Loser Take All (by freyakendra)

Summary: Joe’s biggest ever poker win results in Adam and Hoss playing for higher stakes than any of them could ever have imagined.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  12,000


 

Dead Man’s Hand

Joe opened his eyes. The sun was lower than it should be, wasn’t it? It was too dark. Almost dusk. The sun had been sinking when he’d left the saloon, but this…this shadowed sky told him he must have lost an hour or more. That sure didn’t bode well for him. Closing his eyes again, he tried a few deep breaths and was relieved to find the fresh air easing the fog in his head — even if that hole in his back screamed at him for the way his breathing scraped the open wound against something on the ground.

A twig, Joe decided. Yeah. He must’ve landed on a twig. That meant the best thing to do to stop all that scraping was to change positions. He would have to get up anyway. He couldn’t get home if he couldn’t get up.

Taking another breath, Joe rolled to his right side and was rewarded for easing the hurt in his back by waking up a whole new kind of hurt in his head. He gingerly raised his left hand to the worst of the pain near the base of his skull and discovered a wound he didn’t remember getting. He’d been shot in the back, so why was his head sore and bleeding?

Must’ve landed on more than one twig, he told himself. Or maybe a rock. He supposed it didn’t much matter, though. What mattered was the fact he needed to get himself moving so he could get help. Yep. He needed to get himself moving. But…could he?

Moving sure wasn’t easy with that hole in his back and his head throbbing so much he could almost believe the world had gone from dusk to midnight in the blink of an eye.

Then he blinked again and saw stars blinking back at him.

Damn. He’d lost more time. For a moment, Joe allowed himself to think maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. The later it got, the more his family would worry, and then they’d come looking for him.

No, that wasn’t right. No one was going to come. They expected him to stay late in Virginia City, and to maybe even stay the night.

It was kind of funny, in a way. This was the only time Pa had ever encouraged Joe to “have a real good time” and stay as late as he wanted. He’d earned a night on the town for all the hard work he’d done getting them horses ready for the army. But Joe hadn’t had a good time. And he’d turned his back on trouble like Pa had asked him to. He’d even left for home hours earlier than he’d planned to leave, just to keep that trouble behind him.

It stayed behind him, alright. And then it shot him in the back.

*****

Cochise wasn’t moving. Joe kicked the horse’s flanks — or he tried to, anyway. His legs were so weak he doubted Cochise had felt a thing. Then Joe noticed they were standing next to the barn. Danged if that wasn’t the strangest thing… He didn’t need Cochise to go anywhere. He was already home.

He couldn’t even remember mounting up, let alone riding home. What he did remember was finding his saddlebags open and empty of the winnings that had put trouble behind him in the first place…

Trouble in the guise of a boney little hag of a man who’d done nothing but complain from the moment he’d joined Joe’s poker game, uninvited, to the moment Joe had won the best hand he’d ever seen.

That man had been like an old hag, alright. Didn’t matter he was neither old nor female. He’d spent the afternoon whining and nagging like a proper spinster. Joe had had a good laugh or two imagining that nagging hag in a bonnet and dress, but mostly he’d just wanted to shut the wisp of a man up for good. One clean punch ought to have done it. But Joe had made a promise to Pa: there wouldn’t be any fighting. And while some fights might be worth breaking such a promise, that hag wasn’t worth anything at all.

So rather than staying to let his friends — and maybe even that hag — win back some of what they’d lost, Joe had decided to take his unprecedented winnings and head home. He’d turned his back on the trouble he knew would have been inevitable. If he’d stayed for just one more beer, Joe’s next hand of poker would’ve ended with his fist aiming straight for Mr. Hag’s hawk-like nose.

Yep. Joe had turned his back on trouble. He sure hadn’t expected it to catch up with him like it did, though.

Fortunately, all that trouble was behind him for good now, wasn’t it? After all, he was home.

Groggy and dizzy, Joe slid off his saddle and onto his knees in the dirt, the odd dismount making Cochise whinny and shimmy backwards, indignant.

“Shorry,” Joe slurred back at the animal, sounding — and feeling — like he’d drunk his fill back at that saloon after all. He even smiled, preferring to imagine all he had to worry about was waking up with a hangover come morning, since part of him was starting to worry about waking up at all. He figured if he lost any more time, he might never find it again.

Sure, Joe was home. But so far the only one who knew about that fact was him.

Cochise huffed, drawing Joe’s attention.

Yeah, Cochise knew Joe was home, too. But Cochise wasn’t going to do anything to help Joe, was he? Joe needed to let someone else know he was out there. He thought about shooting off his gun, but if Cochise was ornery already, that darned horse would be pure misery at the sound of a gunshot at this time of night. Besides, Joe didn’t think that pulsing throb in his head would like it much, either.

His next best option was the bell on the porch. But try as he might to aim himself in that direction, his half-crawl, half-walk kept him listing to the right until the front door was in front of him instead.

Joe almost laughed at that. In fact, maybe he did laugh. He really was feeling drunk.

Getting to his feet wasn’t easy, but he managed to pull himself upright enough to trip the latch and push the door open.

“It’s about time,” Adam’s voice called angrily from inside.

And Joe smiled again, grateful for the rescue that angry voice provided. “Adam,” Joe mumbled, blinking blearily at the black form he figured must be his brother sitting beside the ghostlike flames in the fireplace.

Adam closed the book in his lap — at least, Joe thought it must be a book, although it sure looked like a small animal of some kind…or a fish, seeing as how it seemed to be swimming through the flames beyond.

“What’s wrong?” Yup. That was Adam alright. But the question…

“Wrong?” Joe should know the answer. So why couldn’t he find it? Then his hand brushed the handle of his revolver and he forgot what he was looking for. He couldn’t go inside wearing his gun belt like that. Pa didn’t like them wearing their guns in the house. Maybe that’s why Adam had sounded so mad a moment ago.

“Joe?” Adam was moving closer.

Aiming to place his gun belt on the bureau beside the door, Joe was surprised to discover it was already there.

“What happened?” Adam pressed.

Joe looked at his brother, confused. Then he remembered Mr. Hag. And the poker game. And the best hand he’d ever played. “I won,” he said.

An instant later, Joe found himself in his brother’s arms. And he knew time was slipping away again.

*****

The Draw

When Joe opened his eyes, the sun was far too bright, so he closed them up tight again. But there was someone in his room. He could hear slow, steady breathing — close to but not quite a snore. Where was he, to be sleeping in the middle of the day along with someone else doing exactly the same thing?

He opened his eyes more carefully this time, limiting himself to a small squint. So much for his first question. He was home, in his own bed.

Confused, Joe turned his head to look to his left. The motion triggered an explosion behind his eyes. Before he could even think about what was happening, he was bent forward and vomiting into a basin.

“Easy, Joe,” Adam’s voice soothed while a warm hand clamped around his shoulder. “I’ve got you.”

“Wha….” His own voice was little more than a breath, his words trapped by the rawness of his throat and the remnants of spent bile.

“Easy,” Adam repeated, rubbing Joe’s back in small circles.

Joe heard a soft ‘clank’ as the basin was set aside. Then both of Adam’s hands were pressing him gently toward his pillows again.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Adam said as Joe coughed weakly, awakening a searing pain in his back. “You’re just going to have to take it slow for a while.”

Joe was still trying to comprehend what was going on when Adam’s hand reached behind his neck, lifting him toward a glass that was set against his lips. “Try some water. It’ll help.”

And it did, what little he was given. Joe swallowed it greedily, welcoming the feel of the fresh moisture in his throat.

“That’s enough for now.”

