Pandora’s Sisters (by freyakendra)

Summary:  The unexpected arrival of a mysterious group of women complicates—and threatens—Cartwright lives, turning the Ponderosa into a decisive battleground.  Featuring: The cabin and some painful memories from the episode “The Storm.”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  61,600

 

 

Joe raced ahead of his brothers, spurred on as much by the heat in his own blood as by the plume of smoke they’d spotted rising up over the tree line. Someone was on Ponderosa lands where no one should be…and worse, the trespasser was burning a fire at the edge of a dry valley in the middle of a drought. It was enough to enrage any one of the Cartwrights and half their ranch hands besides; but Joe seemed to be particularly angry, as though he was itching for a fight…the kind of fight that could get a man killed.

Sharing a frustrated glance with Hoss, Adam kicked his heels into his own mount, eager to catch up with his young, ill-tempered brother, but it wasn’t long before he had to rein in again, discovering that Joe’s mad race had come to an abrupt halt for no apparent reason. The smoke was rising just as steadily as it had moments before, the threat no less critical. Yet somehow, in an instant, Joe’s rage had vanished. The fire in his own gaze had cooled. The defiant set of his shoulders had loosened…melted…fallen away.

Joe wasn’t even looking at the smoke anymore. He was looking at the ground, the sky, at everything and at nothing at all.

“Joe?” The concern in Hoss’ tone matched what Adam was feeling.

Joe’s brow furrowed. He looked at Hoss, but only for a moment before looking away again, his attention apparently captured by the branches of a tree ahead of him. “The cabin,” he said finally, softly, a slight catch in his voice.

Only then did Adam recognize the path they had taken, the path to an old cabin in the valley where Joe had planned to set down his independent roots among the ghosts of another man’s misfortune, a man from Kentucky whose own roots had not taken here, his wife having died in her effort to join him. Barely a year ago, Joe had faced down those Kentucky ghosts, intent on bringing that cabin back to life for himself and his bride-to-be, Laura, a childhood sweetheart with whom Joe’s friendship had quickly been rekindled, and even more quickly evolved into love.

“Why don’t you head back, Joe?” Adam offered. “We’ll take care of it.”

Joe might as well have been a statue but for Cochise’s impatient huffs. He said nothing, seeming more afraid than sad. Adam had the feeling Joe was waiting for something his brothers simply couldn’t give him…as though he was waiting to be assured Laura herself was in that cabin stoking the kitchen stove, and that the past year had been nothing more than a peculiar dream.

Adam opened his mouth, keenly aware it was his duty as Joe’s wiser, older brother to ease Joe’s troubled thoughts, but words remained elusive. What could he possibly say now, after all these months? Any words of comfort that could have been offered had been said long ago. They’d been said, accepted, and filed away. And there weren’t any left over, at least none that Adam could find. Sighing, he instead turned to Hoss, whose own brows had knit together in empathy with Joe.

“We’ll take care of it,” Adam said again, his voice this time sounding determined rather than consoling.

A moment later, he was racing every bit as hard as Joe had been before, and feeling every bit as angry. God help whatever squatters had taken refuge in Joe’s cabin.

*****

Ready for an argument…a battle…a conflict raw in nature and thereby satisfying to a man with fire in his veins, Adam was taken off guard to be greeted by a woman at the cabin. She stepped through the door with the stance of a queen and a smile that seemed more sly than pleasant, and was wearing a white apron over a flowered dress. Her beauty was regal, as well. The stunning features of a woman who would steal the breath of any man, young or old, were marred only slightly by thin lines of age, and there was a white streak in her otherwise black hair, now pulled back into a thick, tight bun. Even so, there was nothing weary in her gaze; it bore into Adam with a sharpness he found disturbing before slipping toward Hoss and then settling back on Adam.

“May I help you, gentlemen?” she asked in a voice as tight as her bun.

“You can tell us,” Adam said in return, “what you’re doing on our property?”

Your property?” There was no surprise in her reply, only the hint of debate.

“Yes.” Adam infused that single word with some sharpness of his own. “You’re on Ponderosa lands. You must have seen the signs on the road you would have followed to come here.”

“I saw no signs, Mr.…?”

“Cartwright. Adam Cartwright. And this is my brother, Hoss. And yes, there were signs. You’d have to be blind not to see them.”

“I can assure you, Mr. Cartwright, I am not blind. Nor did I see any signs. I saw only a deserted cabin, and we were in need of shelter. Would you deny shelter to people in need, particularly when that shelter has been abandoned and forgotten?”

“And I can assure you, Miss…?”

“You may call me Anesidora.”

Anesidora?” Adam challenged.

She cocked her head, saying nothing.

“That’s a rather unusual name,” Adam added.

“I could say the same of your brother’s, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Well, Hoss ain’t actually my given name, Miss…,” Hoss paused, seeming puzzled, before saying, simply, “Dora.”

The woman smiled slightly, maybe cunningly, reminding Adam of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

“Am I right to presume Anesidora is likewise not your given name?” Adam asked.

“You will presume so no matter how I respond. Isn’t that right, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Well, Anesidora,” Adam went on, emphasizing the peculiar name, “this cabin may have been abandoned, but it most certainly has not been forgotten. The simple fact is you’re trespassing. We won’t deny you shelter, but you can’t stay here indefinitely. How long before you and your family can be prepared to move on?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

A shrill scream from within the cabin pulled Adam’s gaze to the small structure, where he finally noticed two rifles poking through the open windows, aimed at both Hoss and him. Going rigid, he returned his attention to the woman just as another, more anguished scream sounded from inside. There was a slight tensing of the woman’s shoulders in response, but her composure never wavered.

Slowly, Adam dismounted. “Just what is going on here?”

“Nothing that concerns you.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. This is our property; it most definitely does concern me.” A quick glance to Hoss assured Adam his brother had also dismounted, and was as concerned as Adam.

Then a third scream pulled both brothers forward…until both rifles fired, the bullets hitting the ground at their feet with a spray of sand.

“Tell them to put down their weapons,” Adam demanded.

“They are only trying to protect their sisters.”

“We would never hurt your daughters, ma’am,” Hoss said.

“They are not my daughters. They are my sisters. And none of us has any reason to trust you.”

“Sure you do, ma’am. We won’t bring any harm to any of you.”

Unless,” Adam added, “any of you made it a point to bring harm to us.”

Another scream sounded from inside, though this one was softer, almost a desperate moan.

“It looks terrible bad, Hannah!” another woman’s voice called from inside.

When Adam looked again to the woman who’d named herself Anesidora, he finally saw a chink in her armor. “Hannah, then? Is that your name?”

Her responding glare was answer enough.

“Why Anesidora?”

“Do you know its meaning, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I know it’s from Greek mythology. An alternate name for Pandora, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You are not. As a word, Anesidora means a giver or sender of gifts.”

“And yet Pandora…”

“Brought ruin and misfortune to men.”

“Is that what you intend to do?”

“Only to those who deserve it.”

Adam looked again to Hoss, who seemed hopelessly confused. Then, he looked to the cabin, searching for clues to whomever was inside. Finally, he caught a glimpse of the dark skin and coarse hair common to Southern slaves, and then, someone else…a Chinese girl, if he wasn’t mistaken.

“Tell me, Hannah Anesidora, just what are you and your…sisters…doing on the Ponderosa?”

An agonized moan sounded from inside.

“Hannah!” a woman shouted. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!”

Hannah started slowly toward the cabin, though her gaze stayed locked on Adam.

“We can help you if you let us,” Adam said.

She stopped at the door, her chest rising and falling on a series of deep breaths. “Agnes is in labor,” she said finally, glaring at Adam as though he might dare to argue. “The baby is breech.”

*****

Joe had not been back to the cabin in months. In the first weeks following Laura’s death, he’d found it hard to stay away. He could spend hours there, imagining how life would have been—how it should have been—with Laura as his wife. He would stare at the cradle Adam had made for him, picturing the baby that should by lying there, Laura’s baby…his own son. But at some point things began to change. The cabin began to feel cold rather than comforting. It began to feel empty…and yet, not empty at all, as though its ghosts were crowded with him there, as though he was no longer welcome.

Joe had grown up hearing talk about that old cabin being haunted, but it wasn’t until Laura’s touch began to fade from his memory that he, too, came to believe it, when he began to feel a different kind of touch, the touch of death.

He couldn’t bring himself to go back there. Not anymore. Not ever again.

Not until two rifle shots told him he had to.

That cabin had already taken Laura; it wasn’t going to take Joe’s brothers, too.

*****

When Adam followed Hannah into the cabin, another woman stepped between them, seeming intent to keep him out despite Hannah’s unspoken decision to allow him inside.

The woman’s eyes caught him first; they stopped Adam before he even came to notice the rifle in her grip, aimed at the ceiling but threatening nonetheless. Her eyes were a wide ball of pure white around an almost fiery center…or like a fly trapped in amber. Yes, that’s what those irises reminded him of, the deep black of another life, from another time, caught in an amber ball, waiting to be unleashed.

Slowly, he came to realize that the white surrounding that amber was intensified by the blackness of the woman’s face. Adam had never before seen skin so richly black, and shockingly, stunningly beautiful. She looked ethereal, like something coming alive out of the pages of a book, a goddess from ancient times, a creature both animal and human, as captivating as she was deadly. She was tall, too, her eyes on a level with his own. Tall and thin, she was more sinewy than skeletal. He could imagine her lithe form slipping through the trees beyond the cabin with the grace of a woodland nymph.

“Hecate,” Hannah’s voice said from somewhere ahead of Adam.

Hecate. It was the name of a Greek goddess, a moon goddess, if Adam could remember correctly.

The goddess before him neither moved from his path, nor turned her gaze. As she continued to stare at him, his thoughts conjured an image of a black cat making ready to go for his throat.

“Hecate!” Hannah called more sternly.

Finally, the goddess’s eyes shifted. Her right shoulder dipped and she turned away, every move like a dancer in a ballet.

And then another scream sounded from the bedroom beyond, and suddenly Adam was forgotten. The Nubian woman named Hecate thrust her rifle into Hannah’s hand and then drew back the curtain separating the bedroom from the rest of the cabin.

“Go!” she commanded to someone inside. The word was pronounced in a way Adam had never heard before, a way that somehow gave it more power.

An instant later, a much shorter, very young, red-headed woman slipped out of the room, her gaze landing briefly on Adam before darting away in fear. She threw her arms around Hannah as the curtain slipped back into place behind her.

“She’s gonna die, Hannah!” the red-head cried. “I just know she’s gonna die!”

But Hannah pushed her away. “She is not going to die, Lucy! Now get a hold of yourself!”

“She is!” Lucy argued. “She is gonna die! The baby ain’t comin’ right! It ain’t comin’ right at all!”

Surprisingly, Hannah slapped her. “She can hear you, you fool!” Hannah hissed in a low, menacing tone. “Now, either pull yourself together or get out of here!”

“We’d best get Doc Martin,” Hoss said as Lucy ran outside. His tone was firm, but his eyes revealed his discomfort with the young woman’s hysteria and the persistent sounds of moaning from the other side of that bedroom curtain.

“No!” Hannah shot back. “No doctor,” she said again, more softly.

“She needs a doctor,” Adam argued.

“It isn’t possible.”

“Why not?”

Hannah glared at him. Pulling her back as perfectly straight as it had been before, she regained her regal stance. “As you must surely have determined by now, we are on the run, Mr. Cartwright. All of us. I had hopes that the Ponderosa could shield us, at least long enough for Agnes to deliver that child she was too stubborn to shed herself of months ago.”

“So you did know you were trespassing,” Adam pressed, ignoring the disturbing undertone of her words.

She cocked her head. “With good cause, Mr. Cartwright, I assure y…”

Another scream, this one from outside the cabin, stopped Hannah cold. Adam was about to race outside when a rifle shot exploded beside him. He looked to the Chinese woman still perched at the window as she pulled back the lever, preparing another round.

“Joe!” Hoss shouted, running through the door.

*****

Moments earlier, Joe had left Cochise hidden in the trees, and then crept forward, his gun already in hand. As soon as he had the cabin in his sights, he slipped from tree to tree, edging ever closer until he reached his last hope for cover. He held himself tightly against the trunk of a large pine tree, his eyes locked on the cabin.

Sport and Chubb were hitched to the post in the front yard, but there was no sign of their riders. Joe could only assume his brothers were inside. He had to assume someone else was in there as well, someone who had already fired once on Adam and Hoss. One thing Joe could not assume was whether or not either of his brothers had been hit; and from this vantage he had no hope of finding an answer to that very critical question.

He was about to make a dash for the side of the cabin when a young woman ran outside sobbing. She rushed toward him, clearly oblivious to where she was going. He ducked back behind the tree, listening as she approached closer and closer…and then…too close. She threw herself against the very same tree.

Glancing briefly up at Heaven in exasperation, Joe held himself perfectly still, stifling his own breaths as he listened to hers, coming ragged and harsh with her desperate, pain-wrought tears. And then…Joe began to wonder what it was that had caused those tears. Was she crying because someone else inside that cabin had hurt Joe’s brothers…or worse, killed them?

Suddenly feeling a desperation of his own, Joe cast another glance upward before daring to break his cover.

“Shhh,” he whispered without moving as he slid his gun back into its holster. “It’s alright. I won’t hurt you.”

He heard the girl’s breath catch.

“It’s alright. I promise, you. It’s alright.” He eased himself away from the tree. His gaze met hers.

Her eyes went wide a split second before her mouth did the same. She screamed.

“I won’t hurt you!” Joe said louder, his hands gripping her shoulders. “I won’t…”

With the crack of a rifle, something slammed into Joe’s foot, dropping him to the ground.

Since his hands were still locked on the woman’s shoulders, she came down with him, but she was quick to slither away, her own hands slapping at his face and shoulders as she extricated herself from his grip. An instant later she was on her feet, running toward another tree and then planting herself against it as though it were a shield.

Joe watched her watching him, her chest rising and falling with quick, unsteady breaths, until a harsh click like an angry slap drew her gaze back toward the cabin, and Joe’s as well. He knew that sound, the cocking of a rifle. Whoever had shot at him a moment earlier was preparing to try again, and this time he was out in the open.

“Joe!” Hoss’ voice pulled Joe’s attention from the rifle at the window to the welcome sight of his brother running through the cabin door.

Relieved, Joe pushed himself up far enough to examine the damage done to his foot, but before he even had the chance to look at it, Hoss was hovering over him. “Where’d she hit you, boy?”

Joe looked at him, confused. “She?”

Hoss nodded. “Little Chinese gal. A crack shot, if you ask me. My guess is if she’d wanted to kill you, she would have.”

“She?” Joe asked again. And then suddenly he found himself the center of attention, surrounded by a small crowd of women and the wary gazes of both of his brothers.

*****

When a group of riders came into the yard, Ben quickly summed them up as either a bedraggled posse or a group of outlaws. The lack of any apparent badges on display made him particularly wary, and he wondered as to the lateness of his sons. They should have been back two hours ago.

“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked the obvious leader, a man whose clothes looked fresher than the others. His cheeks were clean shaven, his dark hair neatly combed and his posture arrow straight.

The man looked down at Ben as a nobleman might a peasant, seemingly appalled by the need to speak with such a ruffian. “Is this the residence of Benjamin Cartwright?”

“Yes. It is.”

The man curled his lip and tsked as in disgust. Then he slowly dismounted. “You will take me to him at once.”

“There’s no need,” Ben replied curtly, angered by the man’s arrogant tone. “I am Ben Cartwright.”

“You?”

“Yes!” Ben snapped. “And you are?”

“Richard Jameson Ellingsworth, the third.” He looked at the house while he spoke, as though Ben didn’t deserve his full attention. Then he began to take off his riding gloves, slowly, finger by finger. “I have come for my wife,” he said, finally focusing his gaze on Ben although he drew his head slightly back as he did so, until he was quite literally looking down his nose at Ben.

“Here?” Ben asked.

“Yes. Here.”

“Mr. Ellingsworth, I don’t even know who your wife is. Why on earth would you expect to find her here?”

“Because, Mr. Cartwright, we have been following her trail for the past three weeks and frankly I’m tired of doing so. She is on the Ponderosa, of that I can assure you. Now will you bring her to me, or must I search your property myself?”

“The only thing you will do is leave!”

A tilt of the man’s head was apparently enough of a gesture to drive the other men from their saddles, their movements making it very clear they aimed to search Ben’s house.

“Now you wait just a minute! You have no business here! I demand that you leave at once!”

“You are in no position to make demands, Mr. Cartwright.” The sound of several guns cocking emphasized Ellingsworth’s words.

“How dare you!” Ben argued.

“I will find my wife, Mr. Cartwright. And the property she stole from me. Now you can help me or stand aside. Those are your two best options. The third one won’t appeal to you in the slightest, I’m afraid.”

*****

Inside the cabin, Adam examined the blood-stained hole in Joe’s boot. The bullet had lodged itself in the bone of Joe’s heel, and they’d had to cut the boot off to reach it.

“My husband is a powerful man, Mr. Cartwright,” Hannah said after some degree of quiet was restored within the cabin. “A dangerous man.”

Adam set down the boot and stepped away from the kitchen, where a seemingly shy blonde woman was stitching up Joe’s wound under Hoss’ watchful eye. “I’d say these sisters of yours are pretty dangerous, themselves.” He noticed the blonde woman sharing a telling glance with Hannah; but Hannah quickly shook her head and turned away.

“The girls do what they need to,” Hannah said after Adam followed her outside. “We all do what we need to. It’s unlikely any of us would still be alive if we didn’t.”

“She didn’t need to shoot my brother,” Adam said angrily, hoping the young Chinese woman could hear him from her continued perch at the window. “He hadn’t even drawn his gun.”

“Millie already explained it looked as though he was going to strangle Lucy. She’d seen it happen before; she wasn’t about to let it happen again.”

“Millie? That’s the name of your Chinese marksman? I’m sorry, I mean markswoman? And the other Chinese woman is Mary, I presume?”

“Charlotte.”

“Of course,” Adam smiled cynically and shook his head. Finally he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose and then demanded, “Why don’t you just tell me once and for all who these women are, and why you’re here?”

“That is precisely what I was beginning to do inside, Mr. Cartwright.”

“When you said your husband is a dangerous man,” Adam deduced.

“Yes.”

“So he’s the one you’re all running from.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

She took a deep breath, locking her eyes onto Adam’s. “Because he owns each and every one of these women, and I stole them from him.”

“He owns them? How is that…”

“He is a slave trader, Mr. Cartwright, and as you can see from the differences among these women, I mean that in more ways than the most obvious one. Hecate, of course, came straight from Africa, on one of the many merchant ships in his fleet.”

“You’re telling me your husband has an entire fleet of ships trading in slaves?”

“He has a fleet, yes, but not all of them trade in slaves. Some trade in things far more tolerable, such as silks or tea…although even those ships can occasionally take on stowaways who become slaves in the end.” Her gaze strayed to the windows where the Chinese markswomen remained poised. “As I told you, my husband is powerful. Unfortunately, the more powerful he becomes, the more bored he becomes. Recently, that boredom has led him to some enticingly new methods for trading in human flesh.” She spat these last words as though they sat like acid on her tongue.

“Such as….”

“Agnes, for example.”

Adam followed her glance toward where the bedroom lie on the other side of that whitewashed wall, and he wondered anew as to how quiet it had grown inside. The young woman had not gone silent, but her cries were certainly quieter than they had been. Hecate must know something about what she was doing for the woman.

“She was enticed out here to become a mail-order bride, but she refused the wretch who paid for her. As a result, she became indentured to my husband, who had brokered the entire thing. And my husband, the wise businessman that he is, discovered that she could repay him most effectively by working on her back.”

“I see. So the father…?”

“Could be any one of a dozen men, including my husband, himself.” Clenching her jaw, she shook her head slightly before continuing. “The stories for the others are not much different. Although Hecate is the only one he owns outright, the others are no less slaves than she. But….”

“But?” Adam prompted.

“The others accepted that they should never allow a pregnancy to continue.”

“Why would that be so wrong?” Adam asked. “Isn’t it worse to…”

“No!” Hannah shouted. “No,” she repeated more softly. “You do know what sort of a world it is for orphans, Mr. Cartwright. Don’t you?”

“Orphans?”

“Women in my husband’s…service…are made well aware of his rules, and one of those rules is no children. The moment Agnes’s child was weaned it would have been taken from her. My husband would prefer to fill an orphanage than…endure…a herd of…miserable children.”

“So you left to save her from losing her child.”

“It was time, Mr. Cartwright. It was…past time. We all should have left long ago.”

“Adam?” Hoss’ voice pulled his attention to the doorway. “We done what we could for Joe,” he went on after he stepped closer. “But the way that bullet hit, there could be some bone chips we missed. I’d sure like to have Doc Martin get a look at it.”

“No,” Hannah said softly. “Please.”

“Doc Martin’s a good man, ma’am,” Hoss assured her. “He won’t bring harm to any of you.”

“But don’t you see?” Hannah’s tone was pleading, far different from her earlier, regal manner. “He’ll be noticed. He’ll be followed. Please. We cannot draw any attention.”

“Why don’t you let us worry about that?” Adam suggested.

“Why should I trust you to worry about it?” Hannah asked.

“Because you can.”

She studied him for a long while before turning to Hoss to study him as well. Adam had the impression she was looking for confirmation of some sort, as though she already knew something about the Cartwrights. Whatever that something was, it had drawn her to the Ponderosa, specifically. And whatever it was, she must have seen what she had hoped to see. She nodded.

*****

Joe didn’t like it one bit when Hoss stepped away.

Hoss patted Joe on the shoulder, gave a light squeeze and said, “You’re in mighty fine hands, little brother. Thank you, Miss Emily,” he added, nodding his head and giving her an appreciative smile. “I don’t think he could find himself a better nurse.”

The young woman seemed to blush, but as she turned away, giving her attention to the strips of cloth that had been set aside for bandages, there was something about her eyes that made Joe think she might be more angry than bashful. Why would she be angry at Hoss?

“I don’t like to see anything hurting, Mr. Cartwright,” she answered in a tight voice.

Anything? It could have been a slip of the tongue. Surely she’d meant ‘anyone.’ But Joe found her use of the word troubling. He looked to his brother, but Hoss didn’t seem to be bothered at all.

“You can just call me Hoss, miss.”

She nodded, saying nothing, and then started to wrap a bandage around Joe’s heel and ankle.

As Hoss walked away, Joe glanced unhappily at his brother’s retreating back before focusing his attention on Emily. He couldn’t seem to look away then; it was almost as though he was afraid to look away. He watched her, noting how gently she worked. She really was a good nurse, Joe decided. But there was something about her, something distant…or maybe it was something that was absent. She had no expression, none whatsoever. She didn’t look angry anymore. In fact, she didn’t look anything anymore, and now that the rosy shading of her cheeks had faded, she looked too pale. It wasn’t so much that she looked ill as that she looked…wrong—only Joe couldn’t explain even to himself what he meant by that. She just…didn’t look right, somehow.

Hearing the door, Joe turned toward it in time to see Hoss disappearing outside…and an odd surge of panic welled up within him. He wanted to call out, to tell Hoss he needed him. It was silly and stupid and childish…but somehow feeling childish at that moment was less disturbing than the thought of being trapped in his own…in Laura’s cabin at the mercy of a small group of strange women who acted as though they were haunted by a herd of ghosts of their own.

No, Joe told himself. He was letting the cabin get to him again; there was nothing more to it than that. Taking a deep breath, he tried to settle back into the chair, and then willed himself to smile. “My brother’s right,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better nurse.” When he said the words, he felt more at ease, accepting the truth in them. “Thank you.” He nudged his smile even wider. “I really do apprecia…”

She pulled the bandage tight…too tight…so tight Joe felt pain far beyond where the bullet had struck him.

“Hey!” he called out. “What was that fo…” He met her eyes and lost his voice. There was a darkness in their blue depths, a coldness that chilled him through and through. “What’s wrong?” he asked softly.

Saying nothing in response, she turned away and disappeared through the curtain into the bedroom. When he heard her asking Hecate what she could do to help, it was clear Joe had lost his nurse for good.

Fine, he decided. He’d had more than enough of that cabin, anyway. He leaned forward to loosen the final strip of cloth, and then cautiously pushed himself to his feet — or to his good foot, anyway. That was as far as he was going to get without a walking stick of some kind. Trouble was, the only thing within reach that might come close to substituting for a cane was the poker for the fireplace. The sharp end would no doubt embed itself into the wood flooring, impeding his progress and irreparably damaging the floor. Fine, he decided again. Impeding his progress was acceptable as long as he was making progress. As to damaging the floor, the entire cabin was already irreparably damaged; it belonged to the ghosts now. It would never be a fitting place to live.

If only he had realized that long ago, he would never have encouraged Laura to come here, and then maybe….

Stop it! he scolded himself silently. Laura had been dying. They’d all known she was dying. The cabin had nothing to do with it. But…he could still feel her there, even now, even surrounded as he was by women with guns and steel in their eyes. He could feel her….

Joe let his gaze cross the cabin. He could see Laura sitting in that chair, her own gaze locked on the cradle Adam had made for them. Fresh tears pooled in his eyes as he remembered her smile. Absently, he followed her line of sight, but…the cradle was gone. For an instant, his breath caught. He could almost believe his heart stopped. And then a woman cried out softly but urgently, groaning more than shrieking, and Joe had no doubt where the cradle was now. A woman was about to give birth. A baby was coming into this cabin. He should be glad. Life was coming where only death had been before. He should be happy. But it was the wrong baby. It wasn’t Laura’s. It wasn’t his.

Damn, this cabin! Its ghosts did nothing but muddle his thoughts. He needed to be shed of it. He needed to get outside. Maybe then he could think clearly again; even if he couldn’t, at least he’d be with his brothers.

He pulled the poker out of the deep hole it had gouged into the floor and started his slow trek to the door.

*****

Hoss had his back to the door when Joe stepped outside. “I’ll just go in and let Little Joe know.”

“Let me know what?”

Swiveling around to face him, Hoss gave Joe a look of consternation that twisted up his whole face. “Dadburnit, Little Joe! What are you doin’ on that foot? You’re gonna go and make it worse before it even has a chance to start gettin’ better!”

Before Joe could argue, he was swept up and carried across the porch. “I’m fine!” he tried shouting. “Would you just…I’m fine, Hoss!”

“You’re just too stubborn for your own good!” Hoss said right over Joe’s complaints.

An instant later Joe found himself roughly deposited into one of two porch chairs the man from Kentucky had left behind. More ghosts, Joe realized as he ran his thumb along the weather-roughened wood.

“You’d be better off inside.” Adam’s voice pulled Joe’s attention away from things he’d rather not think about, and he smiled sadly at the unexpected rescue.

“No,” Joe said in soft defiance as he raised his eyes from the poker in his oldest brother’s hand to the wiser-older-brother look Adam sent down to him. “I wouldn’t.”

Surprisingly, Adam seemed to understand. He gave one brief nod and then changed the subject. “With any luck we’ll be back before nightfall. But, Hoss, think you can find him a walking stick that will be a little more effective and a lot less damaging than this one if he changes his mind before then?” Adam grinned as he shook the poker in Hoss’ direction.

“What are you planning to do?” Joe asked, anxiety suddenly tying his belly into knots.

Adam’s grin faded. “I’m heading up to the house; Pa needs to know what’s going on. And Hoss is riding into Virginia City to get Doc Martin and talk to the sheriff.”

Joe glanced toward Hoss while his middle brother pulled over the other chair so Joe could prop up his injured foot. “That’s right, little brother. We got it all figured out.”

When Hoss winked at him, Joe glared back. “You got it all figure out, huh? How do you figure I fit into all of what you’ve got figured out?”

Hoss gave him a sheepish grin, his eyes moving between Adam and Joe. “We sort of figured you could stay here and keep an eye on things.”

“I’ll go back with Adam,” Joe declared.

“Joe,” Adam sighed, “Hoss is right; it’d be better if you stayed off that foot for a while. The ride will only aggravate it. And besides…I’d prefer not to leave these women alone. Don’t you agree?”

“No, Adam, I don’t agree.” They’d shot him, for heaven’s sake! Couldn’t Adam realize that?

“They could use an extra gun,” Adam said.

“They seem to be perfectly good at shooting, or haven’t you noticed what they did to my foot?”

“Come on, Joe,” Hoss pleaded, his gaze straying to the windows. “I sort of thought you’d have your eye on that blonde gal,” he added in a whisper. “You gotta admit she’s a pretty little thing.”

Joe’s glare got about as icy as that pretty little blonde gal’s had been — or at least he hoped it did.

“Joe,” Adam added, “We have to figure Ellingsworth’s close by. Hannah told us they cleared their tracks. Hoss will take care of anything they missed on his way out, but we can’t take any chances. I don’t like the idea of leaving these women out here alone.”

“And I don’t like the idea of being alone with these women,” Joe shot back in a soft, but meaningful tone.

Adam grinned again. “Now, Hoss, did you ever think you’d hear words like that coming out of our little brother’s mouth?”

“No, Adam. I never did. You reckon he’s got a fever or somethin’?”

Adam’s grin spread wider. “I reckon maybe he does.”

“Well, then I suppose it’s settled. Cain’t ride if he’s got a fever.”

“I’m riding!” Joe fumed.

“Not without a horse, you’re not,” Hoss threatened.

“You wouldn’t!”

Finally, Adam looked outward and heaved a long, deep sigh. He raised the rim of his hat and then settled it back on his head. “One of us needs to stay here, Joe.”

“Fine. You stay. I’ll tell Pa.”

“You won’t be fast enough, and Ellingsworth might already be there. I can leave my horse in the trees, and check things out on foot. You, on the other hand….” He shrugged.

Joe looked to Hoss, prepared to take up that part of the plan. But then his foot started throbbing, and he knew the ride to Virginia City would probably be unbearable. He also knew they needed Hoss’ skills to be sure none of the women’s tracks really were left behind.

Heaving a far smaller sigh than Adam had, Joe shook his head. “Just be quick, will you?”

Adam patted his shoulder. “You’ll barely even miss us.”

“The women won’t,” Joe said softly.

“The women won’t what?” Hoss asked.

“The women won’t miss. So you’d better let them know you’re coming. Especially if you’re not back before dark.”

Hoss curled his lip like he was feeling sick, and glanced at the window again. “Yeah, I reckon you’re right at that, little brother.”

*****

Hannah came around the side of the cabin as Joe’s brothers rode off. Joe studied her as she watched them. How much of what she said could they really trust? Joe wanted to believe she was sincere; there was something in her eyes, something far different from what he’d seen in Emily’s. But what about the others? What about Emily, herself? Could Hannah really trust them?

As though she felt his eyes on her, Hannah turned toward Joe, and he forced a smile. She didn’t even try to smile back.

“Just be quick, will you?” Joe mumbled once more just before Hoss disappeared around the bend.

*****

Ben sat at his desk, studying the stranger sitting across from him. To a casual observer, it might look as though they were simply two men discussing business, but it was not a discussion into which Ben would have chosen to enter. Nor would he have chosen to bother with entertaining the man sitting before him. Ben’s presence in his own home at his own desk had been compulsory. Although not a single gun had been drawn, the message had been clear. Mr. Ellingsworth was in charge.

“I don’t play games, Cartwright.” Ellingsworth’s dark eyes looked directly into Ben’s. “And I believe I know enough about your character to recognize you don’t either.”

“How could you know anything about my character?”

“Because I’ve investigated you, as I would anyone with whom I consider doing business.”

“What gave you the right?”

“Business. That gave me the right. Are you telling me you would blindly enter into any business arrangement with a man about whom you know nothing?”

“This is no business arrangement.”

“Oh, but it could be. I do most of my ship building on the east coast, but I have been looking into some shipyards to the west. I could consider contracting with you to supply some of this fine timber of yours.”

“Are you insane? You barge into my home making thinly veiled threats, and yet you think I would seriously consider doing business with you?”

“Business is business, Cartwright. You take your dealings where you find them, when you find them. It doesn’t matter what else might be going on at the time.”

“Of course, it matters!”

“That is your weakness. That is precisely why you will never attain more than you have. It is also why I elected not to approach you after I had finished speaking with some of our mutual acquaintances as to the nature of your character.”

“And yet you’re here.” Ben put as much venom into the statement as he could.

“Yes. I am here. I am here because we must do business, after all.”

“No,” Ben said flatly. “You should have stayed with your initial assessment. I will do no business with you.”

“You will have no choice. It appears my business and yours have intersected. My wife is my business. My property is my business. And according to the keen eyes of my men, you have both of them right here on your property, which is, of course, your business.”

“If they are on my property, I will find them. And then I will talk with your wife. I will hear what she has to say before I make any commitments to you.”

“What she has to say is irrelevant.”

“Of course, it’s relevant!” Ben shouted. “She may have some property you own, but you certainly do not own her.”

“‘Oh, but I do! ‘Til death do us part, after all.”

The man really was insane. “Leave my house, Mr. Ellingsworth,” Ben demanded, yet again. “Take your men and get out of here. You can wait in Virginia City. After I get some answers, I will find you.”

“Those terms are unacceptable.”

“I could file charges against you for trespassing.”

“And I could file charges against you for possession of stolen property.”

“Then so be it. Since we appear to be at an impasse, we can let the courts decide.”

“I will not leave here without my wife.”

“And I will not work with you to find her.”

*****

Adam slipped back into the shadows when two of Ellingsworth’s men started to approach the house. He’d heard enough of the conversation anyway, thanks to the open window and the booming voice that was always a telltale sign of his father’s anger.

If they could keep Ellingsworth and his men right there at the house, then Adam and his brothers might stand a chance of getting Hannah and the other women into town, where Sheriff Coffee and the Cartwrights’ own lawyer, Hiram Wood, could help them sort this business without the use of guns. It was a long shot, of course. Hannah was unlikely to go anywhere until that baby was born and its mother was recovered enough to travel. But it might be the only shot they had, given the amount of men Ellingsworth had apparently brought with him. The number of horses alone indicated Ellingsworth had a small army.

Keeping his eye on the men by the front door, Adam eased himself back around the corner of the house…and right into the barrel of a gun.

*****

Those ladies had covered their tracks awfully well. Someone among them obviously knew more than a thing or two about tracking. Hecate, most likely. Hoss had heard enough about Africa to know those folks lived in tribes. If African tribes were anything like Indian tribes, then Hannah should count herself lucky to have a woman like that with her.

Even so, Hoss found a few spots they’d overlooked. It was peculiar, actually; and the more he thought on it, the more peculiar it got. Why would Hecate and the rest of them gals go to all that trouble to erase everything else, but leave a torn piece of cloth on a twig? Or a broken shoe in the rocks?

A good tracker would catch their trail without much trouble at all if he was looking close enough, but there was still a chance Hannah’s husband would have missed it if he focused too much on the road to the main house. Now, that was a trail that showed plenty signs of passage. Ellingsworth and whoever he had with him could figure his wife aimed for her tracks to get all jumbled up with the others.

Yep, there were plenty of signs on that main road, alright. Plenty….

Hoss pulled back on Chubb’s reins and looked behind him, trying to figure what he would do if he were among Ellingsworth’s men, expert tracker or not.

He would aim for this road. Because it was too clean.

“Dadburnit,” he said out loud. He’d better stop staring down so much and start making sure he was looking deep into the trees, too.

*****

A cocked gun jabbing into his ribs was enough to get Adam to move as he was told, but not to keep him from talking. “I assume Mr. Ellingsworth would want to know I was eavesdropping,” he said, wondering why he was being herded to the back of the house rather than toward the front door.

“All Mr. Ellingsworth wants to know,” the man behind him answered, his voice low and smooth, “is where to find what we came for. And it’s just as well for you to tell me.”

“How can I tell you something I don’t know?”

“Adam Cartwright.” His name was spoken like an announcement, a pure statement of fact. “Dark hair. Tall. Wears black most times. Rides a chestnut horse.”

