Prey (freyakendra)

Summary:  A dying man’s warning and a hunter anxious to target the ideal prey set Adam and Joe on a race for their lives.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  36,700


 

This story was initially inspired by the song “Get Out Alive,” by Three Days Grace

“No time for goodbye,” he said, as he faded away.
“Don’t put your life in someone’s hands; they’re bound to steal it away.
Don’t hide your mistakes, ’cause they’ll find you, burn you.”
Then he said, “If you want to get out alive, run for your life!
If you want to get out alive, run for your life!”

 

Target Practice

Adam found the first body, a woman, behind the barn. Fine lines etched into her brow and at the corners of her eyes marked her as middle-aged. Her dress, new and well-tailored yet coated with a thin layer of dust, marked her as a wealthy traveler. If the ring on her finger was any indication, she had not been traveling alone.

“Adam!”

Joe’s shout from somewhere in the trees pulled him instantly to his feet. He drew his gun more on instinct than rational thought. By the time he reached his younger brother, he found his instincts proved false. Joe was kneeling beside another corpse. “He’s been shot in the back.”

Adam sighed, noting that this second body was a middle-aged man in a suit as finely tailored as the woman’s. “I think I found his wife back there.” He indicated the direction with a tilt of his head. “Her neck’s broken. She was still wearing jewelry, so whoever did it…” His lips thinned in a grimace. “It wasn’t robbery.”

Joe’s eyes widened as the implication struck home. A quick search of the man’s pockets lent further proof, revealing a gold watch and a wallet fat with money. When Joe looked up at Adam again, his gaze seemed more sad than frightened. “What happened here?” he asked as he rose to his feet — as though Adam could know the answer…as though he should know it.

The only thing Adam really knew was that he was more frightened than sad, quite the opposite of what he saw in his brother. In fact, he felt as afraid as a child might, like a little boy afraid of the monster in the woods, a monster that had caused a way station to be deserted, broken a woman’s neck and shot her husband in the back — with no regard at all for wealth. Giving his head a small shake, he holstered his gun and dropped his hand onto Joe’s shoulder. “As much as I’d like to stick around and try to figure it out, I’d like even more to have a posse here to back us up. Let’s get to town. We’ll fill Roy in on what we’ve seen.”

“What about them?” Joe nodded to the man’s body. “We can’t just leave them like this.”

“No. We can’t. We can’t bring them with us, either. There aren’t any extra horses. The barn’s as empty as the corral.”

“Hank always keeps extra horses.” With those words, spoken in a soft, uncertain tone, Joe, too, began to seem like a little boy in the woods, albeit a little boy whose beliefs had just been dashed to pieces, rather than one afraid of monsters.

Taking a deep breath, Adam gave Joe a curt nod. “But where’s Hank?”

Joe was silent for a moment. “I suppose we need that posse to back us up and help us figure that out,” he said then, giving Adam the quirk of an appreciative smile and proving he understood. “And the sooner we get out of here, the sooner we’ll have it all figured out.”

Joe stepped away, but Adam did not follow immediately. Instead, he looked down at the dead man, wondering who he was and how he had come to be there. It seemed odd he and his wife would have stayed behind when whatever stage they’d been riding had moved on. Had they changed their minds and decided to go back to wherever they’d come from? Had the stage simply abandoned them there?

“Adam!” Joe’s urgent whisper swiveled Adam around to find him standing frozen, his gaze focused deeper into the woods, his gun held ready. “Someone’s out there.” Joe crouched low, like a cat ready to pounce.

“Wait!” Adam grabbed his brother’s arm. “We don’t know if…”

“We know these people were murdered in cold blood!” Joe cut in, his tone quiet but harsh. “If he’s still out there, we can’t let him get away!” The glare Joe shot at him was flush with anger and determination. There wasn’t a trace of fear.

If Adam had been afraid before, now he was terrified — at the possibility he might see his brother shot down. “You’re right,” he said before slowly drawing his own weapon. “But let’s be smart about this. What, exactly, did you see? And where? Show me.”

Still poised to move, Joe’s chest was heaving. Adam was relieved to see him staying put, even so. “I only saw him for a second. Right about there.”

Adam looked to where Joe was pointing. He could see a fallen log, but nothing more. “Was he running? Did you see which direction?”

“No, I saw….” Joe started to look confused, his brows curling down in concentration. He looked at Adam again, and then into the trees. “I’m not sure. Might just have been…his arm.”

“His arm?”

“Could have been…if he was on the ground….” He met Adam’s gaze. “Waving.”

“Trying to get our attention?”

They studied each other for a moment; and then, almost in unison, they looked down at the dead man. When they looked at each other again, there was no need for words. Whoever Joe had seen was more likely to be another victim than the killer. And that victim was still alive.

Together, they plunged into the trees, hurrying toward that fallen log.

*****

“Run!” The voice was rough, raw…weak. “Go!”

An instant later, Adam and Joe were looking down at old Cranky Hank, the manager of the way station. The front of his shirt was wet with blood from his chest to his waist.

“Where’d he hit you, Hank?” Adam asked, already fumbling with buttons and sticky, wet cloth.

Hank ignored him. “Go!” he gasped through harsh, tortured breaths. His wide eyes, showing more yellow than white, were as bloodshot as any Adam had ever seen. “Run! Afore they…get back!”

Clearly Joe was no more interested in running than Adam — unless running meant chasing whatever blackheart had murdered that woman and her husband and left Hank there to die. Joe stood warily firm, as though part of him was rooted to the ground while another was already anticipating his pursuit of a killer they had yet to find. “Who did this, Hank?”

Adam barely heard him. His thoughts had already turned elsewhere. His breath caught; his hands froze where they hovered over Hank’s wound, now exposed. The man had been gut shot. “Hank….” Unsure what to say, Adam shook his head to clear it, and then gently set his palm on the man’s thigh. “We’d better get you inside. Come on, Joe, help me with…”

But Hank had no patience for Adam’s attempts at consolation. He grabbed hold of Adam’s arm, his grip uncannily strong. “You gotta go! Save yourselves!” The words grew softer, ending in a hiss before he closed his eyes and clamped his teeth in a pain-wrought grimace. When his jaw loosened again, he took another quick swallow of breath. “Run!” he added. “Run for…your lives!”

“Why, Hank?” Despite the rigidity in his posture, Joe was panting as though he had already finished the chase.  “Who did this?”

His questions drew Hank’s gaze, but only for a moment. Even then, Hank provided no answers. Instead, when he looked at Adam again, he shook his head. “Run!” The word came out in one long breath as his fingers loosened. His hand fell from Adam’s arm.

“Hank?” Adam grasped his shoulder until he realized the vacant look in the man’s eyes made it clear he’d already said as much as he ever would. Letting out a long breath of his own, Adam looked up at Little Joe. “He’s dead.” It did not comfort him to finally see fear in his brother’s eyes.

*****

“They’ve already got a head start!” Joe argued. “If we waste time going for the sheriff, we’ll never catch up with them!”

Adam could hardly see it as a waste of time. “If we catch up with the kind of men who did that to Hank, not to mention shooting a man in the back and breaking a woman’s neck….” He took a deep breath and pulled his shoulders back. “Face it, Joe. We need help.”

“What we need is to catch those men!” There was no mistaking the look in Little Joe’s eyes. He had lost his fear again, slipping into a more comfortable anger. Soon that would change, too. Into rage.

“Come on, Joe! Be reasonable! We don’t even know how many of them there are!”

“There’s one way to find out.” Joe started walking in the direction of the way station.

“Where are you going?” Adam did not move.

“Where do you think?” Joe said without turning. “Whatever happened started at the station.”

“What about Hank?” Adam asked in a softer tone. His words reined Joe in, stopping him from moving further away. Adam could see tension knotting his brother’s shoulders. “You didn’t want to leave a dead stranger out here,” Adam went on, keeping his voice low, “but you’re okay with doing it to a man you’ve known most of your life?”

When Joe turned back, his eyes reflected the battle he was fighting within himself, a battle between sadness, anger and fear. “You’re right,” he said in a voice as tight as his shoulders. “I’m sorry.”

“Come on. Let’s just get him inside. Then we’ll take care of the strangers.”

Nodding, Joe rejoined his brother and took up Hank’s feet, while Adam took the heavier weight of the man’s upper body. Their progress was slow. Both brothers stumbled more than once on hidden roots, thick twigs and brambles. But when they were halfway back to the station, Joe didn’t just stumble. He stopped.

Adam watched, curious at Joe’s puzzled expression as the younger Cartwright twisted his hold on Hank, trying to get a better look at the ground. “Joe?”

And then Adam watched as confusion became recognition, and then…horror.

He didn’t ask why Joe was lowering Hank to the ground; he simply followed suit. Once Hank was settled, Adam’s gaze moved from Joe’s to the pine branches Joe was pushing aside. What he saw then made his stomach lurch. Joe had stumbled — literally — onto yet another body, a young man in a store-bought suit, one that lacked the fine tailoring of the couple’s.

“Adam?”

There was a pleading tone in Joe’s voice that made Adam wish to Heaven he could give his young brother the response they both wanted to hear. But it wasn’t all right. It wasn’t going to be all right. And they both might very well be in danger.

“Let’s not waste any more time,” Adam warned softly. “We need to get help.”

Joe’s slow nod was the only acknowledgement he seemed able to offer.

Adam couldn’t speak any better than his brother. He just grabbed hold of Little Joe’s arm and started pulling him forward. And then he made sure Joe stayed closely ahead of him all the way back to the main yard, where they’d left the horses.

Trouble was, once they got there, the horses were nowhere to be found.

*****

“There are too many tracks!” Joe looked down the road and then swiveled around to look the other way. “They could have gone anywhere!”

Adam returned his attention to the tree line, where he’d spotted a single boot print heading deeper into the woods. He soon found his gaze moving upward, into the trees themselves. They were being watched. He was sure of it. He just couldn’t quite figure out where the watchers were currently positioned — or how many there might be.

He sensed rather than saw Joe moving up behind him.

“My guess is they went up higher into the mountain,” Joe said at his shoulder then.

Adam turned to face him. “What makes you so sure?”

Joe only met his eyes for an instant. His attention was focused elsewhere — everywhere else. Joe was looking for exactly what Adam was looking for: any sign at all about what sort of murderers were lying in wait.

“If they were interested in getting away,” Joe answered then, “we’d still have our horses. No, they’re waiting for something, Adam. I don’t know what, but they’re waiting.” His gaze finally landed back on Adam’s, and then held there. “If we leave now, we might be able to catch up to them by nightfall.”

Adam took a breath and glanced around, as though he was considering Joe’s suggestion. “It might be wiser to stay right here,” he said after a moment. “Another stage will be by in a few days, if someone doesn’t ride in sooner.”

“Don’t you think that’s exactly what they want us to do? Stick around so we can be slaughtered just like…” He let the sentence go unfinished, recognizing Adam’s unspoken warning. The effort to hold his tongue was obvious in his suddenly rapid breaths. He wouldn’t even meet Adam’s gaze anymore; his own just skittered away. Finally, he shook his head. “I’m not staying here,” Joe said before looking at Adam again.

Opening his mouth to answer, Adam thought better of it. He made one final sweep of the trees, and then wrapped his arm around Joe’s shoulder to lead his brother back to the road. Joe tried to pull away several times as they walked; each time, Adam tightened his grip — not enough to truly hold him, but enough to let Joe know he had a reason for keeping his brother close. When he was pretty sure Joe was about to pull away for good, Adam drew Joe even closer so he could whisper into his brother’s ear. “Wait.”

As soon as they reached the midpoint of the yard, where Adam judged them to be just about equidistant from the buildings and the trees, he felt reasonably comfortable they could hold a private conversation if they spoke quietly enough. Satisfied, he pulled away to look directly at his brother. “I can’t be sure,” he said softly, “but I think they’re listening.”

Joe’s eyes darted around before settling again on Adam’s. “Who are they, Adam? Why are they doing all this?” Patience had never been one of Little Joe’s strong points, and his nerves were growing increasingly frayed. He needed to fight someone, or at least do something, and Adam knew if he didn’t help his young brother direct all that nervous energy into something worthwhile, whatever Joe ended up doing might actually invite the very danger they needed to avoid.

“I don’t know,” Adam answered. “But I promise you we’ll figure it out. After we get help.” He locked his eyes on his brother’s and waited for Joe to give him a small nod. “If we go into the high country,” he went on then, “they’re likely to find us before we find them.”

He was thankful to see Joe look appropriately chagrinned. “Virginia City it is, then,” Joe said quietly, giving Adam a small smile before looking down the road again.

Adam pulled his attention back with a hand on his brother’s arm. “But not that way. We’ll be too exposed.”

Joe nodded. “How about the deer run out back? It heads down to…”

“Too obvious. We can’t take any marked trail, however small. We’ll have to stick to the trees.”

Joe’s gaze deepened as he focused his thoughts, considering their options and seeming to accept Adam’s suggestion. “We know this country better than they possibly could.”

“Yes, we do.” Adam smiled sadly, warmly, appreciating his too often obstinate brother’s ability to pick up on what he was thinking and hoping Joe would find equal acceptance for the rest of the plans he was about to detail. “We can start out behind the barn, make it look like we’re taking care of the woman. Then at my signal, you head north, right into the woods. The minute you hit the trees, run like hell. Don’t stop until you reach the creek.”

Joe tensed. “I’m not leaving without you.”

That had not been the argument Adam had expected. Joe would often accept being told what to do, but not how to do it. Joe tended to have his own ideas on the matter of how, ideas his young blood needed the freedom to put to the test, Still, whenever it had mattered, when it had really counted, Adam’s young brother had always stood by him. No, he should not have been surprised, because it truly mattered now. “I’m glad to hear it,” Adam answered, honestly. “I’ll be right behind you, Joe. I promise.”

Joe’s stance softened. “We should go inside first,” he said quietly, directing his attention to the station building. “We might find some extra guns and ammunition.”

“Good idea.” Adam wrapped his arm once more around his brother’s shoulders and started tugging him toward the building. “Coffee will do us both good,” he said in a voice loud enough for any listeners to hear him.

*****

At the door, Adam’s arm fell from Joe’s shoulders. Childishly, Joe wanted it back. He couldn’t help but grow increasingly tense in the absence of that small comfort and the false sense of protection it had provided. But he wasn’t a child anymore. And false protection was useless. Both brothers needed some real protection; a gun would provide far more of that than any brother’s arm.

Joe’s hands curled around the grip of his handgun, giving him all the comfort he needed. A glance toward Adam showed his brother had also taken a gun to hand. At Adam’s slow and measured nod, Joe responded with one of his own. Then, reaching forward, his tongue sliding quickly across his suddenly parched lips, Joe turned the doorknob.

And then Adam gave the door a hearty kick.

The station house had been the first place they’d looked for Old Hank when they’d ridden in with dry canteens and tired horses, weary themselves from spending a week on the trail. They hadn’t planned to stay long. No more than four hours from home, they’d both been anxious for a hot bath and clean clothes. Joe hadn’t thought much of the empty yard at first. Even when no one had responded to their shouts and Joe had peered at the inside of the station house to find it as empty as the yard, still he hadn’t been terribly concerned. Not then. Not until….

Joe’s heart pounded hard against his chest as his thoughts took him back to Old Hank’s dying words.

Run for your lives!

Had the station house really been empty when Joe had looked before? He hadn’t focused on the shadows within. He hadn’t even stepped inside to check behind closed doors.

Now, as the door crashed inward revealing nothing more than the shadows he had found before, Joe studied the main room far more thoroughly. A small side table near a weatherworn settee had been knocked over. Beside it lay an overturned, glass ashtray, and, just beyond that, the stub of a cold cigar. Near the kitchen table on the other side of the room, a wooden chair was lying on its back. On the table itself, seven plates were still laden with food; a small swarm of flies were enjoying what Hank’s guests had abandoned.

Seven plates….

Adam had surely noticed the count. His gaze had a calculating look to it when he met Joe’s, the kind of look that made it clear he knew what that count implied. Three people had yet to be found; until they were, Adam and Joe would be wise to consider the number to represent the count of killers. When Adam cocked his head toward Hank’s closed, bedroom door, Joe simply nodded back at him.

This time, Adam turned the knob and Joe gave the door a kick.

Once again, the effort had been unnecessary. The room was empty. In fact, the entire house was empty…except for Adam, Joe and a small swarm of flies.

*****

Not long after, it was becoming disturbingly apparent the house was as empty of weapons as it was of people. Joe had one last place to check: an old trunk in Hank’s bedroom. But when he opened the lid, the first thing that caught his eye turned frustration into wonder. For one, brief instant, his day was no longer about murderers and the warnings of a dying man; it was about a dusty street in Virginia City, and making an hourglass-shaped wooden top dance on strings.

“Well, what do you know,” Joe said softly to himself as he pulled out the familiar toy that had been sitting atop a pile of others. When he heard Adam moving up behind him, his thoughts did not return willingly to the task at hand.

“Joe?” Adam asked, his tone more curious than accusing despite Joe’s careless use of precious time.

Sighing as heavily as a man old as Hank might, Joe pushed himself back to his feet. “Nothing we can use now. One of Hop Sing’s cousins gave it to me a long time ago.”

“How’d it end up here?” Adam moved closer to peer over Joe’s shoulder into the chest.

Joe shrugged, shaking his head. “I had it in town. Dropped it when Pa started yellin’ at me for…something,” he added, absently rubbing the back of his neck. “When I went back to pick it up, it was gone. Old Hank had been sittin’ on a porch close by. Kept tellin’ us to find another place to make trouble. Mitch and I always did figure he was the one who took it.”

“He didn’t earn the name Cranky Hank for nothing.”

“Wonder why he kept all this stuff?”

“Maybe he had as much fun being cranky as you had making him that way.”

“He didn’t deserve to die like that, Adam.” Joe tossed the toy back where he’d found it, putting enough energy into the throw to dislodge the entire pile where it had landed. He couldn’t look at it anymore. He couldn’t even think about it anymore. He swiveled around, turning his back on toys and memories that were as useless as he felt at that moment.

And then Joe’s thoughts became as dislodged as that pile of toys when Adam responded with surprise rather than offering any of his usual brotherly advice. “At least he’s giving us a fighting chance.”

Confused and curious, Joe turned to see his brother kneel down beside the trunk.

“Looks like old Cranky Hank was hoarding more than just children’s toys.” Adam pulled out two rifles, and then followed that with a box of bullets.

*****

Running went against all of Joe’s instincts. He wanted to turn and face whoever was out there, to confront them head on. But how can you confront an enemy you can’t see, one you can’t even hear? He knew they were out there, just as Adam had known before, but where?

When Joe and Adam had left the station house, they’d wrapped the rifles in blankets in an imperfect attempt to hide them from that unseen enemy when they carried them outside.

Shrouds, Adam had called those blankets. “We can’t bury the bodies,” he’d said loud enough for the watchers to hear, “but we can at least cover them for now.”

That’s what he’d said, but he’d never intended to cover all of them, just the woman. Not because she deserved it more, but because she was positioned in a way that would give Adam and Joe the best access to the trees bordering the eastern edge of the property, the edge that led toward both the Ponderosa and Virginia City.

As they covered her up, Joe couldn’t help staring at the woman’s face, wondering if she had a son somewhere, waiting for her to come home, waiting to tell her what new discovery he’d made, or what grand feat he had accomplished.

“Joe?” Adam’s whisper broke whatever spell had taken him back to a childhood moment, the moment when he’d been made to realize his mother was never going to open her eyes again, was never going to give him that proud smile she’d always worn no matter what Joe had come to tell her.

“Take a rifle.” Adam breathed more than spoke the words.

“Any sign of them?” Joe asked in a voice equally soft as he reached for one of the weapons they’d carefully laid beside the woman’s body.

“No,” Adam answered after a moment, his gaze still focused outward, searching. “Nothing.”

Just as Joe had not been able to tear his gaze from the dead woman’s face, he could not quell a new surge of anger that had nothing at all to do with Adam’s words. “What if they’re really gone?” he asked, already feeling breathless though he had yet to take a step. “We could be doing all this for nothing!”

“What if they’re not?”

Joe locked eyes with his brother then, seeing something that stirred his blood more thoroughly than anger or hotheadedness ever could. He saw a look of uncertainty, something Adam would never willingly reveal.

It was enough to get Joe moving. He took up the rifle, gave his brother a stern nod to make it clear he expected Adam to follow close behind him, and then bolted for the trees, just as they’d planned.

Don’t stop until you reach the creek!” Adam had told Joe in the station house. And despite everything inside of him demanding that he stop — that he stop, and turn, and face those unseen enemies head on — Joe forced himself to do exactly what his older brother wanted him to do. Because that look in Adam’s gaze had unnerved him right down into his bones.

By the time he saw the creek just ahead of him, knowing Adam was just behind, Joe discovered he wasn’t nervous at all anymore. If anything, he was more determined than ever. Something was going to happen right there. He was going to make sure of that. Either the enemy would be forced out into the open, or their nonappearance would prove they’d already moved on.

It never occurred to him there might be yet another possible outcome.

