I hear, could be a whole lot worse. The sooner you can get us those plans, the better.

But what if there were no plans? And what if that ruffian told his boss everything Adam had insisted he say? Might get even worse.

Shaking, Adam turned around to sit right there on the table until he could get his sea legs under him again. Then…then he would get back to work. There had to be a way. He had to find a way. Hoss was depending on him to do just that. And Joe….

Adam closed his eyes, fetching childhood images of both of his younger brothers looking up to him, counting on him. He had to find a way to do the impossible; there was no other way to protect them.

*****

“I’ll have you ridin’ like this all the way to jail!” Joe hollered.

When the outlaws stopped and turned again, Deputy Clem Foster smiled. “Thank you, Joe,” he said softly to himself. “That’s just what I needed.” He started his slow approach, keeping to the shadows of the boulders.

“You don’t stop all that yappin’,” the younger of the two outlaws warned, “I’ll give you whatcha keep askin’ for!”

Clem saw the man reach for his gun. The deputy froze, planting himself against the rocks and raising his rifle.

“Don’t be a fool,” the older of the two said, staying Clem’s hand. “He can’t die unless one of his kin sees him die. You know that. He ain’t worth nothin’ any otherwise. And neither are we.”

Relieved, at least for the moment, Clem waited, holding his rifle ready and watching the younger man’s fingers dance dangerously above his holster.

“Randy,” the older one added in a scolding tone when his partner held silent. “We need to git. We’re expected by nightfall.”

“We’ll never git nowhere at this pace. He’s slowin’ us down.”

“He’s the only reason we got anywhere to git to! Just stop listenin’ to him, why don’t you?”

“Let me down,” Joe interrupted, “and we’ll all ride faster!”

Clem lowered his rifle, fairly confident the immediate risk to Joe had passed. He took a few more cautious steps.

“He’s got a point,” the older man sighed. “Maybe we ought-”

“Maybe we oughta just knock him senseless again!”

“Then I’ll be dead weight,” Joe shouted back. “The only way to move faster is for you to let me ride!”

While the outlaws stared at each other, each considering just what they ought to do, Clem took two final steps.

“Come on, boy,” the older one said before grunting his way through a slow dismount. “Give me a hand.”

“We gonna knock him senseless?”

“Just git down from there,” the older one scoffed, clearly irritated, “and help me out.”

Clem waited, his fingers flexing, his heart pumping faster by the minute. He watched as the younger man moved his hands away from the gun, focusing his attention on climbing down off that horse of his. And then, finally, “Hold it right there!” Clem shouted. He moved out of his cover, keeping his rifle at the ready, aimed at the youngest outlaw. “Raise your hands,” he demanded. “Both of you.”

The younger man, Randy, spat at the ground.

“Do it!” Clem yelled.

“We’ll oblige you, lawman,” the older man said calmly as his lifted his arms away from his sides, “but you won’t like what happens next if we don’t deliver this boy like we’re expected to.”

“Oh? And just how are you expected to deliver him?” Clem slowly approached Randy, silently threatening him with the rifle until Randy’s hands also eased upward.

“Well now,” the older man answered. “I don’t reckon we’re much obliged to tell you that.”

“Suit yourself.” Clem grabbed Randy’s gun. He emptied the chamber, dumping the bullets on the ground and then tossing the now useless weapon behind him. “You can tell the jury instead. I have to warn you, though. Cartwrights have a lot of friends in Virginia City. Could just end up with a rope around your neck.”

“You threatenin’ me, lawman?”

“No more than you’re threatening me. Now get on over here and handcuff your friend.” He took out a pair of handcuffs he’d tucked into his belt, and held them out toward the older man.

“And if I don’t?”

“Well, I suppose shooting him would be just as effective and a whole lot less troublesome.”

“Think I care what happens to him?”

“You tell me.” Clem aimed the rifle at Randy’s head.

“H-Hank?” Randy pleaded.

Clem cocked his weapon.

“Come on, Hank! You ain’t gonna let him do it, are you?”

“What’s it gonna be?” Clem asked.

“Hank!” Randy called out desperately. “Handcuff me! Please, Hank! You got to!”

Hank sighed heavily, shaking his head. “I suppose it’d just be a waste of good ammunition.”

As he approached, Clem shifted the aim of his rifle, making it clear the older man was in no better position than his frightened, young friend. Then he grabbed the man’s gun before turning over the handcuffs. “Now put ’em on,” he demanded.

With that done, Clem went the extra step of threading rope through the cuffs and tying the outlaw around a tree. At least that way the kid wouldn’t try anything stupid while Clem focused his attentions on freeing Little Joe.

*****

Joe wasn’t entirely relieved when Clem started jostling him around — well, Clem and that miserable outlaw. It was probably the outlaw’s fault that coming down hurt a whole lot worse than going up. Of course, Joe hadn’t actually been conscious when they’d first tied him to the saddle like that, but Joe didn’t bother with remembering such details. What mattered was that he didn’t want that outlaw anywhere near him, and yet he’d had to rely on that man’s strength to help Clem lift him from the saddle and get him back on solid ground. Clem had said he needed the help, and maybe he did; but it wouldn’t have mattered to Joe one bit if Clem had dropped him head first. Somehow Joe was certain that wouldn’t have bothered him nearly as much as when that old man’s hands had wrapped a rope around his throat, or when that finger that was even now fumbling with the knots binding Joe’s wrists had pulled the trigger, putting a bullet into Joe’s palm-a bullet that was still there, wedged up against the joint of Joe’s thumb.

“Hey!” Joe shouted when the man’s thumb brushed against his own, making it feel like it was being broken all over again. “Get him away from me, Clem! I swear I’m gonna kill him if you don’t get him away from me!”

“Ease up, there, Joe,” Clem said. “He’s a whole lot easier to watch when he’s doing the work and I’m holding the gun.”

“Yeah, well you won’t have to watch him if you tie him up like you did his partner.”

“If I do that, you’re going to have to wait to get the rest of those ropes off.”

“I’ll wait then.” Joe’s eyes never strayed from the old man. He didn’t dare look away.

“You sure about that?”

“I’m sure. Just…just get him away.” Angered by the telling catch in his voice, Joe clenched his jaw and kept his gaze locked on the outlaw. It was rage that stole his voice, not fear. That old man had to know that; he had to see that. But, dammit!, the look in the old man’s eyes stayed as calm as ever, like he didn’t have a care in the world. You’re going to prison, mister, Joe said in his own mind. I’d like to see you pretend you don’t care then. Oh, I’d like to see you in prison, alright. Or maybe worse. Maybe I’d like to put a rope around your neck myself.

“Come on, Hank,” Clem’s voice unlocked Joe’s jaw and allowed his burning eyes to blink. “The sooner I get you nice and snug like your buddy, Randy, over there, the better.” The hand that landed on the old man’s shoulder was dangling a strip of rope.

“Got no cause to do that,” Hank said, his gaze not yet moving from Joe. “I’m too old to run, too tired to fight.”

“I might buy that,” Clem answered, “if I hadn’t seen you high-tail it away from that livery back in Virginia City. I’m guessing you’re pretty good at poker.”

“I do alright.”

“I suppose you do.”

“If you don’t use that rope on me, I’ll take care of this boy’s hand for you.”

Joe stiffened again. He could feel his nostrils flaring, and was glad. There would be no mistaking his anger now. “You touch me and I’ll kill you.” He could swear the man smiled. It was small and quick, but it was a smile. He was sure of it.

“If you’re so willing to take care of his hand,” Clem sounded puzzled, “why didn’t you do it before now?”

“Had no cause to.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Joe said. “He’s the one who shot me.”

Hank shrugged. “Better me than some of the others. Coulda blown your hand clean off if I’d a let that one do it.” He nodded toward Randy.

“If you’re the one who did it,” Clem asked, “why would you want to fix it, now?”

“Got no cause not to.”

“I don’t know what to make of you,” Clem tugged Hank’s shoulder to turn him, and then set to work tying his hands. “But I’ve got no good reason to trust you.”

“Suit yourself. I imagine you’ve got bigger things to worry about, anyway.”

“Like what?”

Hank smiled. There was no mistaking it this time. He smiled wide and clear. “I don’t reckon I’m obliged to say.”

*****

“Alright,” Ben Cartwright said coldly, “you’ve gotten what you wanted, and I’ve waited long enough. Now tell me where my sons are.”

Elijah chuckled softly and tapped his cigar with his ring finger to release the spent ashes into the street. Then he settled back into the chair on his front porch. “We’re not finished yet, Ben,” he said in a slow, matter-of-fact manner that had gone well beyond trying Ben’s patience. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Ben had been forced to bear the man’s company since their meeting at noon — a meeting that still had Ben’s blood running cold. Even now he could see Little Joe standing high in that loft with a rope around his neck. “I’ve given you your contract,” Ben answered, putting all of his chilled blood into his tone. “I’ve corroborated your ridiculous story with the newspaper. What more do you possibly need from me?”

“I need for you to see this through, Ben. We’ve yet to hire workers for our business venture. Once the news comes out that there’s a new silver bonanza brewing on the Ponderosa, all they’ll need is to see you and me standing together, and they will line up clear to the edge of town to sign up.”

“You won’t need me for that. That newspaper article will be enough on its own.”

“Of course, I need you, Ben. That mine is on the Ponderosa, after all. I need you right up until the silver starts flowing. Then and only then will your responsibilities have been fulfilled.”

“You can’t be serious.”

Elijah gave him a puzzled look. “I’m surprised at you. You yourself have already seen how serious I am. Young Joseph may not have met with his demise earlier today, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still happen. And then, of course, there’s Adam and Hoss.”

Ben felt every muscle in his body go tense. He wanted nothing more than to pommel this man. Somewhere deep inside him he wished he could allow himself to be as reckless with his anger as Little Joe, to just act first without thinking, without…without recognizing with sickening clarity how such a simple, heedless act could ultimately bring harm to any or even all of his sons. “You must be mad,” he hissed with barely controlled rage. “No sane man would ever go to such extremes, playing with men’s lives for the sake of a…a business deal that cannot possibly be made lucrative.”

“As long as the silver flows, it shall be quite lucrative, I assure you.”

“At a cost in lives. How many will have to die before you realize exactly how unprofitable that mine actually is?”

“As long as the silver flows, Ben. That is all that matters.”

“You really are mad.”

“A strange name, that. Hoss. I can’t imagine a sane man finding it acceptable for his child to go through life being called Hoss.”

“You have no business judging any man’s sanity.” Ben caught a glimpse of Hop Sing at the upper end of the street. He started to rise before he realized he was doing what he knew he couldn’t do: he was acting without thinking.

“Ben? I haven’t excused you, yet.”

Ben glared back at him, amazed and infuriated. “You have no right!”

Elijah shrugged, taking another deep draw of his cigar. “Right or not,” he said then, tendrils of smoke following his words, “I have your sons.”

Helpless, Ben gazed at Hop Sing long enough to see the Chinese man shake his head as though in understanding, and then he retook his seat. “What now?” he asked icily while he watched Hop Sing scurry away.

“Now, I suppose we should check in on Mr. Mullins’ progress at the newspaper. We’ll need to get out there among the people when that paper hits the streets, to show how excited we are about the news.”

“They will not get excitement from me.”

Elijah’s glare grew dangerous. “Be careful, Ben. Your sons are counting on you. Don’t you forget that, not for a minute.”

Clenching his jaw, Ben looked to the spot where Hop Sing had been a moment earlier. His sons might be counting on him, but he was counting on that Chinese cook to somehow…somehow help Roy Coffee figure out a way to end this absurd and treacherous madness.

*****

“I can’t do anything about that right now, Hop Sing!” Roy Coffee went to the window of his office and gazed out over the street. “So far I got nothin’ but hearsay when it comes to Ben Cartwright’s boys.” He turned back to the Chinese man and sighed in sympathy. “Now, I’m thinkin’ maybe Clem found somethin’, but he’s either got to come here and tell me what it is, or I got to go track him down. And I sure can’t take the time to track him down when I got a whole town to look out for. It bein’ a holiday like it is, some folks can tend to make trouble. I can’t leave them alone on a day like this!”

“You need more deputy.”

Roy suppressed a chuckle at the seriousness in Hop Sing’s expression. “Yes, I do. Are you volunteerin’?”

Hop Sing gazed at him, seeming confused. “You make me deputy?”

“I can deputize anyone I like.” The sheriff took a deep breath and scratched his head, thinking hard on the implications. “It could mean trouble for you with most of the town, but if you keep to the Chinese section, that could help me out some.”

“Hop Sing deputy, then.” Hop Sing pulled his back up straighter and gave one, quick nod in acceptance.

Roy smiled. “Alright.” He went to his desk to retrieve a badge. “Now if I can just get me about two or three more deputies, I could-”

“Silver!” a shout outside drew Roy’s attention. “On the Ponderosa!”

“What in tarnation is that all about?” Roy said softly as he moved toward the window.

“It’s in the Hellcreek mine!” someone else shouted.

In no time at all, a crowd formed out in the street. Folks were jabbering on about a special edition of the newspaper, and clamoring to get their hands on a copy. Just about every time Roy blinked his eyes, the crowd got thicker and rougher. And then he noticed Ben Cartwright was in the middle of it.

*****

“Come on, now!” Roy pushed and pulled himself through a herd of men. “Settle down!” He had almost reached Ben when he glimpsed Hop Sing trying to do the same. “Oh, for the love of….” He clamped down on his jaw, wishing for the best. It was all he could do…for the moment anyway.

“You go now!” Hop Sing’s voice called out. “Move to side!”

Men started laughing.

“What’s that you’re wearing, Chinaman?” someone shouted.

“It’s a badge!” someone else answered.

“Deputy!” Hop Sing announced proudly.

The laughter grew louder as more men joined in, and then Roy’s fears were proved true. Someone pushed Hop Sing. He fell into another man, who pushed him again. The third man pushed rougher still, and the fourth ripped off Hop Sing’s new badge.

Roy grabbed his gun and fired it up into the air. He had to pull the trigger three times before folks paid attention. “I’ll throw the lot of you in jail if I have to! Now that man has been legally deputized. That means you do as he says!”

“He’s a Chinaman!” someone complained.

“He’s a lawman and don’t you forget it!” Roy’s warnings eventually started to quiet the men, but he knew it was bound to get worse before it got better. He had to get Hop Sing off the street; only then could he try once again to clear the street itself.

*****

“What did you think you were doing out there?” Ben scolded Hop Sing, who sat in a chair opposite the sheriff’s desk. “Don’t you realize those men wouldn’t think twice about…about fighting you?”

“Hop Sing deputy.” Somehow Hop Sing looked both chagrined and resolute. It was almost as though he’d taken lessons from Little Joe on how to accept punishment for an act over which he felt no remorse.