This was no common, hired gun, Adam realized then. Both the way the man spoke and the fact that he’d been armed with information along with that gun in his hand marked him as something other than the usual occupants of Roy Coffee’s jail.

“Alright,” Adam answered slowly. “So you know who I am. What’s that got to do with Mr. Ellingsworth’s property?”

“You run this ranch as much as your pa does. The hands call you boss.”

“That’s not an answer.” So, this man had spoken with some of the ranch hands. Where were those hands now? “Do I need to repeat my question?” Adam added as they approached the main corral.

“Why would a boss like you be sneaking around his own property? Why would he need to eavesdrop?”

“You seem to have all the answers already, so why don’t you tell me?”

“Only reason that makes any sense would be that you’d already talked with Hannah.”

There were several men surrounding the corral, none of whom looked familiar. They were watching the new stallion pacing and shaking its head. In fact, they were starting to encourage the horse’s nervous behavior, taking turns whooping and hollering and waving their hats. And all that ruckus combined with the stallion’s antics was starting to work up the other horses, too. Much more, and that split rail fencing would soon come crashing down. And it wasn’t just the fencing that would be damaged. Some of the horses were bound to get injured, and any man unfortunate enough to get in the way could very well be killed.

“What other earthly reason could a boss like you have to be sneaking around his own house?” the gunman went on.

“I’d say he’d have a pretty good reason to, after seeing that house was surrounded by hired guns.” Adam studied some of the faces now glancing his way. “And,” he added, “the fact that his own hired men had been replaced without either his knowledge or his authorization.”

“Replaced?” The gunman chuckled. “To say they were replaced would suggest these men were here to work for you. But they call me boss. And they’re probably as loyal to me as your men are to you. That’s because I don’t just work them hard; I give them chances to play hard, too.”

They stopped at the gate, where two men glared at Adam with a cold anxiousness that looked as wild as the stallion.

Pulling the gun away, the gunman moved beside Adam then. He leaned against the fence and nudged his hat up enough to lift the shadows from his eyes. When he looked at Adam, his face wore a different kind of shadow, one that came with week-old growth. He had a cold glare too, but his was different from the others. It was darker somehow and more deadly, showing as much wisdom as wildness. “We’ve sparred long enough. Now it’s time for you to tell me about Hannah.”

“Who’s Hannah?”

The gunman turned away from Adam to focus on the stallion. “I’m sure you’ve broken a few horses in your day.”

Adam said nothing.

“I’m sure you’ve also seen what one of those horses can do to a man who turns his back on it too soon. Rider like that thinks he’s in control already, but the horse still has wild thoughts of its own. When a man gets too confidant, it can get him hurt pretty bad, maybe even killed.”

“Is that your way of threatening me?”

“No, sir. It is simply a statement of fact. And the fact is, you’ve spoken with Hannah. Now you could make it easier on all of us and tell me where she is. If you don’t, though, it’s no matter. My men will figure it out soon enough anyway by following your tracks.” He gave his focus back to Adam. “What I’d really like to know from you is who does she still have with her?”

Adam stared at him, trying to keep his expression untroubled despite his confusion. “Why would that matter?”

“It doesn’t. Not to you. So you might as well tell me. After all, the boys are about as restless as those horses, maybe even a little bit more.”

One of the men grabbed Adam’s arm. The other started to throw open the gate. And when Adam looked at the stallion, he could swear it looked back at him with challenge in its eyes.

*****

A ruckus out back pulled Ben’s attention from the intruder sitting in Ben’s own leather chair, sipping Ben’s brandy and puffing on one of Ben’s finest cigars. Despite the urgency Richard Jameson Ellingsworth had displayed earlier, seeming intent on having Ben mount up and take him directly to his wife, wherever she might be, the man had very patiently and casually poured himself the brandy, selected a cigar, and seated himself beside the fireplace.

Ben had been left to wonder what Ellingsworth’s men were doing in the meantime, and what, in heaven’s name, had become of his sons?

Grunting in annoyance, Ben glanced toward the front door and started to rise. That ruckus outside could very well mean his sons had finally returned — and had already encountered Ellingsworth’s men.

“I’d say that’s more likely my boys than yours,” Ellingsworth said.

“And just what do you know about my boys?” Standing now, Ben moved his gaze between Mr. Ellingsworth and the door.

“Enough.” A circle of smoke rose upward from Ellingsworth’s rounded mouth before he returned his own attention to Ben. “Enough to figure they might be even more stubborn than you. But my boys will employ certain tactics that transcend the realm of business. I have no doubt they will succeed.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Persuasion. There is a certain art to it that my foreman has mastered quite well. Of course, I pay him handsomely for his services. Even a king cannot count on loyalty if he does not provide sufficient dispensation.”

The implications behind Ellingsworth’s words shifted annoyance to fear. Was Ellingsworth’s foreman already at work persuadingBen’s sons to provide answers they might not even have to offer?

With another grunt that could almost have been a growl, Ben stormed to the front door and threw it open. He did not stop as guns were raised in his direction. He wasted no time cowering at the possibility of being shot. He’d be damned if he’d give any one of those men such power over him. ‘Persuasion’ could very well mean ‘torture,’ and if any of Ben’s sons was enduring that sort of persuasion he was going to make certain it was brought to an end at once.

*****

Adam was on the wrong side of the fence when the horses started to move together, instinct prompting them to follow the stallion as it circled and then criss-crossed the corral. Any moment now, they would aim for the wooden rails and keep going.

“Don’t run!” he could hear Joe shouting at a greenhorn rider, as he had a few weeks earlier. “You’ll just make them run after you. You’ve got to move with them! Make them think you’re one of them.”

It had been good advice. It had probably saved that kid’s life. But there had just been one greenhorn cowboy and a small herd of horses then. This was different, because this herd was being stirred up by a bunch of hired guns who seemed pretty eager to see Adam get trampled.

“How do you expect me to tell you anything if I’m dead?” Adam shouted without taking his eyes from the horses.

“Just keep talking!” the leader shouted back. “As soon as you say something I want to hear, we’ll get you out of there!”

Like Hell, you will, Adam thought. The men were as stirred up as the horses. They wanted to see blood. Adam’s blood. The only way Adam was getting out of there was under those horses’ hooves…unless…

Unless he could somehow mount one.

“You’ve got to move with them!” Joe had shouted at that greenhorn.

Adam did what he could to follow that same advice, but it wasn’t going to be enough, not in the long run. He could move with the horses right up until they aimed for the rails. And then he would stumble. And then those men would get the show they’d been waiting for; Adam’s blood would be splattered from here to wherever those horses went until dust and pine needles began to scour it from their hooves.

Staring at that lead horse, that stallion, Adam envisioned Little Joe effortlessly swinging onto its back.

Adam had never tried the technique, himself. He’d never seen the need; practicing that sort of mount would just be a foolish waste of precious time. Back when Joe had mastered the skill, he’d been a young boy with both time and energy to spare, while Adam had already been an experienced cowboy in his own right, one who was too busy working the ranch to play games with horses that had jobs of their own to do.

Adam had plenty of energy now, but it was the energy of fear, of need, not of youth. And he very definitely did not have time.

Could he do it? After watching Joe all these years, could he do it, himself…without practice, without the luxury of trial and error?

Definitely not with the stallion, he knew; probably not with any of the others, either, but if he was going to try, it made the most sense to aim for the smallest, least aggressive animal. After all, he would have only one chance. If he failed, he would fall. And if he fell…well, there wouldn’t be anything left for him to think about after that. He’d be dead. That’s all there was to it.

*****

Ben’s heart nearly stopped when he realized Adam was in that corral among a small herd of agitated, frightened horses. He stood frozen, transfixed by the desperate sight, horrified at the way Ellingsworth’s men goaded those horses on, as though they wanted to see Adam trampled.

Persuasion. That’s what Ellingsworth had called it. Ben could only call it murder.

No. He couldn’t let it happen. He couldn’t watch it happen.

Ben moved then. He started running, demanding his feet to carry him faster than they possibly could. It was too far. He was too old. And…and it was already too late. He lost sight of Adam not a moment before the horses crashed through the fencing rails like a massive wave breaking across the hull of a ship and shattering it to splinters.

God, no!

Once more, Ben froze. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He could only watch as the horses stampeded across the yard away from him.

He could only watch…following the path they were taking rather the one where they’d been.

He could only watch…as the horses faded one by one into the trees.

He couldn’t look back. He couldn’t bring himself to see…But he had to…. He…had to…

He turned his gaze slowly, already heartsick at what he knew he would find.

And then…

Then he saw a lone rider. A dark-haired man clad entirely in black was riding a red roan at the rear of the herd. He was bent low over the horse’s neck as the horse raced behind the others, surely as desperate to stay with its herd as the rider was to stay mounted on its back.

Unimaginably…unbelievably…Ben knew that rider was Adam.

And Adam not only stayed mounted, he rode that roan like he was born to be astride its back…as though he’d been listening to Little Joe all these years, after all. Because that was exactly what Adam looked like; he looked like Little Joe, riding recklessly…riding too fast without proper tack, without any tack at all.

Yes, it was Adam.

And although gunfire was now chasing him, Ben had no doubt that horse would carry his son as far as Adam needed to go, and no amount of persuasion would pull him back unless he came on his own terms.

Smiling now…breathing again…Ben watched until every one of those horses blended into the trees, and then he decided he was ready to tell Richard Jameson Ellingsworth just how much dispensation his foreman’s art of persuasion was worth.

*****

Hoss never would have believed it if he hadn’t seen it for himself. Almost as soon as he heard the horses coming his way, he heard his brother, Adam, calling out to him.

“Ride, Hoss! Ride!”

And then Adam flew by so fast Hoss could hardly even see who it was. But, sure as heaven, he knew that voice. That was Adam, alright, even though he was riding like Hoss had never seen him ride before, bareback and about as swift as an arrow, and…well…riding more like Joe than Adam.

Just as quick as Adam passed him, Hoss saw the others coming up on Adam’s tail. He knew he didn’t have time to dally in wonder then. He didn’t even have time to watch for any more of those ladies’ signs. All he could do was follow his brother.

Hoss kicked his heels into Chubb’s hind quarters and raced Adam all the way into Virginia City.

*****

Anger and frustration roiled up inside Joe. How long was he supposed to sit there, alone on the cabin’s front porch, listening to a woman crying out through childbirth and waiting for his brothers — or worse, Hannah’s husband? There had to be something he could do; but what should he do? The women had made it clear they neither needed nor wanted whatever limited protection he could offer, laid up as he was with an injured foot that they, themselves, had caused. Both Lucy, the redhead, and Emily, the blonde, spoke to him only at Hannah’s bidding, and even then they eyed him with a coldness he found unsettling. With each passing minute, Joe’s need to walk away…to ride away grew more insistent, until he finally decided to do exactly that.

He reached for the walking stick beside him, a branch formed into a near-perfect crutch Hoss had found, and started to push himself to his feet.

“Is there something I can get for you?” a woman’s soft voice called from the doorway.

Surprised, Joe looked up to find Emily approaching with a small tray. “No,” he answered, confused. “Thank you.” He placed the crutch under his arm, steadying himself while she moved a coffee cup and a small glass of whiskey from the tray to the porch railing. “What’s this?”

When she met his gaze, Emily actually smiled. “It will help with the pain, and perhaps settle your nerves.”

My nerves don’t need settling! he shouted inside him. But he bit the words back as he tried to make sense of her actions. He wanted to ask why she was suddenly concerned for his well-being. Instead, he offered another bewildered, “Thank you,” and then tried to hobble away. “I thought I’d check on my horse.” Unfortunately, every time his foot touched the ground, he felt the shock of pain all the way up to his hip. He felt a growing wetness as well; danged if it wasn’t bleeding again.

“Your horse is fine.”

Joe gave his attention back to Emily. She was still smiling.

“He’s in back with the others,” she went on. “He’s a lovely animal.”

“Thank you,” Joe said yet again, more confused than ever as he reached the porch steps.

“I should check the bandages,” Emily said behind him. “The more you try to walk, the more it will bleed.”

“It’s fine,” Joe argued. But it wasn’t, and he knew it. He froze, clamping his jaw shut to avoid crying out when his foot touched a rock on the hard, sandy ground.

“It’s red, you know,” Emily said.

Joe looked down and saw she was right. He was bleeding through. Sighing he looked back at her. This time, he smiled back, silently admitting defeat. “I suppose I should have let you check when you offered to.”

“I’ll get some fresh bandages.”

Joe watched her hurry back inside the cabin. Then he turned around and hobbled right back to where he’d started, deciding he was thankful for the whiskey, after all.

*****

“I’m tired of all this.”

The words came to Joe in far away whispers wafting through a strange fog.

“I want my money,” the woman added in an impatient, breathy tone.

The sound was faint, the words difficult to catch, but Joe was certain about what he’d heard. She was somewhere ahead of him, and off to the right. But who was she talking to? And why was she whispering?

“Not yet,” a man whispered back. “You know what you need to do.”

Joe’s hand jerked and something slipped from his fingers. It didn’t have far to fall because his fingers were brushing the floor; he could feel the rough wood of the porch under his fingertips. When the object hit with a dull thud, a thin spray of liquid splashed Joe’s hand. Whiskey, he decided, based on the smell.

“What was that?” The man’s voice rose to a more urgent rasp.

“He finally dropped the glass is all,” she whispered back. “I told you; he’s dead to the world. Emily don’t mess around with those concoctions of hers.”

There was a long pause as the fog slowly lifted. Joe came to realize he was sprawled out in the porch chair. Somehow, he’d fallen asleep…and yet he’d never even felt drowsy.

No, he realized. He hadn’t just fallen asleep. He’d passed out. Dead to the world, as the woman had just said, thanks to one of Emily’s concoctions.

Emily.

“It will help with the pain,” she’d told him, “and perhaps settle your nerves.”

She must have put something in the whiskey.

Joe felt his heartbeat quicken. He blinked his eyes open and found himself looking up at a skewed angle. The edge of the porch ceiling cut a swath across the sky. And the sky…. Too much time had passed. The sun was already moving low.

“You know what you got to do,” the man whispered harshly.

“I’ve done enough already!” the woman whispered loud enough to almost not be whispering at all. And there was something about the way she talked that was familiar. “I’m sick of all this pretendin’. I’m sick of Hannah and her know-it-all attitude. And that whole baby business made me sick to the stomach, too! You just take me to that old man so I can tell him to pay me what he owes.”

Lucy, Joe decided. That was Lucy out there conspiring with one of Ellingsworth’s men.

“You know his terms. He’ll pay when you deliver.”

“I delivered a baby!” She was speaking too loudly for her own good now. “Or helped to, anyway. That’s plenty of deliverin’.”

A clicking sound from the window to Joe’s left told him Hannah’s riflemen…rifle women must have cued in to the conversation.

“Shut your mouth!” the man hissed. “You know what you need to do. Now I’m leavin’ you to it!”

A twig snapped somewhere farther off. The man was moving away.

Joe wanted to follow, but he knew now was not the time. There was probably someone else out there, watching. Probably more than one, in fact. And Lucy was not the type to hold quiet if surprised. He needed her to get back into the house. And then he needed to wait a moment longer before pretending to come awake. And then…

And then suddenly none of that mattered at all anymore, because the sound of two rifles firing in unison over Joe’s left shoulder was loud enough to wake the dead.

*****

Hannah’s rifle women were far less cautious about firing on the newest intruder than they had been with Joe. They hit the man twice, once in the shoulder and once in the leg. Although Joe knew the man worked for someone they were all currently considering an enemy, Hannah’s husband, Joe couldn’t help but feel a touch of sympathy for him. Or was that empathy? When Joe looked at the damage done, he realized he could have suffered the same, and he found himself wondering why he and this man had been treated so differently. Maybe it was because the women hadn’t been able to see the man very well. Since he’d been hidden in the shadows, they’d had to shoot blind. Joe, on the other hand, had been an easy target.

Yeah, he’d been easy, alright, as easy for the shooters to hit as he’d been for Emily to poison.

Okay, maybe she hadn’t poisoned him, exactly; but she had given him a sleeping drought he’d neither asked for nor needed. And then there was Lucy, whose screams had alerted the shooters to begin with, and whose whispers had now identified her as nothing less than a spy. That meant Joe could not trust four out of the seven women currently occupying that cabin with him. What about the other three?

He watched some of them now, carrying the intruder inside. With Joe unable to help, hobbled as he was by the wound in his ankle, it took Hannah and three others—Hecate, Emily and Lucy—to get the job done. Joe studied them the whole time, looking for signs to show what kind of women they were, maybe something like recognition or fear, but all any of them really reflected was impatience. How many of them were scheming with Lucy? Joe couldn’t tell. He might not even know that Lucy herself was on the side of Hannah’s husband if he hadn’t heard what he’d heard.

At least Hannah had to be real. She really was running from her husband. And Hecate…there was something about that woman, a certain strength…and more. She cared for Hannah. Joe could see that in her eyes. Maybe it was respect; maybe something deeper. It was almost like they really were sisters. Joe was pretty sure he could see his own feelings for his brothers in her eyes…or…or for his pa. Yes. Hecate cared for Hannah. She would do whatever Hannah needed of her.

Emily was harder to figure. Her eyes reflected something similar, but there was a darkness in them, too, the kind of darkness that had moved her to put something in Joe’s drink.

And then Lucy…. Yes, the more Joe studied her, the more he began to realize her eyes showed none of the respect he’d seen in the others. Maybe she really was acting alone. Even so, that didn’t mean Emily could be trusted. Heck, Joe didn’t even know if he could trust Hannah. Just because he believed she was running from her husband didn’t mean she was on Joe’s side in any of this. And what was Joe’s side, anyway? How would he fit in with their plans? His presence had been unexpected; would it complicate or help their efforts?

Too confused to pull his thoughts together, Joe clumsily followed the women inside and watched them drop the intruder onto the floor—it was a poor substitute for a doctor’s table, but Joe had never furnished the cabin with a settee or sofa, and the bed was already occupied.

The bed….

Joe realized he hadn’t heard any screaming or crying out since he’d awakened on the porch. And Lucy had mentioned something about delivering the baby, hadn’t she?

He heard it then, the quiet cries of a newborn coming from somewhere beyond the bedroom curtain. When his eyes moved to the edge of the fireplace where the cradle had once been, part of him was glad Adam’s careful work was finally being put to good use. But another part, something deep and almost as dark as Emily’s eyes, was angered by that baby’s cries. It wasn’t right. None of this was right.

“You’ll hang for this!”

The man’s voice pulled Joe’s attention, chasing his black thoughts back into the recesses where they belonged.

“You’re not dead, yet,” Hannah said coldly. Even Joe felt chilled by her words.

“It don’t matter,” the man hissed through gasps of pain. “You stole from him. And now this. You’ll hang. He’ll see to it. Don’t think he won’t.”

“What I think, Mr. Matthews, is that he won’t get the chance.” With that, Hannah turned away. “Set some more water to boiling,” she told Emily. “And give him something to make him sleep. The surgery will not be pleasant for him.”

“Don’t you touch me, woman!” the man called out. “Don’t none of you women touch me!” And then, “You!” he barked, making Joe jump. The man stayed quiet until Joe looked right at him. “You gotta help me! These women ain’t just thieves and killers; they’re devils! They’ll kill you and me both to get their way! You gotta get me outta here! We both gotta get outta here!”

And then, suddenly, four sets of hands were holding the man down while Emily poured something into his mouth. He tried to spit it out, but she just kept pouring until she seemed satisfied to have gotten enough down his throat.

“Poison!” the man sputtered as she rose and moved away. “That’s just how she killed Jimmy! They said she didn’t, said there wasn’t no evidence, but she did it! We all know she…she did it.” The man seemed terrified. “You gotta get us outta here!” he said, looking hard into Joe’s eyes. “You gotta get us both outta here!”

The women all turned away, ignoring the man’s words. But Joe couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

“Tell me about Jimmy,” Joe asked softly.

The man, Matthews, looked at him with a watery gaze. “He was all burned up. Hurtin’ real bad. But doc said…said he was gonna make it. He shouldn’t of died.” He glanced around, seeming to assure himself the women were paying him no notice. And then he swallowed harshly. When his eyelids drooped, he forced them wider. “She was mad,” he said again. “And then…then she wasn’t. I saw…I saw her. She…acted like…like nothin’ was wrong. Smiled…all…all pleasant-like. And then she…she give him somethin’. Said she was sorry…but…she give him somethin’. An hour later, he was….” He swallowed again, blinked heavily and shook his head. “He was dead.”

Joe looked toward Emily. She was at the stove, stirring something in a steaming pot. There was a small smile on her face.

“Her pa, too,” the man said, his words starting to slur together. “They say sh’…poisoned’im.”

“Emily’s father was a physician.” Hannah’s voice at Joe’s back made him jump again. “In fact, he was a physician of some notoriety back east. His work with medicines was ground-breaking. Emily assisted him in his laboratory when she was quite young. She adored that man. She most certainly did not poison him.”

“Sh’did,” Matthews mumbled. “Poisoned’im. They all…all knew it. Only reason sh’didn’go t’jail, sh’was a…kid.” He could hardly keep his eyes open.

“Emily’s father poisoned himself,” Hannah said flatly.

“I found him.” This new voice was small, delicate. Joe turned to see Emily facing them now. She wasn’t looking at them, but she was facing them. She had a distant look in her eyes. “There was foam and blood seeping from the corners of his mouth. His muscles were rigid, like taut wires. It frightened me.”

Joe watched her chest rise as she took a deep breath. Then she looked at him…and smiled. “Do you know what his last words were?”

Absently, Joe glanced at Hannah and then back to Emily, shaking his head.

“You would think they’d be ‘I love you,’ or something like that, wouldn’t you?” she asked cheerfully. “But not him. No. Not my father. You see, whenever anything went wrong, he blamed me. His death was no different. He looked right at me and he said ‘you, you did this.’ And then he was dead.” Emily shrugged and turned back to the stove.

“Her family sent her away after that,” Hannah added softly. “She went first to relatives in Kansas. They had a few head of cattle; not a sizable herd, but enough to get by…until an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease killed them all. They blamed Emily for that, too, and so she was sent away again. She kept moving further west, having to find her own way when no more relatives would have her. When she encountered my husband, she had run out of places to go.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said. The words were inadequate.

“Are you?” Hannah asked.

Joe looked at her, confused.

“Are you, really? You were angry at her just moments ago. You had a right to be angry. She drugged you, after all.”

“I can blame her for that,” Joe argued, “and still recognize she never deserved to take the blame for her father’s death. Or the cattle, or whatever else she’s been blamed for all these years.”

Hannah stared at him, seeming puzzled. “If you can do that, Mr. Cartwright,” she said after a moment, “then you are quite obviously a very different man than any I…or Emily for that matter…have ever known.”

“If that’s true, then you’ve known the wrong kind of men,” Joe answered.

Hannah smiled, but it was a sad sort of smile. “Quite right,” she said. And then her eyes flicked downward. “Our patient is ready,” she said loudly.

When Joe followed her gaze he saw that Mr. Matthews was, as Lucy has said of Joe not all that long ago, dead to the world.

*****

Ellingsworth and his gunmen, be damned! Ben raged as he returned to his house. And then he saw that pompous, empty-hearted man casually retake the chair he’d only briefly vacated to step outside, puffing away on that cigar as though it was all that mattered, and nothing in the world could bother him.

Acid churned in Ben’s veins. “Whatever you believe are your legal rights,” Ben spat angrily, “with regard to your wife and what property she has with her, your men had no right to endanger my son’s life like that!”

“Your son was in your corral with your horses, Mr. Cartwright. You can hardly blame my men for his carelessness.”

“Your men were intentionally stirring up those horses!”

“So you say. But what proof can you provide of such a dreadful accusation?”

“I know what I saw,” Ben seethed. “And I know what I heard.”

“Hearsay. It would be your word against that of my men.”

“The word of an honest man against those of…of paid thugs! Guns for hire!”

“So. You. Say.” Ellingsworth snuffed out the cigar and rose to his feet, the hard edge in his glare seeming to disregard the fact that Ben had the advantage of height over him. “Mr. Cartwright, I am not as naïve as you might believe. I know the law as well as do you, if not better. We can bicker about this all night if you so choose. But my wife…”

“We found ’em!” a man shouted from the front yard.

Both Ben and his uninvited guest turned to watch two dust- and grime-covered men rush in through the open door.

“We found ’em, boss!” one of the men went on. “Your wife and them others! They’re in a cabin in the valley over yonder.”

“But they’re already puttin’ up a fight, sir,” the other added. “They shot Matthews. and I hear tell there’s another man inside, hobblin’ around on a crutch.”

“What other man?” Ben asked, his thoughts instantly drawn to his other two, yet unaccounted for sons.

“Young fellow, kind’a small.”

“Joe,” Ben said absently before taking a deep breath and releasing more of his anger on Ellingsworth. “If your men have hurt my son…”

“Weren’t us, sir,” the second man interrupted. “Must’ve been the women. They’re a mean bunch, especially them two Chinese gals. Put a rifle in their hands, and you’re like to get your head blowed off.”

“There now, you see, Mr. Cartwright?” Ellingsworth said. “I had good reason to bring all these men with me. My wife is delusional, as are the women with her. They are as eager to start a war as our compatriots back east were two years ago. Only theirs would not be a war between states, but rather a war between men and women.”

“What?”

“Yes.” Ellingsworth chuckled softly at Ben’s incredulous expression. “My reaction was quite similar to yours for a very long while. In fact, I ignored my wife’s arguments about women having rights. I should have listened; I should have recognized she was serious in what she’d been saying. But I ignored her. And now here we are, you and I, both victimized by her delusions and the contagion she has spread to the women who chose to follow her — all of whom, I might add, are legally indebted to me.”

“Certainly there is more to all this than…than an argument about women’s suffrage!” Ben’s voice rose with every word, right along with his frustration and anger. “After what I witnessed in that corral, I can hardly fault your wife for arming herself against your men! Now I demand that you take your argument with her off of my property and to the courts where they belong!”

“I would be willing to do as you say, Mr. Cartwright. But my wife most assuredly will not. It was she who selected this particular battleground, not I.”

“And why would she select the Ponderosa?”

“Because the courts are ruled by men.”

“How is the Ponderosa any different?”

“Because your reputation, sir, encouraged my wife to believe in such chivalric fairy tales as Sir Thomas Malory had the indecency to put to paper. As I told you, she is delusional. She believed all the rubbish she overheard when I made enquiries as to your character.”

“What sort of rubbish would that be?”

“Stories about your tendency, and that of your sons, to protect whatever bleeding hearts happened to wander onto this Ponderosa of yours.”

“Should I presume, Mr. Ellingsworth, that you were inclined to believe such rubbish yourself?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Why else would you bring all these men with you, all these hired guns?”

“As my man here has already informed you, those women are armed and quite dangerous.”

“Well, let’s just see how dangerous they are.” Ben turned away and strode to the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ellingsworth called out behind him.

“To see for myself exactly what is happening in that cabin,” Ben said without turning back. And to find out exactly what has happened to Little Joe and Hoss, he added silently.

*****

“You sure about that name, Adam?” Sheriff Roy Coffee asked.

“Of course, I’m sure. Why?” Adam leaned back in his seat and took another sip of coffee, welcoming the way it soothed his throat after such a wild, dusty ride. Stopping along the road had not been an option. Ellingsworth’s men had stayed close behind Hoss and him right to the edge of town. Fortunately, they’d ended the chase there, just as Adam had expected. Mr. Ellingsworth, after all, was a businessman, not an outlaw. He would not be pleased if the actions of his men were made public.

“Well….” Roy looked puzzled. “It’s just that this telegram come in from back east a couple hours ago.” He tapped his finger on a folded piece of paper on his desk. “I figured it was a mistake, since it’s addressed to the Ponderosa, but the name of the person it’s supposed to reach is Mrs. Hannah Ellingsworth. I was gonna ride out and see if your pa had any idea who this woman might be, but then there was a ruckus in the saloon and I just haven’t had the time.”

Adam set down his coffee cup and leaned forward. “Who’s it from?”

“Someone by the name of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”

“I know that name,” Adam said absently, shaking his head when he couldn’t quite figure out why. “What does it say?”

“It’s meant for her eyes, Adam, not yours or mine. You know that.”

“What I know, Roy, is that both she and her husband are trespassing on the Ponderosa. I don’t think we would have any trouble getting the judge to order you to read that telegram, or to release it to me. And besides, you and I both know you’ve read it already.”

Sheriff Coffee twisted his brows in consternation. “Oh, alright then.” Scoffing, he gave Adam the folded paper. “Here.”

Hoss hovered close behind, reading over Adam’s shoulder.

Your letter received [STOP] Divorce is your right [STOP] President vows to release slaves soon [STOP] Legal advocate en route for Agnes and rest [STOP]

“What in tarnation does all that mean?” Hoss asked.

And suddenly Adam remembered the name. He smiled, despite the implications. “What it means is that Virginia City is about to become the next battleground for women’s suffrage.”

“Huh?”

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of the founders of a small but vocal movement back east. One of their goals is to give women the right to vote.”

“What’s voting got to do with any of this?”

“From what I’ve read,” Adam answered, “they’ve been fighting to promote other laws to help women as well.”

“I still don’t get how that’s gonna stop what’s happenin’ at the Ponderosa.”

“It gives us ammunition,” Adam said, grinning. “The best kind we could hope for.”

“What kind is that?” Roy Coffee asked.

Adam rose and tapped the paper against Hoss’ chest. “Always remember, the pen is mightier than the sword!”

When Adam hurried out through the door, it took a moment for Hoss to follow him. He could imagine his brother and Sheriff Coffee looking at each other like they both figured Adam had lost his mind. And in a way, he had. Women’s suffrage was not exactly a fight he’d ever considered entering into. But he couldn’t think of a better way — of a safer way — to fight against Ellingsworth and his small army. At least now he might be able to prevent anyone else from getting hurt.

*****

Joe stood at the kitchen window fighting nausea as smells of blood, medicines and stew intermixed, while the pain in his foot grew to levels that had him wishing for laudanum…something Emily probably had in store but that he would never take from her. He wouldn’t even touch the stew still simmering in a pot on the stove, no matter that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Emily had been stirring it earlier. What might she have put into it? Maybe nothing, especially since it had already been served to the other women, her sisters. But Joe refused to touch it.

What he wanted to do most was to go outside, feeling as eager for fresh air as he was to get away from the women. But he doubted Matthews had been alone when Lucy had met with him. Someone else was out there, waiting. Joe knew that as well as any of these women did.

“Your wound grows worse.”

He turned to see Hecate approaching, her tall, sinewy form making him think of ghosts all over again, and he shook his head, more in frustration than denial; he knew she was right. He’d been standing or pacing for over an hour, and his foot had swelled so much he’d already had to loosen the bandages twice. Now, as he looked down, he saw bruising had begun to color his uncovered toes.

“You should sit,” Hecate went on. “Rest.”

Joe glanced toward the opposite windows where the Chinese women were once again stationed, having taken a break only long enough to eat some of Emily’s stew. “What about them? They can’t go on like that all night.”

“You worry for my sisters?”

“I worry for a lot of things,” Joe said hotly. “They shot one of Ellingsworth’s men. I’m sure Hannah’s husband isn’t going to stand back and do nothing after that.” Joe looked at Matthews, who lay sleeping after enduring Hannah’s surgery and Emily’s medicines.

“He will recover,” Hecate said.

“Maybe so. But what about Agnes?” Joe met her gaze. “I heard you say she lost a lot of blood bringing that baby into the world.”

“She, too, will recover.”

Joe sighed. “My brother went for Doc Martin. They should be back by now. I can only think of one reason why they’re still not here.”

She cocked her head, silently prompting him to continue.

“Ellingsworth’s men stopped them.”

Hecate shrugged.

“You and I both know,” Joe went on, “he’s got you outnumbered and outgunned. Hannah said he could have as many as thirty armed men with him. Your best bet to stay alive is to stop fighting.” He felt strange saying that, admitting to the fact that Hannah’s husband would consider shooting at a cabin full of women; but he also knew men like Ellingsworth wouldn’t hesitate to shoot an escaped slave. Maybe Ellingsworth, himself, wouldn’t even care whether or not his wife got in the way.

“Staying alive is nothing,” Hecate replied, “when there is nothing to stay alive for.”

“But if you can stay alive long enough to choose a better time, a better place, when the odds aren’t so stacked against you—”

“This is the time. This is the place.”

“Why?”

“You do not know what it is like to have no choices, to have both your waking and sleeping hours decided for you, to have nothing to call your own, not even time.”

“You’re right. I don’t. But…”

“But if you did know, then maybe you would also know what your ancestors knew a hundred years ago, when they chose to fight for their freedom.”

“This isn’t a revolution.”

“Yes. It is. It is our revolution. And we choose to fight for our freedom.”

“Not all of you.” Joe’s gaze moved to the bedroom curtain, behind which Hannah and Lucy had gone moments before.

Hecate understood. “Every revolution has its traitors.”

“She’s not exactly being treated like a traitor.”

“Have you not heard the saying, ‘keep your friends close, hold your…'”

“Enemies closer.” Joe smiled sadly. “I know. But….” He took a deep breath and looked out the window again. “It’ll be night soon. At some point, you’re all going to need sleep. What do you think Lucy will do then? Or Mr. Ellingsworth, for that matter?”

“We will be ready.”

“How can you be sure of that?”

“Because we must.” She looked at him for a long while. “You worry for many things,” she said then, “except for your own wound.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said softly.

“How can you be sure of that?”

Joe shrugged, nudging his smile into a small grin. “Because I must.”

Hecate smiled back at him before turning away. And then Joe watched her step into the bedroom. He found himself wishing he had her confidence.

“Joe?”

Startled, Joe shifted his gaze from the curtain to the front door, wondering if he’d imagined Pa’s voice calling from somewhere outside.

“Joseph? Are you in there?”

Pa? When he tried to move toward the door, he quickly discovered he could no longer put even the slightest bit of pressure on his injured foot. To compensate, he leaned heavily on the crutch and hopped along on his good foot.

The sound of rifles cocking stopped him.

“Don’t you dare fire!” Joe warned in the coldest tone he could muster.

One of the women, Millie, if he remembered right, looked at him, but neither reset their weapons.

“Joseph?”

His gaze slipped to the door and back again. “That’s my father out there. If you shoot him, there won’t be anyone left to help you. I swear I’ll turn you over to Hannah’s husband myself.”

The woman glanced behind Joe. Seeming frustrated, she set the hammer back into place and moved her finger from the trigger. “Charlotte,” she said then, in near perfect English.

As the other woman followed her lead, Joe turned enough to see Hannah, Hecate, Lucy and Emily all emerging from the bedroom. At Hannah’s nod, Joe started moving again.

“Joe? Are you in there, son?”

“Yeah, Pa!” Joe called out just before reaching the door. “I’m here!”

“Are you alright, Joe?”

“I’m fine!” Joe shouted as he turned the knob. “I’m fine!” he repeated.

When he pulled open the door, he saw his father step out from the shielding of the trees and then stop for a brief instant.

“You’re hurt,” Pa said as he recovered and started moving forward once more.

“It’s nothing. I’ll be fi…”

The explosion of gunfire stole his words and caught his breath. He stumbled against the doorframe as Millie, the Chinese girl who had met his gaze only a moment before, fell to the ground, blood already pooling at her shoulder. And then, for reasons he could not quite comprehend, he was falling beside her.

A barrage of explosions…the dull thwap of bullets hitting wood…the shrill screams of frightened women…the angry shouts of his father…somehow it all melted away as the door slammed shut with a solid bang. And then Joe closed his eyes, wondering what Emily had given him this time.

*****

Adam had been right.

There was so much gunfire up ahead Hoss could almost believe it was fireworks…or maybe like they were riding right into the middle of the war back east. Only a whole mess of guns could cause all that racket. Too many, just like Adam had said.

“We can’t win this fight with gunfire.” Those had been Adam’s words. “Ellingsworth has too many men with him, and at least one of them seems to have been professionally trained.”