*****

Adam kept losing sight of his brother in the trees. He couldn’t keep up with Little Joe on the best of days, and this was far from the best of days. Despite his longer stride, his size worked against him out in those woods. His age didn’t help — not that he was old, but he was certainly older than Joe. And Joe was of that age when strength and energy worked in perfect harmony with his youthful sense of invincibility, constantly pushing him to ride faster, to work harder and to otherwise try to best everyone around him. He would never best Hoss for strength, but out there in that woods on what might be called the worst of days, running as he was, Little Joe Cartwright very clearly bested Adam for speed. It wasn’t until the end, when Joe reached the grassy banks of the slow running narrow creek that Adam could truly keep his eyes on him.

He ran toward Little Joe, breathless and light-headed as much from the exertion as from its cause, as Joe came to a hard stop at the water’s edge. When Joe turned to face him, the younger man’s chest was heaving every bit as much as Adam’s. But Joe’s breathlessness came to its own hard stop then, his gaze moving past Adam to focus on something beyond.

In that instant, Joe hefted his rifle in a rigid grip, targeting whatever had caught his eye.

Adam didn’t dare stop running. He didn’t have to. Joe would eliminate whatever threat was behind him.

Only…Joe didn’t get the chance.

Adam stumbled, stunned and horrified when he saw Joe fall backwards into the creek, the movement punctuated by the crack! of two rifle shots. The first had come from somewhere behind Adam, over his left shoulder, the second from Joe’s rifle as it released a bullet harmlessly into the air.

“Joe!” he shouted, pushing himself harder. He could barely even breathe anymore. Dammit! Why couldn’t he run faster?

Another shot was fired. This time it was clear Adam was being targeted. The bullet hit the ground scant inches from his left foot the instant he’d touched the ground. The impact sprayed dirt against his leg. It didn’t matter. He hadn’t been hit. That’s what it was going to take to make him stop.

And then Joe moved. And Adam drove himself harder still, a surge of relief lending him new strength.

But relief quickly turned to dread when he saw Joe draw himself upright in the shallow water — making him an easy target once again.

Adam wanted to shout out a command for Joe to stay down. He didn’t dare. What if the shooter hadn’t noticed? Adam did not want to draw attention back to his brother.

Then another bullet slammed into the ground, this time beside Adam’s right foot, and he knew he’d been wise to hold silent. That bullet also told him the shooter was playing a game, a carefully calculated, perverse game, matching each shot to a carefully predetermined spot on the ground. Adam’s strides were being watched and measured.

That the shooter could hit the ground with such precision told Adam two things: they were dealing with no common outlaw; and Adam had not been targeted for death — at least, not yet.

Puzzled, Adam slowed as he approached the creek. Joe was climbing out of the water, his right hand grasping a rock for support, his left arm held tightly against his side. Adam was almost close enough to reach out and help when he saw his brother’s gaze slide past his own. And then Joe was reaching for his rifle rather than for support.

There was another shot from behind Adam, followed by an explosion of wet sand that nudged the discarded rifle an inch further from Joe’s hand.

Adam took one final step and dropped to the ground, crashing down on one knee so hard his already rigid jaw clamped tight in an audible snap. Momentum propelled him forward, but he was already twisting around to face the threat behind him. He hit the ground again, this time with his shoulder, and then again, on his back. Before he’d even managed to regain the breaths each jolt had forced from his lungs, Adam had his own rifle raised before him, cocked and ready to fire…if he could only find his target.

He looked to the right, where he’d judged the shooter to be hiding when a sudden flash in his periphery vision prefaced the popof another shot.  A spray of sand against his back told him that shot had once more struck close to his brother.

Were there two shooters targeting them, one to Adam’s right, and another to his left?

“Joe?” he called without turning, his gaze locked on the trees where he’d seen the flash. Then something moved to his right, drawing his attention back to where he’d originally been looking. A thick, dark shadow was separating itself from the trees.

“I’m all right!” Joe hollered back. “Just take the shot!”

“Not a good idea,” a man called from Adam’s left. “If you pull that trigger, I shall pull mine.” He sounded like a polished Easterner. “And if I do so, it will not be dirt splashing against your back this time, but rather the brains of that fine looking young man behind you. Human trophies are not as presentable as traditional game. Rather repulsive, in fact, as I discovered in New Guinea. But it would still be a shame to irreparably damage such fine features, don’t you agree?”

“He’s bluffing, Adam,” Joe challenged. “Take the shot!”

But the Easterner took a shot instead. Adam heard a soft gasp behind him.

Terrified by the implications, Adam went limp, the rifle nearly falling from his grip despite the continuing threat posed by two shadows…one of which was approaching now, gaining definition with each step until Adam found himself facing a gentleman in a brown traveling suit. Cradled in his arms was a buffalo rifle equipped with a scope.

“Joe?” Adam called softly without turning, his throat closing around his voice. His eyes remained locked on the man ahead of him while he listened for movement from the other, thicker shadow to his right.

“I’m okay,” Joe said again, but this time there was no strength in his tone. Like Adam, Joe’s voice had gone quiet.

“I am a man of my word,” the stranger went on. “I promised to open up the boy’s skull if you pulled the trigger. You have not yet done so; therefore, I did not lay bare his brains. I do believe, however, I have made my point. Is that not true, young man?”

Joe did not answer. Adam could hear his brother panting again, taking quick, heavy breaths in pain, or anger, or frustration; it was impossible to know which.

“What do you say, young man?” the stranger pressed. “Would you still like to see your friend take the shot, as you demanded just a moment ago?”

“No,” Joe said in a strangled whisper.

“Speak louder, boy! Didn’t your mother teach you it is impolite to mumble! Now, should he drop that rifle of his?”

“Yes!” Joe shouted.

Shocked and fearful that his normally stubborn brother had given in so quickly, Adam threw the rifle away from him and turned to face Little Joe. Joe was sitting on the sandy ground, his right hand clutching his left arm below the wound the first shooter had caused, made clearly evident now by the blood already soaking through the sleeve of Joe’s jacket. He did not seem to have been hit a second time. So why had he…

Meeting his brother’s gaze, Adam noticed a small red mark on Joe’s forehead, at the edge of his hairline. When he looked closer, Adam began to see a very thin, bloody trail. It was a small wound, certainly, not even enough to daze the younger Cartwright, apparently. But it was a wound, nonetheless. And a fresh one, at that. If he were to examine the wound closer still, Adam had no doubt he would find it to be the mark of a burn, caused by a bullet lightly skimming along the surface of Joe’s flesh.

“Splendid marksmanship,” the Easterner said. “Wouldn’t you say? I am considered quite the man to beat. Why, I’ve been known to shoot a fly off a man’s ear at thirty paces, and to bring down a charging lion with a single rifle shot, straight to its heart. I could just as easily have killed your young friend. I still might.”

“Why?” Adam breathed the word through the roiling emotions coming alive within him.

“Because I can,” the stranger answered.

*****

The Ideal Quarry

Adam rose, slowly and steadily turning as he did so. He climbed to his feet as though he were Zeus rising from a raging sea. The stranger came forward then, too, stepping toward Adam with the haughty attitude of an ancient god come to earth, his blonde hair and ruddy skin suggesting something more of Odin than Zeus. If not entirely god-like, he was well built, lithe and lean enough to make Joe hard-pressed to best him in much of anything. Somewhat older than Adam, he was taller, too, his longer stride clearly having provided him with an advantage during Adam’s — and Joe’s — failed attempt to outrun Hank’s silent assassins.

“Is that why you killed Hank and the rest of them?” Adam accused.

The stranger cocked his head. “Hank? Oh, you mean that weasel of a station manager, don’t you? What a pathetic creature, he was. Do you know he refused to play?”

“Play?”

“That other man, the robust ruffian who claimed to be both a gentleman and a hunter, he knew what I meant when I challenged his knowledge of hunting. So did the younger one, slow-witted though he was. They both knew how to play the role of the hunted, when the time came. They played poorly, mind you, but they did play. That station manager, however, Hank you called him? Yes. Hank. He thought he was a bull, but he was nothing more than a thick-brained cow. He refused to run away from me. I had to shoot him, don’t you see? I told him to run or be gutted. And as I’ve said to you already, I am a man of my word. When he would not run, I had no choice, none at all.”

“I told him to run or be gutted.” The stranger had said it as though he were speaking of a game, something played over poker chips or dollar bills; but this man, this hunter, had played it for lives. Human lives.

“And the woman?” Joe’s voice pulled Adam back from a cold precipice he had no desire to face; he was grateful for the rescue. “What role was she supposed to play?”

“Oh, good heavens,” the stranger scoffed. “I have no use for women on my hunts. I gave her to my man, Bongani.”

“Bongani?” Adam asked.

The stranger nodded toward the trees where the thicker shadow figure had been standing. Following his gaze, Adam saw that shadow approaching them now, revealing itself to be a very large, very black man.

“He is a great hunter, too, unrivaled among his tribe — among all tribes, I dare say. His skills are quite impressive; in fact, he is a peer to me in that regard. On the other hand, he also behaves quite like the beast he resembles. For him, every season is rutting season. I, therefore, must provide him with the means to answer that very distracting call of nature if I have any hope at all of controlling him.”

“You gave her to him?” Joe was standing beside Adam now.

From the challenging tone in his brother’s voice, Adam started to believe he was going to have to pull Joe from a precipice. He considered putting his arm around his brother’s shoulders in an attempt to do just that, but he did not want to disturb Joe’s wound. Instead, he wrapped a hand protectively around Joe’s uninjured right arm.

“Sadly,” the stranger answered without a hint of sadness in his tone, “she was not as wise as her husband. When she spat at him, there was no choice but to still her tongue.”

“He broke her neck.” Joe’s voice wavered.

When the stranger smiled, Adam tightened his grip on his brother’s arm. “What now?” he asked.

“Now?”

“Why did you come after my brother and me?”

The stranger’s eyebrows rose markedly. “Your brother?” He nodded. “Indeed. This striking young man is your younger brother. Why, that explains your protectiveness, does it not?” He nodded again. “Quite intriguing.”

“You could have left,” Adam went on. “After you killed them, you could have left and no one would ever have caught up with you. Why didn’t you?”

The stranger scowled. “That hunt was as pathetic as that weasel of a station manager! All it did was whet my appetite! I figured surely a lawman of any real caliber would prove to be better prey; yet you came along instead. And the way you challenged us — quite impressive. Yes, indeed. You were quite impressive right up until…well…now. But….” He sighed and shook his head. “I am still far from satisfied. You must do a better job of this if I am to have any satisfaction from this hunt at all.”

Adam found it hard to breathe. “You still expect us to play this game of yours?”

“We don’t give a damn about your satisfaction!” Joe shouted over Adam’s words.

Adam felt helpless. He couldn’t pull his grip on Joe any tighter than it already was. Nor could he stand any closer. What could he possibly do to protect Joe from a madman like this?

“Indeed,” that madman responded to Joe. “Well, why should you? But perhaps you do give a damn, as you say, about your own life, or that of your brother.”

“What are you suggesting?” Adam asked.

“A hunt, of course. You and your brother are the prey. Your guns stay here: the pilfered rifles, certainly, but also those guns in your belts. We give you thirty minutes to plan or run or do whatever you think might prevent us from taking you down. And then….” He shrugged. “Well, then it is up to us.”

*****

Joe was both comforted and offended by Adam’s obvious attempts to protect him. Already pressing against him, clearly intent on keeping Joe as close as he could, Adam nudged closer still, little by little edging his way in front of Joe, as though he meant to be a shield. All the while, he made no attempt whatsoever to look at Joe. Instead, he focused all of his outward attention on the hunter in front of them.

“My brother’s already wounded,” Adam told the man. “That starts us off at a disadvantage.”

The hunter raised one shoulder casually, showing that Adam’s statement had no significance to him. “Perhaps.”

“Let him go,” Adam said then.

Joe felt jolted by his brother’s words. “No!” he shouted as he pushed at Adam in a futile attempt to move him away. “I’m not leaving you alone with these animals!”

The hunter grinned at him. There was hunger in his eyes. “Such bravado,” he said in a honeyed tone. “Such dedication. This could very well be the sort of challenging hunt I’d hoped to find.”

“If you let my brother go,” Adam went on in that quiet, deadly voice of his, “give him his horse and let him ride out of here, free and clear, then I promise you a more challenging hunt than you could ever imagine.”

“I’m not leaving you, Adam!” Joe repeated; but no one paid him any mind, not even his brother.

“If I let this young man go,” the hunter said, “free and clear, as you suggest, his bravado and dedication will put me at a disadvantage. You and I both know he would not, simply, ‘go.’ He will either try to turn the tables and play the role of hunter in his own mind, or…”

“That worries you, doesn’t it?” Joe challenged. “You’ll hunt men, but you’re afraid to be hunted, yourself.”

The hunter laughed, shaking his head. “Don’t be a fool, boy! You could never outwit me. You would most certainly fail.”

“Try me.”

“Joe….” Adam cautioned as the hunter’s expression began to change, his eyes and lips growing narrower and his already ruddy face taking on an even redder shade.

“You would fail,” the hunter said again, “but you would divide my attention and thus take away some of the thrill of the hunt.”

“If it’s a thrill you’re after,” Joe went on, “why don’t you try being hunted for a while?”

“Joe,” Adam said again in a soft but demanding tone.

The hunter said nothing. He met Joe’s glare silently, appraisingly.

“Why don’t you just admit you’re afraid?” Joe said after a moment, refusing to back down.

“Leave it, Joe,” Adam warned.

“You ought to listen to your brother, boy.”

“I’ll listen to him when he starts making sense again.”

“You don’t see it, do you?” the hunter asked, seeming more curious than angry now. “It is you who is failing to make sense. Your blood is boiling so fiercely, so vehemently, it is clouding your judgment. I imagine you are quite like Bongani, in that regard. It is a shame you are too small to challenge him. I would enjoy seeing a well matched battle of beasts.”

Rage pulled Joe forward. He shoved himself past Adam, grabbing the hunter’s shirt front in both of his fists — belatedly aware of the painful tugging that action made against the bullet wound in his arm.

And then something thick and dark was wrapped around Joe’s neck, yanking him backward with such force it felt as though his windpipe was being crushed. Unable to breathe, he pulled and clawed at the flesh of the black man’s arm as light and sound both began to evaporate, leaving him floating in a sea filled with the very air being denied him — until he found himself inexplicably on his knees, gulping in that blessed air and coughing it right back out again. Someone was beside him, rubbing his back and holding his arm — Adam, of course, though it took a few more moments before Joe could see his brother clearly, or hear the words Adam was shouting.

“…him out of this!”

“On the contrary!” the hunter responded. “This shall prove to be most satisfying. Yes! We shall camp here together tonight, all four of us. Bongani will patch up that arm and clean out the bullet burn on your brother’s head to stave off infection. Then we will all enjoy a refreshing night’s sleep. Come dawn, we will break our fast together to ensure we are all equally and properly nourished. And then…you will receive your thirty minute head-start.”

Adam’s grip tightened again around Joe’s arm. A moment later, that grip was torn away as Bongani grabbed Joe’s brother and began to drag him across the ground, toward the nearest tree. Joe’s head swam through a wave of nausea and confusion as he tried to make sense of his brother’s ineffective struggle against the much larger man.

“Don’t you touch him!” Those were the last words Adam shouted before he was silenced with a single blow from Bongani’s heavy fist.

Suddenly it all made a sick kind of sense. A new wave of rage drowned Joe’s nausea, pulling him to his feet. But his legs felt unnaturally weak, and his head was spinning more fiercely than before. When he saw Bongani moving toward him, he knew there wasn’t a damned thing he could do.

*****

Adam came slowly back to awareness. He felt a tugging at his ankles as the image of someone crouched in front of him floated out of a fog. Whoever that person was, his jerking movements corresponded to each tug. When the image solidified, Adam discovered that person was the hunter. He was securing Adam’s ankles with rope.

On instinct Adam tried to kick out at the man, but as he pushed his legs outward, he felt a tugging at his wrists, which had also been tied.

Anger returned as images of the bodies he and Joe had found began to float out of another kind of fog in his thoughts. “Is this how you normally hunt?” He spat out the last word with as much venom as he could muster.

The hunter laughed softly, amicably. “Good heavens, no! The hunt isn’t until tomorrow.” He patted Adam’s knee and then rose, stretching with one hand pressed against his lower back. “I cannot begin to express how happy I am to be rid of that damnable stagecoach.”

“Something tells me the driver was just as happy to be rid of you.”

The hunter gave Adam an incredulous look, as though Adam’s statement had been absurd. An instant later he was smiling again. “Yes. Well. I suppose you could say he is rid of me.”

This time it was Adam who was puzzled. But the hunter did not notice. He was no longer looking at Adam, his gaze focused instead on a pile of twigs and logs.

“Don’t you come near me with that thing!” Joe’s voice, low and cold, pulled Adam’s attention from the hunter as completely as the activity associated with starting a small campfire had pulled the hunter’s attention from Adam.

Little Joe was sitting on the ground and leaning against a tree across the small clearing from Adam. Joe’s hands and feet had also been bound; even so, the way Adam’s brother had his legs curled inward gave the impression of a snake coiled up and ready to strike. It didn’t take Adam long to figure out why. Bongani was approaching Joe with a hunting knife.

“If you hurt my brother any more than you already have,” Adam warned in a voice he hoped sounded more menacing than Joe’s, “I promise you will find yourself on the wrong side of the hunt once and for all, and you will regret every moment of every hunt you have ever made.”

Bongani barely gave Adam a glance. The hunter himself laughed. Joe glared at Bongani, every bit as tense as the coiled snake his positioning had brought to Adam’s mind.

And yet it was Bongani who struck. He brought his hunting knife down, stepping in front of Joe as he did so, effectively blinding Adam to what he was doing, as well as to the young man he was targeting.

Adam realized he was screaming only by the raw burning he felt in his throat. Seconds later, he held his breath as Bongani backed away.

When Adam could see Joe clearly once more, he was relieved to find his brother breathing, fully and deeply, Joe’s chest rising and falling in an almost exaggerated motion. The only new damage that was evident had been made to Joe’s jacket and the shirt underneath. The sleeves had been cut away, exposing his arm and the bloody wound.

Bongani turned, giving Adam a feral, half-grin as he tossed the ruined sleeves into the brush beside him. The midnight hue of his skin made his teeth seem stark white in contrast, exaggerating the wildness flaring in his eyes. But the hunter’s ‘rutting beast’ had not caused further injury to Little Joe. That fact alone allowed Adam to breathe again, until Bongani suddenly returned his attentions to Adam’s young brother. The giant of a man drew a smaller, thinner blade from a sheath in his belt with one quick swipe, and then drove it into Joe’s wound without preamble, digging for the bullet he, himself, had buried there.

Joe never even cried out.

*****

Joe was tired — exhausted, even. But he couldn’t sleep. He mustn’t. He had to keep working at the rope binding his wrists. The more he twisted and flexed, the more likely he was to loosen the knots enough to pull free — no matter the pain his efforts awakened in his wound, a pain made worse by Bongani’s careless surgery. Joe also had to find a way to speak with Adam. Together, they should be able to figure a way out.

But the camp had gone quiet, except for the crackle of a campfire. And the smell of rabbits roasting on a spit momentarily soothed Joe’s restlessness. He closed his eyes, just for a moment, laying his head back against the tree behind him, and allowed his thoughts to take him to other campsites on other nights. At some point, Adam began to speak in soft, gentle tones that had Joe almost believing they were still on the trail, only they weren’t alone. Hoss and Pa were there, too. Adam was talking with them about things a younger Joe had no interest in hearing.

It was comforting to listen to Adam’s voice. The words didn’t matter. The voice was enough to allow Joe’s troubled mind to rest — at least, for a while — until suddenly the words tugged at Joe’s consciousness, forcing him to listen.

“Why don’t you just admit it’s got nothing to do with the challenge?” Adam had changed his tone. He was still speaking softly, but there had been nothing gentle about those words.

Joe waited for a response, but nothing came.

“It’s not even about hunting,” Adam added.

Finally, the hunter did respond. Joe heard a tsking sound. “Of course it is,” the hunter said.

“Tell me something,” Adam asked. “Is it challenging to chase down a wounded animal?”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“Is it?” Adam persisted.

“You know very well it is not. They leave a blood trail. They also grow slower…and weaker.”

“I suppose so. Yes.”

“Where’s the challenge in that sort of a hunt?”

“What is your point?”

“You want tomorrow’s hunt to be challenging, but my brother is already wounded.”

Joe opened his eyes, disturbed and curious. For an instant, he was mad at Adam for comparing him with a wounded animal. Then he was mad at himself for allowing it to happen. But then he realized the only people worth his anger were the hunter and Bongani. Finally, he settled his breathing and started to watch as well as listen.

Adam was glaring at the hunter. The hunter was more interested in the two rabbits roasting over the flames. There was no sign of Bongani, but Joe had to believe he was nearby.

“You heard him yourself,” the hunter said absently. “He refused to leave you to the hunt on your own.”

“Because he has a conscience,” Adam answered. “His name is Joe, by the way,” he added after a moment.

“So I heard.” The set of the hunter’s shoulders and his refusal to look Adam’s way made it clear he didn’t care.

“Joe Cartwright,” Adam went on. “And I’m Adam Cartwright.”

Finally, the hunter did look at him. “What do I care about names?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Adam said. “We’re not men to you, are we? We’re just prey. Animals. But that’s not how the law will see it. To the law, you’re a killer. A cold blooded murderer.”