Thoughts of Little Joe threatened to pull Ben’s attention from the moment at hand, but he couldn’t allow himself to follow them. He turned away and paced toward the window. “You could have been killed out there,” he said softly.

Elijah scoffed. “What are you so worried about, Ben? If he wants to play deputy, let him play. You can always get yourself another cook.”

Ben threw the man a fiery glare. “He is my friend.”

“He’s a Chinaman!” Elijah shouted back. “A stinkin’, yellow Chinaman!”

Hop Sing rose to his feet, but Ben planted himself between the two of them. “He is a man,” he said, keeping his tone low and deadly. “A man like any other man.”

Elijah met his glare for a long moment before replying with equal ferocity, “and that, Ben Cartwright, is your weakness. You are a jack of hearts to my ace of spades.”

Ben gave his head one, slow shake, back and forth. “What you see as weakness, I count as strength.”

“I’ll remember you said that when you’re dressed in rags and I’m rebuilding that pathetic log cabin of yours into a fitting home for myself.”

“Ben Cartwright never sell you Ponderosa!” Hop Sing declared.

“Your Chinaman is speaking out of turn,” Elijah said without moving his gaze from Ben’s.

“My friend has every right to speak the truth.”

The outer door flew open with a bang, bringing the standoff to an abrupt end.

“Oh, my!” a young woman exclaimed as Zachary Mullins and Sheriff Coffee ushered her into the office. “What in the world has gotten into all those people?” She held a hand to her chest while she pulled away from the two men, her gaze only then landing on Ben. “Oh, Mr. Cartwright! I wouldn’t have expected to find you in here. Little Joe, perhaps, but certainly not you!”

“He’s just visitin’, miss,” Roy explained. “He ain’t under arrest.”

Ben found his anger shifting momentarily away from Elijah, and toward Miss Ellie Lindstrom, the young lady Joe had hoped to impress at the dance. “And neither is Little Joe!” he said in a voice that had the woman backing away from him ever so slightly.

“Well,” she said in a huff an instant later. “I imagine he deserves to be arrested after the way he stood me up last night. Fortunately I found someone who knows how to treat a lady,” she threaded her arm into Zachary’s, “unlike that no good son of yours!”

“Did it even occur to you that son of mine might have been waylaid? That he might have met with misfortune?”

The woman shrugged, clearly unaffected by Ben’s words. “Whatever the cause, he stood me up. Now Zachary, I’m tired of this dreary place. I want to go to the picnic.”

“Yes, of course,” Zachary answered quickly. “Um, Mr. Cartwright? Mr. Garrett? We’ve already sold every copy! I was thinking about printing some more. I wonder if…”

“No!” Ben said a bit too loudly. He cleared his throat before adding, “I’d say the news has spread quite well enough, thank you. Go on to the picnic and enjoy the rest of the day.” It was everything he could do to keep his tone pleasant.

*****

Those were gunshots, three of them. Adam was sure of it. He knew there would be no point to looking; even so, he rose from his chair at the table and moved to the window. All he saw was the roof of the next building over…although he realized he was seeing it a bit differently now. Maybe he was getting his bearings, or maybe his work on the plans for the mine was starting to clear the fog in his head. Whatever the reason, the pitch of that roof and the color of the shingles…it was all starting to look familiar. He still couldn’t quite place where he was, but he was beginning to believe he would soon.

The sense of familiarity buoyed his spirits and strengthened his resolve. There was nothing he could do to make that mine viable over the long term. But he might just buy them all a day or two. With any luck, that would be enough.

*****

Joe’s hand was a mess. It didn’t help that he also had a slew of bruised ribs, a gash on his forehead and a sore shoulder to boot, but he figured those were all bearable discomforts compared with the pain in his hand. Clem’s digging to get the bullet out of his thumb didn’t trouble Joe nearly as much as he’d thought it might, but attempts to clean the wound and reset the bones earned the deputy a tirade of complaints Pa would have been appalled to hear. Fortunately, Pa wasn’t around to hear them.

No, Joe realized. That wasn’t true. It wasn’t fortunate at all. He wished Pa were there. Joe would welcome Pa’s displeasure over his choice of words if it meant the family was all together, in one place-or even if it just meant Joe knew where his brothers were; and, more importantly, if he knew they were okay.

“Stop talking in riddles!” Joe shouted, aiming his outburst at Hank, although it was Clem who had caused it by splashing some of the outlaws’ whiskey onto Joe’s hand to clean it.

“Didn’t know I was,” the outlaw answered. “I suppose I ought to thank you kindly for thinkin’ that. For a man to talk in riddles, means he’s got to have him a mite more under his hat than hair.”

“Oh, for the love of…”

“You’ve got to stop movin’ around so much, Joe!” Clem scolded.

Joe glared back at him, his chest heaving and his ribs protesting every breath. “He’s worse than…” he stopped himself, realizing how wrong his next word would have been. Hank was nothing like Adam, nothing at all. Maybe sometimes it seemed Adam would talk in riddles, but people’s lives didn’t depend on someone solving them. “Just get him to give us some answers,” Joe added in a low voice that could match the rumble of a prowling puma for the threat it offered. “If you can’t, I will.”

“Hold your horses. We’ll get to all that in no time.” Clem started to wrap Joe’s hand in the remains of a shirt he’d taken from Hank’s saddlebag, despite-or maybe because of the outlaw’s complaints about it being the only clean one he had.

“Time.” Hank said the word as though it was significant, drawing it out longer than might be expected in casual conversation. “Almost as precious as silver, some might say.”

Clem pulled the wrappings tight to hold the bones in place, and Joe shouted out another tirade he wished Pa could grumble about. Anger prevailed over pain in that instant. “Just say what you mean for once!” he hollered at the outlaw while Clem was tying up the loose ends.

And then Joe was up and moving before he even gave conscious thought to what he was doing, the pain having washed away in his flood of rage. It wasn’t until he had Hank’s collar twisted up in his right fist that he started to recognize the strain on his ribs and the way the world began to float dizzily around him. But even then he refused to give in to it. “Tell me where my brothers are, or I swear I’ll kill you,” he warned.

In poker, it wasn’t so much about having the winning hand as it was about making everyone guess whether you did or not. And Joe was darned good at poker. But Hank looked to be pretty good himself, at least when it came to bluffing. Joe was having a hard time reading him. Did he wonder, somewhere behind those still eyes of his, whether Joe might make good his threat?

“Kill me and you’ll never know,” Hank said, his gaze as calm as ever. His breath smelled like old coffee.

“Oh, I’ll know, alright,” Joe answered, his tone low and cold. “Your friend, Randy, won’t hold quiet without you keeping him that way.”

They glared at each other for a long while, with Joe twisting the collar a little tighter against Hank’s neck every second, even while the world began to fade at the outer edges of his own vision.

“Deputy?” Hank called out finally, calmly, without taking his eyes from Joe. “Ain’t you gonna tell this pup to back down afore he falls down?”

“Why should I?” Clem’s voice sounded farther away than it should, but Joe didn’t turn to look. “He deserves a chance to get back at you somewhat, after what you did to him. Frankly, my money’s on him. Of course, I’ll stop him before he kills you. I sure wouldn’t want to have to charge him for murder.”

“He don’t know!” the other outlaw, Randy, called out, clearly more concerned about Hank than Hank was himself. “All we was told was what to do with you.”

“And what was that, exactly?” Joe asked without loosening his grip on Hank’s collar, without even moving his gaze.

“Just to do what we done in Virginia City, and then to get you out to that mine.”

“What mine?”

“Hellcreek.”

Seeing Hank’s gaze give a brief hint of concern made Joe consider his own reaction. He realized his grip had relaxed and he’d allowed his confusion to show. Angry now at himself, he twisted Hank’s collar as tight as he could. “Is that where my brothers are?”

But Hank was as calm and quiet as he’d been moments earlier.

“I told you!” Randy said. “No one tol’ us, and we didn’t ask!”

“Then I guess we’d better ride out to that mine and find out.” Joe held Hank’s collar for a moment longer before finally letting go, and then he almost wished he hadn’t. Somehow loosening that tight fist he’d held caused him to sway on his feet, as though Hank’s collar had been enough to keep him standing. He reached for the tree limb above him until he could catch his breath.

“I don’t think so, Joe,” Clem said then.

Startled, Joe stared at him.

“Hank and me, we’ll ride out there. You can take Randy into Virginia City. Let Sheriff Coffee know what’s goin’ on, then he can send a posse out after me.”

Enraged again, Joe let go of the tree, standing firm once more. “If there’s any chance my brothers are up at that mine, then that’s where I’m going.”

“Joe,” Clem sighed, giving Little Joe one of Adam’s own infuriating looks, the kind that said Joe was too young and stupid to know better. “I did what I could for your hand, but you gotta know it’s infected. It’s just gonna get worse if you don’t get it fixed proper.”

“It can wait.”

“No, it can’t. Not unless you don’t mind losing it. And besides, your pa’s in Virginia City. Least you could do is let him know you’re okay.”

He can wait, Joe almost said. But he held his tongue, realizing the retort was more instinctive than realistic. He didn’t even know for sure his brothers were at that mine.

“As worried as you are about Adam and Hoss,” Clem went on, “don’t you think it’s worse for your pa right now? He doesn’t even know if any of his sons are still alive. He knows these yahoos didn’t hang you, but how can he know for sure you didn’t die in that explosion?”

Joe felt himself swaying again, but he couldn’t seem to grab that limb.

“And if your brothers are up at Hellcreek, we’re gonna need more guns than just you and me.”

Especially since Joe’s gun hand was useless, not to mention the fact he could hardly stand up straight. Clem didn’t need to say what Joe already knew to be true. More frustrated now than enraged, Joe accepted the deputy’s help setting himself down on a nearby boulder. He had some decisions to make, but he sure wasn’t going to agree to anything until he could get his head to stop spinning.

*****

Hop Sing wanted to use his new status in law enforcement to throw Mr. Elijah Garrett in jail, but Sheriff Coffee had other ideas. They were still supposed to pretend they knew nothing about the kidnapping of Ben Cartwright’s sons. They hadn’t gathered enough information to ensure nothing worse would happen to the boys if word got out that Ben had shared information he’d been expressly told to keep to himself. Besides, information by itself could be considered hearsay if they didn’t have evidence to back it up, and so far they barely even had proof that a crime had occurred. All they knew for certain was that the Cartwright brothers’ horses had been delivered to Ben Cartwright’s front door, and two of the three had been marked with blood.

Frustrated, the cook-turned-deputy watched Mr. Elijah Garrett strutting out of the sheriff’s office like he owned the world. Then Hop Sing shook his head, said a few choice words in Mandarin the sheriff would have been aghast to hear if he’d known what they meant, and headed off to patrol the Chinese neighborhoods in search of any information he could find that would meet with the requirements of the United States legal system to at least warrant a formal investigation.

Three hours later, he found better evidence than he could have hoped for: Adam Cartwright’s hat. It sat atop a paper wrapped bundle a delivery boy was carrying away from Chow Fung’s laundry.

What is that?” he called out to the boy in his native language.

The boy froze and then frowned, looking at the badge adorning Hop Sing’s shirt.

Hop Sing grabbed Adam’s hat and nodded to the package. “What are you doing with this?”

I am making a delivery.”

Where are you taking it?”

The boy handed Hop Sing a slip of paper. He recognized the address instantly: it belonged to the house of Mr. Elijah Garrett.

*****

“Well, I got to hand it to you, Hop Sing,” Sheriff Coffee said, chuckling softly and shaking his head like he was having a hard time believing that Hop Sing had single-handedly uncovered their first bit of hard evidence that connected Elijah Garrett to the disappearance of Ben Cartwright’s sons — or one of them, anyway. “This could even be good enough to…”

“You arrest Mr. Elijah Garrett now?” Hop Sing smiled, certain the answer would be ‘yes.’

“No,” the sheriff said instead.

Hop Sing’s excitement was gone in an instant. “Not good evidence?”

“It ain’t that simple. Oh, it’s good evidence, alright. But we act on it now, we could be risking the lives of all Ben’s boys. We just don’t know enough about where they are or what Garrett might do if his plans start to fall apart.”

“Then Hop Sing get more information.”

“How about we both see about gettin’ more information?”

“Hop Sing make delivery.”

“What?”

“Hop Sing make delivery…for the boy. Take number one son’s clothes to house of Mr. Elijah Garrett. Then maybe Hop Sing find more information or evidence.”

Sheriff Coffee shook his head. “Too risky. If Garrett saw you, he’d know Ben said somethin’.”

“Mr. Elijah Garrett not look at Chinese people. Mr. Elijah Garrett not notice Hop Sing.”

“He sure gave notice to you in here not much more than three hours ago.”

“Mr. Garrett not notice if Hop Sing not with Mr. Ben Cartwright. And Hop Sing deliver to back door. Mr. Garrett use front door.”

The sheriff seemed surprised. He looked at Hop Sing for a long while before giving a slow nod of agreement. “You’ve already thought it all out, haven’t you?”

Hop Sing bobbed his head up and down excitedly.

“Well, maybe you done a good job of thinking about it. But doing it, now, that could be a whole different thing.”

“Hop Sing ready.” He took a deep breath, pushing out his chest and pulling his back as straight as he could, like he’d seen soldiers do whenever they were in town.

The sheriff chuckled again. “I imagine you are, at that. An’…it might just work. But — and I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this — you better hide that new badge of yours.”

Hop Sing was already moving the badge from his shirt to the underside of his hat.

“And don’t you even think of doin’ anythin’ while you’re in there other than gettin’ information. You got that?”

“Hop Sing get information.” He nodded again and then quickly shook his head from side to side. “Nothing more.”

“You don’t talk to anyone except whoever takes those clothes from you.”

Hop Sing nodded.

“An’ I’ll be watchin’ from somewhere close.” Still, Sheriff Coffee stared long and hard at him, making no move to get up.

“Hop Sing not do anything to risk Mr. Ben Cartwright sons.”

Sheriff Coffee’s nod wasn’t nearly as animated as Hop Sing’s had been. He also took a deeper breath than Hop Sing had a moment earlier, but it did nothing to straighten his back. Instead, his shoulders seemed to slump down a little, as though he were carrying something heavy. “I know that, Hop Sing. Trouble is, I don’t know what Garrett might do to you if he finds you there.”

The sheriff’s concern confused Hop Sing. He shook his head again. “Hop Sing only trouble what Mr. Elijah Garrett do to Mr. Ben Cartwright sons.”

The sheriff smiled again, but it was a tired, somewhat sad sort of smile. “You’re a good man, Hop Sing. Shame there ain’t more like you in these parts.”

“Men like Mr. Elijah Garrett not agree.”

“Well, a man like Mr. Elijah Garrett ain’t worth a hundred like you. An’ the sooner we find out what he did to Ben’s boys, the sooner we can rid ourselves of Mr. Elijah Garrett himself.”