“Professionally trained?” Hoss had asked. “In gun fightin’?”

“Army.”

“You think?”

Nodding, Adam had gone on to say their best hope of winning against that Mr. Ellingsworth fellow had something to do with the telegram.

Hoss still couldn’t understand it, but Adam had seemed so cock-sure of himself Hoss figured he ought to give his older brother the benefit of a doubt, though it was an awfully big doubt at that. They didn’t even have guns, aside from Sheriff Coffee’s. Adam had lost his back before Hoss had found him riding like a madman, bareback on a barely broke horse; and then Adam had made Hoss leave his own weapon at the sheriff’s office.

“Ellingsworth’s no fool,” Adam had told him. “Neither is his foreman. Shooting an unarmed man could lead to murder charges. I don’t see them taking that risk.”

“Uh-huh,” Hoss had agreed dubiously. “But they got no trouble taking a risk by trapping you in the middle of a stampede.”

“You worry too much,” Adam had said then, giving Hoss one of those half grins of his.

“You sure you didn’t fall on your head? Now you’re soundin’ like Little Joe.”

“Well, I have him to thank for being such a show-off with that swing mount of his. Maybe he’s starting to rub off on me.”

“Don’t you think we’d all be a whole lot better if more of you rubbed off on him than the other way around?”

“Most days, maybe. But not today.”

Hoss had been about as befuddled as ever to hear Adam talking like that, and it sure hadn’t made him feel any better about what they were gonna do.

“Look Hoss,” Adam had gone on to explain. “I really did mean it when I said the pen is mightier than the sword. And I think we’re about to prove it to Ellingsworth, thanks to a little insurance.”

“What sort of insurance?”

“The Territorial Enterprise.”

“How’s a newspaper gonna help us against a whole herd of gunmen?”

But Adam had just kept grinning.

Roy hadn’t been much more encouraged than Hoss. “I don’t like it,” he’d said. “But I don’t like the idea of a firefight with a group like you described, neither. Tell you what; how ’bout I have Clem bring a posse if he don’t hear from me by sunup?”

Although Adam had agreed to his plan, Hoss hadn’t been too comforted by his brother’s response. “If Clem doesn’t hear from you by sunup, there might not be anything left for the posse to do except clean up the mess.”

And so with fresh mounts from the livery, Adam and Hoss had started back toward the Ponderosa, unarmed, with Roy trailing behind, alongside Doc Martin and his buggy. They took the main road, counting on the men who’d chased Adam to be waiting for them; and that’s just what those men had been doing. Hoss and his brother came up on them quick as can be, and they’d ridden along just as the men told them to do, complacent as cattle no matter the twisting going on inside Hoss’ belly the whole while…

…At least right up until they heard that shooting. At that moment every last one of them—Adam, Hoss and the gunmen driving them — kicked their horses like they were all anxious to put themselves right into the middle of all them bullets.

*****

“Hold your fire! Stop firing!” Ben shouted himself hoarse, desperately aware his voice was no match for the gunfire, and sickened to realize every shot was directed at the cabin. No one inside was firing back. “Hold your fire!”

When the silence finally came, it hit him almost like a bullet itself. He stumbled, grabbing a tree for support, and forced himself, for one, brief instant, to simply breathe. And then…a single sound broke through the heavy veil that seemed to have fallen around him. A baby was crying.

“You miserable, good-for-nothing, addle-brained….” Ben seethed, clamping his jaw when he could not find a single word vile enough to throw at the curmudgeon beside him. “How dare you? How….” Again, he locked his jaw.

“I did nothing!” Ellingsworth argued. “I am no more armed that you!”

“Yes,” Ben hissed. “That’s exactly right! You did nothing to stop them! You…you let your men shoot my son!”

“Your son should not have been there! Aiding and abetting, I believe is the proper term. Why, you could all be brought up on charges!”

“Charges?” Ben could hardly breathe. “If my son is…. If they’ve….” He could not bring himself to say the word. “I swear to you, I will see you hang!”

“No judge would hold me responsible.”

“Oh, he will.” Ben nodded. “I promise you, he will after he hears what I have to tell him!”

“Hearsay, again. You truly do no not know the law, do you, Mr. Cartwright?”

Throwing the man one final, deadly glare, Ben turned his attention to the cabin. “For God’s sake, keep your men still!”

He didn’t care what the man said after that. There was only one voice he had any interest in hearing. “Joe!” he hollered as loud as he could above the rasp in his throat. “Little Joe! Can you hear me, son?”

When there was no reply, he crept forward on legs that seemed unwilling to support him.

“Joseph?” he called again.

He swept his gaze across the cabin’s façade. The fresh boards Joe had taken such pride in whitewashing all those months ago were marred now with splinters and chips that sent wood dust flying like dandelion feathers at each puff of the evening breeze. Ben seemed to breathe that dust in, no matter the distance still separating him from the cabin. It clogged his lungs, settling heavily into his chest in a clump that seemed determined to keep his heart from beating.

Still, he forced himself to take another step forward. “Mrs. Ellingsworth?” he shouted then, his voice cracking. “I need to come inside. Please.” He swallowed stiffly around another lump, one that felt like a fist in his throat. “I’m unarmed!”

Five more steps. “I’m coming in!” he said again. “I am alone, and I am not armed!”

“You’re a fool to trust them, Mr. Cartwright!” Ellingsworth shouted out to him.

Ben stopped for a moment, but he did not turn. The man did not deserve his attention.

“Mrs. Ellingsworth?” Ben called again, stepping closer. “Can you hear me? Can anyone hear me in there?”

Maybe he was imagining it, but he could almost swear the baby’s cries grew louder. “Whoever can hear me, please, I need to come inside. I need to see my son!”

In three more steps, he reached the porch. “I am not armed,” he repeated as the old floorboards creaked beneath him. He stopped at the bullet-ridden door and drew a deep breath. “Joseph?” he tried again.

He couldn’t even swallow anymore; the fist had grown too large. “I’m opening the door now,” he said.

The door swept inward, the dying sun igniting dust motes that sailed above thick pools of shadows. And then Ben Cartwright’s gaze landed on the one thing he had prayed not to see. Little Joe was lying on the floor, quiet and still, his shirt wet with fresh blood.

“Joe!” Ben whispered, dropping to his knees.

“Move!” a soft voice urged from a corner behind him. “Move away from the door!” she repeated.

Finally, numbly, Ben shifted his position. He grabbed the door with one shaking hand, and slammed it shut.

*****

Ben felt numb, lost. He fumbled with the buttons on Joe’s shirt, needing to find the wound, to attend to it, to fix the damage Richard Jameson Ellingsworth’s men had caused.

“Does he live?” a woman asked at his shoulder.

“Yes,” Ben said quickly, although he hadn’t actually confirmed that as truth. He honestly could not tell if Joe was breathing. He only knew that the presence of so much blood had to mean Joe’s heart was still pumping. It had to…he refused to accept any other answer.

The woman must have doubted him. She leaned forward, placing her ear against Joe’s chest. Ben noticed then that she was black, though she seemed to speak differently than others of her race he had ever encountered. She was thin and lithe…and decisive.

“Emily!” she called then. “Bring bandages and thread. We must close the wound in his back.”

His back? Startled, Ben watched as she ripped open Joe’s shirt, letting fly the buttons as Ben should already have done. Only then did he notice the blood pooling beneath his young son. His back! Ben realized suddenly, feeling the chill of death creeping closer. The bullet had gone clean through, leaving not one wound, but two.

“There is a bullet in his ribs,” the woman said. “It will have to wait until we slow this bleeding.”

“What?” Ben asked, absently, his hand wrapping Joe’s.

The woman turned to him, meeting his gaze with eyes so warm he could almost feel her drawing away that deadly chill. “Luck shined upon your son this day, Mr. Cartwright. He provided a perfect target for the men outside, yet only two bullets found him.”

“Two?” Ben’s grip on his son tightened. No, it couldn’t be. There was so much blood. So much…. Two bullets? How could Joe survive so much damage? How could any man survive?

The chill returned when the black woman gave her attention back to Little Joe; but then a different kind of warmth reached for Ben, in the hands that fell upon his shoulders.

“Come,” another woman said. “Let Hecate and Emily do what they must.”

“Who?” Ben wondered aloud as a third woman approached from the kitchen, a young lady with silken, blonde hair.

“Come,” the woman behind him repeated.

Ben started to turn, hesitant but acquiescent, feeling oddly unsure about what he should do. Certainly, he should not leave Joe’s side. But….

Why couldn’t he think clearly? He looked back at Joe to see the black woman pressing bandages against his wounds while the blonde woman — Emily? — calmly threaded a needle, looking for all the world like she was about to do her evening mending.

“Come.” A hand curled around his arm. “He will be well tended.”

Finally Ben looked at this third woman, finding her older than the other two, perhaps close to Ben in age. “Mrs. Ellingsworth?” he asked softly.

“Hannah,” she corrected, giving him a small, sad smile before shaking it away behind a furrowed brow. “Please. I want no part of that man’s name, especially now.”

And then Ben noticed a fourth woman behind her, a redhead with fear in her eyes.

For a brief instant, he wondered, who were all those women? But when the instant passed, he realized he didn’t care. He had room in his muddled thoughts for only one concern: the well-being of Little Joe.

“Charlotte?” the black woman’s voice pulled Ben back again. He watched as a Chinese woman helped the others to turn Joe over, enabling Emily to do her evening mending on the wound in Joe’s back.

Where had the Chinese woman come from? Puzzled, Ben looked beyond Joe to see another Chinese woman leaning against the outer wall. She was holding a bloody cloth to her shoulder and staring at Little Joe.

“You’re hurt,” Ben said aloud.

She looked at him and shook her head. “My injury is of no matter,” she said, surprising Ben by the clarity in her pronunciation. She sounded nothing like Hop Sing.

“Of course, it matters,” Ben said, grateful to feel the clouds in his head starting to pull away. “Let me help you,” he decided, gently releasing his grip on Joe and forcing himself to believe Little Joe would be reaching for him soon enough.

“But your son?” the Chinese woman asked, seeming bewildered.

Ben felt another smile forming, one that must have matched what he had seen a moment earlier on Ellingsworth’s wife. “I have it on pretty good authority that my son is in good hands. Better hands than my own at the moment, I’m afraid,” he added quietly.

“Even experienced surgeons,” the blonde woman, Emily, said, “find it most difficult to treat life threatening conditions when their own loved ones are involved.”

Ben looked at her, feeling somehow disturbed by her detached tone even as he appreciated her words. “Yes,” he said. “I imagine that must be true.”

She did not look up at him, instead driving the needle into the skin of Joe’s back.

Suddenly nauseas, Ben closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then returned his attention to the Chinese woman. “Let me see that injury of yours.”

Once more, she shook her head. “It was I who caused the wound in your son’s foot.”

His foot? Ben looked once more at Little Joe, finally noticing the bandaged ankle. Already he’d forgotten that Joe had been leaning on a crutch. Ben had been so concerned before, and now…it seemed so trivial, so unimportant. Finding another small smile, he was about to share this realization, but the woman spoke first.

“I shot him,” she said. “It was not an accident.”

“What?” Ben asked, his smile sliding away. “Why?”

“I was unaware of his intent. I believed he meant to strangle Lucy.”

“Lucy?” Ben followed her line of sight to the redhead he’d noticed moments earlier; at that time, the woman had looked afraid, but now there seemed to be hatred in her gaze.

“I should have aimed for her instead of him,” the Chinese woman added. “And I should have aimed for her heart.”

“It would have made no difference,” the black woman added without looking away from Joe. “Her heart was already dead.”

If Ben had felt lost before, he felt hopelessly adrift now. But these women represented a mystery he had no interest in unraveling. All that mattered was Joe. And the best he could do for his son at that moment was to stay close, and to stay focused. And if the best way to do that was to help the woman who had just admitted to shooting Joe in the foot, then so be it.

*****

Sheriff Roy Coffee was surprised…and perplexed. He’d heard enough up ahead of him to know Adam and Hoss had run into Ellingsworth’s men, just as Adam had figured. But those men didn’t seem much interested in checking to see whether or not the Cartwright boys were being backed up by anyone at all. Roy just couldn’t be sure if they knew he and the doc were on this road or not. All he could do was keep ridin’, and keep listenin’…and keep wonderin’ what was comin’ next. But the sound of gunfire had changed everything in his mind.

Right then, he told the doc to stay put. Someone would come back for him after they could be reasonably assured he’d be safe. And then the sheriff did what Adam had told him wouldn’t be necessary; he left the road to approach that cabin from behind.

*****

When they reached the cabin, Adam was disturbed to see it surrounded by Ellingsworth’s men, who seemed to be celebrating something. They were cheering, much like Adam would have expected of them back at the corral had their plan succeeded to see him trampled. One look at the cabin was enough to convince Adam it had been the target of all the shooting they’d heard from the road. Though the sun had slipped beneath the mountains leaving a growing swath of darkness in its wake, he could still see the damage that shooting had caused.

“Hey, Adam.” When Hoss tapped his arm, Adam noticed that his brother’s eyes were locked on the cabin as well. “Looks like that’s where all them bullets went. They tore it right up, all that hard work we put into it for Joe and….” He didn’t have to say Laura’s name. Adam heard it, nonetheless. Finally Hoss looked at Adam instead. “You don’t reckon anyone inside…?”

Unable to answer, Adam shook his head absently, and then dismounted to follow one of Ellingsworth’s ‘drovers’ toward a small man whose rigid posture made it look as though he had a pole in place of a backbone. He was also the only one wearing a suit in the middle of a showdown. It couldn’t be anyone but Ellingsworth.

“Where do you think you’re goin’?” The barrel of a gun nudging up against Adam’s lower back halted his steps.

“I have business to discuss with Mr. Ellingsworth,” Adam said tightly. “You wouldn’t want to interfere with his business, now would you?”

“You jest wait yer turn,” the gunmen said. “He knows yer here. He’ll signal when he’s ready.”

“You back off, mister,” Hoss challenged. “You don’t need that gun. My brother and I ain’t no threat to anyone here, an’ you know it.”

“That’s sure a fact!” a nearby gunman guffawed. “We’d turn those two into sawdust! You should of seen it, Mick! That boy in there was like a big ol’ bulls-eye standing in the doorway! Must of caught twenty bullets or more!”

Adam felt like a bulls-eye of his own at that moment, struck twenty times with words as piercing as bullets. They couldn’t be serious, could they? They couldn’t possibly be talking about Little Joe. But what if they were? Fear pulled him as rigid as Ellingsworth.

“Dang!” a voice behind Adam called back. “You’re joshin’ me, ain’t you?”

“I ain’t joshin’! I figure I must of pumped all six of mine into him alone!”

“Shoot! I missed all that?”

“Don’t listen to ’em, Adam,” Hoss said. “Ain’t true, an’ you know it. Joe could hardly stand when we left him. His foot couldn’t heal that quick to have him standin’ in that doorway.”

But Adam had already spotted something on the cabin’s porch, just outside the door, something that made him realize at least some of that gunman’s words might have been true. “I don’t know Hoss,” he said quietly, noting a catch in his voice as he nodded toward the crutch.

“Cartwright!” someone shouted. Adam followed the voice to find Ellingsworth’s foreman, a man Adam recognized only too well. But he was not meeting Adam’s gaze. His own attention was directed, instead, at the cabin. “You got five minutes to tell us what’s goin’ on in there before we throw another round or two at you!”

“See there?” Hoss said, sounding relieved. “He wouldn’t be callin’ for Joe if what those fellers said was true.”

It was easy for Adam to imagine the smile his brother must be wearing then without having to see it for real. He couldn’t look. He couldn’t stop himself from staring from the foreman to the cabin and back again. Something wasn’t right.

“No,” Adam said softly. “He wouldn’t.”

“You hear me, Cartwright?”

“Of course, I hear you!” The response hit Adam like a punch to the gut. He’d expected to hear Joe’s voice. He’d wanted to hear Joe’s voice. But that hadn’t been Joe at all. It was Pa who’d answered the foreman’s call.

“That boy was like a big ol’ bulls-eye standing in the doorway! Must of caught twenty bullets or more!” Ellingsworth’s man had said.

“What’s Pa doin’ in there?”

Adam met Hoss’ gaze, seeing his own worries reflected right back at him in his brother’s eyes.

“I figure I must of pumped all six of mine into him alone!” the gunman had boasted.

Adam felt himself sagging. Instinctively, he looked for something to lean against, to hold him up, to give him strength; but all he had was Hoss, and Adam couldn’t do that to his brother. He refused to show Hoss the fear growing in his heart. It isn’t true, he told himself. It isn’t true. He took a deep breath and pulled his back straight once more.

“Hey, Cartwright!” the foreman called again. “Time’s wastin’!”

“Alright!” Pa shouted back. “I’m coming!”

Adam’s heart seemed to jump into his throat as he watched the door ease open and his pa fill the frame. In the deepening darkness, the wash of lamplight behind Pa made him seem taller, bigger than he really was—almost big enough to make Adam believe he could move mountains…or maybe even a horde of blood-thirsty gunmen.

“You want to know what’s happening in here?” Pa said in a voice as commanding as his presence. “I’ll tell you what’s happening! My boy may be dying! That is what’s happening!”

Adam felt Hoss grab his arm, his grip almost hard enough to bruise. “That means he’s alive, Adam,” Hoss said in a small voice, barely louder than a whisper. “He couldn’t of took twenty bullets. He’s still alive.”

But with Pa’s next words, that small thread of hope didn’t seem strong enough to hold either of them up.

“He may be dying,” Pa repeated, “because you answer to a man who is hardly fit to be called a man at all! A man who hides behind paper and pretends he has no responsibility for your actions…A man who would shoot an unarmed bystander and then let you hang for the offense!”

“I did no such thing!” Ellingsworth hollered back.

“No!” Pa shouted. “Not you! You let your men do it for you so you wouldn’t dirty those polished hands of yours. You are a coward, Mr. Ellingsworth! Plain and simple. Your wife has far more backbone than you do!”

“Give her to me!” Ellingsworth threw his fist into the air; it seemed a laughable, vain attempt to show the courage he could never possess. “Send her out here with the rest of my property, and I will gladly leave you to your son!”

“The only property here is this cabin, and this valley, all of which belongs to me!”

“We are at an impasse, Mr. Cartwright,” Ellingsworth went on. “But I have leverage, as you can see, and you do not.”

Adam found himself fuming with every exchange of words, his worry growing, churning, flaming into pure rage. “Leverage?” he shouted then. “You want to see leverage?” He started once more to move toward the little man. This time, no one tried to stop him. “I’ll give you leverage! We need to talk, you and I.”

“Who are you?”

Adam Cartwright. Ben Cartwright’s son. I thought you would know that, sir,” Adam spat as he edged closer, “considering all the investigations you performed prior to invading the Ponderosa.” He saw the foreman whisper something into his boss’s ear. “That’s right; we’ve met, your foreman and I. He tried to kill me, but he failed. Just like your men tried to kill my brother, but failed. All that means is no one needs to hang just yet.”

“Get to the point,” Ellingsworth scoffed, as though Adam was wasting his time.

“My point, Mr. Ellingsworth, is that I have leverage enough to ruin you, no matter what you do here tonight. And you’d better tell these men of yours to keep their fingers off their triggers, because shooting me or anyone who sides with me will most assuredly set things into motion to do just that.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you can leave here now, and I will keep my leverage hidden, boxed away. No one need ever know. Or, if you don’t believe me, you can wait to hear what I have to say, although I promise you these are not words you will want to hear.”

“Speak man! Say what you have to say! Don’t play such games with me!”

“Trust me, you will not want me to explain my leverage in such a…public…arena. Now, are you leaving?”

“Not without my property!”

“Fine. Stay then. But keep those weapons locked. There’s a doctor just up the road. You will send two men, unarmed, to bring him here. And then you will allow him inside that cabin to see to my brother. And then you will pray like hell my brother survives. Because if he dies, all bets are off. And you…will…be…ruined.” Adam stabbed a finger into the man’s chest with each of these last words.

“You’re bluffing. You have nothing on me!”

“On the contrary,” Adam hissed, no longer needing to shout. “I have everything.”

They stared at each other for a long while, Ellingsworth’s face growing paler by the minute until he finally glanced away, cleared his throat and ordered two men to fetch the doctor, just as Adam had demanded.

“We will play this your way for now,” Ellingsworth said then. “But I have no doubt you are merely delaying the inevitable. I will not leave here without taking what’s rightfully mine.”

“We’ll leave our discussion of rights until later, Mr. Ellingsworth. But for now, I am going into that cabin, and you are going to tell your men to sit on their hands or do whatever they have to do to keep those guns quiet!”

With that, Adam turned his back on the man and strode purposefully toward his father, who gaped at him with such a look of astonishment Adam wasn’t quite sure how to react. And then he felt himself beginning to shake; he had to force back the clip of panicked laughter threatening to escape his ever-tightening throat. When he finally reached the porch, he welcomed the warm, strong feel of his father’s hand on his arm, especially when he wasn’t sure he could take the next few steps without the support.

*****

Seeing Adam’s reaction as he crossed the threshold pulled once more at Ben’s knees, making them feeble and unsteady, and making him feel impossibly old. The creases forming around Adam’s eyes and brow…the way he looked up toward an unseen heaven only seconds after looking down to see his youngest brother swathed in blood…the moisture that gave his searching gaze the look of dew on glass…it stripped Ben of the shield he’d managed to wrap around his own grief, his own fear when he’d allowed the women to take charge of tending Joe. Their confidence had bolstered Ben. Although he’d known that confidence had been borne more of competence than of faith in Joe’s recovery, he had been able to recognize they knew what to do, as Ben had not, his mind suddenly having grown as weak as his knees. He had taken in their confidence and used it as his own the instant he’d realized Joe had not been the only victim, and he’d found strength in tending to the Chinese woman with her distinctly non-Chinese name.

“Millie,” she had told him.

He thought he’d heard her say ‘Mei Ling,’ and he had used that name when addressing her next.

“No,” she’d corrected. “Millie. It is a derivation of Millicent, a nickname. Hannah gave me my name when she began working with me to practice proper pronunciation.”

It had been another mystery in the growing puzzle surrounding these women. Still, the only mystery to which Ben could apply any thought was the mystery of Joe’s future, of his family’s future. He couldn’t bring himself to accept a future without Little Joe’s impetuousness, his impish grin, the sparkle of life in his eyes that always let Ben believe Marie was still beside him and would always be beside him.

Somehow even that mystery Ben had been able to push aside, to lock away behind more immediate thoughts, such as the need to help a woman who had needed help, whether she’d believed so herself or not.

But then Ellingsworth’s impatience had drawn him away from her, and he’d gone to the door, his gaze turning once more to Joe, his fear building within him an impatience of his own, and an anger he could no longer contain. And now…now he knew, really, truly knew he was not alone. Because everything he’d felt within himself he’d seen in Adam as well. Somehow that awareness made everything more real…and more impossible to face.

“Pa?” Hoss called Ben’s attention to the porch. Ben’s middle son made no attempt to step inside. It was clear Hoss could see his little brother, but it was also clear he did not want to believe what he saw. “Is he…he gonna be alright?” He sounded like a child, a young boy…the young boy he’d been when Marie had died and he’d asked the same question regarding her after Ben had already known she was gone.

Ben didn’t have an answer. He didn’t know how to answer. He could only shake his head in a disbelief of his own. “I don’t know,” he said in a whisper. After all, Hoss deserved as much truth now as Ben had been forced to give him when Marie had died.

But Ben was still Hoss’ father, and, no matter that Hoss was fully grown and quite capable of becoming a father himself, Ben’s obligation to his sons called on him to find whatever strength he had left to muster. He cleared his throat, drew back his shoulders and grasped Hoss’ arm. “Come inside, son. Faith, itself, is the best medicine for all of us right now.”

But Hoss surprised him. “No,” he said, hesitantly pulling away from Ben’s grip. “No, I…I think I ought of stay out here for a while, keep an eye on things and watch for the doc.”

Ben smiled warmly. He could see the conflict of obligations in Hoss’ eyes. Ellingsworth’s threat had been delayed, but not eliminated. At any moment, one restless gunman could start another barrage. Ben could not bear the thought of seeing Hoss fall as Joe had—an image now etched permanently into his mind. But he also knew Hoss had sharper eyes and a keener sense than all of them. He could spot a man’s eye twitching even before a gun was drawn. Hoss would be alerted to the danger in time to take action, or to take cover.

At least, that’s what Ben told himself, even while he tried to ignore the growing darkness.

“Thank you, son,” Ben said, grasping Hoss’ arm again.

“Maybe…,” Hoss started, glancing over Ben’s shoulder. “Maybe you could keep the door open, just a touch?”

“Yes.” Ben nodded. “I think that now, maybe we can.”

“Hoss?” Adam called out as Ben eased the door shut just enough to provide some shielding. “I’ll relieve you in a while.”

And then Ben smiled again…right up until he caught the glimpse of a figure standing in the bedroom doorway. Confused, he gave that figure his full attention. It was a young woman with sweat-dampened hair and wearing a nightgown. She was holding an infant close to her breast.

*****

“Agnes!” Hannah scolded. “You shouldn’t be up.” She hurried over to guide the new mother back to bed, but Agnes held firm — as firm as she could, weak as she was at that moment.

“He should have the bed,” she said, in a quiet, halting voice. Her gaze was focused on Little Joe.

No one responded. Ben felt obligated to insist she return to bed, as Hannah had done. The poor woman looked so frail standing there, and Ben could not help but be reminded of Elizabeth. That young mother, Agnes, was in need of healing and recovery. But — God forgive him — Ben wanted to accept her offer, because Joe was in a fight for mere survival.

“It’s my fault,” she went on, her eyes still locked on Joe.

“What?” Ben found himself asking.

“If not for me, for this baby’s insistence on coming early, we wouldn’t even be here.”

“Yes, Agnes,” Hannah said softly. “We would.”

Agnes looked puzzled. “But we only stopped because…”

“Because this is precisely where I wanted to go,” Hannah said. And then she turned to Ben. “Not this cabin, specifically.” She raised her eyes. “This, I considered a blessing, something to show me that maybe God had heard my prayers, after all. But….” She sighed and looked again at Ben. “I came here to the Ponderosa…I brought these women here, because I needed help, I needed someone strong enough to stand up to my husband. And everything he discovered about you and your sons…everything that caused him to turn away from conducting business with you…it all led me to believe you were his opposite.” Her voice was beginning to waver; she raised a shaking hand to wipe a tear from her eye. “What you told him just now, what Adam told him just now…it made me realize I was right. But it made me realize I was also wrong. I was wrong to involve you. I was wrong to involve…Joe.”

Ben did not have to follow her gaze to know she was looking at his youngest son.

“I am so, so sorry,” she added, her voice barely a whisper.

Ben shook his head, slowly, sadly. “This wasn’t your fault, either. The only one at fault is that man out there.” Now he did look toward Joe. He caught Adam’s eye, and then watched his oldest son gaze once more at the too still form of his youngest and then rise to his feet, moving slow enough to seem almost as old as Ben himself.

“I think you did what you needed to do,” Adam said, approaching Hannah. “I would have preferred if you’d gone straight to the house, but….” He shrugged, took a deep breath and then reached into his pocket. “It looks like your letter had the desired effect as well.”

Ben watched, curious, as Adam handed her a piece of paper. After a moment, she curled the paper into her fist, held it to her breast and shook her head. “Too late,” she whispered. “It’s just…too late.”

“No,” Adam said. “It’s not.”

When the baby started crying, Adam looked to Agnes. “You’d better get back to bed. You’ll need your rest.”

“No,” Agnes said. “Please. He should have it.”

Adam glanced to his father, and then to Joe. “Maybe in a little while,” he said. “But not yet. Frankly, I’m afraid to move him right now.”

Pale as she was, she seemed to grow paler. But then she nodded and turned back to the bedroom.

Hannah looked at Ben. She shook her head once more, as though in apology, and then followed behind Agnes. There was something in the way the curtain fluttered in her wake that stirred fresh pain in Ben’s heart. His family had been victimized by Richard Jameson Ellingsworth in the course of a single day. But for Hannah, it had clearly been a lifetime.

*****

It was getting darker out there, and Hoss’ thoughts were getting darker, too. When he’d caught sight of his little brother lying on the floor just inside the door, he knew there was too much blood. The doc wasn’t even there yet. Hoss knew those women were doing everything they could; he also knew if Joe lost too much blood it wouldn’t much matter. One thing Hoss didn’t know was how much was too much. Maybe only God knew that.

Pa had told him faith was the best medicine they had, and Hoss was trying to hold to faith; he really was.

“Press harder, Charlotte!” Hoss heard that Hecate woman call out.

“Here,” Adam said then. “Let me.”

Hoss found himself clenching and unclenching his fists. It wasn’t just the women helping Joe. It was Adam and Pa, too. And the doc was coming; he was just up the road. And the best anyone could do right at that moment—even the doc, if he’d been there—was to hold back some of that bleeding. So they were doing the right thing. They were doing the only thing they could. As for Hoss, the only thing he could do was to have faith. So doggone it, that’s just what he was gonna do. He was going to have faith. Joe was gonna be fine. He’d already survived more than his share in the short life he’d had so far; he sure wasn’t gonna let himself give in to no calf-brained saddle tramp who figured an unarmed boy with a bum leg made for a fair target.

“I ain’t a boy!” Hoss could hear Little Joe hollering in his head.

No, Joe, you ain’t. But you’re still my little brother, and you’ll always be my little brother, and I reckon that means I’m always gonna feel like I have to look out for you. When we’re both old and gray and gumming our food, I reckon I’m still gonna feel like I have to look out for you.

Despite everything, Hoss couldn’t help but smile at the image forming in his head. It sure was a silly image; but doggone if he didn’t want to see it come to pass.

Of course, Hoss had to look out for the rest of his family, too. And the Ponderosa was as much a part of the family as…well, as Hop Sing. Hop Sing might not need looking after right now, thanks to a well-timed cousin’s need of help, but the Ponderosa sure did. So when Hoss saw a bunch of those yahoos out there starting to light a campfire too close to the canopy of the woods, with those woods too dry for their own good, Hoss climbed down off that porch and marched right up to them. It never even occurred to him they might consider him a threat worth drawing against.

*****

Sheriff Roy Coffee reached the cabin while Adam was telling off that Ellingsworth fella. It was sure something to hear Adam say all he did, and it took some gumption for that boy to challenge the man like that while facing twenty guns or more. Could almost have made Roy believe the pen really was mightier than the sword — or words were, anyway. He even felt a bit like cheering Adam on. Trouble was, he didn’t at all like what Adam had been saying. Sounded like Little Joe might have been hurt real bad, and considering all the gunfire Roy and the doc had heard not all that long ago…well, it like to turn Roy’s stomach thinking that Ben’s youngest might have been caught in the middle of it.

He needed to see what was going on both in and around that cabin.

As far as around it went, Roy spied three gunmen in back and one on the near side, closest to him. If he could get that one man out of there, he should be able to move in enough to reach the window and look inside without alerting the ones in back. The trouble would be in getting rid of that man. Roy sure couldn’t afford to surprise him and give him the chance to cry out an alarm. That could start a whole new volley of gunfire. No, Roy had to wait for the right kind of opportunity.

As luck would have it, Hoss was the one who gave it to him.

When Hoss shouted out about a fire somewhere, that side man moved away, drawn toward the ruckus Hoss was raising. Encouraged, Roy waited a moment longer to see if any of the men from around back decided to come along this way, and his luck seemed to hold, because none of them did. Maybe they went around the other side, or maybe they were responsible enough soldiers to stick to their posts. Roy supposed if they were army trained they’d do just that. Of course, thinking they might have been army trained didn’t make Roy feel any better about the situation, but he was at least somewhat optimistic about the chances that seemed to be coming along just then.

He approached the cabin without any trouble at all, and started to peer inside when he heard someone coming around the corner from the back.

Dadburnit! Had he been spotted after all? Roy hunkered down behind a scraggly bush to the left of the window and squeezed himself as close to the building as he could, hoping to take advantage of the late evening shadows. But the figure that came into view at that moment was not a gunman as he’d expected. It was a woman.

Suddenly, Roy was more concerned about her being discovered than about himself. He stepped out of his cover. “Miss!” he called out in an urgent whisper.

She gasped loud enough for Roy to hear her, and turned to face him. Then she shook her head and backed away, moving herself closer to the front of the cabin—closer to those twenty gunmen or more.

“Miss!” Roy hissed. “Get back here afore they see you!”

She shook her head more vigorously then, and did something that shocked Sheriff Roy Coffee enough that he went stock still for what must have been a solid minute. She ran toward the gunmen.

She had just disappeared from sight when Roy heard a gunshot. An instant later, he heard another. It like to have stopped Roy’s breath as he waited for the barrage that was sure to follow. God in heaven, he prayed, please don’t let Hoss be caught in it this time.

*****

Hoss stamped out two fledgling fires, cussing at Ellingsworth’s gunmen the whole while. If any of them had a brain in their heads, they’d know enough to stay clear of overhanging branches and to keep well away from all that dry brush. “What are you tryin’ to do?” he argued. “Start the whole valley on fire? You’re bound to burn the cabin, all them women in there and your own hides too! Don’t you think you won’t! If you gotta have fires, put ’em over there,” he went on, pointing at a spot between the trees and the cabin, “and there. But clear away that dry grass first. An’ get some stones from the creek.”

For a moment, Hoss was almost starting to believe they were all working together, almost forgetting they were on different sides. But a single gunshot reminded him that was as far from the truth as he could get. The sound pierced his thoughts with images of Little Joe bleeding on that cabin floor…and those thoughts pierced his heart.

“No!” he hollered out, looking all around him for the shooter and praying no one else raised their weapons. “Don’t shoot! Ain’t no reason to shoo…”

There was another shot. This time Hoss saw who’d done it. It was the same yahoo who’d thought emptying his gun into Little Joe was about as funny a thing as he’d ever done. He had even less brains than those men with the fires. He was too thick to even realize that with his gun being just one of twenty and Joe not having a weapon at all, he was nothing but a coward and a braggart.

Hoss was gonna see to it he didn’t have anything else to go bragging about, ever again.

His blood raging in his ears, Hoss barely even knew he’d moved until suddenly that coward was in front of him. Hoss grabbed the gun right out of the man’s hand, right as he was aiming for another shot; and then, in one quick motion Hoss swung the gun around and slammed the butt end against the side of the man’s face. “Ain’t you seen enough blood for one day?” he said between one hard breath and the next while the gunman squirmed in the dirt, caterwauling about Hoss breaking his jaw. “It ain’t broke if you can talk,” Hoss went on. “Besides, you gonna complain about that, how do you think you’d feel with twenty bullets in you? ‘Cause I can see it gets done. You keep shootin’ wild like that, an’ I’ll do it myself.”

“Hoss?” Pa’s voice called out from the cabin. “Are you alright, son? Hoss?”

“I’m fine, Pa!” Hoss shouted back. “How ’bout everyone in there?”

“No one was hit in here!” Adam answered instead.

“Looks like you were lucky this time,” Hoss said to the coward.

“I weren’t aimin’ at the cabin!” the coward cried out. “I saw someone movin’ round the side!”

Hoss felt something inside him tugging on his lungs, making it hard to breathe. He could only think of one person who might be sneaking around like that: Sheriff Roy Coffee.

Ellingsworth’s men must have had the same kind of thoughts, at least figuring whoever was out there surely wasn’t one of their own. Three men pulled away from the rest and started running for the cabin.

“Pa!” Hoss shouted. “Adam! There’s men comin’ your way. Man here says he saw someone next to the cabin! You’d better keep your eye out, but hold your fire!”

Even as he said the words, he felt the barrel of a gun driven up under his chin.

“And you’d better hold yours, too,” Hoss warned, softly. “My brother wasn’t bluffin’ with your boss. You shoot me, he won’t have a penny left to pay you.” Hoss didn’t really know if that was true or not, but the threat had worked for Adam, so he figured he ought to try it, too. “That’s all you care about, isn’t it? All that money he gives you?”

