Ruby Lips and White Satin (by freyakendra)

Summary: On a quiet night after a rough afternoon that could have taken their little brother from them, Hoss and Adam ponder Joe’s instincts and … athleticism.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count: 1,846


 

Joe

A week. How could I lose a whole week? I remember going up the mountain, but…not coming down. I can see myself leaving the yard. I can feel the saddle beneath me as Cochise picks his way carefully up the trail. I can smell the crisp scent of spring in the high country, where snowmelt is spilling over rocks and gullies, filling shallow creek beds, threatening flood.

I smell something else, too. Something heady, like…too much perfume.

No…not perfume. Or…maybe…maybe some. It’s flowery. Sweet. But…that’s not all I smell. There’s something else, too…like medicine. It makes me gag. I try to turn away, but…it’s always there, in front of me.

“Let him go!”

Adam? His voice is the first thing I hear. The only thing, maybe. I hear him calling through the dark, but when I open my eyes again, I can’t see anyone. There’s water nearby, trickling over rocks.

No…trickling from a pitcher to a glass. And it’s Pa beside me, not Adam.

Yeah. I made it home. Only…I keep getting sick. Keep…falling asleep, too. But I made it home. Only….

Adam didn’t, did he? No. He’s up in the mountains somewhere. Hoss and Sheriff Coffee went up there to look for him, but they won’t find him. I know they won’t find him. Because…because of the ruby lips and white satin.

They took him. I don’t know why, but…they took him.

“Adam!” I sit up fast. Too fast. All that heady perfume and medicine swirls around me and makes me start gagging again. Pa thrusts a basin toward me in time to catch whatever might come up. But all that’s left is dry heaves. Dry heaves, a sick stomach, a pounding headache…and the image of ruby lips and white satin mixing with the sight of blood on the snow.

“They took him.” My voice sounds raw.

“Joseph?” I look into Pa’s eyes and see that I’ve failed him. “Are you remembering something new?”

I can’t face him…can’t face the hurt, the worry. I’m worried, too, but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t tell the difference between memories and dreams. I remember opening my eyes and seeing ruby lips and white satin, but I don’t even know if it was real. And…and blood on the snow.

When I turn away from Pa’s worried eyes, my attention is drawn to the upholstery. I see red and white lines and wonder if all I’ve been imagining is just another vision of this old settee. Were these red lines the ruby lips I keep remembering? These white ones the white satin?

“Blood.” The word comes out before I even know why. “On the snow.”

“Joe,” Pa takes my chin, gently pulling my face toward him again. “Tell me what you remember.”

Then it hits me. “Ruby.” Yes. It was a name, wasn’t it? It was her name.

Pa’s eyes widen slightly, but I can’t share his hope.

There was someone else. A man…. “Mac?”

“That’s good, Joe.” Pa sits on the edge of the low table in front of me. He’s excited, but I…I’m still worried.

“This baby brother of yours will sleep like a baby or like the dead. It’s your call Adam.”

“Adam.” This time when I say his name, it’s just a whisper. And I can’t look at Pa anymore. I’m looking inside myself instead…focusing on memories that might not be memories at all. “They…used me to get him to do what they wanted.”

“What was that, Joe? What did they want him to do?”

“Admit it, Adam.” Ruby’s voice is soft…playful. “You don’t want to stay stuck in this god-awful cattle country any more than I do. Come with us and the world will be yours. Or stay here and let this pretty little baby brother of yours pay the price. Either way, Mister Ben Cartwright’s gonna have one less son tonight. I’ll let you decide which son that’s gonna be. And why he’s not going home.”

“He didn’t want to go.” I try to look at Pa again, but I can’t. “They said they’d kill me if he didn’t.”

“Where, Joe? Please. You must remember something about what they expected Adam to do for them.”

But…. “I don’t. The medicine. And…my head.”

“Easy, son. It’s all right. Just wait until you’re feeling better.”

But it’s not all right. It’s all jumbled. All these dreams and memories. Someone hit me. I saw blood on the snow. And then they just kept spooning medicine into me, or…sometimes they made me breathe it, too, didn’t they? I couldn’t wake up. Couldn’t fight. Couldn’t even tell Adam to tell them to go to Hell. I couldn’t do anything but lay around like a rag doll until…until they weren’t there to give me any more of that dang medicine.

“He went with ‘em, Pa. They…took him.”

“We’ll find Adam, son. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.”

I wish I could be as sure about that as Pa. But I can’t be. Because I know I’m only home now because Adam agreed to go with them. He agreed. They took him but…he agreed.

He agreed to not ever come back.

*****

They said I’d been gone for a week. Now I’ve been home for a week and I still can’t remember much of anything from the one I lost. The memories come in pieces, little chunks of time, moments that don’t seem to have anything to do with one another. I’m not even sure which are memories and which are just dreams — bad dreams…nightmares.

“Let him go!” Adam shouts those words again and again in my head. Mostly when I close my eyes.

I don’t like closing my eyes. I’m tired of it. Tired of sleeping. Seems like all I’ve been able to do since I got back is sleep. Sleep and dream. Like I’m living in a dream, the worst kind of dream, one in which nothing makes any sense at all. I hardly even know where I am half the time. Sometimes I know I’m home, in my own bed. Other times I’d swear I’m still up by that timber cabin in the high country, lying belly down in the melting snow and trying to figure out whose blood is making it glisten red.

When I first started remembering, I kept thinking the blood had been Adam’s. Now I’m not so sure. Might’ve been my own. Doc found a lump on the back of my head after I got home. A couple of them, actually, although one was worse than the other. Pa said there were clumps of dried blood in my hair. I guess they must’ve hit me. More than once. Might’ve been a concussion made me lose a day or two, but the doc also said they drugged me. Sedated. That was the word he used. He said they must’ve kept me sedated the whole time, that whole lost week. Or part of it anyway. The part after the time I lost with the concussion.

But why? What were they doing up there? I could almost believe they’d been waiting for Adam and me. Or…Adam. Whatever they’d wanted to do up there had nothing to do with me, except for the fact that I’d ridden up with Adam. It was him they wanted to talk to. Me, they just wanted to keep quiet.

“Let him go!” Adam shouted. I can still hear him shouting it.

And something else….

It’s like another piece is starting to fall into place. Another one of those missing moments. I can feel something pressing down against my forehead. Something cold. Smooth. Round. Hollow.

The tip of a gun.

They were going to shoot me, weren’t they?

“All right! I’ll do it!” Adam said. “Just…let him go.”

And then they did. They let me go. Or…they left me alone, anyway. They left me up there…left it up to me, dazed and drugged as I was, to find my way home. If they hadn’t left Cochise, too, I might never have made it. He knew how to get me home even if I didn’t.

No, they didn’t let me go, exactly. It was them who went. And wherever they went, they took Adam with them. They took him because….

Because he gave Ruby what she wanted.

Ruby…. I can’t picture her. Can’t see her face. But…I can feel her hair brushing along my cheek, tickling my nose. It’s red, isn’t it? Red hair and red lips. And sweet perfume. And a laugh that sounds like a dance on a summer day. A dance and a picnic and fireworks. A laugh that….

“Pa!” I shout, and then I can’t breathe. My heart’s pounding so fast it’s making my lungs work fast, too. I’m panting by the time Pa runs into my room wearing his night clothes.

Yes. It’s nighttime. But it hadn’t just been a dream. I’d swear it wasn’t a dream.

“Ruby,” I tell him as soon as I can start breathing again. “She’s…she’s Eunice Parsons!”

Pa’s squinting back at me, like he’s trying to see what I’ve seen. “Are you sure, son?”

“Last summer,” I can still see it…hear it…smell it…. Last summer is coming back to me even clearer than yesterday. But I know now. I know it’s the same. “The way she was laughing and carrying on with Adam…and…and then with me when she wanted to make Adam jealous.”

“Yes, Joe. I remember.” Pa sighs, and I can tell he’s no happier about the memory than I am.

Eunice Parsons made everyone uncomfortable that day. By the next day, she was gone. Rode out on the stage after a stranger accepted what Adam wouldn’t, letting her hang all over him. He flaunted her around like she was a blue ribbon prize he’d won at the fair. I think we were all happy that stranger came along. But no one was happier than Adam. He could finally go into town without looking over his shoulder. I used to tease him about Eunice. I’d tell him she was after him like a fly to manure. The way I’d said it was none too kind.

Now I’m sorry. And I want to tell him I’m sorry, but…

“Joe?” Pa’s hand grips my arm.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I was just…. It was her. I’d swear it was.”

He sighs again. “Well, all right. That gives us something more to go on. Do you remember anything else? Anything about this Mac fellow you mentioned?”

“No. Nothing. Except….” There is something else, isn’t there? “Boss.” I say the word the instant it jumps into my mind. “They called him ‘boss’.”

“Who were they? How many were there?” I can see hope flaring up in his eyes.

I don’t want to take that hope away again. But the rest of the men…. They were sort of like…like strangers in a strange town. You see them, but not really. You forget who you saw as soon as you walk away. I can’t tell him I’m sorry again, so I just shake my head.

He squeezes my arm once more. “It’s all right, son. Don’t try to force the memories. Paul said we should give it time. And even if you don’t remember, we’ll keep looking. We will find him, Joe.”

“Yeah.” My voice is thin. My hopes are, too.

Hoss and Sheriff Coffee lost the trail in all that spring rain. And then the sheriff had to get back to looking after Virginia City. And now Hoss is planning to go up there again himself. Hoss is big, but he’s hardly big enough to get Adam back from a whole town full of strangers all by himself.

No. That’s not right, is it? It was a cabin full, not a town.

Damn these broken memories!

“I’ve got to go with Hoss, Pa.” I’m panting again. Or near enough. I’m tired and I’m angry and I just can’t give it any more time, no matter what Doc Martin says.

“No.” It’s amazing how much force…how much determination Pa can put into that one word.

It doesn’t matter. I’ve got more determination than him. At least…this time. He wants Adam back as much as I do. But I’m the one who was with Adam up there. I’m the only one who knows what happened…even if…even if I don’t know what I know. “I have to, Pa. I can’t sit around here any longer. I can’t wait for the memories to come back. Adam can’t wait!”

“Joe….” He shakes his head, looking sad and frustrated. “You’ve been through something terrible. And you’re still recovering. You’ve lost weight. You’ve only just begun to get your appetite back. You need to build your strength back up.”

“I’ll build it on the trail. Pa, I have to go. You see that, don’t you? I have to!”

And maybe…maybe he does see it. Because he’s not saying anything. In fact, he’s starting to nod slowly. He’s giving in. “All right, Joe.” I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. “All right,” he says again. “We’ll leave after breakfast. I’ll ask Hop Sing to pack plenty of food so you don’t have any excuse to lose more weight along the way.”

He smiles and I grin back at him, feeling relieved and scared all at the same time. I’m relieved because I know I’ll remember a whole lot more as soon as I’m back at that cabin. And I won’t have to do that remembering alone. Pa and Hoss will both be right there with me. But I’m scared about what those memories might tell me. I’m scared because somewhere deep down inside me, I know…I just know Adam’s already too far out of reach.

*****

Adam

It has been two weeks. Two weeks….

Fifteen days ago, I was a rancher. I had a comfortable home. I had brothers who could be both exasperating and entertaining, a father who’d had a hard time realizing I’m not a child anymore…and, with all of them, a family I would give anything to go back to. But I don’t see how that’s possible anymore.

Just fifteen days away from that home have made me into not just a captive, but also a fugitive. Perhaps I’m not a wanted man, not yet anyway. But I am a bank robber. I willingly helped Ruby and her gang empty the safe at a bank in Rubicon, and then another in Placerville.

I’m not sure why we came back into these mountains yesterday. But being here — being so much closer to home than I’ve been — I feel my absence from that home far more keenly than I had on the road.

We’ve taken up temporary residence in a line shack. Just a few miles from here is the cabin where Joe and I had spent a week…a week in which he’d been trapped in a drugged stupor, and I’d been holding my breath and praying they wouldn’t kill him.

As for today…. Well, today is starting far differently than the other fourteen mornings I’ve come awake to find myself amongst a gang of thieves rather than the family those thieves have stolen me from.

This time, this morning, only Ruby, Mac and I are riding out. The others are staying behind, watching us go. Yes, just the three of us. And it’s not an easy ride, not with my hands tied and my mouth gagged. Why would they take such precautions out here? It’s almost as though they believe I’ll have a chance to cry out — as though we could encounter someone who might hear me. Maybe this should give me hope, but I can’t help feeling like a lamb being led to slaughter.

Is that what they’re intending? What they’ve intended all along? First to prove that I could be made to do their bidding, and then to kill me?

Could Eunice Parsons truly harbor so much hatred against me?

So it would seem.

We’re heading further up the mountain rather than down. Certainly, there are no banks to be robbed up here. There are no safes. There’s no money at all, nothing of value except these towering trees and layers of melting snow…and crisp, cool air that calms the senses. No, none of this offers any sort of value to a woman like Ruby. But to a man like me….

This air is easing my soul…somewhat…calming me as nothing has, as nothing could during these past fifteen days. For a few moments at least, I can think beyond the crimes I’ve committed, past the lives I have devastated, taking away the hopes and dreams that money had represented…past the worried eyes, the rage and the tears I’ve seen on the faces of those who’ve lost everything because of me.

Then again, I suppose even this cool air isn’t allowing me to think past all of that, is it? No. Not past it. But…aroundit, maybe. I can’t change what I’ve done. And I wouldn’t. Not if it meant Joe’s life would be forfeit.

“Don’t you for a minute think that little brother of yours is out of the woods,” Ruby has said often enough. “You don’t behave, he’s dead. Got it?”

Yes. I’ve got it. Yet I won’t stop trying to find a way around that disturbing threat. At least, not while I’m still breathing.

I’ve gotten to know Ruby and the four men riding with her, but there’s another man, a fifth man, whom I’ve never seen. He’s the one who worries me, the one I fear poses a real threat to Joe.

He visited us last night in the shack. I couldn’t see him, and heard only the rumble of a baritone voice when he’d called to Mac, telling him to step outside. Ruby had joined them. When Mac and Ruby had returned inside, they’d cheerfully informed the others that things were falling into place…whatever those things might be.

And now the three of us are riding a trail up the mountain, headed…to the cabin?