After the sheriff rose from his desk, he patted Hop Sing on the shoulder and then did something no one had done before; he held the door for Hop Sing — a small gesture, perhaps, but one that gave the Chinese cook-turned-deputy enough confidence to do whatever it would take to solve the mystery of Ben Cartwright’s missing sons.

*****

Adam marked up the drawing with everything he could remember from his own efforts prior to determining the mine needed to be shut down. Months of calculations, weeks of trial and error and a mountain of wasted paper were reduced to a series of lines, shapes and symbols on this one, single drawing.

Hoss would find it familiar. It might take him a while, but he would come to recognize Adam’s previous work, the last drawing he’d made before discovering a critical flaw that made it clear the mine was not workable. Yes, Hoss would recognize it, given time. But no one else would…except maybe Joe.

Where was Joe? Was he with Hoss at the mine? Somehow, Adam doubted it. Hoss’ letter had said “from what I hear.” That could mean he was getting information about Joe, but not from Joe, directly. If they’d separated Adam from his brothers, it made sense his brothers had been separated, too.

Dammit! If Adam could just figure out who ‘they’ were, then maybe he might get a better idea what problems he’d be facing when he managed to get out of this room.

It didn’t matter, he decided. Whatever crew Adam’s anonymous host and jailer had hired would be kept busy for a couple of days at least, putting up timbers. After that, it would just be a matter of time before the first series of cave-ins proved out what the Cartwrights had already known. Adam had no intention of allowing it to go long enough for that to happen. He would be out of this room before then, one way or another. He would be out of this room and….

And what? Running down the street in nothing but a nightshirt, trying to raise an army to battle a force he knew nothing about?

The rattle of his door came like a welcome reprieve, pulling him from the frustrating paths his thoughts were taking. He even smiled when the girl entered with his supper tray.

“You can tell them it’s done,” Adam told her.

She did nothing more than glance his way as she set the tray on the desk, but there was something in her stance that caught his attention. She seemed tense, nervous…more nervous than she’d been previously.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

She threw him a worried glance and held a finger to her lips, shaking her head.

Adam rose. As he closed the distance between them, she fumbled clumsily with the dishes before pulling the cloth napkin from its holder to expose something other than eating utensils that had been cleverly hidden within its unusually wide folds: a claw hammer, the perfect tool for removing nails.

Pleasantly surprised, Adam gently set his hand down upon her own, as much to still its shaking as to get her full attention. When she finally looked at him directly, he whispered, “thank you.”

Her responding smile was small and quick before she turned away again, seeming eager to leave the room.

Adam grabbed her wrist to hold her back. Her gaze this time was filled with fear. “I won’t leave you here,” he said quietly.

She looked first to the door, and then back to him, a heavy sigh pulling her shoulders low as tension melted in surrender…but not to him. She slowly shook her head and slipped out of his loose grip. An instant later, she was scurrying back out the door.

Bewildered, Adam didn’t look away until he heard the lock clicking back into place. Then he grabbed up the hammer and set to work on the window.

*****

Ben Cartwright glared at the man sitting directly across from him at the far end of the lavishly set dining room table. Elijah Garrett had succeeded in kidnapping not only Ben’s three sons, but Ben himself. Oh, he wasn’t being threatened at gunpoint. His hands weren’t tied in the literal sense. No, the threats against Ben were far more disturbing than if they’d been levied against his own, physical well-being.

“Please, Ben, eat,” Garrett said with a mockingly honeyed tone. “As my guest of honor, it behooves you to taste your food before I taste my own. I assure you, it is quite safe, and quite good, as well. My cook could certainly teach yours a thing or two.”

“I am no more your guest of honor than…”

“Now, Ben. This is not a place for distasteful discussion,” Garrett scolded softly, talking to Ben as though he were a young boy who had yet to learn good manners. “This is a dining room, and you have been served a splendid meal by a host who intends to provide you with nothing but the best. The least you could do is to graciously accept my rather generous hospitality.”

“Generous? You threaten to kill my sons, yet you call yourself generous?”

“Threatening, Ben, is generous. Carrying out the threat, well, that would only prove my generosity has been extended as far as it could possibly go. There are limits, after all. You seem intent on testing those limits, but I must caution you against doing so.”

“And I must caution you that any harm you bring to my sons will come back to you a hundredfold,” Ben said coldly.

“Your threats have no power against me. I hold all the power, here.”

“That wasn’t a threat. It was a promise.”

Garrett laughed softly. “You think yourself a lion, but a caged lion might as well be a lamb. And you are caged, Ben. Don’t for a moment think you’re not. You are caged, and this is my circus. Now, you want to do something for your sons? Eat and stop all this miserable roaring. It’s not good for digestion.”

Ben continued staring at the man, but Garrett stopped paying him any notice. Apparently choosing to ignore his own demand that Ben be the first to eat, Elijah Garrett gave his attention over entirely to the food on his own plate.

*****

Hop Sing had barely raised his hand to knock when the door came open and a young Chinese woman greeted him with a small but respectful bow. Without raising her eyes to his, she reached immediately for the hat and package of laundered clothing Hop Sing carried.

He was not prepared to relinquish them so easily. “You have seen the man who wears these?” he asked in Mandarin, holding the package away from her.

A small gasp pulled her head up, long, black hair sliding away from her face to reveal bruises that could only have been made by a well-or poorly-aimed fist. When her gaze met Hop Sing’s, she shook her head slowly, her eyes telling him she was not answering his question, but rather warning him against asking it.

You have seen him,” he told her.

She said nothing. She did not need to. Her eyes said more than enough.

He is here,” Hop Sing deduced.

Her brows drew down as though in desperation, her fear noticeably growing more intense. Still she said nothing.

How many others are here?” he asked.

She began to breathe harder, faster. She made a quick, nervous glance behind her before returning her attention to him. “Four,” she whispered.

Armed?”

She shook her head anxiously, seeming surprised. “Two have guns. The master of the house wears none. The other man is not allowed.”

This other man is Mr. Ben Cartwright?”

Her eyes widened. She nodded quickly.

Where is his son, the one who wears these?”

She hesitated, her gaze shifting from fear to worry. “In the upper bedroom, third floor,” she said finally. And then, “You….” She stopped herself from saying more.

What?” Hop Sing prompted.

You are Hop Sing?”

Surprised, Hop Sing nodded. “You know of Hop Sing?”

Her smile was quick, but real. “Ben Cartwright spoke of you when I brought supper.

“Cook!” a man’s voice called from deeper in the house.

I must go!” she reached for the package once more.

He will hurt you again.”

Only if I do not respond right away. Please. I must go.

Hop Sing hesitated for an instant longer. “Do not lock this door.”

She nodded, took the package, and hurried back inside.

Hop Sing shook his head slowly. The only thing allowing him to turn and walk away was the knowledge he would be back within just a few moments. First, he must share this new information with Sheriff Coffee, and then, yes, he would be back. There were two men with guns inside, no more. Surely Sheriff Coffee and his eager cook-turned-deputy would be enough to combat them.

He never anticipated there might be a third gunman watching the house from the outside until the weapon was cocked and its barrel leveled against his temple.

*****

Roy Coffee knew it had been a mistake from the get-go. Hop Sing was a good man, but he was a cook, not a law officer, and he’d just made a critical mistake that had changed everything. Pretty soon Garrett would know Ben had not remained quiet, as he’d been told. What might that mean to any or even all three of Ben’s sons?

Watching Hop Sing being pushed into the house, Roy knew he’d lost any option he’d had to play it safe. It was time to go after the man dead on. It was time for Sheriff Coffee to confront Elijah Garrett about the disappearance of Ben Cartwright’s boys, and the threats made to Ben Cartwright himself.

He stepped out of the shadows of the alley and started toward Garrett’s house on the quietest street in town, a street made even quieter now that most folks were enjoying the Fourth of July picnic. With the setting sun at his back, his own shadow preceded him and seemed to grow longer with each step he took. It made him look much bigger than he felt. He sure wished Clem were there with him. This was a bad one; he could feel it in his gut. A misstep now could make for a very bad end.

“Sheriff! Sheriff!” a young boy called out behind him.

Dangnammit! Be quiet, boy! He hollered back in his own thoughts. But it was already too late. Anyone inside that house would have heard that boy’s first shout.

“Sheriff!”

Roy turned and dropped to one knee as the boy rushed right up against him, winded and panting. “What is it, boy? What’s got you so riled up?”

“It’s Jack Mueller! He…he says we got to stop the fireworks! Says it’s nothin’ but fire and brimstone an’ we’ll all be damned to Hell!”

“Oh, for the love of….” Roy took a deep breath, shaking his head. “You ought to know, boy, that man ain’t nothing but a bunch of talk. Folks know better’n to listen to him. Why don’t you just run along now, an’ get yourself a real good spot to watch?”

“You mean he ain’t got God’s ear? He ain’t gonna smite us all?”

“I mean exactly that. You don’t have to worry about nothin’ like that. Go on, now, afore you miss all the fun!”

The boy started to walk back the way he’d come; but after a few steps he turned back to the sheriff. “You sure God ain’t gonna smite us?”

“I’m sure, boy. Run along, now!”

The boy took a few more steps, and then turned to look back at the sheriff again. When Roy smiled and waved back at him, the boy nodded, turned again and started running back the way he’d come.

Finally, Roy could get back to the business at hand. He rose to once again face his own long shadow and give his attention back to the Garrett house. Trouble was, there was a gunman on the front porch now, and he was looking straight at Sheriff Roy Coffee. Since confronting Elijah Garrett directly without having the benefit of surprise seemed about the worse thing he could do, Roy walked right on past that house, tipping his hat to the gunman as he did so. He felt the man’s eyes on his back until he turned the corner. Yep. Now was definitely not the time for a confrontation. He was going to have to figure out a whole different approach. He could only hope nothing happened to Hop Sing or Ben in the meantime.

*****

Joe rode into town more like an outlaw than a privileged son. He clung to shadows and followed quiet streets, avoiding the crowds celebrating the holiday. With dusk setting in, it was easier to remain anonymous. Anyone who happened to spot him would see a bedraggled traveler in a shirt that was two sizes too big, wearing his hat down low over his eyes and riding a brown gelding that would never call attention to him like his own beloved paint, Cochise. Dressed like he was and riding that horse, no one would recognize him as Little Joe Cartwright. Besides, folks’ eyes would be drawn more to the horse Joe was leading — not for the animal itself, but for what it was carrying.

If he’d ridden straight down the middle of town, right through the crowds, then folks would stare and wonder and gossip until they knew for sure who that stranger was, and whose body he had slumped across the saddle on the horse beside him. But on the streets Joe chose to travel now, folks knew better. Looking too close or too long could cause them to end up just like that body. There’d be no doubt in their minds Joe was either a bounty hunter or an outlaw, and since one could be just as bad as another, the safest thing was to look away, and run away, and pretend they’d never seen a thing.

Of course, there were others who might feel threatened enough of the mysterious rider to take too much notice of him. Folks like that were likely to be outlaws themselves; some might even be working for Elijah Garrett, the very man Joe was trying to avoid. That man couldn’t know Joe was free, not yet…not until Joe knew his brothers were safe, too. So as Joe rode, he watched the shadows around him with keen interest, cursing his useless left hand all the while, and wishing he could cradle a rifle in his right hand while still guiding both horses’ reins. As it was, he could only watch, and hope he might act quickly enough if the need arose.

Fortunately, the body beside him remained motionless until he rode into the alley across from the sheriff’s office. Only then did Randy’s head rise up as a muffled cry spilled from the gaps around the gag in his mouth.

“Keep quiet.” Joe emphasized the warning by giving the man’s head a light kick. “You call attention to us now, the first bullet will go right through the back of your skull.”

As they moved deeper into the alley, Joe began to get the feeling he was being watched. His fingers eased off the firm grip he’d held on the reins. Nearing the main street, he nudged his horse to a stop and slid from the saddle, ignoring the strain on his ribs. He pulled the rifle from its scabbard before his feet touched the ground. Even so, he was too slow. Someone else in that alley already had a weapon in hand. Joe froze at the sound of a hammer being cocked.

“Alright you,” a familiar voice called out. “Throw down that rifle and back away from the horses.”

“Sheriff Coffee?” Joe called back, more relieved than he could have imagined possible.

“Little Joe? That you?”

Joe turned slowly, using the rifle to nudge Clem’s hat up away from his eyes. The silhouette in front of him could only be Sheriff Roy Coffee.

“Little Joe!” the sheriff exclaimed as he clicked the hammer back into position and holstered his weapon. “Ain’t you a sight! Your Pa an’ Hop Sing…well, the lot of us have been mighty worried about you.”

“Have you spoken with Pa? Clem said Garrett’s been holdin’ him on a tight rein.”

“Clem’s right. Fact is, Garrett’s got Hop Sing now, too. Where is Clem? Ain’t that his horse you’re ridin’? An’ who’s that you got there on the other one?”

“It’s a long story, but Clem’s on his way out to that Hellcreek mine, and that’s one of the outlaws who bushwhacked my brothers and me.”

“I’m glad to hear we got at least one of ’em, an’ I’d sure like to hear all about it. But I’m afraid we don’t have time for any long stories. I gotta get back to Garrett’s house. You all right? They hurt you any? I could sure use another gun if you’re up to it.”

“I’m fine.” Joe eased his shoulders back as far as he could, trying to stand up straighter, but the pull on his sore ribs forced him to stay somewhat hunched down. He hoped the sheriff wouldn’t notice. “What’s going on?”

“They caught Hop Sing nosin’ around a little bit ago. I’m afraid they might not be as reluctant about causing him harm as they been with you. Seems they might have Adam in there, too.”

“What about Hoss?”

“Can’t say. All I know is Hop Sing found a boy comin’ out of Chow Fung’s with Adam’s clothes. Was deliverin’ em’ over to Garrett’s.”

“What are we waiting for?” Joe hefted the rifle in his right hand and started to move past the sheriff.

But Roy took hold of his left arm. “Where’s your gun?”

The sheriff’s hold was too firm for Joe to pull out of without a struggle, especially with the pain in his hand radiating all the way up into his shoulder. Frustrated, he looked away, refusing to meet Roy’s gaze. “They took it.”

“Son? You’re not tellin’ me somethin’. I want to know what it is if I’m gonna be countin’ on you over there.”

Joe looked up into the darkening sky before facing the sheriff directly. “It’s nothing. Let’s just go find Adam.”

The sheriff eyes moved to Joe’s forehead. He squinted, as though to get a better look, and then gave his own head a quick shake. “That gash don’t look too good; but somethin’ tells me that ain’t all of it. What’d they do to you, son?”

“I’m fine. Let’s go.”

“You’re carrying that rifle in the wrong hand, ain’t you, Joe?”