The gun eased away, but only enough to allow him to swallow.

“All I know,” a hot voice rasped in his ear, “is that better be nothing more than a coyote nosin’ around.”

“It’s a woman!” one of the men called back from beside the cabin. “Ronny got her good! She’s dead!”

The gun was pulled away, but Hoss almost wished it hadn’t been, as though it might somehow keep him standing after his legs went weak — right along with his stomach. He did not want to imagine which one of Hannah’s women Ronny had managed to kill.

“You’re gonna hang now…Ronny,” Hoss promised while he forced himself to stay upright and watched those three men coming back toward him, one carrying the body of a woman, her limp arm dangling like a half-broke tree branch caught in the wind. “There’s no one here responsible but you this time,” Hoss went on. “How’s that feel…Ronny? How does it feel to know you just shot down a woman in cold blood?”

“The…they won’t give me up,” the coward blubbered back, sounding as shaky as any coward Hoss had ever known.

“Don’t count on it,” Hoss countered.

“I only did what I’m paid to do!”

“Mr. Ellingsworth pays you to do what he needs done. And if he needs to protect his own neck, whose do you think is gonna go in his place?”

Hoss felt sick and cold as the men drew nearer. And then he saw a flash of red hair, and he knew exactly who that dead woman was. “Lucy,” he said in a whisper, his thoughts driven back to Joe’s first encounter at the cabin, when Adam and Hoss had found him tangled up with Lucy in the grass, on account of that Chinese gal shooting him in the foot.

Hoss closed his eyes, caught his breath, and began to wonder what had driven Lucy outside this time. Why now, when she knew she should be hunkered down with the rest of the women?

“Well, look at that,” the raspy voice cut into Hoss’ imaginings. “I’d say you’ can forget all that talk about hangin’, Ronnie-boy. Boss might even give you a bonus for takin’ her off the payroll.”

Payroll? Hoss focused on that one, single word. And then he thought back to the broken shoe and other oddities he’d found marking the women’s otherwise clean trail. And suddenly he had no trouble figuring why that woman had gone off on her own. Dang it all, anyway. Had Lucy been working against Hannah all along?

But a minute later it just didn’t matter anymore. The doc had arrived. All Hoss could think about then was Little Joe.

*****

“Lucy?” Hannah asked, sounding confused.

Until she’d spoken, Ben hadn’t realized she had come up to stand beside him at the door. Now he saw her glancing back into the cabin, as though she was looking for the woman she already knew she wouldn’t find.

“I never even….” She took a long breath. “Never even realized she’d gone out.”

“You have had a lot on your mind,” Ben said, his own gaze moving to Little Joe. “We all have,” he added, softly.

“But she was my responsibility. And now….”

“Now she is not,” Hecate said, her tone angry. “You owe her nothing; and what she owed you, she will never repay. She stole your trust.”

“She stole all of our trust,” Millie added.

The Chinese woman was looking pale, Ben realized. Her own injury had been poorly tended in his haste to see to Joe. He should try to do something more for her; but even as he wondered just what that might be, he glimpsed a buggy moving toward the cabin. “Thank God,” he said in a whisper, thoughts of Millie, if not forgotten, at least pushed aside. His friend, his doctor, his best hope for Little Joe, had finally arrived.

*****

Paul Martin was angry. He was angry at the two men who had demanded he come with them and then set a reckless pace he could hardly match, one that endangered his horse and could have torn the buggy to pieces. He was angry at Roy for not reaching him first. He was angry at Adam for being so smug in light of the danger they all knew lie ahead. But most of all, he was angry about being kept in the dark, unaware what damage all that shooting had done…and to whom.

As he approached the cabin, he could tell by the look in Ben Cartwright’s eyes that one…or more…of the Cartwright boys had been caught in the crossfire. Even so, he was still startled at what he saw once he stepped inside. The amount of bloody rags and blood soaked floorboards appalled him, and the pale sheen to Little Joe’s skin told him his hasty buggy ride might have been too slow after all. And then he was angry at himself.

“We need to elevate him somehow, so I can work properly,” he said, already tossing off his suit coat and rolling up his sleeves as he scanned the room for options. His gaze briefly landed on a wounded Chinese girl in the corner and a bandaged man stretched out and unconscious in the kitchen before he decided what must be done. “The door,” he said then, dismissing his other patients for the moment.

“What?” Ben asked.

“Have Hoss remove that door.” He pointed to the cabin’s entryway. “We can lay it across the table in the kitchen. It won’t be perfect, but it will be balanced enough to give me an operating platform.”

“There’s a bed in…” Hannah started.

“Too soft,” Paul cut in. “With that much bleeding, a mattress will only work against our efforts to keep pressure on the wound.”

“Wounds, doctor,” a black-skinned woman corrected.

“We can’t remove the door!” Ben argued. “Those men out there are still…”

“I need a table, Ben. The kitchen table is too small. If you have another option, tell me about it now. If not, then get that door off those hinges so I can get to work!”

*****

When Doc Martin asked for Hoss, Adam knew it was time to switch places with his stronger, younger brother. It was only right; he’d promised to relieve Hoss soon, after all. Still, he hated walking away from Joe. He hated feeling as though he was leaving his little brother behind for good.

Little Joe was going to die. Adam knew that. He knew it no matter what Pa said about faith, and no matter that Paul Martin was focused on saving him despite knowing there were others in that cabin in need of his assistance. Paul was too good a doctor to give up when there was still a chance; he was also too wise a person to willfully allow anyone to suffer. Joe certainly wasn’t suffering. He wasn’t feeling anything at all. He could be left to die and he wouldn’t even know it was happening. Doc Martin could turn his back on him…if he knew there was no hope. He could walk away and focus his attention on the others. But he didn’t, and that said something significant. It said Joe could still survive this.

Even so, Adam felt oddly as though it was already over, as though Little Joe was already gone. It was a feeling he couldn’t shake, no matter how much he tried to talk himself out of it. And it was a feeling that gave him a new sense of the situation everyone in that valley was experiencing.

He looked at the cabin with its open doorway and its vacant windows. Gone were the diligent sharp shooters, the women who had been so intent to protect their sisters inside they hadn’t given themselves time to recognize Joe had never posed and wouldnever have posed a threat to them. No one was guarding those sisters now, not the sisters themselves, and certainly not Little Joe. Everyone inside that cabin was singularly focused on saving Adam’s brother, who had been forced to stay with the women and subsequently caught in the line of fire only because of the injury they had caused him.

It was ironic, really. A cabin full of women who’d come into the valley distrusting of men was now more concerned about saving one young man than about the flight that had driven them there.

And yet none of it had been their fault. Only one person was to blame: Richard Jameson Ellingsworth. The third. Where was he now? Adam scanned the men spread out just in front of the tree line. Most seemed to have lost interest in the standoff, their guns put aside for now, their gazes on one of the two campfires that were now blazing hot enough to get Hoss’ attention—if Little Joe hadn’t already caught it instead.

Taking a deep breath, Adam tried to chase Joe from his thoughts. This had to end. Ellingsworth must believe he’d already won. He was probably just waiting for morning to send his men into that cabin and claim his property: each and every one of those women. Even Adam had to admit the fight was lost…or rather, changed. No sharp shooting Chinese women were going to save Hannah and her sisters now. There was only one weapon left to them that could offer any hope, a weapon Adam, himself, would have to wield, and only Richard Jameson Ellingsworth, the third, would recognize the true depth of the threat that weapon posed.

“Where is he?” Adam shouted to the man nearest him.

The man glanced up in disinterest, and then returned to the conversation Adam had apparently interrupted.

“Where is Mr. Ellingsworth?” Adam persisted.

The man looked up again. This time he shrugged.

“You don’t care? He’s the man who pays you. Doesn’t it bother you that he’s not here, now that a young woman has been murdered? Did it occur to you that he might have run out on you? Left you to hang?”

When the men started laughing, Adam wanted to grab the nearest gun and empty it into any one of them. He thought of the horses that were running wild now, all except for one red roan that had saved Adam’s life and was finally safe in its own right, secured at the livery in Virginia City. He thought of the pleasure he’d seen in the eyes of these very men when he’d been on the verge of death under those same horses’ hooves, and then he thought of the guilt he’d seen in Millie for shooting Little Joe in the foot.

And then, again, he thought of Little Joe…but not as he was now, not lying in his own blood facing his last moments in this life. No, Adam thought of Little Joe holding his gun to another gunman’s head, a man who’d gone by the name of Red Twilight. Joe had been ready and even eager to pull the trigger. He’d been ready to destroy his own life for what that man had done to Hoss. Joe had thought Hoss was dying; he’d been so sure Hoss was dying that he couldn’t think of anything except revenge. And Adam had talked him out of it.

Adam had stopped Little Joe from ruining his own life for the sake of revenge. And now, even while those men were laughing at Adam, the very men who had shot Little Joe, all Adam could see was his youngest brother. He saw Joe glaring back at him with anger in his eyes. ‘Don’t you see, Adam?‘ the Joe in his mind called out. ‘You’d be no better than them!

And as much as Adam wanted to put twenty bullets into any one of Ellingsworth’s men…he couldn’t. He couldn’t do it because of what it would do to Joe’s opinion of him. He’d forced Joe to realize Joe was a better man than Red Twilight. How could Adam ever face Joe again, whether in this life or the next, if he proved himself worse?

“Where is he?” Adam repeated in a low voice that somehow seemed to capture the attention of the men far better than his earlier shouts.

“He’s up at the main house,” someone finally answered.

“He’s where?” Adam asked, confused.

“He’s up at that big, fancy ranch house of yours. Maybe gettin’ ready to sleep in yer own bed.”

And then the men started laughing again. And Adam realized revenge could still be his. All he had to do was go home, where he could finally bring his weapon to bear on the man who deserved every slice of its sharp edge.

Except…going home meant leaving his family here, abandoning them to the whims of careless gunmen with a thirst for blood at a time when they had a very different fight on their hands, one that made them far too vulnerable.

No. Adam couldn’t leave now…which meant he couldn’t end this, at least not yet.

*****

Roy Coffee watched Adam turn his attention back to the cabin. Adam’s face was hidden in the darkness, but Roy could sure imagine what he might see if it weren’t so dark and he weren’t so far away. There’s no feeling more helpless than what Adam had to be feeling right then. He couldn’t help his brother none; and even knowing the doc was doing what he could, that wouldn’t be enough to make Adam feel any less helpless. Nothing would be enough until he knew for sure Little Joe was not gonna go and die on him. And now he couldn’t even talk to the man responsible. Not too long ago, Adam had been completely confident he could make that Ellingsworth fellow back down just by talking to him; and if Ellingsworth would back down, those gunmen of his would get their sorry carcasses off the Ponderosa once and for all. But those gunmen weren’t going anywhere…not anytime soon, anyways. Maybe not until it was too late for those women, and maybe for Adam’s family, too.

Roy had been trying to figure out how to turn this thing around, seeing as how he was just one man with a gun against an army with an apparent arsenal. He didn’t like the idea of Clem showing up come morning with a posse much better. It might even the odds a bit, but nothing good could come of it. It would just result in more shooting…and more dying. No. The only good way to end this was Adam’s way — even if Roy didn’t fully understand just what that meant.

There was only one thing he could really do, Roy decided then. He had to get Ellingsworth to listen to Adam. And the only way he could do that sooner rather than later was by getting Ellingsworth out of Ben Cartwright’s house and back here where he was responsible for putting everyone else.

*****

As night settled in, Adam returned to the cabin, taking up a position on the porch that left him feeling like a sentry in Hamlet expecting to be paid a visit by the late king’s ghost.

It was Hoss who paid him a visit, instead. “Hey, Adam?” he said as he leaned casually against the doorframe — a pose that would have drained his father’s face of blood if he’d seen it, so reminiscent was it of Joe after he’d been hit by that first bullet, before he’d fallen to the ground.

Adam did not answer. There was no need. Hoss knew he’d been heard.

“You don’t reckon they’ll do anything tonight, do you?”

Sighing, Adam propped his foot on the chair in front of him and rested his arms on his knee. “I doubt it. They think they’ve already won. They’re not even paying us much attention, anymore. Come sunup they’ll be all over this cabin, but for now….” He let his words trail off.

“Now’s our own best chance to do somethin’.”

“Yes it is.” Adam locked his eyes with his brother’s. “If there was something we could actually do.”

“What about talkin’ to Mr. Ellingsworth?”

Hoping to catch a glimpse of Joe, Adam let his gaze slip past Hoss. All he could see was the fireplace. “Has Doc Martin said anything?”

Hoss dropped his head, reminding Adam of the little boy he’d grown out of years ago. “Just that it’s too soon to know anything for sure. He says we gotta wait…see if Joe can get enough blood back into him on his own.”

Adam nodded. Then, taking a deep breath, he rose to his full height and stared out at Ellingsworth’s men. “I suppose now is the best time.”

“What’re you gonna do?” Hoss asked, rising to his full height as well.

“I’m going to have that talk with Ellingsworth.”

“I thought you said he was up at the house.”

“That’s right.”

“You don’t think those men out there are actually gonna let you go up there, do you?”

“They will.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“They have to.”

“No, they don’t.” Hoss sighed, shaking his head just once, back and forth. “Adam, I already got one brother to worry about. Don’t you go makin’ it two.”

“I don’t intend to,” Adam said, hoping he put more confidence into his smile than he actually felt. “I’ll be back before sunrise.”

“You sure you gotta do this?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what else to do.”

Hoss chewed at the inside of his cheek, pulling his brows down in concentration. “I reckon I don’t either,” he said after a moment. “Sure wish I did, though.”

“Me too.” Adam clasped his brother’s arm briefly, and then turned to step off the porch. “Sunrise,” he repeated before heading toward the nearest campfire.

“Yeah,” Hoss answered. “I’ll be holdin’ you to that.”

*****

Paul had done what he would — what he could — for Joe, for the time being. The bleeding had been brought under sufficient control to allow the boy to rest for a while, to rebuild his strength before the bullet could be removed. He’d lost so much blood…so much…. He simply could not lose anymore, not even to the steady hand of a skilled surgeon.

While the good doctor turned his attention to his other patients, Ben sat beside his son, watching Joe breathe, watching his chest rising and falling in a disturbing, uneven pattern that offered proof of the struggle going on deep inside, a struggle his father and brothers were helpless to fight for him, or even with him.

“What is it about this cabin, Mr. Cartwright?”

The soft voice washed across Ben’s empty thoughts like a welcome splash of rain. He turned to see the young mother, Agnes, carrying her own sleeping child.

“It feels…lonely,” she went on, “even as crowded as it is.” She gave him a small smile. “That sounds strange, I know. But…even when we first arrived, it was as though…I don’t know.”

Ben shook his head, uncertain how to answer, and not even wanting to try. He was distantly aware of her stiffly lowering herself into the rocking chair beside the fireplace. He should tell her to go back to bed. He should do a lot of things, he realized then. There were many things that needed doing…to care for the others who had been wounded, to look after the women, all of whom were exhausted, even to confront Ellingsworth and his men. And yet none of those things seemed significant to him at that moment. All that mattered was his young son, and the struggle Ben could do nothing to support.

“What happened here?” Agnes asked quietly.

Still, Ben did not answer. He was barely aware of her words.

“I can’t help but wonder who lived here, and why this place was abandoned.”

And then, suddenly, Ben’s thoughts took him back all those months ago, when Joe had been as happy as Ben had ever seen him, eager to face a future right here with his young bride. “Joe,” he said in a whisper. He took hold of Joe’s hand and clasped it firmly between both of his. “It was for Joe and his…wife.” The word felt strange, falling from his lips almost like a curse. “Laura,” he added, swallowing to dislodge the thickness building in his throat.

“Joe?” Agnes asked. “Your son?”

“Yes.” The word came out so softly he wasn’t even sure she could hear him.

“He’s married,” she said in affirmation. “And she doesn’t even know, does she? Oh, I’m so sorry. So sorry about all of this. He should never have…”

“No,” Ben said more tersely than he should have. “No,” he repeated in a softer, kinder tone. “They never actually married. She…Laura died. Right here, in this cabin.”

“Oh.” Agnes held silent for a long while. “No wonder,” she said then. “No wonder this place feels so lonely. And the cradle…oh, the plans they must have made together.”

“Yes,” Ben whispered.

“They must have been happy, making those plans.”

“Yes.”

“He loved her very much.”

This time, Ben said nothing. Yes, he thought, sadly. He loved her very, very much.

“Tell me about her.”

Curious, Ben looked at Agnes

“Was she beautiful?”

“She was,” Ben answered.

“Was she kind?”

Ben took a deep breath. “She was kind…and caring…and cheerful.”

“Cheerful?”

“Yes. She was always smiling, always looking at the good in things.”

“She had a good life?”

“She did.”

Agnes’s gaze moved to Little Joe. “This may sound strange, Mr. Cartwright, but…I envy her. I would go to my death willingly if I could know that the days beforehand could be as hers were, filled with the love and happiness that went into preparing this cabin as they did.”

“You have your whole life ahead of you,” Ben said, disturbed at what he’d heard. “And your child…you have a good many things to look forward to yet.”

“Perhaps.” She did not sound convinced. “…At least, perhaps, for my daughter.”

“Give her love, and you will give her happiness.”

Agnes smiled at him. “I want to believe you.” She looked to the infant in her arms, and touched her lips gently to the newborn’s head. Then she turned to Ben once more. “Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think your son would mind if I named my daughter for his fiancé? Would he mind if I called her Laura?”

Ben’s hands tightened around Joe’s.

“Maybe,” Agnes added, “with her name, she can have some of Laura’s happiness in her own life.”

“I think….” Ben cleared his throat as it threatened to close on his words. “I think Joe would be pleased,” he finished after a moment. Something felt different, then. Joe’s hand felt…different. Lighter, somehow. And yet, at the same time, stronger.

Shaking his head, Ben chided himself for his foolish thoughts. Even so, he could not bring himself to let go of that lighter, stronger hand.

“Back to bed, young lady,” Paul Martin called at Ben’s back. “You know you need your rest.”

“Of course, doctor,” Agnes said, sounding somehow lighter, herself. “Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben looked at her, watching as Paul helped her to her feet.

“Your son,” she said then. “He’s going to be fine. You just wait and see; he’ll be just fine.”

When she smiled at him, Ben could almost believe he was looking at Laura, herself. In that instant, he could have believed anything. But then the instant passed, and he knew his eyes had deceived him.

“I hope so,” he whispered.

*****

Roy had no intention of going about his business with Ellingsworth blindly. He left his horse in the trees some distance from the house and took his time approaching. He needed to know how many men Ellingsworth had brought with him, and where each of those men was positioned. He sure never expected to hear a whole bunch of voices as he drew nearer. Either Ellingsworth had brought a lot more men with him than Roy had thought, or….

…Or Ben Cartwright had a small army of his own right here, just waiting to be called into service. It didn’t take long for Roy to confirm that was the case. And then he smiled, suddenly feeling a whole lot more confident about this whole thing. Ben Cartwright had a bunkhouse full of men who had apparently been locked up tight.

Roy had no doubt every last man in that bunkhouse would agree to be deputized, if only for a chance at revenge for being confined like that. And once they found out what had happened to Little Joe…well, Roy knew some of those boys were mighty fond of the Cartwrights. He could have a problem holding them back. Could turn into a lynch mob if he wasn’t careful.

Sighing, Roy decided he could only work with one problem at a time, and the most immediate problem was getting to that Ellingsworth fellow without being gunned down or even just locked up with Ben’s hired hands. If the best way to do all that was by getting himself a whole bunkhouse full of deputies to back him up, then that’s just what he was gonna have to do.

*****

There were two guards at the bunkhouse, one in front and one in back. Roy took care of the one in back quick and quiet, thanks to the fact that fellow had been half asleep at his post. The sheriff tied him up tight and shoved the man’s own neckerchief into his mouth to keep him from calling out. Then he crept around to the front and eased his gun out of the holster, aiming it at the man who was standing there and staring at the main house, making it plain that was where he’d rather be.

“Drop your guns,” Roy said softly, making sure the man could hear him pulling his hammer back. “And then turn around real slow.”

The man drew his hands away from his body, but otherwise stood his ground, refusing to do as Roy had said. “You pull that trigger,” he answered, “you’ll never make it out of here alive. My boys’ll cut you down before you take two steps.”

“Your boys are a fair ways from here,” Roy told him. “They’re all down at that cabin havin’ a high time of it while you been stuck here alone in the dark.”

“I ain’t alone. I got…”

“What you got is a whole heap of trouble. And your friend out back ain’t gonna help you none.”

This time the man said nothing at all. He stood silent, probably figuring his odds.

“I pull this trigger,” Roy said, “I got me a whole bunch of boys ready to back me up right on the other side of that door. An’ you know it. So why don’t you just do like I already told you, and drop them weapons.”

*****

Hop Sing was tired and angry. Cousin number twenty-two hadn’t needed him at all like he’d said; he was more lazy than sick.

Cousin number twenty-two lazier than any man Hop Sing ever know. Hop Sing would never believe anything he say anymore. Cousin number twenty-two no longer even cousin, and Hop Sing would write letter to cousin number twenty-one to tell him so.

Swearing silent curses in his native tongue, Hop Sing pulled the wagon up to the front of Ben Cartwright’s house and then found himself wishing — just for an instant — that one of Ben Cartwright’s boys could cook. A good, hot meal would make Hop Sing feel much better, and a cup of special tea…and his own bed. He looked forward to his bed most of all. But first Hop Sing must cook. A good meal would make everyone feel better, especially Hoss. Yes, Hop Sing liked cooking for Hoss.

When the front door opened, Hop Sing was ready to start yelling about how Mistah Cartwright boys not eat enough, never eat enough when Hop Sing gone. Hop Sing would yell so much Mistah Cartwright boys would put up the wagon and the horses without Hop Sing ever having to ask for them to do it. Hop Sing not like to ask for favors. It never good for anyone to ask for favors. Cousin number twenty-two ask for too many favors.

As Hop Sing started cursing again in Chinese, he realized the men coming out of the house were not Cartwrights. In fact, they were strangers. And they were aiming guns at him.

“Where Mistah Cartwright?”

“Mr. Cartwright is not at home,” a stiff backed gentleman answered, although he addressed his response to one of the other men with him rather than to Hop Sing directly. “Tell him to leave the laundry or whatever it is and be on his way.”

“Hop Sing no bring laundry!” Hop Sing shouted as the gentleman turned back to the house. “Hop Sing no go away! This Hop Sing home! Where Mistah Cartwright?”

The gentleman turned again. “Your home, you say?”

Hop Sing nodded. “Hop Sing work here. Live here. Where Mistah Cartwright?”

The gentleman sighed. “Very well. Put him in the bunkhouse with the others.” Then he went back inside without saying another word.

*****

Sheriff Roy Coffee had ten new deputies ready to back him up. They were well armed thanks to a cache Mr. Ellingsworth’s men had gathered, and he was feeling about as smug as Adam had earlier when he finally approached the house. He didn’t think anything could surprise him at that point. But then he heard Hop Sing carrying on in that gibberish of his. And then he saw why.

“Let him loose!” Roy shouted, drawing his gun against the two men who were dragging Hop Sing right toward him.

Fortunately, those men were even more surprised than he’d been. They stopped dead in their tracks and stared at him. Hop Sing stared for a while himself before starting on another one of his gibberish tirades, and then he was madder’n a hornet as he shook himself loose of those gunmen.

It didn’t take long after that for the sheriff’s new deputies to tie up those two gunmen right along with the others, and then they locked them up in the bunkhouse to boot, just like Ben’s men had been.

Yep. Roy was feeling smug, alright. In fact, things were going so well he began to think he’d be bringing Ellingsworth back with him in no time at all. He would help Adam to end this foolishness, Ben would be back in his own home, and Joe…. Well, there wasn’t much Roy could do about that. But at least the standoff would be over, and his friends would have control of their own land again.

That was where Roy made his mistake. You don’t go getting smug until things really are over. And you don’t go letting your mind wander when you need to be paying attention. It was while Roy’s mind was wandering that someone in the house took a shot at him. He wasn’t hurt. Not really. The bullet didn’t do more than graze his shoulder, but it sure made him mad, about as mad as Hop Sing. Maybe even madder.

*****

Adam was less disturbed about having an escort than he was about the particular selection of one. He was accompanied back to the house by Ellingsworth’s foreman, the very man who had intended to reward his crew with Adam’s death in the corral. Still, that fact was less disturbing to Adam than his realization that the rest of Ellingsworth’s men would be left unsupervised. What action might they decide to take in the absence of both of their bosses?

Not liking any of the answers his thoughts began to conjure, Adam kicked the flanks of the horse he’d been given to ride and sped along well ahead of the foreman—or he thought he might, anyway. The man trailing Adam was too cunning to fall behind. Maybe Adam should have been surprised by the foreman’s ability to keep pace with him in the dark on unfamiliar trails. But Adam doubted anything that man did would surprise him anymore. He’d been surprised enough for one day, first at the house, then at the corral, and finally at the cabin.

At the cabin….

Thoughts of Joe pulled Adam’s thoughts, making him feel the distance he was putting between himself and his young brother. He began to wonder whether Joe would be dead by the time he returned. And then his thoughts took yet another turn. He began to count himself a fool. Surely he’d been a fool from the moment he’d seen that telegram in Sheriff Coffee’s office. No pen could ever cut as deeply or could ever be as deadly as a sword…or a bullet.

It wasn’t until the foreman moved up beside Adam that he realized he’d slowed his pace. And then, just before he kicked his horse, he wanted to kick himself…until he heard shots being fired somewhere on the trail ahead. Then the only one he wanted to kick was Richard Jameson Ellingsworth. The third.

*****

Adam was on the ground and running through the trees before he gave conscious thought to what he was doing. With his family behind him, at the cabin, he had no clear idea who might be in trouble, or what that shooting even represented; Ellingsworth’s men could be shooting at trees for all he knew. Even so, he felt driven by a sense of urgency. It wasn’t until he began to hear shouting that his mind began to catch up with his instincts and he was able to rationalize his actions. What had happened to Joe…that was what was moving Adam now. He was afraid…no, terrified it might happen to someone else. And then, as the voices became clearer, he realized that someone else might well turn out to be Sheriff Roy Coffee.

“This is the law you’re shootin’ at!” Roy hollered, the strength in his voice filling Adam with relief. “You go hurtin’ any one of us out here, judge won’t take kindly to it!”

Whoever was in the house didn’t seem to care. Adam heard more shots fired just before he caught a glimpse of the sheriff in the darkened shadows of the trees.

“Roy!” Adam yelled toward him. He was close enough now to see Hop Sing was there, too. That recognition both confused him and compelled him to move faster. But he didn’t get the chance. A hand grabbed him from behind.

His balance lost, Adam fell to the ground, landing hard enough to knock the breath from his lungs. By the time he could focus again, Ellingsworth’s foreman had his gun drawn. The hammer was cocked, and the barrel pointed at Adam’s head.

*****

If Hop Sing had been angry before, he was enraged now. First he’d been told to leave his own home. Then, when he’d refused, two men had tried to drag him away. Now someone else was pointing a gun at Mistah Cartwright number one son.

The men at the house didn’t even matter to him anymore. He didn’t care about any stray bullets that might come his way. All he knew was he was fighting mad. He wished he had an iron skillet in his hand; he would start bashing at that man’s head. But all he was armed with were words. And the only words he could use, as worked up as he was, were in a language no one else there could understand.

He used them anyway…and was surprised when they proved effective.

The stranger with the gun dropped his guard long enough to look Hop Sing’s way. That moment of confusion was all the time Mistah Cartwright number one son needed.

Adam swung upward with both hands locked together, effectively clubbing the gun from the stranger’s grip. The stranger fought back, landing a hard blow to Adam’s jaw. But Adam had already gained momentum. He landed several hard blows of his own before the stranger was able to touch him again.

With Adam now surrounded by friends, it might have been expected that someone would move in to help, pulling the two men apart. But no one did. This was Adam’s fight, and his alone — a fact that was made very clear by the rising moon. The light reflecting in Adam’s eyes seemed to reveal an odd fierceness, a kind of ferocity typically borne by creatures of the night. With Adam’s punches as fierce as his gaze, Hop Sing knew nothing good could be gained by intervening. It was also clear there was no need.

Confident Mistah Cartwright number one son would win, Hop Sing crossed his arms in front of his chest and nodded. It wouldn’t be long now before Hop Sing was back in that house where he belonged…along with his adopted family, of course. Surely Mistah Cartwright, himself, and both number two son and number three son were somewhere close by.

But the more blows Hop Sing watched Adam dole out to the stranger, the more he began to wonder why. What was driving such a brutal attack? Had the moon ignited madness in Mistah Cartwright number one son?

Soon the stranger was unconscious and still Adam continued beating him. Mistah Cartwright number one son was normally a very rational man, often growing even more rational when other men grew less so. He was not easily provoked.

Something very terrible must have happened to make him so angry now.

Suddenly worried, Hop Sing slowly dropped his arms to his sides. He watched Sheriff Coffee and two of Mistah Cartwright’s ranch hands grab Adam’s arms, preventing his bloodied fists from getting any bloodier…and from leaving the stranger’s face any less recognizable than it had already become.

“Adam?” the sheriff asked softly, his hand pressing lightly against Adam’s chest while Mistah Cartwright number one son struggled to catch his breath. “Is Joe…?”

Hop Sing looked at Sheriff Roy Coffee, concerned by the question the sheriff had started to ask and waiting for the rest of the words; but it was as though the sheriff was afraid to say them. Seeing the sheriff’s fear planted a seed of foreboding inside Hop Sing as well. It twisted his stomach as he came to imagine what those unspoken words might have been.

And then Mistah Cartwright number one son shook himself free of the arms constraining him. He met the sheriff’s gaze. “Not yet,” he said in a harsh, winded…wounded sort of voice.

Hop Sing looked at him for a long while before deciding the mark of the moon seemed to be fading. “What happen Little Joe?” he asked then.

Adam turned to him, saying nothing. A moment later, Mistah Cartwright number one son seemed to realize there were others in that small crowd who were as curious as Hop Sing to hear the answer. “Mr. Ellingsworth’s gunmen shot him down,” he said then, his tone biting, his voice strong.

“Little Joe…,” Hop Sing started to ask, finding it almost as difficult as the sheriff’s question must have been. “Hurt very bad?” he finally finished.

Adam locked eyes with his. “Twenty men, Hop Sing. Twenty men were shooting at that cabin. And Little Joe wasn’t even armed.”

It was all Mistah Cartwright number one son said, and all Hop Sing needed to hear. Little Joe was badly hurt. He might even be dying…because he had been ‘gunned down,’ as Adam, himself, had coldly stated. Gunned down by twenty men?

Now Hop Sing followed the gaze of Mistah Cartwright number one son as he looked toward the house. And Hop Sing’s rage became hatred at the gentleman inside, the man who had refused to speak directly with Hop Sing…and, according to Adam, the man responsible for gunning down Little Joe.

*****

“It’s over, Ellingsworth!” Adam shouted toward the house, which was glowing now from the lamplight inside. “Tell your men to cease fire!”

He was not surprised when the answer came with more shots fired from the already broken front window.

“You’re shooting at lawmen!” Adam went on when it became quiet again. The odds of any of those lawmen being hit were slim, given the dark night surrounding them; but that fact did not lessen the validity of Adam’s argument. “And you’re trespassing! As clean as you’ve tried to keep your hands through all of this, they’re dirty now! No judge would believe you were not directly responsible!”

This time, when Adam stopped shouting, there was no responding gunfire.

“Are you ready to talk?” Adam called out after a moment.

The front door eased open, just a crack. “Hold your fire!” someone shouted from inside.

Adam looked at the men around him. “Do as he says,” he told them. He waited for several responding nods, not all of which came readily, before returning his attention to the house. “Throw out your guns!” he shouted. “No one will shoot if you’re unarmed!”

Surprisingly, two rifles and three handguns were tossed to the porch, with no further argument. “We’re comin’ out!”

The door was opened wider. One man stepped out cautiously, his hands raised at his sides. A moment later, a second man slipped out. The porch lights behind both of them as they moved forward cast their shadows like long, ghostly tendrils reaching for the trees. Adam did not notice the worried gaze Hop Sing gave to those shadows.

“What about you, Ellingsworth?” Adam hollered. “I can’t talk with you if you don’t come out!”

“I need your word of honor you’ll protect me from my men!”

Confused, Adam looked to Roy. When he gave his attention back to the house, it looked to him as though Ellingsworth’s men were confused as well.

“Your men?” Adam shouted back.

“Do I have your word?” Ellingsworth repeated instead of answering.

“Come outside, and we’ll talk about honor!” Adam spat the word.

Finally, Mr. Ellingsworth pushed the door open. Adam saw him creeping forward, his shadow slithering before him like the snake he was. He kept his back to the building, casting suspicious glances at his men and acting as though they were a bigger threat than Roy and his deputies. “They have been holding me hostage in here!” he shouted. “They have conspired against me! I demand you arrest them at once, sheriff!”

Adam looked at Roy again, gritting his teeth and shaking his head. He was both surprised and disgusted by Ellingsworth’s total lack of honor. Then, when he returned his attention to the front of his home, surprise became shock.

Both of Ellingsworth’s men lunged for their weapons.

Neither reached them before a barrage of gunfire sounded from all around Adam.

In seconds, it was over. Adam hadn’t even had a chance to call for it to stop. When the smoke cleared, Adam saw that all three men lay on the ground, unmoving. Stepping closer, it quickly became evident to him that Richard Jameson Ellingsworth, the third, was dead.

“Maybe, for a minute at least,” a harsh, cold voice said behind Adam, “he got a sense of what it must’ve been like for Joe.”

Chilled, Adam turned, meeting the gaze of Jake Sanders, a young man near Joe in age who had become a good friend of Adam’s brother since he’d hired on a few months ago. His eyes were like ice. At that moment, Adam figured his heart must be as well. Then he realized his own was no different, because he was glad. He was glad Ellingsworth was dead. And he was numb. Because Little Joe might be dead, too.

*****

Sitting in a chair beside Little Joe, Ben’s thoughts began to drift. Even as Ellingsworth’s men outside kept him rooted to the present with their contemptible laughter and cheerful spirits, Ben found himself reaching into the past, reliving moments of his life that had been bolstered by Little Joe’s presence within it. Stirred first by memories of a different kind of laughter, one that mattered, that had value, an array of emotions began to flood through him. Little Joe’s exuberance had always done that to Ben, filling him with happiness, anger, sorrow…exasperation, exhilaration…a rush of feelings that could overwhelm and even exhaust him. He cherished his young son’s exuberance nonetheless.

Joe had always met life head on. He lived, Ben decided. Joe lived life as fully and completely as anyone could; and that liveliness, that energy, that enthusiasm had helped Ben to live more fully as well. In many ways, it told him Joe’s mother, Marie, was still with him, and would always be with him; for she, too, had helped Ben to live. Joe had kept a special kind of passion for life alive within Ben even after Marie had died. But…how could he hope to keep that passion alive if Joe were to die, too?

As the laughter outside gained in volume, that sound was not alone in bringing Ben back to the moment. A movement, a change…something sent the memories splashing away, returning Ben to that lonely, crowded cabin and his vigil beside his youngest son. He took a deep breath to clear his head. Then he straightened his shoulders, forcing himself to feel stronger than he knew he was. And he looked at Little Joe.

And he saw…life.

At first, he thought it had been a trick of shadows or even, simply, wishful thinking. But the longer he looked, the more evident it was that Little Joe was beginning to rouse. Joe’s brows drew down. His eyes moved back and forth beneath the lids.

“Joe?” Ben said softly as he rose to his feet, his hands automatically reaching out to touch Joe’s arm and test the warmth at Joe’s forehead.

Joe turned his head toward Ben, just the smallest bit, seemingly drawn by his father’s touch.