Joe wanted to grab the glass back again after it was pulled away, but his arms were too heavy. He simply couldn’t raise them up high enough.

“Better?” Adam asked.

Yes, Joe wanted to say. Instead, he closed his eyes and lowered his chin in a brief, barely discernible nod.

“Joe?” Adam sounded…different…when he said Joe’s name that time. Almost…excited.

Joe pulled down his brows, as puzzled as he’d ever been. He felt his brother take his hand, and that puzzled him all the more.

“Come on, Joe. Show me you can hear me.”

“Why wouldn’t…” The words scraped their way out and drew a fit of coughing in their wake. Adam helped him through it with gentle hands, soothing words and no small amount of shushing. Finally, as the pain subsided and breathing grew easier, Joe forced his eyes open again to find himself looking into his brother’s.

Adam gave a relieved smile that little by little began to smooth out the creases in his brow. “Welcome back.”

“Back?” Joe asked softly, carefully, unwilling to start another round of coughing.

The creases returned. “You lost an awful lot of blood trying to find your way home, little brother.”

Joe felt his own brow creasing.

“Do you remember?”

Joe rolled his head just a touch, as close as a shake as he dared.

“What do you remember?”

“H-hag,” Joe said as he thought of the man who’d ruined a perfectly good game of poker, despite the fact that he’d helped Joe to win a bigger pot than ever before.

“What?”

Joe felt the quirk of a smile form at the dumbfounded look that crossed Adam’s face. “Doesn’t…matter.” He closed his eyes to focus on swallowing, eager to coat his throat with as much saliva as he could. “I won,” he added a moment later, opening his eyes again.

“Yes. I know.” Adam didn’t look too happy about it. “But can you tell me what happened after that?”

“Came…home?” Joe tried to puzzle out the time between leaving the saloon and waking up in bed.

“Do you remember what happened on your way home?”

The pieces just weren’t there. Frustrated, Joe found his breaths coming quicker, bringing with them a resurgence of pain in both his back and his head.

“It’s alright, Joe.” Adam squeezed his shoulder. “You’re just tired. Get some rest. It’ll come back to you when you’re feeling better.”

But would it? Joe found himself growing afraid. Something had happened. Something terrible, to have landed him there in his bed, too weak to even lift his arms. Why couldn’t he remember? He had to remember. He had to know!

It took a whole lot more of Adam’s soothing words and gentling strokes to ease Joe’s welling panic. But, after a while, he found himself drifting into a warm, quiet, comfortable place, one where he just didn’t care whether he remembered or not.

*****

Adam heard the door opening and hurriedly turned toward it, holding a finger to his lips. He met his father’s gaze, recognizing the question he found there. A quick smile and nod told Pa all he needed to know.

An old Mexican had told Adam once that people tend to hold their worries and fears inside like newly formed bricks. They grow harder, heavier and more solid the longer they cure. Adam could believe that was true. He’d seen it proven in the way he’d watched his father and Hoss grow more tense with each passing hour, each passing day. The weight of their worries had forced taut shoulders downward and turned worn faces to stone. He’d felt it in himself as well. But with that brief nod he’d just given, that unvoiced answer to the eager question in his father’s eyes, Adam was sure he saw a half-ton weight of bricks crumble right there in Joe’s bedroom doorway.

Joe had not only come awake, he was aware. He was lucid.

You have to be prepared, Ben,” Paul Martin had cautioned just yesterday. “If he does survive, between that head wound and the blood loss, there is a distinct possibility that his brain will have suffered some damage.

What kind of damage?” Pa had asked while Adam and Hoss had exchanged nervous glances.

There’s no point to guessing. Let’s just pray he wakes up soon. The sooner he finds his way out of this comatose state he’s in, the better.”

And Adam had just witnessed Joe doing exactly that, finding his way out. He’s awakePa, Adam’s nod had said wordlessly. He’s lucid. For that moment, nothing else mattered. Not the fact that Joe’s answer before collapsing three days earlier had focused on winning a game of poker rather than the hole in his back. Not the fact that Joe had said the word ‘hag’ for no apparent reason. Not even the fact that Joe now had no memory of the attack.

He’s awake. He’s lucid. And somehow Adam had to believe he was still the same Little Joe who had earned a night in town — certainly a far better night than the one he’d experienced.

“What did he say to you, Adam?” Pa whispered harshly the instant Adam stepped into the hallway.

“Not much, but Pa, he knew who I was and he knew where he was. I think he’s going to be just fine.” Adam’s smile grew with the certainty of his words.

“Did he say anything about what happened to him?”

“He couldn’t.” That was true, of course. “Not really. It was hard for him to speak, between the pain and nausea.” That, also, was true.

Pa nodded, his relief evident as more bricks crumbled away.

Adam gripped his arm. “Why don’t you go in and sit with him awhile? I’ll empty the basin and bring back some coffee.”

When Pa nodded again and turned to enter the room, Adam figured he probably didn’t trust himself to speak. But something changed by the time Adam retrieved the dirty basin.

“Adam?” his father whispered. “Tell Hoss, would you?”

“Of course.” Adam almost started chuckling. He’d already figured Hoss would have his hide if he delayed telling him Little Joe was on the mend.

*****

By the next morning, Joe was able to provide them with the man’s name: Clayton Scott. He also eased Adam’s mind by supplying a reasonable explanation for mentioning the word “hag” when he’d first come awake.

“Reminded me of…an old hag,” Joe said with an impish smile. “About your age, Adam.”

“Well, thanks a lot!”

Joe’s grin widened even as his eyelids drooped lower. “Don’t mean it like that. He wasn’t old. Just…looked like an old hag. Like…one of them witches, maybe. You know…bubble, boil and trouble.”

“Warts and all?” Adam asked, grinning back at him.

“No. Just…hag-like.” Joe closed his eyes again, his grin giving way to weariness.

Adam’s faded, too, as he found himself realizing how close they’d come to never seeing that grin again. “You think he’s the one who did this to you?”

Joe’s lips quirked up in a brief smile that was gone almost as fast as it had come. “Man like that… He’s a back-shooter for sure. Too…yellow to call someone out.”

Two hours later, Sheriff Roy Coffee confirmed Joe’s story. “A man named Clayton Scott,” he said, taking a seat in the great room while Hop Sing scurried out of the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee. “He’s why Joe left early that night, according to Mitch and Seth and about a half dozen other fellas.”

“Yes,” Pa nodded. “That’s what Joe told us this morning.”

“He did, did he?” Roy smiled. “I sure am glad to hear he’s gettin’ better, Ben.”

“Hop Sing glad, too,” Hop Sing added as he poured out four cups. “No more food go to waste. Cook too much. Not even Mistah Hoss eat.”

“You can bet I’m hungry now, Hop Sing!” Hoss threw back at him. Standing by the fireplace, Hoss looked almost as though he was ready to personally escort Hop Sing back into the kitchen. “Truth is, I’m downright famished. Think maybe you could bring out some sandwiches?”

“Cook, cook, all time cook. No time anything else. Mistah Hoss eat. Hop Sing cook.” Shaking his head, Hop Sing turned abruptly to return to the kitchen, muttering a flurry of words in Mandarin.

While Adam welcomed the comforting familiarity of Hoss’ appetite and Hop Sing’s current attitude — so different from the unsettling silence of previous days — he recognized something else that remained disturbingly unsettled. “The men you talked to, what did they have to say about this Scott fellow? What did he do to get Joe to abandon his night out?”

“Nothin’,” Roy answered, “except argue and complain about every little thing everybody did. I don’t think there was a man in that saloon who didn’t want to throw Mr. Scott right out into the street. Mitch told me Joe left ‘cause he knew if he didn’t he’d of punched that fella right in the nose.”