“If I were a killer, as you say, you would both already be dead.”

“What about the people at the station? You killed them.”

“It was a hunt.”

“It was a massacre!”

“You are not being very sporting.”

“This isn’t a sport. If it were, my brother, Joe, and I would be as free to roam about this camp as you are. We would be able to eat when we want, drink when we want, and relieve our bladders without waiting for it to be convenient for you to untie us.”

“If you feel the need to urinate, by all means, do so. You do not need to wait for me.”

“You want me to relieve myself here? Like this? Like an animal?”

Not bothering to reply, the hunter turned the spit.

“I see,” Adam went on. “That’s all part of your strategy, isn’t it? The more blood and urine trails we can give you, the easier your hunt will be.”

Again, the hunter made no response.

“My brother, Joe, was right. You need to be hunted for a change.”

“There is no purpose for you to continue emphasizing his name to me.”

“I disagree. I do need to emphasize it. He is a man with a name and a family who cares what happens to him, a family that will do everything in their power to see to it you are hunted down like the murderer you are, hunted down and brought to trial and then hung in a public spectacle. I can assure you that is exactly what will happen to you if you carry on with this hunt of yours.”

There was another tsking sound as the hunter shot Adam a quick, disgusted look. “I’ve seen how the law operates in this godforsaken land. I am a far greater hunter than any of the so-called lawmen and sod busters I have had the misfortune to meet.”

“You haven’t met Virginia City’s Sheriff Coffee. Or our brother, Hoss.”

“Hoss?” The hunter laughed, his attention suddenly riveted on Adam. “You have a horse for a brother and yet you insist you are not an animal.”

“Our brother is a far better man than you will ever be. And a far better hunter.”

“Don’t be absurd. I have hunted in the heart of Africa. I have tracked great cats and beasts you’ve never even heard of.”

“You’d be surprised what I’ve heard of. But none of the beasts you’ve hunted have any bearing to what’s going on here. Our brother knows this entire territory better than you ever will. And he has tracked more native animals than you have ever heard of. He has also tracked men.”

“If your family is in the habit of hunting men, you have no business telling me it is wrong to do so.”

“There’s a difference. A big difference. Our brother has hunted men like you, murderers and thieves, to bring them to justice, not to shoot them in the back. And I assure you, there is nothing you can do to keep him off your trail.”

The hunter looked away from Adam again. He stared at the rabbit, but he did not turn the spit.

“You don’t need to be wounded,” Adam went on, his voice growing softer, colder. “You don’t need to be tired or sore from a night on the hard ground tied hand and foot in ropes. You don’t even need to leave a blood or urine trail. He will find you. He will track you down. And then he will make you wish he would kill you. But he won’t. He’ll let the law do it. You will hang by your neck on a rope stronger than this. If you’re lucky — very, very lucky — your neck will snap the instant you fall through that trap door. But I’m guessing you won’t be lucky. I think you’ll choke to death instead, slowly and painfully, while a crowd watches — and cheers in satisfaction.”

“If you think you can frighten me into letting you go, I can assure you, you are sadly mistaken.”

“Cartwright.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Does that name mean anything to you?”

“Do you have any idea how grating the sound of your voice can be? If I have to hear much more if it, I shall have to gag you.”

“It should,” Adam went on, ignoring the hunter’s threat. “Our family, the Cartwrights, own the biggest spread in the territory. The Ponderosa. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.”

Despite the orange glow of the flames in front of him, the hunter’s face seemed to go white for an instant.

“Ah yes,” Adam continued. “You have heard of the Ponderosa, haven’t you? I suppose Hank would have made some mention of it, particularly since this property borders on our land.”

“You are wasting your breath.”

“I don’t think so. I can see you’re starting to realize the mess you’re in. You wanted a challenging hunt. Well, you’ve got one. If you start running at dawn, you might just make it out of here; that is, if you leave my brother, Joe Cartwright, and me in the same shape we’re in right now, so our brother, Hoss, isn’t quite as motivated to hunt you down as he otherwise would be.”

“I am not a coward to run away. Nor am I a man to break my word. I said I would hunt you, and so I shall.”

“Then give us a sporting chance. Untie us. Let us have enough food, water and sleep to give you the challenge you claim to want.”

“If I untie you, you will run the moment you see an opportunity.”

“Such an element of surprise should only make the hunt a better challenge for you.”

“If you don’t run, you might slit our throats.”

“With what? I would have to get one of those knives away from that man of yours. I’m not foolish enough to believe that’s even possible. Besides, I already told you, ours is not a family of murderers. We believe in the law to serve justice.”

“Why should I trust anything you say?”

“Because it’s true. All of it. And you know it.”

The hunter and Adam stared at one another for a long moment, long enough for Joe to realize he’d been holding his breath and had reached his limit for doing so. He took in a deep pull of air, making little noise at all but apparently enough to break the standoff.

Adam looked Joe’s way, his gaze showing he had gained something from that exchange, an edge they had not had before. But another several moments passed before the hunter proved Adam’s assumption. With nothing more than a bob of his head to Bongani, the large man appeared at Joe’s side once more, his knife in hand as before. Only this time, he used it on the ropes.

Seconds later, Joe was free to rub his raw wrists and watch as Adam, too, was freed. And then Joe didn’t smile, not exactly; but the look in his own gaze would have made it clear to Adam he knew Adam had won that hand. The game itself was still a gamble, and a pretty big one, at that; but they had at least gained a sense of hope.

*****

Ben held supper for an hour. He spent every bit of that hour pacing with his eyes as well as his feet, his gaze moving from the clock, to the front door, and back again.

“Maybe one of their horses threw a shoe,” Hoss said, coming to stand beside him.

Ben gave his son a feeble smile. “You’re right. Any number of things could have held them up.” He looked at the clock once more and sighed. “As late as it is now, I suppose we should assume they’ve made camp for the night.”

Ben took hold of Hoss’ arm and started to pull him toward the dining table. He might as well have tried to move a block of granite. Hoss’ feet remained planted where he stood. His brow was furrowed as he stared at the clock and chewed at the inside of his cheek.

“You don’t reckon,” Hoss said then, “they rode to Virginia City first? You know,” he shrugged, “to celebrate?” His eyes had that pleading, hopeful look he’d used since childhood to show Ben he not only wanted it to be true, he wanted his pa to make it true.

Ben brought his hand to Hoss’ shoulder. “No, Hoss. I don’t. As much as their efforts warrant a celebration, they would both be too eager to tell us all the details, don’t you think? Joseph, especially.”

Hoss grinned. “He sure would at that. That telegram they sent from Placerville made it sound like it was all Joe’s doin’, gettin’ the price they did.”

Ben smiled back. “It could be Joe wrote that telegram himself.” He took a deep breath. “But we won’t know until they tell us all about it — which I expect they will be very anxious to do, although it’s pretty apparent they won’t be telling us tonight. We’d better sit down at that table before Hop Sing declares supper officially ruined and we end up eating jerky!”

Hoss looked stricken. “My belly’s too empty for jerky, Pa!”

“Then take your place at the table, boy!” Ben commanded in a teasing tone.

Moments later, as Hoss started moving that first forkful toward his mouth, the sound of horse’s hooves pounded into the front yard.

“Well, there they are now,” Ben said happily. He rose, tossing his napkin to the table.

Hoss smiled too, as though the over-dry roast beef had turned suddenly succulent. But rather than the door opening to admit Adam and Joe, someone knocked. Ben shared a puzzled glance with Hoss, and then hurried to answer, drawing his son along in his wake.

“Roy!” he greeted enthusiastically when he saw the visitor was his old friend, Sheriff Coffee. “Well, this is a surprise! Come in! Come in!”

“Ben. Hoss.” The sheriff nodded to each of them in turn before craning his neck to look further into the room. “I was hopin’ I could speak with Adam and Joe. They back yet?”

“Why, no,” Ben answered, suddenly concerned. “What’s on your mind?”

“I wanted to see if they’d come across the stage on the road. It’s more’n a day late comin’ in to Virginia City, an’ I got some folks in town mighty anxious to see their kin.”

“A day late?” Ben asked.

“The one due in at noon yesterday still ain’t arrived.”

“If they ran into trouble,” Hoss said, “it’s a sure bet Adam and Joe would’ve stopped to help.”

Roy nodded. “I reckon they would, at that. Suppose I’ll just head on up an’ see old Hank tomorrow mornin’. See if he can tell me anythin’ more.”

They were both right, of course. Ben was sure they were right. Adam and Joe would certainly stop to help if the stage driver needed it. But his gut told him there was something very, very wrong. “We’ll go with you,” he decided.

Roy’s quick response did nothing to quiet Ben’s growing concern. “I’ll be glad for the company.”

“Sheriff sit down!” Hop Sing hollered out from the dining room. “Someone eat Hop Sing supper before cold!”

“No, thank you, Hop Sing. I gotta be gettin’ back. Mornin’ comes mighty early lately.”

Maybe the feeling in Ben’s gut was nothing more than hunger. Whatever it was, the idea of having Roy Coffee at his side, ready to ride out with him in search of Adam and Joe…well, while it didn’t exactly make the feeling go away, it did ease up some. “Stay here, tonight,” Ben said. “It’ll save you and your horse both a lot of extra miles.”

Roy smiled back at him. “Why, I might just take you up on that offer, Ben!”

“You’d better,” Hoss added. “Hop Sing’s mad enough as it is. He gets any madder and he’s likely to keep all that pie he made for himself. I don’t think I’d sleep a wink tonight if I don’t get a slice of that apple pie I’ve been smellin’ the past few hours.”

Laughing, Ben ushered his friend to the table. “Hoss, would you put up his horse, please?”

“Sure, Pa. Lemme just have a few more bites — if you don’t mind?”

A few more bites became two more helpings. By the time Hoss finally did go outside to see to the sheriff’s horse, Ben heard another rider entering the yard.

“I’m looking for the sheriff!” a man’s voice called out seconds later.

A lean, young gentleman turned his attention away from Hoss and toward Roy Coffee the very instant Ben and his friend stepped outside. “Sheriff! I need to be with you when you find that stage.”

Roy obviously recognized the man. “Mr. Breckinridge? I thought I told you to wait in town. We’d get everything sorted.”

“Yes, sheriff. You certainly did. But I couldn’t. I just…I couldn’t let you do this alone.”

“He won’t be alone,” Ben interceded. “My son, Hoss, and I plan to join him.”

The man’s eyes followed Ben’s gaze to where Hoss stood. At Hoss’ nod, Breckinridge turned his attention back to Roy and Ben. “You don’t understand. You couldn’t possibly.”

“Understand what?” Ben asked.

“My brother-in-law is on that stage.”

Roy scoffed. “I know! Your brother-in-law, Mrs. Ridley’s sister and her husband, and that pretty gal’s fiancé — what was his name? Crawford? They’re all on that stage, and all them folks back in Virginia City are as anxious as you to see them. Now why don’t you just head on back there, and…”

“No!” Breckinridge said firmly. “I can’t. You need me.”

Hoss was beside him now. “You sure it ain’t the other way around? You need the sheriff to make sure your brother-in-law is all right?”

“No.” His gaze swept all three men. “You…all of you need me. Frankly, I don’t care whether or not my brother-in-law is all right. I’m far more concerned about the other passengers…and, perhaps, you as well.”

“Why’s that?” Roy asked. “What is it I need to know about this brother-of-law of yours?”

Breckinridge took a breath deep enough to pull his back up straight as a board. “He is a madman,” he said then, in a tone as straight as his back. “And I am quite convinced he murdered my sister, although the courts decided otherwise.”

“Murdered?” Roy asked.

Breckinridge gave one, quick nod. “Her neck was broken. The official declaration was that it resulted from a fall down the stairs,  but I can assure you he did it. Maybe he did it with his own, bare hands, or he had his man do it for him. Either way, he was responsible.”

Ben could tell he believed what he said. But he’d also said the courts didn’t agree. “And just what is it that gives you such assurance, if the courts were already convinced it was an accident?”

“There was something in his eyes at the trial — and afterwards — that disturbed me. I took to watching for him. Following him. Keeping track of where he’d been. Sheriff,” he stared directly into Roy’s eyes, “he has been leaving a bloody trail behind him. I have discovered that three other women were killed under similar circumstances in towns where he had been staying. All of the deaths occurred during the time of his stay.”

“Did you talk to the law in those towns?”

“I have. There has been no evidence to link my brother-in-law to any of those killings, but the circumstances are far too close to be relegated to mere coincidence.”

Ben did not like what the man was insinuating. “You cannot convict a man based on coincidence.”

“No. You’re quite right. But there’s more.” Breckenridge looked at the sheriff again. “My brother-in-law shot a man in the back in Sacramento. He claimed the man had been a thief, and that he had been in fear of his own life. He said he’d shot blindly into the dark of an alley, in the hope he could hit the thief before the man could do him any harm. The judge believed him.”

“But you didn’t?” Hoss asked.

“My brother-in-law has faced down charging lions in the heart of Africa without breaking a sweat. I was with him when he shot just such a lion in the middle of the night. I saw his eyes in the light of a very full moon, and I can say, with all honesty, he had not been the least bit afraid. In fact, he’d found the experience to be rather thrilling. Sheriff, if my brother-in-law could face a charging lion in the dark and not be in fear of his life, he would most certainly not be afraid of a mere man, particularly one whose back had been turned!”

“If the judge thought otherwise, he must have had good reason.”

“The only reason, sheriff, is coercion. My brother-in-law is quite an expert in that art.”

“Are you suggesting he coerced the judge to…”

“Perhaps the judge. Perhaps a witness or two. In any event, it worked.”

Silence followed the man’s words. He was clearly aware of the scrutiny Ben, Roy and Hoss were giving him. All three were assessing him, trying to determine exactly how much of his story was true. He looked uncomfortable garnering such attention, certainly. But if Ben was any judge of character, he would have to admit the man appeared to be sincere.

Roy seemed to agree. “All right. I’m not about to call this man a murderer. I won’t argue with the courts; I couldn’t hold this job if I did. But I’ll let you ride along under two conditions. The first is that you make any move to attack or hurt that brother-in-law of yours in any way, without due cause, I will arrest you directly.”

“And the second condition?”

“You do everythin’ I tell you to do, and nothin’ I don’t.”

“I understand.”

Ben sighed. “Well then, Mr. Breckenridge, allow me to introduce myself, since you will apparently be staying the night as well. I am Ben Cartwright. I’ve already indicated my son, Hoss.”

Breckenridge shook his hand. “If you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Cartwright, what is your involvement?”

“My other sons might well have encountered that stagecoach.”

“If that’s true, sir, then I pray they have not also encountered the man I know my brother-in-law can be.”

“Yes. Well, they are both very capable young men. I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Even as Ben said the words, his gut tried to convince him otherwise.

*****

Supper introduced a strange and complex game, sort of like chess or poker, or maybe both, but played out entirely in words. Joe was glad for the chance it gave him to move his thoughts away from where they kept straying. The game, such as it was, also helped to get his mind off of the food he was eating. Not that the food was bad, but he was unable to rid himself of images of Hank and the others back at the station, and his stomach was roiling in anger and impatience. He ate only because Adam had told him he had to, and it wasn’t a point he could argue. They didn’t have much going in their favor with this so-called hunt. Neither of them could afford to be tired or hungry come dawn. So Joe ate, and he kept each bite down by focusing as much as he could on the parley between Adam and the hunter.

Davenport. That was the man’s name. Phillip Davenport. It hadn’t been easy for Adam to pull that name out of him. The whole exchange had made Joe think of a calf fighting against being born and then suddenly forgetting why, finally sliding out smooth as can be and spilling a whole bunch more besides.

Mr. Phillip Davenport was from New York, but he’d been educated in England, and had traveled to more foreign lands than Joe had even known existed. Adam listened intently, and asked the kind of questions that could have made Joe believe his brother was eager to share in the man’s next overseas adventure. But Joe knew his brother too well to believe it. Sure, he knew Adam wanted to see those kinds of places, but he would never select a man like Phillip Davenport as his traveling companion. As much as Adam smiled and tried to make it look like he was impressed with Davenport, Joe noticed his eyes were dark, his shoulders tense and his jaw about as tight as Joe had ever seen it. No. Adam wasn’t the least bit impressed. He was more likely to reach across that campfire and pull that man right down into it than he was to volunteer to join him at sea.

Davenport, however, did not know Adam. He failed to see the tension, and all he heard was the praise. His smile, Joe could tell, was real. By the time Joe swallowed his final bite he could almost believe Adam and Davenport had been old friends, and tomorrow’s hunt would have them both on the same side.

Maybe Davenport had started to believe that himself, because Adam’s next words seemed to confuse him.

“We need longer than thirty minutes.”

“For what?” Davenport asked.

“Give us three hours,” Adam said.

The conversation had taken so many turns it practically had Joe’s head spinning. And then he realized why. Dropping his fork and setting his tin plate on the ground beside him, Joe stared open mouthed at his brother as he realized all the twists and turns of the discourse — all the false leads and switchbacks — it had all played out like a map of what Joe and Adam would have to do come morning. If they were going to survive this hunt, giving false leads and making switchbacks was exactly what they were going to have to do.

And suddenly Joe gained more confidence than he would have believed possible — because he and Adam were in this together, and they knew this land better than anyone. And by this time tomorrow night they were both going to be home, at their own table, eating one of Hop Sing’s fine meals.

“One hour, I can agree to,” Davenport said, all signs of his confusion replaced with a placid expression.

“Two and a half,” Adam countered.

“One and a half.”

Adam grinned, although no sign of pleasure reached his eyes. “Two. That’s my final offer.”

Davenport laughed. “How can I possibly refuse your final offer?” He reached forward, clearly aiming to shake Adam’s hand. Joe was shocked to see his brother take it. Had Joe run across his brother and the hunter acting this way back in Placerville or somewhere in Virginia City, he would presume them to be old business acquaintances, challenging each other with the latest deal but looking forward to a few after-business drinks in the nearest saloon.  Were they still talking about the hunt, or something else altogether?

“However,” Davenport added as he settled back into the casual position he had taken by the fire, “the deal is rendered void if you choose to leave at any other time during the night, even if it is just one minute before sunrise.”

“And then what?” Adam asked. “We’re back to thirty minutes?”

“Oh, no. Absolutely not. You have already chosen to take that deal off the table. No; if you leave this camp at any time before sunrise, the hunt will begin at that very moment.” The look in his eyes turned deadly then. Deadly and cold, despite the pleasant tone in his voice. “I quite like you, Adam Cartwright,” he added. “I rather hope you survive. If you do, I should enjoy it if you would join me on my next excursion into India.”

“I can guarantee I’ll survive if you call off this hunt.”

“Yes; I suppose that’s true. Pity that. It would mean I should have to go back on my word, and that is simply not possible.”

“No. Of course not,” Adam said tightly.

“Well, then….” Davenport stretched. “It will be quite an exciting day tomorrow. We’d all better get our rest.” Without another word or even a glance toward Adam or Joe, he smoothed out the blanket beside him, and laid himself down to sleep.

*****

The Gauntlet

Davenport’s eyes were closed, but there was a rigidity about him that made it clear he was far from sleep. A few feet from the campfire, but still within the glow of its flames, Bongani’s eyes shone like beacons through the blackness of the night. Adam wondered if that man ever slept. He also wondered about Bongani’s relationship with Davenport. He couldn’t be a slave, could he? Whatever it was that held the two together, Adam thought it might be a fragile bond, maybe even one he and Joe could help to sever.

And Joe… Like Davenport, he was tense, but he didn’t try to hide it by feigning sleep. Shortly after supper, he’d stepped away from the campfire, returning to the tree where he’d been bound earlier, and dropping to the ground to lean against it once more. There he sat watching everything — and everyone. In that regard, he reminded Adam of Bongani. Despite the vast physical differences between them, Joe and Bongani both seemed intent on being sentries. More than that, even — guardians, perhaps. Joe was prepared for either the hunter himself or his ‘hound’ to attack without warning. Bongani was prepared for the brothers to make a run for it. Both were prepared to jump into action the instant either play was made. Unfortunately, Joe was nowhere near as well equipped as Bongani to counter any such play.

They were all players, weren’t they? Players in a game where every move, however subtle, counted. Every glance, every gesture provided a clue as to what might follow.

Sighing, Adam rose to join his brother. Davenport stirred, as though unsettled by Adam’s movement. The hunter opened his eyes, his gaze finding Adam’s and then holding there until Adam broke the connection by turning away. When Adam squatted to his haunches beside Little Joe, he noticed Davenport’s eyes were still on him. It wasn’t until Adam had dropped further to sit cross-legged on the ground that Davenport appeared to settle back into sleep.

The hunter was nervous — that was clear. He expected Adam and Joe to start running at any moment. That was exactly what Adam wanted him to think. It would keep Davenport from the rest he, himself, had said they all needed. With any luck, it might also lead to him making critical tactical mistakes.

“I’m ready,” Joe whispered, pulling Adam’s attention away from Davenport. Joe’s own gaze was locked on Bongani, his chest heaving with shallow, anxious breaths.

“Not yet,” Adam whispered back.

Those two words brought Joe’s attention directly to him. Joe looked at Adam for a short while before taking a deep breath and then nodding. “Davenport should be asleep before too much longer,” he said. “I’m not so sure about Bongani.”