Yes. If we keep going in this direction, that is exactly where we will end up.

I suppose that means they’ve had enough of me, enough of my…assistance. I helped them to rob two banks in these past two weeks. Both attempts might well have failed if my input had not been sought…and given. What else could I do, with Joe’s life still hanging in the balance? I pointed out flaws in their plans. I offered solutions. And when they tried to figure how to get away cleanly, I suggested they not even try, that they instead could hide without really hiding. Each time, we performed our…task…at night, and then, rather than running, returned to the local hotel. We rose with the rest of the town, and feigned anger and horror over losing our money along with everyone else, money we’d deposited in the targeted bank the day before.

Yes, Ruby and her gang could have been caught by now, if not for the suggestions I’ve given them. Mac is cunning, but not particularly intelligent. Sam is a killer, nothing more. Gabe is a genius with locks, but he doesn’t make plans — he merely follows them. And Doc…well, he served his purpose with Joe, didn’t he? Doling out chemicals to keep Joe unconscious or barely conscious until my hand had been forced and my decision made.

And then there’s Ruby herself. How she controls these men, I don’t know. There’s something that connects them, perhaps…a unity of purpose, I suppose. Or a shared…thrill.

Wait…. We should have taken that turn. We’re not heading to the cabin after all. No, we’re going to the ridge above.

Maybe the cabin is too…civil of a place to leave me after I’m dead. They’ll leave me in the trees instead, out in the open where animals and birds can pick my bones clean…where no one will ever find me.

They’ve had their fun. They know what to do now, how to steal what they want and get away with it. They don’t need me anymore. I suppose they want to end it close to where it had all started, this high stakes game they’re playing with people’s lives…particularly with my brother’s life. And my own.

When they ride back down the mountain again without me, what will that mean for Joe?

I can’t exactly ask, now can I? I can’t say anything with this damnable gag in my mouth.

Dear God, please, just leave him be. If they don’t need for me to behave any longer, what purpose would it serve to harm him?

Hoss and Pa will keep him safe. Yes, of course they will. They have to.

We’ve stopped in the woods directly above the cabin. I can’t help staring down at it, remembering that week…a week spent arguing and pleading…and fighting to keep Joe alive, while Joe fought simply to stay conscious.

“I said move, Cartwright!” Mac grabs me and pulls me from the saddle.

I land clumsily on my side, ramming my shoulder into a foot of gray, crusty, half melted snow. Apparently, that’s where I’m meant to stay. My attempt to rise earns me a kick that dazes me even more than the cold slush…and more than the reverie that had left me deaf to Mac’s command to dismount a moment ago.

Wasting no time, Mac and Ruby both drag me to a nearby tree. And suddenly I find myself sitting on the ground, secured to the trunk with a coil of rope.

I don’t understand…don’t quite know what to expect.

They’re both scooping up handfuls of this slushy snow. Giggling and teasing one another like children… they’re packing it into palm-sized balls. Like children….

But Ruby’s not giggling anymore, is she? She’s looking at me with more hatred than I could have thought possible.

“Let me show you, dear.” Mac’s beside her now. He turns toward me and draws his arm back.

I see the snowball coming at me. I can’t do anything to avoid it. I can’t even duck. It hits me hard in the chest, and I’d swear it’s made of ice rather than snow. I’m still reeling from the impact when another hits my shoulder. And then my arm. My face. My ear….

I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Can’t fight back. I can’t even brace myself for the next impact. Or the one after that.

They might as well be stoning me to death. And still, they’re giggling.

*****

How long has it been? Hours? I’m wet, shaking and so numb I can’t really feel all these bruises anymore. But…something’s changed. I heard a whistle a moment ago. It came from somewhere below us. And now Ruby and Mac are dragging me to the edge. When had they untied me from that tree?

I suppose they’re going to throw me over. I should struggle. Maybe I should even be afraid. Yet…. I can’t really bring myself to care. I’m too tired. Too wet. Too numb….

…Until I see my family riding up the trail toward the cabin. Hoss is in the lead. Pa is riding drag. And Joe…. He’s with them, thank God! I couldn’t be sure he’d made it home. Ill as he’d been when we’d left him, I could hardly imagine it possible for him to find his way back.

Ruby knew, though, didn’t she? Her threats about the fifth man who’s been watching Joe…the faceless baritone…the whistler. It’s true, then. Joe had made it home. But he’s still not safe.

At least for now he’s protected, riding between Pa and Hoss.

But…why? Why are they here? Did Ruby and Mac do something to draw them here? Or was it the fifth man who drew us here instead, because he’d been somehow party to my family’s plans? Because he’d known they’d be coming?

I don’t know what to think anymore. I can find neither sense nor reason in their actions. All I know is that something is meant to happen out here, something that my family is meant to see…or…that I’m meant to see.

God, no! What if…?

Go back! It’s a trap! My cries are useless. This wet, thick gag muffles them too much. I’m no louder than the rustle of the trees around me.

Ruby and Mac are going to make me watch, aren’t they? They’re going to make me watch as my family is cut down. All three of them.

Go back! Please! Dear God, please!

But wait…. Nothing’s happening. Neither one of this strange, outlaw couple is going for a gun. They’re merely settling in to watch…giggling…waiting for the show to begin.

Maybe it’s the whistler who has the gun.

Where is he? I don’t see him anywhere. The shadows are too thick, just like they’d been two weeks ago, when Joe and I….

Joe…. He’s still not well. His dismount is slower, more deliberate than usual. And he lost his balance there, just for a moment, when he hit the ground. He’s thinner, too. How long ago did he make it home? He’d been in bad shape but at least somewhat on the mend from his beating when I’d left him. Had he grown worse?

Don’t think about that. There’s no point to it. I can’t change what’s happened…neither what happened in that cabin, nor in Rubicon nor Placerville. What matters now is I can see that Joe’s better. He’s well enough to ride back up here. And he’s not alone.

Dammit! Where is that whistler?

Hoss is raising his arm, pointing to the cabin.

The cabin….

Two weeks ago, Joe and I had followed a woman’s screams and wisps of chimney smoke to that very cabin. We’d expected to encounter a distraught woman pleading for her life. We’d found instead…Ruby. She’d sauntered casually toward us — an odd sight, if ever there was one. She’d looked like a saloon girl pretending to be a high society lady, swaying her hips in a swish of satin skirts and dragging a fine, white cape behind her through the dirty snow.

Eunice Parsons. Ruby.

A red-haired witch.

I can smell her beside me now; her perfume is like poison to this crisp mountain air.

Joe’s remembering too, isn’t he? His stance has gone from curious to rigid. His chest is heaving. He swivels around, his gaze moving to the places where each of Ruby’s gang members had begun to step from the shadows, guns drawn.

It’s almost like it’s happening again — in my mind…and in Joe’s.

That spot on the ground where he’s looking now. That’s where he’d fallen at my feet after Sam drove the butt of his rifle into the back of Joe’s skull. I can still see Joe hitting the ground. He’d tried to turn to his side, to face me. And I’d tried to reach for him. Mac and Gabe held me back.

In my mind, that gray snow is still tinted red from Joe’s blood. His glazed eyes had glanced up at me without focus, full of questions I’d been helpless to answer. And then Sam had hit him again, for no reason other than that Joe’s eyes had been open at all.

And now I find myself fighting spasms of nausea and anger.

Yes, Joe is remembering, just as I am. But it won’t be enough. It won’t bring my family any closer to finding me. He can’t possibly remember what he never knew. They’d said nothing about where I would be taken when we left that cabin. And Joe had been too drugged to remember anything he’d heard in there at all.

My family is heading inside. I want to join them, to at least be able to shout down to Joe that he did nothing wrong, that none of this was his fault. But I’m as helpless now as we’d both been then.

I wait and watch, listening to the rustle of the trees, to the soft crackling sounds of melting snow, to the distant cry of a hawk…and to the hushed giggles of a sadistic woman, until my brothers and father step sullenly back outside.

I can hardly believe they’re mounting up again, preparing to ride away, to leave me behind as I’d left Joe fifteen days ago.

It’s foolish, I know. Childish. But I can’t help feeling a sense of abandonment. Is this what Joe had felt?

I’m sorry, Joe.

It’s almost like he heard me. He turns back, sweeping his gaze one last time across the trees, and…hesitating when he spots the ridge. It’s almost as though he knows I’m here. But he can’t see me. No. Not through this brush. Not with all these shadows. No, he can’t see me.

I shouldn’t be surprised when he turns again to follow Hoss and Pa. I shouldn’t be…but I am. God how I’d wanted him to see me.

Spent…beaten…shivering, I can hardly avoid retching when Ruby and Mac celebrate beside me with a far too long and far too intimate kiss.

But what is it, exactly, that they’re celebrating? The fact that they’d successfully separated me from my family? Or is it because they’ve just proved to themselves how predictable my family can be?

Yes, of course. They know how to use our concern for one another against us, don’t they?

But why? What are they scheming? What’s next?

Collapsing into the slushy snow, I can only close my eyes and pray that Hoss and Pa continue to hold Joe between them, to keep him…protected.

*****

Joe

When we returned from the cabin that day, the front door was open. So was the safe behind Pa’s desk. It was open…and empty. Pa had to go back to the bank in Virginia City to take out more money for the payroll so we could be ready for spring roundup.

Then, both Pa and Hoss kept focusing on that…on the roundup.

“It is not a matter of choice, Joe.” Pa told me. “It’s a matter of responsibility.”

I knew that. I know it. But I have a responsibility to Adam, too. We all do. And we’ve lost another whole week now. It’s been almost a month since Adam…. Well, since he went away.

I’d pretty much decided I was going to hit the trail on my own to look for him. But now….

Now I’m looking at a wanted poster with a picture of a man I recognize, a man I didn’t remember until I saw this poster…until Marshal Danbury delivered it right to our front door.

“He’s a professional, Mister Cartwright.” The marshal’s a rough looking man. There’s a long scar on his forehead and a hard look in his eyes. Not a mean look, just a hard one, as though life’s been hard on him but…not like he’s gonna turn around and make it hard on anyone else. Unless there’s a real need to, I guess. “This man,” he taps the poster on the low table in front of the settee, “Gabriel Benton, is a professional thief. I don’t think there’s a lock made he can’t open. He successfully breached a number of supposedly unbreachable safes back east before he disappeared. Headed west, some say. He might even be right here in Nevada territory.”

“You think he’s the one who stole our payroll?” Pa asks.

“I do. In fact, he’s probably also responsible for recent robberies at banks in Placerville and Rubicon. It would have taken someone with Benton’s expertise to get those safes open without dynamite.”

Pa shakes his head. “If that’s true, why target the Ponderosa?”

“Yeah,” Hoss adds. “There’d be a whole lot more for him to get out of the bank in Virginia City.”

I think I know the answer. Or at least part of it. I can’t shake the feeling that Gabriel Benton had been at that cabin. I can’t really remember seeing him. But… Gabe…. I know that name. They’d said that name there, hadn’t they? I think he…

“And we can connect him with this man, Charlie McGregor.” When the marshal spreads out the second poster right next to the first one, my whole body goes cold. “He’s a professional too, a swindler. Cons good folks to get what he wants. Goes by the name of ‘Mac’.”

I can feel myself lying in the snow again, up by that cabin. I can see myself looking up at Adam.

Those two men, those two faces looking back at me now from that table. They’d been holding Adam’s arms. Gabriel Benton — Gabe –took hold of Adam’s right arm, and Mac –Boss — took hold of the left. It was him. It was both of them. I’m sure of it. I’m as sure as…

“Joe?” Hoss’ voice pulls me away from the posters, back into the conversation.

He’s looking at me funny. They all are, aren’t they? Pa’s got his brow all furrowed, and the marshal’s hard but somehow kind eyes are scrunched up a little, like he’s studying me.

Hoss looks at both of them before finishing what he’d been trying to say to me. “I said ain’t that Mac fella the one we saw Eunice Parsons with before she headed out on that stage?”

I can’t help but look at the posters again. Both of them. “Yeah.” My voice sounds small. “He was at the cabin, too. He…he’s the one they called ‘Boss.’”

“And Benton?” Marshal Danbury asks after a moment.

I glance at Pa and Hoss, but I can’t keep looking at them. I’d forgotten Gabriel Benton. I should have remembered him sooner. How could I forget seeing him holding Adam back the way he’d done? How could I forget…

“Joe?” This time it’s Pa’s voice pulling me back.

“They…they called him Gabe. I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t remember him, not until I saw this poster. And then seeing Boss, too…. Pa, they were both there.”

“Son,” the marshal says, “from what that sheriff told me back in Virginia City this morning, you’re lucky to remember anything at all. In fact, you might be lucky to be alive.”

“Why am I?” I ask the question before I even think about the words. And then…I’m glad. I need to know. I jump from my seat and clench my fists at my sides. “Why am I alive? Why take Adam and leave me alive?”

The marshal rises more slowly. He nods and takes a deep breath. “You really want to know?”

“Of course I do!”

“Well then…my guess is they’re not finished with you, yet. They’re using your brother in these robberies somehow, and they’re using you — all of you,” he glances over at Hoss and Pa before looking at me again, “to keep Adam in line. Mister Cartwright.” He turns toward Pa. “Was there anything else missing besides the money in the safe? Something personal to Adam, maybe?”

“Well,” Pa shrugs. “Not that we’ve noticed.”

“Have you looked?”

I reach the top of the stairs before anyone else, and then barge into Adam’s room like I would never imagine doing if he were home. But he’s not home. And it’s not because he doesn’t want to be. And then…. And then the first thing I notice is the empty sheath on his desk. “The knife.”

“What knife?” Pa asks behind me.

“The hunting knife Hoss gave him for Christmas.”

“Dadburnit, Joe. You’re right.” Hoss steps past me. He reaches the desk in three strides.

“Mister Cartwright,” the marshal calls in from the hallway, “I’d say it’s likely that payroll robbery won’t be the last you’ll hear from this group. It’d probably be a good idea to leave your upcoming roundup to your foreman and experienced drovers. I don’t think you’re going to want to have your attention divided for a while. Or your family, for that matter.”

Pa looks worried, and Hoss…he looks confused. But me? I’m just angry.

That marshal’s given us things to look for…people to look for. To me, that means he’s given us something to do rather than sitting around here waiting for Adam to come home. And when that marshal makes it clear he’s ready to hit the trail again, I’m dead-set on going with him.