A loud sniff turned Adam’s attention to his father. “Joe left to avoid trouble?” Pa asked.

“Looks like.”

Hoss stepped closer, resting his hand on the back of Pa’s chair. “So there weren’t no fight before Joe left?”

“No, Hoss, there wasn’t. But a whole saloon full of witnesses saw this Scott fella leave right after Joe did. And he was mad as a wet hen for losin’ all his money.”

Nodding, Pa took a deep breath and a small sip of coffee. “Good. I imagine the trial will be quick.”

“Sorry, Ben. There won’t be a trial. Leastways, not based on what we got now. I said they saw him leave. I didn’t say they saw him shoot Little Joe…or take the money out of Joe’s saddlebags.”

“You must have at least questioned this Mr. Scott,” Adam demanded.

“’Course I did. Especially when I found out he got into another poker game the very next day with money he said he didn’t have after the game with Joe.”

“Let me guess,” Adam said through half-clenched teeth. “He said he had extra money stashed away somewhere.”

Hoss looked half ready to go after Clayton Scott himself. “He had it stashed, alright. In Little Joe’s saddlebags!”

“Ain’t nothin’ but hearsay,” Roy grumbled. “You all know that as well as I do. No one saw him, Hoss. No one saw him shoot Little Joe. No one saw him take the money. No one even saw him leave town after he walked out of that saloon that night. We got no witnesses and no evidence.”

“What about the bullet Paul Martin dug out of Joe’s back?” Adam asked.

“Must be a hundred rifles in Virginia City coulda fired that bullet. Ain’t nothin’ special about it or Mr. Scott’s rifle.”

“Then find something else!” Adam shot back angrily.

“Adam,” Pa cautioned before looking pointedly at Roy. “We’ll just have to keep looking, then. Won’t we?”

“I ain’t givin’ up, Ben. But if he decides to leave Virginia City tomorrow, and I still don’t have anything more than a bunch of guesses, I can’t stop him.”

“Maybe you can’t,” Adam said without thinking.

“Adam!” Pa scolded. “That’s enough!”

“Better mind what you do, son,” Roy added. “I’d like to hear you promise your pa and me both that you won’t go off half-cocked.”

Adam forced a cold smile. “I assure you that won’t happen.” He meant it, too. After all, nothing worth doing was worth doing halfway.

*****

Dealer’s Choice

Armed with a name and description, Adam and Hoss followed Sheriff Coffee’s visit by making a trip of their own to Virginia City. Once there, they avoided the sheriff at every turn, as though they were criminals themselves.

“If I didn’t know any better,” Hoss complained, “I’d think you were gettin’ ready to do somethin’ you oughtn’t.”

“Then I’m glad you know better,” Adam answered with a small grin. “I just don’t want Roy to think we’re planning to do something we oughtn’t.”

“Just what are we plannin’ to do?”

Adam sighed. “I don’t know yet. But we’ll think of something.”

Whatever they were going to do, they first had to find this Clayton Scott. Adam needed to get a look at him. A real good look. Enough of a look to help him figure out just what they could do to make the man pay for what he’d done.

Leaving their horses near the mercantile, they walked four blocks, with Hoss taking one side of the street and Adam the other, looking in every store window and stopping at every saloon. They typically went inside together. It was easier to pair up while weeding through the boisterous crowds for a face they knew only by description. But as they started to approach The Broken Barrel, Adam held back.

“What’s wrong?” Hoss asked.

“Have you ever been inside?”

“Nah. Nothin’s ever goin’ on in there.”

“No, there isn’t.”

“You think we’d be wastin’ our time goin’ in now?”

“Quite the contrary.”

“Huh?”

“Wouldn’t you say it’s the kind of place where you might find a man who’d already lost as much as he could afford to lose?”

Hoss chewed the inside of his cheek, glancing toward the swinging doors. “I reckon so.”

“Do me a favor and stay outside,” Adam suggested.

“Why?”

“Because I’m starting to get an idea, and it won’t work if he sees us together right now.”

“What sort of idea?”

“I’ll tell you later.”

Adam!”

Adam ignored his brother’s whispered shout and stepped through the doors. A dusty piano sat quietly in the corner, and an equally dusty looking woman was taking her time wiping the counter of the bar. But Adam’s attention was quickly drawn to a short, frail-looking, boney man with a hawk like nose and effeminate features — and he knew he’d just found Clayton Scott. Seated by himself at a table facing the street, Scott looked up eagerly to see who was coming in, then he curled his nose and returned his attention to his beer. Apparently, Adam didn’t meet his expectations.

Unfazed, Adam strolled to the bar to order a beer for himself.

“We got stew in the back if you like,” the woman said, pushing a strand of half-black and half-white hair behind her ear.

“Beer’s fine, thank you.” Adam glanced quickly behind him, glad to see that Hoss had not followed him in. When he took a sip from the mug the woman gave him, he was even gladder he’d turned down the stew. He didn’t dare ask for whatever they might consider whiskey. Rotgut would probably be an improvement. But he hadn’t gone in for either refreshments or entertainment. He’d gone in for Clayton Scott.

Adam watched the man for a moment and decided Joe’s use of the word “hag” fit him well. Too well. Every moment of the past few days suddenly flooded Adam’s thoughts, from the instant Joe had stumbled through the door at home to when his eyes had finally slid open, bloodshot, glassy, but aware.

They’d spent three days at Joe’s bedside, not sure whether he would survive. And that miserable hag of a man was to blame. Adam knew it. Sheriff Coffee knew it. Everyone knew it. They just couldn’t prove it. Suddenly, standing there at the bar and watching that hag casually sip his bitter beer, the grand idea that had struck Adam only moments before lost all value to him. It would feel so much better to draw down on Clayton Scott and shoot him in the heart, face-to-face like Scott had been too cowardly to do when he’d shot Joe.

But Joe was healing. They’d come horrifically close to losing him, but he was healing. And Adam had no intention of putting Joe — or Pa or Hoss — through the inevitable effects of careless vengeance by landing himself in prison or the grips of a hangman’s noose. No. There was a better way. There had to be.

Sighing, Adam took another sip, forgetting what was in his glass until the foul tasting liquid was already in his mouth. After forcing a swallow, he asked no one in particular, “When’s the excitement start around here?”

“You mean ‘where,’ don’cha?” An old man in a tattered hat answered. “You want excitement, try the Silver Dollar.”

“Already tried my luck there and a half dozen other places, including the Bucket of Blood.”

“Then I guess your luck’s run out.”

“Yes,” Adam said thoughtfully. “I suppose it has.”

But judging from the attention Clayton Scott was paying that insignificant conversation, Adam was starting to wonder if his own luck — or Joe’s –was just beginning. He absently swished the liquid around the sides of his mug. “I guess that means it’s time to move on. I hear Swift’s Station should be good for a game.”

The old-timer chuckled. “Mister, Swift’s Station ain’t but a wagon stop. You’ll be lucky to find a deck of cards, let alone a good game.”

“That was before Dirk Devereux settled nearby.”

Someone guffawed, calling Adam’s attention to a dark bearded man sitting almost directly across from where he stood. “Devereux?” the man asked, the skin around his eyes crinkling to provide evidence of the smile hidden behind thick whiskers. “Ain’t you hear’d he set down roots?”

Adam let the corners of his mouth quirk upward. “Funny thing about roots: they can choke the life right out of a man if he doesn’t cut himself loose once in a while.”

“His woman’ll pound him from here to Sunday if she sees him even lookin’ at a deck of cards.”