“Don’t be so sure about either of them,” Adam cautioned.

His brow curving, Joe looked at Davenport again.

“He’s just waiting for us to make our move,” Adam went on. “My guess is he won’t sleep at all tonight.”

When Joe turned back to his brother, the pull of his brow reflected disappointment.

Adam grasped Joe’s good arm and offered a small smile. “Don’t worry, Joe. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. He won’t be at his best tomorrow.”

“Neither will we,” Joe admitted.

Adam nodded. “That’s why you need to try to get some sleep right now.”

Joe looked at him as though he’d gone mad. “How can you expect me to get any sleep?”

“You’re tired, Joe. That’s obvious. If you stay awake all night, even a two hour head-start won’t do us much good.”

“You’re tired, too.”

“I wasn’t shot.” Adam tightened his grip. “Please, Joe. Just try. I’ll keep watch for a while.”

Joe took another look at both Davenport and Bongani. “You’ll wake me to relieve you?”

Adam nudged his smile wider. “Sure, Joe, just as soon as I’m ready to give my own eyes a rest.”

While Joe studied him, Adam wondered if he was as transparent to his brother as Joe was to him. If so, Joe would know Adam had no intention of closing his own eyes at any time that night. But hopefully Joe would also realize the sense in what Adam was suggesting.

Apparently doing just that, Joe gave him one quick nod. “Promise to wake me.”

“I promise.” Adam drew his hand away and watched his brother settle into a more comfortable position. But almost as soon as Joe started to close his eyes, they shot open again. “I’ll be right here,” Adam assured him.

Finally, Joe closed his eyes and kept them shut. Before long, his shallow breaths deepened, making it clear he was trusting in Adam to take his turn at playing guardian. For that one night, it would be an easy role for Adam to play. He only wished it could remain so after sunrise.

*****

Adam did not pass the night sitting idle, simply watching the camp. He studied the hunter and his man, Bongani, keeping alert to any changes in either of them. Whenever Davenport started to breathe more heavily, Adam rose to pace, exploring the camp and its boundaries as he did so. Just as he’d anticipated, every time Adam moved, the hunter roused. Adam had no intention of allowing that man any rest at all.

Fortunately, Joe’s sleep was not disturbed by Adam’s movements. But it wasn’t untroubled, either. His eyes danced wildly beneath his lids, and he frequently started muttering words that had no real form. There were several times when Adam had to nudge his brother to help guide him out of the nightmares plaguing him. Even so, Joe never woke. Adam hoped that had more to do with Joe trusting his brother to watch over him than the effects of his injury. Though Bongani seemed to have dressed the wound in Joe’s arm effectively, Adam had not been pleased with the man’s surgical skills. Infection was a far more cunning enemy than Davenport could ever be, and a far more difficult one to evade.

While he moved, Adam also explored Davenport’s provisions. Making no effort at discretion, he took a canteen, a handful of jerky and extra bandages for Joe. The terms of the hunt, after all, had been limited to weapons and timing. If Davenport attempted to later deny Adam and his brother these few items, Adam was ready with a series of arguments to counter him.

Adam spent the rest of the time strategizing not only routes but preparations. They would need to change the dressing on Joe’s arm before setting out. The burn on Joe’s forehead was small and had little need of a bandage, but burns also had a tendency to invite infection. Adam wished they had some way to cover it — with Joe’s hat, if nothing else. But they’d both lost their hats somewhere along the way.

At least the hats, wherever they were, would provide evidence — along with Joe’s discarded sleeves –that Adam and his brother had been there. Someone would find them — Hoss, most likely — as soon as they started looking, which Adam doubted would occur until mid-day. Pa would accept that Adam and Joe might have needed to spend an extra night on the trail, but he would surely begin to worry if there was still no sign of them by noon.

No, Adam corrected fondly in his thoughts. Pa would have started to worry hours ago, but he would hold himself back from doing anything about it until noon.

It wasn’t until the stars began to fade to the dim glow that presaged the rising sun that Adam’s thoughts turned dark. His mind conjured the image of Joe falling into that creek, and for one horrifying moment, he couldn’t breathe, so certain was he that Davenport was going to force him to watch his brother die. But he fought against that turn of his thoughts every bit as hard as he knew he would have to fight Davenport in the coming hours.

They stood a chance, he and Joe. Although Joe was injured, his youth and his hotheaded stubbornness could keep him going for hours, maybe even as far as Virginia City. On the other hand, Joe’s injury could invite mistakes by affecting his balance or his judgment. Neither of them could afford to make mistakes, not with a madman like Davenport tracking them down. That meant Adam could not allow himself to think for even one second longer they might fail. Thinking like that could get them killed. No. They would get through this. They had to. Adam was not going to watch Joe die, and he’d be damned if he was going to let Joe watch him.

Steeling himself with a deep breath of dew-laced mountain air, Adam accepted that he’d prepared as well as he possibly could. The hunt would soon begin. It was time for him to wake Little Joe.

*****

Joe turned, and was immediately relieved to see his brother running toward him. But his relief died in an instant. Behind Adam, off to Joe’s right, a dark figure was emerging from the trees. The man was a shadow, his features indistinct, hidden by deep shadows cast by the towering pines surrounding him. Still, Joe saw one thing with perfect clarity: the man was pointing a rifle at Adam’s back.

In an instant, Joe lifted his own rifle, aiming it toward the figure. But something struck him as he started to pull the trigger, driving him backward, downward. He felt himself falling — endlessly falling into a deep abyss — until…someone grabbed him.

He was pulled from the abyss — pulled upward, out of the darkness. When he opened his eyes, he saw a single star above him.

“Joe!” Adam whispered urgently.

On instinct, Joe grabbed for the gun at his hip, feeling panic flare when his fingers touched only fabric.

“Easy, Joe. It’s time to wake up.”

The sound of his brother’s voice and the warmth of Adam’s hand gripping Joe’s shoulder allowed his taut muscles to relax, easing the now throbbing pain in his arm.

Joe took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Thanks.” He blinked, and then tried to rub away the gritty dregs of sleep from his eyes.

“Rough night?” Adam asked in an oddly lighthearted, almost teasing tone.

Confused, Joe looked at his brother. Had Adam stopped worrying about the morning’s grim hunt?

Then something else confused Joe even more. The sky was too light. Joe could see his brother clearly enough to recognize the weariness in his eyes.

It was morning already — or near enough, anyway.

Joe tensed. “You were supposed to wake me to relieve you!”

Adam wasn’t the least bit repentant. He gave Joe a small grin and nodded. “I said I’d wake you when I was ready to rest my eyes.” He shrugged. “As it turned out, I was never ready to do that.”

“This isn’t a game, Adam!”

The grin vanished. “No, Joe. It’s not. Far from it.” He glanced toward Davenport, showing Joe that the hunter, too, was awakening, and then he lowered his voice to the breathiest, quietest whisper he could summon. “I’ve worked out some ideas. I need you to trust me.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve worked out some ideas of my own!” Joe shot back in an equally quiet but immensely more demanding tone.

“Good.”

Joe was taken aback by the sincerity evident in Adam’s response, and the corresponding nod that followed it. There were times when Adam would show an interest in hearing Joe’s ideas, but the more critical the situation, the less likely he was to listen. So…why was he willing, now?

“Why don’t you tell me about them,” Adam went on, “while I change that bandage?”

Suspicious, Joe relaxed nonetheless, sitting up against the tree. If Adam was willing to listen, no matter the reason, Joe was going to give him something to listen to. “The way I figure it,” he started while Adam reached for the bandage on his arm, “he’ll be expecting us to go where we can get help, like Virginia City or the Pon… Hey!” Whatever Adam had done, it felt as though he was digging out another bullet.

Adam pulled back, sighing loudly. “Sorry, Joe. It bled quite a bit last night. And those stitches….”

“What?” Joe was having a hard time catching his breath.

“They’re poorly done. That’s why it kept bleeding. I should take them out and stitch it up again.”

“We don’t have time for that, and you know it.”

“Gentlemen!” Davenport called out in greeting, sounding cloyingly cheerful. “Good morning! I trust you slept well?”

Adam tensed, his jaw jutting out in anger, drawing his lips into thin lines. The way he lowered his head and looked up at Joe made him look predatory, as though he was ready to swivel around to attack the man walking up behind him, like he wanted to tear that man apart with his bare hands. Joe couldn’t help but tense at seeing his brother’s reaction. But surprisingly, when Davenport took that final step and placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder, all Adam did was pull those thinned out lips into a dark smile.

“Davenport,” Adam said tightly, rising to face the hunter.

“This mountain air truly is marvelous, isn’t it? I can scarcely remember when I’ve had a better night’s sleep!”

“Then perhaps you would consider postponing this hunt for a while. You could be our guests at the Ponderosa. Let us show you how invigorating this mountain air can really be.”

Adam’s offer drove Joe angrily to his feet. But he rose too fast. The world spun around him, forcing him to use the tree for support.

“Ah, would that I could,” Davenport answered, either not noticing Joe, or simply ignoring him. “But I have always followed Dickens’ advice.”

Adam didn’t seem to notice Joe, either. His back remained turned, and his words made it clear his attention had been focused on the hunter. “I see. Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.”

Davenport chuckled. “You have yet to disappoint me, my friend!”

“I am not your friend.” There was venom in Adam’s tone then, enough to unbalance Davenport. He stumbled backward, as though he’d been bitten.

Joe’s anger turned inward. He should have known Adam’s earlier offer had been a ruse. If Joe had been thinking straight, he would have known. But he hadn’t been thinking straight. He’d barely been thinking at all. He had danged well had better start! If he didn’t, he could be responsible for getting them both killed.

“You are indeed a man of surprises,” Davenport said. His voice was softer, his cheery attitude lost behind a suddenly ashen look of dismay. “This surely promises to be a most challenging hunt. Most challenging indeed.”

When Davenport turned away, Joe knew the man had been shaken, a fact that boded well for Joe and his brother. But he also knew the time for Adam’s game of words had been brought to an end. From now on, the game would grow deadly.

And suddenly he felt as ashen as Davenport had looked. Keeping the tree at his back, Joe wanted to ease himself to the ground. Then his gaze moved outward, meeting Bongani’s — making it clear that Bongani had been watching him. At that moment, Joe knew he was showing weakness. He didn’t dare show any more. Taking a deep breath, he straightened and anchored himself firmly where he stood.

“Come on, Joe,” Adam said, turning back toward him. “Let’s see to that bandage.”

Joe nodded to his brother before returning his attention to Bongani, but Bongani was gone.

“So,” Adam went on; he seemed unaware that the only reason Joe made it back to the ground without falling was the tree he’d used to guide him down. “Why don’t you finish telling me about this idea of yours?”

How could Adam do that? How could he get so angry, and then just turn around and forget it?

“Joe?”

“Right.” But Joe was still feeling unsettled about Bongani. “Well, it’s…it’s like I was saying,” Joe started, trying to pull his thoughts together again. “He’s…he’s gonna expect us to go toward help.”

“I imagine he would.”

Joe’s gaze fixed onto a canteen in Adam’s hand. He watched his brother pour water over a piece of cloth. “Where’d you get that?”

“I borrowed it.”

“Does he know you borrowed it?”

“He does. Tell me about your idea.” Adam started peeling the old bandage away from Joe’s arm with his left hand, using the wet cloth in his right to moisten the clotted blood.

The water eased the sting, although Joe had to work at ignoring the deeper pain. “He’s sure to know where Virginia City is,” Joe went on, “so if he sees us heading in that direction, he could double back for the horses and then try to cut us off.”

Adam’s hands went still. He looked off into the distance, somewhere beyond Joe. “The horses….”

“What?”

Adam returned his attention to Joe, wearing about the most peculiar expression Joe had ever seen him make, sort of dumbfounded, or maybe shocked. “The horses were never mentioned in his terms.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The expression Adam made then was all too familiar to Joe. He was angry. “It means they’re fair game,” he hissed. “It might even mean I made them fair game!”

Now Joe was sure he must look pretty dumbfounded himself. He couldn’t make sense of what his brother was saying. “You’re gonna have to explain a whole lot better than that.”

Adam shook his head. “There isn’t time. Look Joe, you may be right. You might even have touched on a better way to get us out of this, if we can find the horses.”

“So…let me guess. You’re suggesting we go upcountry instead of down, putting ourselves further away from help rather than closer, on the outside chance we might find the horses, although the odds are probably against us ever doing that?”

Anger faded to the quirk of a smile. “I suppose that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

Joe smiled, too. “Well, then…I suppose all that sleep you forced on me was good for something, seeing as how I came up with something in my sleep that you didn’t wide awake.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

Joe leaned his head back against the tree and watched a pale, blue light start to streak across the sky. “Hey, Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“You gonna be awake enough to handle this, today?”

“Don’t you worry about me. I won’t let you down.”

“I know. That’s not what concerns me.” Feeling Adam’s eyes on him, Joe looked back at his brother.

“We’re gonna make it, Joe,” Adam said, seeming as sure as ever. “And I promise you, that man’s days of hunting are going to end right here.”

“That’s a pretty big promise.”

“It’s one I intend to keep.”

Joe’s smile was smaller, sadder than before. And then it was gone. “I don’t want to let you down, Adam.” He spoke so softly, he wasn’t even sure his brother could hear him.

“You won’t,” Adam said, making it clear he had. He stated it like it was preordained, and his gaze looked hard enough to seal those words in stone. “No matter what happens…you won’t.”

No matter what happens. Joe knew what that meant. Bongani hadn’t been the only one to see his weakness. Adam had seen it, too; he had seen it, and accepted the fact that weakness might very well cause them both to be killed.

Maybe Adam could accept it; but Joe sure couldn’t. He refused to accept it. The only fact he would allow himself to accept was that he was going to do whatever it would take to enable his brother to make it home alive. The moment Joe’s weakness starts to make that outcome too unlikely, then…well…Joe might just have to make sure Adam has no reason to protect him any longer.

Reaching that decision helped Joe to relax as nothing else possibly could. Adam noticed the change in him, too. When Joe saw his brother relax in response, he felt his smile returning.

No matter what happens, older brother, he said into the depths of his thoughts. No matter what….

*****

Davenport, civil but sullen, shared a breakfast of coffee and the remains of last night’s supper before bidding the brothers farewell, “…and good hunting!”

“Excuse me for refusing to wish you the same,” Adam replied coldly.

Their plan involved returning to the station and then climbing higher in the hope of finding the horses, but it would not be wise to take a direct route. It was far too early to show their cards. When Joe suggested starting off in the direction of home and then circling back downstream where the terrain grew rocky, Adam was quick to agree. The thick, sponge-like carpet of pine needles in the woods that led toward the ranch house would absorb most traces of their passage, potentially fooling Davenport into believing they’d continued in that direction, and the rocks downstream would make it practically impossible for the hunter to see where they’d gone.

Of course, there were risks. It was impossible to make any move in this macabre hunt that wasn’t risky. Circling back would keep them closer to Davenport than Adam liked, yet moving forward in a consistently straight line would only give them a short-term advantage. Davenport was taller than Joe, with a much longer stride. And Joe was already weak. The distance between them would grow increasingly shorter. In all likelihood, the gap would be closed long before Adam and his brother reached the safety of home.

It would be a far different matter if Little Joe had not been shot. Adam would probably have to struggle to keep up with his younger and far more energetic brother, just as he’d done the day before when he hadn’t even been able to keep Joe in his sights. Today, they ran side by side. It was a pace Adam knew he could maintain for a good, long while — as long as necessary, if determination was enough to keep him going. But he wasn’t nearly as certain about Joe. Adam’s young brother was hardly as fit as he’d been the day before. By the time the hunt began in truth, two hours after they’d set out, telltale spots of red were beginning to show through on Joe’s bandage, making it clear he was bleeding again. It was also clear he was having a hard time catching his breath.

When they crossed back over the creek where the rocky terrain would gradually lead them to higher ground, Joe could hardly keep his footing. Rocks and stones skittered away from both of them with each step, and Joe stumbled so frequently Adam found himself reaching for him, almost but not quite taking hold of Joe’s arm to offer support. He knew his brother well enough to expect Joe to be more angered than appreciative of the effort — at least, for now.

“Just a little further, Joe,” he said encouragingly as they approached the peak of this small hill at the outer edge of the mountain. Trying to ignore the carrion birds circling to either side, Adam kept his attention on the boulders above them; they would be a good place to watch for the hunter’s approach. There was only one direction from which the hunter could come. No more than twenty feet to their left, the ground gave way to a sheer drop off, where the creek trickled down into the canyon below in a thin waterfall. To the other side, the terrain flattened out, leading toward a meadow not far from the station house — a perfect grazing ground for wayward horses.

“We’re making good time,” Adam lied. “I think we can afford to rest for a while when we reach those boulders.”

Joe didn’t answer. He didn’t even look in Adam’s direction. With his gaze focused ahead of him, he also failed to notice a particularly large rock in his path until it turned his left foot, throwing him sideways and sending a small avalanche of stones toward Adam. Watching Joe fall, Adam saw the elbow of his bad arm hit first, taking all of his weight. There was nothing Adam could do. He wasn’t close enough or fast enough to stop it from happening.

When Joe cried out, Adam almost did as well, stopping himself only by clamping his jaw shut so tightly he couldn’t utter a sound.

And then Joe lay on his back, panting, with his right hand wrapped around his injured arm, just below the bandage.

“Joe?” Adam scrambled up beside him. Reaching a tentative hand forward, he stopped when he saw fresh blood leaking through the bandage to the stone covered ground below. There was also a new wound on Joe’s elbow; Adam could only pray it wasn’t broken.

Adam’s first thought, though he hated himself for it, was that he would have to somehow get rid of those bloodied stones to hide their passage. His second thought was that Joe might not be able to make it to the meadow. He wished his only thought could be for Joe’s well being.

“Let me help you,” Adam said, gritting his teeth once more as he grasped Joe’s good shoulder. He stopped when Joe cried out again.

“Wait!” Joe demanded in a voice made rough by the exertion. “Just…wait,” he repeated more softly, closing his eyes.

Adam watched as his brother’s breathing slowed, noticing that the wound on Joe’s forehead was redder, angrier than it had been when they’d started out.

A moment later, with one long inhalation, Joe opened his eyes and nodded. “Let’s go,” he said.

With a surprising burst of energy, Joe pushed himself up with little help and made his own way to the boulders. Once there, however, he sank to the ground with his back to the rock, laying his head against it and closing his eyes, clearly spent.

As much as Adam wanted to tend to Joe — as much as he knew he needed to — he couldn’t. Not yet. Sighing, he emptied his small sack of borrowed provisions beside his brother and then returned to gather up the blood spattered rocks and stones, running his foot across what remained until he was satisfied their passage would not easily be discovered. Next he walked to the cliff’s edge, upending the sack to spill everything he’d collected into the canyon.

When he turned to go back to his brother, Adam caught sight of something large and red resting on the canyon floor. Only then did he realize the corpses he and Joe had discovered at the station had not been Phillip Davenport’s only victims. The stagecoach, along with its team of horses, lay broken and scattered in the rocks far below. The driver must have tried to make a run for it after discovering Davenport’s intentions. For reasons no one would ever know, he’d taken an old logging road rather than the main route. Maybe he’d hoped to reach the Ponderosa, realizing it was his closest route to help.

“Damn,” Adam said softly before offering up a silent prayer for every one of the hunter’s victims. He ended it with a quiet but desperate plea that his brother and he would succeed where that driver had failed.

They had to, he decided. There simply was no other option.

*****

Hamilton Breckinridge was an interesting man who told horrifying tales. Ben wanted to believe those tales false. But what if they were true? Worse, what if Adam and Joe had encountered the man responsible, this Phillip Davenport whom Breckinridge was so keen on tracking down?

As the night had worn on, Ben’s fear for his sons had grown so intense he couldn’t hope to sleep. He’d become desperate to go after Adam and Joe, to find them and bring them home where they belonged. But the trail would not be safe in the dark, particularly with the likes of Phillip Davenport in the area. Bright as the stars had been, their brightness could never penetrate the thick, pine woods Ben would have to go through to reach Hank’s way station by the route Adam and Joe would surely have taken. There had been no choice but to wait.

Now, barely three hours after setting out with the first ghostly trails of dawn, Ben knew waiting had been a mistake. He’d played it safe while the safety of his sons had been threatened.

“Pa?” Hoss sounded young and frightened as he reined up beside his father. “That pinto, it sure looks like…”

“It is,” Ben declared. Even from this distance, he had no doubt whatsoever that lone, bare, unbridled animal moving slowly toward them was his youngest son’s mount. Cochise’s markings were as distinctive as any horse he’d ever known. Ben was sure Hoss knew those markings as well as he did — just as they both knew nothing good would have separated Little Joe from that animal. Nothing good at all.

Putting his heels to his own horse’s flanks, Ben tried to imagine that Joe had been careless, leaving his horse neither tethered nor hobbled for the night, but he knew Little Joe would never be careless when it came to tending that pinto of his.

And then Adam’s horse came out of the trees behind the pinto.

Any hope Ben had harbored about the well being of his sons died in that moment.

*****

Joe was oddly calm when Adam told him about the stage. A healthy Joe would have been driven to his feet, eager to face Davenport head on, weapons be damned. The horses alone should have netted a hastily uttered argument, filled with words that would make Pa cringe. And the driver… Healthy or not, Joe should have been equal parts enraged and mournful over hearing Davenport had yet another victim lying mangled at the bottom of the canyon.