Only…he won’t let me. He holds his hand up toward me and says he works best on his own. And then Pa reminds me what the marshal had said about us not splitting up. And all I can do is watch that marshal ride away.

And now my heart’s pounding as much as that horse’s hooves.

*****

Adam

It’s finally happened. What I’ve feared has finally happened. We’ve killed a man. A young man. A senator’s son.

I know him, too. I…knew…him. I’d met him before, at a soiree in Carson City. I didn’t know him well; I’d simply…methim. And now….

Now he’s dead. Sam Clayborn slit his throat. And he used my knife to do it, a knife he stole from my home to prove to me that he could…to show me that my actions, my decisions continue to pose a risk to the safety of my family, and particularly to Joe. Sam killed this young man for no reason other than that the kid had interrupted them…us. We’d made too much noise. Apparently, young Nick Healey had felt it his duty to investigate. Joe would likely have done the same.

Nick had been almost as young as Joe. He’d been a young man with a lifetime still ahead of him — a lifetime that has now been denied him. Because of us.

I’d warned Ruby and Mac about this possibility. We could plan for every nuance except for one. No matter how late at night we strike, no matter where, there’s always the possibility someone will take notice. And that’s exactly what happened here tonight.

I watched Sam do it. I watched him grab young Nick from behind. I saw him drag my knife across the kid’s throat. And then I saw terror in Nick’s eyes. He knew he was dying.

And now I can’t help but think of Joe. I can still see him lying on the floor in that cabin –on the floor, like an injured animal. He didn’t deserve a bed. Neither of us did.

I can still see Sam holding that gun to the top of Joe’s skull. If I had refused to go along with all of this insanity, Sam would have pulled that trigger. And then it would have been Joe’s blood pooling at my feet.

I saved Joe’s life by coming here, by doing this. I rode away with a gang of outlaws — cutthroats — leaving Joe, sick and barely conscious, to fend for himself.

I’m sure Joe is blaming himself for my disappearance. He’s probably still looking for me, even if he doesn’t know where to look. I’m sure they’re all still looking. I wish to heaven they would stop. Nothing good can come from them finding me, particularly now that I have had a hand in the murder of a senator’s youngest son.

I might as well have been the one who pulled that knife across Nick Healey’s throat. I chose Nick Healey’s death over that of my brother. It doesn’t matter that a month has passed since that choice had been made. I chose to ride away to save Joe. I chose to ride with this gang. I chose to help them explore the thrill of robbing banks. And now that thrill has apparently run its course.

Ruby wanted more. Not more money. No. It has never been about the money for her. What she wanted was more risk. She has grown as bloodthirsty as Sam Clayborn, a hired gun who clearly doesn’t need a gun at all.

God, Joe! Had Nick Healey been less deserving of life than you?

Yes, dammit! In my heart, your life matters far more than any stranger’s. But it had been my choice. My choice has caused this young man to die at my feet.

I can’t…. God help me, I can’t do this anymore.

We should have gone back east. That’s where I’d told them to go. There’s more money in the crowded cities along the Atlantic, more places holding it, hoarding it, and far more places to hide, to blend in. Out here in the west, strangers in town — any town — are noticed. They’re remembered. Each new town we hit lessens our chance of getting away. I have no doubt U.S. marshals have alerted every town, way station and trading post with a telegraph. Sheriffs and vigilant citizens between Virginia City and San Francisco will have become wary of a band of thieves who strike in the night.

Even if Ruby and Mac aren’t concerned about that threat, they should be concerned about the possibility…the probability that someone will eventually recognize me.

But they’re not worried, are they? It’s almost like…like they want to be caught — or, perhaps, almost caught. They get excited over the danger, the risk. That’s why Ruby insisted we go after the senator’s safe tonight. She’s grown bored with quiet banks in deserted business districts after hours. She wanted to try a private residence, a place where nothing but thin walls separates us from any number of people sleeping in silent rooms or sharing drinks in the parlor. And now a young man is dead because the thin walls in the senator’s home couldn’t deaden the various bumps and clatters of our work.

This could be my own home, the Ponderosa. That dead man at my feet could be Joe, or Hoss, or even Pa.

Sam and Gabe have both already been there. They did at our house what we’re doing here, now, taking every dollar in the safe. The only difference was they knew my family wouldn’t be home. But…what if they try again? What if my family is home the next time?

Sam….

Just look at him, standing there with my bloody knife in his hand and a deranged smile on his face. He’s thirsty for blood, all right.

I remember seeing the disappointment in his eyes when Ruby had told him to put down his gun back at that cabin. No matter what I’d said, no matter if I’d agreed to go with them or not, he would have shot Joe. He’d been itching to pull that trigger. It had been Ruby who’d held his hand.

She’d earned my loyalty then. But now? I can’t do this again. I cannot allow another man to die.

“Move, Cartwright!” Sam’s harsh whisper calls me back to the moment…back to this small den in Senator Healey’s estate on the outskirts of Sacramento.

I shake my head before I find my voice. I look into his cold, white-blue eyes, and then say, simply, “No.”

“Move or join him!” he hisses.

“Kill me, then. I’ve done enough.”

My knife is still coated with Nick Healey’s blood. When Sam brings it near my nose, the smell makes me ill. But…I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not even shaking as I had been a moment ago.

“Don’t you dare!” Ruby warns him. “Now put that thing away and get moving! And you, Adam! You know better than to argue! Mark my word, Sam or that partner of his will gladly kill that little brother of yours anytime I tell them to! It’s his life you’re throwing away, not your own.”

I know she’s right. I also know that’s why she’d refused to go back east…or one reason, anyway. She knows we’re always within a few days reach of the Ponderosa…and of Joe. And I can only assume Sam’s partner, the unseen voice I’d heard calling up at us near the cabin three weeks ago — the whistler — remains far closer to Joe than that.

Ruby hates both Joe and I for shunning her last summer. As for Mac…he’s giving her as much rein as she wants. The men all call him “Boss”; even Sam calls him that. But, Boss or not, he lets Ruby take charge. I suppose he’s as mad as she is.

In fact, I’m certain of it. I can see him staring back at me now. I’d almost swear there’s a devil looking at me through those eyes. He may not be a killer himself, but I have no doubt he would eagerly join Sam for the mere pleasure of watching Little Joe die.

I can’t keep doing this. I cannot go on knowing someone else could die at their hands tomorrow, or the day after that.

I can’t sentence Joe to death, either.

Somehow, I have to bring all of this to an end. But for tonight, all I can do is to step cautiously around the body of an innocent young man and join my…colleagues…in a frenzied run across the grounds of a senator’s estate.

The household behind us is already bustling about. Screams and shouts hound after us. And…gunfire….

And I could swear I just heard someone shouting out my name.

*****

Joe

“Easy Joe.” Hoss sounds like he’s trying to calm an ornery bull. “That beer’s supposed to cool you down, not heat you up.”

If I seem like an ornery bull to him, he ought to know I have good reason for it. “He had no call to say that, Hoss.” I want to plant my fist into Buck Springer’s jaw.

“He’s drunk,” Hoss tells me. “He’s got no notion what he’s sayin’. Don’t pay him no mind.”

“Don’t pay him no mind?” Now I want to plant my fist into Hoss’ jaw. “Adam’s been gone for almost two months. He could be dead for all we know. And that son of a skunk just—”

“What’d you call me?” Buck jumps up so fast he knocks his chair to the ground.

“Joe.” Hoss doesn’t want me going for my gun; his hand on my arm makes that clear.

But I can’t help it. Neither can Buck.

I hear chairs scraping across the floor and the boot heels of people scrambling to get out of the way. I also hear my own blood rushing through my head and my heart pulsing in my ears. Buck had no call to say what he did. None at all.

“Adam’s probably happy as a pig in muck, now that he’s free of that no account little brother of his.”

Hoss’ grip tightens around my arm. “Don’t do it, Joe. You won’t be no good to Adam, or Pa for that matter, if you go and get yourself killed here today.”

“Well, boy?” Buck’s hand is hovering over his holster, just like mine is. “Want to repeat what it is you said about me?”

“You’re a son of a skunk.” I say it low, but I know Buck Springer heard me just fine. There’s no need to shout. The place is quiet as a box that’s already been planted six feet under.

“Joe,” Hoss warns.

A clatter behind us tells me Cosmo has pulled his shotgun out from behind the bar. “Take it to the street, fellas, or you’re both gonna feel some of this lead right here.”

I don’t hesitate. “Fine with me.”

But as the doors swing shut behind me, I realize no one has followed me outside. A quick glance back shows me Hoss has got Buck Springer sitting down again. And I feel betrayed somehow. Hoss should be as mad as me.

“Fine with me.” This time the words aren’t meant for anyone except me and God. I know God’s gonna be even madder than Pa would be if he’d heard what I’d called Buck Springer, or if he’d seen me ready to draw on a drunken fool for an insult that was aimed more at me than at Adam. But I don’t much care what God or Pa thinks about me right now. Adam’s gone. And it’s not because he wants to be gone. And it’s all on account of me.

And I haven’t been able to do a damn thing to bring him home.

Where the heck am I going? I’m already halfway down the street and I never even thought about moving. Might as well turn this corner — at least then Hoss won’t see me when he finally comes out of that saloon. I don’t need to hear him or Pa or anyone else telling me to calm down just now. Why should I calm down? Why would I? I’m sick and tired of…

Look at that. I’m at the stage depot. Maybe I knew where I was going, after all. I could buy a ticket to Sacramento. Marshal Danbury was there last week, when he’d sent that telegram telling us he was getting close. I can meet him there. I can join him just in time for him to find Adam. Heck, I should have gone with the marshal last month. I shouldn’t have let Pa and Hoss talk me into staying.

No one’s around to stop me now, though. No. Not a soul. I’m gonna be on the next stage, just as soon as…

Dang that Buck Springer! My money’s in my jacket, and my jacket’s in the saloon. And now I’m half ready to plant my fist right through the wall of the building beside me.

“Cartwright?”

Do I know that voice? I’ve got to turn around to see…

It’s a man dusty from the trail. That hair of his sure hasn’t seen a washing in some time, let alone a barber. And his black boots look almost as brown as his long coat, with all the sand and dirt coating them. And he’s staring at me.

What is it about this stranger that’s got me feeling so on edge? Maybe it’s just that business with Buck Springer still bothering me; but…. This man is wearing spurs, and the way they’re jingling as he steps toward me…. Seems to me I’d been hearing that sound all the way from the saloon. I hadn’t given it any thought, but now…. Did he follow me?

Joe Cartwright?”

“Who’s asking?” I reach toward my gun.

He doesn’t seem to notice I’m ready to draw on him. Or maybe he doesn’t care. He’s got both his thumbs tucked into his belt, and…he’s chewing on a piece of straw. The way he’s pushing that straw to the other side of his mouth, it’s like he’s biding his time, waiting for something and not at all concerned what might happen when whatever it is gets here. “I’ve got a message for you. From your brother, Adam.”

I’m too stunned to breathe. Then, “Adam?” My throat’s closing up on me, making my voice so small it sounds like I’m a child again. I almost feel like one, too.

He’s turning sideways and cocking his head toward the alley between the depot and the mercantile.

I have to follow him. I don’t have a choice. I have to know what he’s got to say. Forget about my gun. Even my anger doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing matters except that man’s words.

“I’ve got a message for you. From your brother, Adam.”

We’re in the alley now, but he’s just standing there, pushing that piece of straw back and forth in his mouth.

If he’s not going to start talking, I guess it’s up to me. “Okay. You’ve got my attention.” Why is he still staring at me like that?

He’s moving closer; and…there’s something about his eyes, like I’m looking up at a clear, blue sky through a snow-crusted icicle. It’s a cold feeling, looking into those eyes. Even so, all that ice is stirring up a new sort of fire in me. I can’t just stand here and stare back at him.

“How do you know my brother? Where did you see him? Why couldn’t he come himself?” I sound even more like a child now than I did out on the street, a child who can’t shut up long enough to get the answers to all the questions I keep blurting out.

He’s pushing that damn straw across his mouth again, and… pulling a sheet of paper from his coat.

That piece of paper takes the fire out of me again. “Is that it? Adam’s message?” I don’t much care if I sound like a child now. I need to see that paper.

“Not so fast, boy.” He snatches it close to his chest, away from my reaching hand. “There’s more to your brother’s message than this.”

I find myself staring into his cold eyes again. I notice he’s moving his other hand to his belt, but I’m not ready to look away from his eyes. A man’s eyes can tell you things you’d never otherwise know — if you can settle your nerves long enough to really see what his eyes have to say. Trouble is, I can’t settle my nerves. “What’s this all about?” My anger at Buck Springer was nothing compared with the anger that’s flaring up in me right now. I’ve got two months of fire burning up inside me. “Are you going to give me my brother’s note or not?” Maybe I should have drawn on him after all. Right now I just want to grab him by the collar and…. Hell, I’d start by tearing that danged piece of straw out of his mouth.

He’s pushing it around again, and giving the quirk of a smile. “Sure do.” His hand is moving up from where he’d set it at his belt, and I see he’s holding something solid — not another sheet of paper…more like…like a knife. Yes, it’s a knife, with an ebony hilt and….

“That’s Adam’s.” I’m not accusing him of anything. I’m just staring at my brother’s knife, and starting to feel cold again. “Where’d you—”

Oh, God! It feels like I’m being split in two…like a pine timber exploding from the heat of a fire I didn’t realize was still burning. How’d he…how’d he stab me so fast I couldn’t even try to fight him? He…he stabbed me! He…jabbed Adam’s knife right into my chest…up under my shoulder. I never even…never saw it coming.

I’m losing my balance. Like that pine timber. I’d be on the ground by now if it weren’t for this wall at my back. Maybe if I lean against it for a minute…long enough to catch…my breath.

His hand…. I can feel his hand reaching into my holster. And I…I see his brown glove. Is that my blood on the leather, swirling through the dust? “Why?” I don’t know if he heard me. And I…I can’t stop him. Can’t stop him from taking my gun.

Can’t…think.

Have to…. Have to look at him. See what he’s doing. “Why?” He heard me that time; I’m sure of it. But…he’s not going to answer, is he? He’s just…just slipping my gun into his own belt, and…he’s smiling at me.