“Joseph? You’re going to be alright, son,” Ben struggled to say despite a growing tightness in his throat. “Everything’s just fine”

But everything wasn’t fine, and Joe’s next movements proved that to be true. As he came closer to waking, his brows twisted, his head rocked back and forth, and slowly, little by little, he began thrashing. He tried to draw his legs upward, the pull on his wounded foot causing him to freeze for a brief instant until his back began to arch—not much, but enough to push soft, pain-wracked moans through his barely parted lips.

“Easy, son.” Ben tried to soothe him, pressing gently against his shoulders. “Easy.” But it was a nonsense word, useless against the pain Joe was waking to.

“No more than a teaspoon!” Paul Martin’s voice called from somewhere behind Ben.

A moment later, the young, blonde woman appeared across from him. Emily? Yes, Emily; that was her name. She grasped Joe’s chin, her delicate fingers coaxing his tightening jaw to loosen; and then she poured a spoon filled with clear liquid into his mouth.

He swallowed it, his throat working to pull at the liquid. And finally, Joe pried his eyes open.

“Joe?” Ben said, trying to draw Joe’s gaze. “Joseph?”

But Joe did not turn to Ben. Instead, he stared at Emily, his eyes widening. And then his thrashing intensified.

Ben pressed harder against Joe’s shoulders. “Joseph!” he said sternly. “Joe! Settle down, son! Easy!”

“No,” Joe tried to argue, his voice almost too soft to be heard as he began to weaken again. It wasn’t until that moment that he looked at Ben. There was a look of desperation, even fear in his eyes, eyes that were bloodshot and not quite seeming to focus. “P…”

“I’m here, Joe. I’m here. You’re going to be fine, son.”

“No,” Joe gasped. “P…poi…s…,” he pleaded.

Ben couldn’t help him; he had no idea what his son was trying to say. “It’s alright, Little Joe.”

Joe shook his head slowly, gently rocking it back and forth. Then he reached up, weakly grasping Ben’s arm. “P…poison,” he said in an anxious whisper.

What? Ben wondered, shaking his head in bewilderment. “No, son. You’re in good hands here, very, very good hands.”

And then, suddenly, mercifully, Paul was at Ben’s shoulder. “Little Joe, I can assure you that most definitely was not poison.” He placed a stethoscope at Joe’s chest. “What that young lady just gave you will help you to relax, nothing more. Can you understand that, Joe? We need for you to relax. Can you do that for me, son? Just try to relax.”

Ben could see his son was growing weaker, but he was also trying to fight the effect of the drug on his already spent stamina. Even as Joe’s hand slipped from Ben’s arm, he struggled to keep his eyes open.

“No.” It was more a soft breath than a word as Joe’s eyes eased closed one more time. They did not come open again.

“Will you do me a favor, Ben?” Paul Martin’s hand gripped Ben’s arm where Joe’s had been only a moment before. “Step outside for a while. Get some fresh air.”

The words seemed foreign, somehow. Unintelligible. Ben looked to his old friend, confused. There was something in the way Little Joe had drifted back to sleep that Ben found disturbing. Poison, Joe had said. Why? Why would he believe he’d been poisoned?

“I need for you to take care of yourself for now, Ben,” Paul said gently. “And let me do what I have to, here. Why don’t you go and see what Hoss is up to?”

“Why, Paul?” Ben asked then. “Why would he think he’d been poisoned?”

Paul’s smile was sympathetic. “Delirium, Ben. Nothing more. It’s amazing the tricks the mind can play when someone’s in the kind of pain he must have been feeling.”

“Yes,” Ben said, numbly. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course, I’m right. Now give me room to work here, will you?”

Ben nodded, hesitantly moving away. As he turned, he noticed Hecate sitting on the floor near the door. That she had been watching him was obvious by the way her gaze shifted, abruptly flitting downward. It was the first time since they’d met hours earlier that she seemed even the slightest bit meek. Why, now, was she suddenly unwilling to meet his gaze?

But as Ben stepped out onto the porch, a more urgent puzzle drew his full attention. One of Ellingsworth’s men was brandishing a torch as though it were a weapon, waving its flame back and forth in front of him against a very angry and very determined Hoss.

*****

Hoss glared at the man in front of him, feeling every bit as lethal as that flame the man was holding out toward him. “My brother may be dyin’ in there,” he said in a low voice that could almost have been a blacksmith’s bellows. “And there’s a woman dead already on account of all of you. This ain’t no cause for celebratin’.”

The man with the torch laughed. He wasn’t alone.

“Mister,” someone said from the crowd gathering around them, “your brother set himself in front of our guns. His own damn fault.”

The laughter grew louder.

Hoss tensed, fighting the urge to swivel around and tear that one to pieces. He’d tear them all up if he could. But at that moment there was one, particular man he had to keep in his sights. The torch made that very clear. Hoss could feel the flames reaching for his belly.

“And besides all that,” someone else hollered, “we been trailin’ these she devils for nigh on three weeks. This here’s plenty cause for celebratin’!”

“I don’t care if you been eatin’ trail dust for three months,” Hoss answered without turning, “it don’t give you cause to set this valley on fire!”

“What the hell do we care about this valley?”

The man with the torch stabbed it toward Hoss again, looking a whole lot like Adam or Joe with one of them foils they liked to play around with and laughing just as much as Joe could. But that flame leaped out in ways no pointy stick ever could, and it sure didn’t have anything on the end of it to keep it from causing damage.

Hoss jumped back, just enough to keep the flame from reaching him. “You’re in it,” he answered, keeping his gaze locked on the torch bearer. “It burns, then so do you.”

“I’ll tell you what’ll burn!” another voice in the crowd shouted. “Those she devils, that’s what!

“How can devils burn if they come from hellfire anyways?” someone else added.

“That’s what we were aimin’ to find out ain’t it? Afore this ox come along tryin’ to spoil it!”

“You go anywhere near that cabin,” a new voice called out, one as commanding as any Hoss had ever heard…and more welcome than any he’d heard in a long while—the voice of his pa. “I promise you we will both tear you into kindling!”

Hoss caught sight of his pa moving into his peripheral vision just as the man with the torch lunged again.

“The two of you,” someone in the crowd called out, “against all of us?”

“Yes.” The way Pa said that word, Hoss couldn’t see how anyone might not believe him.

Somehow, though, those men didn’t care. Their laughter grew to a deadly rumble. But –oddly — it began to fade a moment later.

That’s when Hoss realized he heard a different kind of rumble…the rumble of approaching horses.

*****

Adam saw his father and brother standing down an entire crowd of Ellingsworth’s men…or trying to, anyway. Both Hoss and Pa were unarmed. Ellingsworth’s men could stop them in an instant, without even firing a gun.

Fire, itself, was the only weapon that had been drawn from what Adam could tell. And it was enough. It was more than enough. In many ways, fire could be more deadly than bullets.

Adam felt a fire of his own, his rage rekindled after the swift, cooling ride from the house. He didn’t waste time shouting. Instead, he drew his own gun, one he’d taken from Ellingsworth’s foreman.

Aiming for the ground at the feet of the man hounding Hoss with that torch, he was barely aware of pulling the trigger. He never even heard the explosion of the shot over the drumming of his heart in his ears. But the reaction from the man now backing away from Hoss made it clear Adam’s bullet had struck true.

“Drop it!” Adam hollered as he caught sight of two others reaching for their guns. Then, placing himself between Hoss and the majority of Ellingsworth’s men, he came to a stop and fired off one more shot, this one into the arm of a man who’d failed to heed his warning. “Next man who draws won’t have it so easy,” he shouted out over the cries and curses of the wounded man.

“Best do as he says!” Sheriff Coffee called out then. He and his new deputies were half as many men as the group they faced, but they had the upper hand, at least for the moment.

Adam was confident Roy Coffee would do everything he could to keep that advantage. Even so, everything he could do might not be enough—not against these killers, not in the dark of night…and not with a cabin full of potential victims so precariously positioned.

“Mount up and ride out!” Adam’s shout drew doubtful glances and mumbled arguments from Roy, but he ignored them, keeping his eyes fixed instead on Ellingsworth’s men. “I promise you, any man who stays behind will be lucky to make it to the Virginia City jail!”

“Adam!” Roy said then, neither shouting nor mumbling. “Have you gone plumb loco? You know you can’t take the law into your own hands! I got to arrest these men!”

“You heard me!” Adam hollered again, refusing to meet Roy’s gaze. “Mr. Ellingsworth is dead, and your foreman might as well be! There is no one left to pay you, and no reason for you to stay here! Leave now….” He cocked his gun once more, aiming it at the nearest man’s forehead. “Or pay the price for shooting my brother.” These last words were not shouted. They didn’t need to be. He was the only one talking, and every man around him was listening.

The man in his sights backed away and started running for the horses, with two more following close on his heels.

When a gun went off beside Adam an instant later, it startled him but did not break his focus as another man started yelling about his now wounded hand.

Adam turned his gaze just a fraction, and just for an instant, enough to show him the shooter had been young Jake Sanders. “I told you to stay at the house,” he scolded calmly.

“So fire me,” Jake answered without looking away from Ellingsworth’s men.

At that moment, Jake reminded Adam of Little Joe. And, just as suddenly, Adam appreciated having Jake at his side.

“Raise your hands,” the sheriff called out, “each and every one of you, and maybe my duly sworn deputies here won’t be so trigger-happy!” He spat out the word ‘deputies’; Adam had no doubt his purpose was to remind the men with him who was in charge.

Adam didn’t care. Too much had happened for him to care, not even about the rigorous protocols of law enforcement, protocols he had always been among the first to defend—at any cost. This time the cost to his family had already been too high. He put another man in his sights. “Don’t worry,” he said, taking careful aim, “I never took that oath.”

Three more men made a run for the horses.

“Adam!” Pa commanded then. “Let the sheriff do his job!”

“It’s too late for that, Pa.” Adam wasn’t shouting anymore.

Neither was his father. “No, son. It is not too late. There’s nothing to be gained from what you’re doing.”

“Yes. There is.”

“What?”

“Peace of mind.”

“You can’t get peace of mind by letting paid killers go free.”

“Yes,” Adam answered. “I can. I can gain the peace of knowing neither you nor Hoss will end up like Joe.”

Adam was not surprised when his father said nothing more. Part of him accepted that as proof Joe was dead. Another part would never accept such a truth, not even if he were looking directly at his brother’s cold, gray corpse.

The sheriff was not as easily silenced. “Adam,” he said in a prodding tone, “you know these men got to go to trial.”

“No. They don’t. They’re trespassing on Ponderosa land and making active threats against my family. I have every right to kill each and every one of them.”

“You know you have no such right!” Sheriff Coffee argued.

“Why don’t we just let the judge decide?” Adam took aim again.

Two more men broke and ran.

As Adam eased back on the trigger, he caught sight of something at the edges of his vision. There seemed to be a couple of figures ghosting through the woods.

But before he could give them any real attention, a woman called out from the cabin at his back, “Fire!”

*****

As soon as Ben had stepped outside, Paul Martin prepared to remove the bullet lodged in Joe’s ribcage. The amount of blood the young man had already lost had been profound, but that he’d stirred moments earlier was a good sign, suggesting that any further blood loss caused by the surgery itself should not bleed him out.

Emily, Hecate and Hannah all offered to help, easing Paul’s mind that much further. Emily had already proved to have an uncanny knowledge of medicine as well as an expert hand with stitches. When Paul had examined her efforts at closing the gaping wound left by the exiting bullet in Joe’s back, he could almost have believed he was looking at the work of a respected surgeon. And Hannah, well, her explanation of Agnes’s complications from childbirth and the infant’s own physical condition had proved something to Paul as well; she knew more than a thing or two about medicine herself.

As for Hecate…Paul had to admit, if only to himself, she scared him. Maybe it was the midnight hue of her dark skin. Maybe it was her height, which placed her at eye level with Adam. It might even have been her eyes, which seemed almost like they could look deep inside a man, ferreting out whatever he was really thinking. But her uncanny ability to know what he wanted of her with him hardly needing to say a word…well, it had proven helpful in his work with Agnes, the injured Chinese woman, and even the gunman these women had gunned down themselves. Paul figured he could sure use that kind of help with Joe.

Yes, Joe was in very good hands, as his own father had told him. God willing, Paul would have that bullet out in no time at all, sufficiently removing a risk he had refused to even mention to Ben: the chance of the bullet settling deeper, potentially even damaging a lung.

When it was time to focus his entire attention on Joe, Paul asked Charlotte, the Chinese girl, to keep an eye on things outside and let him know of any imminent danger to the cabin. To Paul’s consternation, her injured friend, Millie, insisted on helping her. Apparently, any thought of resting was as foreign a concept to these women as it was to the Cartwrights. Well, so be it. He didn’t have time to argue.

Taking a deep breath, Dr. Paul Martin pressed his scalpel against Joe’s skin the very instant one of those no good gunmen shot off a gun. Fortunately, Paul managed to keep a steady hand. He cursed silently and held still for a moment, forcing his concentration to hold. Then he finished making the incision.

*****

Agnes was exhausted, weak, hurting…and anxious. Rest was impossible, given the circumstances. She wanted her baby safely out of reach of those madmen outside. And she wanted Mr. Ben Cartwright and his sons — all three of them — to return to the life she had interrupted.

Settling her sleeping infant into the cradle beside the bed, she pushed herself to her feet and wandered quietly out to the main room to watch the doctor’s surgery and lend her prayers to his efforts. But the sound of a second gunshot outside startled her, causing her to tense in ways that pulled at her tender insides. She held both her breath and her belly until the pain subsided, and then she turned her attention to Charlotte.

“What is happening?” she asked in a whisper.

Her Chinese sister shook her head. “Adam Cartwright has returned.” Charlotte pulled her gaze from the window to look wide-eyed back at Agnes. “He has riders with him. A sheriff. And others.”

“He’s brought help?” Agnes asked, almost afraid to hear the answer, afraid to allow herself to believe the standoff might be over, or to feel a renewed sense of hope for her daughter’s future.

Charlotte nodded.

And then, amazingly, Adam shouted words neither woman could ever have imagined hearing. Mr. Ellingsworth is dead.

“He’s dead?” Agnes repeated. “Is that what you heard? Mr. Ellingsworth is dead?” She didn’t even realize she wasn’t whispering anymore.

Charlotte nodded.

“He’s dead,” Millie repeated.

“Hannah?” Agnes called out. “Did you hear?”

But another gunshot startled her once more. This time Charlotte must have noticed her clutching her stomach. Grateful for the arm wrapping around her, Agnes allowed herself to be guided to a chair beside the fireplace, clamping down on her teeth to prevent herself from crying out. It would not do well to disturb the doctor, not now.

Charlotte stayed with her while the pain eased.

“It’s alright,” Agnes said, trying to hold her voice firm until she realized she was holding Charlotte’s hand almost tight enough to break her sister’s fingers. “Oh, Charlotte!” she said softly, releasing her grip. “I’m so sorry!”

“You have done nothing wrong,” Charlotte replied, her sisterly smile filling Agnes with more hope than she ever could have thought possible.

But then Millie shouted, “Fire!”

And Agnes realized she had done something very wrong indeed. She had left her baby alone in the bedroom…where Millie’s gaze was now locked…where a thin tendril of smoke was spilling through the curtain.

*****

“Laura!”

The woman’s scream was as shrill and agonized as any Hoss had ever heard. It was also one he would never want to hear again. It tore at his gut and got his feet moving before he even let his head think anything about what he was doing. He was running away from Adam and his pa at a time when he still wasn’t too sure who was going to win this particular hand.

Well, it just better be Adam, Hoss decided, because he wasn’t going to stand still when a woman was screaming out like that only a second after someone else had hollered about a fire.

As soon as he stepped into the cabin, he saw that Chinese woman, Charlotte, pushing past the curtain from the bedroom with the baby in her arms. There was a whole lot of smoke coming out of that room behind her, enough to cause Charlotte to start coughing. It was strange though; the baby wasn’t coughing or crying or anything else.

The baby’s mother was sure crying, though. Agnes was on her knees in the main room, crying out something awful.

“Laura!” she pleaded. “My baby!”

Charlotte moved right on past her, and, after glancing at Hoss, she took the baby over to Doc Martin. As bad as it was for him to find that baby so quiet, Hoss felt almost worse to realize that the doc was in the middle of operating on Joe. Doc Martin glanced over at Charlotte and the baby, and then did something Hoss had never heard him do before; he cursed right out loud, using words Hoss didn’t even know he knew.

*****

Paul Martin had had bad days before, but nothing could ever compare with this one. He had too many patients, and too many crises. How could he possibly help them all?

“Emily!” he hollered louder than he’d intended. “Keep some pressure right here.”

He waited until she did as she was told, and then adjusted her fingers. Finally satisfied, he dipped his hands in a basin of water, wiped them on a towel, and turned…to find Hecate and Hannah already caring for the infant.

“She’s breathing,” Hannah told him. “Not as well as I would like to see, but she is breathing.”

“Then get her outside before she inhales any more of that smoke.” He saw Hoss carrying Agnes through the door and decided she was one patient who was simply going to have to wait. Again. God help him. Shaking his head at the chaos, Paul was happy to see Adam and Ben already evacuating everyone else. Fine then. He could finish his surgery.

“Thank you, Emily,” he said in dismissal, taking over the task he’d given her. “Now you get yourself out of here. I’ll finish up.” He looked up as Hecate retook her position at the table. “Both of you. Go.”

Neither woman moved.

“No, doctor,” Hecate said.

Surprised, he looked up again. “What?”

“I’m not leaving. You need help.”

Emily turned from Hecate to Paul. She said nothing. She also did not move.

“I don’t need more patients! Now both of you get out of here before the smoke gets too thick.”

“You also do not need to become a patient,” Hecate argued. “The more we discuss it, the less likely it will be that any of us will be able to leave.”

Paul cocked his head. “I suppose you’re right about that.” Sighing in resignation, he returned to his surgery. “Let’s finish this then, shall we?”

And then Dr. Paul Martin reached into Little Joe Cartwright’s rib cage with a steady hand—in defiance of the fire trying to engulf the bedroom and threatening the cabin itself—digging for a bullet that had thus far been about the most stubborn one he’d ever encountered.

Yes, it was a bad day, indeed.

*****

Paul and the two women helping him refused to leave. For that, Ben was both grateful and anxious. Surgery, for heaven’s sake! How could they hope to finish this surgery in the middle of a fire? It was a question he knew better than to ask. Paul would only take such a risk if it was vitally necessary. Joe’s life surely depended on that very surgery.

There was only one thing Ben could do to help Paul’s efforts prove successful. He had to keep that fire away from Paul and Joe.

Suddenly, justice no longer mattered. Like Adam, all he wanted now was to see Ellingsworth’s men gone. He didn’t want to lose a single one of his own men to chasing those gunmen down, or watching over them, or even taking them in to the Virginia City jail. He wanted every one of his men—no matter that they’d been deputized and were, therefore, Roy’s men, too—to help put out this blasted fire. He needed for them to make sure it was extinguished quickly.

Because of that need, Ben did something he would never have believed possible: he turned his back on Roy Coffee. He ordered two of the men back to the house to fetch buckets, shovels, wool blankets…everything they could get their hands on to help with the fire, and the rest to do what they could with whatever they might find in the interim. And then he turned his attention to the cabin.

And that was when Roy did something that seemed equally impossible: he turned his back on his duty. He shot his gun into the air and ordered those gunmen off of the Ponderosa. “I see any one of you after we get this fire out, I swear I will bring you in, dead or alive.”

Hearing his old friend’s words, Ben felt a sense of gratitude he would never be able to put to words…and a sense of hope that started to make him believe they just might succeed.

*****

Jake Sanders took one step into that cabin and knew there was nothing to be done. Everyone was fighting to turn to rights things that just could never be made right again. And for that Jake found himself burning inside every bit as much as that fire.

Little Joe Cartwright had been more of a friend to Jake than anyone he’d ever known. Joe had shown Jake respect when no one else would, and had helped Jake to see that he could make a future where none had seemed possible before. Joe had shown Jake how to rope and ride so well it had come to feel like they were things Jake had been born to do, and Joe had seemed to take pride in having taught him.

Joe Cartwright, who’d had everything a man could want, had treated Jake Sanders, who’d had nothing, as an equal. And for that, Jake Sanders owed Joe everything in return. But now Joe was going to die. How could Jake ever settle his debt?

The cabin was as good as done for. Jake being one more man fighting flames he knew would never quit…being one more man fighting on the side of what was right…it wasn’t going to change anything. It wasn’t going to stop the fire. And it sure wasn’t going to save Joe. No. Jake couldn’t do anything for Joe there.

Coming to that realization had turned Jake around. He’d jumped down off that porch and started running for his horse, leaving everyone else to fight the flames. There was something else that needed doing, and he was going to do it. He was going to get his hands on the men who’d started this fire, the two figures he’d seen in the trees only a few moments earlier. He was going to get his hands on them, and he was going to make those men pay. Maybe they weren’t the ones who had shot Joe, but they were sure responsible for making the doc’s work as impossible as it could ever be.

Yessir, Jake was going to get what justice for Joe he could. It would never be enough to repay his good friend, but it was the only thing he could do. And he would give everything to do it.

*****

Just when Paul Martin thought he finally had it, the bullet slipped away from his probe. Again. He held back another curse. “Hecate,” he said instead, and was grateful he did not have to say more.

She knew what he wanted. She wiped the sweat from his brow. He could feel it dripping down his back, as well. The cabin was getting awfully hot. It was also getting hard to breathe, and he challenged himself with trying not to cough. At least the fire was still contained in the bedroom — or he suspected as much, anyway; he did not look to confirm it. He refused to steal the second it would take for him to do so. Time was getting too critical. And that blasted bullet was making things too critical for Joe. This latest slip now had it resting right up against Joe’s lung.

Paul tossed the probe aside. “Extractor,” he said, holding his palm open and keeping his eyes on the wound. He studied the position of the bullet to determine his best angle. This was going to be his last chance. One try was all he was going to get. One slip could tear the outer lining of the lung, and anything beyond that would surely puncture it.

He could swear the beating of his own heart was louder than the shouts of Ben, his boys, and all those men who’d seemed to come from nowhere and were now passing buckets of water back and forth among them in their efforts to extinguish the flames.

He wished one of them would throw a bucket over him for good measure.

“Hecate!” he said again. Again she wiped his forehead.

And then he reached for the bullet.

“Doctor!” Emily said in a small, breathless voice.

“What?” The word was clipped, his tone, impatient. He did not look away from his work.

“He’s waking.”

“He’s…what?” Now he did look up. He looked quickly at Emily, and then at Joe.

It was true. Joe’s brows were drawing downward, his lips starting to move as though in search of an elusive word. And then he produced a small, gentle cough.

“Laudanum!” Paul shouted. “Quickly!” He held back another curse and dared a glance toward the bedroom. The curtain was gone, undoubtedly ripped down by the men in their haste to reach the fire. But the fire seemed to be reaching for the men now, instead. Paul could see flames where he’d seen none before. And the smoke was getting thicker, hovering at the ceiling but slipping closer every minute. He was running out of time. Joe was running out of time. Paul had to get that bullet out now. They could wait to stitch the boy up; Paul didn’t want to wait, but they could. The bullet, however, that was something that could not wait. If they moved Joe now, it would most definitely dig its way into his lung. “Emily!” he shouted.

“I’m coming, doctor!” Emily’s answering shout was subdued, as though she wanted him to hear her, but she was in no great hurry.

Paul looked to Hecate, nodding, saying nothing. An instant later Hecate went to the counter where Emily was working. As satisfied as he could be that the women would return soon with the medicine, Paul gave his attention back to the bullet.

“Don’t you cough, son,” he said softly. “Don’t you dare move.”

*****

Hecate saw Emily pouring something into the bottle of laudanum. “Emily?” she asked, softly.

Emily jumped, as though startled. She worked quickly to slide the second bottle aside and then to recap the laudanum.

“What did you add?” Hecate asked in a whisper, one she knew Emily could hear despite the increasing volume of the men’s shouts.

“Nothing.” Emily dropped her head and started to move past her.

Hecate grabbed her arm. “No, Emily. You cannot. I will not allow it.”

And then Emily dropped her smile. She shook her head. “He’s going to die, anyway. This will just make it faster.”

“No.”

“If we don’t leave here soon, none of us will survive. He is just one man.”

“He is our responsibility. If you do this, you damn all of us.”

“I did not shoot him. Neither did you. I am only hastening the inevitable.”

“Only God knows what is inevitable.”

“We cannot stay in here!”

“Then leave. Give me the bottle.” Hecate held out her hand.

Emily looked to the chain of men working to extinguish the flames, and then to the doctor, and then back to Hecate’s hand. “He will suffer your way.”

“Give me the bottle.”

“There is no need. I will only give the dosage the doctor expects.”

“You have already poisoned it.”

Emily pouted. “How dare you accuse me?”

“I know your intent is good, as is your heart. But you cannot do this.”

“Why not?”

“It is not the right thing to do.”

“Are you saying it is right to let him suffer? It is right to let us burn?”

“I am saying it is right to let God decide whether or not he suffers, or whether or not we burn. We must do what we can to make amends for the suffering we have already caused.”

“Just as you let God decide to take you away from your homeland? Or I let God decide to let men believe I killed my father?” There were tears in Emily’s eyes now, tears such as Hecate had never seen before. Emily had never cried in her presence. Nor had she ever laughed. She was like a creature of stone, a being without heart, without life.

“God brought me to Hannah,” Hecate offered. “And you as well. It is as it should be.”

Emily shook her head. “No. It is not as it should be. Nothing is as it should be. First I hated that man who is lying there, just for being a man. And then, just as I started to realize I shouldn’t….” She wiped at her eyes. “It’s too late.” And she became stone once more.

“No. Not yet.”

“This,” Emily held up the bottle, “will help me to make amends with him.”

“No. It will not. It will also increase the suffering of his family. Is that what you want?”

“I don’t like suffering.”

“I know.”

“I don’t like men.”

“I know.”

“But these men are…different.”

“Yes. They are.”

“I don’t want them to suffer.”

“Then give me the bottle.”

“Emily!” the doctor shouted. “Hecate!”

Sighing, Emily thrust the bottle into Hecate’s open hand.

And then Hecate threw it to the floor.

*****

Hoss held his position near the door, where he could grab each bucket as it was handed to him and move it quickly to Adam, who was the next man in line. Neither wanted to move to where they would lose sight of what was happening with their brother.

When Doc Martin shouted for laudanum, both of them looked up, and Hoss almost missed grabbing that next bucket. He didn’t like the sound of worry in the doc’s voice. He didn’t like any of this. They couldn’t keep doing it this way. The doc had to know he couldn’t stay in there. Before too much longer, the smoke alone would get to all of them, even Joe. Maybe especially Joe.

And then, when that tall, dark woman…Hecate…when she threw down that bottle of laudanum, Hoss did miss the next bucket. He stepped right out of the line to march on up to her, leaving Adam to reach for the bucket in Hoss’ place; Adam was probably also looking at Hoss’ back and wondering why he was giving up. Only Hoss wasn’t giving up. He would never give up where his brothers were concerned. And he wasn’t going to let anyone else give up, either. Maybe that’s what Hecate was doing. Or maybe it was something worse. Maybe she was another traitor, like that Lucy had been. Either way, if she was refusing to let Joe have the medicine doc figured he needed, she was the wrong person to be helping; that was sure true. Hoss wasn’t going to let her near his little brother again.

“What in heaven’s name have you done?” Doc Martin’s shout moved Hoss even faster.

“I was clumsy,” the woman answered. “The bottle slipped.”

“No,” Hoss said, standing before her now. “No, it didn’t. You threw it. Why?”

She stared back at him, but said nothing.

“I want you out of here,” Hoss told her. “You do somethin’ like that, I can’t trust you near my brother.”

Before she turned away to do as he’d said, the woman bowed her head just a little, as though out of respect, and there was a look in her eyes that sure didn’t make her seem like an enemy. It wasn’t quite apologetic. Hoss couldn’t figure just what it was. But there was something in her gaze and the set of her jaw that made it seem like she really did mean to help. It didn’t make sense, considering the way she’d destroyed all that medicine. It didn’t matter. Hoss didn’t have time to figure it out.

“Emily!” the doc shouted again. “Get that needle and thread of yours, and some bandages, and set up a place for us to close him up outside!”

Without saying a word, that little blonde gal hurried away to gather up what the doc had told her to.

“Doc?” Hoss asked. He didn’t know what else to say, or even what he was trying to ask.

Fortunately, Doc Martin seemed to understand what Hoss wanted better than Hoss did. “Stay right there, Hoss,” he said. “I’ve almost got it. Almost….” And then he cried out, “There!”

At that very moment, Joe started moaning, and then coughing.

The doc threw aside whatever instrument he’d been using so he could push some bandages against the wound. Hoss was afraid to move. Joe kept moaning and Doc Martin kept pressing on those bandages, and Hoss couldn’t tell whether the doc had got the bullet out, or maybe something worse had happened.

Seemed like Adam couldn’t tell, either. “The bullet?” he shouted from his place in the bucket line.

“It’s out,” Doc Martin answered. “But you boys sure do know how to cut it close. If he’d started coughing a second sooner….” He didn’t need to finish the sentence to let Hoss know it wouldn’t have been good.

The bullet might be out, but the fire sure wasn’t. In fact, it was now creeping along the ceiling right there in the main room.

“That mean you’re finished?” Hoss finally asked.

The doc nodded. “For now. We have to stitch him up, but I’ll do that outside. Right now I need you to carry him out. Carefully and quickly. He can’t afford to lose much more blood than he already has.”

Hoss was barely aware of what the doc was saying. He scooped up his little brother, mindful of the fresh wound. And suddenly Adam was right there beside him, keeping pressure on that wound the best he could. And then working together just like that, they got Joe outside…out of that damnable cabin and away from that fire.

The air outside seemed crisp compared to the oven in the cabin. Hoss greedily swallowed down a whole lung full of it as he walked toward his pa.

Pa looked at him like…well, like he was thankful and fearful all at the same time.

“Over here!” Pa shouted, directing them to the wagon the men had used to carry the extra supplies.

It was strange to see that wagon right where Ellingsworth’s men had been before. Were all those men really gone now? Hoss realized he didn’t know whether he wanted them to be gone or not. Part of him sure wanted to get his hands on them—any one of them or every one of them. But this was no time for something like that. He let Adam and Pa help make sure Joe was set down as carefully as could be. And then Doc Martin was pushing all three of them away so he and that little blonde gal could stop up all that fresh bleeding.

“He’s going to be all right,” Pa said.

Hoss jumped at the feel of Pa’s hand as it settled on his shoulder, and then he shook his head. “He’s lost an awful lot of blood today, Pa. And he just…he just keeps losin’ more of it.”

Adam was looking at the blood on his hands…Joe’s blood. And Hoss saw something even stranger than the wagon. Adam’s hands were shaking.

“He’s going to be fine,” Pa repeated in the kind of stern voice he always used when he was frustrated by something Hoss or his brothers had done…most often Little Joe. But this wasn’t something Little Joe had done. And Hoss knew his pa was a whole lot more than frustrated.

And it wasn’t like Adam to get shook up by much of anything at all.

It seemed like everything had gone strange, and everyone, too.

Before Hoss realized what he was doing, he found himself looking back toward the cabin. Folks used to say that cabin was cursed. Joe was about the only person who wouldn’t believe it. He was the only one who ever saw something good in that cabin.

No. Not the only one, Hoss corrected himself. Laura had seen it, too. Or maybe it was only because Joe had made her see it, just like Joe had made Adam and Hoss see it when they decided to fix it up so Joe and Laura could make it their home.

But Joe had been wrong, hadn’t he? That cabin was cursed, after all. It had to be. All of this couldn’t have happened if it weren’t.

It wasn’t worth saving.

“We gotta get the rest of the men out of there,” Hoss said.

“What?” Pa asked.

“Let it burn.”

He felt Pa squeeze his shoulder and then pull away.

“We’ll have to build a fire break,” Adam said, his voice getting stronger with every word, “to prevent it from spreading.” He curled his bloodied hands into fists. Hoss noticed they weren’t shaking anymore.

“Dig up the grass around it,” Hoss added.

And then, suddenly, all three of them were talking about how to save the valley at the expense of the cabin. They were going to let it burn.

Good riddance to it, Hoss thought. Nothing good had ever come from that cabin. Nothing good at all.

*****

Jake had no trouble tracking down those two men. The darkness of the night didn’t hinder him at all. Maybe the men had been careless, making their trail particularly easy to find; but to Jake it seemed almost like he’d been guided to where he needed to go without even looking for signs…like somehow he just…knew.

But hell, that was plumb foolishness. He must’ve learned something about tracking from Hoss without realizing he was learning anything at all. Cartwrights were like that, teaching even when they didn’t mean to. It wasn’t only Joe who had been good to Jake; it had been all of them. But Joe…he’d been more than just good to Jake. He’d been a good friend, too. Joe was closer to him in age, and they talked a whole lot more than Jake ever talked with the others. Fact is, Jake had said things to Joe he never would consider saying to anyone else. He suspected Joe did the same.

Dang it all, anyway! Thoughts of Joe stirred up that fire inside him again. And now those men were right in front of him, riding like there was nothing in the world for them to worry about. He could even swear he heard them laughing.

They wouldn’t be laughing for long.

Shooting was something Jake had always been good at, although he’d gotten better practicing with Joe. He didn’t even have to stop riding. His aim might be a little off, on account of the night shadows, but he would hit them. He had no doubt of that. He would hit them with every bullet he had. And if he hit them just right, they might not even feel it before they started their ride into Hell.

He’d prefer them to feel it, though. He wanted them to know…to really know what they’d done to Joe — whether or not it’d been their own guns that had done it.

Pulling his six-shooter from his holster, Jake leveled it out ahead of him, cocked back the hammer…and shot wide, his aim lost when someone else’s bullet sank into his back just as he’d pulled his own trigger. The force of it threw his body forward and knocked the air from his lungs, but he kept both his reins and his gun in hand; and as soon as he could breathe again, he was moving as fast as ever. Instead of slowing him down, that bullet just made him madder.

Jake pulled his horse around and started firing before he even saw this third man, before he even cared to wonder how that one had got the drop on him. He heard a cry that told him he’d shot true, and then he turned back to the other two men. He knew they had to have heard the shots, so he wasn’t surprised to see them coming his way now. In fact, he smiled, despite how his vision was fogging and his breath coming up short. He figured he probably didn’t have much time, and they were helping him out in that respect. They were going to make his job a whole lot easier.

Jake shot off the rest of his bullets without bothering to wonder why he wasn’t feeling any pain from the one in his back. And every one of his own shots struck true.

By the time his gun was empty, Jake Sanders had killed off three of them no good buzzards. He’d rather kill them all, but three was better than none. It was also better than the two he’d come after in the first place.

And even when his head started spinning, dropping him from his horse when he could no longer make sense of up and down, Jake Sanders was still smiling. He’d done what he’d come here to do. He’d gotten revenge for Little Joe.

*****

Ben traced a moistened cloth along Joe’s cheek, wiping clean another spot of dried blood. He’d washed away so much of it already, and he kept finding more, even there in the dark. He couldn’t be sure how that blood had settled where it had, in places like the tip of Joe’s ear, or the bridge of his nose; but every speck gave a sad and frightening reminder of how much Joe had lost.

Little Joe moaned again, softly but distressingly, pulling Ben’s gaze to his son’s eyes. Ben was torn between wanting those eyes to open and praying Joe could sleep even deeper than he already was. That Joe was hurting was painfully clear. And though Ben’s efforts seemed to soothe his young son, helping his brow to smooth and his breathing to ease, it didn’t stop those heart-wrenching moans.

“We need to get him home,” Ben said, “in his own bed.” The wagon was a poor substitute, particularly with the night air fouled by the smell of smoke and charred ruins.

Paul set a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Soon, Ben. But it won’t be an easy ride, and he’s had it rougher than he should already. I want to give him a chance to rest up some before we put him through anything else.”