Yet when Adam had finished speaking, there were no tears in his brother’s eyes. Nor was there any fire. Joe merely pulled down his brows just the slightest bit, and then laid his head back, his gaze seeming more interested in the buzzards overhead.

“I was starting to think they were after me,” Joe said without any trace of emotion. “I suppose it makes more sense it would take a full team of dead horses to bring around that many.”

“I suppose it does.” Adam stopped working with Joe’s bandage to offer a small smile his brother never noticed.

“According to Hoss,” Joe went on, “I’m not much more than skin and bones anyway. A whole flock like that would starve to death on the likes of me.” The words suggested an attempt at humor, something Joe tended to do to avoid giving in to the gravity of a situation, and a healthy Joe would have smiled, despite the anger and tears that should already have been present. But this Joe spoke like a bored actor reciting Shakespeare by rote, saying the words because it was what was expected of him, making no connection at all to the tragic implications behind them.

Adam had no trouble making the connection for him. Adam saw it in the thin bullet crease on Joe’s forehead that was starting to widen, and the gaping wound in Joe’s arm that could not be contained by Bongani’s careless stitches. He saw it in the raw skin and growing bruise on Joe’s elbow, and in the way Joe seemed to be protecting the ankle he’d twisted in his fall. Yet Adam saw the worst of it in Joe’s eyes. Where he might have expected signs of delirium, he instead saw absolute clarity.

“You need to find those horses, Adam,” Joe said then, sounding like the wiser, older brother rather than the impetuous, younger one.

“We will.” Adam tied off the fresh bandage on Joe’s arm, and then set to work cleaning gravel out of the scraped skin on Joe’s elbow.

“I’m staying here.”

The words hit Adam with an unexpected and unwelcome punch. His hands went still, but only for an instant. “No,” he said firmly. “You’re not.”

“I don’t have a choice, Adam.” Joe’s calm attitude was starting to give way to harsh, hot tempered breathing…or warmtempered, anyway. “And neither do you. We need those horses.”

“You’re not staying here.”

“What are you gonna do?” Joe shouted then. “Carry me?”

Adam met his gaze, holding it as solidly as ever. “If necessary.”

“You’re not thinking, Adam! You’ve got more sense than that. We don’t have time to play it safe or slow. You have to move fast, and you’re not gonna do that with me!”

“Forget it, Joe. I’m not leaving you.”

Joe stared at him appraisingly for a long while before shaking his head, disappointment evident in his eyes. “We’ll never outrun them by staying together,” he said softly.

“Then we’ll just have to find a way to fight them.”

“How?” Joe asked, his anger returning. “How can we possibly fight against that buffalo gun of his?”

“We’ll find a way.”

Joe looked upward again, the movement of his eyes following the path of the buzzards as the tears he’d avoided moments earlier finally began to surface. “I can’t let him do that to you, Adam.”

“Then we’re even.” He waited for Joe to look at him again. “Because I won’t let him do it to you.”

*****

Though the meadow wasn’t far; it took Adam and Joe another two hours to reach it. They never would have, if Joe had continued insisting he could make it on his own. No more than twenty minutes of limping across the rocks with his lungs working harder than should be necessary had been enough to prove he needed his brother’s help. And so he leaned on Adam for the rest of the journey. They stopped frequently, as much to enable Adam to try to erase signs of their passage as to allow Joe to rest. Through it all, Joe never argued. That fact alone kept Adam going as nothing else could. He needed to get his brother on the first horse he could find, and then ride as hard and as fast as necessary to put Davenport behind them.

Unfortunately, reaching the meadow did not provide him with that option. There wasn’t a single horse within view.

“No.” Joe sounded despondent as he slipped out of Adam’s hold and eased himself to the ground. “It can’t be.”

Adam was ready to rage the way Little Joe normally would. But he couldn’t. For Joe’s sake, he wouldn’t. Instead, he clamped down on his jaw, took in a few breaths to steady his nerves, and then forced himself to think as clearly, as reasonably as he possibly could. “They were here,” he said. “They had to have been. This is the best grazing land for miles. They’ve just wandered off.” He looked toward the trees beyond. “Odds are the station horses are still close by. I doubt they’d venture far from the station itself.”

“If they weren’t hobbled,” Joe added a moment later, “Cochise and Sport could be home by now.”

“Could be.” Reason was helping. Adam was feeling more hopeful than he’d been since they’d set out at dawn. He even managed to give his brother an encouraging smile before he set out across the meadow to look for traceable hoof prints.

He was so focused on the grasses ahead of him he gave no notice to the ones behind, not even when the sun reflected off the brass scope mounted on the most powerful and well balanced hunting rifle west of the Mississippi.

*****

Hoss heard the pop of a distant rifle-shot the very instant his gaze landed on something familiar lying on the ground, nearly obscured by the thick brush surrounding the campsite. His entire body jerked with a start at the sound of that shot, but then he stood frozen for a long minute, suddenly afraid in a way he couldn’t ever remember being, not even as a small boy when scary campfire tales had him dreading monsters in the night. Finding those bodies up at the station had made him ill with worry and a deep, almost overwhelming sadness. But seeing that splash of a green on the ground, a color of green that was sharper and deeper than the undergrowth surrounding it…well, it had Hoss’ worry building into pure terror. That was Joe’s jacket he was looking at. Hoss was as certain of that fact as he’d been when he’d seen Cochise coming toward them on the trail. He didn’t want to believe it; but he didn’t have a choice.

“Better see what that’s about,” Sheriff Coffee said somewhere nearby.

Hoss knew Roy wasn’t talking about the green cloth on the ground, but Hoss moved toward it just the same. They’d all heard the shot, and the sheriff was sure right about the fact they had to find out who was shooting and just what or who it was they were shooting at. But Hoss was equally certain about the fact he had to see to that cloth.

“Pa,” he called out then, keenly aware of the tremor in his voice. If he’d felt ill earlier, he couldn’t even put a word to how he felt when he discovered that green cloth wasn’t Joe’s jacket at all. Not really. It was what was left of Joe’s jacket, nothing more than a sleeve — and a blood-coated sleeve, at that.

He didn’t think there could possibly be any worse feeling than the one he had right then –not until he turned to see his pa coming toward him. Pa’s face looked pale enough to show he was feeling about as sick as Hoss, probably even sicker, if that was possible.

And Pa was holding Adam’s hat.

Then there was a second rifle shot, and suddenly all that fear, all that worry — all that sick feeling  — well, suddenly Hoss didn’t feel none of it anymore. All he felt was rage.

*****

Joe was hot. He shouldn’t be so hot. Just yesterday there had been a chill in the air that had made him think autumn wasn’t all that far away. But today it felt more like high summer in the middle of the desert. Though his bare arm — his wounded arm — seemed as hot as the rest of him, maybe even hotter, he hoped shedding what remained of his jacket might offer some relief. But when he moved to shrug himself out of the heavy fabric, he caught a flash of some kind from the corner of his eye.

A reflection?

“Adam, get down!” he shouted, all too aware what that reflection likely meant.

Joe threw himself to the ground, hoping his brother did the same as the explosion of a shot rang out. When he looked again, he couldn’t see Adam at all. There was no way for him to tell whether or not his brother had been hit.

He had to find out. Or….

It occurred to him he had two choices. He could either move toward Adam, to see if his brother was….

No. He wouldn’t think that way.

He could move toward Adam to make sure his brother was all right, or he could move toward Davenport to stop that madman from finishing what he’d started.

Suddenly, Joe’s decision was simple. If Adam was all right, Joe needed to make sure he stayed that way. If he wasn’t…then, well, Joe needed to make sure the man responsible got exactly what he deserved. Either way, Joe needed to get his hands on Phillip Davenport. And Davenport was a whole lot closer than Adam.

Joe pulled himself forward across the ground on his right side, keeping his eye on the area where he’d noticed the flash. He no longer saw a reflection of any kind, but he’d looked away for no more than a few seconds when he’d shouted at Adam. Davenport could not have changed his position so quickly, could he?

Yes, Joe realized an instant later when he found himself in the sights of a handgun, no more than six feet from his head. Reacting on instinct to get out of the way, Joe rolled to his other side as the hunter’s finger pressed against the trigger.

The explosion of that second shot should have been deafening, close as Joe was, but a different sort of explosion erupted inside him when he put all of his weight onto his injured arm, rendering him oblivious. He didn’t hear or feel a thing, not even Davenport’s bullet. Nor did he have any idea how lucky he was. It would have embedded itself into his skull if he hadn’t moved. As it was, it merely skimmed his head, directly above his right ear.

*****

Adam’s heart was racing and his breaths came in urgent gasps. Davenport had tried to shoot him down. Without warning, without…. Without any show of decency or respect, that monster had intended to shoot him in the back. Like an animal — like that twelve-point buck Adam had targeted last autumn. Adam had been just as oblivious of Davenport’s threat as that buck had been of Adam’s.

Joe’s warning had saved his life.

Joe’s warning had also given Davenport another victim to target.

Suddenly more afraid for his brother than he was for himself, Adam scrambled back the way he’d come, staying as low as he could — until he heard a second shot. Then he pushed himself to his feet, racing toward the very monster he’d been so desperate to avoid for far too many hellish hours. He couldn’t stay down, not anymore. And so he ran. With each step he saw Davenport move toward Little Joe as though Adam wasn’t a threat he needed to face.

Maybe he wasn’t. Adam’s legs felt weighted. The earth itself seemed intent on preventing him from reaching his brother. And then…then he saw Davenport standing over Joe with a handgun pointed downward. Adam saw Joe clearly then, too, clear enough to prove his brother was not moving.

“No!” Adam shouted as he lunged at the hunter, feeling every bit like the charging lion of Davenport’s favorite hunting tale. But Adam was neither as fast nor as deadly as that lion; and since Davenport was said to have cut that lion down, it should not have been surprising when he cut Adam down as well.

The bullet bit into Adam’s shoulder, stealing his breath — and with that breath, his reason. He could almost believe the whole world had gone still…still and silent. There was no sound, just as there was no movement except for an unsettling tilting of the earth as it pulled him back toward it, the ground slamming up against him with a breath-stealing punch of its own. And then…he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was too mesmerized by the tendrils of a translucent white cloud as it floated across an otherwise pristine blue sky.

He wondered at the serenity of that cloud, wondered for a brief moment if he could float up into it, if his hold on this world — or its hold on him could let go so easily. Then a clicking sound beside him made it clear he could not.

The sound was too distinct, too horrific.

Adam’s cloud drifted out of reach as his thoughts conjured images of Joe — first falling into the creek, and then twisting his ankle in the rocks — and now, lying beside Adam, close enough to see but too far to touch. Joe was as quiet and still as….

Adam turned his head just a fraction, enough to find Davenport’s gun pointed at the bridge of his nose. “You miserable coward!” Adam said in a tone that spat venom with every word.

Fury numbed him, enabling him to forget why he was on the ground, pressing him to forget everything except what had been done to his young brother.

He grabbed the gun by the barrel.

Davenport was clearly not the hunter he’d claimed to be. Any decent hunter would know a wounded animal was the most deadly kind of all, likely to attack viciously, violently, without mercy. Or perhaps he’d simply believed Adam would have had nothing left to fight for, with his brother likely already dead and his own life leaking away, drop by bloody drop, in the grass of the haven that meadow was supposed to have been. Whatever the reason, Adam’s move had unbalanced the hunter. Davenport stumbled backward, giving Adam the leverage he needed to turn the hunter’s hand.

“How dare you!” Davenport complained.

“How dare I?” Adam argued. “You murdered my brother!”

Just a little further…. Adam had to press just a little harder to get that gun aimed at the hunter, instead.

“He was prey! I did what was expected of me!”

“He was my brother!” Adam shouted.

“You are not playing properly!”

“I am not playing!”

The resounding crack! of distant rifle fire made the whole world resonate around him. Stunned, Adam’s hold on the hunter’s gun loosened. Davenport’s did too. Adam watched, confused, as the gun fell to the ground between them and Davenport staggered drunkenly sideways…backwards….

“I am the hunter,” Davenport said, his brows drawn as though he could not quite comprehend how his prey could have forgotten the rules.

When he fell to his knees, Adam noticed a red bloom beginning to stain the right side of the hunter’s coat. An instant later, Davenport fell forward, and Adam saw a smaller bloom on the hunter’s back. He’d been shot clean through. But not by Adam.

Stunned, Adam looked around until he saw Joe. Adam’s brother was leaning on one elbow, gazing dazedly Adam’s way.

“Found your rifle,” Joe said, offering a weary smile despite the fresh blood trickling along the side of his face. “Saddle, too. Soon’s I opened my eyes. First thing I saw.” His words were slurred enough to make Adam wonder how he could possibly have made such a well-aimed shot. Then Joe’s eyes slipped closed again, and he fell back to the ground.

Adam couldn’t even try to reach him. He, too, felt ready to collapse. But he was unwilling to give in to that feeling. Not yet. Not when he saw something dark rising in the tall grasses behind Joe, perhaps twenty yards away.

Bongani.

“No,” Adam pleaded softly, far too softly for the large man to hear. He couldn’t speak any louder. Nor could he fight any longer. His strength was spent.

He watched, feeling more helpless than he could ever remember feeling, waiting for the inevitable bullet that would send him straight to that translucent cloud. But Bongani did not take aim. He kept his rifle off to his side. And then…he turned. He simply turned around, and started running back the way he’d come — back toward the rocks bordering the canyon.

That was the only sound Adam heard then. Despite the distance, he could swear he heard every one of Bongani’s running steps. When the ground pulled Adam down once more, it seemed to vibrate with each crashing footfall.

No, he told himself as his eyelids shut away the harsh glare of the sun. That wasn’t a man’s steps he was hearing. It was the sound of horses.

Too late, he told them without speaking. Just too damned late.

*****

Hoss reined up beside Roy Coffee and gave the meadow a good, long look.

“Can’t be far,” Roy said.

Absently shaking his head but not really expecting the sheriff to notice, Hoss kept his eyes forward.  “They’re close, sure enough. I reckon that last shot we heard….” He paused, tightening his grip on the reins as his pa moved up on his other side. “Well, it was the last shot,” Hoss went on. “That either means someone stopped shooting back, or…”

Or,” Pa cut in, “someone no longer had any reason to keep shooting.” Pa’s voice was hard and his glare even harder, with him staring straight ahead just as Hoss had done. “Your brothers could be hurt. They could both be lying right there in that tall grass and we can’t even see them.”

“We’ll find ’em,” Hoss promised.

“We’d better spread out,” Roy said before Pa could answer. “And move slow. We’ll find somethin’ here, whether tracks or….”

He didn’t need to say the rest. And as much as Hoss did not want to hear the words, he turned to look at Sheriff Coffee. Maybe he was looking for his pa’s old friend to look back at him with more confidence than Hoss felt right then; but all Roy showed him was the same sort of sick feeling Hoss hadn’t been able to shed.

“We’ll find somethin’,” Roy added before spurring his horse forward.

It wasn’t more than a minute or two later that Hoss saw a shadow up ahead. Some grass was missing, or tromped down maybe. And as he started moving toward it, he heard something, like a man talking off to his left, soft and slow. When he got closer still, he realized that man was saying one sentence over and over again.

“I am the hunter.”

And then Hoss saw Adam, and he didn’t much care what anyone else might have been saying.

“Pa!” he called out, jumping to the ground. He was kneeling beside his brother in an instant, with one hand stretched toward Adam’s chest. But then he hesitated. Adam looked so still lying there. And his shirt was soaked with blood. “Pa?” Hoss said again, his tone much softer, grateful to find his pa beside him once more.

“Adam!” Pa didn’t hesitate like Hoss had. He touched Adam’s chest, and then smoothed his hand across Adam’s forehead. “Adam? Son? Can you hear me?”

That’s when Hoss saw they weren’t too late. Adam’s forehead wrinkled up, his brows pulling down.

“It’s all right, son. You’re going to be just fine.”

Adam’s mouth moved, his lips parting. “Pa?” He said it almost too soft to hear. But then he opened his eyes, and Hoss wanted to let out a whoop and a holler — right up until Adam’s eyes went wide, and he called out, “Joe!”

And then Hoss got that sick feeling again. He looked around that tall grass for the brother he still hadn’t found. Instead he saw the sheriff and that Breckinridge fella fussing around a stranger. The hunter, Hoss realized. The man responsible for all of it.

Hoss was about to grab the sheriff’s shoulder and tell him to ignore that good-for-nothin’ and start looking for Joe. Then he saw another depression in the grass.

“Easy, son,” Pa said to Adam behind him. “Just lie still until we can do something about that wound.”

“Joe!” Adam called out again, almost like he was forcing Hoss to see their little brother.

And that’s right when Hoss did see Little Joe. Only it didn’t look much like Joe at all. His face was coated with trail dust, and one side of his head looked to have been painted over with a whole bucket of fresh blood. On the other side, there was an ugly crease in his forehead that was crusted over and red with infection. And his arm…. Hoss thought about the sleeve he’d found, and that sick feeling he’d had all this time made him about ready to bend over and retch.

“Good lord, Little Joe,” Hoss said softly as he knelt beside his youngest brother. “What’d they do to you?” Swallowing that sick feeling down as much as he could, Hoss squeezed Joe’s undamaged shoulder. “Joe?”

“Here, Hoss,” Roy Coffee said before pressing a wet neckerchief into his hand. Hoss hadn’t even known the sheriff was beside him. “See how bad that head wound is.”

Almost without knowing what he was doing, Hoss wiped that cloth across Joe’s eyebrow, his temple, his jaw. “Joe?”

“Hoss?”

Though Hoss didn’t feel quite ready to whoop and holler like he had on finding Adam alive, he sure was relieved to hear his little brother whispering. “That’s right, punkin. It’s ol’ Hoss.”

Hoss found the wound then. It was just above Joe’s ear. And it was a pretty deep gash. But there wasn’t a bullet buried in Joe’s skull…or worse. “You just let Hoss take care of you for now.”

It was strange but comforting to see Joe smile, though his eyes remained closed. “Tell Adam….”

“Tell him what, Joe?” Hoss prodded when his brother said nothing further, seeming to have forgotten he’d spoken.

“Found…his rifle.” Joe’s smile nudged a bit wider. “Can stop…runnin’…start…fightin’ back.”

Anger rose up in Hoss right along with that sick feeling’s bile. Hoss looked up at the sheriff.

“Make him…pray…,” Joe added, confusing Hoss out of his anger for an instant.

“He hunted them,” Breckinridge said then. “My god! He actually hunted them! He made them his prey!”

Hoss didn’t bother with pondering the difference between pray and prey or doing any other kind of thinking then. He just moved, grabbing the cold rifle from Little Joe’s grip and checking the chamber. It was loaded.

“Hoss!”

Sheriff Coffee tried to stop him, but Hoss only had one person on his mind. He wanted to make sure that hunter got everything that was coming to him.

“Hoss!”

Hoss stood before that babbling hunter and started to take aim. But someone tried to pull the rifle out of his hands. Sheriff Coffee, Hoss realized, suddenly turning his rage on a man who had always been a cherished friend to Hoss’ entire family.

“Hoss!” Pa shouted. “Give Roy that rifle!”

“He shot ’em, Pa! He shot ’em both!”

“And he is going to jail for those crimes,” Roy Coffee answered. “And them others, back at that station. You can bet on that. You can also pretty much bet he’s gonna hang for it; that is, if he survives until then. Don’t you make your pa see you hang instead, on account of the fact you had to go and kill a killer!”

Still, Hoss’ grip didn’t loosen until he felt his pa’s hand on his arm.

“Let go of the rifle, son,” Pa said in that gentle tone of his, the kind of tone Joe had started using to gentle wild horses.

Maybe Pa gentled Hoss by using that tone, because Hoss did let go. He wasn’t sure why, but he did. And then he stood where he was, looking down at Pa tending to Little Joe — and he made the mistake of thinking too hard. Suddenly he had no idea what to do. Both his brothers needed him, and he couldn’t do anything except to stand there, stock still.

“That’s strange,” Sheriff Coffee said after giving the weapon a quick inspection.

“What?” Pa didn’t sound too interested. Neither was Hoss.

“Hasn’t been fired.”

“So what?” Pa asked. “It hasn’t been fired. What has that got to do with…”

It took Hoss a bit longer than Pa and Roy, but suddenly he realized why both his pa and the sheriff were looking between Joe and that hunter. And then he asked the question neither one of them had bothered to voice. “If Joe didn’t shoot him, then who did?”

*****

Davenport had not acted alone. Breckinridge made that very clear — as did Adam. Sharing Hoss’ mount, Adam was well secured in his brother’s arms, but his thoughts were not as easy to protect from the horrors he and Joe must have faced since their arrival at the way station. Exhaustion, pain and delirium plagued his ride home, incessantly taking him back to his flight with Joe, desperate to escape the madman chasing them. He kept calling out for Little Joe, unable to comprehend his youngest brother was right beside him, secured in his father’s arms just as he was secured in Hoss’. He called Davenport’s name as well, and another: Bongani.