He’s tipping his hat. Makes him look even…colder…than those eyes…like…like he thinks it’s as normal to greet a man on the street by…by stabbing him as it is to shake his hand.

And now…now he’s walking away. Not running. Walking. Like he’s done nothing wrong. Nothing…wrong.

I can’t stop him. Can’t go after him. Can’t…can’t do much of anything except listen to the fading jingle of his spurs…and…something else. Another sound. Something here. Right here. It’s…a crinkling sound. Every time I take a ragged breath.

Paper? Adam’s message. It’s stuck to my chest, nailed right into me with that knife…with Adam’s knife. Like I’m…. Like that stranger had thought I was some kind of bulletin board.

Why? There’s no need for me to ask out loud. No one would hear me. No one could answer.

My knees are buckling. I can’t stop myself from sliding to the ground. The blade of Adam’s knife shifts and twists into my flesh every inch of the way. I try to hold my breath, try to….

The paper…. Try to focus on the paper. Watch my blood seeping into black ink…the black words on a…a wanted poster.

The words are upside down…but it’s…it’s easy enough to see what it says…once I…soon as I can finally put my mind to it.

Wanted Dead or Alive. Adam Cartwright.

“Adam.” I have to say my brother’s name out loud. I have to. Even if no one’s around to hear it. I have to.

*****

I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting here…propped against the side of…of what? Oh, yeah. The stage depot. I keep staring at…at the grip of Adam’s knife. I can almost…almost forget it’s jabbed into me. Almost. Not because I can’t feel it. Hell, I can feel it, all right. And it feels like…like Hell. Like fire and icicles…and burning frostbite and…and a scouring desert sandstorm…no.

Like Hellfire. That’s what it feels like.

But…I keep seeing that it’s…it’s jabbed into the middle of Adam’s face…or…or his likeness…his picture.

It’s bleeding, that picture. I keep…keep watching Adam bleed.

Adam’s picture. It’s a…a wanted poster. But…it can’t be true. It just…can’t.

Even upside down I see that word…murder…printed in smaller letters beneath…beneath the value of the bounty. Five thousand dollars. Those letters aren’t small. No. Not letters. Numbers. They’re…big. Big as can be.

Money like that…big printing like that…it’s sure to attract as many…. Damn. As many drunken Buck Springer’s as…as professional bounty hunters.

How can it be? How…how can my brother have such a high price on his head? He didn’t…couldn’t murder anyone. Not…not Adam.

It’s not true. I know it’s not. We’ve got to…got to find him. Got to find Adam.

I’m not paying attention. I should be…should be paying attention. I should be…trying to get out of here…to get help. But all I can do is stare at the bleeding poster.

What the—? Something just landed on the ground next to me. I didn’t expect it…didn’t…didn’t realize. Someone…dropped it…made me jump…made me—

Dang it! I shouldn’t have…shouldn’t have let myself get surprised like that. My jumping pulled at the blade…made it tear at my flesh….

Can’t…can’t breathe.

“Didn’t mean to startle you, son. I’m here to help.” The voice is familiar. “That woman over there called for a doctor.”

Woman? Who…?

Why’s it so hard to see? I have to blink…. Have to…blink my vision clear. That’s a doctor’s bag next to me. A doctor?But that voice…it wasn’t Paul Martin. I’m confused. I have to…have to look up at him….

No! I feel like someone’s dumped a whole bucket of icy water over me. I inhale too much of it. No…too much air, too quickly. It wakes up all that Hellfire.

Hellfire or not, I have to get away from this man.

Can’t…can’t back up. I’m already back as far as I can go, right up against this dang wall. I’m…trapped.

“Get away from me!” My voice is too soft, too weak. I have to try again, loud as I can. “I said get away from me!” My gun is gone, but…the knife…. I could use…. I’ve got Adam’s knife.

If I just…grab hold of it…yank it out of my shoulder.

“Now, son, you don’t want to do that.”

That voice…. No. I have to. Have to do it. I can’t let him…can’t let him trap me again. Not…not ever again.

God help me! Hellfire was nothing to what it feels like pulling out Adam’s knife. I must’ve cried out. I can feel a raw edge in my throat. And…and the alley’s going black. But…can’t let it. Can’t let him near me. Can’t….

“You oughtn’t to have done that.” Doc’s cold voice is beside me again, just like he’d been two months ago. “You could bleed out if you’re not careful.”

“No!” I holler back at him—or…or I try to.

Have to…remember. This isn’t the cabin. And I’ve still got the knife. And…I can see well enough now…through all this fog…to…to point it at his face…Aim for the middle…show him…show him I’m ready to jam it into his nose just like…like Adam’s in the poster. “Don’t you touch me!” I can feel those words climb out of my raw throat, and…I know I don’t sound like a child anymore.

“Well, son, I can’t help you if I can’t touch you.” He’s chuckling. He did that in the cabin, too. He chuckled because he knew I couldn’t fight him. He chuckled as he forced me to drink his…his medicines.

I have to show him I can fight him now. Have to…have to fight him now. But….

The poster shifted. It shifted, but…it’s not going anywhere. It doesn’t need the knife to stay put anymore. There’s enough blood pooling on my chest to hold it there.

The doc must’ve been watching my eyes. He tugged at the paper…and…I let him. I wasn’t paying attention. I… Dammit! Feels like he’s reached right down to my spine. I can’t help but cry out, again.

Pay attention, you idiot! I’m not in the cabin anymore. And I’m not helpless. Not completely. Not yet, anyway. I still have the knife. “Leave me alone.” It’s hard to talk. Hell, it’s hard to think. “Or I swear I will kill you.” I’m glad. Glad I don’t sound like a child.

He’s still chuckling. It’s a dark…cold sound. Now he’s shrugging…rising to his feet.

He’s walking away. Thank God, he’s walking away. He won’t…he can’t trap me again…. But, wait. No! I’ve made a mistake. “Stop him!” I cry out. “Somebody…stop him!”

There’s a small crowd at the entrance to the alley. When did they get here? They’re all looking at me like I’ve gone mad. Even Hoss….Yes, Hoss is here now, too. I don’t really care if he thinks I’m mad or not.

“Hoss!” I point the bloody knife toward the doctor’s back. “He was there!”

Hoss doesn’t understand. ”Joe!” He’s dropping to the ground beside me. “What in tarnation happened to you, boy?” He’s worried about me. I can see that in his eyes…in his blue eyes that look more like a quiet lake than an icicle sky.

I have to get him to understand. Maybe if I grab his sleeve. “It was him, Hoss! The doc!”

Hoss looks confused. But he…he’s glancing behind him. “That man with the doctor’s bag? He done this to you?”

I shake my head. “No. Not this, but….” I’m panting so much I don’t know…not sure I can get the words out right. My head feels heavy. I want…want to jump to my feet and start running. I need to find that doctor…to…to grab him and pin him down and…and force him to swallow some of the fear he’d forced into me two months ago. “At the cabin, Hoss. He…he was one of ‘em. He has to….” Damn vision’s getting foggy again. “He has to know where Adam is!”

Suddenly my brother’s face looks as cold as I feel. Yeah. I’m cold now. Something’s wrong. And I don’t…I don’t want him to go. But…but he has to. I need for him to go after Doc.

He wants to. I can see that. But…he’s looking back at me. “I can’t leave you here like this, Joe. You know I can’t.”

“Go!” I push his arm…. Damn. Shouldn’t have done that. I could almost swear someone’s plunged that knife in me again.

“What’s all this about?” That’s Roy Coffee’s voice.

“Stay with Joe, sheriff. Would you?”

Hoss? Please, Hoss, just go! I can’t say the words. I want to, but I can’t. I can’t catch my breath enough to say anything at all.

“What happened here?” The sheriff’s looking at everything: the blood on my shirt; the knife in my hand; and then, finally, the poster. I don’t think he’s surprised to see that poster. I wonder why?

“Joe’ll have to tell you,” Hoss answers. “I got to go. Just promise me you’ll look after him.”

“You know who did this, Hoss?”

“No, but there’s a man just left here who might.”

“Who?”

“Ain’t got time to explain. Just take care of Joe and let me find him.”

The sheriff is as reluctant as Hoss was a moment ago.

They’re wasting time. They’re both wasting time. “Go, Hoss!” I holler with whatever breath I can latch onto.

And now he’s going. He’s running off. I can finally…I can let myself calm down. But…my shoulder…my whole chest is throbbing; and the blood…. That’s too much of it, isn’t it? Shouldn’t be bleeding this bad.

Maybe the sheriff thinks so, too. He looks worried; but…I don’t much care about anything except…except the pain he’s causing me. Stop! Stop pressing down so hard! He’s got his…his neckerchief balled up…pressing it against my wound. The rush of blood in my ears makes me almost believe…I can almost imagine we’re about to get swept away in a flood coming down off the mountains.

“Doc Martin’s on his way, son.” I’ve heard Sheriff Coffee call me “son” for as long as I can remember; but now…hearing him say it…now…makes me sick. That’s what Doc called me. The man they called Doc. The man who’d kept me…trapped…in the cabin. “Can you tell me what happened here, Joe? Who done this to you?”

Maybe looking at Roy will help me stop seeing that doc. But…what’s that flash of red? There’s a woman in the crowd. She…she’s waving a red fan…pulling it away from her face. She’s…smiling…with bright red lips…. No. Can’t be.

“Ruby.” The name comes out in a whisper.

“What’s that, Joe?”

I see that worried look of his again. “They’re here. They’re all…here.”

“Who?”

“All of ‘em…. Adam.”

How’d…? When did Doc Martin and Pa get here?

Pa? I’m all out of breath. Out of words. Can’t tell him about Ruby…or Doc…or Hoss going after him. Can’t…. Can’t tell him anything. Can’t…focus. It’s better if I just close my eyes.

“Joe!” Pa’s shout sounds like it’s coming from far away. “Joseph!”

Sorry, Pa. I’ve…got to go…got to…look for Adam.

*****

Adam

Joe! He’s…. Oh God, he’s lying dead at my feet…in a pool of blood so vast I could almost drown in it. And Pa…Pa’s looking at me like he knows. He knows it was my fault.

“I tried, Pa! I tried! I…I couldn’t stop it! I just…couldn’t.”

But Pa knows the truth. He knows all of it. He knows about Nick Healey. He knows about all those banks. He knows everything. He’s scowling at me. He’s…glaring at me…with distrust…disappointment…hatred.

I did everything wrong. Everything. I led Joe into a trap back at that cabin. And now…now this. I should have known. I should have…

Aaa-dammm….” Where’s that woman’s voice coming from? “Time to wake up, darling!” She’s singing her words. It sounds inviting…playful…wrong.

It’s a lie. Everything about her is a lie. Everything about this…all of it.

Even Joe?

Is that Joe lying at my feet or…or Nick Healey? I…can’t tell. The face keeps changing.

Aaa-dammm!” she sings again. “Come now. You really must wake up.”

Wake up? From what? And where? Where am I? We’re not at the senator’s anymore, are we? No. That had been…days ago. Or…or weeks. I’m in a bed somewhere. But…where?

“You should be eager to wake up, darling. You’re finally home, after all. Or near enough, anyway.”

Home?

Wait…. We were in…in Folsom. At the hotel. Eating dinner, and…. The wine…. Doc put something into my wine, didn’t he?

“Oh, there you are, Adam. I can see you’re almost awake now.” The woman — Ruby — giggles beside me. “All this time, all you’ve been able to think about is home and that precious family of yours. Yes, yes, yes, I know. Well, I’ll tell you what, dearest. You just have one more job to do. Then it will all be over. There won’t be anything or anyone else for you to worry about. And you’re going to do that job right here in Virginia City.”

Virginia City? I blink until the light stops dazzling my eyes, and then…. Maybe. Maybe this could be Virginia City. I don’t know. All I can tell is this isn’t the hotel in Folsom. But I’m still trapped. Still caught in the grip of a nightmare with Ruby, aren’t I? With Ruby and Mac…and their gang of cutthroats.

“There you are! Good morning, my sweet!” She smiles at me as a lover might, as though she’d shared my bed.

The thought sickens me. I have to hold my eyes closed for a moment, fight the nausea.

“I suppose I should say, ‘good afternoon.’ It’s quite late, actually. Very nearly the end of the business day. Oh, come now. Let me look at those gorgeous eyes of yours.” Her audible sigh makes me envision a pout on her face. “Well then, fine. You ought to be excited about being back in Virginia City. We arrived last night. You wouldn’t have liked the travel arrangements, I’m afraid. That’s why we had Doc drug you for the trip. We did the whole pioneer thing, covered wagon and all. You’re probably still a little stiff and sore from that trunk the boys had to carry you in. We couldn’t let anyone see you too soon.”

They smuggled me into Virginia City? Why?

“Ah, yes!” She’s smiling at me again. “I always did love those eyes, Adam Cartwright. Just imagine all the trouble you could have avoided if you’d turned those eyes my way back when it mattered, back when I was still a naïve little mouse who didn’t even know how to dream up anything grander than the idea of settling down with you and having your children.”

Her smile has gone cold. I’m not surprised. This is the Ruby I’ve come to know.

“Oh, but I’m not that mouse anymore, am I?” She’s still talking.

I need to pull my thoughts together, to clear the fog from my head…and my vision.

“Maybe I should actually thank you, Adam. Or…or reward you for helping me to see how much more exciting life could be. Yes!” Her cold smile is growing broader, colder. “I believe I shall reward you. Here’s what your reward shall be. If you do exactly as you’re told this one last time, you won’t end up like Rachel Henderson or Marjorie Simmons.”

“What?” My voice is rough; my throat, dry. “What did you do to them?”

“I had them driven out of town, for starters!” Rage. That’s what’s reflected in the narrowing of her eyes, the pull of her brow. “This is the Simmons’ home you’re in right now. Or it was, anyway. Mister Simmons had to sell it when his dear daughter was forced to leave in humiliation. Her hard-earned reputation was quite horrifically and irreparably sullied when word got out about the pregnancy she’d aborted.” In an instant, rage gives way to…glee. “It’s simply astounding what well-placed rumors can do.” Now she’s angry again, her eyes are darkening. “Even poorly placed ones. Do you know Marjorie laughed at me, last summer? She and Rachel, both. They drove me out of town with that laughter and gossip of theirs.”

“You….” I have to clear my throat to chase away the dryness. “You drove yourself out of town, and you know it.”