Joe stared at him, saying nothing.

“Show me your other hand, son.”

Sighing heavily, Joe raised his injured hand. Though Clem had done what he could with what he had in a short amount of time, his efforts hadn’t involved stitches, and the wound hadn’t stopped bleeding. Without a sling to keep it elevated, Joe’s hand was also swollen to about twice its normal size.

“Land sakes. I sure don’t like the looks of that.”

“I can still shoot.”

This time the sheriff stared at Joe, saying nothing for a long while. “Rifle like that,” he said finally, “takes two hands, Little Joe.”

All the rage Joe had felt before came rushing back, flooding his veins with fire. “I can handle it.”

“A handgun would be easier, don’t you think?” And suddenly, surprisingly, Sheriff Coffee took the rifle from Joe and replaced it with his own gun. “I need help, son. Otherwise, you know I wouldn’t let you anywhere near that house. As it is, I’ll expect you to do as I say, an’ nothin’ else. Remember, your pa’s in there, too. He’ll have my hide once he knows I let you do this before sayin’ so much as a how-dee-doo to Doc Martin.”

And equally surprising to Joe, he suddenly found himself smiling. “Thanks.”

“Now I suppose we’d better go lock that one up so we can get to the business that matters.”

“What’s the hurry? He’ll be fine just like he is ’til we get back.”

The sheriff stared at him again. “I’ll be mighty curious to hear that long story of yours,” he said after a while.

“Yeah, well all I’m curious about is making sure my family’s okay.”

A moment later, after Roy went into his office to collect more firepower, Little Joe Cartwright and Sheriff Roy Coffee were heading back up the alley toward the house of Elijah Garrett.

Behind them, Randy hollered for someone to get him down off that horse, but with that gag in his mouth not a soul was bound to hear him…especially when a burst of firecrackers went off in advance of the coming fireworks.

*****

“It did not have to go this way, Ben.” Elijah Garrett paced, stepping from one end of his fine, Persian rug to the other, always stopping just short of the fringe, as though he refused to allow his shoes to touch the bare wood beyond. “I have told you, time and again, there will be no ties to me, none at all. Yet you divulged our business to your cook. Your cook, of all people!” He threw his hands into the air in emphasis before turning on his heel to step toward the other fringed end.

Ben looked over to where Hop Sing and the young woman stood to either side of one of Garrett’s hired guns, each locked into one of the man’s tight fists. “Let them go,” Ben demanded. “They have no part in this.”

Garrett stopped midway across the rug and turned abruptly back to Ben. “No part?” he said skeptically. “No Part, Ben?” he repeated. “Your cook was found conspiring with mine, in my own home! What an insolent…disrespectful….” He shook his head and finished his trek to the other side of the rug, where he fastened his eyes on his new prisoners. “What on earth do you do with him on the Ponderosa? Allow him the run of the house? By God, Ben! Don’t you know the only way to deal with these people is with a firm hand.”

In three strides Garrett stood in front of the young woman, and then, before Ben could say a word, he struck her across the face with his open hand.

“Stop it!” Ben shouted, though it was already too late. “Stop that at once! How dare you call on God’s name and then turn around to strike a helpless young woman?”

“How dare I? I’ll tell you how I dare, Ben Cartwright! This is my home, and she is my employee, and if I don’t treat her with an iron hand, she will rob me blind!”

Ben noticed the woman looking his way, and he met her gaze. He saw fear in her eyes, but something else as well, like a growing ember, a simple spark of anger. “No,” he said. “Treating her as you do will only encourage her to rob you blind, out of sheer hatred.”

“You’re a fool.” Garrett swung around to face Ben again. “An utter fool. If you had listened to me, you would have been back with your sons in a matter of days. But now….” He shook his head and turned to his men. “Put them in the storeroom, and then pack up all the valuables. Be ready to leave the moment our townsmen set off the first of the fireworks.”

“Running away will not protect you,” Ben cautioned. “You will not get away with what you’ve done. I will see to it.”

“What? Running away? Nonsense! It was a tragic thing, really. A stray bit of cinder from those fireworks must have landed on the roof. As dry as it’s been lately, that’s all it took. Before we knew it, the house was lost. It’s unfortunate my cook was trapped in the storeroom with her unidentified lover.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Despicable really,” Garrett went on, as though Ben hadn’t said a word. “But those people have no morals, after all. I can only count my blessings that I left before the fire started, en route to my new mine to see to the opening of operations at first light tomorrow morning.”

“I thought you wanted to be sure to separate yourself from your crimes. What you’ve just described is nothing short of murder.”

“A fire, Ben. An accident. Nothing more.”

“It would be murder,” Ben repeated. “You, Eli…you alone would be directly responsible for killing two innocent people.”

“Two, Ben? No. Not two. They will discover three bodies among the debris.”

“So, that’s it, is it? You intend to lock me in the storeroom as well?”

“Of course not, Ben! I still need you! No. The third is upstairs.”

Confused and curious, Ben followed Garrett’s gaze to where a giant of a man was descending the staircase, carrying a long, rolled up sheet of paper, a drawing of some kind.

“The third is one of your sons, Ben. The oldest. Adam.”

Instantly, Ben moved toward the stairs, but the man’s bulk was like an impenetrable wall.

“Such a tragic loss, that one. We found him on the road, beaten senseless. Hurt and confused, he could barely remember his name, and was given to wandering. We had to lock him in his room for his own safety. If only my cook had been more responsible, perhaps she could have saved him as well as herself. But, alas….” He said nothing more as he took the paper from his man.

And then the man took hold of Ben’s arm, his grip as unyielding as his bulk.

*****

Adam started moving the instant he heard the lock re-engaging on the other side of the door. Now that his plans for the mine had been handed over, odds were no one would discover his absence until morning. The girl would come to collect his supper dishes, but she would hold silent. He was sure of it.

He pushed the window open slowly, conscious of the way it groaned and screeched as wood scraped against wood, swollen from the heat of summer. He stopped briefly when the window was halfway open, thinking he might have heard a noise in the hallway. Pausing to listen, his heart beating heavily against his breast, he tried to assure himself it was nothing — just as he’d tried earlier to assure himself the sound of his father’s distant, muffled shouts meant this nightmare would be brought to a much more dignified end than the one he envisioned, with him running through town in nothing but a nightshirt. But he could no more rely on rescue than he could expect an easy exit. He decided it didn’t matter whether or not someone was about to open his bedroom door. This could be his only opportunity to get out before something worse happened to his family.

With the window fully open now, he stuck his head out and looked down, hoping to gauge potential hand and footholds. Unfortunately, night was falling. Looking down into the space between this house and the one next door was like looking into an inkwell, the blackness broken only by the glow coming from a couple of windows beneath him. It was exactly those glowing windows he would need to avoid.

Frustrated but far from defeated, he looked to the roof opposite him. That building was not as tall as this one. If he could jump to that roof, the angle of it would bring him closer to the ground. With any luck it might even give him a better vantage point to find a safer way down. But could he make that jump?

*****

Sheriff Coffee warned Joe that both the front and back doors were probably being watched. They would need a more discrete entrance. Joe figured the Henderson house next door provided just such an opportunity.

“We can’t go in there, Joe!” the sheriff whispered urgently as Joe slid the sheriff’s borrowed gun into his belt and stuck his head inside an open window. “Not when these folks ain’t even home!”

“I’m just passing through.” Joe stepped inside, mindful of but unable to avoid aggravating the growing ache in his bruised ribs. “There’s got to be a window on the other side….” He stopped to catch his breath, hoping the sheriff didn’t recognize what he was doing. “Should get us right up next to Garrett’s house.”

“It don’t matter, Joe! You’re breaking the law doin’ that! Now get back out here. We’ll just have to risk going around.”

“It’s too big of a risk. This is the only way.”

“No it ain’t. We’ll find another.”

“We don’t have time.” Not bothering to argue about it anymore, Joe disappeared inside.

“Joe!” the sheriff’s whisper was starting to sound like a shout. “Joe! The judge’ll have both our hides! Little Joe!”

“Then come in here and arrest me!” Joe was already moving to the other side of the house. Once there, he found something that was better than a window: a side door off the kitchen that faced right toward the Garrett house. Smiling at his good fortune, he reached for the latch.

A thud on the roof stopped him. He looked to the ceiling, curious, when he felt the sheriff step up behind him.

“What in tarnation was that?” the sheriff said.

But the thud suddenly seemed less important than the fact that the sheriff had decided to join him. “Are you breakin’ the law too now?” Joe hoped Sheriff Coffee couldn’t see his smile, dark as it was in there. “Or did you come in to arrest me?”

Sheriff Coffee shook his head. “Don’t push me, Little Joe!” Joe could only imagine the stern look being sent his way.

Despite everything-despite the danger to his brothers — and now maybe Hop Sing, too — and even despite the pain from what he’d endured himself, a pain that was getting worse rather than dissipating, Joe grinned. At least, finally, he was doing something rather than waiting to see what was going to be done to him. But the grin vanished when a sound like footsteps on the roof was followed by another thud, this time on the ground outside the door, as though something had fallen or been thrown from above.

Joe looked to the sheriff, who gave him a quick nod and reached for his gun. Joe was slower in drawing the gun from his belt, finding it awkward to use his right hand. Still, he was quick enough to step through the door before Sheriff Coffee could even give thought to telling him not to.

Instantly, Joe’s gaze landed on a figure wearing a white nightshirt, sitting on the filthy ground between the houses. It took a moment longer before the figure raised its head, and a familiar face was caught in the soft glow spilling from a nearby window.

“Adam?” Joe whispered around the giggle that threatened to come bubbling up from the kettle of emotions suddenly brewing deep inside him.

Adam appeared to be equally stricken. Wide eyes quickly gave way to one of the biggest smiles the youngest Cartwright had ever seen in his too often serious oldest brother. “Joe?”

“Well, I’ll be!” Sheriff Coffee said softly from the doorway. “Looks like we got us some more long stories to hear, Little Joe. But for now, you boys best get inside before someone sees you.”

“I thought you said that’s breakin’ the law,” Joe whispered back.

“Just get in here and keep quiet!”

Adam affectionately clasped Joe on the left shoulder, but the action had an effect neither brother could have anticipated. Adam’s hand landed directly on a bruise from Joe’s fall earlier in the day, and the vibration sent a searing pain into Joe’s hand that was so intense it stole his breath and dropped him to his knees.

“Joe?” When Adam tried to lift him up, Joe couldn’t even find his voice to tell his brother he was making things worse, now jostling Joe’s sore ribs as well.

Joe could do nothing to either help or even struggle against Adam and Sheriff Coffee as they dragged him back into the house. His focus was entirely given over to fighting his way past the pain. Yet somewhere on the other side of the fog enveloping him, he heard sounds that told him they were wasting precious time. From one direction, he heard horses. From another, he heard a cacophony of muffled shouts that began to take the shape of Hop Sing’s angry gibberish. And then, above him, came an explosion that could only be fireworks. He hoped those fireworks would stay way up in the sky; but somehow he was sure they’d be facing some of their own soon enough, right there on the ground.

*****

Elijah Garrett thought of everything. Absolutely everything. He planned for every contingency, including the fire he now intended to set. His men worked with the kind of efficiency that can only be derived from advance planning, and perhaps even practice. The valuables Garrett had told them to pack had been catalogued and mapped to ensure no time was wasted on items not worth the time and effort of packing and transport.

Yes, Garrett had planned for every contingency, with only one potential exception. He had never once considered Ben Cartwright might refuse to follow his commands, or worse, turn that refusal into outright rebellion.

“You still have two other sons, Ben,” he said when Ben argued against leaving the house without Adam. “Would you honestly condemn them both to die simply to save your eldest?”

“No one must die,” Ben countered. “End this. End it now, before it’s too late…before the law has no choice but to condemn you to die.”

“Do you listen to nothing I tell you? Nothing at all? None of what happens will ever lead back to me.”

But the one who wasn’t listening was Elijah Garrett, himself.

Ben’s opportunity came when all three of Garrett’s men were sent outside to prepare a carriage and buckboard. Free now of the scrutiny and brawn of Garrett’s hired brutes, Ben ran up the stairs with the recklessness of Little Joe, giving no thought to the possibility of a misstep.

“Ben!” Garrett shouted. “What are you doing? I demand you come back down here at once!”

Ben paused on the first landing, realizing he had no idea on what floor Adam had been sequestered.

“I’m warning you, Ben Cartwright! All three of your sons will be forfeit!”

Ben glanced down at the man running toward him, and then hurried up the next set of stairs, following instinct more than rational thought. Reaching the third floor, he scanned three doors until his gaze landed on the outer bolt that had been affixed to the fourth.

“They’re dead, Ben!” Garrett’s shouts were just down the hall from him now. “All of them! All three of them! Do you hear me?”

Ben threw the bolt and shouldered the door open.

“Ben Cartwright! I….” Garrett pushed past him to discover what Ben had already found. The room was empty. “What? No! This cannot be!”

After both men’s eyes moved to the open window, Garrett started toward it, but Ben did not. Instead, he grabbed hold of Garrett’s arm, swung him around and punched him right in the nose.

The man fell to the floor, gasping and grasping at the injury. “How dare you!”

“How dare I?” Ben shouted back. “How dare I? Why you miserable wretch! How dare you!” He dropped to his knees and grabbed Garrett by the shirt collar. “That was for Adam! This….” He punched him again. “Is for Little Joe. And this….” Another punch. “Is for Hoss. And let’s not forget Hop Sing, and that young girl you see fit to rule with that iron hand of yours!” And suddenly Ben lost count of the number of punches he was throwing. It was then that he realized Garrett hadn’t thrown a single punch of his own. He wasn’t fighting back. He wasn’t arguing…. He wasn’t even conscious.

Ashamed at himself, Ben lowered the man back to the ground, appalled at the bloody mess he’d made of Garrett’s face. “How dare I,” he whispered to himself.

An explosion outside moved his gaze to the window, where he glimpsed the first of the night’s fireworks. The scent of fire that followed it was wrong, somehow. The fire! Ben remembered then. Were Garrett’s men already at work setting the blaze he’d ordered? Ben pushed himself to his feet, glancing briefly at the window and praying for his oldest boy’s safety. Then he hurried back down the way he had come. He had to reach the storeroom before it was too late. He had to free Hop Sing and the girl.

*****

The last thing Adam wanted to do now that he knew his little brother was safe was to leave him without fully knowing what harm had come to him. But Hop Sing’s shouts and the smell of fire were immediate concerns he could not ignore.

“I’ll be right back, Joe.” He tried to sound reassuring, even as he realized it was a promise he might not be able to keep. He had no idea yet exactly what he would be facing the moment he stepped out that door. “Joe?” he repeated when Joe didn’t respond, his hand lingering on his brother’s leg.