“His man,” Breckinridge said, in answer to Ben’s query. “My brother-in-law encountered him in Africa. Bongani was his guide on several hunts. When his tribe was captured by slavers, Phillip claimed Bongani as his own, allowing the African to serve him on the voyage back here rather than having to endure a slave transport.”

“So now they’re partners in murder?” Ben fumed.

Breckinridge had no answer. And though they all wanted to see both Davenport and his man, Bongani, in jail, they would have to settle for Davenport, alone, for now. There simply were not enough able-bodied souls to ensure safe transport of the injured men back to the Ponderosa, in addition to riding to Virginia City for the doctor, plus going after Davenport’s missing man.

Roy left them, reluctantly, to make the ride to Virginia City, where he would also organize a posse and a retrieval crew for the hunter’s less fortunate victims. He did not like the idea of leaving such a violent prisoner behind. Ben had been equally reluctant to take Davenport back to the Ponderosa; he wanted that man in jail — or at least somewhere far from Ben’s family. But Davenport was injured and in need of care; riding the longer distance to Virginia City could very well kill him. And while Ben had no concern for the man’s well being, he would not be responsible for Davenport’s death.

No, Ben would neither cause his death, nor deny him appropriate medical treatment. Clearly Hamilton Breckinridge felt the same, though he refused to ‘coddle’ his brother-in-law in the manner Ben and Hoss were so eager to do with Adam and Joe.  Instead, the hunter was tied to Adam’s saddle and mounted alone atop Adam’s horse. His ravings and pain-wracked cries were pointedly ignored.

*****

Unleashed

Hours later, after Adam and Joe had been tended and each had fallen into a deep, drugged slumber, Doctor Paul Martin went downstairs to see to his third and final patient. Phillip Davenport had been settled into the guest room beside the kitchen, where his brother-in-law sat vigil. To Paul’s understanding, Mr. Breckinridge’s vigil was more to keep a watchful eye over what the patient might do, than to see to Davenport’s needs. This patient, however, was unlikely to do much of anything. Between blood loss and morphine administered more to quiet than comfort him, Phillip Davenport was in too much of a stupor to move.

Paul watched from the doorway for some moments before stepping inside. He studied Mr. Breckinridge’s troubled gaze as it moved from the bedposts to the window, never seeming to want to settle on the man in the bed.

“God help me, doctor,” Mr. Breckinridge said, focusing his attention on something beyond the window glass to which his eyes were riveted, “I wish he had died out there. I don’t want to help him. I don’t want you to help him. He murdered my sister, for heaven’s sake. And all of those…all those…people…at the station.”

Sighing, Paul stepped inside and was about to respond when Breckinridge shot up from his chair.

“Why won’t he just die?” Breckinridge shouted. His hands were balled into fists. His gaze, now locked on the patient, had shifted from troubled to hateful in an instant.

“Because God put him in our care,” Paul said decisively, “and none of us here — not Ben or Hoss Cartwright, not me, and not even you — is the kind of man he is. We are not murderers.”

“He is evil, doctor. Pure evil. He does not deserve all this.” Breckinridge’s gaze swept across the fine furnishings in the room.

“He is a man in need of medical attention.” Paul set his bag on the nightstand and began to pull the blankets down to examine the wound in Davenport’s side.

Mr. Breckinridge did not seem to have heard him. “Why would God put such an evil creature in the care of the very people — in the care of people whose loved ones he butchered?”

Paul turned his attention from the patient to look at Mr. Hamilton Breckinridge. Breckinridge’s brows were expressively drawn, briefly reminding Paul of Little Joe. “Because this man needs to face justice,” Paul said then, “not vengeance. He shouldn’t be made to face his maker until he has been made to see what wrongs he has done. Because after he has been judged by man, he will be judged by God, and that is the judgment that really matters.”

“He murdered my sister. But the courts of man,” Breckinridge spat, sounding venomous, “judged that he did not.”

“If he truly murdered your sister,” a new voice said from the doorway, a deep, knowing voice whose counsel Paul had often sought in recent years, “then God will judge otherwise.”

Paul appreciated Ben’s intercession. As much as he knew the truth behind his own words, like Breckinridge, he, too, rather wished this patient would have succumbed while Paul had still been busy attending to the wounds inflicted upon Adam and Little Joe. But Paul Martin was, first and foremost, a physician. And to him, all life was sacred, even that of a man who had been so intent on extinguishing the lives of others.

“Why don’t we step outside for a while,” Ben said, addressing Mr. Breckinridge. “The fresh air would do us both a world of good, and with us out of the way, the doctor can do his work so the courts can do theirs.”

Appreciating Ben once more, Paul heaved a deep sigh, finally giving his full attention to the cleaning and stitching of wounds that had been inflicted by an as yet unknown assailant…

…An assailant who crouched in the shadows of the trees beyond, watching the brother-by-marriage of his master, a man with whom he and his master had hunted in years past, walking together with the white-haired father of the two young men who had been conscripted into this latest hunt. Bongani watched intently, as he waited for the cover of night.

*****

Adam had to wake up. He knew he was sleeping, and he knew he mustn’t. He needed to be strong, not just for himself, but for Joe. Little Joe was hurt. Each hour was draining more and more of Joe’s life away from him. What should have been a minor wound had been made increasingly worse, first through Bongani’s carelessness, and then through time — and wear — and running. They could not stop running. Resting was dangerous. Sleeping? Unthinkable.

And yet Adam was sleeping.

At times he heard voices: the soothing tone of his father, the comfortable drawl of Hoss. Even Paul Martin plied his way into Adam’s dreams — probably because Adam was so desperate to get his brother into the good doctor’s care.

No. He couldn’t be sleeping. He mustn’t be sleeping. Dreams of home, sweet as they were, would get them both killed. Unless…unless Joe was dead already.

Joe? Adam called out wordlessly. He watched his brother fall into the creek. He saw it over and over again. But then he saw Davenport falling instead, and Joe holding a rifle. Which was real? Which was the dream?

*****

Sheriff Coffee came by at dusk with Joe’s tack and both of the brothers’ guns.

“Found the guns down in that campsite where Hoss found Joe’s…” Ben might have believed Roy had actually bit his tongue, as sharply as the sheriff cut off his own words just short of bringing up Little Joe’s blood-drenched shirt and jacket sleeves. “Joe’s things weren’t far from where he’d already spotted Adam’s saddle and that rifle we found him with,” Roy went on after clearing his throat. “Since the money’s still in Joe’s saddle bags, it’s pretty clear Davenport and that other fella weren’t aimin’ to rob your boys.”

“Of course he wasn’t after money!” Breckinridge shouted angrily before slamming the door on Davenport’s sick room to join Ben and Roy at the fireplace. “He doesn’t need money! He just…”

“You quiet now!” Hop Sing commanded in a much smaller yet somehow more intense shout as he hurried into the great room with a fresh pot of coffee. Setting down his tray, he added, pointing a scolding finger at Hamilton Breckinridge, “Cartwright boys sleeping. Need rest, get better!” When Hop Sing turned to shuffle back into his kitchen, he continued his complaint in a soft but compelling tirade in Chinese.

Breckinridge looked appropriately chagrined. “Please forgive me, Mr. Cartwright. I’m afraid the shocking nature of Phillip’s latest crimes has quite overwhelmed me.”

Ben sighed. “It has overwhelmed all of us, I’m sure.” Gesturing for his guest to sit, Ben leaned forward to pour a cup of coffee, and then turned his attention back to the sheriff as he handed the cup to his old friend. “Have you found any sign of his accomplice?”

“‘Fraid not. We’ll look again tomorrow, but that Bongani fella seems to have done a pretty thorough job of disappearin’.”

“You won’t find him,” Breckinridge said. “That man is as big as a mountain, but he moves with the grace of a cat. He knows to stay downwind, never up, and he prefers to go about in his bare feet, only wearing boots if the weather and the terrain demand it.”

Roy gave the man a long, appraising look. “Sounds like you know him well.”

“I’ve traveled with them, hunted with them — and stayed as a guest in my sister’s home often enough.”

The reply confused Ben. The hatred this man had displayed toward his brother-in-law seemed incongruent to the idea of him socializing with Davenport, whether or not Davenport had been his sister’s husband.

Hamilton Breckinridge apparently recognized Ben’s puzzled gaze. “Phillip Davenport wasn’t always a…an animal. In fact, he and I were close once. I welcomed him as a brother, and I counted my sister blessed to have him as a husband. But….” Breckinridge stared into the flames before him, his thoughts seeming to take him miles, perhaps years away. “The hunting changed him. With each new expedition, he became more obsessed with it. I could almost believe the wild, feral nature of the animals he hunted began to seep into his very soul, becoming a part of him.”

Ben felt taken away by the man’s words as well — so taken away, in fact, he jumped with a start when Hoss entered, shutting the front door behind him with more care than Breckinridge had shown the guest room door, but still less then Ben would have preferred.

“I, uh, was just checkin’ on Cochise and Sport,” Hoss explained as he came into the room. “I didn’t like the looks of ’em when we brought ’em home, but they’re both lookin’ close to their old selves already.”

“As will your brothers, soon enough,” Ben said, knowing it was something Hoss needed to hear.

“Well, Ben.” Roy set his cup on the table before him and pushed himself to his feet. “I ought to call it a night so we can get an early start in the morning.” Rather than waiting for a reply, he turned to Ben’s guest. “Mr. Breckinridge? I wonder if you might join us. As well as you seem to know this man we’re after, you might just give us a chance to find him.”

Hamilton Breckinridge’s eyes widened for an instant and he jumped from his seat, seeming eager to accept. But then his gaze moved toward the guest room where Phillip Davenport lay. “But he’ll be starting to come around by morning, I’m sure. He should be watched. Closely,” he added in emphasis.

“It’s all right,” Ben nodded, rising to join his guests. “I’ve got some men I can spare to stand guard. They’ll appreciate the time off from working with the herd.” He noticed Hoss then, his middle son’s gaze moving anxiously from the door, to the stairs and back again. “You can go, too, if you’d like, Hoss. Hop Sing and I can look after your brothers.”

Hoss scrunched down his brows in consternation, shaking his head. “I know you can, Pa. But…dandburnit, I can’t help but worry ’bout that fever that’s workin’ at Little Joe. You heard the doc. He said it could get worse before it gets better, and it might not even get any better. I want to catch that man as much as anyone, maybe more. But if somethin’…if Joe…well, if that fever just gets worse instead of better, an’ I ain’t here…. And Adam….” He shook his head, skipping over the words he didn’t want to say.

Ben knew what they were, anyway. What if he lost either of his brothers while he was gone, whether to the physical wounds or the emotional ones? But Ben had had enough of ‘what if’s’ in his life. He had to tell Hoss to follow his heart. And if Ben were to follow his own heart, he had to tell his son to stay home. Because Ben just didn’t have the heart to worry over another one of his sons. There was already more than enough worry to go around.

“I don’t blame you, Hoss,” Roy said before Ben could pull his emotions back under control. “What we’re after is probably no more’n a wild goose chase, anyway. You just stay here where you’re needed.”

“But you gotta find that man, sheriff. After what he done to my brothers…you just…you gotta find ‘im.”

“One way or another, son, we will. It might take some time, but we’ll find him. Kind of hard for a man like that to hide for long.”

Hoss nodded, swallowing roughly. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just…” He pointed toward the stairs behind him with his thumb.

“Give my best to your brothers, Hoss,” Roy said. “Will you?”

“Sure thing, sheriff.”

Wanting to follow Hoss up the stairs, Ben followed Roy instead, and then began wondering how they could ever hope to find a man who had already disappeared, a man who knew the hunt well enough to know what it meant to be hunted. Ben found his thoughts drifting to Hamilton Breckinridge’s description of his brother-in-law’s madness, and he began to feel an odd sense of being hunted himself. When he stepped outside, he hoped the evening air might somehow dispel the disquieting feeling. It didn’t.

“Somethin’ wrong, Ben?” Roy asked.

“No,” Ben answered, scanning the yard for anything out of place. “I just….” He shook his head. “It’s been a trying day. I’m sure we’ll all do better with a good night’s sleep.”

“I’m sure that’s true. G’night, Ben. Mr. Breckinridge.” Roy nodded to each before mounting his horse and riding away.

Ben almost felt compelled to call him back. “Don’t be a fool,” he chided himself softly. Phillip Davenport couldn’t possibly pose any more threat, and his man…well, Bongani was far from there, certainly. The only thing Ben had to fear was the hand of God. And Ben would pray himself hoarse if he had to, in order to keep that hand away from his sons for one more night.

*****

Rifle fire? A loud ‘crack’ jolted Adam out of the thick cocoon of sleep that had enveloped him, trapping him. His breath caught, his shoulder throbbing in time with the increased cadence of his heartbeat. He lay still for a long moment, listening for clues to his current reality, feeling the soft mattress beneath him — cotton sheets covering him…thick blankets pressing him down.

He heard muffled voices then…someone shouting about money…Hop Sing shouting back in Chinese.

Was he really home?

He found his breath, pulling in enough air to intensify the throbbing. But then a hand clamped down upon his mouth, suffocating the sense of comfort he had barely begun to breathe in.

“I have not come to harm you further,” a deep bass voice breathed into his ear. “But I will if I must.”

Both hands reaching for the thick fist holding him mute, Adam’s eyes darted around the dimly lit room. He didn’t have the strength to pull even one of that man’s meaty fingers away. Nor could he move his head. It was a struggle just to glance beside him to the shadows where the intruder stood.

“Will you hold silent?” The man changed positions, moving into Adam’s line of sight — a dark giant slipping into view.

Bongani.

Adam’s eyes widened. When he saw the man’s other hand was empty, showing that Bongani wielded no weapon, the realization eased Adam’s fears only for an instant. The hand at Adam’s mouth was massive, with a grip that seemed capable of splintering rock…a man’s jaw…a woman’s neck.

“Will you allow me to speak without crying out?” Bongani whispered, his hot breath brushing Adam’s nose and cheek, carrying with it the scent of old coffee. There was a wildness within his dark eyes, but they were not feral. They lacked the madness Adam had seen in the hunter. In fact, there seemed to be a spark of intelligence within them — or rather, wisdom — of a sort that transcended academia.

As bewildered as he was overpowered, Adam nodded.

Bongani nodded back. His hand fell away. “You could have escaped,” Bongani said then. “Why didn’t you?”

“I can hardly move.” Adam’s voice was weak, hoarse.

“During the hunt,” Bongani clarified. “You could have escaped.”

“We tried,” Adam spat back.

“No. YouYou could have escaped. The only reason you failed was your brother.”

“What are you saying?” Angered enough to try to push himself up using his stronger arm, Adam grew even angrier to discover how weak he really was. “That I should have…left him…to be….” The words were a struggle to say through gasps of thinly swallowed air, too thin to keep his lungs filled. He gritted his teeth before forcing out, “slaughtered?” The dim room grew dimmer.

“You would have won.”

“Hardly.” Adam fell back against his pillow.

“You would have won,” Bongani repeated.

Adam rolled his head back and forth upon his pillow, his thoughts returning to Joe — worn, broken, defeated, leaning against a boulder and trying to tell Adam to go on without him.

“We’ll never outrun them by staying together,” Joe had told him.

“I would have lost,” Adam said softly. “Either way, I would have lost.”

“You would have escaped.”

“Escaped what? Your master’s bullet?” Adam closed his eyes, seeing Joe at that boulder as clearly as if they were still there.

“Phillip Davenport is not my master.”

Adam’s eyes flew open once more. “Your partner, then,” he said, angered again.

Bongani inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “His bullet should have killed you.”

“My brother’s warning saved my life.”

“And almost cost his own.”

“Is that why you’re here?” Adam asked. “Because you don’t understand what it means to care enough about someone to risk your own life to save him?”

Bongani cocked his head, considering Adam’s statement. A moment later, he nodded. “Yes.”

“Then I’m sorry for you.”

“It is the fault of your own kind,” Bongani said suddenly, his voice louder, his back straighter. “White men stole that from me!”

“Stole what? Your soul?”

“My tribe. My people. My life!”

“So you think it’s okay to steal lives like my brother’s and mine?”

“Phillip Davenport did all the killing.”

“You shot my brother!”

“I did not aim for his head or his heart.”

“Don’t fool yourself. You are as much of a murderer as Davenport.”

“No. I hunt men. But I do not kill them.”

“Why not? Because you prefer to watch?”

Bongani stared at him, as still as a rock…or a mountain.

“Do you enjoy watching people suffer?” Adam went on.

“Pa!” Hoss’ voice forced that mountain to move, twisting Bongani around and drawing Adam’s attention to his doorway. “Sheriff! He’s up here!”

In the next instant, Adam’s middle brother was wrestling with the larger, deadlier Bongani, and there was nothing Adam could do to help. He tried to rise, but the room kept spinning and dimming around him. He didn’t even have enough breath to shout out a warning.

*****

Something pulled Joe out of a dark void. He heard voices, but he could not place who they were or what was being said. He tried to listen….

Awareness came to him in pain rather than words. His arm burned. His head throbbed. Words didn’t matter when he opened his eyes and the room spun dizzily around him.

The room…his room….

He closed his eyes and then opened them again, trying to pull that room into focus…trying to pull the pieces of his thoughts into focus.

He was safe, he decided. He was home. He was in his room. That meant he was safe. For now, that would have to do. He started to allow his eyes to drift closed once more, but a shout from Hoss forced them open again.

“Pa! Sheriff! He’s up here!”

Who, Hoss? Who’s up here?

Joe waited for the response, expecting the clomp of running feet on the stairway and then in the hall outside his door. But those sounds did not come. And Hoss said nothing more. Instead, Joe began to hear muffled thuds coming from somewhere further down the hall. There was the crash of wood against wood, and the softer, crisper sounds of flesh against flesh.

Hoss?

Afraid for his brother, Joe pushed himself up using his right arm. He was momentarily confused why his left arm was wrapped so tightly and secured to his side, but then nausea chased all other thoughts away. He had to sit still. His right hand gripped the mattress beneath him until the feeling eased. After a moment, he rose, triggering a flare of pain in his left ankle as he forced it to take his weight.

Pa? Joe called out in his thoughts. Adam? But Hoss was the only one he knew to be nearby. And Hoss needed help.

Joe fought for balance, intent on staying upright. At the sound of another crash down the hall, Joe pressed himself forward, limping as quickly as he could while the floor seemed to heave beneath him like a ship on rough seas.

“Hoss?” he called out in a voice so soft he could barely hear it himself.

But when he reached Hoss’ room, it was empty.

A heavy thud called from further down the hall. Joe started to turn toward Adam’s room when his gaze fell upon Hoss’ bureau. Pa’s bureau held a gun, Joe remembered then. Pa always kept a spare gun in his top drawer.

Hoss needed Joe’s help. And Joe needed his pa’s gun. And Pa’s room was just across the hall.

Fighting off another wave of nausea, Joe stumbled to his pa’s room. A moment later he had the gun in his hands. His vision was blurring and darkening. He couldn’t even see the bullets in the chamber. But he could feel them. And it didn’t take perfect sight to pull a trigger.

“Stop it! You’ll kill him!” Adam called out nearby, his voice rough but desperate.

Taking a shaky breath, Joe tried to blink the dark fog from his eyes. His oldest brother’s room had never seemed so far away.

*****

Hoss was losing the fight. Bongani was stronger, bigger, and every punch landed true. Hoss’ right eye was already swelling. A steady stream of blood was falling from his lip as well as his nose. And now Bongani was on top of him, his forearm pressing down hard…too hard against Hoss’ windpipe.

Adam couldn’t reach them. He’d tried to stand but his legs folded beneath him. He fell to the floor beside his bed, where he faced a new fight — a different kind of fight — a fight to simply stay conscious.

“Stop,” he tried to yell, but his voice was a whisper. He swallowed, tried to clear his throat. “Stop it!” he managed to shout. “You’ll kill him!”

But Bongani did not pull back. And it looked as though Hoss was no longer struggling.

“You said you weren’t a killer!” Adam said in as loud a voice as he could. It wasn’t loud enough. “Prove it!”

“Let him go.” Joe’s voice was even weaker than Adam’s, but it was loud enough to pull Adam’s attention to where his youngest brother leaned against the door frame. Joe had a gun in his right hand, aimed at Bongani’s back.

*****

Ben started walking toward the bunkhouse as Roy rode away. He was barely aware of Hamilton Breckinridge trailing along behind him. In fact, he was barely aware of much of anything. He almost wished the pleasant feel of the cooling air could make him forget why Roy had been there in the first place, and why Ben must talk with his men. But of course he couldn’t forget. Nor should he. A terrible crime had been committed against his sons. An unthinkable crime. And even if Ben managed to forget for the smallest fraction of a second, the man responsible would still be in Ben’s home. No, it must not be forgotten, and that man must never be allowed to bring more harm to Ben’s sons or anyone else.

As he passed the open back window to the kitchen, Ben could hear Hop Sing pounding away at something — probably tenderizing some venison steaks from the buck Hoss had brought home the day before. Hoss had been proud of that animal, and with good reason. In fact, Hoss had been eager to boast to his brothers about it, although Ben knew Hoss would have let Joe do some boasting first. Hoss had been even prouder of his little brother than he’d been of his own hunting exploits.

Ben had been proud of Joe as well. His youngest son had been showing some excellent business sense in recent weeks. Maybe Adam was finally making progress in getting through to Little Joe. That was why Ben had been particularly eager for Adam and Joe to get home. He’d been as anxious to hear about their journey as about their business dealings. But now….