“A man like Devereux can handle his woman.”

“You talk like you know him.” Now it was the man’s forehead that crinkled.

“I’ve played at his table a time or two.”

“You think you kin get him to play?”

Adam took another unpleasant swallow, and then set the mostly full mug back on the counter. “I’m sure of it.” Moving toward the entrance, he turned to tip his hat. “Gentleman,” he said in farewell, allowing his gaze to sweep the tables once more. This time, Scott’s eyes locked onto his. The man’s expectations regarding Adam had clearly changed.

And Adam’s idea seemed to be setting down some roots of its own. Now all he needed to do was to encourage a former card sharp by the name of Dirk Devereux to not only get back into the game, but to play it as he’d never played before.

*****

If Adam was going to get this new idea of his to work, he and Hoss had to hit the trail quickly. There wouldn’t be time to go home first, so Adam paid an eager youth to deliver a hastily written note to his father and Joe. Stopping next at the bank, he made a withdrawal large enough to prompt questions from the bank manager, but he wasn’t inclined to give an answer other than to say he was about to take advantage of a highly valuable investment opportunity.

“Oh?” The manager’s eyes widened. “You know we’re always interested in sound investments.”

“I didn’t say it was sound. I said it was valuable.” Adam nodded in farewell and turned away, leaving the would-be financier huffing in bewilderment.

After securing the cash in his saddlebags, he threw the bags over his shoulder and asked Hoss to pick up some supplies while he made one more critical stop.

“I ain’t leavin’ you alone carrying all of that,” Hoss countered.

“Fine,” Adam sighed, not wanting to waste time arguing. “Walk with me to the sheriff’s office then. After you’ve got everything, meet me back there.”

Adam was anxious to get moving. The thought of having to wait for Hoss was frustrating, but as it turned out, the opposite proved true. Hoss walked in before Adam had finished persuading Sheriff Coffee to go along with his plan.

“What if he don’t take the bait?” Sheriff Coffee argued.

“He will,” Adam said tightly, glancing at his brother in greeting.

“If he don’t, and somethin’ happens here while I’m gone…”

“Clem can handle it. He’s done it before.”

“Sure, he has — when I had real business to attend to. But if I go off on a fool’s errand and the citizens of Virginia City suffer the consequences, I’ll have the devil to pay and you know it.”

“Not you, Roy. Me. I’ll take full responsibility.”

“It’s not you them folks’ll be votin’ against come the next election.”

“Nor will they be voting against you. Not if you put that man behind bars. You said yourself half the men who were in that saloon the other day believe he tried to kill Little Joe. All I’m asking is that you let us prove it.”

Roy’s arguments grew weaker after that, and it wasn’t long before he decided to give it a shot. “I’ll keep an eye on him,” the sheriff said gruffly, “and if he rides out, I will, too.” Shaking his head, he added, “You’d better make this work, Adam Cartwright, or…”

“I know,” Adam threw up both hands, palms forward. “Or I’ll have the devil to pay.”

But the only devil in this game would be Clayton Scott, himself. And Adam vowed that his payment would be tendered in irons.

*****

Night had settled in around them by the time Adam and Hoss reached Swift’s Station, a small collection of buildings on the Overland route to California. The hotel was never empty, and the bar, never dry. But as those dusty saloon patrons had pointed out back in Virginia City, it wasn’t the kind of place a man could expect a good game of cards.

“What if we can’t find this Devereux fella?” Hoss asked, yet again.

“Mister Swift will know where to point me come morning.”

“You? What about me?”

“You’re going to stay here and keep an eye out for Scott.”

Hoss sighed. “I reckon someone has to,” he said, resignedly. “Once you find Devereux, what do we do if he don’t agree to play?”

“He’ll play.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Adam grinned. “I understand he’s in the market for a good seed bull.”

“Huh?”

“We happen to have one available.”

“You think he’ll play because you’re gonna sell him a bull?”

“I know he’ll play because I’m going to give him that bull if I have to.”

Hoss’ eyebrows shot up and then dropped down again just as quickly, his eyes narrowing into slits. “I don’t think Pa’s gonna be too happy about that.”

“Even if it lands Clayton Scott behind bars?”

Cocking his head in consideration, Hoss finally nodded. “I reckon he wouldn’t mind so much, after all.”

That was the last normal conversation the brothers would have until Adam’s plan played itself out. “Remember,” he told Hoss before they separated for the remainder of the night, “Scott can’t know we’re together.”

“’Least let me take the livery,” Hoss replied. “You’re almost as scrawny as Joe. You could use a mattress under you a whole lot more than me.”

Giving his brother a genuine smile, Adam shook his head. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be down on his luck. That means all I can afford is to sleep with the horses.”

“What about supper?”

“Don’t you worry about me. Just order what you want and eat your fill. I have a feeling it’s going to be a particularly long day tomorrow. You might need your strength.”

“You might need your own strength to keep me from wrappin’ my hands around that little fella’s neck.”

“If this doesn’t work, I’m apt to squeeze his neck myself. And I won’t need a big meal to do it, either.” When a long sigh turned into a yawn, Adam added, “I’m more tired than hungry, anyway. I haven’t slept well since…” He didn’t bother to finish his sentence.

“Yeah,” Hoss nodded. “Me, too.”

Barely more than an hour later, Adam spread his bedroll out over a pile of hay, closed his eyes…and slept straight through to dawn.

*****

The Bluff

The sun hadn’t been up for more than an hour, but Dirk Devereux was already working. Much to Adam’s surprise, he was in the barn when Adam arrived.

“Adam Cartwright?” Devereux asked, dropping the tack he’d been carrying. A look of surprise lifted his brows. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” He slipped off his gloves and reached forward to take Adam’s hand in greeting.

For a man who was supposed to have given up cards in favor of ranching, Dirk Devereux’s hands were remarkably free of calluses. Nor could Adam see a speck of dirt beneath the man’s fingernails. “I hear you need a bull.”

Dirk cocked his head, appraising Adam’s statement. “The Ponderosa must have fallen on hard times if you need to travel around trying to sell off your stock.”

Adam grinned. “I don’t need to sell the bull, but I understand you’re in the market for one. And I thought perhaps we could strike a deal.”

“A deal?”

“I have a favor to ask. It involves no risk on your part.”

“No risk, eh? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’ve taken up gambling. Has that little brother of yours turned into a bad influence? I thought it was supposed to work the other way around.”

“That little brother of mine was almost killed a few days ago.”

Dirk was silent for a moment, his eyes studying Adam’s. “Please don’t tell me someone accused him of cheating. I taught the boy better than that.”

“He wasn’t cheating. He…”

“Adam?” a woman’s voice called out from the house. “Adam Cartwright? Is that you?”

Adam turned to see a red-headed woman in a flowered dress and white apron hurrying toward him. He almost didn’t recognize her without rouge on her cheeks. Her lips, also, were naturally pink, almost pale. It suited her. Adam had never seen her looking more beautiful. “Hello, Betty,” he greeted, smiling warmly.

“Why, what brings you out this way?” She fumbled to capture stray strands of hair and slip them back into the pins they’d fallen from. “I sure wish I’d have known you were coming. I would have…”

“Hold your tongue, woman!” Dirk chided. “You’re all mine, now. I won’t have you primping for this cowpoke.”

She slapped his arm. “I was going to say I would have baked a pie.”

“It’s a little early for that,” Dirk asked. “Isn’t it?”

But Adam was more taken by another aspect of what she’d said. “You bake pies now?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m learning.”