“I know no such thing! No. They did it, right along with you and that miserable little brother of yours. You….” She’s pacing now, her arms crossed rigidly beneath her bosom. “You turned me away! That was bad enough, but Little Joe? Everyone knows Little Joe Cartwright would never refuse a dance with a pretty girl. But he did refuse me, didn’t he? He not only refused to dance with me, he pushed me away like I was poison. That was all the women in this town needed to get them to start spreading a poison of their own.” She stops pacing to glare at me, her arms still crossed. “That little brother of yours made a mockery of me — and I never even wanted him to begin with! I wanted you, Adam. All I wanted to do was make you jealous enough to give me another look. But you couldn’t be bothered! And then Little Joe just made everything worse.”

I’m awake enough now to pull myself to the side of the bed. Thank God! I’m still wearing the clothes I’d had on before that dinner in Folsom. Perhaps Ruby’s…interest…is finally waning.

I can feel that stiffness she mentioned. I’m stiff and weak. I wonder how long it’s been since I’ve eaten. And…for how long did they keep me drugged? Not for as long as they’d drugged Joe, certainly. But then again, I don’t have a concussion to make things worse. At least…I don’t think I do. My head’s sure pounding. “Is that what all this is about?” Maybe I should check. Run a hand through my hair. “Revenge for your own bad behavior?” No, there are no lumps or sore spots. But my hair sure is long. Far too long. And my face…. Lord, do I need a shave.

“Now, here’s what you’re going to do, Adam Cartwright.” Her glare rivals what I’d received from Pa in my dream. “You are going to pretend to rob the Virginia City bank.”

“Pretend?”

“Yes. Pretend. We’ll be there, too, of course. But…as customers. Innocent victims of Adam Cartwright’s rampage. Everyone will be so focused on you and this gun, they’ll pay no notice to us.” She’s over at the bureau, grabbing something from the top. An ivory handled revolver. What’s this? She’s walking toward me with it. Is that…? “Go ahead and take it. It’s empty, of course; and it’s going to stay that way.”

It is Joe’s. Damn them! What have they done? “Where did you get this?” I can barely speak. My stomach is churning with acid; my heart is pounding in my throat so heavily I wish I could vomit to force it out. “How…did you get it?”

I grip the gun in an iron fist and turn my glare to Ruby.

Her own glare is gone, but there’s a devil in its place. “Sam’s partner took it. He pulled it right out of Little Joe’s holster — which Little Joe was indeed wearing at the time.”

“No.” I can’t believe it. Please, God; please don’t force me to believe it. “You wouldn’t. What reason would I have to do this one last job for you if you’ve already had my brother killed?”

“Oh, he’s hurt. Your knife did a fair amount of damage, I’m sure. But he’s not quite dead. Not yet. Of course, it will be a simple matter to finish the job, if you don’t do as we say.”

“Joe was stabbed? With my knife?” I can see Nick Healey again…and then Joe, in my dream.

“Appropriate, don’t you think?

I have to unclench my jaw to answer her. “I can think of many words for the things you do, Ruby, but ‘appropriate’ is certainly not one of them.”

“Well I don’t happen to care what you think. What matters is the job. Your brother has been rendered helpless yet again, and there is no one with him at the moment to guard his safety. He’s been left alone with Doctor Martin. We can and will kill him if you refuse our demands.”

“No.” I jumped to my feet a little too quickly…have to fight the dizzying spin of the room. “You’ve just proved you’re lying.” There. I’ve regained enough balance to point an accusatory finger at the tip of her nose. I can feel my glare deepening, darkening…matching my father’s in the dream. “If Joe had been hurt, either my father or Hoss would stay with him. They would not leave him alone, especially after all that has happened.”

“Not even to save you?”

I feel her words like a punch to my stomach, pressing the breath from my lungs…nearly toppling me back to the bed. “What?”

“They’re scouring this town looking for you right now — your pa, Hoss, Sheriff Coffee, and every friend and enemy you’ve ever had. Even strangers are looking for you.”

Strangers? “Why?”

She’s returning to the bureau, reaching for something else. A piece of paper? A wanted poster…. My wanted poster. “Because of these.”

So…it’s true. I knew I’d heard my name called out back at the senator’s estate. But why…why has it taken so long for this? I’ve seen the newspaper stories. Mac has made it a point to read everything he can find on the crimes they’ve been…we’ve been committing. Nothing was ever written about me…about my involvement, neither at the senator’s, nor anywhere else. I don’t understand. I don’t…

“The posters arrived on yesterday’s stage. I’ve been so looking forward to seeing them!”

“You already knew?” How?

She ignores my question. “Sheriff Coffee tried to keep it quiet for a while, at least until he could warn your family. But after what happened to Little Joe, well…the whole town’s talking about it now.”

And suddenly the poster doesn’t matter anymore. “What happened?” My words are a whisper. I have no strength to speak louder. “What happened to Little Joe? Tell me.”

“The only thing you need to know is that he’s still alive. And if you want to keep him that way, you will pretend to rob that bank, using Little Joe’s gun. No one is going to know it’s not loaded. All they’ll know is that Adam Cartwright is no longer the man they remember. They won’t trust you. They’ll even fear you. And they’ll be so focused on saving themselves, they won’t notice a couple of innocent customers trying to take cover near the safe and money drawers.”

“You’re mad.” What’s worse is that she doesn’t even care.

She shrugs off the insult. “Maybe so. But according to everyone in this town right now, it’s you who is mad.”

What can I say? What can I do to stop a mad woman? I shake my head, bewildered as much by the drugs still swimming through my thoughts as by the madness of her words. I feel…defeated. Finally and thoroughly defeated. “I can’t possibly survive this, you know. After seeing that poster, there will be a dozen men aiming to gun me down the minute I walk out of that bank. I’ll never make it to the jail.”

She’s shrugging again, clearly unconcerned about my wellbeing — or my brother’s. “If you don’t do it, you already know what’ll happen to Joe. It’s you or him, just like it’s been since we started all this.”

I close my eyes and try to fill my lungs; but the air is stale, musty…and thick with her sickening perfume. “All right,” I concede. “I’ll do it. But…not until I can see Joe.”

“Mac figured you’d say as much. Here.” She’s pulling an oversized hat and long duster from a stand by the door. “Put these on. There’s no sense letting anyone recognize you before we’re ready.”

I feel as though I’m borrowing Hoss’ clothes. Hoss…. I can’t help but feel an all-too-familiar ache. I wish I could have time to explain, time to…apologize.

But…too much time has passed already. No, there is no time left.

By tonight, one way or another, this nightmare is coming to an end.

*****

Joe

“Joe?”

That’s Adam. He’s here? Adam! Why can’t I answer?

Nothing makes sense. I can’t talk, can’t even open my eyes. And I’m sure Adam is sitting on the floor, on the other side of the cabin; but I’m also sure that’s his hand on my arm.

“Joe? Listen to me, Joe.”

Wait…. This isn’t the cabin, is it? There’s a mattress under me. And it’s warm here, not cold. But…Doc…. He gave me something. He must have. I can’t wake up. I know I need to wake up, but….

“You are not to blame, Joe. Do you hear me? Not for any of it.”

Adam? Don’t go, Adam. Don’t go with them.

I’ve got to wake up. Got to…got to tell Adam we can fight them. I’ve got to help Adam fight them.

“The only ones to blame are Ruby, Mac and the others.”

“That’s enough, Adam.” Ruby? Yes. Ruby’s here, too. Of course, she is. “You can see he’s alive. Now get moving. The bank will be closing in less than an hour.”

Bank? What bank? We’re still in the cabin, aren’t we?

“I’ll go,” Adam answers, “when your men do.”

“That wasn’t the plan.” Ruby’s angry. I don’t think I’ve heard her angry before. She was always laughing…or…or giggling.

“It is now.” Adam…. He’s why she’s angry. “If this is my last job, I’ve got one last chance to keep my brother safe. And I intend to use that chance.”

What’s going on, Adam? What job? I’ve got to wake up, got to…

“You can keep him safe by doing as you’re told!” Ruby’s shouts are helping. She’s helping to pull me awake. “Now move!”

But Adam doesn’t need to yell. He can hold his ground just fine without yelling. Better than fine. “I’m not going anywhere unless I know you’ll keep your part of the bargain. That means no one touches Joe. And that means there’s no reason for these hired killers of yours to stay here with him.”

Adam? I’m breathing harder now…getting closer. I can almost call out to him. Almost….

“I’m a bounty hunter, mister. I ain’t no killer.”

That man’s voice…. I know that voice.

“Killer’s a word they use for men like you, not me.”

The alley….. I remember now. I heard that voice in the alley. He had Adam’s knife. And…the poster. Adam! I remember! Like Hell, he’s no killer! He stabbed me, Adam!

I need to wake up. Damn it! I told Pa and Doc Martin…. I told them I didn’t want to take any medicine. I told them Icouldn’t.

“If you’re not a killer,” Adam says, “then what’s your business here, threatening an innocent man?”

“To get to you.”

“Well here I am. Now what?”

“Admm….” You have to run, Adam! Don’t let him… Don’t…

“Joe?” Adam’s hand is on my arm again. “Easy Joe. Everything’s going to work out just fine.”

How can it? How can it work out just fine? He’ll kill you, Adam! You know he’ll kill you!

“No, no, no, no, no!” Ruby’s really mad, now. “You’re all messing up the plan! You, Pete! Your job is outside the bank. Sam? You stay here, and…”

“No one stays here!” Adam shouts back at her. “Now send these men away!”

“No one sends me nowhere.” That’s the bounty hunter talking…the man who stabbed me. “I go where I choose to go.”

“Is that right?” Adam answers in that calm voice of his again. “Then why is it you’ve been working for Ruby and Mac for at least two months, now?”

“The money was good,” the bounty hunter tells him. “But now those wanted posters tell me the money for turnin’ you in is better.”

“Why you little…” Ruby’s spittin’ nails about now.

I don’t much care what she’s got to say to that bounty hunter. I’ve got to reach my brother. “Adam!” I force my eyes open and try to catch my breath. Why do I feel like I’ve just run all the way from the Ponderosa? It doesn’t matter. I need to help Adam.

But…the man next to me…. It’s not Adam. I thought I’d see Adam, but…. This man is the bounty hunter, isn’t he? He’s wearing a long coat, just like…like the man in the alley. And…my gun! My gun is in his belt.

“Adam!” I have to grab my gun…have to…have to take it back. Damn it! I’m too clumsy…and too slow. He’s trying to hold me down…to keep me from my gun. “Adam!” I’ve got to reach my gun. “Adam!” But…

“Joe! It’s me, Joe!” The voice is Adam’s. But it’s not Adam…is it? “Settle down! I’m right here!”

“Adam?” No, this isn’t the man in the alley…not the bounty hunter. His hair is different. His beard is darker, thicker. And he sounds like Adam, but…the coat…my gun…. No. How could it be?

“I know I haven’t shaved in a while,” Adam’s voice tells me, “but do I really look so different?” He’s talking like…like there’s nothing to worry about. Like it’s some kind of joke. And…he’s taking off his hat.

I can finally see his eyes.

His eyes….

“Adam!”

He’s smiling like there’s nothing to worry about, too. I can’t help but smile back. But there is something to worry about, isn’t there? Ruby’s here, and the bounty hunter, and…

I hear a familiar click near my ear. Someone’s got a gun…and is ready to shoot it.

Adam’s eyes look past me. He won’t let go of my arm, won’t let me turn to see who’s there. I don’t have the strength to fight him. I don’t want to fight him.

“Sorry, Pete.” The man behind me…his voice is familiar, too. But not from the alley. Had he been at the cabin? “The bounty’s easy money; but the bank’s better money. I vote for stickin’ with the plan.”

Adam’s lips are thin, his words, hissed. “Killing my brother after I’ve already agreed to go with you is not in the plan.”

“Agreeing and doin’ are two different things. Prove you’re gonna do it, and I’ll let your brother go. But if you’re just gonna stay here and bicker about it, then I’m gonna blow his sorry brains all over that borrowed coat of yours.”

Adam’s not gonna let that happen. I can see it in his eyes. I trust what I see in my brother’s eyes far more than whatever that hired gun has to say. “If you pull that trigger now, the only job any of you will have left to do is to run as fast and as far as you can. They will hear you. And they will catch you.”

“Damn you, Adam!” Ruby’s looking at the man behind me now. “All right, Sam, put that thing away. We don’t have time for all this nonsense. We have to go now!”

Adam’s pressing something into my hand…something thin…steel…a surgical knife?

A weapon.

They must not have seen him. He waited to give it to me, waited until they were looking at each other instead of him.

Our eyes meet. He’s giving me a small nod. He’s ready to fight. I nod back to show him I’m ready, too. I’ll slip the knife under my blanket. I don’t know how much good I’ll do. I’m still lightheaded…clumsy…and this wound is hurting like the devil. It’s sure to slow me down. But I’m not gonna just lay back and let Adam go. No, not this time. Not ever again.

*****

Adam

Joe was afraid of me.

When I saw him open his eyes, I was relieved…but only for an instant — until I saw that he was afraid of me.

Of me.

For that moment, I thought he actually believed those posters. Where I had hoped to see an understanding I lacked in myself, I saw fear. He knew what I’d done. He knew what was true — just like my father in the dream. For that moment, that brief, horrific moment, I thought Little Joe saw me as a killer, a murderer…a stranger. But it was the strangeness of my appearance that caused his fear, not the wanted poster. Yes. The coat, the hat…even the new beard had made me a stranger to Joe.

The beard…. I can’t help but figure that’s also part of Ruby’s grand plan, to make me appear even less like the Adam Cartwright the good people of Virginia City have come to know. Ruby and her men had allowed me to shave until last week. I’d thought maybe they’d simply stopped trusting me with a razor, but not anymore. Not now. Even my own brother had found it hard to recognize me.

Thank God, Joe’s fear melted away once he knew it really was me standing over him, but the fact that it had been there for even a moment disturbs me. Little Joe is prone to react more with anger than with fear. Whatever happened that had led to Joe being stabbed, that was the cause of the fear I witnessed a moment ago. And it was the bounty hunter, Pete, who had brought it about. I know that now. If Sam had stabbed Joe, he would have made it count. Sam would have killed my brother. Sam would have seen to it that Joe was dead.