“I suppose I’d better go back inside.”

Ben started at the sound of Mr. Breckinridge’s voice. He’d forgotten he wasn’t alone.

“I don’t like the thought of leaving Phillip unguarded,” Breckinridge added.

Nodding in quiet agreement, Ben felt a slight breeze work its way across the back of his neck, and he couldn’t suppress a shiver. The breeze chilled him far more than it should. Somehow it managed to have brought with it images of Davenport’s victims at the way station, grisly images that Ben prayed he might someday be able to force to the back of his mind — certainly not forgotten, but at least, perhaps, faded.

Today was not that day. Instead of fading, each beat of Hop Sing’s meat tenderizer began to make the images sharper, starker, more real, until Ben began to feel ill. His balance failing him, he stumbled forward.

“Are you all right?” Mr. Breckinridge took hold of Ben’s arm.

“Fine,” Ben answered gruffly. “I’m fine.” He shrugged himself out of the man’s grip. “Just…tired.”

“Then perhaps we’d both better get back inside.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Ben sighed. “But first I need to arrange for help in guarding your…” Ben stopped himself before referring to Phillip Davenport as Breckinridge’s brother-in-law. It wasn’t fair to emphasize the connection between his two houseguests, one a decent and caring man, and the other….

Hop Sing pounded that meat again; and Ben’s blood ran cold. “I need to arrange for those extra guards,” he finished.

Mr. Breckinridge looked at him expectantly. “I’ll speak with your men for you, if you’d like to go inside.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Breckinridge took a deep breath that drew his back up straighter. “I’m sorry, but you do not look entirely well, and frankly I’d rather not see the health of any other member of your family threatened by my brother-in-law’s madness, perhaps especially not you.”

Yes, Ben decided. Hamilton Breckinridge was certainly a caring and decent man. “Thank you,” he replied, smiling warmly. “But you can’t hold yourself responsible for anything that man has done.”

“No. You’re right. I can’t. But I can help you and your family; and that’s exactly what I want to do. Presuming you will let me?”

Ben wasn’t about to let his houseguest speak for him, but he didn’t turn Hamilton away, either. Instead, they spoke with the men together. Hamilton’s presence might even have helped Ben to recruit more volunteers than should have been necessary. There was something about the stranger that Ben found…inspiring. Like a leader, Ben decided. The kind of leader who won wars, not just battles. The kind of leader who might do well in Washington.

For a brief, wonderful moment, Ben’s thoughts turned fully away from Hank’s station, and even allowed him to see past the discovery of his injured sons in the meadow. But then the sound of a single gunshot brought everything back with harsh clarity. Worse, the shot had come from inside Ben’s house.

*****

Joe was trembling. It was almost as though he was shivering. But he wasn’t cold. He was hot. So hot he could feel sweat slowly trailing its way along his temple, tickling the edge of the bandage on his head, and then dripping down to his jaw. The feeling made him try to swallow, although his mouth was dry. He blinked, too; but the sweat hadn’t reached his eyes. There was something else fogging his vision.

“I said let him go,” Joe repeated, fighting to keep the gun leveled at the large man’s back.

When the man didn’t move, Joe pulled back the hammer. But what if the bullet went straight through and hit Hoss, too? What if he missed Bongani entirely, and hit Hoss instead? It was a gamble to take any shot at all using his wrong hand and in his current condition. He just couldn’t be sure of anything.

Unwilling to take a chance, he repositioned the gun to target Adam’s desk, which had been upended in the fight. He hoped the sound of the shot would reach Pa and Sheriff Coffee, since Hoss’ shouts clearly hadn’t. He also hoped it would act as sufficient warning to get the hunter’s beast away from Hoss, although he doubted the warning would have any effect on Bongani at all.

He was right. The man made no attempt to move.

“The next one’s in your head,” Joe threatened in a voice that sounded pathetically shaky, “if you don’t get away from my brother right now.”

“Hoss?” Adam called out, pulling Joe’s attention enough to make him realize Bongani wasn’t moving, but Hoss sure was. He was rocking slightly, seeming ready to push Bongani away.

“I have no intention of killing your brother,” Bongani said without turning. He spoke slowly, emphasizing his careful pronunciation of each word.

The room started swaying. Joe could not seem to find the strength to sway along with it. His hand fell to his side.

“Maybe it wasn’t your intention,” he heard Adam say in a tone icy enough to make Joe wish it could cool him off. “But you would have, if we hadn’t forced you to think!”

“I am not….” Bongani was looking at Little Joe now.

The man was sitting on the floor. When had he moved himself off of Hoss? Joe hadn’t even seen him turn.

Bongani seemed almost as surprised as Joe, then. His eyes widened slightly as Joe started losing his battle with gravity. There was nothing Joe could do to hide it; he slid along the doorframe to the floor, clearly no longer posing the man any threat.

I’m sorry, Hoss, Joe said silently, hoping Adam might yet talk them all out of this.

“A killer,” Bongani finished. Joe had already forgotten what he’d been talking about.

And then Bongani’s eyes widened further an instant before something exploded right beside Joe’s ear. The sound stole his hearing, but Joe could still see well enough to recognize a very angry Hop Sing with a shotgun in his hands. The barrel was smoking. Pa came in just a few steps behind the cook, his eyes almost as wide as Bongani’s had been.

It was all very strange, but Joe smiled even so, his sense of safety returning. Then he closed his eyes, giving in to the call of darkness.

*****

“What in….” Ben barreled through Adam’s door behind an anxious Hop Sing. He glanced around, his eyes first landing on Joe, who was slumped against the doorframe but appeared to have suffered no additional injuries. Next Ben saw the man he’d only heard about until this moment, a man black as night and larger than Hoss. Ben had figured the man’s size had to have been exaggerated, but now he saw it was true. The man called Bongani was lying right beside Ben’s own, large son, blood seeping from the worst kind of wound any man could be made to endure. Bongani had been gut shot, though he was alive…at least for now. As was Hoss, who was starting to rise, one hand propping himself up, the other wiping at his bloodied nose.

“Hoss?” Ben called out, worried now for all three of his sons.

“I’m all right, Pa. I thought he had me there for a minute, though.” Hoss might have grinned at any other time, facing any other stranger, but he didn’t. He was as serious as could be.

“He did have you,” Adam said, equally serious.

Seeing his oldest son on the floor and using the bed to steady himself as he tried to rise, Ben wanted to hurry to his side, but he knew Adam too well. His help would be refused. Adam would figure his brothers needed help more at that moment. With Hop Sing and Hamilton already seeing to Little Joe, Ben focused his own attentions on Hoss.

“Yes,” Bongani said suddenly, drawing everyone’s attention. He closed his eyes, his chest heaving in ragged breaths.

“Yes to what?” Adam asked.

Ben didn’t much care what the man might have to say. He pressed a handkerchief beneath Hoss’ nose to stem the flow of blood, examining the swelling as he did so. Thankfully, it did not seem to be broken.

In the periphery of Ben’s vision, he saw Bongani’s eyes come open again, unshuttering the piercing whiteness around his coal dark irises. The effect pulled Ben’s own eyes toward him, but Bongani was no more interested in Ben than Ben was in him. Instead, the man looked past Ben, toward Adam.

Your question,” Bongani answered. His voice, ragged and deep, sounded like the crunch of gravel under a herd of horses. “Myanswer,” he went on. “Yes. I…enjoy watching whi…white people suffer.” He swallowed.

Ben felt bile rising in his own gullet. He enjoyed watching people suffer? An animal, that’s what Bongani was. A beast. God help him after he bled out; but Ben knew it was more likely the devil would take him first.

“At least, I…did,” Bongani continued.

For an instant, Ben tensed guiltily. Then he reminded himself the man was dying and had to know it. Now Ben and his family were being forced to hear his deathbed confession. If he was expecting Ben’s forgiveness, he would be sorely disappointed.

“I have seen many of…my own…people…suffer…at the hands of whites. It…s-satisfied me…to see a white man make…other whites…to suffer.”

Yes, Ben thought. Phillip Davenport. A white man who tortured other white men. But Ben was sure Bongani had it wrong. Phillip Davenport was the kind of man who would enjoy watching anyone suffer, white or not. If watching that suffering satisfied Bongani, he was no better than Davenport.

“Then why’d you shoot him?” Hoss asked gruffly as he grabbed hold of the handkerchief, pushing Ben’s hand away.

“Only to save his own neck from the hangman’s noose!” Hamilton Breckinridge shouted.

“No,” Bongani said softly. “I did it…because it was time. It was…past time. It should never…have been.”

“Of course it should never have been!” Hamilton added. “How many people had to die to make you realize that?”

“I saw white men…” Bongani said as Ben helped Hoss to his feet, “cause my people…to suffer. It seemed…only right.”

“An eye for an eye, is that it?” Ben asked more loudly than he’d intended, unable — or perhaps unwilling — to constrain his rage.

“I’m okay, Pa,” Hoss said, tugging out of his father’s grip. But he stumbled as he tried to move away. “I think I’ll just….” He righted a fallen chair. “Sit here for a bit.”

“No,” Bongani answered. “Nothing so…profound…as that. It was…easy. It was all so…easy.”

Ben looked from Hoss, to Adam, to Bongani, and back to Adam again. Adam’s jaw was clenched, but whether it was from pain or anger, Ben could not be sure.

“He…saved me…from the slave ship…from…slavery. He…kept me…fed…clothed. I never…looked back. Never…cared to know…if any…of…my…brothers…my…tribesmen…survived. I lived well…and then, when he…changed…I accepted it. It seemed only…fitting. Until…now. Until….”

Bongani paused, and Ben wondered if he’d passed out. But the man’s eyes were still wide open, and they were focused on Adam.

“You,” Bongani added. “And your…brother. Your…brothers.” He glanced at Hoss before looking back at Adam. “Reminded me. I…abandoned…mine. Saved…my own self. Escaped…the fate I left them to…I did what you…did not.”

The tightness in Adam’s jaw loosened. “I don’t suppose you had much choice in that.”

“As you said…lost…either way.”

Bongani closed his eyes for a long while, allowing Ben to accept that it was over. Hop Sing and Hamilton had disappeared down the hallway, taking Joe to his room. Adam was settled back in his own bed. And Hoss…well, Hoss was looking a little less shaken than he’d been.

“You are…different,” Bongani added then, his voice no more than a tired a whisper. “Not like…other white men.” His eyes did not come open. “Even your Chinaman…protects you.”

“His name is Hop Sing,” Adam replied. “And he’s not mine, or anyone else’s. He’s his own man.”

“Thank you,” Bongani said.

“For what?”

“For showing me…that the world has not…lost…its soul.”

Those were the last words he said on this earth. The rest was between him and God.

Or at least that’s what Ben thought until he realized…suddenlystrangely… he’d already forgiven the man. Nothing less than the will of God could have caused him to do so.

*****

Adam came awake to an empty room awash with shadows cast by low lamplight. He didn’t even remember having fallen asleep. Maybe he’d simply passed out.

As he blinked his shadowed room into focus, he saw that Bongani was gone and the furniture had been put back into position, except for his desk, which Adam couldn’t see anywhere. The chair Hoss had been sitting in was vacant, and Pa….

A small noise pulled his attention to a shadowy figure standing by the door, one hand raised head high and resting on the jam. It could not be Adam’s father, ‘head high’ was not very high at all.

“Hop Sing?” Adam called out softly, suddenly fearful of the small man’s gasping breaths. Was he crying?

The figure lurched, clearly startled. He turned toward Adam, his hand now at his side. “Hop Sing not mean to wake Mr. Adam.” When he bowed, Adam expected to hear a humble apology, but the cook said nothing further.

Fear shifted to a sense of despondency that worked its way deep into Adam’s chest, digging and twisting where the bullet hadn’t reached. “Little Joe?” he asked in the whisper of a voice, strangled by sudden despair. In his mind he saw his youngest brother sliding down the wall into a crumpled heap on the floor, unconscious, or….

“No,” Hop Sing said quickly. “No,” he said again, rising to his full height and then scampering over toward the bed. “Little Joe no worse. No. No worse.” He looked toward the window. “Please accept humble apology…”

“What is it, Hop Sing? What’s wrong?”Adam watched the man’s chest rise with a heavy breath.

Hop Sing nodded. Composed now, he gave his attention to Adam. “Hop Sing do honest work. Always honest work. Good work.” He looked at his hands; and Adam could see they were shaking. “Till garden, cook, clean, tend to sick, hurt.” He curled his fingers inward, into loose fists. “When find insult, Hop Sing turn other cheek, no fight…humble.” He filled his chest once more. His loose fists tightened. “Today…Hop Sing shoot man. Kill man.”

Adam closed his eyes, taking a deep breath of his own—a breath that stabbed at his wound as though Paul Martin was only just beginning his surgery. “You did,” he said in tight gasps, “what you…had to do.”

“Mr. Adam need water? Medicine?”

“No,” he gasped. “No,” he repeated a moment later, as his breathing began to relax. “It’ll pass. Just….” Clamping down on his teeth, Adam took two more steadying breaths before adding, “Thank you.”

Hop Sing looked puzzled. “Thank? Why thank?”

“For saving my brothers.” Adam was glad to finally be able to speak without panting. “For protecting them.”

No longer puzzled, Hop Sing now appeared angry. “No! No threat. Bongani sit on floor. No threat. Hop Sing shoot first, think last. Hop Sing should make threat, not shoot.”

Adam felt for the man. Hop Sing was a cook, not a soldier or lawman, nor even a trail hand. A cook. A humble cook who had just taken a man’s life and could never have imagined having to do so.

“If you saw a fox,” Adam offered, “sitting in the hen house, would you wait to see if it pounced, or would you shoot it where it stood?”

Hop Sing looked puzzled again. “Shoot fox.” He said it like it was the only answer possible, and Adam was a fool for not knowing that answer himself. “Save chickens.”

Adam nodded, smiling warmly. “That’s exactly what you did today. You shot a predator that could have attacked Little Joe, a man who had already hurt him. If you’d waited, it’s possible he could have killed any one of us.”

Hop Sing was not convinced. “Might have! Could have! Not know!”

“You did what you had to do,” Adam repeated.

“Father say man saw…truth…before die. But…Hop Sing kill. Bad death.” He shook his head. “Bad death make hungry ghost. Hungry ghost bring more harm.”

“Bongani can’t harm anyone anymore.”

“Hungry ghost.”

“No. I think if you did anything, you helped to give him peace, not hunger.”

Hop Sing studied him for a long while.

“You did what you had to do.”

“No,” Hop Sing said again, though this time it was said in a whisper that lacked his earlier conviction.

“Yes.”

Hop Sing took a deep breath, and then another. Adam was glad to see his tension ease in that final exhalation.

“No hungry ghost?” Hop Sing asked softly.

Adam smiled again. “No hungry ghost.”

Surprisingly, Hop Sing began to smile, too. “But hungry man, in bed.” He pointed to Adam.

Adam’s smile widened. “I suppose I am, at that.”

“Hop Sing bring broth!” He was already scurrying toward the door before Adam could say a word.

“Hop Sing?” Adam called after him. He waited for the man to stop, showing that he’d heard Adam, and then added, “Thank you.”

Hop Sing turned slightly, giving Adam another small smile and a nod before disappearing into the hallway — a smile and a nod that said his own kind of thanks more clearly than words ever could.

*****

In the Fox’s Den

It was nearly dawn before the house quieted, with Ben and each of his sons finally giving in to exhausted sleep. Phillip Davenport, however, had slept long enough. He opened his eyes to a darkness that gave him the sense of a night under a jungle canopy. But this was no jungle. The air was dry, the smell one of lamp oil and smoke rather than moss and musk. Confused, he took a deep breath of that pungent air, awakening a violent, slicing pain to his side. For a moment, the darkness thickened, bringing with it the cloying scent of…man.

He was not alone. What he’d believed to be the comforting, soft growl of an animal beside him was instead the light snores of the worst kind of beast there was: Man.

Adrenaline stirred him. It numbed his pain and drove the blackness from his eyes. The hunt was on, the beast his to take. He rose, stiff but determined, his gaze landing first on a lamp, the wick burned down to nothing, and then…the beast.

A man — a cowboy, from the looks of him — slept in a chair beside the bed. A shotgun rested crosswise in his lap, loosely held in calloused fingers. A cowboy….

The muffled ticking of a clock somewhere beyond this room counted out seconds as awareness dawned. The hunter was at a ranch, the Ponderosa. The hunt… It had gone wrong, all wrong. He’d been bitten by his prey, shot by the boy who had ruined everything. Bongani should have killed that boy right off. The eldest brother would have proved a superb catch, but the youngest had pulled the prize prey’s attention from the chase, diluting the challenge, making him too easy to track, to find, to catch. Even then, the shot had gone wide, interrupted by that wretched boy’s warning cry. The hunter had missed, then the boy had struck true. Yes. That boy had ruined everything.

And this…. This was their home, both the prey and the boy.

The hunter smiled, inspired by a new challenge. Though weakened by his wound, he still had the hunter’s touch. He relieved the snoring guard of his gun as well as a Bowie knife sheathed low on the man’s hip. Not even the light groan of the door on its hinges awakened the careless guard.

And then the hunter found himself standing in a large room. It was as dimly lit as the bedroom, but the high ceiling and open spaces chased the worst of the shadows, giving off a diffuse, gray glow. That grayness was enough to show him another man at slumber in a chair by the cold fireplace. He would have recognized the man as his brother-in-law, had he looked closer. He would also have seen that Hamilton was not actually sleeping. But the hunter did not look closer. Instead, he turned toward the stairs, certain that was where his new prey would be found: the boy who had ruined the hunt, the boy who should already be dead.

He took the steps slowly, encumbered but undaunted by the constant stab of his wound. He gave no thought to what would come after. The need for escape and the idea of capture had no meaning for him. He, alone, was the hunter. All that mattered was the end of the hunt with the death of the boy.

The stairs creaked with his weight, but the sound was soft, like the call of a mouse, surely nothing that would awaken those who slept above him. He kept his breaths low and steady, having learned from watching great cats on the prowl. There was no greater predator, no greater teacher — and only one greater prize. A lion could be outsmarted. But an intelligent man, a man schooled in the sciences, and, even better, the art of war…that was a creature capable of being both predator and prey, the ultimate challenger. And that was what the boy had stolen from him. The thrill of the mountain hunt had ended…badly. But this new hunt had already fueled his hunger. The boy’s life would soon be his.

At the top of the stairs, his head spun. He was weak. But the hunt must not be abandoned. The boy was weaker than him, after all. As he caught his breath, he studied the doors in the hallway before him, and then sniffed at the air, gauging, guessing.

Instinct pulled him toward the left. He raised his hand to the first, closed door and turned the knob slowly, cautious. The door eased open in silence. His cold smile widened. This night was his. This hunt was his. And the boy….

The hunter crept across the floor to the bed before him. A small splash of moonlight provided just enough illumination to reveal he had chosen correctly. This was the boy’s room. There, resting upon a small stack of lush pillows, a tuft of thick curls spilled out from beneath a bandage that covered the passage of two bullets, one that had achieved its goal, and one that had not.

The hunter’s heart pumped faster, his grin drawing deeper as he took another step forward, and still another. In a moment he would make up for that last, failed bullet. He carefully set the shotgun down atop the mattress, deciding the knife would succeed where bullets had not, and then he tested his grip, his gaze locked on the tender skin of the boy’s throat. The slice would be quick and deep enough to render the boy’s voice useless the very instant he realized what was happening. He would not be able to cry out to the older brother who had wasted the day protecting him. He would not be able to ruin this final hunt.

The hunter adjusted his grip on the knife’s hilt. He started to raise his arm for the killing blow.

“Drop it!” a voice called out from somewhere in the darkness beside him. A resounding click made it clear a gun was being readied. “I said, drop it! Believe me, I would welcome a reason to shoot you!”

“No.” The hunter was confused. “This is not possible.”

“Yes, Phillip,” a new voice called from the doorway. The hunter turned his gaze from the dark shadow in the corner to a silhouette blocking the thin glow of a lamp somewhere in the hallway. “This time you are the prey.”

“Preposterous.” He turned back to the bed.

“You are finally going to pay,” the silhouette hissed, “for what you did to my sister.”

“Your…sister?” The silhouette had a familiar voice, one he’d known for years, one he’d thought…silenced.

“Have you forgotten your wife already?”

“My…wife? Yes. My wife. You…your sister. But you…you’re dead.”

“No. She’s dead. You broke her neck.”

“Yes.” He had silenced the sister, not the brother, after all. The brother….

The hunter looked again at the unprotected throat on the boy in the bed. He lay so still, oblivious. The hunter could break his neck just as easily as slice it open. He’d learned the technique from a Turkish assassin only a few, short years ago, practicing first on his wife’s delicate bones — the sister– and then perfecting it on whores. But a man’s neck would break as cleanly as a woman’s, would it not? He could relinquish the knife, as the shadow and the silhouette — the brother — had insisted. Yes. He could let it go and still finish the hunt.

“Drop that knife,” the shadow repeated, “or I will finish what Bongani started!”

“Bongani?” Confused, the hunter studied the shadow. “Yes,” he said, “the boy. He shot the boy.”

“You!” the shadow shouted. “Bongani shot you! In the back. Just. Like. Prey.”