“She bakes wonderful pies,” Dirk said then, his eyes shining with admiration. “If you stick around long enough, maybe you’ll get the chance to taste one.”

“Another time, perhaps.” Adam’s smile faded. “I really do need your help.”

“What’s wrong, Adam?” Betty asked.

“He said Little Joe was almost killed,” Dirk answered before turning his attention back to Adam. “Am I right to assume this favor you need has something to do with that?”

“It does. Joe was shot in the back while riding home from Virginia City.”

“Sounds like a common — if cowardly — highway robber. How on earth would that bring you to me?”

“We know who did it, but we can’t prove it. That’s where you come in. I need someone to help us stage a poker game.”

Betty’s eyes turned cold. “He doesn’t play anymore,” she said tightly.

“I know.”

“And I don’t stage games, either. That would mean cheating, and I don’t cheat.” Dirk glanced sideways to see Betty’s rather unpleasant glare. “I didn’t, that is. When I played. Which I don’t, anymore.”

Adam nodded. “But you do know how to deal cards in a way that ensures the right ones go to the right people?”

“That is what they call cheating. Which I do not do.”

“But you know how.”

“Because it helps me to know when someone else is cheating. Or rather…it did. When I played.” He threw another glance at Betty.

“I assure you, this won’t be a real game. We just need to make it look like one.”

“Why all the subterfuge?” Dirk asked.

“Because it’s the only way to get that back-shooter to prove he’s the one who put that bullet in my brother’s back.”

*****

As it turned out, Adam got a package deal. Dirk and Betty both arrived at Swift’s Station just after two in the afternoon, fully outfitted. Dirk wore his dapper suit, the pocket fitted with a fancy watch on a fine gold chain. Betty had on a familiar emerald green dress with black trim and tights.

“I’m amazed it still fits,” she giggled when Adam met them in front of the hotel and remarked on how stunning she looked, although he’d truly preferred her in the much simpler and slightly dusty flowered dress he’d seen her in that morning. “Another week or two and I’m sure the buttons won’t even close.” She giggled again. “If they did, they’d probably pop a minute later.”

Adam’s eyes widened as he caught the meaning behind her words. “Are you saying you’re…?”

She nodded, grinning widely.

“You really are settling down,” Adam said to Dirk.

“Did you think you were calling my bluff?”

“I know better than to do that.”

“We’ll see this afternoon, my friend,” Dirk winked.

“Scott’s inside already,” Adam said, getting serious again. “Hoss pulled him into a game almost as soon as he arrived; although the stakes are far lower than you’re used to — for now.”

“Well change that soon enough. Let’s get started, shall we?”

Inside, Hoss was sitting at a table with Clayton Scott and two others — transients, by the look of them. Adam doubted they would play long, especially once Dirk stepped in. Watching from the shadows by the door, Adam saw concerned glances pass between them as Dirk pulled a chair over to their table. “Mind if I join you?” Dirk asked, clearly not caring what answer might be given.

“Glad to have you, friend,” Hoss greeted, handing him the deck of cards. “How ‘bout you cut ‘em for a start?”

Dirk nodded. “I’m a little rusty, I’m afraid.” But he didn’t just cut the deck. He rolled the cards around his fingers like they were an extension of his hand, folding them in and out so fast Adam couldn’t imagine how he could know where any one in particular might land.

That was all the incentive the transients needed to get back on the road.

“Come on, Jack,” one said to the other. “We don’t hit the trail now, won’t have a dime left between us tomorrow.”

Clayton Scott, however, looked like he was ready to start salivating. He was hungry for a game. For a real game — the kind of game only a man like Dirk Devereux could give him.

Adam watched the transients step outside and then, pulling in a long, deep breath in preparation, he decided that was his cue. “Looks like you could use another player,” he said, taking one of the newly vacated chairs.

*****

The poker game lasted the rest of the afternoon — an afternoon that might just have been the longest of Adam’s life. Clayton Scott was an annoyingly talkative fellow, and mostly what he talked about was how much he deserved to win. He kept saying he’d earned the right to win after having lost so many times in a row. But Adam doubted Scott had ever won a game, considering how poorly he played. In fact, it was hard losing to the man. If it hadn’t been for the careful dealings of Dirk Devereux, he was fairly certain neither he nor Hoss would have been able to lose to Clayton Scott.

Of course, losing wasn’t the ultimate goal, however. Clayton Scott had to be played even more than the cards on that table. He had to have his sights set on winning. He had to be convinced he was going to win…right up until the money piled in the center — along with Dirk Devereux’s gold watch — was enough to make even a wealthy man drool.

“Yahoo!” Hoss exclaimed as he pulled all that money toward him. “I ain’t never won a pot like this my whole life. I reckon that’s a good reason to call it a day. Momma always told me it’s better to quit while I’m ahead.”

Adam grinned at him across the table. “Your mother played poker?”

“Dang right, she did. Best poker player south of the Rio Grande.”

“Spend a lot of time in Mexico, do you?” Adam played along.

Hoss winked. “Only when we need to. And with all this, looks like I won’t need to for a good long while.” Rising with Dirk’s pocket watch in one hand and a scoop of money in the other, he looked toward the street and back to the money still sitting on the table. “I don’t reckon one of you fellas would be so kind as to grab me my saddlebags from that livery?”

Adam pushed himself lazily to his feet. “Why not. A good bit of that money is mine, after all, and I don’t like to leave my money unprotected.”

Was yours, you mean. Fella’ there’ll know which tack is mine. Just tell ’im Eric Wheeler sent you.”

“Right,” Adam said over his shoulder as he made his way to the hotel entrance. He could feel Clayton Scott’s wide eyes on his back, and he increased his pace, anxious to get to the heart of the ruse — and to get justice for Little Joe.

“No,” Scott was whining when Adam returned. “You can’t quit now. That pot’s supposed to be mine! I bin winnin’ it fair and square!”

“Sure,” Hoss answered. “You was winnin’ it. But you kept on playin’. I’m much obliged, by the way.” He winked. “Now I won it, fair and square. And I don’t aim to keep playin’.”

Adam dropped the saddlebags on the table. “I presume these are yours?”

“Sure are, mister. Sure are. Thank you, kindly.” Hoss started pushing money inside, then hesitated and grabbed out a dollar bill. “For your troubles.” He gave another wink as Adam hesitantly took the money…along with the pocket watch Hoss slipped discretely into his palm.

A moment later, Adam turned to meet Clayton Scott’s wide-eyed, frightened rabbit stare with an irritated grimace of his own.

“Gentlemen,” Hoss tipped his hat and turned away.

“He can’t do that,” Scott told Adam and Dirk. “He can’t up and end the game like that. One of you go out there and get him back here. We got to get the chance to win our money back.”

“Don’t look at me,” Adam said, forcing his own eyes to get as wide as Scott’s had been a moment before. “That man’s big as an ox. If I try to tell him what to do, he’s likely to knock my teeth out and stop me from telling anyone anything for a good long while.”

“Someone’s got to go after him!” Scott went on, turning to Dirk.

Dirk shrugged. “That’s the nature of the game, I’m afraid. A man’s got to take his losses. And I’ve certainly taken all the losses I can for one day. Gentlemen.” Like Hoss had done a moment before, Dirk tipped his hat and walked away, although he angled toward the bar — and Betty — rather than venturing outside.

Adam sighed and leaned back in this chair. “I suppose I’d better enjoy this beer.” He took a careful swallow. “It’ll be a while before I can afford another one.”

“It ain’t right,” Scott went on quietly. “It just ain’t right.”

Not long afterwards, they heard a horse bluster and begin to trot away. And Scott shot up like jackrabbit, right on cue.