“How long?”

Paul gazed up at the stars. “I’d like to say dawn, so we could have a better chance of seeing where we’re going and avoid the worst of the ruts. But…”

“That’s hours yet!”

But, as I was going to say, like you, I’d prefer to get him to the house as soon as possible.” Paul looked over to where the men were clearing debris from around the cabin and working to keep the fire centralized. “You’re going to have a lot of sore, tired men on your hands come morning, Ben.”

Ben took a deep breath, feeling anger beginning to mount though he knew there was no reason for it. “How soon, Paul?”

Joe’s moaning grew louder then, and the crease in his brow deepened as he started to roll his head back and forth. Ben shushed him tenderly and laid a soothing hand along his brow. “It’s alright, Joe. There’s nothing to worry about. You just rest. Shhh. Rest now, son.” But this time Ben’s efforts had little effect.

“He needs something for the pain,” Emily said, suddenly beside Ben again. Where she’d gone, he neither knew nor cared. He was simply glad she’d returned. The way she’d helped Paul in tending to Joe had been nothing short of a godsend. But her words, saying what Ben knew to be true, offered no comfort.

Paul tensed every bit as much as Ben. “Yes, well, your friend took away that option, I’m afraid.”

“It wasn’t her fault.” Emily’s voice was small, timid.

“Not her fault? Of course it was her fault. She threw it on the floor!”

“It….” Emily looked from Paul to Ben before casting her gaze sheepishly toward where Hecate was sitting on the ground beside a sleeping Agnes, and gently rocking from side to side with the infant in her lap. “It had been tainted.”

“Tainted?” Paul asked. “What do you mean tainted? How?”

“It was a mistake.” She looked right at Paul then. “An accident. But she saw what I didn’t.” Emily turned to Ben. “She saved your son, Mr. Cartwright, by destroying that bottle.”

Her gaze was unreadable, but Ben had no reason to disbelieve her. Confused, he looked toward Hecate, until Joe’s moans brought him back. “Paul, can we get more? I can send someone into Virginia City.”

Paul nodded. “I’d say we’re going to have to.” This time it was Paul’s brow that was creased in concern as Joe’s moans took on the sound of something almost otherworldly, like the ghostly cries of a tortured soul.

*****

Adam had been digging a firebreak when a haunting sound reached him over the roar of the blaze. He froze in his work and looked toward Joe to find his father, Paul Martin and Roy Coffee deep in conversation. That Pa’s attention was focused on something other than Joe was telling, especially when it was clear Joe was no longer as still as he had been.

Taking up his shovel in a bone shattering grip, one he wished he could use on the neck of any number of Ellingsworth’s men, Adam abandoned his task to find out just what it was Pa and Paul were conspiring about with Roy.

“We don’t need as many men to contain the fire as we needed to fight it,” Pa was saying. “Why don’t you take four men with you?”

“Take four men where?” Adam interrupted.

All three turned toward him.

“Back to town,” Roy answered. “Doc here needs some more medicine for Joe. I figured I ought to be the one t’do it. Clem’s waitin’ on word from me anyway.”

“Then Pa’s right. You should take the men. Ellingsworth’s men are still out there.” Adam gazed out toward the road. “I can feel it.”

“You can’t feel no such thing,” Roy had answered. “And besides, any man in his right mind would’ve high-tailed it out of here when we gave them the chance. They’d be fools to think we wouldn’t be comin’ after them soon enough.”

“You’re forgetting those men weren’t in their right minds,” Pa added. “They couldn’t be. No man in his right mind would have….” His chest rose and his back straightened as he pulled in a deep breath, looking toward Adam. “…Would have done the things they did to all three of my sons.”

“They didn’t do anything to Hoss or me,” Adam corrected.

“They tried. With Hoss it was the fire. With you….” His voice caught, and he paused. “With you, it was at the corral. They tried alright. And if they had succeeded….” Pa shook his head slowly, looking sad and worn.

Adam wondered how Pa could know what had happened at the corral. He’d been in the house. Unless…. “You saw?” he asked, suddenly troubled by the thought.

Pa nodded, filling his chest again. “It was only by the grace of God you were not trampled.”

“And Joe,” Adam added, looking toward his youngest brother.

“Joe?” Pa sounded puzzled.

“That swing mount of his.” Adam had his gaze locked on Joe as he explained. “I guess I learned a thing or two by watching him all these years.” When Joe quieted for an instant, Adam found himself wondering if his brother had heard him. And then he found himself hoping Joe had.

Roy cleared his throat, pulling back Adam’s attention. “Four men?” he asked. “You sure you can spare ’em?”

“We can spare them,” Adam assured him. “Even if we couldn’t, I would rather see this valley burn than allow Joe to suffer.”

“As would I,” Pa added.

At that, Joe wasn’t quiet anymore. In fact, he started thrashing—not as badly as he had in the cabin, but bad enough to risk disturbing his wounds.

And then suddenly all four men were working together, trying to both calm him and keep him still.

“Sorry, Joe,” Adam said softly, close to his brother’s ear. “But like it or not you’re more important than any piece of property.”

Joe went still again, the creases in his brows softening, leaving his forehead smooth and untroubled.

“He’s passed out,” Paul announced, holding a stethoscope to Joe’s chest. “We can be thankful for that.”

But when Adam saw a single tear spill from the corner of Joe’s eye, he had the feeling his brother had instead relaxed enough to fall into a deeper sleep. At least, that’s what Adam preferred to believe.

*****

Roy Coffee and his four deputies rounded up three of Ellingsworth’s men on the way back into Virginia City, and one of those led him to three more, though these last three would be going to the undertaker’s rather than the jail. Trouble was, there was a fourth body in between all three of those.

“Oh, hell.” Buck, the oldest of Roy’s new deputies, bent down near that fourth body and turned him so he could see the face. “He weren’t nothin’ but a boy.”

“You know that one?” Roy asked, walking closer.

“You do, too.”

Once Roy was close enough to get a good look, he found himself shaking his head. “He was more than a boy. He was a young man with a whole lot of livin’ in front of him, and the whole Cartwright family to back him up.”

“Whole bunkhouse, too,” Buck added sadly.

“You reckon he killed these others?” Pete, one of the other deputies asked.

“I do at that,” Buck answered. “Probably come out here madder’n a hornet. He had a temper just like that Little Joe.”

“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Roy said then.

“Who?”

“Little Joe,” Roy answered. “He hears you say that, he’s likely to start blamin’ himself. Boy’ll have enough trouble just tryin’ to get back on his feet again. He don’t need this hurtin’ him, too.”

“It’ll hurt him any way we say it,” Buck said. “Them two was close. Damn shame. Damn, rotten shame.”

“Say he was a hero,” Pete suggested.

Both Roy and Buck looked at him, but neither said a word.

“Well, he was, weren’t he? Him all alone out here, takin’ on three men and winnin’.”

“Not much for winnin’,” Buck said. “Seein’ as how he’s dead.”

“But he got three afore they got him.”

“Looks like,” Roy agreed.

“Counts him as a hero, as I see it. That ought to ease Little Joe some.”

Roy shook his head. “I’m afraid that won’t ease him none at all.” Knowing Little Joe, he would probably take it as his own fault for getting shot. But then again, Joe being sad to hear about this boy’s death…well, that depended on Joe surviving. And, frankly, Roy could handle seeing Joe sad, as long as he was alive.

“Let’s get this young man taken care of proper,” Roy said then. It was the least he could do for a hero.

*****

Hop Sing busied himself readying the house. He prepared each of the Cartwright’s rooms with fresh water and linens, paying extra attention to Little Joe’s. Mistah Cartwright number one son did not believe number three son would draw breath long enough to have use of his room again, but Hop Sing knew better.

Little Joe Cartwright not let bullet decide future. Little Joe too stubborn. He decide when time to go or not, and this not Little Joe time to go.

Armed with the same kind of determination that led him to cross an ocean to this raw land, Hop Sing did everything he could to make sure he was ready to provide whatever his family might need to help Little Joe—as well as to make sure Mistah Cartwright and Little Joe brothers find rest and eat enough to not bring harm to themselves. He prepared guest rooms, expecting visitors without even knowing who, how many or how long they might stay. And then he went to work in the kitchen, making as much stew as his largest pot would hold.

And then…he waited.

*****

Old Timber Tim was ornery. He’d stayed at the house because Adam had told him to, and somebody sure had to. There was a mess to be cleaned up, and it weren’t never no good to leave dead folks outside like that, ‘specially not in front of someone’s house — and surely not out front of a fine house like the Cartwright’s. Even so, he sure didn’t like it none. Should of been that boy who’d stayed, Jake. Tim wouldn’t be ornery at all if he could of rode with the others and worked off whatever orneriness he might have in a good fight. But that Jake, why he was ornery enough for the lot of ’em, and he wouldn’t be any good working it off that way, neither. He’d just get ornerier. No sir. Should of been Jake who’d stayed. Fight would be better without him. Hothead like that can make more trouble than good.

But it weren’t Jake Adam had asked to stay. It was Old Timber Tim. Good old Tim with the bum leg always seemed to be the one stayin’ behind these days. Maybe it was time to call it quits. He could ride on out California-way, see how his sister was doin’ with that brood of hers. Maybe join up with them fella’s out there prospectin’.

He started laughing, even as he was covering up the corpses with horse blankets—just for the while, until they could get to the undertaker. Shoot. Old Timber Tim knew he didn’t have the heart to quit. Job like this, well, it wasn’t always good. Could get messy—like now, with these bodies. But most times it was about the best job he could imagine, even with the bum leg…and even though it was the job what caused it. Dang tree. He never blamed the men who’d felled it. Always blamed the tree. Dang stupid tree didn’t go down the way it was supposed to. Went down right on Timber Tim instead. Nah. He never blamed the men, none. And the Cartwrights? Hell, they took good care of him until he was well enough to start workin’ again.

He just wished he could get them to realize he could still work as hard as the best of ’em, and he sure didn’t have to be kept outta no fights. He had as much fight still in him as Jake, truth be told. Only he had a good dose of wisdom, too, the kind he weren’t sure young Jake would ever slow down enough to allow to sink into his fool head.

Yep. This was a good job, alright. Best he could ever hope for.

Once he got the yard all tidied up, he realized he didn’t have nothin’ else to do. Not then, in the middle of the night like that. He never even once thought about goin’ to sleep. And when Hop Sing come out into the yard, and he didn’t have nothin’ left to do, neither…well, they both stood there for a while, starin’ at the road.

Tim scratched his head. “Maybe I ought to ride on down to that cabin an’ see how much longer they’ll be.”

He saw Hop Sing looking all around that yard, and he knew that China man was seeing how well he cleaned it, expectin’ to find somethin’ to tell him to do better. But Old Timber Tim also knew the Cartwright’s number one man wouldn’t find anythin’ that wasn’t done just right, so he wasn’t worried none.

Then Hop Sing nodded, said somethin’ in Chinese, and turned to go back inside.

And then Tim smiled…until he realized all the horses were either took or gone; no one had had a chance to round those new ones back up yet.

“Dang,” he said, his shoulders sagging.

Ah, well. It was a good night for a walk, anyway. Even with a bum leg like his. So Old Timber Tim started walkin’ up that road instead. He’d meet up with someone, soon enough. And if he didn’t…well…least ways he’d get some fresh air to keep his mind from goin’ soft.

Sure was a sorry lot when he caught up with ’em, though. No one sayin’ a word. Everyone lookin’ all beat up, even if they wasn’t really beat up at all — well, not mostly, anyway. Adam had some fine bruises from his fight with that cuss Sam was watchin’ over, tied up in the bunkhouse with them others.

Seein’ that bunch comin’ down the road old Timber Tim didn’t feel so ornery anymore. He didn’t quite know what he felt. But he sure knew what he needed to do. Them Cartwrights took right fine care of him when he needed it. He supposed now was the time to turn that around, ’cause each and every one of them sure looked like they needed takin’ care of. When his eyes caught sight of Little Joe in that wagon, he could tell that one would need more care than the rest, but the rest was likely to give him all the care he needed, so Tim would focus his own self on all of them, instead.

Yep. You can’t keep the best job you could ever hope for if you can’t give a little somethin’ back in return.

*****

On the ride home, Hoss was about as tired as he’d ever been. But it wasn’t the kind of tired that would make sleep come easy. He couldn’t even think about sleeping. And when he felt an ache deep down in his back from all that work he’d put into digging that firebreak and fighting the fire itself, he realized it wasn’t right to think about his own self. He had no business complaining about an achy back when he knew Joe was in that wagon ahead of him, suffering through a whole lot worse. Every now and then, Joe would rouse some. It wasn’t enough to make Hoss have to get over there and help Miss Emily hold him down. Joe didn’t have the strength to move around much. But he would let off those low, agonized moans that worked their way right up Hoss’ spine and made him ache in places that had nothing to do with digging.

They needed to get Joe home. That’s all Hoss could think about now.

It wasn’t long after the sheriff left that they’d finally started out for home. There were three men still at the cabin, finishing up the work they’d all started and keeping a close eye on that fire. Hannah’d like to have stayed, too, but Pa wouldn’t have it.

“Just because I’m a woman,” she’d argued, “doesn’t mean I can’t put my back into some hard work now and then.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Pa’d told her. “But these men can handle it just fine, and….”

“And what, Mr. Cartwright?”

Pa wasn’t the kind of man who often got tongue-tied, but he sure hadn’t known what to say then. He’d looked over at Adam like maybe all them books of his would help him spill out some helpful words. And maybe in way they had.

“Mrs…,” Adam had started, and then thought better of it. “Hannah, you’re husband is dead. Now, however bad things were between you, it’s bound to be difficult to—”

Trouble was, those words hadn’t helped her any. “I’ll tell you what’s difficult!” she’d hollered back. “What’s difficult is being expected to honor and obey long after love has been replaced with abhorrence. What’s difficult is playing the polite hostess at grand parties when people like Hecate are living in chains. What’s difficult is….”

It was kind of like she’d run out of breath right then. And the fire sure went out of her, too. She’d looked at Pa for so long Hoss hadn’t been too sure why Pa wasn’t saying anything back. And then she’d said in a voice so soft Hoss could barely hear it, “What’s difficult is realizing how blind and naïve I’d been when I fell in love with him in the first place. It’s like falling in love with the devil. And now the devil’s dead, and I don’t know what I feel anymore. I don’t even know what I am, anymore.”

“What you are,” Pa had said, “is a strong woman who saved lives by doing what you did.”

And then, pulling her shoulders back, she’d looked him right in the eye and put some strength into her voice when she asked, “Whose lives might those be, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Why…the women you came out here to protect, of course.”

“At the expense of your own son?”

They’d barely known her a day; but she sure seemed sad about what happened to Joe. When Pa made it clear no one was gonna let her stay behind, she’d insisted on driving the wagon. She was gonna do for Joe whatever she could. She had that wagon loaded up with all those extra blankets the men had brought from the house earlier, doing what she could to keep Joe from jostling around too much on them worn out roads. Then she told Miss Emily to ride in back to keep an eye on him.

Hannah was worried about her own, too. She had that Chinese gal, Millie, ride back there along with Joe. Millie kept saying she was fine, but her eyes didn’t look fine at all. That wound in her shoulder was hurting her more than she let on. Hoss figured she was like Hannah in a whole lot of ways, strong enough to do whatever needed doing, and too stubborn to admit she wasn’t as strong as she should be.

And then Hoss got to thinking about Joe again. That little brother of his was like that, too, strong and stubborn—too stubborn for his own good right now. Much as he didn’t like to think about it the way he was, Hoss figured Joe would be better off to just pass out, to slip away from the pain for a while. But it was like Joe wouldn’t let himself, like he was fighting to stay awake. And it even got worse whenever Hoss saw Miss Emily trying to comfort him some, wiping at his brow or curling her tiny hand around his arm. Joe’s moans just got louder then. It was enough to get Hoss to thinking that boy was too dadblamed stubborn to realize he was fighting the wrong fight. And then Hoss got even more anxious to get Joe home, where maybe Joe could finally feel safe enough to fight the only fight he needed to focus on winning.

And while Joe was fighting against Miss Emily for no reason at all, Hoss was fighting all the mixed up thoughts that came into his mind, like whether or not he should trust that Hecate woman to keep her eye out for any of Ellingsworth’s men who might still be hiding out there in them trees.

She unsettled Hoss. Her skin was so dark she about blended right into the night, but her eyes…. Whenever she looked his way her eyes reflected that full moon like they were pieces of the moon itself, big, bright pieces that could dig into a man about as deep as could be. They could dig so deep, Hoss could almost believe she was seeing things in him he never even saw himself. And yet Hoss couldn’t see anything in her. It was almost like looking into the sun, and it being too bright for him to see anything inside…or like all that dark skin of hers kept shadows on a whole bunch of secrets, and all the moon did was make those shadows deeper.

All of Hannah’s women seemed to be keeping secrets. Like what really happened to that laudanum? Or what happened to that gunman they’d shot? That gunman went and died at some point after Hoss had gotten him out of the cabin, while everyone else was focused on putting out that fire and tending to Joe. His wounds hadn’t been bad enough to kill him, and he hadn’t breathed in any more of that smoke than anyone else. Doc said it must’ve been his heart, but Hoss wasn’t so sure, what with the way them two gals, Hecate and Emily, had been looking at each other when the doc found him. They knew something they weren’t saying.

Everything about these ladies was a confusing mess, one Hoss didn’t have much of a stomach to digest. Maybe Adam and Pa could figure it out. If anyone could figure it out, they sure could. And when Hoss’ brain seemed to start rattling from so many strange thoughts, he decided he’d be better off just putting them thoughts out of his head altogether, and instead set his sights elsewhere…like watching how the moon was spilling down so bright across that wagon bed Hoss could almost believe God himself wanted everyone to keep their eyes on Little Joe; and everyone sure was. Hannah’s gaze kept moving from the road to the folks she was driving, and Pa…well, Pa couldn’t seem to stay in any one place at all. He kept moving from the front of the line to the back over and over again, like everyone there was his responsibility and he didn’t want to lose sight of any of them, least of all, Joe.

And suddenly Hoss got to thinking strange thoughts again. He got to thinking that Pa and Hannah might be more alike than different. He was still puzzling on that when everyone up ahead came to a stop. He waited for a few minutes to see if Adam or Pa would shout out something or ride back toward him. When they didn’t do either, he tensed. Something wasn’t right.

Urging his horse forward, he rode toward the wagon, trying not to get too caught up looking at Joe as he passed. He nodded to the other Chinese gal sitting beside Hannah in the front, his way of telling her to keep a look out back there behind them. That gal, Charlotte, had already proved to be as sharp as anyone Hoss had ever known. Every time he’d heard something out in the woods, she was already readying that rifle of hers; and she was just as quick at figuring out it was only a critter after all.

All them gals, every last one of them, reminded Hoss of old soldiers, the kind who’d seen so much fighting they couldn’t hardly make sense of living without it anymore. He supposed it was because of that they kept their secrets guarded, too.

Passing the wagon, Hoss caught sight of Adam and Pa just ahead of the doc’s buggy, where Hoss knew Agnes and her baby were riding, though he couldn’t see them in the darkness inside. Adam was pointing to something up the road, but Pa was shaking his head.

“Who’s out there?” Adam yelled out then. “Identify yourself!”

When no one said anything back, Adam started pulling out his rifle.

“Tell us who you are!” Pa hollered just as Hoss came up alongside them.

Still, there was no answer. But whatever was moving out there was starting to look about the size of a man…a man with a lopsided gait.

Adam started to take aim.

“Hold up there, Adam.” Hoss put his hand on the barrel of Adam’s rifle, and then shouted out, “That you, Tim?”

They waited a minute longer. “If it was Tim,” Adam said, “he would answer.” He raised his rifle again.

“Tim?” Hoss shouted louder. “Timber Tim? That you?”

“Hoss!” someone hollered back, finally. The figure ahead of them waved, a single pale hand caught in the light spilling down off that moon. “Hey, Hoss!” Tim shouted again. “We been wonderin’ how much longer you’d be!”

“Why didn’t you answer?” Adam shouted angrily as Tim finally came into view. “And what are you doing out here, anyway? You could have gotten yourself killed!”

Tim didn’t seem at all concerned. “Ears are about as good these days as this ol’ leg. Anyway, Hop Sing and me, well, I guess we got tired a’waitin’.”

“Is Hop Sing with you?” Hoss asked, squinting at the road ahead of them, trying to get a better look.

“Nah. He’s back there in his kitchen. Makin’ some bread, I guess.”

It was strange when Hoss realized the idea of fresh baked bread should have made his empty belly start rumbling, but…it didn’t do anything like that. He wasn’t even hungry.

Pa seemed to have other things on his mind, too. “You walked all the way out here on that leg of yours in the middle of the night because you were tired of waiting?”

Tim shrugged. “Weren’t no horses left.”

“You should have….” Pa shifted in his saddle; Hoss had the sense he wanted to turn around and look toward Joe again, but he didn’t. “You should have just gone to bed,” Pa went on then. “It’s late. There was no reason for you to—”

“Mr. Cartwright,” Tim said, looking at Pa in a way Hoss had never seen in him before. It was like…like Old Timber Tim was someone else altogether, the kind of man you had to take seriously…the kind you addressed like he was addressing Pa now, with a “mister” out front. “You don’t honestly think I could’ve gone on sweet dreamin’ without knowin’ that boy of yours was safe in his own bed, too?”

Pa looked back at him for a long while. They all did. And Hoss got to thinking of all the men who’d stood beside them this whole time. It hadn’t been their fight any more than Hannah thought it had been Hoss’ or his family’s…least of all, Joe’s. And yet they’d all come together to fight it. Because it had been the right thing to do.

Anesidora, Hannah had called herself when all this started. Adam had said that was another name for Pandora. Hannah herself had said Pandora brought ruin and misfortune to men.

“Is that what you intend to do?” Adam had asked her.

“Only to those who deserve it,” had been Hannah’s answer.

And the more Hoss thought about it, the more that seemed to be true. Ellingsworth himself was dead, and those men with him in the house, too. And that foreman, he was beat up and locked up in the bunkhouse. So maybe…maybe it was all working out the way it was supposed to; Hannah—or Pandora or whoever she was—was bringing ruin and misfortune to men who deserved it. And since Joe sure didn’t deserve it…well, that got Hoss to thinking Joe was going to be alright, after all.

*****

Joe was quiet. Finally…blessedly…quiet.

Pete, one of the hands who had accompanied Roy to Virginia City, had returned a short while ago with the laudanum and some other medicines Paul had requested. He’d ridden hard, keenly aware of the urgency; and Ben could see he had news to share. But Ben’s first thought was for Joe. The news, however important, could wait.

Now, sitting at Joe’s bedside holding his young son’s hand, Ben was relieved to see Joe’s breathing had eased, his chest rising and falling in a more even rhythm than it had just moments earlier.

Ben took a deep breath of his own. Then, gently setting Joe’s hand on the bed, he pushed himself to his feet and moved to the window.

He realized then that the whole house seemed quiet; even the low, droning voices he’d heard in the yard had gone. Ben found himself, not for the first time, grateful for Hop Sing’s understanding and efficiency. He had seen to everyone’s needs, finding beds for all the women, and, although he’d expressed dissatisfaction at the request, making sure Paul Martin was comfortably situated in Ben’s own bedroom. Hop Sing could not have been surprised…unhappy, perhaps, but surprised? No. Hop Sing knew Ben Cartwright too well—well enough to know Ben would get no sleep himself. And for once, not even Paul put up an argument. Someone needed to stay with Joe, after all.

Gazing outside, Ben could see the first pink hues of the rising sun. An entire night had passed already. Now that it was finally quiet, now that a suddenly crowded household had found sufficient peace to give in to the exhaustion that surely plagued every single one of Ben’s guests, a new day was about to dawn. There was something ironic in that realization. How could so much happen in the span of twenty-four hours? How could so much…change, so quickly?

He stared out the window, puzzled by his thoughts until he heard a sound…one, small sound that pushed itself deep into his memories. A baby was crying.

He knew…in his head he knew it was Laura, Agnes’s baby, named for a woman the mother had never even met. But in his heart Ben found himself returning to the first moments after Little Joe’s birth. Hours fraught with worry had reached an exhilarating conclusion. Marie had given him another son, and both mother and child had survived the journey. Joe had come too early, but he had survived. Marie had struggled through the labor, but she, too, had survived. That moment of realization might well have been the most joyful moment of Ben’s life.

Then, only a few, short years later, Marie had been taken from him.

It seemed unfathomable that twenty years had passed already…and inconceivable to imagine twenty years could be enough. No. It could not be enough. Joe had fought for that first breath. He would fight no less ardently for his last.

This glorious new day could not possibly be the day Joseph Francis Cartwright…Little Joe…would draw that last breath.

Suddenly weary, Ben grabbed for the support of the window frame. It was all he could do to force himself to accept that Marie was not asleep in the next room, and that crying baby was not Little Joe. No. Joe was a man now, young and strong…a man who could have a crying baby of his own, if things had been different…if Laura had survived.

“Pa?” Adam’s voice called hesitantly from the doorway, pulling Ben’s thoughts back to the moment.

Ben turned expectantly toward him, welcoming the distraction. “You should be in bed,” he said half-heartedly.

Adam gave him a sad smile. “You should, too.” Then he nodded toward Little Joe. “Looks like the laudanum helped.”

“That…and exhaustion.” Ben found himself staring now at his sleeping son, desperately aware of the gray pallor to Joe’s skin and the signs of fever Paul had said were inevitable.

“He’s going to be fine, Pa.”

Adam’s words were equally inevitable. Ben could only shake his head in uncertainty.

“After everything he’s already survived today,” Adam added in a tone that held more optimism than Ben could have believed possible, “he’s not about to give up now that he’s in his own bed.”

Finally Ben returned his attention to his oldest son. He even managed to match Adam’s small but honest smile.

But Adam’s gaze shifted a moment later, his eyes darting toward the window before returning. He drew in a breath, as though preparing to tell Ben something. But as his eyes met Ben’s again, he let that breath out, saying nothing.

“What is it?”

Adam shook his head. “Nothing that can’t wait. Hop Sing has started a fresh pot of coffee. I’ll bring some up as soon as it’s ready.” He turned to leave.

“Adam?”

Adam’s hand grasped the doorframe. He stood quietly for a moment, with his back to his father.

“Adam?” Ben prodded again. “What is it, son?” He tensed, and then wondered why. No news could possibly be as devastating as what had already transpired.

Finally, Adam turned to face him. He drew in another breath before meeting Ben’s gaze once more. “It’s Jake. Jake Sanders.” His mouth seemed intent on forming words that would not come. Then he shook his head. “Pete said they found him on their way to Virginia City.”

“What do you mean, they…found him?”

Adam’s gaze shifted toward Joe, growing wary. His message was clear; he did not want Joe to hear.

Nodding in understanding, Ben followed him into the hallway and eased the door closed.

“He’s dead, Pa,” Adam said softly. “The men are calling him a hero. They say he killed three of Ellingsworth’s men before they got him.”

“How could that be? Wasn’t he at the cabin? I thought…”

“I thought so, too. But, apparently, in all the confusion….” Adam let his words trail off.

“He went after them,” Ben deduced.

“So it seems.”

“Why would he do such a thing?”

Adam looked toward the door, as though he could see right through it to where Joe lay. There was no need for him to answer.

*****

Despite Adam having made the offer, it was Hoss who took the coffee up to Pa. And Adam found himself unexpectedly…relieved. He didn’t know that he could face Pa again so soon. He didn’t think he could lie like that again.

“He’s going to be fine, Pa.” Those had been his words; but whether or not Joe was going to be fine had nothing to do with Adam. He wasn’t even sure it had anything to do with Joe.

“After everything he’s already survived today,” Adam had said, “he’s not about to give up now that he’s in his own bed.” But it wasn’t about Joe giving up, was it? It was about how much a man could endure, before it was too much. Those wounds alone would have killed a lesser man.

A lesser man. That said it all, didn’t it? Adam’s kid brother wasn’t just a man; he was strong both of body and of will. He was the kind of man Adam was proud to call ‘brother.’

Finally pouring his own cup of coffee, Adam turned to find Hop Sing staring at him from the kitchen doorway. “I never told him,” Adam said, as though Hop Sing might know what he meant.

Clearly, Hop Sing did not. He scrunched up his brows, cocked his head sideways and looked up at Adam, expecting an explanation without asking for one.

“Little Joe,” Adam offered. “I never told him how proud I am of him.”

Hop Sing shook his head. “Every day,” he said quietly. “Mistah Adam tell Little Joe every day. Almost every day,” he corrected, waving his finger.

Adam’s smile was even sadder than the one he’d given Pa. Now it was his turn to shake his head. “No, Hop Sing. I don’t think…”

Hop Sing tapped Adam’s chest. “Mistah Adam say from here.” He tapped again, and nodded. “Little Joe know. He know.” Hop Sing was still nodding when he pushed past Adam to get back into his kitchen. An instant later, “Mistah Adam leave now or cook eggs!” he commanded.

Adam’s smile nudged a bit wider as his gaze slipped to the stairway. I hope so, he thought. And then he took his coffee out to the porch to watch the sun rise.

*****

A rider was coming. The distant but distinct sound of hooves pounding on hard-packed ground drove itself into Adam’s awareness, pulling him out of a fog. He took a deep breath, smelling dust on heat-laden air. The heat…. It confused him. He’d expected the crisp scent of morning, with dew tamping down the dust of the yard. But as the rider drew nearer, the air seemed to grow thicker with an amount of dust more prevalent at noon.

At noon…. Adam blinked himself into the realization that he’d fallen asleep—a fact that first startled him, and then disturbed him. He had fallen asleep. Sitting out on the porch, enjoying a cup of coffee in the glow of a rising sun, Adam Cartwright had fallen asleep while his brother lay dying upstairs. Or maybe Joe was already dead.

No, he decided. Joe wasn’t dead. Not yet. If he was, there would be…there would be something. Noise, perhaps. People moving about. Things happening. Not this…quiet. The house at his back was utterly quiet. Even the kitchen was quiet, Hop Sing having apparently abandoned his plans for breakfast.

But that wasn’t right either. Adam reminded himself the dust was too thick and the sun too high for breakfast. Adam had slept through the morning meal. What else had he slept through?

Angry at himself, Adam was torn between his need to see who was coming and his desire to check on Joe. But by the time he pushed himself to his feet, the decision was made for him. The rider had already reached the barn.

“You don’t need that, ma’am.”

Ma’am? Puzzled, Adam looked toward the front of the house, catching sight of Hannah. The chair beside her was rocking, a clear sign she’d risen in a hurry. There was a rifle in her grip, aimed at the road…aimed at the man whose voice Adam knew only too well.

Sheriff Coffee cleared the barn at a canter, seeming unconcerned. “I got my deputy headin’ a posse,” he went on as he secured his horse to the hitching post. “They’ll round up any men still in the area.”

Hannah lowered her rifle. No, Pa’s rifle, Adam realized, seeing the distinctive silver pattern marking the weapon’s stock. She looked toward Adam then, her chest rising with a heavy breath. Her gaze was weary, but resolute…and maybe…yes, relieved, as though she was still feeling responsible…as though she wasn’t just protecting her sisters anymore, but Adam’s home as well…and even Adam, himself.

“Adam!” Roy called out in greeting. “I got to apologize to you.”

Adam moved toward Hannah, finding himself more interested in her than in Roy. He was intrigued by her apparent sense of duty to him. He was also selfishly eager to ask if she knew how Joe was doing. It didn’t even occur to him to ask Roy what the sheriff could possibly have to apologize for.

“I plumb forgot to go to the Territorial for you,” Roy added. A moment later he was standing in front of Adam and Hannah with a newspaper in his hand. “Already printed, son. Sorry about that.”

The paper…. Adam looked at it as though it were anathema. Like Roy, he, too, had forgotten. That newspaper was supposed to have been Ellingsworth’s Achilles heel; for that, it had been Adam’s weapon of choice. He’d been so sure of himself, so convinced he could prove the pen mightier than the sword. And then he’d heard a round of gunfire on the road ahead, a sound that still reverberated in his thoughts…a sound that marked the moment Little Joe had fallen. Adam would undoubtedly hear that sound in his nightmares for weeks…months…maybe years to come.

Yes, Adam’s nightmares. It wasn’t just Joe who had them. Adam’s were different only in the way they disturbed his own sleep but no one else’s. Joe was never one to suffer in silence. Adam was never one to suffer aloud.

*****

“I don’t understand,” Hannah said a short while later. She set the newspaper down onto the table in front of the settee. “What would be the point of such an article? It’s not true; none of it.”

Adam struggled to ignore the conversation Roy was having with Tim outside. The door had been left open; a fact Adam had not had the wherewithal to correct. And through that open door he heard words he hated, words like casket and funeral.

For Jake, Adam told himself. It was for Jake. Not Joe.

Not a sound came from upstairs.

Leaning forward in his chair — as though to distance himself from the silence behind him—Adam rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together. His back felt leaden. “It didn’t have to be true.” He tried to focus on Hannah as he spoke. “I told Simon to make it clear the story was based on inferences, and that the paper intended to follow up with an investigation of the facts.”

“But why write it at all?” Hannah asked.

Sighing heavily, Adam pulled his hands apart and set his attention on his fingers; last night they had been soaked with his brother’s blood. “It was a gamble.” A fools gamble, he realized, the kind he should have known better than to make. Even when he tried closing his eyes, he could not shut away the image of blood on his fingers.

Out, damned spot! The words of Lady Macbeth had never rung more true.

Adam’s fingers curled into fists as he forced his gaze back toward Hannah. “A threat,” he added icily. “I thought threatening your husband with this story would prevent bloodshed.”

Of course, the blood had been shed before the threat could even be made. He took a deep breath before continuing. “Printing it,” he said in a softer tone, “would place him firmly in the middle of a scandal. It would make his business associates question his loyalties. With all the talk in Washington about President Lincoln’s intention to free the slaves, a business that has proven lucrative for your husband and his partners….”

He took another breath, and was grateful to find himself growing calmer. “The article would suggest your husband was secretly playing both sides: backing the president with the expectation of gaining governmental contracts, and never bothering to inform the investors who’d been funding the slaving expeditions. They would lose everything, while he continued to profit. Between that and the equally scandalous prospect of him working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a key figure in the call for women’s suffrage….” Adam shrugged. “I hoped he might fear financial ruin. He could lose investors as well as business associates if news like that leaked out, true or not. I thought the threat might, perhaps, be enough to back him off, and leave you…leave all of us alone. If he had to choose between you and money, my guess was—”

“Money, Mr. Cartwright, is the key to my husband’s power. You guessed correctly; he would choose to lose me…us…over losing business.”

Adam nodded. “For making that choice, I would have ensured him the story would never get printed.”

“It would have been libelous to print it,” Hannah replied. “He would have challenged you in court.”

“Another gamble. Besides, I would rather face him in court than…well, than what we faced at the cabin.” He found himself suddenly more sad than angry. Maybe it was better that way; at least it would temper his tone. Reaching forward, he picked up the paper from the table. “But you’ll see every word was carefully chosen. ‘A telegram addressed to Ellingsworth,'” he read.  “It doesn’t say to which particular Ellingsworth the telegram was addressed.”

Now it was Hannah who took a deep breath. “A gamble, indeed. And yet….” She nodded, and then met Adam’s gaze. “It may very well have worked. At least for a while. At least long enough to ensure the safety of your family.” Her eyes strayed to the stairway. “If only you could have had your chance to make that threat.”

“I wasted time.” Adam stared at the paper, feeling oddly empty. “I wasted time when I could have bluffed my way to the same result.”

It had been pointless, hadn’t it? All that time spent trying to pen the perfect words, while Joe was left to the protection of two rifle women against twenty gunmen….

“Your husband would never have known whether I’d actually gone to the paper or not. I wasted time working out the details of the article when I could have been doing that very thing in my head on the ride back out here. I wasted time I didn’t have to waste…time Joe didn’t have.”