“Absurd. Bongani would never…”

“Bongani hunted you!” the silhouette in the doorway added. “He cut you down when he finally saw the difference between you and decent human beings!”

“No. Bongani is my…my man.” The shadow and the silhouette — they were nothing but forest wraiths whispering lies in the dark. “I rescued him…from slavery. And he….” Another image slid its way into his thoughts, the image of a lion charging him –pouncing — and then a jerk; it twisted as something struck it in the side, giving the hunter time to aim, time to fire. “Bongani,” he whispered, seeing his man beside him, a waft of smoke still seeping from the barrel of his rifle. “…saved me,” he added in a soft, almost soundless breath.

No, he told himself. He stopped the lion, the hunter. Bongani was nothing but a dog to do his bidding. “I must…,” he turned to look at the boy in the bed. “I must finish the hunt.”

“Drop the knife!”

“What?” Oh yes, the shadow. He’d forgotten the shadow. “Bongani?” he called out. “I need you! Come!” Bongani would quiet the shadow.

“Bongani is dead,” the silhouette said.

Dead? No. Bongani was his man. “Bongani!” he called again.

“He isn’t coming,” said the shadow. “Even if he wasn’t dead, he would not come to you anymore.”

“Unless it was to stop you,” said the silhouette, “to finish the hunt he started in that meadow when he shot you in the back.”

“No. Bongani!”

“Yes,” said the shadow. “He had a conscience after all, which is more than anyone could say about you.”

“He shot you,” said the silhouette. “In the back.”

“Bongani?” the hunter said more softly. He wouldn’t. He…couldn’t. Bongani was…his man. “The hunt,” he said again.

“There is no hunt,” said the silhouette. “Not anymore.”

“No. It is all…all about the hunt. Always…about the hunt.”

“Drop the knife,” the shadow warned.

Knife? The hunter looked to his hand, saw a knife in his grip, and slowly loosened his fingers, letting it slip away. It landed with a dull thud on the carpet at his feet. He didn’t need it. Not now. Not yet. A knife was for gutting after all, was it not? The kill was…it was different. The kill was…. Where?

He looked to the shadow — to the silhouette…to the…bed. The boy in the bed…the boy…. He had ruined the hunt…ruined…everything. And Bongani wasn’t coming. Had the boy ruined that, too?

A lamp sprang to life on the nightstand just beyond his reach. Its glow painted the shadow into the image of the hunter’s original prey: Adam Cartwright.

“You?”

Adam Cartwright moved his hand from the lamp back to a gun resting in his lap; the other arm was held against his chest. He’d been injured…yes…shot by the hunter’s own gun. Though the hunt had not come to a satisfying end, the hunter had enjoyed the company of this prey, and the challenge it had represented. He’d looked so forward to the hunt. Maybe….

“We should try again, you and I,” the hunter said, excitement building within him anew, now that his preferred prey was close once more. Without taking his eyes from that one, the hunter’s hand moved outward to indicate the newest prey, the boy in the bed. “He ruined what should have been a fine hunt. When you are well again, we should try.” His smile this time was born of delight rather than cunning. “And Bongani….” Where was Bongani?

The preferred prey curled his brow, his eyes narrowing, his lip rising in a snarl of disgust.

“Bongani is dead,” said the silhouette, “and there will be no more hunts, brother.” Hamilton came into view in the doorway. The silhouette was gone, chased away by Adam Cartwright’s lamplight.

The hunter smiled at the man who’d started calling him brother years ago, even before the hunter had taken the sister for his bride. “No more hunts? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course there will be! We have had some fine hunts, you and I. You should join us for this one. You would find it a splendid challenge.”

Hamilton turned his gaze to the preferred prey, mimicking that one’s disgusted snarl.

Presuming that snarl to signify Hamilton’s dismay over having to miss such a spectacular hunt, the hunter offered a solution. “Whatever prior commitments you have, cancel them. The hunt must take precedence.”

Hamilton huffed like a frustrated bull. “Come along, brother,” he said, lowering his weapon and reaching forward to take the hunter’s arm. “We must discuss your commitment.”

“What?” The hunter was confused. “My only commitment is to the hunt.”

A metallic snap pulled his attention back to the bed. The boy had awakened; and somehow he’d managed to take the hunter’s borrowed shotgun to hand. The boy… Tonight’s prey was challenging the hunter with a gaze that lacked focus and a one-handed, shaky grip on the weapon. Yet the young prey held its jaw in a rigid line that gave proof of the deadly threat it posed. It was young. And injured. And Angry.

Something else snapped then, something that had been coiled tightly in the hunter’s thoughts.

Given enough time, that young prey would become the charging lion. And Bongani wasn’t coming to ensure the hunter made the killing shot.

Bongani wasn’t coming…. He had betrayed the hunter. And the young prey was injured and enraged.

The hunter had no choice but to strike.

*****

Adam could see Joe’s eyes were unfocused, his cheeks flushed with fever. He was able to pull the trigger nonetheless, reacting more quickly than either Adam or Breckinridge the instant Phillip Davenport threw himself forward. Adam watched, frozen as much by the impossibility of what was happening as by his infirmity while Davenport yanked the shotgun from Joe’s tenuous grip the instant Joe’s bullet exploded from the barrel, flying wide and embedding itself in the wall.

The shotgun clattered to the ground at Adam’s feet, finally prompting him to move. Stunned and oddly oblivious to the gun in his own light grip, he surged out of the chair. His breath caught as tensed muscles tugged at his wound. The world around him blackened, closing in upon him until he could see nothing beyond the hunter and Little Joe.

“Move!” came a cry from the doorway.

His thoughts entirely focused on Davenport and Joe, Adam could not see the frustration that accompanied Hamilton’s plea. He had no idea he was preventing Hamilton from taking a shot by putting himself directly into the man’s line of fire. All Adam knew was Davenport already had one arm pressed down against Joe’s throat, and his other hand had wormed its way beneath Joe’s neck to cup around the back of Joe’s skull. Joe’s eyes were wide, desperate, his face red, his good hand clawing uselessly at the arm stopping his breath.

“Damn you!” Adam shouted, grabbing hold of Davenport’s shoulders. “Let him go!” But he was too weak, and the beast that Davenport had become was too strong. A sharp stab of pain at Adam’s shoulder told him he’d torn Paul Martin’s stitches, but he could not stop fighting.

And then someone else, someone stronger still, yanked him backwards, tossing him aside until he tumbled against the chair. Darkness threatened. He forced it back, swallowing deep gulps of air that made his shoulder burn with as much fire as he felt in his heart, a fire that refused to allow him to give up.

When his vision finally cleared, he was staring at his own, dropped gun. He had it cocked and ready before he could even think about taking aim. And then…he couldn’t. He couldn’t get a shot. Hamilton was in his way, pulling at Davenport and beating him with everything he had, pummeling him with fists that landed fierce and yet—somehow—ineffective blows.

“Move away!” Adam tried to shout, though his voice was raw and raspy.

Hamilton heard him, even so. He moved without question, giving Adam a clear shot. But when he targeted Davenport’s head, Adam’s hand began to shake. He raised his other hand to steady it, pulling hard against the freshly opened wound in his shoulder.

“Shoot him!” Hamilton shouted.

Adam blinked away a resurgence of the darkness. His aim dropped a fraction.

“Hurry!” Hamilton pressed.

Adam was dimly aware of Hamilton grabbing something from the floor. He blinked again and tried to still his hands, focusing on Davenport’s shoulder as Hamilton raised whatever he’d retrieved into the air.

“He’ll kill him!” Hamilton shouted.

Adam took the shot.

*****

Dizzy with shock, Ben grabbed for the doorjamb to prevent himself from collapsing. He could hear his men downstairs shouting out in alarm, and Hop Sing racing up toward him, gibbering away in Chinese. But he could not pull his gaze from the horrific scene he’d come upon at the very moment of the final shot.

Adam had fired that shot. He was now on the floor, bleeding again from his shoulder wound, a dazed and pained look in his eyes. Hamilton Breckinridge was leaning against Joe’s nightstand, breathing in quick, panting breaths, a Bowie knife held loosely in his hand. An instant earlier, he’d held that knife high over his head in a two-fisted grip, clearly prepared to plunge it into Phillip Davenport’s spine. Adam’s shot had stilled his hand.

Adam’s shot…. That shot had struck Phillip Davenport somewhere in his neck or his shoulder; it was impossible to tell just yet. All Ben knew was Davenport had fallen into a bloody heap at Joe’s bedside. And Joe….

Numb, Ben stumbled forward. He didn’t know…couldn’t tell if his youngest son was still breathing. Joe’s eyes were closed; and he was lying still…so still.

“Joe?” Adam called out softly, his voice strained.

Little Joe did not move.

“Joseph?” Ben echoed as he approached the bed. But the boy gave no indication of having heard him.

When Davenport’s body prevented him from moving closer still, Ben sat down on the mattress and reached forward to place a trembling hand on Joe’s chest. “Little Joe? Can you hear me, son?”

After an agonizing moment of uncertainty, he felt it. Joe’s chest rose and fell beneath his prodding fingers, drawing in small, barely discernible breaths. Thank God, Ben said silently, closing his eyes in quiet relief.

“Pa?” Adam asked in a whisper.

“He’s alive.” Ben took a deep breath of his own before setting to work.

Once he’d convinced himself the blood on Joe’s nightclothes was Davenport’s, he gave his attention to Adam. Hamilton and Hop Sing had already helped him to his feet, but Adam seemed none too anxious to tear his gaze away from Little Joe.

“How could he?” Adam struggled to say. “I never thought….”

Ben grasped his good shoulder. “Let’s get you back to bed, son.”

Adam did not seem to have heard him. “I couldn’t move him. I couldn’t…”

Realizing Adam had shifted his gaze to Davenport, Ben had no interest in following it. But then he noticed Hamilton was looking there as well.

“He was strong as a bull,” Hamilton said. “He should not have been so strong. He was wounded, weak.”

“Desperate,” Ben offered. “Desperate men find strength in their very desperation.”

“But why?” Hamilton asked. “What makes a man so desperate to kill another?”

“What makes a man hunt another? Only God can say what drove him to do the things he did.”

“I am the hunter.” At first, Ben wasn’t sure he’d heard anything; the words had been hushed, no louder than a breath. But then they were repeated. “I am the hunter.” And Ben knew it had been Phillip Davenport who’d spoken.

Reluctant and enraged, Ben looked down at the fallen murderer. Davenport’s eyes were open and looking outward at nothing at all, as though he was speaking to some unseen spirit.

“I am the hunter,” he said again, his brow furrowing, puzzled. “I am….” And then his brow rose, his eyes widening in surprise. No…fear, Ben decided. With one, final rattling breath, he passed from this earth, the fright never passing from his gaze, not even when his eyes grew cloudy.

Ben was disturbed to find comfort in that.

*****

In the following hours — and days — Adam found that the house had lost its sense of home. Safety became a word, nothing more. He started at every stray sound, feeling like a skittish animal cowering at every clap of thunder. Wary of shadows stalking his family in the night, he had no hope of shutting those shadows out; whenever he closed his eyes, he saw Bongani squeezing the life out of Hoss, or Davenport maniacally attacking Joe.

Logic told him he was being a fool. Both the hunter and his companion were dead. The house was as secure as ever.

But logic could not quiet the restless beating of his heart at any light footstep in the hall, even Hop Sing’s familiar shuffle. Logic had no power in dreams haunted by the ghosts of a killer as well as his victims. And logic…. Well, logic did make it clear he had good reason to continue to worry over Little Joe.

Infection and fever plagued Adam’s youngest brother for so many hours Adam started to lose track of one day’s ending and another’s beginning. He watched Joe struggle day and night, listening to mumbled cries that told him Joe’s dreams were visited by his same ghosts. In time, as Joe grew stronger, Adam grew weaker, until he found himself trapped in his own bed, and locked into his own dreams.

And then one day he opened his eyes to find Joe sitting beside him. “What are you doing here?” he asked groggily.

Joe’s brows rose. His eyes rolled. The grin he tried to contain dug divots into his cheeks. “Well that’s a fine how do you do!”

“I mean…shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I seem to recall asking the same of you more than once in recent days.”

Adam sighed. “I suppose you were right. That probably means I am, too.”

“Maybe. But….” Joe went silent, turning his gaze to the window.

“But what?”

When Joe looked back his way, Adam was disappointed to see the dimples gone. “Out on that mountain,” Joe said, “you spent that whole time, all of it, looking out for me. And even when we got back here — even though we were home and you didn’t have to anymore — you were still looking out for me…when you should have been looking out for yourself.”

“Don’t kid yourself. You did your fair share. If you hadn’t been looking out for me, you wouldn’t have that second crease in your head and I….” Adam stopped the words from coming, and then wondered why. “I’d be dead,” he finished bluntly.

Joe’s eyes started to glisten. “I’m sorry, Adam! I can’t help thinking if I’d left like you wanted, like you tried to tell him — if you’d been totally on your own out there — I bet you would have outfoxed him.” Despite his rising tears, Joe smiled at Adam with something that looked disturbingly like admiration, a look he’d used to give years ago to the older brother who was already doing a man’s work while he’d still been very much a little boy.

“No, Joe,” Adam quickly corrected. “I was wrong to ask him to let you go. Even if he’d agreed, he would have seen to it you never got away.”

“Don’t forget he was a man of his word. If he agreed…”

Adam gave his brother a pointed stare. “He would have slipped something into his terms, a loophole he’d make sure I overlooked. And then, I assure you, any outfoxing I might have managed would have been outdone by my worrying that I’d find you just like….” Adam clamped down on his jaw, seeing his ghosts again with vivid clarity: first, the woman, then Hank, then…. He worked to force the images as deep into the recesses of his mind as he could. “Just like you and I found all the others,” he added softly.

Seeming to struggle with the same images, Joe looked to the ground.

“Let’s just say we’re even,” Adam said to Joe’s responding silence.

And then it was clear Joe could say nothing. He was fighting too hard to keep his feelings from overwhelming him. Adam often wasn’t sure whether Joe’s inability to rein in his emotions was a gift or a curse. Right then, as tears threatened to spill despite the small grin reawakening those divots, Adam took it as a gift.

“Think you can make it back to bed on your own?” Adam asked.

“I made it here, didn’t I?” Joe answered, a quiver in his voice.

“Then go. We really are home. It really is over. And I think it’s safe to say we can each look out for ourselves for a while.”

Joe nodded, pulling in a breath so deep Adam envied it; his own breathing was still clipped, thanks to the wound in his shoulder. After a moment, Joe rose and started a slow, limping trek to the door.

“Joe?” Adam called out as his brother reached the threshold — although he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to say. When Joe turned to look back at him, the words that finally came were the same ones he’d said to Hop Sing a few days before, and they were just as fitting now as they’d been then. “Thank you.”

Joe gave him another glistening grin. “For what? Waking you up just now?”

This time, Adam grinned back. “For negotiating a better price than I dared imagine back in Placerville, and….”

Joe pulled down his brows, the action obvious from across the room for the way it pulled at the bandage still circling his head. “What do you know? I actually forgot all about that.”

“Yeah? Well, don’t forget it. You did good back there. Just like you did good out on that mountain.”

Joe’s chest rose and fell. His voice softened. “Wish I’d done better.”

“We’re both still here. I’d say we both did well enough.”

“Maybe.”

“No maybe about it.”

“Whatever you say, older brother.” It was a phrase Joe had often used, usually infused with anger, frustration or sarcasm. This time, Joe said it differently, as though somehow he’d suddenly found a degree of value in the words.

Adam smiled sadly, staring at the door long after Joe closed it behind him. “And for looking out for me,” he whispered finally, knowing only the ghosts could hear him. Then he closed his eyes again, and was both surprised and grateful to see nothing more sinister in the darkness than Little Joe’s grin.

*****

Epilogue

Joe knew he was witnessing a spectacle of magic. It had to be magic. The way Hop Sing’s cousin made the wooden top dance along a string just couldn’t happen without magic. Joe watched, mesmerized, while the cousin watched him. And then the man told Joe to try it. He even showed Joe how. And Joe was able to do it, too, to make that top dance along that thin, little string. It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of fumbles. But the top was sturdy enough to survive a hundred crashes.

Then the cousin was gone, but Joe’s friend, Mitch, was there. And Joe showed him the trick. and he tried it, too. He also dropped it a dozen times, just like Joe.

Then they turned away — only for a moment. A moment, that was all. By the time they turned back, it was gone.

The cousin was angry at Joe for being so careless with his gift. And Hop Sing was angry at Joe for making the cousin angry. And Joe lost his magic. Old Cranky Hank stole it. He was dead, but he still stole it. He was a dead, cold corpse with a hole in his gut yelling at Joe for making a ruckus.

But it was the hunter who’d made the ruckus, wasn’t it? The hunter was yelling at Joe. He’d wanted Adam to make that top dance like Hop Sing’s cousin had. But Joe couldn’t do it, so Adam said he wouldn’t either. Instead, he sat beside Joe on that cold, hard ground, watching Bongani clumsily try to make that top dance along a string of thread attached to the stitches in Joe’s arm.

And Hoss was laughing.

Hoss?

“You sure that’s how I’m s’posed to do it, Hop Sing?”

“Hop Sing sure!”

How did Hoss and Hop Sing end up in the hunter’s camp?

“Aw, doggone it!” Hoss was saying. “Ain’t you gonna show me?”

“Hop Sing not skilled like cousin.”

There was a heavy thud, close enough to make the ground shake. Joe felt a vibration in his arm and with it a dull, nagging ache from Bongani’s stitches. Somehow Hoss had taken Bongani’s place, but he couldn’t make the toy dance any better than Bongani had.

“Hoss wake Little Joe!” Hop Sing sounded angry. “Go! Take kōngzhú outside!”

“Joe fell asleep again?” Hoss asked.

No. Joe wasn’t asleep. He was right there. Watching. Or…listening, anyway. He realized he wasn’t really seeing anything anymore.

“Sure did,” Adam said then.

“Shucks. I didn’t know that. I wouldn’t have messed with this thing if I’d a known. Why’d he come downstairs if all he was gonna do is sleep?”

I’m not sleeping, Joe said. Only…he couldn’t really say for sure he’d spoken.

“Because,” Pa said, “he’s tired of being upstairs.”

Joe’s fingers curled around the thin cushion beneath him, reminding him he wasn’t on the ground after all. He was on the settee. He was at home, not at the hunter’s camp. There wasn’t any hunt anymore, just like there wasn’t any magic.

They were all gone. Hank. Bongani. The hunter. Even Hop Sing’s cousin was gone. But Joe was home. And so was Adam. And that toy top that used to spin its magic dancing along a string…that was home now, too. The stagecoach company had emptied out Hank’s trunk, and Adam had made sure they gave that old toy back to Joe — although Joe wasn’t really sure why. He wasn’t a kid anymore. And there wasn’t any magic left, not after what that hunter had done to all those people — and especially to Hank.

“Now,” Pa added, “why don’t we all go outside and let him sleep?”

“Notasleep,” Joe mumbled — or he tried to, anyway. Pa had been right. He was tired of being upstairs. He was tired of being alone with his dreams, trapped in his room with the ghosts of a hunt that had stolen a whole lot more magic than a man like Hank could even imagine.

“Joe?” Adam asked. “You say something?”

“Notasleep.” There. It was still a mumble, but he was sure he’d made a sound that time. He had to make them hear him. He didn’t want them to go outside. He didn’t want them to leave him alone.

“Get those rocks out of your mouth and maybe we’ll believe you.”

Joe could hear the grin in Adam’s tone; he could almost believe it buoyed him to the surface, lifting him away from all those ghosts.

“M’awake,” Joe mumbled a bit louder than before.

“Sure you are,” Adam teased.

“I am.” Joe finally blinked his eyes open. “I’m awake.” He saw them then, all of them. Adam, looking thinner than he should, but much healthier than he had a mere day ago. Pa, the worry he’d been carrying since finding Adam and Joe finally smoothing from his brow.  And Hoss, grinning like a kid with a shiny new toy despite the yellow remnants of fading bruises that reminded Joe too clearly of his middle brother’s struggle with that fiend of a man, Bongani. Even Hop Sing looked happy, a rarity Joe could never overlook. They were all smiling at Joe, and somewhere through the lifting fog of his unplanned nap, he could almost swear he saw old Cranky Hank grinning too.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss stepped back to try maneuvering that silly top along its two-handled string. “What do you bet I’m gonna out-do you with this thing by the time that arm of yours is all healed up?” The top fell from its perch on the string almost as soon as he’d started trying to balance it.

“Not a chance, brother.” Joe turned his head, meeting Adam’s gaze. He noticed something was missing. Tension, he decided. Adam was relaxed, like there wasn’t anything to worry about — like whatever had happened out there on that hunt, and all the horror that came after — well…like it really was finished, like there was nothing left of it, no lingering scar to feed its ghosts with morsels of doubt and regret.

And suddenly Joe got to wondering if some of that old magic had been salvaged after all.

“I’ll have you beat on my very first try,” Joe boasted.

He did see doubt in Adam’s gaze then. But it was a good kind of doubt, a kind Joe could live with just fine.

***The End***

Closing note: the Chinese word for what I’ve referred to as a “toy top dancing on a string” is called Kōngzhú

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