“Yeah.” The word came out soft, breathy, and Joe’s eyes did not open for it. “Heard you.”

The latest round of fireworks seemed to be punctuated with gunfire, and Hop Sing’s shouts grew more insistent. Still, Adam couldn’t bring himself to leave.

“Go,” Joe said. This time, he did open his eyes. He even tried to smile.

“It sure is good to see you, Joe.” Adam squeezed Joe’s leg, reasonably certain that was one spot on his brother’s body that didn’t seem to hurt him.

“Yeah.” Joe closed his eyes again. “I’d say…the same….” His smile widened as he drew in a few, quick, panting breaths before opening his eyes again. “If you had some clothes on.”

“Trust me, Joe. I wish I did.”

Adam watched his brother for a moment longer, waiting for Joe’s breathing to ease, even a small amount. But it didn’t seem like that was going to happen. And the smell of fire outside was growing more pronounced. And Hop Sing’s shouts were starting to become lost amidst a growing cacophony of other voices. And the gunfire was not abating.

“I’ll be back,” Adam said with a final squeeze of Joe’s leg, before pushing himself back to his bare and now bruised feet — thanks to the jump he’d had to make from Garrett’s upper window to the Henderson’s roof, and then from the roof to the ground — and stumbling out the kitchen door.

*****

Flames were flickering on the roof of the Garrett house and gunshots were continuing to sound from the direction of the street, where Sheriff Coffee had gone. But Adam’s attention was drawn to the back of the house and a small crowd of perhaps ten Chinese men. He moved toward them, hopeful and anxious to enlist their aid, but, apparently, they had already been recruited. As he drew closer, his gaze landed on Hop Sing leading the young Chinese woman out the back door and motioning widely to the men surrounding him, as though telling his tiny army what to do.

Adam smiled at the girl, hoping to catch her eye and bid her a silent ‘thank you’ for enabling his escape. But she did not look toward him.

“Adam?”

His father’s voice turned his attention to a window off the kitchen. Pa’s eyes widened and his face paled, as though he thought he might be seeing a ghost.

“Pa!” Adam grinned back at him, and then stood where he was until his father could push through the crowd and reach him.

An instant later, Pa took hold of both of his arms in a grip almost firm enough to bruise, although Adam noticed one hand seemed to spasm and then loosen.

“Are you alright, son?” Pa asked, clearly concerned as his gaze moved to the bandage around Adam’s head.

“I’m fine. What about you?” He looked at his father’s right hand as another round of fireworks shot up above them, illuminating Pa’s red, bloodied knuckles.

“Oh,” Pa pulled away, seeming abashed. “I, ah, I’m afraid I got a little carried away.”

“I don’t think you’re the one who got carried away. Was Elijah Garrett really behind all of this?”

Pa nodded. “All of it. Every bit. Now if we can only get him to tell us where your brothers…”

A crash from above them was followed by a shower of sparks and a series of startled cries from amongst Hop Sing’s men. All eyes moved upwards to see that the roof had caved in. The fire was growing wilder by the minute.

“Dear God!” Pa’s face paled worse than it had a moment earlier. He looked…ashen…stricken.

“We’d better move away from here.” Adam tugged on his father’s arm, but Pa seemed rooted in place, his eyes locked on the uppermost floor of the house, a floor that was now fully engulfed in flames. “Pa?”

“Dear God!” Pa said again, his voice fading to a desperate rasp. He looked about ready to sink to his knees.

“Pa?” Adam called out, feeling desperate himself as more sparks shot down toward them. “Pa! We need to get out of here!”

When his father looked at him then, Adam’s own grip loosened, and he, too, felt about ready to collapse at what he saw in his father’s eyes. In those dark, gentle eyes, eyes that had always given him comfort, Adam saw nothing of the man whose wisdom and strength of character had been a lifelong model for his own. Instead, he saw a man haunted. He saw sheer and utter horror.

“I…I killed him!” Pa said it like it was a confession to St. Peter himself. “I killed him! I…knocked him senseless, and then just…just left him up there. I killed him, Adam!”

“Pa!” Adam gritted his teeth, feeling as though he was about to become haunted himself if he couldn’t move his father out of danger. “We can’t stay here!” As though to emphasize the urgency of Adam’s pleas, a chunk of burning wood dropped to the ground beside them.

Hop Sing’s small army spurred into action, rushing past the two men and toward the front of the house.

“Mr. Ben!” Hop Sing shouted. “Mr. Adam! You come! You come!” He grabbed hold of Ben’s arm, even as he gave Adam a quick nod and a smile Adam had difficultly matching, concerned as he was for his father.

Finally roused, Pa tried to take charge then, probably coming to realize the danger Adam faced without regard to his own well being. It didn’t matter, Adam decided, as long as he moved. Yet as they started past the neighbor’s house, Adam realized Pa wasn’t the only person he needed to worry about at that moment. Some of the burning debris must have landed on that roof as well, igniting an entirely new and equally deadly blaze.

“Joe!” he shouted an instant before the roof collapsed into the room beneath it.

*****

The pain was slow to subside, but, with enough concentration, Joe was able to move himself past it, relegating it to an ache that enveloped him but did not consume him. He just could not give into it, not yet. There was too much going on outside, too many threats-to Adam, to Sheriff Coffee, even to Hop Sing and Pa-for him to ignore. Joe could not sit idle with all that shouting and all that gunfire going on just the other side of the Henderson’s kitchen door.

Carefully, gingerly, he pushed himself to his feet, taking his time to prevent the blackening of the world around him from growing beyond his peripheral vision. Then he staggered slowly toward the door. He leaned against the frame for a moment, catching what little he could of his spent breath. Finally, he pulled the latch and reached for the gun in his belt. Only then did he realize the gun was gone. Had he dropped it? Had Adam taken it?

Those moments with his brother seemed more of a dream than a reality. Whatever had happened to the gun was lost in a fog Joe could barely comprehend. All he knew was he didn’t have it now. Sighing, he decided it didn’t matter. Armed or not, he could not sit on the Henderson’s kitchen floor and wait for his family and Sheriff Coffee to bring an end to Elijah Garrett’s threats.

He slipped through the door just as a section of Garrett’s roof crashed down around him, clipping part of the Henderson’s roof and blocking Joe’s view of the back, where he’d heard Hop Sing shouting. Listening now, he heard additional voices back there, voices that seemed more calculating than desperate, though he couldn’t make out any words. It was enough to let him feel assured Hop Sing was not alone and in need of rescue…at least not for the time being.

Joe decided it would be easier for him to move toward the front of the house than the back, feeling along the Henderson’s wall and keeping most of the fire behind him. After just a few steps, his foot kicked at something on the ground, something that clattered like weighted metal. Or like a gun, he realized. Yes. A gun. It had to be the gun he’d dropped after meeting up with Adam.

He couldn’t help but smile, believing he’d been given a gentle nudge from above to proceed in that direction.

Dropping low to retrieve the gun was not easy, but, using the wall for support and holding his breath, he managed the task without reawakening the pain. Then, taking just a few steps more, he caught sight of Sheriff Coffee hunkered down in the street, in front of a buckboard. The sheriff was firing toward the front of the house as well as into the street. Joe watched the angle of Sheriff Coffee’s shots and listened to the sound of return fire until he was able to determine the general direction of the other shooters. Finally, he brought up his gun and pulled back the hammer.

But before he got off a shot of his own, a movement in the street behind the sheriff caught Joe’s eye. He saw a third outlaw grab hold of one of the horses that had not yet been hooked up to the buckboard. With a finesse that rivaled one of Joe’s expert swing mounts, the outlaw came astride that horse in one, quick jump and then brought his gun up, aiming for the sheriff’s back.

Joe shot first. He missed the outlaw, but caught the attention of the sheriff, who started firing without any hesitation at all, forcing the outlaw to spur the horse into a gallop.

Then it was Joe who didn’t hesitate. He tucked the gun back into his belt and moved quick as he could to the remaining horse.

“Joe!” Sheriff Coffee hollered at him. “Get down, boy!”

But Joe’s mind was set on one thing and one thing only. He barely realized what the sheriff was saying; instead, he studied that horse, trying to figure a way to mount it with practically his whole body protesting his every move. A moment later he climbed up onto the hitching post. Though balancing was a challenge, it wasn’t too hard to swing his leg up and over the horse’s back from there.

“Little Joe!” the sheriff shouted. “What in tarnation….”

Joe couldn’t hear anything more. The sheriff’s voice was drowned out by the pounding of the horse’s hooves and the new round of gunfire already falling into the distance behind him.

*****

Ben held onto Adam as though he were clinging to the face of a cliff. He held on with all the strength he could muster, strength enough, he hoped, to save both their lives.

“Joe!” Adam cried out yet again. “I left him there! I thought…I thought he’d be safe! He was supposed to be safe!”

With a new surge of energy, Adam plunged forward, almost pulling out of his father’s embrace. Almost. But Ben held firm. He had to. He couldn’t bear to lose any of his sons to that fire. The very idea of Little Joe trapped in that inferno burned Ben on the inside, tearing him apart like acid on his soul. He very likely would have stepped into the flames himself, oblivious, feeling none of it, if it weren’t for Adam. No. He couldn’t bear to lose any son like that, but to lose two of them…. No. That would utterly…utterlydestroy him.

“You can’t, Adam!” Ben said in as stern a voice as he could muster. He hoped it sounded stronger to Adam’s ears than it did to his own. “It’s too late! It’s too…too late.” Behind him, another crash followed by a splash of flaring embers reminded him just how late it was. He closed his eyes as tightly as he could, wishing against all hope that he could close out all awareness of that fire. He pulled Adam tighter, too. It didn’t help. It couldn’t. Nothing could. Nothing at all.

“Mr. Ben!” Hop Sing tugged at his arm. “Mr. Adam! Not stay here! Dangerous!”

“Joe!” Adam cried out.

Ben clung fiercely to his eldest son. “Yes, Hop Sing. I know. I…know.” Still, he didn’t move. Voices called toward them from the street, voices carrying words he couldn’t make sense of — Chinese words. Some part of him realized the sound of gunfire had faded, but he couldn’t bring himself to care…until…until two words reached him with intense clarity: Little Joe.

“Mr. Ben!” Hop Sing shouted now. “Mr. Adam! Little Joe alive! Not in house! Little Joe alive!”

Adam’s fingers dug into Ben’s arms. Both men looked to Hop Sing.

“What?” Adam asked, his voice choked with smoke and grief.

“Little Joe alive!” Hop Sing’s grin looked odd in the glow of the fires around them. “Sheriff Coffee say Little Joe ride away!”

“Ride away?” As Adam started to loosen his grip, Ben loosened his own; but he didn’t let go. Not yet. “How could he ride away?” Adam went on, finally pushing himself from his father and aiming his focus on Hop Sing. “He could barely stand.”

“Sheriff Coffee ride after Little Joe.”

“Where?” Ben asked. “Where did he go?”

“Little Joe chase Garrett hired man.”

“He could barely stand!” Adam shouted. He looked to his father, his face a mix of fear and grief…and anger. “Pa! He couldn’t possibly…. How could he hope to…?” Ben saw his jaw tighten. Adam took a deep breath, pulling himself taller. “He’s a fool, Pa! A stubborn fool! He’ll get himself killed out there!”

“He may be a fool,” Ben sighed. “But…Adam…he’s alive!”

For a moment, a very brief moment, both men laughed. But it wasn’t long before laughter threatened to turn to tears.

“Let’s go get your brother!” Ben squeezed Adam’s arm, and then they both moved toward the street amidst the rising sounds of townsmen shouting “fire!”

*****

It wasn’t long before Joe realized he would have done better to trade places with Sheriff Coffee. He wasn’t fit enough to ride. He would probably never admit that to anyone but himself, but the fact was that horse was jostling parts of him he didn’t even know had been bruised. What it was doing to the rest of him was, frankly, stealing his breath. It didn’t help that the horse was bulkier than Cochise and far more accustomed to pulling wagons than carrying riders. Joe had to work harder to get it to understand where he wanted it to go. Since he could hardly work at anything as it was, he figured his only chance to catch that outlaw was with the gun he still carried.

The biggest problem with that was balance. He could shoot well enough with his right hand-well enough to get the job done anyway, even if he wasn’t as good as with his left. But with his left hand useless, he couldn’t fire the gun and hold onto the horse at the same time. Instead, he hunkered down low, hugging the horse’s neck so he could use it to both steady his shooting arm and keep him somewhat balanced. Finally, he positioned himself well enough to fire.

There was another problem with that horse: it wasn’t used to guns, especially guns going off so close to its ears. When the animal reared up, Joe didn’t stand a chance. He was on the ground before he even knew he was falling. And then he was out cold.

*****

Ben paced the length of the cot. He took two steps in either direction before swiveling to look down at Little Joe and then taking another two steps. “What’s keeping Paul?” he said finally, stopping for a brief moment and staring hard at the door, as though it should open just because he willed it so.

Adam pulled his own attention away from his young brother to look up at his father. He would be pacing too, if it weren’t for a sprained ankle and the bevy of cuts and bruises on his feet. Instead he was sprawled out on a cot of his own, though he’d insisted a chair would suffice. ‘Not until the doctor gets a good look at you,’ Pa had countered.

“It’s only been a few minutes, Pa,” Adam said. “And besides, Doc Martin’s got his hands full tonight. Those men Garrett hired can wait, but Garrett himself was in pretty bad shape. It’s hard to believe he survived at all, let alone walked out of that house on his own. Those burns were about the worst I’ve ever seen. I suppose it-”

The look Pa sent him stopped him cold. “I…I killed him!” Pa had told him earlier. It had been more than just a confession of guilt. It had been a recognition of responsibility, an acceptance of a burden a man like Ben Cartwright would bear for the rest of his life.  

“Pa, what happened to Garrett was not your fault.”

“I left him there, Adam. Knowing full well his men had been told to start a fire; I left him there to die in it.”

“You walked away from a man who was plotting murder in order to save the very people he had ordered killed.”

“Perhaps, but I could just as easily have brought him with me.”

“If anyone is responsible for what happened to him, it’s Garrett himself.”

“I beat him, Adam.” Pa raised his fist, exposing knuckles that had been rendered raw by the very beating he was describing. “I…I hit him again and again. I acted like a madman, without thought, without restraint. I acted like-”

“Little Joe?” Adam gave his father a small, half smile, but Pa did not seem to appreciate the comparison.

“Little Joe might act rash at times,” Pa answered. “But he would not leave a man to die. I’m sure of it. No man with any decency in him would-”

“Yes, Pa. Joe would have done exactly what you did. And so would I. And probably even Hoss.”

The look his father gave him then seemed stricken, as though he had failed both as a father, and as a decent man.