Yes. Pete’s the one who did this.

Pete…. I recognize him. He’s the drifter who’d asked for a job weeks before anyone would be ready to hire for spring roundup. There’d been something about him, something unsettling in the way he’d looked at everything — the barn, the house, the corral, even the bunkhouse. I’d been glad to turn him away and to watch him leave. But he hadn’t gone far, had he? He’d merely been getting his bearings. And I’d let him.

I’d let him get close.

By following Ruby’s — and Mac’s –demands, I’d given this…bounty hunter…free rein to Joe. And now, today…. Today he stabbed my brother with my knife.

Good Lord. I feel sick and angry and…despondent.

I can’t give in. I can’t let them win. Not anymore. All this time, everything I’ve done has been to protect Joe. And now look at him. He’s certainly in no shape to put up a fight. Forcing him into one could still kill him. Nor am at my best. But we don’t have a choice.

Ruby agreed to bring me here to show me that the threat to Joe was real…to show me that my family had left him alone, vulnerable. My family’s absence had made it easy for her gang to take over Paul Martin’s office. Ruby brought me here not because I had demanded it, but only to prove to me that Joe is now at the mercy of both the man who’d stabbed him and the man who I know for a fact would not hesitate to kill him. She wanted to force my hand, to make me willingly give up my life so she could empty the Virginia City bank.

Instead, she has proved to me that, whether or not I do as I’m told, Joe will be killed. Sam’s presence here makes that very clear.

I am not leaving my brother in the hands of that…that cutthroat. No. I’m not leaving him at all. I made that mistake once already.

But how do I turn this to our favor? The scalpel I’d managed to take from the tray beside me will be useless against a gun. And even if it gives Joe an extra minute or two, it won’t stop Sam from doing what he’s wanted to do all along. Somehow, I have to be the one to stop that monster. I must disarm them both…both Sam and Pete.

“Do it, Sam!” Ruby orders. “Put down your gun.”

There. He’s giving in to Ruby’s demands for now. But he’s keeping his hand close. He’s ready to mutiny. He’s changed in recent weeks. I’ve seen his manner beginning to shift –as has Ruby’s. The more comfortable she’s grown with giving orders, the less so he’s become with following them. Mac, too…. He’s been spending more time away.

With Pete, it’s different. He hasn’t been subjected to Ruby’s constant demands. He hasn’t been riding with us, living with us, planning with us. And while Sam is ready to kill Joe, Pete’s attention is focused on me. He wants the bounty offered in that poster.

As for Ruby, she’s the least of my troubles in this room. Look at her. She’s biting the side of her finger. She’s nervous this time. I’ve never seen her so anxious, so worried. “Pete!” she hollers. “Grab Adam and drag him outside if you have to!”

Doesn’t she realize Pete’s not interested in her bank job anymore? The only place he’s going to drag me to is the jail. I might even survive the journey, if there’s no one else in the street to take notice. But Joe won’t survive once I’m gone. No. I can’t let Pete come any closer.

I’ve got to take advantage of Ruby’s nervousness. “You’d better think twice about that order, Ruby.” Still, I can’t take my eyes from the bounty hunter. “If he does as you say, it won’t be to go to the bank.”

Her eyes widen…then narrow. “You know better than that, Pete. Mac will…”

“Why worry about Mac and Ruby,” I say to Pete, “when you can go your own way?”

Pete’s lip is curling into a grimace…or a snarl. “Why don’t you mind your own business?”

“If you’re thinking about turning me in for that bounty, I’d say that’s very much my business.”

How long has it been since Pa and Hoss were here? Even if they did find it necessary to leave Joe alone, surely they would plan to check on him frequently. And Paul…. Where is Paul? I have to assume he’s here, somewhere. I also have to assume they’ve done something to keep him out of the way. Does that mean Doc — the man they call ‘Doc’– is here, too?

“Just move!” Ruby’s starting to get frantic. “We’ve been here too long as it is.”

Things aren’t looking good — not for them, or for Joe and me. I need to put myself between him and these men. “Your plan doesn’t seem to be working very well, Ruby. Where’s Mac? It might be a good idea to get his help.”

Joe’s tensing. He sees me moving away. Good. That means he’s paying attention. He’s aware of what’s happening. He’ll be as ready as he can be for whatever is going to happen next.

I only hope I’m ready.

Please, Pa…Hoss…now would be an ideal time for you to come back, to check on Joe.

I know my family wouldn’t abandon Joe for long. They must be planning to check on him soon. It would have taken Ruby’s men time to break in here, and then to do …whatever they did to Paul. Enough time must have passed to suggest theirs is running out. Someone is bound to come by and interrupt them at any moment.

And if someone is close, perhaps already en route, the shouting we’ve been doing would issue a proper warning.

Yes, there is reason to hope. Even so, I can’t expect any help in this. I have to assume…

Wait. What’s that? The back door was nudged open, just a fraction. And there…I caught a glimpse of something—the barrel of a gun, perhaps.

“I don’t need Mac’s help!” Ruby is still shouting. “These men know I’m the one who gives the orders. I’m the…”

“Shut your mouth, woman!” Sam hollers back. “I’ve had enough of your cackling to last a lifetime. I don’t take orders from anyone, no more than Pete does.”

Ruby isn’t losing control, no. She’s already lost it. “How dare you! Both of you! You can’t back out now. You can’t…”

Sam’s got his gun out again, but it’s not aimed at me. He’s pointing it at Ruby.

And Pete’s attention has turned from me to them. There’s a gleam in his eye, the start of a smile. He’s enjoying the show.

No one else has noticed the figure at the door. That could mean they know who’s there, but I doubt it. It can’t be Mac — he’d have taken charge by now. Maybe it’s either Doc or Gabe — or both. If Paul Martin’s door had been locked — and, with Joe here, I assume it had — Gabe would have been the man to provide Sam and Pete with access. I’ve never seen Doc or Gabe in a fight before. I wouldn’t know what to expect from either of them, but I can’t bring myself to expect much. Both strike me as the type to avoid a fight rather than barge into one.

“What are you doing?” Ruby’s frightened now. She has good reason to be.

I’m frightened, too, but certainly not for her. I’m also ready. Whoever’s at that back door, I can only pray he’s friend rather than foe — because I won’t find a better time to act.

*****

Joe

Adam? What is he doing? He’s moving them away from me, rather than toward me. I can’t help him if I can’t reachthem.

Dammit, Adam! You can’t fight them yourself! You can’t win against two armed men!

I have to do something.

If I sit up, I’ll startle them…draw their attention, divide it between Adam and me. It should be simple — just…just leverage myself up. Of course, I’ve only got one good side. Have to keep all my weight on my left side. Just…just lean on my elbow and….

Damn. My head’s swimming. The world’s going black. I can’t let it. I can’t…

“Hold it right there, Cartwright.”

The bounty hunter noticed. One of them is cocking back the hammer on his gun. What do they think I’m going to do? What do they think I can do? I’ve only managed to prop myself up with my elbow. I’ve only…

Wait. He wasn’t talking to me, was he? I can see them both now. My vision’s still foggy, but I can see them. They’re focused on Adam.

Adam’s looking back at them like he’s already won, but they’ve both got their guns aimed at him, and he’s still wearing mine…hasn’t even bothered to draw. “I wasn’t bluffing when I warned you about firing a gun in here. You won’t make it out of Virginia City.” He’s leaning forward, putting his hands on the back of a chair, facing Pete.

They’re worried about him, not sure what to expect. They don’t think they need to worry about me. They know I can’t do anything. But I can. I have to. It starts with getting them to look my way. I’ve got to…

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” That’s Ruby’s voice. And she’s…right next to me. I didn’t even notice her approaching; but now she’s right here…with a Derringer in her hand.

“I could ask the same of you.” My words aren’t too clear…or strong. I can’t help panting…can’t quite catch my breath.

She’s smiling. “My answer’s easy. Nothing’s working out the way it’s supposed to. I’d say it’s time to cut my losses and get out of this miserable town. But first I’m going to see you and your brother dead. The way those idiots are carrying on about your brother, I suppose that leaves you to me. I’m going to kill you, Little Joe Cartwright.”

“No. I don’t think so.”

She looks surprised. “You honestly think you can stop me?”

“You’re stopping yourself.” I need to catch my breath. “If you were going to pull that trigger, you would have done it already. You’re afraid.” I can’t hold this position much longer. My strength’s giving out. But Adam’s about to make his move; I know he is.

Ruby doesn’t seem to realize she’s the one wasting time now. “Afraid of what? Getting caught? This little gun will do all the damage I need without sounding off like the firecrackers those men are carrying.”

She’s denying it, but I can see it in her eyes. She’s wasting time because she’s afraid.

“I’m sure you’ve seen men killed before.” I hope she won’t notice that my arm’s beginning to shake. “Probably even gave the order to have it done.” I’m sweating. I don’t want it to run into my eyes, but I can’t really do anything right now to wipe it away. “But you’ve never done it yourself, have you?”

Yeah, she’s wasting time and I’m running out of it.

“Shut up, Little Joe.” She’s shaking now, too — in a different way. She’s waving that little gun around like she’s forgotten how to aim –or like she never knew how. “I’ll make you shut up.”

“No you won’t.” Just a little longer. I have to hang on a little longer. “You’re afraid to do it yourself. If you…pull that trigger, you’ll…hang.”

It’s not working. She’s cocking back the hammer. How would Adam stop her? What would he say?

I don’t have time to figure it out. I’ve got hold of that surgical knife with my right hand…my bad side. As much as I’m shaking now, I don’t know how I’m gonna manage to sit up all the way…to actually lift this knife and show her I’m more of a threat than she thinks. But I’ve got to. I’ve—

What’s that sound behind me? Adam’s chair?

It doesn’t matter. With gunfire erupting behind me, all I can do is react.

*****

Instinct had me diving to the floor. I don’t know how I had the strength to do it, but…I sure don’t have the strength to do anything else. Pain’s got the better of me. It feels like a bullet has dug itself right into the hole that bounty hunter had already dug into me with Adam’s knife. But I know I wasn’t shot. It’s just the way I rolled out of bed. I reached for Ruby’s arm…tried to grab her gun, and then…just kept going, right to the floor. Must have busted Doc Martin’s stitches.

Where is Ruby?

And Adam…. Is Adam all right?

Take a breath. Another. Think. You have to try to…have to see what’s happening…what’s…happened.

It’s quiet, isn’t it? Yeah. Sure is. The shooting has stopped. Didn’t last long — or did it? I guess I don’t really know how long they were shooting at one another…or even who was doing the shooting.

Adam drew on them both, I reckon. I hope.

“Adam?” My voice isn’t much more than a whisper. I’ve got to push past this pain. I’ve got to get up…got to see what’s…

“Mister Cartwright?” That’s not the bounty hunter. Not the hired gun, either. But…his voice is familiar. “Adam Cartwright?”

“Who…are you?” I’m relieved to hear Adam answering. But he sounds…tired…weak. Is he hurt?

Someone’s crying near me…whimpering. Ruby?

I’ve got to see, got to…. Just blink this fog away, and….

Blood. There’s blood on my hand…and the sheets. Fresh blood. Not from the bandage. My wound is soaking through, but not bad enough to…

“Name’s Danbury. Marshal Danbury. You’ve been a hard person to track down.”

The marshal? I have to tell Adam…tell him how much help that marshal has been…how I was planning to join up with him. But…Adam’s wanted now. Is the marshal still helping; or is he just after Adam, like he was after those other men on the wanted posters?

“I haven’t…had much…choice…in the matter.” Adam’s answer is soft, and…terse, like his attention is divided, just like mine is…like I’d hoped to divide up the attention of that bounty hunter and hired killer. “Joe?” Adam’s calling out now. Sounds like he’s breathing hard, panting, sort of like I am.

Yeah, he’s hurt. But how bad?

“Adam….” My own voice is still a whisper, not loud enough for him to hear.

“Forget about me,” Adam’s saying. “Check my brother! Little Joe?”

I can’t help but smile, even if it’s only for a second. He’s as worried about me as I am about him.

“Adam?” As hard as I’m breathing myself, there still isn’t enough volume to my words. “I’m…I’m all right.” I can’t see him…can’t see past this bed…these blankets. And I still can’t tell if he heard me, but Ruby sure did.

“You….” She’s sitting on the floor in front of me, cradling her arm. I see fresh blood there, too. “You cut me!”

The surgical knife…. I see it on the floor between us. I did cut her, didn’t I? I didn’t mean to…I just meant to scare her.

There’s a ruckus in the street. She’s looking toward the door, now. Must have been all that shooting…someone…someone must have heard it. I can hear a clatter of footsteps on the porch. Even so, the door slamming open makes me jump.

Dang. Things are threatening to go black on me again.

“What in heaven’s name….” That’s Pa!

I’ll bet he was the first one through the door, the one who slammed it open. I guess I can’t really blame him for making me jump.

“Good Lord.” And Hoss…Hoss came in with him.

It’s gonna be all right now, isn’t it? I can relax. Maybe even close my eyes for a minute or two. Adam’s alive. And he’s home. And Pa and Hoss are here, and…

“You son of a….” Ruby’s voice pulls my eyes open again…just in time to see her pouncing on me like an animal.

“Joe!” Hoss is hollering.

I can’t answer him. Ruby’s fists are pounding the breath out of me — and my words right along with it. “You ruined everything! You…”

The last of Doc Martin’s stitches are tearing away. They can’t hold with all that pounding she’s doing. And I can’t fight her. I don’t even have the strength to push past the pain any longer. But Hoss is here, so I guess I don’t need to.

Yeah. Hoss is here.

And there he is…my brother, Hoss, is grabbing Ruby by her waist and pulling her away from me. Even when the black fog comes back, I can still hear her yowling like a wildcat. But it’s okay. Everything’s okay now. Hoss is here.

*****

Adam

Pa doesn’t recognize me any better than Joe did. He barely looked my way before following Hoss and turning his full attention on Joe.

Joe…. He didn’t deserve any of this. For all these weeks, I’ve been trying so hard to protect him, only to have it come down to this. I had to act. I had to protect him one last time.

Hoss is talking to him; that must mean he’s still alive. I don’t hear Joe answering, but that won’t stop Hoss from talking to him. And it won’t stop me from feeling relieved.

Yes. I’m relieved.