Thirty minutes later, Adam was following Clayton Scott, who was following Hoss, who was counting on the sun to be in just the right position when he reached just the right spot.

*****

High Stakes

Adam glanced at the sky and then down at the long shadows Hoss and his horse were casting in the gulley below. If they waited much longer, it would be too late for Adam to send the needed signals. He couldn’t let that happen. God help him if he caused Hoss to get shot. This was Adam’s plan, his scheme to get justice. He should be the one down there, not Hoss.

“But I’m a bigger target,” Hoss had argued.

“All the more reason for me to bait him instead.”

“What good’s any bait the fish can’t see?”

“He’ll see me just fine.”

“Look, Adam, we got to get him to confess, right?”

“You know we do.”

“Well, if anyone’s gonna talk him into doin’ that, it’s you.”

“I won’t be talking to him. I’ll be trailing him. And you are a better tracker than I.”

“Darn right, I am. And that’s why I need to be the one in the gulley.”

“Come on, Hoss! You’re not making any sense. You know that…

“I know that I trust in you to time the signal just right a whole lot more’n I trust myself. And I trust myself to see that signal a whole lot more’n I trust you.”

“Why wouldn’t I see the signal?”

“Because you still don’t know how to look at everythin’ at once the way I do.”

It was all a matter of timing. Every bit of it. All they needed was for Clayton Scott to set things in motion — and, as it turned out, for Adam to do a bit of talking, too.

*****

Here goes, Adam thought when Scott turned away from watching Hoss to focus on loading his rifle.

Steeling himself, Adam took out Dirk’s pocket watch and lifted it up, angling it until it caught the sun at his back. The reflection bounced off the cliff face where Hoss couldn’t possibly have seen it. Glancing at Scott, Adam saw that the man had paid no notice, so he tried again, this time catching a rock in Hoss’ line of sight.

Hoss took off his hat to scratch his head, and then placed it back on again. Good. That meant he’d seen the signal.

With one hand on the watch and the other hovering over his holstered gun, Adam watched Scott position himself once more against the boulder he’d selected. With a smooth, calculating motion, Scott raised the rifle to his shoulder.

“Fifty- fifty,” Adam said, stepping from the behind a tree.

Scott jumped, nearly dropping the rifle before he clumsily brought it around toward Adam. “What the hell?”

“You mean to get your money back, right?” Adam said.

Scott stared at him.

“I’d like mine back, too,” Adam went on. “But what if you miss?”

“Miss?” Scott was nervous, his chest rising and falling in a breath-stealing pant.

“You’re planning to shoot him, right?”

Clayton Scott’s eyes scanned the trees behind Adam. He lifted his free hand to wipe sweat from his upper lip.

“You’re planning to shoot him and take that money in his saddlebags.”

Scott’s eyes went as wide as they’d gone in the saloon when he returned his attention to Adam.

“I already told you I want my money back, same as you,” Adam went on. “That’s what you’re planning to do, isn’t it? Shoot him and take back your money?”

Scott turned his head to glance down into the gulley. He rubbed his arm along his forehead before looking at Adam again. Then, finally, he gave a quick nod.

Adam suppressed a smile. “Have you ever done anything like this before? Shoot someone in the back?”

A spark of wary recognition flashed before Scott glanced away.

“Well? Have you?” Adam pressed. “I need to know what I’m getting into before I ally myself with the wrong man. I don’t want to end up on the gallows.”

“You won’t,” Scott said softly.

“What’s that?”

“You won’t hang. No one’ll ever know. Ain’t no one out here to see anythin’ but us.”

“I’m not sure.” Adam rubbed his hand along his mouth and stepped to the edge, looking down. “The law has a way of finding out about things like this. I like my money, but I like my neck even more.”

“They won’t ever know.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“They ain’t never found me, have they?”

“So, you have done this before?”

Scott nodded.

“More than once?”

He nodded again.

“How often?”

“Enough to know how to do it right.”

“How long ago?”

“Why you askin’ so many questions?”

“I told you, I want to know what I’m getting myself into.”

“You think I’m gonna share that money?”

“He took as much from me as he did from you.”

“But I was winnin’. I was gonna win all of it.”

“Well, taking back half is better than losing it all, isn’t it?”

Scott’s brow furrowed.

“Look, I already know what you’re doing. Either you cut me in or spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder after I tell the law what you did out here.”

The man’s eyes narrowed to slits. “You’d turn me in?”

“Not if you cut me in.”

Sighing, Clayton Scott bobbed his head in surrender. He probably never even considered putting up a fight. Of course, Adam knew that was because they were looking right at each other. If Adam were to turn his back, he had no doubt the outcome would be entirely different.

It was ironic Scott had no such qualms about turning his back on Adam. It was also a bit of a shame Adam wasn’t a back-shooter.

While Clayton Scott levered up his rifle again, Adam readied the pocket watch. “You ever shoot anyone from this high up, at this kind of an angle?”

Scott jumped again, turning on Adam with fury in his eyes. “Stop that! You keep interruptin’ like that, ain’t neither of us gonna get our money back!”

“It’s a reasonable question. I’m a good shot myself. I know how to gauge the wind, the angle of the shot, things like that.”

“Well, I’m the one with the rifle, so you just leave this one to me!”

“All I’m asking is, have you considered all those things? It looked to me like your trajectory might be off by about six feet.”

“My what?”

“Your trajectory. The way you were aiming. You have to account for all those shadows down there. The sun has a way of playing tricks in a setting like this, you know.”

“You think you can do better?”

Adam held up his hands. “No, no. It is your rifle, as you said. But if you’ll let me, I’ll help you pinpoint your aim.”

Once again, Clayton Scott got himself into a targeting position. Adam flashed another quick signal to his brother, and then helped his new partner take the perfect shot.

Clayton Scott never even saw the puff of sand from where the bullet hit the ground. All he noticed was Hoss flying off his horse.

His victory laugh made Adam want to knock that beak of a nose right off of him.

*****

“You’re sure no one will find out?” Adam asked while he watched Scott pull a handful of money from one of the saddlebags.

“I told you, they never have before!”

“Like when? You never told me any details. I can’t be as confident as you are if you don’t give me any facts.”

“You worry too much.”

“When a man’s got no one to look out for him except himself, he’s bound to do a bit of worrying. Are you telling me nothing worries you?”

“Not this. Not anymore.”

“Because you’ve never been caught.”

“That’s right.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Clayton Scott froze. He turned around slowly to face Adam. “You…what?”

“I don’t believe you. I think this was the first time. You wouldn’t have even hit him if I hadn’t helped.” He glanced to where Hoss was lying in the sand, facing away from them.

“That’s a lie!”

“Then prove it.”

“Little more’n a week ago,” Scott said angrily. “Virginia City. Man named Cartwright. Never knew what hit him. And I’ll tell you this, mister.” He punched a finger at the air toward Adam. “I didn’t even kill him like I done the others, an’ he still couldn’t say it was me what done it!”

“I heard about that,” Adam said, trying to sound amazed. “You mean that was you?”

“Damn right it was me.”

Adam whistled, as though impressed.

“Fool kid deserved it. Took all my money and left even before sundown. Weren’t right! Just like today. It weren’t right at all.”

“How’d you do it? Was it in a gulley, like this?”

“Nah. Was on the road between Virginia City and that ranch house. The Ponderosa. There were trees in the way, but I didn’t have no problems with no tra-jeck-tree or whatever it was you called it. Just a straight shot. Kid went down like a rock. Hit one, too. A rock, that is. Should of died, way I figure it. With my bullet in his back and his brains splattered by that rock, I don’t know how it is he didn’t die. But ain’t no skin off of my nose, anyway. I got my money and there ain’t no one knows what I done but me.” He was grinning like a fool.