“It’s not that any of us would intentionally have let him die. But, Pa, he’d locked Hop Sing and that girl in a store room. They would have burned to death if you hadn’t left him right where he was and-”

“No, Adam. That’s where you’re wrong. Hop Sing’s Chinese friends were already there. They’d already been-”

“You didn’t know that at the time.”

“No. No, I didn’t. But…I beat him, and…”

“Whatever happened, Garrett drove you to it. He had you believing I was going to burn right along with Hop Sing. You didn’t act like a madman. You acted like a father protecting his son.” Adam was glad to see the slight upturn of his father’s lips suggesting he appreciated Adam’s words.

But Pa’s gaze changed then. He drew down his brows and stared at Little Joe. Maybe he was willing Joe to come awake, much like he had willed the door to open moments earlier. But there was more to it than that. It was as though he was seeing something else in his mind.

“His sons,” Pa corrected then. “Adam, you didn’t see…. I didn’t….”

“What is it?”

“Little Joe. Garrett’s men….” He shook his head. “It was so close, Adam. So…close. His men had put a rope around your brother’s neck. They would have hanged him. I’m certain of it. They would have hanged him if I hadn’t agreed right then and there to Eli’s demands. And then the explosion…. I was so sure Joe had been caught up in it. I still didn’t know, I couldn’t really know he hadn’t been. I could only rely on Eli’s word, the word of a man who had proven he could never be trusted.”

Now it was Adam’s turn to stare at Joe. “From what I hear, could be a whole lot worse.” He said the words aloud just as he’d read them, finally seeing what he had only been able to suspect before.

“What?”

Adam gave his father another small, sad smile. “Hoss. It’s what he said. What he wrote, actually. What I’m sure they made him write. They were using threats against Joe to get to all of us. To get you to front the partnership. To get me to draw up the plans. And to get Hoss…well, it’s only an assumption, but I think they expect to use his strength in working the mine.”

Pa tensed, the muscles in his back growing taut enough to pull his spine arrow straight. “If they have hurt Hoss….”

“I doubt they have,” Adam offered. “Not yet, anyway. They still need him. I suppose they were finished with me the minute I gave them the plans. But they still need Hoss. As for Joe, something tells me they weren’t finished with him yet, either.”

“Not finished with him?” Pa’s voice went louder with each word. “Look at him, Adam! Look at what they’d already done to him! He looks to have been beaten near to death! Damn that Elijah Garrett to Hell, anyway! Where is Paul?” In four long strides, Pa reached the door and yanked it open. “He should be in here, treating Joe, not comforting the devil himself for burns he can blame no one but himself for incurring!”

“Exactly.”

“What?” Pa stepped back into the small room beside Doc Martin’s surgery, his gaze shifting from the hallway to Adam, his expression gone from rage to confusion.

“Garrett has no one to blame but himself. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, well….” Pa looked to the ground, seeming abashed. “No matter what you say, I should not have left him.”

“And I shouldn’t have left Joe.”

In an instant, Pa was Pa again, ready to impart certainties as only a father could. “You did what you felt you needed to do. And he was not caught up in that fire!”

“He wasn’t caught up in it only because he was too stubborn to stay put.”

“Or…because he was driven to move by….”

“By what?”

“I’m not sure. Perhaps by…by whatever angels of mercy were looking out for all of us tonight.”

Adam nodded, considering his pa’s words. “Then perhaps it was those same angels who made sure Garrett got out of that fire, but not until he felt the impact of it himself.”

Pa’s gaze locked with his own. For a long while, he said nothing. And then, “Perhaps you’re right,” he said softly.

“God moves in a mysterious way,” Adam recited the line from a favorite hymn as his eyes moved back toward Joe. He didn’t even count it ironic when his brother chose that moment to come awake.

*****

“He’ll get away,” Joe said, breathless and panting, an instant before his eyes flew open. He tried to push himself upward, but apparently he was far less resilient now than he’d proven to be when Adam had left him in the Henderson’s kitchen. He didn’t get farther than his elbow before dropping back.

“It’s alright, Joe,” Pa’s hand fell to the top of Joe’s head. “It’s over.”

“Over?” Joe looked into Pa’s eyes, as though he was sure he could find all the answers he needed right there. “Hoss?”

Pa glanced toward Adam. It was quick. He was looking at Joe again in an instant. But that glance had to have been enough to tell Joe it wasn’t really over. Not yet.

“Sheriff Coffee is pulling a posse together,” Adam said, hoping to ease Joe’s thoughts. “Pa’s planning to join them, but I’m afraid you and I are going to be stuck right here.”

“We should reach Hellcreek by sunrise,” Pa added. “And, with any luck…”

“No!” Joe cried out, his voice weak, strained. “That’s too late!”

“What do you mean, ‘too late’?” Pa asked.

“That man…the rider…. Pa, if he gets there first, if he tells them…”

“What rider?”

“The one I was chasing. If he…”

“Son, you stopped him.”

“I…what?”

“You shot him, son. You stopped him. He didn’t go anywhere except to Roy Coffee’s jail.”

“I hit him?”

“Yes, Joe.”

Joe’s surprised smile moved Adam to smile as well. “It was still a stupid thing to do,” Adam said.

When Joe looked his way, the smile reached his eyes. “I know.”

This time it was Adam who was surprised. “You’re admitting you were stupid?”

“I wasn’t fit to ride…especially a horse like…like that. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“That’s just it, little brother. You weren’t thinking.”

“Not until it was too late. But I just…I knew I…had to stop him.”

“Why son?” Pa asked. “What were you worried he might do?”

“He would’ve told ’em, Pa. He would’ve…told those others.”

“Told them what, Joe?” Adam asked.

“About Garrett…gettin’ caught. Pa… they wouldn’t have any…any reason to keep Hoss alive then. And Clem…. He was pretendin’ to be me. They’d kill him, too.”

“Did Clem really think he could fool anyone into believing he was you?” Adam asked.

“From a distance…maybe. He…he was wearin’ my shirt.”

“How’d he even fit into it?”

“It was…torn up. Didn’t matter if….” Joe’s eyes started to slip closed again. “If he ripped it some more.”

“Guess you’ll have to find another way to impress Ellie Lindstrom.”

Pa shot Adam an angry glare. “Ellie Lindstrom isn’t worth impressing!”

“Pa?” Joe asked, his eyes open, curious.

Once again, Pa looked abashed, only this time Adam had no idea why. “I’m sorry, Joe.” Pa cleared his throat. “All I mean is, we have far more important things to concern us right now than whether or not you can catch the eye of a young lady, particularly a young lady who…well, who…”

Pa looked grateful when Doc Martin’s sudden entrance prevented him from having to finish whatever it was he’d been struggling to say. But from the way Joe met Adam’s gaze, it was pretty clear Pa was going to be faced with some questions he’d have a harder time avoiding when this was all over.

*****

With no notion of night or day, without any indication at all of the passage of time, Hoss found his thoughts going just as dark as the black space around him. It was as though that hole he’d been tossed into had planted another hole deep inside him, its roots driving a sense of hopelessness like a dagger through his heart. He saw Joe getting shot and Adam getting knocked off his horse over and over again until the images began to change, getting worse and worse all the time.

It’ll only get worse,’ that man had told him hours ago…or maybe it had been days, Hoss just didn’t know anymore. He couldn’t even measure time by the meals he was missing or eating. He never did get hungry, though he would take a bite now and then from the cloth wrapped bundle they’d thrown down with him. It was just jerky and hardtack, but it didn’t matter much to him. He ate only so he could be sure to still have some fight in him whenever he got out of that hole — if he ever got out of that hole.

He didn’t sleep either, except when exhaustion claimed him, and however long he slept –which he figured could never be more than minutes at a time judging by how tired he still was when he awoke — his eyes always came open to the same black, emptiness.

No, Hoss just didn’t know much of anything at all. He didn’t know why he was down in that hole, where his brothers were, or if they were even still alive. All he knew was the little bit they’d told him. Joe could lose his hand, or his life, depending on whether or not Hoss and Adam did whatever they were told to do. And aside from writing that note, Hoss hadn’t been told to do anything at all. Maybe there was no one left to tell him, because no one had come to him since.

Were his brothers still alive out there? And if so, where were they? What were they going through? He asked himself those questions constantly, and each time the answers came back worse than before. He saw both of his brothers in dark holes like this one: Adam with his brooding nature making it blacker by the hour; Joe with his hand bleeding and broken, the scent of it drawing critters like rats, or maybe even something bigger and hungrier.

Hoss didn’t like anything he saw in that blackness. But try as he might, he just couldn’t see anything else. The moment he’d proved to himself there really was no way out, he couldn’t see any way out for his brothers, either. And maybe the worst thought of all was seeing Pa alone in that big, empty house. How can a man go on after that, after losing all his wives, and then all his sons, all at the same time? Maybe some men could, but a man like Pa…. No, for a man like Pa nothing would much matter to him anymore. It would put Pa into a hole just like this one.

It was ironic to imagine the Cartwrights, every last one of them, swallowed by the very land they’d put all their sweat and blood into building. It was a sick and disturbing irony that led Hoss to begin to believe God had abandoned them. But why?

God moves in a mysterious way.

The words came to him not in the voice of angels, but in Adam’s. He could almost hear his older brother singing like he did in church. For some reason, Hoss decided to sing along –softly, though, not like what he was starting to see in his head, because the Hoss Cartwright he saw in his head stood up tall and straight; he wasn’t slunk up against a damp, rock wall. And that Hoss Cartwright sang like he was trying to get all the angels up in Heaven to hear him.

“God moves in a mysterious way,” Hoss started as a whisper, “His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”

He could see himself standing in church, between Adam and Joe, and singing that hymn as loud as he could, despite — or maybe because of — elbows digging into his ribs to encourage him to lower his voice. He almost smiled at the memory, but his thoughts took a different turn as the next verse came to him. “Deep in unfathomable mines, of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs, and works His sovereign will.”

He stopped singing long enough to talk to God directly, though he wasn’t quite sure how to, not anymore. “Why, God?” he asked. “Why would you will a thing like this? We ain’t bad folks. Pa, he raised us right. Maybe we done some things we shouldn’t ought to have done, but mostly, we figured that out in time, an’ we do what we can to fix it or make amends somehow.”

When answers didn’t come, he started the next verse, keeping his tone even softer than before, as though he was afraid the devil might hear him way down in the earth as he was. “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take. The clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break, in blessings on your head.”

Is that the answer? Hoss began to wonder. “I hope so, God,” he said aloud then. “I really do. We sure could use some mercy and blessings right now. But it’s not clouds I’m dreadin’. Fact is, I’d rather see a big, ol’ black storm cloud than all this black rock.”

Taking a deep breath of damp, musty air, Hoss went on with the next verse. “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.”

The strangest visions came to Hoss then. He saw two images of Little Joe. First, his saw his little brother as angry as a black storm cloud, and then Hoss saw him grinning like he always did whenever he was pulling a trick on his big, gullible brother. For some reason, Hoss always fell for Joe’s tricks. But this…this wasn’t a trick. And Joe sure wouldn’t be grinning now. And it was wrong for Hoss anyway to sing about God and then see his little brother. Little Joe ain’t God.

Oh, he was godly enough, godly as the rest of them, anyhow. Some might say he was less so, but Hoss knew Joe’s heart was about as good and God fearing as anyone’s could be. He maybe made more of those mistakes he had to make amends for than his brothers did, but his heart was good. It was just that, well, Little Joe was like an emotional powder keg, and sometimes, if that fuse got lit, he just couldn’t stop himself from going off.

He’d be going off now if he could, that’s for sure. Wherever Joe was, he sure wouldn’t be slumped against the rock thinking there might not be any hope left at all.

“No,” Hoss said out loud. “No, he sure wouldn’t. He’d be fightin’ mad. And he’d be fightin’, right up until they made sure he couldn’t.”

Hoss tried to shake away newer, more disturbing images, as he began to imagine all the things those outlaws might do to keep his little brother from fighting them.

“His purposes will ripen fast,” Hoss went on in a sad, breathy voice, still desperate to find some amount of hope. “Unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower. Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain. God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.”

Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe God had been listening, because as soon as Hoss finished that verse, he started to hear voices in the distance. Someone was coming.

After taking a swig from the canteen beside him, Hoss put his hand against the rocks and pulled himself to his feet. Whatever was going to happen next, he sure wasn’t going to face it slunk up against the wall.

*****

It was barely dawn when they brought him outside. Hoss couldn’t see the sun yet, but he could tell it was coming. The stars were mostly gone, chased away by a pale, colorless sky. It wasn’t anything he would ever have thought to call beautiful before. That word belonged to true sunrise and all the colors it brought with it. Even so, standing there at that moment, ‘beautiful’ was the only word that came to mind. However long he’d been trapped in the blackness, that pale sky amazed him more than he could ever have imagined.

“Go on!” One of the men shoved the barrel of a rifle into Hoss’ side. “Get movin’!”

Hoss took three unsteady steps forward. While his gaze was still locked on the sky, staring up into a lightness that seemed otherworldly, that third step brought something else into view at the edges of his vision. He turned to look and realized he was seeing the silhouettes of two people standing amongst the trees at the top of a hill.

“Well, Hoss Cartwright.”

He swiveled around toward this new voice, recognizing the exaggerated hiss that accompanied words like Hoss’ own name. It hadn’t been more than a few months since he’d heard that hiss challenging his father when that man had been fired from the last job he would ever get on the Comstock. “This is not finished! You hear me? There are many kinds of justice! I will have mine!”

“Pete?” The Cartwright’s old foreman looked like a ghost standing there, with a face as pale as the sky above them, icy blue eyes that had a colorless sheen, and blonde hair that looked even whiter than Pa’s.

“See what it feels like?” Peder Johansson replied. “Is not pretty, yah?”

Hoss glanced back toward the mine’s entrance. “Is that what this is about? You’re lookin’ for revenge for a cave-in you caused yerself?”

“Was not my fault!” Pete shouted. “I did not cause the rocks to fall!” He turned his head to spit before going on. “But this, what we do now, is about silver. It is about all that silver the great Mr. Cartwright would not let us dig out!”

“Adam warned you. He warned you not to work that section. He knew it was dangerous, but you had to work it anyway. It was only by the grace of God no one was in there with you.”

“No. Not God. Just a man who thinks he’s God. Your father said not to go in, and all them fools listened to him. I was your foreman. I was the man you put in charge. No one knew that mine better. But no one listen to me.”

“They were right not to. You almost got yourself killed. You’re lucky you made it out. Not many men do after the rocks give out like that.”

“Oh, I made it out alright, but not quick. I spent eighteen hours in that black hole, eighteen hours thinking I been buried alive.”

“I suppose you blame us for that, too.”

Those icy eyes looked about to stab right into Hoss’ then. “Sure I do. I think maybe you figure it would serve me right to wait. And so I figured the same for you. It was my choice where to hold you. For me, it was good to hold you in there.”