I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I don’t want to.

Nor do I regret what happened here just now. The threat to Joe is over. They’re dead, both of them — Sam the hired gun, and Pete, the bounty hunter — thanks to the marshal’s expert aim.

No, I don’t regret this. Even if I die here today, I know I did what I had to do. I kept Joe safe. I kept the promise I’d made two months ago — to him as well as to myself.

And maybe somehow, on the grand canvas of God’s mysterious designs, Nick Healey’s death has given meaning…or significance…or…something…to Joe’s life. Maybe my own death is part of God’s design as well. If that’s true, then so be it.

Yes, maybe it is for the best. I could spare my family the trial awaiting me in Sacramento.

If I regret anything, it’s that I cannot express the depth of my sorrow to the senator and his family. I wish I could tell them how truly sorry I am for what was done.

And…I regret turning my father away from me.

It’s so good to see him, and so…so heartbreaking to be ignored like this.

No…. I’m not being fair to him. He couldn’t have expected for me to be here. And he doesn’t know me, not dressed like this, not bearded and bleeding out alongside two dead desperados.

But….

To be so close, and still so distant….

“Adam?”

Pa? No. It can’t be Pa. He’s with Joe. As he should be.

“Adam? Son?”

I can feel his hand on my face. Warm. Comforting. It’s just a memory, a clear, welcome memory.

“Bullet went clean through, Mister Cartwright.” That’s the marshal’s voice. Is he talking about Joe? I thought Joe hadn’t been hit. The marshal assured me Joe hadn’t been hit. “Exit wound’s bleeding pretty bad. I’m afraid if your Doctor Martin doesn’t come to his senses soon, well….”

“Just bring him in here!” Pa’s angry. “He’ll come to his senses when he sees he has work to do!”

“I don’t think it’s going to be quite that simple.” The marshal’s calm — just like he’d been when he’d checked my wound and relieved me of Joe’s empty gun. “Whatever these folks gave him — smelled like chloroform to me — well, I’m sure it takes time for something like that to wear off.”

Is it true? Is Pa here? I feel someone tugging on my coat…my shirt.

“Then force coffee into him! Do something! Don’t just stand there!”

Yes. It is Pa. I can see him now. His head is turned, but…he’s kneeling at my side.

“Well, sir….” It’s the marshal who has Pa’s attention now. “There is another doctor.”

“What?” Pa’s hand is gripping my arm. “Who?”

“One of this gang, here. Your Sheriff Coffee’s locking him up in that jail across the street. He’s got two of ‘em there — the locksmith I told you about a while back, Gabe Benton, and a man they call, ‘Doc’…”

“No!” I feel the word rising from my throat. I hear it, too, echoed from Joe, across the room.

“Don’t let him, Hoss.” Joe’s voice, quiet as it is, calms me almost as much as Pa’s worried gaze.

Yes. Pa has suddenly turned his full attention on me.

“Don’t let Doc anywhere near Adam.” Joe sounds desperate. “Please. Don’t.”

And Pa looks desperate — desperate to believe that his family will be whole again. I feel that same desperation, but I lack the determination I also see in his eyes.

“Adam?” Pa’s voice is softer than Joe’s, and yet far more powerful — as powerful as it’s always been. “It’s good to have you back, son.” He squeezes my arm, and then sniffs loudly, filling his chest with air.

“I’m sorry, Pa.” My own voice has no power at all.

“You’ve done nothing that warrants an apology, son.”

“I had to…had to do it. Had to…protect Joe.”

“You did protect him, Adam. Joe’s going to be fine. And so are you. Just as soon as…”

“Ben? Oh, good heavens.” Hearing Paul Martin, his own voice sounding clear and strong, almost allows me to believe my father. Almost.

Pa’s rising…moving away from me…moving toward Doctor Martin. “Paul? Are you all right? They didn’t…”

“I’m fine, Ben. Fine. The effects of chloroform don’t last once the inhalant is pulled away. My surgery, on the other hand…. I can’t work in here, Ben. We need to get these sons of yours moved. Hoss? Can you arrange to move them to the hotel? We can…”

“No, sir,” the marshal interrupts. “I cannot allow that. Adam here is wanted for murder. It’s my duty to see him locked up safe in jail.”

“That’s preposterous!”

I should tell Pa there’s no need to argue. There’s no point to it. Nick Healey is dead, and I…I cannot deny some level of responsibility.

“You can’t possibly think Adam is in any shape to run off!”

“It’s not Adam running that concerns me, Mister Cartwright. It’s the five thousand dollar bounty that’s on his head. I can’t protect him in the hotel. It’s too public, too many people coming and going.”

“The jail is no place for him, not like this.”

“Jail is the only safe place for him.”

“It’s all right, Pa,” I try to tell him. I belong there. But my voice is weaker than a moment ago…and it doesn’t really matter anymore, anyway. I’m home…or near enough. And Joe’s safe. And Pa still believes in me. Of course, he doesn’t know the truth yet, not all of it…hardly any of it, in fact.

And for that — for now — I can be thankful.

*****

Joe

Ruby lips…white satin…blood on the snow…strong perfume that’s sickly sweet….

“Dance with me, Little Joe.” Eunice Parsons is pulling at my elbow, but Beatrice Walker is in my arms.

Beatrice…. She has blonde hair, blue eyes and a smile that takes my breath. We twirl away into the moonlight. I want this dance to last forever — and I want it to end, so we can sit together at the lake, under the stars, where I can pull her closer.

“I’m not good enough for you, is that it?” Ruby’s angry. No…it’s Eunice. Eunice is angry. “You’d rather have this little trollop? You think you’re the only one, Little Joe? Don’t be a fool! Why, I’d bet half the men here have had their way with her!”

Everyone’s looking at us. Beatrice looks mortified…shamed. I press her behind me and clench my fists at my sides; but…that’s as much as I can do. I wish Eunice were a man. I wish…

That’s enough, Eunice.” Adam takes her arm to draw her away. “I think it would be a good idea for you to call it a day. Go home.”

She swivels around fast…slaps him hard enough to turn his head. “How dare you! How dare you, Adam Cartwright! It’s not enough that you turn me away; you want to send me away, too? You…you’re all the same!” She’s yelling at everyone now, glaring at every man and woman there. Her fists are clenched just like mine are. “You think I’m not good enough for you? Well, you’re not good enough for me! Not a one of you!”

Eunice is crying…and laughing…and painting her face…and pointing a Derringer at me…and her arm is dripping blood onto the snow.

”I’m going to kill you, Little Joe Cartwright…. I’m going to see you and your brother dead.”

Adam?

“Bullet went clean through, Mister Cartwright.” Marshal Danbury’s telling Pa. “Exit wound’s bleeding pretty bad.”

And suddenly Eunice’s slap turns into Ruby’s bullet. And Adam’s lying on the ground next to the stage depot. He’s bleeding right through his own wanted poster.

“Adam!” No, it’s not Adam; it’s Hoss I see when I open my eyes.

“Easy, Little Joe. There’s nothing to worry about.”

I’m not sure where I am. I’m not home…not at Doc Martin’s. The marshal said we had to go to the jail, but…. No, this isn’t the jail. This is a bed, not a cot. And that lamp on the table by Hoss, it’s got a fancy glass shade.

No, this isn’t the jail.

I’m relieved they didn’t make Adam go to the jail. But…. “He was shot. Adam was…”

“Adam’s okay, Little Joe. He’s gonna be just fine.”

“He’s okay?”

“He will be. He’s restin’ up, just like you ought to be.”

He’s okay. I can lay back…catch my breath. “I want to see him,” I tell Hoss.

“Maybe tomorrow…when you’re feelin’ better. I’ll take you to him, myself.”

Take me? “He…he’s here, isn’t he?” Wherever ‘here’ is…. I figure it must be the hotel.

Hoss looks worried, like he doesn’t know how to answer me. “No, Joe. He ain’t here. He’s…uh, he’s over at the jail.”

“No!” That can’t be. “He didn’t…he wouldn’t…. You know he’s not guilty.” I can’t move any faster or any better than I did at Doc Martin’s. Can’t catch my breath any easier, either. “Sheriff Coffee has to know, too. He’s not…”

“Now just hold your horses, Little Joe.” Hoss is pushing me back against the pillows. It doesn’t take him any effort at all. “Nobody thinks he’s guilty. Not even that marshal. But Adam’s safe there. No one’s gonna go after him in that jail.”

I can’t help thinking about that wanted poster. It seems like a dream, a nightmare, but I know it was real. I can still feel it…can still see it posted to my chest with Adam’s knife. “I don’t…. I don’t understand, Hoss. How can…he be wanted?”

“I don’t think any of us can understand that just now. But we’ll get it figured out. I promise you that.”

“No one’s gonna…make him go away again. Not to prison, or….” No. Adam is not going to the gallows. “I’ll make sure of that…myself…if I have to.”

“I bet you would, too. But you wouldn’t have to do it yourself.”

I can see he means it. And I’m glad. And I…I sure am tired, but…not a drugged kind of tired, not anymore. I don’t feel as foggy as I did before. The things in the fog — like how I got from Doc Martin’s to here — well, I guess they might as well stay hidden. They don’t really matter. I know Hoss is right. “You wouldn’t have to do it yourself.” I’m not alone.

“You just get some more sleep, Joe. We can talk about it tomorrow. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen between now and tomorrow. Maybe the marshal will have some answers from those telegrams he sent out.”

I open my eyes again and see Hoss chewing on his lip, like he’s thinking hard about something. “What kind of answers?”

“I don’t rightly know. All I know is he sent out a mess of telegrams to every town between here and Sacramento. Said he’s tryin’ to help Adam.”

“If he’s tryin’ to help…then…why’s Adam in jail?”

Hoss gives his head a quick shake. “He ain’t in jail. He’s at the jail. He’s restin’ up on Sheriff Coffee’s cot.”

“He is?”

“Sure is.”

“I guess…that’s somethin’, anyway.” Tired again, I let my eyes slip closed. “I’m okay, Hoss. You don’t need to stay here. You should go…watch over Adam.”

“Don’t you worry about Adam. Pa ain’t lettin’ him out of his sight.”

“Yeah?” I look at Hoss again, feeling hopeful.

“You bet.”

“Good. Don’t let him….” As my eyes slip closed again, I find myself twirling with Beatrice by the lake on a moonlit night. “Don’t let him go.”

*****

Adam

Why am I running? I want to stop — I need to stop –but…I can’t. Something’s pulling me forward, drawing me further…too far from home.

And voices…I’m surrounded by them. Pa, Hoss and Joe…. They’re calling to me.

Joe’s voice is loudest. He sounds desperate. He needs help. But I can’t stop. I’ve been…lassoed…. I’m running without running…flying…without wings and…without choice. I cannot turn away. There’s someone ahead of me, pulling me forward…a man dressed all in gray, as gray as the surrounding fields and the stallion beneath him. The man laughs and he kicks his spurs into the stallion’s sides. It races forward, faster and faster, until….

Joe’s voice fades behind me. And now…I can’t hear him. I can’t hear any of them. I can’t even hear the stallion or the rider. Dust settles like winter snow…in silence. Absolute and…desolate…silence. As silent as a….

A tomb.

Yes. A tomb. I’ve stopped flying and landed here, in a gray, desolate tomb with musty air and fetid silence.

This is death. It must be.

I breathe in the earthen scent of my grave, and…relax. It’s welcome. I am no longer forced to run…to fly…no longer locked in flight. Ruby’s gone. And Mac. I’m free of them. Finally free. Blissfully free. Except….

My family is gone as well, aren’t they?

Joe?

I can hear a quiet whisper…a…haunting…murmur. I can almost believe it’s my father…and…mingled in with the scent of the earth comes a familiar aroma of…of leather and…bay rum.

Pa? Is he safe? Please tell me Joe’s safe.

But the whispers stop. There is no answer. There is…nothing. Nothing but this resounding…silence.

I suppose Shakespeare had it right with Hamlet’s dying breath. “The rest…is silence.”

Silence…. Like the heart of the forest in the midst of a quiet, pristine white snowfall…cold, yet…cleansing. Can it cleanse me?

God, forgive me.

“I write unto you, little children….”

Pa?

“…Your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.”

I want to believe you. But…Nick Healey….

“I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one.”

The wicked one? I can still see the bloodlust in Sam’s eyes…young Nick Healey’s blood seeping into the earth…and…Joe. Pa is wrong to read that biblical passage within my hearing. I have overcome nothing. I have done…bad things…wrong things…inexcusable, unforgivable things. I have succumbed…given in…surrendered to wickedness.

I have not overcome the wicked one; I have accepted him.

My death is…necessary. I can spare my family by embracing this silence. I can—

“Do all things without murmurings….”

Please, Pa. Please stop.

“…And disputings that ye may be blameless and harmless….”

I need the silence, Pa. Please, stop your reading. Let the Bible give you strength, but…it’s not for me, not anymore. I am not blameless. And I am far from harmless. I turned away, Pa. I…succumbed.

“…The sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.”

You shine, Pa. You…and Hoss…and Joe. You’ve shined upon me…shown me the path of righteousness…but I turned from it. Whatever light I once might have held has gone dark.

“Confess your faults one to another….”

My faults? I allowed a young man to die, Pa. I let Nick Healey die. Miserably. Horribly. He’s dead because of me, Pa. Because of me!

“…And pray one for another, that ye may be healed.”

I have prayed. Oh, God, how I’ve prayed. I prayed for Joe, but it wasn’t enough. My knife nearly took his life as effectively as it had Nick Healey’s. I brought harm to so many people, Pa. So many. Don’t you see? My prayers were useless. I protected no one. I stole. I murdered.

“…The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

Pray for me, Pa. Please. Pray for me.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name….”

Pa is here. He hasn’t abandoned me. Nor I, him. I suppose I…I can’t. I can no more abandon him than I could my…duty…to Joe. The…wicked ones…had drawn me away…taken me on a journey from which I could not hope to return. And yet…yet I have. I have returned. And I simply cannot fly from the sound of my father’s voice. It falls upon me like a net from Heaven itself…ready to draw me from these hopeless, impossible depths.

It is as though…as though my father has become a…a fisher of man. Of one, fallen man. Of…me.

The thought soothes me. It is a comfort. A…relief.

Yes, of course. God moves in a mysterious way. And He uses men like my father in His service.