“And me,” Adam said.

“And me,” Hoss said, pushing himself up from where he’d fallen.

“Me, too,” Sheriff Coffee said at Scott’s back.

Clayton Scott spun around, his eyes nearly wide enough to roll right out of his head. “No. You can’t… This isn’t… No!”

“I don’t think we ever had a proper introduction,” Adam added, stepping slowly toward the man. “My name is Adam. Adam Cartwright.”

“No.”

“And that man over there is my brother, Hoss Cartwright.”

Scott shook his head. “It can’t be.”

“And that kid who you think should have died is our younger brother, Joe Cartwright.”

“No. I’ll deny it. I’ll deny all of it.”

“Won’t matter,” Mister Swift said, stepping around a boulder to stand next to Roy Coffee. “You got two lawmen who heard your confession.”

“You?” Scott snarled back at him. “You ain’t no lawman! You run that hotel yonder.”

Swift smiled. “A former lawman counts in court just as well as a current one. Wasn’t all that long ago I was the sheriff of this here county. And I can tell you from experience, you ought to be grateful that Cartwright fella’ didn’t die, ‘cause then I could guarantee you’d swing on a rope.”

“No!” Clayton Scott’s wailing shout was almost as shrill as a woman’s.

“I think this is yours, Hoss.” Roy pried the saddlebags out of Scott’s claw-like grip and passed it toward Adam’s brother.

“No!” Scott shouted again.

“You sure I can’t punch him, sheriff?” Hoss asked.

“Yes!” both Roy and Mister Swift answered in unison.

It was almost enough to make Adam smile. Almost. They’d caught a man for almost killing his little brother, but Scott had mentioned there’d been others. How many other little brothers — or older ones, for that matter — had the man shot? And how many hadn’t been almost at all, and now lie moldering under the ground rather than recovering in their own beds?

“Adam?” Hoss’ hand landed on his shoulder, pulling his attention away from the two lawmen escorting a whimpering Clayton Scott out of sight.

“Sorry,” Adam answered. “I was just thinking.”

“About Little Joe?”

Adam saw his own somber mood reflected in his brother’s eyes. Somehow, that was enough to force him out of it. Joe was recovering, after all. Soon enough, all of this would be behind them.

Smiling, Adam turned to Hoss. “About Missus Devereux’s pies.”

“Pies?”

“Dirk says they’re wonderful. Might be worth coming back for.”

“What in tarnation got you thinkin’ about pies?”

“You’d like to come back for a taste of her pies, wouldn’t you?”

“Hop Sing makes good pies, too.”

“Maybe so, but he doesn’t play poker.”

“Neither does Dirk Devereux.”

“He did today.”

“What’s got into you, Adam?”

Adam sighed. “I just thought, in a few weeks, when it’s time to deliver that seed bull, maybe you and Joe would like to come along. We could all enjoy some of those pies of hers, and then play a better game of poker than any of us has in a while.” Setting his own hand on Hoss’ shoulder, he was happy to feel the muscles beneath his fingers beginning to loosen. More of those heavy bricks they’d all been carrying around were crumbling. Before long, there might not be any bricks left at all.

“Let’s go talk to Mister and Missus Devereux,” he said.

“About pies?”

Adam nodded. “And seed bulls. And poker, seeing as how they’re back to being Dirk and Betty for tonight.”

Hoss grinned. “I wonder if Missus Swift makes good pies.”

“Let’s go find out.”

As they followed the path back to Swift’s Station, Adam felt a few more of his own bricks loosen. And his stomach began to rumble, eager for a taste of pie.

*****

Full House

“You did what?” Pa’s voice cut its way through Joe’s dreams like a bolt of lightning. “Of all the foolhardy, irresponsible, half-witted… How could you, Adam?”

Adam? Joe blinked himself awake. Adam was being half-witted and irresponsible? But Joe’s dawning smile fell with his pa’s next words.

“You could have gotten Hoss killed!”

Curious and concerned, Joe eased himself up as a pair of familiar but much softer voices tried to quiet his pa down with words he couldn’t hear.

“Roy?” Pa shouted then. “He agreed to this nonsense?”

Moving wasn’t easy. Joe’s back stung and his head swam. But the doc said he should try getting up now and again to help keep his muscles from stiffening up. And Joe couldn’t think of a better reason to drag himself out of bed than to find out what his half-witted, college-educated oldest brother had gone and done to his other brother with the approval of Sheriff Coffee.

“Calm down, Pa,” Adam was saying when Joe reached the top of the stairs.

“Calm down?” Pa hollered back. “Aren’t you listening to yourself? For Heaven’s sake, Adam, I…”

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss called out happily. “It sure is good to see you, boy!” He was already halfway to the stairs when Pa turned his tirade on Little Joe.

“Joseph Francis Cartwright! You get back to bed this instant!”

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss answered for him. “How can you expect him to sleep with all your hollerin’?”

“My hollering?” Pa shouted even louder than before. “My…” Then something changed in him. He sagged. “My hollering,” he said more softly, nodding. “Yes. Of course. I’m sorry, Joseph. Hoss, help your brother get back to bed, would you? I have more things to…discuss with your older brother, here.”

“Sorry, Pa,” Hoss said as he moved steadily up the stairs. “But it don’t seem to me you’re ready to do much discussin’ just yet.” Reaching Joe, he gave his young brother a wink. “Which do you want?” he whispered conspiratorially. “Your bedroom or downstairs?”

“Has this whole household gone mad?” Pa argued.

“He’s right, you know.” Adam pulled Pa’s attention toward him once more, leaving Joe and Hoss temporarily forgotten. “You won’t even listen to me!”

Joe grinned back at his middle brother. “Downstairs.” He was tired and he had a lot of healing yet to do. But he was feeling better. And he’d napped plenty of times on that settee before. And he sure wanted to hear whatever was going to be discussed if Pa could ever get himself to calm down like Adam had told him to.

*****

The discussion began in earnest before Joe was even fully settled. Hop Sing was pulled into it, too. Usually a gentle caregiver, Hop Sing jammed pillows beneath Joe’s head and back with enough force to catch Joe’s breath, and in between a bunch of nerve-rattling Chinese jabber, he scolded Pa for raising his voice.

Shortly after Hop Sing returned to the kitchen, Joe realized he ought to have stayed upstairs. He put his hand across his eyes and pressed his fingers and thumb into his temples. “Hey,” he said then, hoping to catch his pa’s attention.

“But did you try, Adam?” Pa went on yelling. “Did you even try?”

“Hey,” Joe said again, his hand still shielding his eyes.

“I didn’t get the chance, Pa!” Adam hollered back. “As soon as Hoss left that hotel, Scott was on him!”

“And you, Hoss,” Pa said next. “How could you let your brother connive you into this? Joe, I could understand. But Adam? You should have known he wasn’t thinking clearly!”

“How could any of us think clearly?” At least Hoss wasn’t shouting. “After we saw what happened to Joe that night, we had to do somethin’. We couldn’t let that man get away!”

“Well, you did something, all right!” Pa answered, his voice no softer than before. “You very nearly gave me a heart attack! Can you even for one moment imagine what I was left to think after I saw Adam’s note? Hoss and I are riding to Swift’s Station. What kind of a message is that?”

Joe’s head was pounding. He cleared his throat. “Pa?”

But Pa still didn’t hear him. “You gave no explanation,” Pa went on, “and I couldn’t think of a single good, honest reason for you to head up there right now, especially with your brother as ill as he’s been. Not a single one!”