“It’s easy to say that now, isn’t it?” Hannah’s soft words pulled his attention back. Adam saw empathy in her eyes. “Just like it’s easy for me to say I knew Lucy shouldn’t be trusted. Or I should have known Richard would be as much of a danger to you as to me, or to my….”

“Sisters?” Adam provided when Hannah’s words seemed lost.

“I was wrong to say that, too, wasn’t I? We are no more a family than…well…Lucy proved that, didn’t she?”

“Almost every family has its black sheep,” Adam mused. “Those women look up to you.”

“I protected them.”

“And they protected you. Like a family does.”

“Not like any family I have ever known. Or had.”

“Well, I’m sorry about that,” Adam said, honestly. “But you know one now.” Realizing the truth of his own words, Adam found himself smiling…even though he’d been unable to protect Joe when it mattered. That realization drove the smile away, and pushed Adam to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said as an afterthought. He was already on his way to the stairs.

He never saw the small, sad smile slowly pulling at the corners of Hannah’s weary eyes. “I suppose I do at that.”

*****

Later that afternoon, the doctor returned to Virginia City, promising to ride back in a day or so to check on his patients, particularly Joe.

“I would stay if I could, Ben,” he’d said. “You know that. But I have a lot of other patients to consider, and, frankly, there’s nothing else I can do at this point. It’s up to Joe and God now.”

Hop Sing had closed the door behind him, and then turned to the stairs, looking up to the man who, himself, was looking up to a ceiling that blocked his view of this God the doctor spoke of, this God the Cartwrights had always turned to so willingly…this God they had always trusted with the power of life and death…this God Hop Sing had learned to both love and fear.

The days after that came and went without notice. They were long, empty days, during which Hop Sing wasn’t sure whether it was love or fear that churned his insides into something raw and hungry for a kind of sustenance that had nothing to do with food.

Day passed to night passed to day with Mistah Ben Cartwright taking turns with number one and number two sons tending to Little Joe, who suffered through the hours in fevered delirium. Hop Sing kept food ready and waiting nearly every hour of the day, taking it to each of his adopted family members when they refused to come for it themselves, and demanding that they eat. Too often, the plates he retrieved much later had barely been touched.

Hannah and her sisters, having nowhere to go until proper legal consultation could be arranged, remained at the house, at Ben’s insistence; but they moved about the upstairs rooms more like ghosts than guests, speaking in whispered tones to avoid disturbing the Cartwrights during such dire hours. They frequently offered to help with Little Joe, but Mistah Ben and his sons rarely accepted.

They always ask, always wonder, ‘what if Little Joe wake up?,’ even when they could see the fever was too strong to release him in those moments. Hop Sing knew their real concern wasn’t about Joe waking up without them; it was about Little Joe dying without them.

With Mistah Ben Cartwright and his oldest sons caring for Little Joe, it was left to Hop Sing to care for the house and the guests. He treated the women well, as they in turn treated him. They kept their own linens laundered and their water basins fresh. They also gave him some degree of constancy. He served up meals at appropriate times throughout the day, and was pleased to see each chair at the dining table filled. It also pleased him to serve such gracious diners, finding himself appreciative of their smiles and polite conversation.

Yes, it pleased him. But it also pained him. He was eager to hear the conversation turn to things that mattered, things like moving cattle or filling contracts. Polite conversation might be fitting in polite society; but this was a ranch, a working ranch with a household of men who had important things to do and discuss, and dreams to achieve. There were times for polite conversation, and times for heated discussions. At Mistah Ben Cartwright’s dining table, polite conversation provided for only an occasional reprieve; it was not supposed to be the general custom.

After supper on the fifth night of their stay, those familiar soft, women’s voices once again drifted into the kitchen like fine music. Hop Sing decided he would rather hear war drums. He imagined the music growing discordant, interrupted by an angry outburst from Joe…the sound of boots stomping heavily across the floor boards…the front door slamming so hard it rattled Hop Sing’s bones as well as his pots. That was the kind of music Hop Sing realized he missed.

“Hop Sing?”

The gentle voice calling from the kitchen doorway startled him. He turned from the stove to see one of the two, young Chinese women, the one who called herself Charlotte. She surprised him further by suddenly lowering her eyes, gracing him with a small bow and then asking, in Hop Sing’s own, native tongue, for the honor of speaking with him privately.

Hours later, when the night was already growing old and most of the household had settled down to sleep, Hop Sing went out to the porch to find Charlotte already there, waiting for him.

Thank you for honoring my humble request,” she greeted politely in a language Hop Sing heard rarely on the Ponderosa.

Hop Sing nodded, taking the seat beside her. But this young woman surprised him yet again by leaving her own seat. She moved to stand in front of him, and then dropped to her knees before him, like a supplicant in the presence of her emperor.

Hop Sing looked around nervously, shaking his head and asking her to move away. He wanted to rise, but that would only increase the semblance of inferiority she was so willing to create for herself. Clearly, he was not an emperor, for she refused his request.

Honorable Hop Sing,” she said in Mandarin, kneeling before him and trying to keep her eyes downcast, although they kept straying upward. “Hop Sing is a good man, a kind man who serves other good and kind men. Has Hop Sing no one to serve him?

Hop Sing told her he did not understand the question.

Hop Sing has no woman to walk behind him?

Hop Sing shook his head again, puzzled. “How long ago Sha-lotte leave China?” he asked in English.

She looked at him, also puzzled. “Three years,” she answered in her new language.

“Fwee years.” He nodded. “Hop Sing leave many year ago. And in fwee years Missy Sha-lotte speak better English than Hop Sing.”

“Hannah taught me well.”

“Misses Hannah also teach Missy Sha-lotte no need walk behind any man?”

Her brows drawn in concern, she nodded.

“Then why Missy Sha-lotte speak of walk behind Hop Sing?”

“I have nowhere to go, and you have no one to care for you. I would care for you, if you would have me.”

Hop Sing did not need to be cared for; but, perhaps she could not see that truth. “What Missy Sha-lotte Chinese name?”

“Xian Yun.”

“Why Xian Yun come to America?” he asked.

“To escape.”

“Escape what?”

“Millie and I…lost favor…with the emperor’s consort.”

“Emperor?” Hop Sing’s eyes widened.

“His consort. We were her guards. She begged us to allow another man to visit. When we finally agreed, he was discovered fleeing her chambers. He was executed. We were marked as traitors and spies.”

Shocked, Hop Sing cursed softly in Mandarin.

“We pitied her. We thought her a slave to the emperor.” At first, she spoke slowly, but her words gained volume and speed as her gaze gained bravery…and desperation. “In truth, we were slaves to her. Then we came to America, only to become consorts and slaves ourselves. Hannah gave us hope that we could find more for which to live. Now we have seen you, here. It is a good life, and you are a good and kind man. You spend your days caring for other good and kind men, but no one cares for you. We have need of a home, and you have need of a wife. You could choose whichever of us pleases you most, or, if…if our past disgraces you, perhaps you could accept one of us as your consort. We would be loyal to you. I would be loyal to you. I would graciously walk behind you, Hop Sing, all the days of my life.”

Hop Sing cursed softly once more. He shook his head is sadness and disbelief. Then he realized she must have seen his action as denial. She lowered her gaze as a tear spilled down her cheek.

“Xian Yun,” he said, lifting her chin with a gentle touch, “Missy Sha-lotte is a good and kind woman. A good and kind young woman. Missy Sha-lotte and Missy Mi-wee are deserving of good and kind young men to care for them. Hop Sing is not such man.”

She looked up at him, her eyes pleading. “Why not?”

Hop Sing looked out at the stars. “The Ponderosa is Hop Sing home. Hop Sing travel long way to find this home.”

“We, too, have traveled a long way.”

“Yes. But not long enough.”

“We are tired of traveling.”

“Missy Sha-lotte and Missy Mi-wee come from emperor’s palace. Missy Sha-lotte and Missy Mi-wee are deserving of big dreams, bigger dreams than Hop Sing.”

“I am tired of dreaming. I want to begin living.”

Hop Sing took her hand in his. “Missy Sha-lotte dreams here,” he gently pushed her hand to her chest, “not end on Ponderosa.”

“But they could,” she tried.

“What he’s saying,” Mistah Ben Cartwright’s voice called from the doorway, “is that they don’t have to. The world is just now opening up for you. You should see what’s out there before you make any decisions to settle down in any one place.” He moved closer as Missy Sha-lotte rose to her feet, keeping her gaze lowered in humility. “Forgive me for interrupting,” Mistah Ben Cartwright continued. “I certainly did not mean to eavesdrop. I simply wanted to share some good news with Hop Sing.”

“Good news?” Hop Sing asked, rising now himself.

“It’s Little Joe. His fever has broken. He’s going to be alright, Hop Sing. He’s going to be just fine.”

For the first time in many days, Hop Sing saw Mistah Ben Cartwright smile. As the Cartwright patriarch turned to go back into his grand home, respectfully leaving them to finish their discussion, Hop Sing could not help but smile as well. He looked then to Missy Sha-lotte. She was smiling, too, but her smile was clouded with tears.

He took her hands in both of his. “Hop Sing have many cousins. Hop Sing cousins help Missy Sha-lotte and Missy Mi-wee find big dreams.”

“Why would they do such a thing?”

“Hop Sing ask, they do.”

Her eyes widened. “Hop Sing, who serves others, is served by others?”

Hop Sing chuckled. “Hop Sing family serve each other.”

“I would like to become a part of such a family.”

“Maybe Missy Sha-lotte will, if meet right Hop Sing young man cousin.”

“I would like that.”

“Yes. Hop Sing like that, too.” He patted her hand, and then, seeing that her smile was brighter than it had been, he felt confident enough to turn away from her…for Hop Sing had another family right there on the Ponderosa, and it was time to say welcome home to Little Joe.

*****

Joe was tired…too tired for the middle of the day. It had to be the middle of the day, the way the sun was hitting him from the window. He remembered this feeling, lying in his bed, too tired to open his eyes, feeling the sun warm his face. It had been winter. He’d had a bad cold and spent most of the night sitting up downstairs…sitting up had been the only way he could breathe. But that had been the worst night of the cold. By morning, the congestion had eased some, at least enough to let him breathe lying down. He’d finally gone to bed when everyone else rose for breakfast. At noon, when the sun reached and warmed his face, he’d felt guilty about lying in bed all day; but at the same time he’d been too tired to care. It had been too much trouble to even open his eyes.

But that…wasn’t now, was it? Winter was long past. And breathing…. It wasn’t his stuffed up nose that made breathing tough now; it was…his chest. There was a fire in it, one that burned whenever he took in too much air. And something else…something was pressing tightly against his skin, keeping him from filling his lungs completely. Even if he was willing to endure the worsening bite of that burn, he couldn’t breathe deeply enough to see how bad it might actually get.

In a flash of memory, he felt himself in a dream. He was standing in the doorway, talking to Pa. But why was Pa so far away, as though he didn’t want to come any closer? Was it the cold? Something worse than a cold? Maybe Joe had been sick…sick with something so bad Pa didn’t want to catch it. Joe was standing in the doorway, telling Pa he was fine; but then he wasn’t fine at all. Something hit him…it hit him full in the chest, so hard he couldn’t breathe. It knocked the air from his lungs, his thoughts clear out of his head. He couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe.

He still couldn’t breathe, not well…not fully. But he was starting to be able to think. It was coming in pieces…he saw images of women…he was falling to the ground with a woman in his arms, her red hair tickling his nose…his foot was broken, broken by another woman, a Chinese woman with a rifle…and still another woman, a pretty little thing with blonde hair and troubled eyes, was bandaging it…and then her eyes went from troubled to hateful in an instant. She pulled too tight; and then she gave him something…something he didn’t want…something that knocked him out, making him sleep when he needed to be paying attention, looking out for…for gunmen.

“Poison!” a stranger shouted.

And then the trees were lined with gunmen, every one of them targeting Joe.

“Poison!” one of those gunmen warned Joe. “That’s just how she killed Jimmy…

Joe saw the blonde woman again. She was smiling at him.

Smiled…all…all pleasant-like,” the gunman said. “And then she…she give him somethin’. Said she was sorry…but…she give him somethin’…her pa, too…sh’…poisoned’im.”

The woman smiled at Joe, offering a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey.

An hour later,” the gunman told Joe, “he was dead.

Joe tried to throw the glass away from him, but his hand was caught up in a tangle of sheets.  “Poison,” he rasped, the word scratching his dry throat.

His eyes flew open, expecting to find himself in the cabin, trapped by memories of Laura and warnings of poison. He was both confused and relieved to discover he was in his own room, instead. There was no whiskey, no gunman, no pretty blonde thing with troubled eyes…there was only Pa.

“Welcome back, son,” Pa said with a warm smile; there was a touch of something troubling in his eyes.

“Pa?” Joe asked softly.

Pa’s hand was on Joe’s shoulder. “It was just a dream, Joe. Just a bad dream. You’re home now. You’re safe.”

“No,” Joe decided. “Not a dream.” It had to be real; had to have been real. Hadn’t it? “The cabin?” he asked.

Pa’s grip tightened. His gaze darkened. “It’s all over, son. You’re safe. Everyone’s safe, now.”

Weary, Joe let his eyes slip closed.

“Go ahead, Joe,” Pa said, his hand gently rubbing Joe’s shoulder. “Sleep. It’s the best thing for you.”

Hearing a soft rapping on his door, and then the click of the latch, Joe opened his eyes again to see a flash of blonde hair. Instantly, he tensed, inhaling too deeply and awakening a stabbing burn in his ribs.

“Mr. Cartwright?” a familiar woman’s voice called in. “It’s time for his medicine.”

“No, Pa!” He wanted to shout, but the words came out in a whisper.

“Thank you, Emily,” Pa said. He started to rise.

Joe grabbed Pa’s sleeve. “No, Pa!” he managed to say. “Please! Don’t let her!” He locked onto his father’s eyes, refusing to look at the woman’s. Emily, he remembered. Her name was Emily.

Her pa, too,” Joe heard the gunman again in his thoughts. “Sh’…poisoned’im.

“It’s alright, Joe.” Pa patted his arm. “Emily’s proven to be a fine nurse. In fact, Paul has asked her to consider staying on in Virginia City and working for him.”

“No, Pa!” Joe tightened his grip on his father’s sleeve; fear held an equal grip on his chest. He couldn’t breathe. “Please! You can’t let her!”

“Joseph,” Pa sat back down. “Son, there’s nothing to worry about. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for Emily….” The troubled look in Pa’s eyes grew darker. “Joe, Emily and Hecate…together they very likely saved your life.”

Joe’s grip loosened, his tension easing to bewilderment. “No,” he said softly. He let his gaze move to Emily, saw her looking down at the floor. “She…she put something in my drink.”

He’s dead to the world,” he remembered hearing Lucy whisper to someone outside the cabin. “Emily doesn’t mess around with those concoctions of hers.”

“In the cabin,” Joe added, “on the porch.”

Joe saw her give a slight nod and raise her head, though she still seemed unwilling to meet Joe’s gaze. “He’s right, Mr. Cartwright. His foot was troubling him, but he refused to rest. I gave him something to make him sleep.”

“I didn’t want to sleep!” Joe shot back, finding it hard to breathe again.

Finally, her eyes locked with his. “There was no need for you to suffer. You were in a great deal of pain.” Her gaze seemed cold, unfeeling.

“What about Jimmy?” Joe asked, remembering the name the gunman had mentioned.

Emily’s brows curled for an instant before smoothing again. Her mouth pulled into a thin line as she turned away.

“That gunman in the cabin,” Joe went on. He tried to sit up, but the action pulled at his chest…his side…his back. “Matthews…,” he gasped as the world started to darken around him.

“Easy, son.” Pa gently pressed him back against the bed.

“He said…,” Joe struggled to add, “said you poisoned someone…Jimmy.”

“It’s a lie,” Emily held her back to Joe now. He saw her shoulders rising and falling from the quick, harsh breaths she was taking. “I loved Jimmy.”

“And your father?” Joe prodded.

Emily swiveled around, glaring at Joe in hatred. “I…did…not…kill…my…father!” she spat out each word like it was acid on her tongue.

“Joe,” Pa said, his tone soft but firm as he stroked Joe’s forehead. “Please try to rest. You’ve been fighting your way out of a nightmare for the better part of a week. I think you…”

“A week?” Joe stared at his pa in disbelief.

Pa smiled. “Yes, son. Nearly so. It’s been six days.”

Joe shifted his gaze between Pa and Emily before locking firmly with the young woman’s.

“We’ll talk this all out when you’re feeling better,” Pa added. “When you’re able to think more clearly.”

“I am thinking clearly, Pa,” Joe said softly, feeling winded. He dared not look away from Emily.

“Yes, well,” Pa gripped his arm and started to rise. “Thinking clearly or not, you are not up to a discussion like this. Now this young woman has kindly reminded me that it is time for your medicine. So I think we had better—”

“Not from her, Pa.”

Joe saw his pa stiffen. “Joe, I…”

Finally, Joe looked at his father, waiting for Pa’s gaze to meet his. “Not from her.”

“Joe, she has been…”

“Not anymore. Please.”

Pa sighed. A moment later he nodded.

Joe settled back against his pillows, comforted to know the pretty blonde thing with troubled eyes…Emily…was leaving his room.

“We’ll get everything straightened out, son. You have nothing to worry about, nothing but rest and allowing yourself to get better.”

“Promise?” Joe whispered, his eyes already closed.

“I promise.”

A promise from Pa was all he needed…all he’d ever needed. As he drifted back to sleep to his pa’s soft touch, Laura’s smile chased away Emily’s hate-filled gaze, and the cabin fitted itself comfortably around him once more.

*****

Little Joe was going to be okay. He was hurting, and he was awful tired. But he was going to be okay. All he needed now was sleep, and lots of it. So what was Pa worried about? He hadn’t asked Hoss to come into Joe’s room, he’d told him to, like it was so all-fired important it didn’t matter that Hoss was in the middle of enjoying his first full meal in a week. He had just settled down to a plate of sandwiches when Pa’s voice bellowed from the stairway.

“Hoss! Get up here! Now!”

Hoss about lost his stomach right then, automatically fearing the worst. A shout like that meant something was wrong, about as wrong as it could be…like maybe Joe had gotten worse just when they’d all been sure he was better. Dropping his sandwich, Hoss had barreled up those stairs like a raging bull.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” he’d asked, breathless. “What happened?”

“Nothing!” But the word had come out hard and loud, like the full opposite was true. “Keep an eye on Joe, will you?”

“Is he worse, Pa?”

Pa must’ve seen the worry in Hoss’ eyes then. All the anger had gone out of him, just like that. He’d patted Hoss’ shoulder as the tension in his own shoulders eased up. “No, son. He’s not worse. In fact, when he woke up just now, he was more alert than he’s been since the fever broke.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“Some things he said. I just…I need to get to the bottom of things.”

“What sort of things?”

Pa had smiled then. “Just keep an eye on your brother, will you? I don’t want anyone in there for a while, no one but you, Adam, Hop Sing or me. Understand?”

Hoss had tried to read more from his pa’s eyes. “No, I sure don’t. But if that’s what he needs….”

“It is, Hoss. At least for now, that’s just what he needs. What we both need.”

After seeing Pa acting so strange, Hoss’ heart eased up just like Pa’s shoulders had a moment earlier as soon as he went into Joe’s room and saw the grin on his brother’s face.

“Hey, Hoss,” Joe said real quiet like. “What’d you do to get Pa so angry?” He closed his eyes and took a couple of short breaths as Hoss came closer, his chest rising in a jerky motion that matched the creases of pain in Joe’s forehead. “It’s usually me he yells at like that.”

Hoss ruffled Joe’s hair. “He’s just gettin’ back into practice, little brother. He figures you’re gonna be causin’ trouble again in a day or so, and he ought to be ready.”

“Yeah,” Joe sighed, his grin fading but not quite going away. “A day or so ought to be about right.”

“Mind if I sit in here for awhile?” Hoss asked, taking the chair Pa had just left. “I think maybe it’d be a good idea to keep out of Pa’s way for a spell.” He winked at Joe.

“Don’t expect,” Joe’s words were getting softer, his eyes drifting closed, “a game of checkers.”

Hoss patted Joe’s arm. “Nah. I think maybe I’ll just….” Looking around, Hoss grabbed a book from Joe’s nightstand. “Think I’ll just read some.”

“Might want to choose another book,” Joe said.

“Why?”

“I saw Adam with that earlier.”

Hoss opened the book to somewhere in the middle, his eyes landing on a series of words he could hardly make any sense of.

For soothly he that preacheth to them that list not hear his words, his sermon them annoyeth. For Jesus Sirach saith, that music in weeping is a noyous thing. This is to say, as much availeth to speak before folk to whom his speech annoyeth, as to sing before him that weepeth. (Chaucer, “The Canterbury Tales: Tale of Meliboe”)

Confused, Hoss closed the book and settled back into his chair. “Maybe I’ll just rest my eyes some.”

“Good idea,” Joe said. “Maybe I will, too.”

*****

A short while later, as Joe’s breathing settled into an easy rhythm that made it clear he was sound asleep, Hoss started to hear voices from outside. They were far enough away he couldn’t quite make out words; but he recognized the tones of his pa…and Adam, too, mixed in with the lighter sounds of some of the women. Curious and bored, Hoss rose, moving closer to the window until he could catch wind of the conversation.

And the more he heard, the more his own blood started to boil just like Pa’s had. He was grateful when Hop Sing came in with that plate of abandoned sandwiches, but not because he was hungry. Fact was, what he heard made him lose his appetite altogether.

He closed the window to make sure Joe wouldn’t pick up on any of what Hoss was hearing…or any of what Hoss was bound to start saying by the time he got down there. Then he told Hop Sing to stay put, giving him the same instructions Pa had given to Hoss about who should be allowed to go into Joe’s room.

And then Hoss went barreling down those stairs every bit as anxious as he’d gone up earlier. He had something to add to that conversation; and goldarnit they were sure gonna listen.

*****

They were all out on the porch, all the women except for Agnes and her little one. Adam, Pa, Hannah and Emily were seated; but Hecate and them two Chinese gals were standing around them, like they’d come upon the conversation same as Hoss, not really invited, but not willing to stay out of it, neither.

Hecate was behind Emily, her hands on Emily’s shoulders. “She is not responsible,” Hecate said just as Hoss walked up. “She would never cause harm.”

“What happened to Matthews?” Adam asked. “That was his name, wasn’t it? The outlaw your sisters shot?”

“As the doctor said,” Hecate answered, “his heart must have failed him.”

“You gave him something, didn’t you?” Pa rose up from his chair, slow but fierce, like a mountain rising up out of the ground. His eyes were locked onto Emily, but her own were cast downward. “You gave him something to keep him asleep; something that eventually stopped his heart.”

Hecate’s dark fingers gripped the blonde woman’s shoulders protectively, maybe even possessively.

“Was it the same thing you gave to Joe?” Pa’s voice rose with every word. “Is that why he’s been so concerned about you poisoning him?” He was almost shouting now, his back as straight as could be, his eyes blazing.

“It was just to keep him quiet!” Emily cried out.

Adam rose then, reaching for Pa. He gripped Pa’s arm loosely, though his eyes, like Pa’s, remained on the young blonde gal. “Why?” he asked in a soft tone that made Hoss think of a tornado, or at least the way that man from Kentucky had described one that had torn up his farm back east. Hoss had been just a kid then, a boy who’d set his mind onto stories about as strong as he now set his back into good, hard work. “It got deadly still,” that man had said, “so quiet, not a single bird made a peep. That’s when I knew the worst of the storm was a’comin’.

Why did you have to keep him quiet?” Adam finished in that calm-before-the-storm voice of his.

“He was telling lies!” Emily shot up from her chair.

“He was in pain!” Hecate tried to talk over top of her.

“The truth!” Adam hollered with all the force of that Kentucky man’s tornado. “Give us the truth for once!”

And suddenly Hannah was standing, too. She gently pushed Emily back to her chair and shushed Hecate. “He’s right,” she said in a soft voice. “We need to tell them everything.”

“They will accuse her!” Hecate argued. “Just like everyone else has always done!”

“They need to know.” Taking a deep breath, Hannah turned, her gaze falling briefly on Hoss before reaching Pa and Adam.

Pa must have noticed the pause; he turned to see Hoss there as well.

“Hop Sing’s with him,” Hoss said, answering the question before Pa needed to ask it.

“Emily knows more about medicines,” Hannah went on, “than most physicians in this part of the country. She was trained by her father, a highly respected physician and chemist. When he fell ill, in his mind as well as in his body, he…”

“He made mistakes!” Emily shouted. “My father made mistakes,” she went on in a quieter voice, one that was almost as calm as Adam’s had been. “Mistakes that caused his patients to take medicines they didn’t need, medicines they should not have taken. They accused me. They said he should never have allowed me to work with him to begin with. He even began to believe them. And then he took the wrong medicine, himself.” She stood up again, straight as could be, clasping her hands in front of her. “It killed him,” she said, her eyes cold, somehow empty looking. “But not before he blamed me for giving it to him.”

“Did you?” Pa asked.

“No.”

Pa let out a long breath, seeming frustrated. “Then I don’t see how that has anything to do with the gunman, Matthews.”

“Stories, Mr. Cartwright,” Hannah answered. “Stories grow taller with each telling. Such stories have followed Emily halfway across this country. Mr. Matthews believed them, and….” She paused, waiting for Pa’s gaze to meet hers. “And he tried to get your son to believe them.”

“Are you saying she purposefully kept Matthews unconscious,” Adam asked, “to keep him from talking to Joe?”

All eyes except Pa’s fell to Emily. “He was in pain,” she said softly.

“And you knowingly allowed her to do this?” Pa said to Hannah.

Hannah sighed. “My attentions were elsewhere. But…I did not hold her back.”

“You did not have to,” Hecate told her. “Watching Emily was a responsibility I willingly accepted.”

Hannah shook her head at Pa, holding silent.

Pa held her eye for a minute, before turning to Emily. “What about my son?” he asked, his voice almost too soft to hear. “Did you give Joe something to keep him unconscious as well?”

“I told you,” she said almost equally soft back to Pa. “Your son was in pain from the wound in his foot. I simply wanted to give him some relief. I knew he would refuse it.”

“So you tricked him into taking it,” Pa accused.

Hoss felt his rage building, his hands curling into fists at his sides…fists he could not possibly put to use. He found himself wishing Miss Emily was a man.

“It was the only way.” Emily said it without any show of emotion.

“It was to prevent him from suffering,” Hecate said immediately afterword.

Hoss had heard enough. “Is that what you call stoppin’ a man’s heart from beating? That’s what happened to that Matthews fella, ain’t it? She prevented him from sufferin’ by killin’ him.” He turned his gaze to Emily, almost surprised to see she wasn’t afraid to meet it. “Just like you were gonna prevent my little brother from sufferin’.”

“What are you saying?” Hannah asked.

Hoss did not pull his eyes from Emily. “You were gonna kill him, weren’t you? That medicine Hecate said had been tainted…it was you that done it, wasn’t it? You poisoned it, ’cause you were gonna kill Little Joe.”

Emily glanced sideways and then downward.

“You were gonna kill my little brother, weren’t you?”

“Stop this!” Hecate yelled.

“It’s true, ain’t it?” Hoss yelled right back.

“She does not deserve…”

“Adam said it was time to tell the truth!” Hoss interrupted. “I’m still waitin’ to hear it!”

“He was going to die, anyway!” Emily shouted. Her words were enough to silence everyone. “He didn’t stand a chance!” she added then. “At least…I…I didn’t think he did. I figured it would be more merciful to let him go quickly.”

No one said anything for a long while. “You figured?” Adam said then, that calm of his already rising like a tornado was forming right there in front of them all. “You figured?” he said a bit louder. “What gives you the right to play God?”

Pa gripped Adam’s shoulder; Hoss saw his brother’s tension ease, but only slightly. “He was right,” Pa said. “All this time, Little Joe was right. You were out to poison him and I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen! I let you…”

“I was not out to poison him!” Emily argued. “Not after that. Not anymore. Hecate…Hecate made me realize it was wrong.”

“But you would’ve done it if she weren’t there.” Hoss knew that was true; he didn’t need for her to tell him.

“What happened to Jimmy?” Pa surprised everyone by asking.

Hoss was confused by the question; but Emily sure wasn’t. “I told you that, too,” she said.

“No. You only said that you loved him.”

“What happened to Jimmy,” Hecate said when Emily held silent, “has nothing to do with what has happened here.”

“I disagree,” Pa said. “We have been trusting this woman with my son’s care. I need to know just how extensively that trust was misplaced.”

But Hoss found himself siding with Hecate. “She’s right, Pa. Whoever Jimmy was, and whatever she did or didn’t do to him, we already know she would’ve killed Little Joe. That’s all I need to know to figure we’ve been wrong to trust her all along.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” Hannah said then, stepping between Emily and Pa. “I am more sorry than I can say. For everything. Nothing I do can ever make up for the harm I have brought to your family. We will leave at once. It seems prudent to stay in Virginia City for a while, to wait for the legal representative that has been promised to us. I assure you I will inform the sheriff of everything we have just discussed, as soon as we reach town; but I will also understand if you choose to send someone along to guarantee it is done.”

“Hop Sing will go.” Startled, Hoss looked toward the front door to find Hop Sing watching…listening. “Hop Sing will take women to Virginia City,” Hop Sing added. “Introduce cousins to Mi-wee and Sha-lotte.”

“Very well,” Pa said softly a moment later.

And that was it. That was all there was to it. All of a sudden, after a week of Hoss wondering just what it was he’d seen in that cabin when Hecate had broken that bottle of medicine…all of a sudden a darker truth had come out than Hoss might ever have realized. He even found himself wondering if the fever that had plagued his little brother all this time, the fever that had darn near killed him, had somehow been Emily’s doing.

And then, as he watched those women starting to scurry about, getting ready to pack up whatever they had to take with them, Hoss’ eyes landed on Hop Sing…and he realized Little Joe had been left alone once more.

“Dangnammit!” he cursed before hurrying back into the house. The last thing he wanted to see was any one of them women in his brother’s room.

*****

A woman was humming. Her tone was soft, soothing. The song swam through Joe’s dreams like white petals over water. It carried him back to Laura, to the pond, the cabin, the storm. It was a quiet song…a quiet storm. There was no thunder, no lightning…only rain…a gentle rain that quenched and refreshed him, filling him with a sense of completeness, as though he was right where he needed to be, right where he belonged.

When the song was over, Laura giggled. It was a sound that danced in the absence of music. There was no need for music with a giggle like that. Joe curled his hand around hers, wanting to draw her closer…but her hand fell away. He twisted her sleeve in his fingers, and she giggled again, playful and patient. Her image floated, a reflection in the pond smiling up at him.

“Let me go, Joe.” The words came in her voice, though her lips never moved; her smile never wavered.

He reached toward the water. His hand grasped the folds of her dress.

“Not yet,” she teased, running through the trees.

He tried to follow, but she was too fast. He couldn’t tell where she’d gone. He wanted to call out to her, but he had no voice.

“Laura,” she said when he couldn’t. “Sweet, little Laura.”

A flash of white drew his eyes upward. He blinked…. And it was gone.

But the humming wasn’t.

Joe curled his hand around the sheets in his bed, and then opened his eyes. Still the humming continued. He followed the sound, turning his head to find a woman sitting beside him. There was an infant in her arms.

“I’m sorry,” she said, smiling just as Laura had. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” Joe lied. The truth was, it had pleased him to hear her humming.

“I heard you were feeling better. I’m glad to see it’s true.”

Joe thought he should know who she was; but he didn’t. She hadn’t been in the cabin. Had she? “Do I…?” he started. Then his eyes fell to the baby. He remembered a name. “Agnes?” he asked.

She nodded. “That’s right. And this….” She shifted the baby in her arms so Joe could see its face. “This is Laura.”

“Laura?” The name caught in his throat.

“Let me go, Joe,” she’d said in his dream. He could still see her reflection in the water.

“I hope you don’t mind.” Agnes’s smile was gone. “I can change her name if you prefer. I just…I thought she sounded like such a lucky woman. Your father said she’d had a good life, a happy life. I was hoping some of that happiness might…well, I was hoping my baby could have happiness like that.”

“Lucky?” Joe whispered, disturbed by her words. “She…she died.” A tear slid along his cheek. He turned away, not wanting to see this woman, this baby who wore his Laura’s name. It wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right.

“I know,” Agnes answered softly. “And I’m sorry for you to have lost her.” She wrapped her hand around Joe’s.

He wanted to pull away, but it took too much effort.

“Little Joe,” Agnes went on, saying Joe’s name like she’d always known him…as though she had spent her childhood beside him, like Laura had. “Your father told me about her, about you and her. She died knowing you loved her. Your father said she was always smiling, always happy. She was blessed, Little Joe, truly blessed.”

“She…died!” Joe spat angrily, still refusing to look at the woman, or the baby who had stolen Laura’s name.

Agnes’s fingers tightened around his. “Only after she lived. I would rather live twenty years as she did, than forty with the life I’ve known. If my child can have half the years I’ve had, knowing the kind of happiness your Laura knew, then we both will have been blessed. Don’t you see?” Her voice had begun to break. Joe could hear her sniffling, her breaths quickening. She was starting to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said after a moment, in a ragged whisper. “I’m truly sorry. Your father…I asked him if you would mind. He said…he thought you would be…pleased.”

Joe closed his eyes, but Laura’s image would not leave him. She was smiling. She was happy. Just as Agnes had said.

“I’m sorry,” Agnes said again. He heard her rise. “I’ll change it.” She was moving toward the door.

“Wait,” Joe called out to her. He turned his head, once more willing to see her…to let her see him. “Wait,” he said again, more softly.

She stopped near the doorway, her shoulders shaking lightly, her baby held close to her breast.

“I’m sorry,” Joe said then.

Agnes shook her head. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t want…I thought it would be a good thing.”

“It is,” Joe decided. “It is a good thing.” He took as deep a breath as he dared, and blinked at his brimming tears. “It is a good thing,” he repeated. He tried to smile, but it hurt. Even knowing it was good, it hurt somewhere deep inside him, beyond the sting of his wounds. “Don’t change her name. Please.”

“Are you sure?”

After one more cautious breath, Joe found he was finally able to smile, right through his tears. “I’m sure.”

And then she smiled through her own tears…and Joe could swear it was Laura smiling back at him instead.

As she put her hand to the doorknob, Joe saw her hesitate. He heard the sound of footsteps in the hallway, and she looked toward him again. There were voices then, urgent whispers. Joe shared a curious glance with Agnes an instant before heavier footfalls were followed by Hoss crashing through Joe’s bedroom door.

Agnes started, taking a step backwards. Her baby…Laura…began to cry.

“Joe?” Hoss called out. He looked toward Agnes and the baby, and then, his brow drawn down, he looked at Joe. “You alright, little brother?”

Joe did not bother answering. “What’s going on?”

Hoss looked at Agnes again, but her attention was focused on settling her crying infant. He stepped past her then, moving to Joe’s bedside. “They’re…they’re gettin’ ready to head out,” he said, seeming nervous and stealing glances at Agnes.

“Who?” Joe asked.

“Hannah, and…all them gals.”

“Why now?” Joe looked past his brother, meeting Agnes’s gaze. She smiled at him, and then slipped through the open doorway, closing it softly behind her. He could barely hear the click of the latch, but somehow the sound almost seemed to explode inside him, like the first bullet that had stolen his breath.

“Let me go, Joe,” Laura had said in his dream.

Something about that closed door made it seem like that was just what he was doing, what he was being forced to do. Baby Laura was being whisked away from him, mere seconds after he’d even been made aware of her existence. And the Laura in his dreams had smiled like a little girl at play.

If my child can have half the years I’ve had,” Agnes had told him, “knowing the kind of happiness your Laura knew, then we both will have been blessed.”