My father — a man who has never bowed to wickedness — who has held firm to the path of righteousness no matter what dark shadows have fallen across it.

My father…. His voice has been pulling me, drawing me out of the silence. Slowly. Inexorably. Persistently. His scent chases away the must…the earth…the tomb. And his hand…. He holds to my arm like an anchor, halting my flight…locking me to…life. I want to accept it. To believe it.

“He that loveth his brother abideth in the light.”

I can feel it now, too. The light. The sun. A warming touch on my cold brow.

“…And there is none occasion of stumbling in him.”

Pa?

But when I open my eyes…when I finally climb out of the gray emptiness…surrendering to the voice of my father in lieu of the…the wicked one…it is my brother, Joe, I see beside me instead.

*****

Joe

They made me believe Adam was all right.

“He’s restin’ up,” Hoss said every time I asked, “same as you ought to be doin’.”

I believed him. I believed Adam was just resting. I didn’t know he’d barely opened his eyes for the better part of three days. I didn’t know how close he’d come to dying.

I still don’t know that he won’t.

It took me three days to convince Hoss I was fit enough to visit our older brother. Although, I reckon Hoss hadn’t just been waiting for me to be fit enough. He’d been waiting for Doc Martin to tell him Adam might not die after all. It makes sense now that I’m finally here.

Adam isn’t all right. And he isn’t just resting. All that fretting and all that worry I’d kept seeing in Hoss’ eyes…. It hadn’t been about Adam being counted an outlaw.

And Pa…. It’s no wonder he never stopped in to see me whenever he went back to the hotel to get some sleep. He never went to the hotel, because he never left Adam’s side. And he never left Adam’s side because he was afraid Adam was dying.

And Hoss never said a word.

I reckon he knew I would have fought him harder if he’d told me the truth. He would have had to hogtie me to keep me in that hotel room. I sure as heck wouldn’t have been able to rest up like he’d said I needed to.

“Hoss should have told me.” The words shake their way out past the lump swelling up in my throat, but I know Pa heard me. I don’t need to look at him to know he’s moving closer. And I can’t look at him, because that would mean looking away from Adam.

“I asked him not to.”

Pa’s words are soft, too. But I sure as heck heard them. And now I have to look at him. But that lump’s grown so big I can’t say anything.

I reckon I don’t know what I’d say, anyway. I don’t know whether to be angry, or…or just plain worried. Pa looks more haggard than I’ve ever seen him. He looks like he hasn’t slept for three days. And like he hasn’t stopped worrying for even a single minute in all three of those days.

“I couldn’t bear to imagine,” Pa says, “what would have happened to you, had you known.” Sounds like his words had to shake their way out, too. But after he clears his throat, his voice gets stronger. “It’s been difficult enough to face the possibility….” And his back is getting straighter. “…that one of my sons might not be coming home.”

And now he looks like Pa again, stern and strong and…and knowing — the kind of knowing that tends to make me feel like I know nothing at all. “You needed sleep, Joseph. You still do. But if Hoss had told you, you would have insisted on being here. And if you had been here, you would not have gotten the sleep you needed. And if you had not slept….” And suddenly all that strength seems to be seeping right back out of him. “If you had been allowed to spend all these hours….” Yeah, his voice is getting shaky again, too. “…worrying over your brother…. I’m sorry, Joe. But I needed to know that you, at least, were safe. That you, at least, would be coming home again.”

And now that lump’s so big I can hardly even breathe past it. He’s coming home, Pa. That’s what I would say, if I could. He’s not dying here, like this. And he’s not going to the gallows. He’s coming home, and everything’s going to be just like it was before.

It’s getting hard to see now, too.

Pa’s hand falls on my shoulder, and I feel like I’m a little boy again. I want to be a little boy again, a little boy who’s confident that his pa knows exactly what to do to make all the monsters go away.

Make this monster go away, Pa. Please. Make it go away. Tell Adam he has to wake up now. Tell him…. Tell him I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to fight back up at that cabin. Tell him I’m…,

“Joe?”

That wasn’t Pa’s voice. No. That sounded like…like….

“Adam?” Pa’s hand clamps down tighter on my shoulder, and then he drops to his knees beside my chair, at Adam’s cot.

And now…now I can see why. Adam’s eyes are open. Not by much, but they’re open. And he’s looking right at me.

And I can’t help but feel like Pa did it again. He made the monsters go away.

*****

Adam

“I believe you.” Reginald Healey’s eyes betray the honesty in his words — a truth I’m sure he is none too pleased to admit.

It’s hard to imagine I’ve just spent the better part of an hour telling him…everything I’ve told him. Why did I say so much? I’ve shared far more than I’d thought myself willing to admit. I’m sure it was far more than he could have expected to hear when he’d arrived on the noon stage.

How many more of Marshal Danbury’s telegrams will bring strangers to Virginia City for the chance of…of what? Saving me? Or hanging me?

First it was the young woman from Folsom. “I told the sheriff you were in trouble.” Her eyes, too, had shown me she was speaking truly. “I told him they were forcing you to do things you didn’t want to do.”

You couldn’t possibly have known that.”

That’s what the sheriff said. But I did. I did know that. I could see it in your eyes, all that suffering, all that torment. I just knew you needed help.”

I do remember her. She’d been working at the hotel, and had handed me the room key more than once. Each time her hand had lingered over mine — enough to make me wonder as to what drove her to respond to the marshal’s inquiry. Just what might she expect of me, when all this is over?

But now…now it’s Nick Healey’s older brother. There is no question in my mind that he’d come here eager to see me hang. But…he just said he believes me.

“Between those witness statements in your favor the marshal managed to dredge up, and…and your story….” His words trail off. It’s clear he doesn’t want to believe me. Yes. He wants to see me hang all right. He wants to hate me, to lash out at me, to see me suffer for the suffering he and his family have endured these past weeks. I can hardly blame him. He’d found his young brother dead, and soon after had discovered me running away.

I can still hear him calling my name. Adam Cartwright! I hadn’t recognized the voice. How could I? I’d spoken with Reginald Healey only once before, and only in polite conversation. On that night — on that…horrific…night — there had been no polite conversation. I’d heard instead an accusatory shout from the lips of an enraged brother, one whose blood had been embroiled by the sight of the blood of his younger brother, a young man — barely yet a man — whom he’d been duty-bound as much by love as by responsibility to protect. Of the small group spotted running across his family’s estate, I’d been the only one whose face Reginald had known.

I can imagine how I must have haunted his dreams in the days following Nick’s death. It would have been no different for me, had our situations been reversed — if the young man lying in a pool of blood at Reginald’s feet had been Little Joe. Oh yes. I can imagine the hate Reginald Healey would have felt, would have nurtured and allowed to grow, to fester, to drive him to mount a campaign to destroy me, to target me, to put me square into the crosshairs of every bounty hunter in the territory.

It had been Reginald Healey, not the marshal, who had prompted the printing of those wanted posters. It had been Reginald Healey, not the federal government, who had put up the funds for the reward on my head.

Yet now, at this moment, as I lay wounded in both body and spirit, left alone — against my father’s wishes, but in alliance with my own wish to spare Pa details he has no need to hear — left alone to face the man who wants so much to hate me, I can see that his fever has passed; the raw emotion that had been driving his rage…his grief…has broken. With those three words, “I believe you,” his shoulders sag. There is no fight left within him — at least, not against me.

I don’t understand it. I can’t. “I’m so sorry.” I nearly choke on the words. They feel weak and sound weaker still.

What right have I to hope? What right have I to consider the possibilities for a future that has been denied young Nick Healey? I could have stopped Sam Clayborn before Nick’s life was made forfeit. I should have stopped him. I should have stopped all of them long before my knife was used to extinguish one young man’s life and to threaten the same for my brother, for Little Joe.

“I should have….” But I can’t speak it. I can only shake my head as the pain in Reginald Healey’s eyes tempers the selfish anguish in my own heart. My guilt is nothing to his grief.

“You should have what?” I can see that Reginald doesn’t expect an answer. “They were playing games with you, games no man could hope to win.” He steps from the chair beside the cot and turns his back to me, his gaze moving upward, focusing well beyond the ceiling. “I would have done the same. I’m sure of it.” His shoulders rise and fall with steadying breaths, and then he looks to the window, perhaps to the street beyond where the good citizens of Virginia City are living out their lives, pursuing their daily activities as though nothing has changed — proving that the world at large has not been affected by the death of one, innocent young man.

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

John Donne’s words be damned; those people’s lives have not been diminished. But my own — and Reginald Healey’s — and his father’s — and…

“You had to protect your brother.” Reginald startles me as he swivels back around to face me. His previously twisted brows are now smoothed, his eyes, calmed — or…becalmed, like a sea temporarily quieted in the heart of a hurricane. “I would have done the same, I’m sure. I suppose I’m the one who should be sorry. I wanted vengeance more than truth.”

“You deserve to have your vengeance.” Have I said those words for him or for myself? I deserve his anger. I deserve his vengeance. Not this. Not his understanding, and certainly not his forgiveness.

His eyes flare and his brows curl, this time more in anger than in anguish. “I deserve to have my brother wearing at my patience with his perpetual energy and dizzying good humor!”

Joe must have heard Reginald Healey’s shouts. He’s standing at the door now, still holding the knob and looking from Reginald to me. My stubborn little brother has apparently decided he’d rather intrude on our conversation than continue to rest on the porch, where he’d stubbornly gone after refusing to return to the hotel as Pa, Hoss and I had all insisted he belonged. He’s still a long way from being healed himself.

“To have him endlessly nipping at my heels.” I’d very nearly forgotten about Reginald, but his voice cuts into my thoughts as his own brotherly reverie continues. “Like an eager hound, anxious to prove himself!”

I meet Joe’s eyes and see that he looks younger than he should, younger than he’d looked that day on the trail, before we’d reached the cabin, when his own perpetual energy and dizzying good humor had begun to wear thin mypatience. Yes. He looks younger. He looks confused and afraid — and hurt — in more ways than one.

“To have him shouting at me,” Reginald continues, “for the way I dismiss his ideas when I already know what must be done, to have him….” His shoulders sagging once more, he eases himself back into the chair, props his elbows on his knees and lowers his head into his hands. “God help me; what I deserve is to have my little brother looking to me for help when he’s finally ready to admit he needs it. I should have been there. I should have helped him. I should have stopped him. I should have…”

“How could you?” my own little brother asks as he steps further into the room, pulling Reginald Healey’s attention as well as my own. “Did you have any reason to think something was wrong?”

“I should have.” The words are a whisper.

“How? Did you hear anything? See anything out of the ordinary?”

“Not soon enough. Not until my brother’s…murderers…were already on the run.” He’s avoiding my eyes now. I had been among those murderers. He can’t deny that, no matter what he believes.

“Then how could you have done anything different?” Joe prods further.

Reginald looks from Joe to me, and holds silent.

I understand. I understand as Joe never will, as he could never hope to understand. “It doesn’t matter, Joe.” I hold my eyes on Reginald’s, though my words are for my brother.

“Of course it matters!” Joe hollers back. “How could it not matter? How could anyone have done anything different if there wasn’t any reason to think his brother needed help?”

“Reginald Healey isn’t just anyone, Joe.” I wait, but he doesn’t ask. “He’s Nick’s older brother.”

“So? So what? That doesn’t change anything.”

“I was supposed to look out for him!” Reginald shouts back, jumping from his seat to confront my stubborn, young and still hurting little brother.

“Yes, you were!” Joe shouts back. “When he was ten!” Joe stops to take a halting breath, and I can see that the shouting has cost him. “But as I understand it,” he says then, his voice much softer yet somehow more demanding, “Nick was a long way from ten. There comes a time when brothers look out for each other, and it doesn’t matter anymore which one is older. Did it ever occur to you that maybe Nick was looking out for you when he went into that room? That he was looking out for your whole family by trying to find out what was going on?”

“Of course! But…”

“But he did what he thought was right. Don’t diminish that. Don’t take it away from him.”

Reginald Healey’s eyes widen beneath his troubled brows. “I’m not…”

“Yes. You are. You’re blaming yourself for a decision he made, a decision that was his to make.”

Reginald looks as stunned as I feel, and neither of us knows what to say.

“Nick did what he thought was right,” Joe repeats after the silence has already grown thick, “what he thought he had to do to protect you. That’s what you should remember about that night, because right now, nothing else matters. The man who killed him is dead. You and the rest of your family are safe. And so is my brother.” Joe slips a small smile my way. “And our family.”

There’s something new in Joe’s eyes, a trace of relief, or, perhaps, acceptance. It’s almost as though he has made a decision, unlike Nick’s but…not entirely different, either…as though his own words have taught him something, as much as they’ve taught Reginald Healey, judging by the considering look in the man’s distant gaze…and as much as they’ve taught me.

Yes. Nothing about that cabin matters anymore, does it? The games, the threats, even Reginald Healey’s accusations — it’s all over. Ruby will soon be en route to an asylum. Her two henchmen are dead. Doc, who’d as soon use medicine to hurt as to heal, and Gabe, who cares more for metal than people, are behind bars just the other side of that door across the room. Only Mac remains unaccounted for, and with Marshal Danbury at his heels, I doubt he’ll remain so for long.

“Mister Cartwright?” I turn to answer, then see that Reginald is looking to Joe, not to me. “Here. You’d better sit down before you fall down.”

As he ushers my little brother back to the chair beside me, I see how much this conversation has affected Joe. He’s swaying on his feet. I’d been too preoccupied to notice. But…it’s okay, isn’t it? Little Joe’s not ten anymore, either. He’s a man grown, fully capable of making decisions of his own, whether those decisions involve sitting down when he needs to, or speaking up for his older brother…or speaking out for another man’s brother, one who has lost his voice. Joe doesn’t need me watching over him constantly, but only when it really counts, when a threat is real and too big for him to handle alone. Just like I need that from him. Or like Pa needs it from all of us. When it counts.

After we’d been snared by Ruby’s trap, each of our efforts to be watchful had proven futile. But now…I honestly don’t know that I could have done anything differently. Even Reginald Healey has admitted, “I would have done the same.”

Something’s changed here, hasn’t it? I feel…calmed. Not becalmed, but simply…calmed. And maybe…. Yes, maybe even…absolved.

As Joe flashes me a weary grin, I can even feel myself starting to smile.

***The End***

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