Okay, it was time for Joe to do some shouting. “Please, Pa!” It wasn’t very loud, and it made his headache worse…but it worked.

“Joe?” Pa’s voice was soft and cautious. “Are you all right, son?”

No, I’m not all right!” Joe shot back more bitterly than he’d meant to. He kept his hand over his eyes while he explained. “I thought you were going to be discussing what Adam and Hoss did.”

“Well…” Pa was hesitant for some reason. “That’s what we’re doing, son.” He sounded confused.

“No, you’re not! You’re hollerin’ at each other about it!”

There was silence for a few minutes. Joe relished every one of those minutes as the pounding in his head began to ease. Still, he kept his eyes shielded.

“I’m…sorry, Joe,” Pa said finally. “I suppose you’re right. Hollering is no way to discuss anything properly. I should know better. Like I thought your brothers knew better than to put their own lives at risk!”

“But we didn’t, Pa,” Hoss said. “We didn’t put our lives at risk. We knew better’n that. I wanted to shoot that man myself, but there weren’t no good reason to put any of you through the mess of my gettin’ hung on account of it.”

“Me, too,” Adam added. “I had the same thoughts. Pa, don’t you see? We had to stop him! Joe wasn’t the first man he shot, and he wouldn’t have been the last. There just wasn’t any other way to catch him.”

“You didn’t have to make Hoss a target!”

“He wouldn’t have,” Joe said.

“What?” Pa asked.

Maybe Joe should have looked at his family then, but he wasn’t quite ready to let all that afternoon sunlight back in just yet. “Adam wouldn’t have let Hoss get shot. You know that.”

“Yes, well… Adam allowed a back-shooter with a rifle to take aim at Hoss, didn’t he?” Pa’s voice was rising again.

“Doesn’t matter,” Joe answered. “He wouldn’t have let that man pull the trigger.”

“I’m sorry, Joseph, but that’s exactly what he said he did.”

“No, he didn’t.”

Perhaps,” Pa hissed, “you haven’t been listening as closely as you thought.”

“Oh, I’ve been listening closely, all right,” Joe argued, gaining confidence from the simple fact that he couldn’t see his pa’s growing anger. “And Adam said he made sure that man adjusted his aim to hit the ground.”

“Yesss,” Pa sounded like he was barely holding that anger in check, “but he…”

“But, nothing!” And suddenly Joe didn’t dare look at his pa. “He…he wouldn’t have let Hoss get shot.”

“Joe’s right, Pa,” Hoss said. “And you know it.”

“I was scared.” Adam’s soft voice cut into Joe’s thoughts almost as shockingly as Pa’s shout had earlier pulled him from his dreams. It was enough to take Joe’s hand from his eyes.

Adam was leaning forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees, staring at his hands clasped together in front of him. “I’ll admit, I was worried about everything that could go wrong. And…” Releasing his hands, he started rubbing them together. “I was terrified any one of those things could cause Hoss to get shot.” He turned to look at Hoss, standing beside him in front of the fireplace. “But I was also determined not to let that happen.”

“Determined?” Pa called out angrily from the chair by Joe’s head. “Determination is hardly enough to stop a bullet!”

Joe kept his eyes on Adam.

“No.” Adam nodded. “You’re right.” He looked at Pa then. “But I assure you I would not have let that bullet hit Hoss. If it came down to it, I would have shown my cards.” His back drew straighter as he talked, inching taller with each word until his elbows pulled away from his knees. “I would have stopped him right there and taken him to jail for attempting to shoot Hoss.” His voice grew cold, chilling. “And if that wasn’t enough to send him to prison, I would have stayed with him. I would have followed every step he took, everywhere he went, and I would have watched every move he made. And one way or another, I would have found enough evidence against him to force even the most ignorant judge to send him to prison, or, preferably, to hang him.”

“Adam,” Pa sounded disappointed. “That’s no answer. Vengeance is…”

Vengeance,” Adam spat back, “would have had me shooting Clayton Scott in the back. Or worse, someone close to him. Vengeance would have had me forcing him to catch his own brother in his arms, to see his brother’s jacket drenched with blood, so much of it he couldn’t possibly believe that brother would ever open his eyes again.” Adam’s fingers dug into the armrests of his chair. “To hear his brother’s last words echoing around in his head for days on end, haunting him with their irony. Vengeance would have…”

“That’s enough, Adam!” Pa demanded.

The reproach seemed to hit Adam like a slap. He blinked and pulled in a long breath of air.

“Dinner ready!” Hop Sing called out as he exited the kitchen with a platter of ham. “You come table now!”

Joe watched Adam’s gaze skitter to the floor.

“Hop Sing bring to Little Joe. The rest of you come table, now!”

“Yes, Hop Sing,” Pa said. “Of course.”

Pa stood up. Hoss was moving, too. But Joe kept his eyes on Adam.

“Adam?” Pa asked. “Are you coming?”

“In a minute.” Adam’s chest heaved, pulling air in and pushing it back out again like he’d just chopped a cord of wood. Joe continued watching as those breaths grew slower, calmer, and the sounds of Pa and Hoss taking their seats at the table faded beneath Hop Sing’s busy chatter in Chinese.

Then, finally, Adam raised his head, his eyes landing instantly on Joe’s.

“Last words?” Joe asked.

Adam stared at him for a long moment, his chest filling once more. “I won,” he said after exhaling.

“What?”

“That’s what you said just before you collapsed. After I asked you what happened. Before I…before I saw all that blood. You said you’d won, yet it was very clear you’d lost far more than you could afford to lose — than any of us would ever risk losing.”

“I did win, Adam. I survived.” Joe smiled. “We all won, I’d say. That was quite a story you and Hoss told. I’d like to hear it again. Without all the shouting this time.” His grin widened.

After a moment, Adam’s lips began to quirk upward, too. “Maybe when we tell it again, we should make sure Pa’s not within earshot.”

“Yeah. Maybe we should.”

“Adam?” Hoss called from the table. “If you don’t get over here, I’m about ready to take your share. I got a lot of hungry days to make up for!”

Adam’s smile grew stronger as he pushed himself to his feet. “I thought all that pie you ate back at the Swift’s should have taken care of that.”

“Nah! All that did was remind me how hungry I was!”

As Adam stepped past Little Joe, he dropped a hand to Joe’s head and patted him lightly. Joe wasn’t sure whether to appreciate it or complain about it. “What’s that for?”

“Winning.”

“What? My poker game or yours?”

“Both. And the game you played just now. With Pa.”

With Adam behind him then, Joe couldn’t see his brother’s grin. He knew it was there, just the same. And he let his own grin settle back into place while he allowed himself to sink further into all those pillows Hop Sing had given him. As a sense of comfort drifted over him at the sound of less inflammatory conversations coming from the table, he closed his eyes, his thoughts turning to the brotherly storytelling soon to come. And maybe a hand or two of poker.

*****

If you’re gonna play the game, boy,
you gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold ’em,
know when to fold ’em,
know when to walk away
and know when to run.

You never count your money
when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’
when the dealin’s done.

Now every gambler knows
the secret to survivin’
is knowin’ what to throw away
and knowin’ what to keep

‘Cause every hand’s a winner
and every hand’s a loser
and the best that you can hope for
is to die in your sleep….”

The Gambler,
written by Don Schlitz,
recorded by Kenny Rogers

***The End***

This is a fic our boys themselves wanted to tell. You’ll understand if you read “Just a Poker Game”, a bit of silliness in which the Cartwrights are aware of and talk about their place in our world of ficdom.

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