“Joe?” Hoss grabbed his arm. “Joe? What’s wrong, boy? She do somethin’ to you?”

“What?” Joe saw his brother’s worried gaze and shook his head. “No. She didn’t….” He looked at the door again. “What could she possibly do?” …except to give her baby daughter the kind of life Laura had known. And suddenly Joe found his breath again…and the air tasted sweeter somehow.

“She didn’t give you no medicine, did she?”

Joe shook his head again. “No.” And then he started to think differently. He settled back into his pillows. “At least not the kind you mean.”

“What’d she give you, Little Joe?”

“Peace of mind.” Joe smiled.

Hoss pressed his hand down across Joe’s forehead. “Fever ain’t back, but you’re actin’ awful strange. I don’t like it.”

“Yeah? Well, get used to it, brother.” Joe closed his eyes, looking for the white flash of his dream. He didn’t expect to find it; but, somehow, that was okay. He didn’t really need to, not anymore.

*****

Hannah’s arrival in Virginia City, along with her sisters and their unlikely escorts, Hop Sing and Adam Cartwright, did not go unnoticed. Heads turned. Polite ladies gossiped behind gloved hands. Less well-mannered folk shouted taunts and jeers.

“Hey, Cartwright!” one man called to Adam. “Them the ones’ all fired up ’bout women’s suffering?”

“Suffrage!” a woman hollered back. “You half-wit!”

“What’re you doin’ with them, anyhow?” another man shouted. “Got you hen-pecked?”

Crude jokes and curses soon followed. Adam began to worry that violence would come next. This had been a mistake. He should have anticipated such a reaction to that damnable newspaper article. If he’d been thinking clearly before starting this ride, he was sure he would have realized exiling the women to this town under the current circumstances was not practical. But he hadn’t been thinking. He’d stopped thinking the instant he’d used Little Joe’s technique to mount that horse in the corral. It was almost as though taking up one of his youngest brother’s habits had caused him to think more like Little Joe than himself.

He had also been thinking more about Little Joe than about anyone else. But now that his little brother was finally out of danger—both from the infection, and from whatever Emily and her medicines might have done—maybe Adam could start to force some logic back into his brain.

Taking a deep breath, Adam noticed Hop Sing veering away, steering the wagon team toward the Chinese part of town. Adam met his gaze and nodded. Millie and Charlotte, who were riding in back with Hannah’s supplies, would be better off there, anyway. As for Agnes and her baby, sitting up front with Hop Sing, they were likely to be better off as well. At least the young mother wouldn’t be subjected to hurtful talk about her unmarried status.

“Will they be alright?” Hannah asked. Beside Adam on a dapple mare, she had spent the majority of the ride silent and stoic, keeping her eyes on the trail ahead of her. Now Adam noticed some of that stoicism had been lost. There was uncertainty in her gaze.

“They’ll be well taken care of,” Adam assured her. He only wished he could be as sure about Hecate and Emily, despite his insistence on justice. He was at least thinking clearly enough to recognize that the cruel nature of people when they disapproved of someone’s actions—or their upbringing or heritage—had nothing at all to do with justice.

Hecate was weathering the name-calling and threats surprisingly well. She rode with her back straight, her head held high, and her gaze actively meeting those among the crowd who sought to demean her the loudest. More often than not, one look at those dark eyes of hers caused men to glance quickly away and go silent, if only for a short while. That she inspired fear in men did not bode well; and Adam once again found himself rethinking the wisdom of bringing these women to Virginia City.

Emily was quite the opposite of Hecate. Her pale cheeks flushed crimson and her own gaze was fixed on the saddle horn in front of her. She seemed meek and helpless… both of which belied the danger she posed. It was ironic, really. Hecate threatened men with her posture and her eyes, neither of which could bring harm to anyone; whereas Emily seemed to pose no threat at all.

The stagecoach rumbled past just before they reached the sheriff’s office, and Adam found himself appreciating the distraction. He watched the coach fly up the street, his gaze moving to its windows in curiosity. Perhaps he should have expected the people inside to be looking out with an equal amount of interest. But when his eyes locked with those of a stern faced woman in a green hat, he wished he hadn’t bothered to look at all.

*****

“That’s quite a story,” Sheriff Roy Coffee said an hour later. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk. “Are you confessing to the murder of Caleb Matthews?”

Emily’s eyes moved from her hands in her lap to Hecate, who was standing beside her chair.

“Miss?” the sheriff prompted when Emily remained silent. “Do you admit to giving him a lethal dose of whatever that medicine was?”

Adam tensed as Emily’s head turned abruptly toward Roy. Her gaze had gone from demure to enraged in an instant. “A lethal dose to one person might not even be enough to ease the pain in another!” she shot back angrily. “I had to give him enough to keep him comfortable!”

“Was it or was it not enough to kill him?” Roy asked.

Discomforted by Emily’s sudden and extreme transformation, Adam knew he would not have trusted himself to speak as calmly as Roy at that moment. He wondered how often Joe had seen such coldness within the young woman. That thought disturbed Adam all the more.

And then, just as suddenly as it had come upon her, all signs of rage vanished. Emily’s attention was drawn once more to her hands. “I don’t know,” she answered softly.

Roy sighed, shaking his head. “What about Little Joe? Are you willing to sign a confession that you were gonna poison him?”

Again, her eyes moved to Hecate.

“You cannot make her do such a thing,” Hecate said, her dark eyes spearing Roy’s.

“No, you’re right. I can’t. But if what Adam here says is true — and I got no reason to think it ain’t — we got three Cartwrights who heard you confess that very thing. Now, I happen to know the judge is a fair and decent man. But a signed confession is gonna make him a whole lot fairer and more decent than he would be if we have to have a full trial.”

“Hearsay,” Hannah said then. “There is no evidence, and the word of a witness is a difficult thing to prove. It could easily be discounted as hearsay.”

“Maybe so, but there’s a reason folks are sworn to tell the truth in a trial. Cartwrights are not likely to perjure themselves. And anyone on a jury here ain’t likely to figure the Cartwrights for liars. Leastways, not in a situation like this.”

Adam met Hannah’s gaze. She looked…defeated. “Roy,” he said after a moment. Taking a deep breath, he turned away to face the sheriff. “I brought these women here because I felt it was important for you to understand what might have happened in that cabin.” He heard the door opening behind him, but he ignored it. “And also because I felt it was even more important for Hannah’s sister here to admit to what she’d done. But if she’s not ready to do that, I think perhaps she should have a good long talk with a lawyer, while we…”

“And she shall have exactly that,” a woman’s voice said at his back.

Turning, Adam saw the stern-faced, green-hatted woman from the stagecoach. Accompanying her was a middle-aged man in a gray, pinstriped suit.

“Am I correct in assuming you are speaking about Mrs. Hannah Ellingsworth?” the woman added.

“Is there somethin’ I can do for you, ma’am? Mister?” Roy asked, nodding to each in turn.

The woman ignored him, looking instead at Hannah. “Are you Mrs. Ellingsworth?”

Hannah rose from her chair and nodded. “I am.”

“Very well. I am Myra Bradwell, and this is my husband, Mr. James Bolesworth Bradwell, a prominent attorney and judge back in Chicago. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said you were in need of legal representation, but from what we’ve heard already in this town, the situation has changed to some degree, with your husband’s passing. Now, my husband and I can get right to work on your inheritance rights, if you can…”

“Excuse me,” Adam interrupted, sharing a frustrated glance with Roy.

Mrs. Bradwell looked at him in annoyance.

“The situation has changed a bit more than that, I’m afraid.”

“And you are?”

“Adam Cartwright. These women have been…guests at our ranch until today.”

“Oh? And what is different about today?”

Adam met Hannah’s eyes again. “I think perhaps I should let Mrs. Ellingsworth explain.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Bradwell said. “I am sure there is a great deal of discussion we need to have with Mrs. Ellingsworth. Sheriff,” she turned her attention abruptly to Roy, “is there someplace where we can speak in private?”

“Not here,” Roy answered. “I’m afraid my jail’s as full as can be right now, on account of Mr. Ellingsworth’s hired guns. You can try the hotel.”

“The hotel it shall be, then. Are these women free to go?”

Roy nodded. “For now. But I have to caution Miss Emily here to stay in town until we can get to the bottom of things.”

“Miss Emily?” She followed his gaze to Emily, and then looked again to Hannah.

“There is…a great deal to be discussed,” Hannah offered.

*****

Moments later, as Adam stood back with Roy to watch Hannah and her sisters leaving with the Bradwell’s, he couldn’t help but wonder how Virginia City was going to weather the coming storm.

“Anesidora,” he said softly.

“You say somethin’, Adam?”

“Maybe too much.” Sighing, Adam grabbed his hat and headed for the door.

*****

The house disquieted Adam. He should feel settled. Things were getting back to normal, back to the way they should be. The women were in good hands—and out of his. Joe was healing. Hop Sing was scurrying about, seeming as happy as ever and chattering on about his cousins’ interest in Millie and Charlotte while complaining about the women’s refusal to use their given, Chinese names.

Hoss, too, was happy. By suppertime he was digging into the food on his plate as though it was Christmas. Even Pa looked content.

But something still wasn’t right. Maybe it was just Joe’s absence at the table that was bothering Adam. It would be a while before Joe could make it downstairs, let alone take his own place at the table. But how normal would things seem for him? His cabin, his last link to Laura was gone. Even the ashes would be swept away by the time Joe rode back out to that valley. Hoss intended to make sure the area was clean enough to build on again, if Joe was ever inclined to do so. Adam had his doubts.

But it wasn’t just the cabin Joe would miss. Since Laura’s death, Joe’s budding friendship with Jake had come like a godsend. Joe had regained the affable spontaneity that had been so uniquely his. Although Adam tended to chastise Joe for that very spontaneity, it was as much a part of him as level-headed thinking was a part of Adam—or used to be, anyway, before Adam had started thinking more like Little Joe.

“Adam?” Pa’s voice pulled his eyes from the potatoes on his plate.

“Hmmm?”

“Penny for your thoughts.”

He gave his father a small, lopsided smile. “That would be a poor investment.”

“What’s got you so glum, brother?” Hoss asked, barely shifting his attention from his meal. “You still frettin’ over that Miss Emily? All I can say is I’m glad she’s gone; and whatever she did or didn’t do, Joe’s no worse for it now.”

Adam sighed. “Whatever she did or didn’t do,” he parroted, “she is unbalanced. I saw something in her today that…well, if that’s what Joe saw, it’s no wonder he didn’t want her anywhere near him. I’m more convinced than ever she’s dangerous; but there’s not really any way to prove it.”

“You did what you could, Adam,” Pa said. “You put her in the hands of the law, and….” Pa’s gaze strayed to the stairway. “You removed the threat she posed in this house. You protected your brother. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough.”

“I hope so; but I can’t help wondering who else might be put at risk under her care. To be honest, I’m not sure the law will be able to do much about her, if anything at all.”

“Let that be Hannah’s concern,” Pa said sternly, “not yours.”

Adam took a deep breath, nodding in agreement. Pa was right. He knew the logic of his father’s words, though they didn’t make him feel any less ill at ease. “And then there’s Joe,” he said.

Pa’s fork hesitated before spearing a piece of beef with particular vigor. “Joe’s going to be fine now. There’s no need to worry anymore.”

“Isn’t there?” Adam waited until his father’s eyes met his.

“Just what are you worried about, Adam?” Hoss asked when Pa didn’t.

“The cabin,” Adam said. He took another deep breath and added, “Jake.”

Pa nodded slowly. “Joe knows about the cabin,” he answered then. “We had a pretty good talk while you were in Virginia City. Frankly, I think he may even have been relieved. There’s no purpose to him going there anymore. There hasn’t been for some time.”

Adam continued to look pointedly at him. “And Jake?”

Pa held his gaze for a long while before shaking his head. “Not yet.”

“We have to tell him. He’s bound to start asking where Jake is.”

“He’s already asked.” Hoss’ fork hovered over his plate as though he’d lost interest in eating. “I didn’t have the heart to say anythin’. Besides, Joe was startin’ to fall back to sleep. He didn’t need to hear it right then.”

“No. I suppose not.” Adam poked at his food for a few minutes before adding, “I’ll tell him.” He knew both Hoss and Pa were looking at him, perhaps waiting for him to say something more, but he kept his own attention on his plate. He needed to be the one to tell Joe, though he couldn’t say why, exactly.

Or maybe he did know why, he just didn’t know how to explain it. He’d been the one to open Pandora’s Box. It hadn’t been Hannah; she had simply brought it with her, enticing Adam with its mystery. It hadn’t even been Ellingsworth; all he’d done was fight to keep it closed. No. It had been Adam who had opened it… Adam who had been caught eavesdropping at his father’s window…Adam who had thought words could stop bullets…and Adam who had seen vengeance in Jake’s cold eyes.

Maybe, for a minute at least,” Jake had told him after Ellingsworth had been gunned down, “he got a sense of what it must’ve been like for Joe.”

In that moment, Adam had known, without any doubt at all, who had targeted Ellingsworth in the end. That man’s death had not been an accident. Jake had taken it upon himself to be judge, jury and executioner. And Adam had done nothing. If Joe had been the one pulling the trigger, the one with murder in his eyes, Adam would have been appalled. He would have been enraged. And he would have kept Joe in his sights, to make sure his little brother could not bring any further ruin to his own life. But it hadn’t been Joe. It had been done on behalf of Joe, and somehow…somehow Adam had found that to be acceptable…as though an act of vengeance had different sets of rules depending on who was holding the gun…and why.

“Adam?” Hoss’ voice pulled him back to the moment.

“Hmmm?” Adam mumbled in response.

“I asked when you’re plannin’ on tellin’ him.”

Adam met his brother’s gaze. “As soon as I can.” Then he turned his attention to the stairs. “As soon as he’s awake enough to listen.”

*****

After supper, Adam checked in on Joe only to find him sound asleep. He sat down at Joe’s bedside nonetheless, and was oddly comforted to simply watch his brother breathe. Seeing how much easier it was for Joe since his fever had broken gave Adam a sense of peace such as he hadn’t known in a week. Even so, it disturbed Adam to think about how much healing yet lay ahead.

It disturbed him even more to imagine Joe trapped in that cabin, one he and his brothers had rebuilt into a home…trapped there by an injury Hannah’s women had caused…and then abandoned by his own brothers.

What had it been like for Joe during all those hours? Adam could hardly imagine spending so much time caught in Hecate’s searing gaze or Emily’s enraged glare. That pretty little gal Hoss had figured would spur Joe’s interest had nearly killed him instead. And the cradle Adam had made for the sake of a future his brother would never see…what did it do to Joe to see that cradle being put to use for another man’s child, a cruel stranger who’d had only one use for women?

Joe’s breath caught. His chest rose, and then held there, the air locked in his lungs.

Adam found himself holding his own breath, watching his brother’s eyes and waiting for them to open…willing them to open because there was so much he needed to say to Joe, even when he wasn’t sure how he was going to say anything at all. But an instant later the breath was released. Joe’s eyes remained closed. And Adam went on thinking about apologies that had been a week in the making, and wondering how things might have gone if he’d done everything differently.

Should he have demanded Joe return home when he and Hoss had ridden on toward the cabin? No. Joe would have listened no more to the demand than he had to the suggestion.

Maybe Hoss should have stayed at the cabin with Joe. Maybe Adam should have ridden to Virginia City rather than home. Maybe Roy could have—

“Adam?” Joe’s voice called out in a quiet whisper, pulling Adam from the mess in his thoughts. “What’s wrong?”

Joe’s concern surprised him until he realized how tense he must look. He was leaning forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped tightly in front of him. “Nothing, Joe,” he said with a sigh, relaxing his muscles and settling himself back further in his seat. “Nothing’s wrong.” He managed a smile. “I suppose we’ve spent so many days sitting here worrying over you, it’s become a habit.”

“Pa told me it’d been a week.” Joe glanced at the ceiling, as though he was searching for something up there, before giving his attention back to Adam. “Seems like just yesterday I was in that cabin.”

“And to me it seems like a lifetime ago. I’m sorry, Joe. Hoss and I never should have left you there.”

Joe looked confused. “There wasn’t much else you could do.”

“That’s what I’ve tried to tell myself. But there had to have been some other way. I wasted time going to the house. And I…” Suddenly realizing he was talking without thinking, Adam cut his words, looked at his brother, and felt his smile return.

“And you what?”

“And I almost got trampled to death because of it. But you, little brother, saved my life.” His smile became a grin.

Joe clearly couldn’t make sense of what Adam was trying to say. “What are you talking about?”

“Ellingsworth’s men. They forced me into the corral with those new mustangs, and then worked them into a frenzy.”

“How’d you get out?”

“Your swing mount.”

Joe’s eyes widened. “You…you tried it?”

“I didn’t just try. I succeeded. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here now.”

“That was a pretty big gamble you took. What if you’d missed? What if you’d…”

Adam started chuckling.

“What’s so funny?”

“You.” He shook his head. “Me.” He added with a sigh. “Listen to yourself, Joe. Listen to both of us. You’re sounding like me telling you why you shouldn’t have done whatever rash thing you’d done. While I….” He shrugged. “You know, Joe, ever since that swing mount, I feel like I’m acting more like you than like myself.”

For some reason, Joe was not sharing his amusement. “Well knock it off!” he scolded.

“You first.”

Joe stared at him for a long while, his mouth open, his gaze wary. And then…

…And then Little Joe did something that seemed to turn everything back to rights again. He giggled. And then that giggle grew into a laugh. “Ow!” Joe complained, cringing at the pain his laughter was awakening. “Oh, that hurts.” But still he laughed. And even as tears spilled to the pillow beneath him, he didn’t show any inclination to stop.

Growing worried, Adam rose, grasping hold of Joe’s shoulders. “Alright Joe, that’s enough. Easy, now.”

“Is that….” Joe struggled to breathe. “Is that what you told the horse?” His giggle turned into a cry.

“I imagine it probably was. But at least the horse listened to me.”

Suddenly, Joe drew in a deep breath and held it. Adam tightened his grip; Joe’s muscles felt like ropes of rock beneath his fingers. Joe’s breaths came in gasps for several, long moments. Finally, after one particularly long exhalation, Adam was glad to feel those muscles beginning to loosen. “Feeling better?”

Joe shook his head, but that was as far as he would go to admitting that the pain had overwhelmed him. “Sure wish I could’ve seen that,” he said softly a moment later.

“So do I.”

As Joe settled back against his pillows and closed his eyes, Adam drew away and retook his chair, feeling his own muscles loosen…until Joe’s next words struck him a nearly physical blow.

“Wait ’til Jake hears about this.” Joe was still grinning, though his eyes remained closed. “You know, he thinks that you…”

“Joe!” Adam interrupted sharply. Too sharply.

Joe looked at him, his gaze one of bewildered innocence that made Adam feel hollow inside.

“I’m sorry.” Adam sighed, and then repeated his apology. “I’m sorry, Joe. It’s just….” He wished Joe would look away, would look anywhere except directly at him. Adam’s own gaze kept slipping, skittering elsewhere. Finally, Adam surrendered, closing his eyes completely. “Jake’s dead,” he said, hiding like a coward in a darkness of his own creation.

When Joe said nothing, Adam forced his eyes open, knowing he couldn’t hide forever. Joe was still staring at him. “He’s dead, Joe. I’m sorry. He went after the men who started the fire. He got them, too. In fact, everyone’s calling him a hero. But….” Leaning forward again, Adam shook his head and clasped his hands in front of him, just as he’d done before Joe had come awake. “He…took a bullet of theirs before it was over. They shot him in the back.”

It was a long while before Joe made any move at all. It was almost as though he wasn’t even breathing. He was so still. And then…Joe’s gaze moved upward as his brows curled down, cutting deep furrows into his forehead.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Adam repeated. “I should have looked out for him. I should have paid more attention. But I…”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Joe offered softly.

“I should have stopped him.”

“You couldn’t.” Joe closed his eyes. “You know you couldn’t. When Jake set his mind to doing something, there’s not a man in this world who could stop him.” He spoke slowly, in a calm tone that left Adam feeling numb. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine.”

“How on earth could it have been your fault?” Adam asked, shocked almost to the point of anger. “The only one at fault is the man who shot him!”

Joe sighed, opened his eyes, looked at Adam…and smiled. It was a small, sad smile, but a smile, nonetheless. “You’re right.”

Adam said nothing; he was too confused to know what to say.

“We are acting like each other.” Joe closed his eyes again, his brow furrowing even deeper than before. “But Jake…was just being Jake.”

As the tears began to flow, Adam reached forward, wrapping his hand around his brother’s arm.

*****

Justice was swift, in some ways. Hoss’ testimony against the man who had shot Lucy resulted in a life sentence at the Territorial Prison, and the official ruling about the deaths of Ellingsworth and the men with him at the Cartwright’s main house was that they’d been shot in self-defense. Unfortunately, Adam’s testimony against Ellingsworth’s foreman was not quite as compelling to the judge.

No one was more upset about the final ruling against that man than Little Joe. Still recovering from his wounds, Joe had been forced to miss the trial. He’d spent the hours reading in the great room, though his attention had been drawn more to the clock than the book in his lap. When his father and brothers had returned, he would have shot right up out of that chair if he could have, to meet them at the door. Instead, he’d drawn himself so quickly to the edge of the high-backed, blue chair he dropped his book to the floor and awakened a cramp in the leg he had propped up onto a pillow set on the low table in front of him.

“Well?” he asked, absently rubbing his leg.

“Well,” Adam repeated as he knelt down to retrieve Joe’s book. “He’s been convicted.” He sat on the table in front of Little Joe and glanced at the title of the book before adding it to the small stack already resting there. Joe noticed the quirk of a smile, but it faded almost as quickly as it had come.

“So why the long faces?” Joe prodded.

Adam glanced up at Pa and Hoss, neither of whom had bothered to take a seat.

“The judge gave him ten years,” Adam answered then. “He’ll be up for parole in half that. Aside from him attacking me when we returned to the house…after you were shot….” He sighed and shook his head. “He never laid a hand on me. The entire incident at the corral was reduced to hearsay, my word against his and that of his men.”

“He tried to kill you!” At that moment, Joe felt more eager than ever to jump to his feet, to pace, to do something…anythingother than sit still for even a moment longer. But all he could manage was to curl his hands into fists and try to pant the tension out of his system. “And he was just as responsible as Ellingsworth for everything that happened! More, even! Those men listened to him! He could have…”

“Joe.” Adam gripped Joe’s knee. “He’s going to prison. That has to be enough.”

“It’s not enough! What’s wrong with that judge, anyway? Doesn’t he care that…”

“Joseph!” Pa interrupted. “The law is the law.”

“Well the law stinks! Or maybe it’s Hiram Wood who stinks! He should have…”

“Joseph!” Pa yelled louder than before. “I will not have you speaking that way about anyone, particularly someone like Hiram! He’s a good man, and a very good lawyer. He did everything he could, and the Bradwells were on our side in this, too. It’s done. The man is going to prison.”

“But he could have….” Joe’s anger melted, turning inward. He could feel hot tears filling his eyes. He tried to blink them away. His panting began to shift to gasping.

“Joe?” Adam sounded concerned.

Joe could not look at him. “He could have stopped all of it,” he said softly. “They wouldn’t have…wouldn’t have fired, if he’d….” Dammit! He sounded like a child…a little boy wallowing in self pity. The man had almost killed Adam. That mattered more than what had happened at the cabin. Of course it mattered more! In the corral, that foreman had taken full charge, making sure Adam would be killed. But Joe kept finding his thoughts returning to the cabin’s doorway. He could still see those guns pointed at him, and the smoke as they fired. Oddly, he couldn’t remember hearing them. He couldn’t remember any sound at all. In his mind, there was nothing but silence. And smoke. He also couldn’t remember what it had felt like when those bullets had pierced his body. He could only remember falling, and seeing that Millie had been hit, too.

“He tried to kill you, Adam,” Joe said again, finally looking at his brother.

“And you.” Adam’s grip tightened on Joe’s knee.

“No.” Joe shook his head. “With me, he just didn’t try to stop it.”

“Same difference,” Hoss said then.

No. Joe knew it wasn’t the same. But he had no desire to argue about it. Not now. Not with his family. “Ten years, huh?” he said to Adam.

“Ten years.”

“But he could be out on parole in five?”

Adam shook his head. “Not if we have anything to say about it.”

“Do we?”

“When the time comes,” Pa said, “we can…all of us,” his gaze swept from Joe to Adam to Hoss and then back again, “speak to the parole board.”

“With any luck,” Adam added, grinning, “he’ll get on the warden’s bad side before then, and we won’t have to say a word.”

“With any luck, none of this would have happened in the first place.”

Adam either didn’t notice, or chose to ignore the fact that Joe’s forlorn tone sounded even more childish than had his momentary slip into self pity. “Since when have you been interested in poetry?” he asked, glancing again at the book on the top of the stack.

Joe shrugged. “Hop Sing gave it to me.”

“Hop Sing?” Hoss’ sadness disappeared behind a scrunched up brow that almost made Joe giggle.

“From Missy Mi-wee,” Hop Sing called from the dining room table, where he had already begun to set out the supper dishes. “Missy give book for Little Joe. She tell Hop Sing Tenn-y-son poem about loss of close friend. Maybe help Little Joe.”

Adam picked up the book again. “Alfred Lord Tennyson,” he read aloud. “In Memoriam.” Then, noticing that several pages had been marked with ribbons, he opened to the first. “One writes, that ‘Other friends remain,’ that ‘Loss is common to the race’, and common is the commonplace, and vacant chaff well meant for grain. That loss is common would not make my own less bitter, rather more: Too common! Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break.” He looked toward Joe. “Is it helping?”

Joe shrugged again. “Some parts just make me think even more about both Jake and Laura. Others…I don’t know. Maybe.”

Adam opened to another section. “So find I every pleasant spot, in which we two were wont to meet, the field, the chamber and the street, for all is dark where thou art not.”

Recognizing the verse, Joe looked away. He didn’t want Adam to read more…and yet…he did. Joe did want to hear it. He wanted to hear it from someone else…from Adam, a brother who somehow always had the answers. Even when Joe didn’t want to hear those answers, Adam had them. Now Joe realized he wanted Adam to help him make sense of…of things that had no sense to them at all.

“Yet as that other, wandering there,” Adam read on, “in those deserted walks, may find, a flower beat with rain and wind, which once she fostered up with care.”

Joe saw himself with Laura, sitting beside the pond at the cabin on that first spring day he’d taken her there. He could still hear Laura giggling, as she had when he’d fallen in, reaching for a white flower that had blossomed too soon.

Maybe Adam didn’t notice Joe’s discomfort. Or maybe…maybe he did. His tone softened. “So seems it in my deep regret, o my forsaken heart, with thee, and this poor flower of poesy, which little cared for fades not yet. But since it pleased a vanished eye, I go to plant it on his tomb, that if it can it there may bloom, or dying, there at least may die.”

Joe felt a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t need to look to know it was Pa.

Adam turned to the next marked section. “I envy not the beast that takes, his license in the field of time, unfettered by the sense of crime, to whom a conscience never wakes; nor, what may count itself as blest, the heart that never plighted troth, but stagnates in the weeds of sloth; nor any want-begotten rest. I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; ’tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

Suddenly Joe heard another woman in his thoughts. He heard the soft voice of Agnes, the young mother who had wandered into his room on that last day, when Hannah and her ragtag group of sisters had still been guests of the Ponderosa.

“She was blessed, Little Joe,” she’d said of Laura, a woman she had never even known.

“She died!” Joe had argued.

The words she’d said next struck him, held him. He could hear them still. “Only after she lived,” she’d said. “I would rather live twenty years as she did, than forty with the life I’ve known. If my child can have half the years I’ve had, knowing the kind of happiness your Laura knew, then we both will have been blessed. Don’t you see?

Adam was still reading, but Joe had stopped listening. Instead, he heard Agnes. And Laura telling him in his dreams to let her go. And…and then he heard Jake, telling him he was a fool. He had to live for the moment, because you never know if you’ll have another.

Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break, the poet had written. And it was true, wasn’t it? It was all true. Agnes was right. Laura was right. Even Jake was right. No one is on this earth forever. And everyone has his own time.

Joe glanced around the room, looking at his father, at Hoss, at Adam, even Hop Sing, and he realized one by one they could all be pulled out of his life, or he from theirs. He almost had been, hadn’t he? He remembered the fear they had all shown at his bedside.

“No, like a child in doubt and fear,” Adam read, “but that blind clamor made me wise; then was I as a child that cries, but, crying, knows his father near; and what I am beheld again, what is, and no man understands; and out of darkness came the hands, that reach thro’ nature, molding men.”

Pa’s hand tightened its grip on Joe’s shoulder, and then pulled away as Pa came around the chair to face him. “Did you mark all those passages, Joseph?” he asked softly.

Joe shook his head. “No. But I read them.” He tried a small smile. “And then I read a few more. It’s not the easiest book to read.” He chuckled. “But…I guess I can see why Millie thought it might help.”

“That was awful nice of her,” Hoss said.

“Yes,” Pa agreed. “It certainly was.”

“I suppose they all feel somewhat responsible,” Adam added.

“Well, she is responsible for my foot,” Joe said with mock indignation, trying to be light-hearted. “But I guess I can’t blame them for trying to get shed of a man like Ellingsworth.”

Adam looked pointedly at him. “No. I guess not.” He continued to hold Joe’s gaze, looking as though he wanted to say something further.

“Supper ready!” Hop Sing called.

It was enough to make Adam look away. Joe almost wished he hadn’t. He couldn’t help but wonder what had been on Adam’s mind. But he was also pretty sure he knew. If the women hadn’t brought their fight to the Ponderosa, Jake would still be alive, and Joe….

Well, Joe was already healing. But if they hadn’t come, he would still be facing the ghost of Laura in that cabin. Now, with the cabin gone, Laura had found her way out of Joe’s nightmares and into his dreams, willing him to let her go. And maybe that Tennyson fellow was right. Maybe it really was better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

Reaching for his crutch, Joe found his brothers’ arms instead, and he found himself grateful for the moment…because, as Jake used to say, you never know if you’re gonna get another.

*****

Come spring, when the white flowers blossomed once more at what Joe had started to call Laura’s pond, he harvested several, roots and all, placing them carefully into a small bucket. And then he rode out first to Laura’s grave, and then to Jake’s. He planted flowers at each site, figuring if they can they there may bloom, or dying, there at least may die.

 

Epilogue

The following are letters from Agnes, sent to Ben and Little Joe with Christmas greetings as the year they met came to a close.

Dear Mr. Cartwright,

I hope this letter finds you and all of your sons well. While I am not certain you would welcome news of Hannah Ellingsworth or those of us women she tends to refer to as her sisters, I felt it might give you some peace to know that Emily is under restrictive care. We are in consultation with physicians, and Hecate dutifully and diligently watches over our troubled sister. It pains Hannah greatly that she did not recognize the true extent of Emily’s condition until after the life of your son was threatened under her care. We always believed the loss of her fiancé, Jimmy, was more than Emily could bear. However, we now believe the pain Jimmy endured before his death was ever worse for Emily to witness, and the rumors might be true that she misused medicine to bring his suffering to a permanent end. Hannah is a caring and compassionate woman who would save everyone in need of salvation, were it in her power to do so. Such devotion to others blinded her to Lucy’s treachery as well as to Emily’s loss of reason.

The courts have granted Hannah full inheritance of her husband’s estate, although Mr. Ellingsworth’s partners are contesting her right to succeed her husband in business. No arguments, however, have been presented against the transference of ownership of Hecate. As you must presume, Hannah disdains slavery. Therefore, Hecate is now a free woman. She has chosen to stay at Emily’s side, and for that we are all quite grateful. Were it not for the sickness in her mind, I believe you would have known Emily to be a good woman and a fine nurse, as we once knew her to be.

We hear infrequently from Millie and Charlotte, yet we know they are doing well. Your cook and dear friend, Hop Sing, has become a dear friend to them, and by extension to all of us. We owe so much to all of you, I can find no words sufficient to express my gratitude, nor also my hope that you can yet forgive us for the pain we brought into your lives. That our desire for freedom caused men to die, among them a dear friend of your son, is a burden almost too great to bear. That we also nearly cost your son’s life leaves us forever indebted.

On behalf of Hannah and all of our sisters, I dearly wish you and your sons will have a marvelously happy Christmas and that the year to come is filled with blessings so bountiful they start to mask the scars of our passage through your lives.

Affectionately yours in gratitude,

Agnes Ellingsworth

*****

My dearest Joseph,

I hope you will forgive the familiarity of my greeting, but you are very dear to me and you shall be forever so. You, your brothers and your father have given me new life. Certainly that gift was given neither willingly nor freely, but it was given nonetheless, and for it I shall be ever grateful.

I suspect the name on this letter surprised you. Hannah has legally taken my daughter and me into her family. She calls my little Laura her granddaughter, and has drawn up a will assuring us a portion of her inheritance, and our other sisters as well, although lawyers continue to quibble over what portion of her late husband’s business endeavors shall pass to her. He had no will of his own and no children to whom he provided his name. There are finances enough even so to give me hope that a future beyond any which I have ever dreamed might truly be possible.

Were it not for the horrific events we wrought upon you and your family, I fear I would have had no future at all. My daughter would surely have been taken from me, and I just as surely would have succumbed to a broken heart. That my new life very nearly cost you your own shall never be forgotten. I owe you a great debt that can never truly be repaid. The one thing I can do is to give my daughter a life in which dreams can be found attainable, in honor of the woman to whom you gave your heart and from whom my daughter found her name.

Perhaps you have wondered why I chose a stranger as my daughter’s namesake. It may seem even more curious when I explain that I felt a sense of your Laura in that cabin. The feeling she left was one of love, a sort of love I have never known, yet always believed must exist. I was raised by an aunt who fostered such a belief within me, even while my uncle taught me nothing but anger and hatred. When your father shared with me the story of your love for Laura, I was reminded of my aunt’s faith in love. I knew then I was never wrong to have believed in fairy tales.

I imagine you now wonder how I could consider the love you and Laura had for one another a fairy tale. Fairy tales are supposed to have happy endings, yet Laura’s death brought you great sadness. Hecate saw that sadness in you in that cabin. She told me she saw the darkness that cabin had left upon your heart. I hope you can find it within you to brighten that darkness. I have come to believe happiness and love must be cherished enough to transcend any ending. We must take gladness from the moments during which we are blessed. We can then hold that gladness in our hearts to buoy our strength during times when blessings seem too far out of reach.

I once dreamed I might know true love. Now I have my daughter, and I find I have love enough. You also are blessed with much love in your life, the love of brother to brother, and of father to son such that I am grateful to have witnessed. My faith that not all men are like my uncle has been restored. You have also known the love of a woman who was deserving of your love in return. You are a blessed man, Joseph Cartwright. I, too, am blessed now. Tragedy brought us into your life. Providence, working through Hannah, brought you into mine. I pray that you might find some providence to have come from that tragedy as well. I pray, also, that such providence remains with you at Christmas, and that the New Year brings more blessings into your life.

There is no greater gift than what you have already given to me. For that I look to this Christmas with childlike wonder. All I can give to you in return is my undying gratitude and my promise to do whatever I can for you and your family, whenever you should have need of a dear friend. This I give to you willingly and freely.

Devotedly yours,

Agnes Ellingsworth

***The End***

End Notes:

Myra Bradwell and her husband, Mr. James Bolesworth Bradwell, are real, historical figures. James, was, in fact, a prominent attorney and judge back in Chicago. Myra’s brother was also an attorney. She tried for many years to become an attorney herself, but was consistently denied the opportunity, simply because she was a woman. She was finally named America’s first female lawyer in 1869. By 1870, there were 5 female lawyers in the country.

Poetry excerpts are from “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, verses VI, VIII & XXVII, CXXIV. “In Memoriam” is a vast group of elegies that were begun as Tennyson tried to make sense of the death of his closest friend. Written over a seventeen year period, they were finally collected and then first published in 1850.

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