“Your choice? Who you workin’ for, Pete? Who gave you that choice?”

Pete smiled. “A man big enough to stand against your father, that’s who. A man who listened to me when I told him there’s enough silver in there to let us buy that whole Ponderosa of yours right out from under you.”

“What’s this man of yours gonna do to you when he finds out whatever silver’s still in there is gonna have to stay in there? You know this mine can’t be worked.”

“Of course it can be worked! I just could not do it alone. And your father was too pig-headed to give me a crew.”

“So you got this big man to hire a crew of outlaws to work a mine that ain’t even yours.”

“These details do not concern you. You got bigger things to worry over.”

“What kind of things?”

“Getting used to calling me ‘boss’, for one. Think you can do that?”

Hoss stared at him, trying to puzzle out who Pete’s ‘big man’ might be, and how they could hope to get away with all this. Apparently, the man behind Hoss didn’t like the fact that he failed to answer as quickly as he should have. The rifle was jammed up against his spine.

“I asked if you can do that,” Pete repeated.

“Yeah,” Hoss said finally, setting his jaw into a tight line. “Boss. I got it.”

“Good. You remember that. I am the boss around here now, not you or your brothers or your father. I make the rules. You follow my rules, you do as I say, and that little brother of yours you been so worried about will still be able to stand on his own two feet, just like he is now. You don’t, and he won’t. It is simple as that.”

There was something in the way Pete said what he did that got Hoss to follow his gaze. It led him straight to that hilltop, and the two figures standing there. The sky was growing brighter, the sun rising now with a fiery, orange streak to the east. The figures were still little more than shadows, but those shadows were gaining definition. One seemed to be holding a rifle, resting it in the crook of his arm and pointing it casually toward the other.

That other was the one Hoss tried to focus on. He was standing with his feet apart. Hoss couldn’t see his hands; maybe he was holding them in front of him. His shirt fluttered some in the light breeze, sort of like a tattered flag after a terrible battle. He looked…familiar somehow, but not familiar enough to be Little Joe. There was something about the way he was standing, something in the span of his shoulders, or his height…. It just didn’t look right enough to be Little Joe.

“That man up there pulls the trigger,” Pete said, “he won’t aim for Joe’s heart. Not at first. He will give you a couple more chances before you must start to thinking about all that food Hop Sing will prepare for the wake.” He smiled and chuckled lightly. “Then again, maybe I should not have said that; man like you might be more interested in food than saving your little brother, especially after…”

“You touch Little Joe an’ I’ll kill you.” Hoss said the words with icy rationality. It was a fact; that’s all there was to it. It didn’t even matter if that was Little Joe up there or not…at least, not for now. Hoss would do whatever he was told to do until he could figure things out, until he could know for sure who was up on that hill and where both his brothers were. But God help Peder Johansson when Hoss was ready to put an end to all this, because Hoss didn’t know if he could boss himself at that point…because if anything did happen to Little Joe, Hoss was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from breaking that man’s neck.

*****

Deputy Clem Foster had learned a lot from Sheriff Coffee. One thing he learned was how to play poker. Oh, not poker in the traditional sense; this kind of game did not involve cards. But it did involve bluffs, gambles and card sharps. And the game he was playing now also involved risks that could bring about the murder of one or more of the Cartwrights, and maybe even Clem himself.

Yep, this was probably the toughest game he had ever had to play. He’d already allowed himself to be suckered into a bluff that didn’t pan out, when he’d taken Hank’s challenge to arrive at Hellcreek by nightfall only to discover nothing significant would have happened had they chosen to move slower. What mattered was this moment, standing on that hilltop at dawn. Now, as he looked out over a particularly challenging table, he knew the next deal was likely to be the most important one of the game.

At least he’d gained a pretty good read on his opponents. Of all the players, the man to watch out for wasn’t that self-appointed foreman down there. It wasn’t even Elijah Garrett. No. It was the man standing beside Clem, the outlaw going by the name of Hank.

Hank was a card sharp, alright. A man like that had no loyalties, except to himself. He would do whatever it took to stay ahead of the game, and he wouldn’t bother himself with distractions. When treating Joe’s wound would have served him no purpose, he wasted no effort on it. Only when he saw it as a means to gain some of the deputy’s trust did he offer to help.

For the moment, they were working together, Clem and Hank. Not because they trusted each other, but because it was convenient. Hank could have tried to take his losses and run, but running would have posed a risk he hadn’t been willing to take. He wasn’t willing to gamble with his life if he didn’t have to, and he had to figure the deputy was good with a gun. As for Clem, he had a job to do, and Hank was an available resource when there weren’t any others available.

So they stood on that hill together, Hank cradling an empty rifle, just for show, and Clem holding his hands together to make it appear as though they were tied. They stood like that until a cloud of dust from the east made it clear riders were coming, drawing the attention of Hank’s fellow outlaws down below. Then they moved back into the trees, and watched to see just who those riders might be. The foreman’s commanding shouts to the others made it clear he figured them to be men eager to sign up to work the mine. Clem hoped, instead, it was the posse Little Joe had promised to send.

As to Hank, Clem figured it was just a matter of time before he took a chance at riding away. And maybe Clem might even let him — not because Hank didn’t deserve to see some jail time, especially after what he’d allowed to happen to Little Joe, but because Clem had bigger priorities. Sometimes you have to throw away a jack to catch a king.

*****

Ben was tired. He could hardly remember the last time he’d slept. A memory of being home in his own bed, knowing that his sons were there in that house with him, haunted him like a foggy dream. He couldn’t help but wonder when that dream would be made real again…or if it would.

Yes, Ben was tired. But anger and fear kept him going, urging him on, just like he was even now urging his horse forward, like some invisible rider was incessantly kicking his sides hard enough to churn his gut. He had two of his sons back, one who had suffered little while in Garrett’s hands, and one who had suffered a great deal. What would he find with Hoss?

He’d had to leave Virginia City before Paul Martin had finished tending to Joe, but he’d heard enough — and seen enough — to let him know it was far too soon for Ben to stop worrying about his youngest boy. There was no question that Joe’s hand was infected. He was also dealing with a concussion, cracked ribs, and enough bruises to suggest more harm than Ben dared imagine. His recovery was by no means assured.

Adam was also hurting, but Ben had every reason to believe he would be fine, in time. He’d sounded good when he’d tried pulling Joe’s thoughts away from Doc Martin’s ministrations by describing his own experiences after he’d been separated from his brothers. Apparently, he’d been treated reasonably well, mostly thanks to the young lady Garrett had referred to as nothing more than “Cook.”

“You…you had a bed?” Joe had asked his brother in a small, quiet voice.

“I wanted to believe it was all a bad dream,” Adam had explained, “and we were all home in bed. But the mattress was too soft, and…”

“Soft?” Joe had sounded so forlorn, as though the idea was almost too incredible to imagine. “You had a soft bed?”

Adam had shared a glance with Ben before answering. “Yes, Joe. What about you? Where were you?”

“In a hayloft,” Joe had answered sadly. “Hog-tied so tight I couldn’t move.”

“Sorry, Joe.”

“The girl,” Joe had gone on, seeming to ignore his brother’s expression of regret. “Tell me about the girl. Was she pretty?”

“Joe, I…hardly think that matters. Why would…”

“I had a barn cat. A mangy old barn cat. Smelled like manure and… wouldn’t stop caterwauling.”

When Joe’s eyes had started to close again, Ben had met Adam’s gaze. He still didn’t like the guilt he’d seen in Adam’s eyes at that moment. It wasn’t earned, nor in any way deserved. But Ben understood it. He’d recognized it, because he’d felt it within himself as well. Both he and Adam had spent nearly twenty years protecting Little Joe, yet neither of them had been able to protect him from what he’d been forced to endure since the evening before.

Now Ben found himself struggling to imagine what those same hours had done to Hoss. He rode on, comforted to have Roy Coffee riding beside him, and touched to have Hop Sing there as well.

Deputy Hop Sing: the notion would surely be a source of discussion for many years to come, both for its amazing and its amusing aspects. Hop Sing’s dedication to that badge had been the cause for a great deal of curiosity among Virginia City’s Chinese residents. Several had taken to following him, to watching what he was doing. That curiosity had given them awareness of Hop Sing’s capture, and had very possibly saved Hop Sing’s life, as well as Ben’s. Now those same rescuers were riding in a posse. A group of Chinese men were riding side by side with white cowboys to back up Virginia City’s sheriff.

It was unprecedented. Some considered it scandalous. All Ben knew was neither he nor Sheriff Coffee would have turned down any willing volunteers. And this group, well…. Ben found himself figuring they had the potential to look like a horde of angry Mongols. With any luck, that sort of image might give them enough of an advantage to bring those outlaws to justice with minimal bloodshed.

It was a gamble, certainly. This unusual posse could either surprise or enrage the outlaws. Ben was betting on surprise. In fact, he was putting everything he had on that bet. He had to; his son’s life was at stake.

*****

Pete was getting nervous. It started when they’d all spotted that rising cloud of dust, a sure sign that riders were on the way. He’d ordered Hoss to haul lumber into the mine and then cursed under his breath, saying something about them coming sooner than he’d expected. Somehow he’d managed to fall behind before they’d even gotten started. Hoss wasn’t too sure what to make of that, but he did what he was told, even though when he looked up toward that hill again he couldn’t see any sign of the man Pete claimed to be Little Joe. The fact that Pete was nervous and the man they’d been threatening up yonder wasn’t there anymore, well, thinking of it all together helped Hoss to believe Pete’s big plans were starting to fall apart.

The sense of hopelessness Hoss had had in that hole was given over to hope. This all might just end well after all.

Hoss brought in his first load of wood, but then on his way back out, he heard Pete arguing with two of his fellows about picking up some of the workload. They made it clear they didn’t see themselves as miners and weren’t too eager to put down their guns. They also weren’t too eager about Pete ordering them to do something he wasn’t planning to do himself. Apparently, this boss business only went so far with the kind of men who tended to work outside the law.

As the riders got closer, the arguing got more intense, until Pete’s two fellows dropped their weapons and came at Pete, both at one time. Pete’s rifle went off, the bullet hitting nothing but sky before he dropped it, unable to keep his grip with all those fists flying every which way.

Hoss put down his load of lumber and watched, hands on his hips and eyes darting to the hill, to the tousle of men, to the abandoned rifles and then back again. He was just about ready to make a grab for the nearest rifle when another of Pete’s men — the last one, as far as Hoss could tell — shouted down from the rocks to warn that those riders weren’t at all what Pete had been expecting.

“Chinamen!” he hollered out. “Them riders is Chinamen! An’ there’s a sheriff with ’em!”

Those were both the strangest and the sweetest words Hoss had ever heard.

It took a moment for Pete’s men to pull away, and then a moment longer before they came to realize a posse was headed right for them — a posse full of Chinese men, but a posse, nonetheless.

Hoss didn’t hesitate like they did. He took the advantage given him and grabbed two of the rifles before anyone even remembered he was there. Unfortunately, it was Pete who remembered first. And the only rifle Hoss hadn’t reached was the one closest to his ornery boss.

“I already told you all,” Pete said, his tone deeper than before, colder, as he cocked the rifle, readying it to fire. “I am the boss. No one says no to this boss. No one!”

This time, when the rifle went off the bullet hit flesh and bone rather than air. And then it went off again, and then two more times. Not once did Pete miss his target.

Hoss had no idea how many bullets that rifle held. A lever action rifle like that could hold as many as fifteen rounds, and to Hoss’ count, Pete had only used five. Trouble was, Hoss had hesitated this time. He’d been so stunned to see Pete gun down his own men, he’d failed to take advantage of the time Pete was giving him. Instead of readying one of the rifles he’d already taken hold of, Hoss waited until it was already too late. Now, suddenly, the barrel of Pete’s rifle was aimed at him.

*****

“Drop it!” The voice was stern, the command punctuated by the click of another lever-action rifle.

Stunned once again, Hoss glanced toward the newcomer now taking aim at Pete. The first thing he noticed was the tattered shirt. Closer now, he could say it looked like the one Joe had recently purchased, but as beat up as it was he couldn’t be sure. That didn’t matter at all though, because the fact that Joe wasn’t the one wearing it quickly became obvious. As the cloth of that shirt fluttered, periodically exposing the man’s chest beneath it, Hoss could tell this man was older than Joe. It was also clear his arms were too long for those sleeves. His stride was longer than Joe’s, too, more ambling and less animated when he stepped slowly out of the shadows cast by the rising sun and moved toward Hoss and Pete.

Once those shadows fell away, Hoss finally saw who it was. “Sure is good to see you, Clem,” he said softly.

“Clem?” Pete’s aim wavered, his brows drawing down to show his confusion. “No. This is not possible. Was supposed to be…”

“Little Joe Cartwright?” Clem cut in.

Pete tensed. He refocused his attention on targeting Hoss, though he addressed his question to Clem. “Where is Hank? And Randy?”

“Does it matter?” Clem asked.

“Of course, it matters! You must know it matters! Where are they?”

“Well, Randy should be locked up in the Virginia City jail about now. As for Hank, seems to me he must have run off.”

“No. Hank would not…”

“Sure he would,” Clem interrupted again. “This game’s finished. He could see that. No point in sticking around just to wind up dead or behind bars.”

“No. Not finished. There is silver in that mine. Nothing is finished until I get my share. And this one here, this Cartwright will help me to get it.”

“No, Pete,” Hoss answered. “I won’t. This here mine’s finished, too, just like whatever it was you and that big man of yours were planning.”

“Stop this! No more arguing! Get back to work!” Pete leveled the rifle at Hoss’ belly.

“Drop that weapon!” Clem hollered.

“No,” Pete hollered back. “No,” he repeated softly. “If you were going to shoot, you would have done so by now.”

“I’m a lawman, mister, not an outlaw. I only shoot if I have to, and as long as you put that rifle down and give up nice and easy, then I won’t have to.”

“Better do as he says, Pete,” Hoss advised. “Clem ain’t bluffin’. He only draws a gun when he means business, and when he does pull the trigger, I ain’t never known him to miss his target.”

“And I,” Pete answered, “have never missed mine.”

When Pete’s finger moved, Hoss didn’t see it, but Clem must have. There were two shots, so close together it almost sounded like they went off at exactly the same time. Hoss felt a burning sting slice across his right arm. He staggered back a step or two, but that was it. The bullet had just grazed him. Pete had missed this time, after all.

But Clem sure hadn’t. His bullet hit Pete square in his shoulder. Now the Cartwright’s old foreman was on the ground, wide-eyed, writhing, and clutching at his arm.

“You should have listened, Pete,” Hoss said as Clem grabbed Pete’s discarded rifle.

When the posse rode in, no one was left to hold them back. Even the man in the rocks above was gone now. Like Hank, he must’ve gotten wise enough to cut his losses.

*****

It seemed as though Hop Sing was disappointed. He and those fellows who had followed him spent the ride working up what looked to be an almost viral rage. Ben, knowing his Chinese cook as well as anyone might, had at first assumed that fierce expression Hop Sing wore was as much of an act as his frequent tirades back home, when he would insist he was going to quit for the lack of appreciation Ben and his sons gave to his meal times or what he considered to be his kitchen. But, act or not, Ben was also pretty sure it would shock the outlaws, hopefully well enough to slow them down or confuse their aim. Now, as the members of the posse eased their horses to a walk and looked about them for a target, any target at all, Ben saw Hop Sing’s fierce expression yield to confusion, and then to disappointment. Perhaps he really had been looking forward to turning his years of mock anger into something real, and inflicting it on Garrett’s hired band of outlaws for what they had done to the family Hop Sing had become so much a part of he could never be truly angry with them at all.

The lack of an obvious target had a different effect on Ben. Like Roy Coffee, he was wary, looking about for signs of ambush. Then his gaze landed on Hoss, and standing beside him, Deputy Clem Foster, who was shirtless and smiling while he tied a strip of cloth around Hoss’ arm. Riding closer, Ben could see Hoss chuckling at something Clem said.

At that moment he knew it was over. All three of his sons were safe. Garrett could threaten Ben’s family no longer.

His sons were safe.

For an instant, the realization overwhelmed him. His breath caught on something that was part chuckle, part sob, and he came to wonder if what he saw in Hoss was borne of the same rush of emotions.

“Hey, Pa!” Hoss called out as Ben dismounted. “Hop Sing! You’re sure a sight!” The grin Hoss wore was clouded by a weariness Ben saw in his eyes.

“I could say the same of you,” Ben said softly, grasping Hoss’ good arm.

Hop Sing’s reaction was far less subtle. “Hop Sing not come to cook!” he announced before Ben could say anything more. “Hop Sing, deputy!”

Hoss’ laugh was genuine then, as true a laugh as Ben had ever heard, and Ben’s responding chuckle was just as real.

Hop Sing, however, did not share in their amusement. He turned his back on the Cartwrights in an exaggerated show, complaining loudly in Chinese to his companions while they went to work collecting discarded weapons and two very dead outlaws.

“Dadburnit, Hop Sing!” Hoss shouted back. “I thought you were foolin’! What’d you have to get my hopes up for? I’m all kinds of hungry!”

Ben held his smile in place for a moment longer, especially when Hop Sing turned to face them again, this time with a rather conflicted expression that seemed to indicate he was just as eager to get back home to his kitchen at the Ponderosa as Hoss was to eat. But they were still far from home, and things were still far from normal. Ben looked toward Clem, who was accepting an extra shirt from one of the cowboys, and then toward Roy, who was arguing with Peder Johansson over the medical assistance being offered by one of the Chinese men, and then, finally, he let himself give his full attention over to Hoss. “I’m sorry, son.”

Hoss’ brows knit in confusion. “Sorry for what?”

Ben sighed. “I’m sorry I let it get this far. Sorry I…let it come to this. I should have listened to Pete’s threats when we fired him. I should have anticipated…I should have-”

“Pa, folks’ threats don’t hardly ever account for anythin’ more than words. You know that. There ain’t no way any of us could have known somethin’ like this could happen.”

“No… I suppose. Even so…I waited too long. I should have ridden out here the very moment Elijah Garrett mentioned this mine.”

“Clem told me about Mr. Garrett. Sure hard to believe he’d be behind a thing like this.”

“Clearly he was not in his right mind.”

“What’d he tell you, Pa? When he first mentioned the mine, like you just said?”

Ben shrugged. “He told me to sign over the mine to him.”

“I don’t suppose that’s all he said though, was it?”

“No. No, Hoss, it wasn’t.”

“He threatened Joe, didn’t he?”

“He threatened all three of you. But….” Ben nodded slowly. “He used Joe as an example.”

Hoss stiffened. “Pa? He didn’t…he…he didn’t-”

“No!” Ben said quickly, realizing too late what his words might have implied. “No,” he said again in a softer tone. “He threatened to hang your brother while I watched, but, no, he did not go through with it.”

“Because you did what he wanted you to do?”

“Yes. Because I did what he wanted me to do.”

“Then I don’t suppose you could have come here any sooner than you did, could you?”

Ben gave his very perceptive son a particularly weary smile. “No. I don’t suppose I could have, not until I knew he couldn’t harm any of you anymore.”

“So, Joe and Adam are safe?”

“Yes, thank heavens, you’re all safe now.”

“Are they okay?”

Ben took a long breath, and then forced himself to hold his smile. “Adam’s going to be just fine,” he said with as much optimism as he could muster. “He’s got a head wound and he’ll be off his feet for a few days, but it’s nothing serious.”

“Joe?” The deep breath Ben had taken had not been lost on Hoss, judging by the way his brows moved deeper over his eyes.

Ben sighed, finally letting his smile die. “He had a rough time of it, I’m afraid. Paul was with him when I left, so I can’t really say for certain. At least I can say he was awake and in good spirits.”

“That’s somethin’, I reckon.”

“Yes. It’s something. Now, how about that arm of yours? What happened?”

“Oh, I’m fine, Pa. This here’s just a scratch.”

Ben nodded, feeling relieved even as he noticed the raw look to Hoss’ fingers. He’d just finished saying Joe had had a rough time of it. Clearly, Hoss had as well. And for whatever comforts Adam had known in that room in Garrett’s house, he’d still been compelled to risk his life jumping from that window. These hours had not been easy for any of his sons. Only Ben, himself, had remained untouched by Garrett’s cruelty.

“Hey, Pa?”

“Hmm?”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Unless you’ve been messin’ in Hop Sing’s kitchen an’ you used your own knuckles instead of a meat tenderizer, I’d say it’s a pretty fair bet you been in a fight.”

Ben couldn’t help but make a loose fist and look down at his bruised, reddened hand. He shook his head. “Garrett.” It was all he said, perhaps all he needed to say.

“I sure wish I could have seen that.” Hoss smiled, seeming proud of his father’s utter loss of composure.

But the very idea of that smile left Ben feeling cold. “No, Hoss. It was very wrong of me. Very…careless. I went too far.”

“No… I doubt it. More like Mr. Garrett’s the one who went too far.”

Ben met his gaze, but all he could really see was the blistering image of Elijah Garrett. He could hear him then, too, screaming out in agony and begging for Paul Martin to attend to him rather than the Chinese doctor Hop Sing’s friends had provided. God help him, Ben still believed Joe had deserved Paul’s attentions more, and he was still glad his old friend elected to tend to Joe first. Yes, he was glad, even while he knew he’d been at fault for Eli’s suffering.

“We both went too far,” Ben said in a voice so soft it was nearly a whisper. He tightened his fist with each word. Then he took another deep breath, released his fist and grasped Hoss’ shoulder. “Let’s get back to town and get that arm of yours taken care of.”

“I’d rather see Joe and Adam.”

Ben smiled. “That too, Hoss. That too.”

Yes, his sons were safe. Soon, Garrett’s crimes would be tried in a court of law. As to Ben’s…well, they, too, would be tried, in time, by a much higher court, one presided over by God Himself. Until then, he could be thankful that his sons were finally, truly, safe.

 

Epilogue

Hop Sing had been busy in the kitchen since before sunrise. He was tired and hot…and irritated by the conversation taking place in the great room. Today marked the first time in more than two weeks the family was together under that roof. They should not foul the air speaking about people who did not deserve their attention.

“No more talk of Missy Ellie Lind-a-strom!” Hop Sing declared as he noisily deposited a stack of dishes onto the dining table. Then he turned to point a finger directly at Little Joe, who still looked tired though he’d been dozing for the past couple of hours in the blue chair at the far end of the fireplace. “Missy Ellie no good!”

Hop Sing shook his head in disapproval at the way Ben Cartwright’s number three son had his feet propped up on the coffee table — this time at the insistence of his father rather than to his father’s dismay. Little Joe shouldn’t even be there. The doctor told him if he wasn’t careful some of those cracked ribs could break. Hop Sing had enough work to do as it was, with Mr. Adam still limping and Mr. Hoss only just starting back to his usual chores. He didn’t need the extra trouble of worrying over a foolish boy who didn’t bother following his doctor’s advice to stay in town for another week.

With an exaggerated “harrumph!”, Hop Sing scurried back to the kitchen.

“You’re right about Ellie, Hop Sing!” Mr. Hoss shouted after him before lowering his voice, directing his next words to the others in the room. “The way the rumors are already flyin’ about her and Zachary Mullins, I reckon all she cared about was hog-tyin’ someone into marryin’ her, an’ it didn’t much matter who!”

“Maybe Eli Garrett actually did you a favor, Joe,” Mr. Adam said then, his words causing Hop Sing to freeze in mid-slice and toss his knife back to the counter.

When Hop Sing made it back to the great room, he was surprised to see Mr. Ben’s number three son smiling. “I’d rather be hog-tied by Ellie Lindstrom than spend another night trussed up in a hay loft,” the foolish boy said.

“Mista Eli Garrett do no favor!” Hop Sing pointed his finger this time at Mr. Adam before shuffling back toward the table, intent on setting out and arranging the stack of dishes without missing whatever was said next.

“I don’t know about that, Hop Sing,” Mr. Adam said with a grin in his voice, as though anyone could find humor in Mr. Eli Garrett’s crimes. “After all, he saved Joe from a conniving girl, he cleared the way for the Henderson’s to expand their house and plant a bigger garden, and…”

“And almost kill Little Joe!” Hop Sing shook a steak knife at Mr. Adam. “And drop Mr. Hoss in dark pit. And…”

“And,” Mr. Ben Cartwright interrupted, “he caused both you and me to worry half to death, not to mention locking you in a room in a burning house. We all owe you a debt of gratitude, Hop Sing. You risked your life to-”

Hop Sing waved a hand in dismissal and turned away. He didn’t have time for this. The only thing that might be burning soon was supper. He decided to finish voicing his complaints in Chinese; his adopted family didn’t need to understand the words to recognize what he meant. They were all home, together. That was what mattered, and Hop Sing would rather complain than be embarrassed by foolish emotions.

Even so, after he made it back into the kitchen, Hop Sing grew quiet.

“Mei Ling turned him down,” he heard Mr. Adam say in a soft tone probably intended to prevent Hop Sing from overhearing.

“What?” Mr. Hoss asked.

“Mei Ling,” Mr. Adam went on. “The girl who helped me at Garrett’s house. When Hop Sing found out she had no family here, he made arrangements to send her off to one of his cousins in San Francisco. But she turned him down…respectfully, of course.”

“What’d she go and do that for?”

“One of the young men from Hop Sing’s posse took a liking to her, and, apparently, she feels the same.”

“You think Hop Sing’s mad about that?”

“Only on the outside,” Mr. Adam answered in that grinning voice of his. “On the inside, I have a feeling he’s happy for her.”

“Like how on the inside he’s happy about Little Joe havin’ his feet on the coffee table?”

“Hey!” Little Joe complained. “I can’t help it if it hurts to lie down!”

Yes, Hop Sing said somewhere in his heart. Mei Ling deserves a happy marriage; it was not right how Mister Elijah Garrett had hurt her. Hop Sing was as happy for her as he was that Little Joe was home now, despite the doctor’s concerns. Little Joe was finally back on the Ponderosa where Hop Sing could watch over him as he’d done through that boy’s entire life. And through most of Mr. Hoss’, too. Poor Mr. Hoss had taken to leaving his lamp burning low at night, a thing he hadn’t done since he’d been a small boy.

Mr. Elijah Garrett had brought much suffering to Hop Sing’s family, and somehow it was up to Hop Sing to make it all right again.

“Hop Sing?”

Mr. Ben’s voice in the doorway startled him into rushing his pace with the knife. Slicing too quickly then, he barely missed cutting his thumb. He scolded Mr. Ben for the interruption while he pulled a towel across his eyes to wipe away tears brought about by the pungent onion.

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Mr. Ben said. “I was just wondering if there was anything I could do to help. You’ve locked yourself away in here all day.”

Chinese words were the only ones that would come. Hop Sing uttered them in a flurry as he shooed Mr. Ben away. He had too much work to do to waste time with foolish nonsense.

Thirty minutes later, he called the family to the table, but it was another fifteen minutes before they were all seated and ready to be served.

“Hop Sing say supper ready, and no one come,” he chided them as he set out two warm loaves of bread. “All the time, dinner burn or get cold.”

“That bread sure ain’t cold,” Mr. Hoss said. “It smells awful good, too!”

“Good. Then you eat!” Hop Sing stood in the kitchen doorway with his arms folded in front of his chest.

The whole family watched him. He watched them right back until brows began to knit in bewilderment and glances passed back and forth around the table.

“Hop Sing?” Mr. Hoss asked. “Ain’t you gonna bring in the rest?”

“What rest? You eat, now! Bread and water, just like jail!”

Mr. Hoss wrinkled up his face like he might be sick. “But this ain’t jail, Hop Sing!”

“I can assure you Sheriff Coffee serves a bit more than bread and water,” Mr. Adam added.

“Maybe in Mr. Sheriff Coffee jail you get more. But in Hop Sing jail you get bread and water!”

“What’s all this about jail, Hop Sing?” Mr. Ben asked.

“Mr. Sheriff Coffee make Hop Sing deputy.”

“Of course, Hop Sing,” Mr. Ben said. “But that was temporary. Surely you don’t-”

“Jail good for more than keep prisoner from escape,” Hop Sing interrupted. “Jail also good to keep family from disappearing!”

“You don’t actually expect to keep us locked up in our own home,” Mr. Adam said. “Do you?”

“Mr. Adam promise no more disappear?”

Mr. Adam looked at each member of his family, and then answered with a grin. “I promise to the extent that I can, considering…”

“Mr. Hoss?”

“I reckon so, same as Adam. Especially if that means you’ll serve up a big piece of that roast you’ve had cookin’ all day!”

“Little Joe?”

Hop Sing could see the boy was struggling not to laugh. “As long as no one else tries to hog-tie me, I guess I can promise that.”

Hop Sing unfolded his arms and pointed accusingly at Little Joe. “Hop Sing hog-tie Little Joe, if Little Joe not careful!”

The boy’s giggle finally escaped then. “Ow!” Little Joe complained. “Don’t make me laugh!”

“Does it hurt to eat, too, Joe?” Mr. Hoss asked. “‘Cause if it does, I’ll be happy to have your share!”

“Of bread?” Mr. Adam said.

And then Little Joe laughed harder…and complained more loudly.

And Hop Sing smiled-on the inside. On the outside, he spouted off a tirade in Chinese and headed back into the kitchen to bring out the meal he’d spent an entire day preparing.

***The End***

Return to Freyakendra’s homepage

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.